Thursday, January 29, 2015

Up to 50 Special Action Force commandos killed in botched Philippine raid

The death toll is rising from the botched raid by commandos of the Philippine Special Action Force in the southern province of Maguindanao as the body count has risen from thirty after first reports to almost fifty or even more now.

Al Jazeera reports the death toll is at least 43 police commandos. The Inquirer put the death toll at 49. National Police Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina said 44 commandos were dead and 12 others wounded. Some Muslim rebels said as many as 56 of the commandos were killed. Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas told a news conference: "Out of 392 "special action force" policemen who took part in the mission, 44 were killed and 12 others wounded." However, a local source told Al Jazeera that 43 bodies of police officers had been recovered but as many as 64 had been killed according to local media. Earlier reports had put the death toll at around thirty commandos. These commandos are members of the elite Philippine Special Action Force(SAF) . They have in the past received training from 2 FBI groups, the French, and the Israelis: The SAF, over the years, has received training from the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) and Critical Incident Response Group, RAID and YAMAM.[2][3] The Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) of the PNP-SAF is responsible for nationwide Police Counter-terrorism (CT) operations nationwide. 
 After this disastrous raid now called the Mamasapano incident after a village where some of the clashes happened, Philippine president, Benigno Aquino III, has ordered an investigation into the clashes. The head of SAF has been relieved of his post pending completion of the inquiry. The ten thousand strong, Moro Islamic Liberation Front(MILF), claims that in making the raid, the Philippine government violated a ceasefire agreement. The commandos failed to coordinate with ceasefire observers. The commandos were apparently after a high value target: Local reports said police were going after Basit Usman, commander the MILF splinter group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and Malaysian bombing suspect Zulkifli bin Hir, who was believed to be hiding in the area.The Malaysian national, also known as Marwan, has been identified as a leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, Southeast Asia's largest al-Qaeda affiliate. The US has offered $2 mln for the capture of Usman, and $5 mln for Marwan. 
MILF originally was part of the larger Moro National Liberation Front(MNLF). The Bangasamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) are in turn an offshoot of MILF who refuse to accept the peace deal with the Philippine government. Philippine officials claim there is a high likelihood that Marwan was killed during the battles but there has been no confirmation of this. MILF leaders said Marwan was not even in the area at the time of the raid. He has been reported killed before only to reappear. He is a suspect in the Bali bombings. The raid appears to have been based upon quite faulty intelligence that resulted in a raid on a MILF commander rather than the BIFF commander Basit Usman. The MILF is part of a peace agreement while BIFF has no such agreement. Subsequent to the attack on the MILF, BIFF fighters in the area seem to have ambushed the commandos resulting in the large number of casualties. BIFF spokesperson, Abu Misry Mama, said the firefight started when police attempted to raid the suspected hideout of Basit Usman that was actually the house of a certain Ustadz Manan, a sub-commander of MILF 105th base command under Zacaria Goma. Not only did the commandos not coordinate with ceasefire observers but they did not coordinate with the local authorities or even the Philippine armed forces and units in the area.
 Robert Alonto, a senior MILF leader said: "It is but a natural reaction on the part of the MILF forces to defend their areas when it is invaded by armed elements, especially in the wee hours of the morning or in the dead of the night." Alonto also said that the commandos may have wanted to take credit for capturing or killing the high-value target without involving the military. It may be too that they did not want anyone else to know so that the target would not be tipped off about the attack. The attack may put into question the peace deal signed by the government and MILF last year after years of fighting that has claimed at least 120,000 people, mostly civilians, innocent victims of clashes. Some Philippine lawmakers are withdrawing support for a bill that would implement the terms of the cease fire. The MILF and BIFF are both sending more fighters to the area to fend off any attempt by Philippine forces to pursue rebels after the clashes. 
President of the Senate Franklin Drilon said: “I condemn the unfortunate and unwarranted encounter between the members of our Philippine National Police and the Muslim rebels. I sympathize with the victims and their families. We are at a crucial point in our history as a nation where we are in the process of creating and embedding peace in Mindanao, that is why we denounce to the strongest terms any act that poses a grave risk of thwarting every success we have made so far in the peace process." He demanded an explanation of the clash. President Aquino has already ordered an investigation. Drilon said that the incident should strengthen the government's resolve to find a peaceful solution. 
Many Philippine lawmakers, blame the MILF for the incident, rather than the risky attack uncoordinated attack by their elite commandos based upon faulty intelligence. Some legislators have demanded that the MILF surrender those involved in the battle with the commandos to the authorities and to return the weapons and equipment seized. Many of those involved were not even the MILF but BIFF. The MILF may have little if any control over their actions. The peace process has already been sabotaged by the attack as the panel considering the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law has been suspended pending the completion of an inquiry into the clash with the commandos.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

CIA-linked General Haftar seizes Benghazi branch of Libyan Central Bank

The UN yesterday condemned an attack on the office of the Libyan Central Bank in the city of Benghazi in the east of Libya. The attack appears to have been carried out by forces loyal to CIA-linked general Khalifa Haftar. The Libyan central bank has attempted to remain neutral in the conflict between militias and two rival government. The internationally recognized government is in Tobruk, led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni. The rival government that controls much of the western part of Libya is in the capital Tripoli and led by Prime Minister Omar al-Hasi appointed by the General National Council. The neutral role of the bank is crucial in maintaining whatever unity is left in the country: "It has continued to pay for fuel and food subsidies as well as the salaries of bureaucrats, doctors, teachers, local officials and millions of other public employees — often regardless of whether they showed up for work. By financing the budgets of the Interior and Defense Ministries, the same bank has even provided salaries and supplies for thousands of fighters battling one another from all sides of the struggle. But its continued distribution of paychecks and subsidies has helped communities and families across the country stay afloat despite the collapse of most other economic activity, even maintaining a semblance of order." Up until now both the headquarters in Tripoli and the branch in Benghazi have been under the control of the Tripoli government.

Benghazi was until recently controlled by the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries that includes the radical group Ansar al-Sharia. The leader of that group recently died of wounds incurred in battling against CIA-linked Khalifa Haftar's militia. Haftar's forces are responsible for the attack on the bank. A New York Times article put the challenge to the bank in frank terms:" Its most direct challenge has come from the Tobruk-Bayda government. It includes a recently elected Parliament, but it is under the de facto control of Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who defected from Colonel Qaddafi’s military and last year announced a military takeover pledging to rid the country of violent extremists."

The chairman of the National Bank, Sadik el-Kaber, a veteran banker has pleaded with both sides to respect the neutrality of the bank, but the Tobruk government has sought to replace him ever since last October so that they would be able to control the assets. El-Kaber has kept the bank's assets in Tripoli and has refused to resign. In spite of the fact that the Tobruk government is the recognized government El-Kaber still appears to have the support of at least some western governments including the US and the UK. Last month he flew to Washington where he met with US and UK diplomats and officials from the White House and Treasury Dept.The Tobruk-appointed manager also visited this month but was not accorded the same status according to a New York Times article.

The storming of the Benghazi bank has already resulted in the withdrawal of the Tripoli government from a second round of talks that should take place soon. While neither the government at Tripoli nor the main militia, Libya Dawn, took part in the first round, the militia had announced a ceasefire, and the government had agreed to attend the second round of talks if they were held in Libya and not Switzerland. A spokesperson for General Haftar, Mohamed Hejazi, confirmed that they had taken control of the bank and also now control of 80 percent of the Benghazi seaport. He refers to Haftar's forces as "the national army of Libya" and his opponents in Benghazi "terrorists". Benghazi had been ruled by the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries but Haftar launched an offensive to retake the city some time ago.

After the meetings in Geneva, the main Tripoli militia announced a cease fire. A couple of days later, the Tobruk government also announced a ceasefire. However, there was a caveat to the effect that terrorists would still be pursued. There has been no let up in the attacks by Haftar in Benghazi since he considers his opponents terrorists. However, Haftar considers all his Islamist opponents terrorists. Haftar appears to be using the ceasefire as an opportunity to concentrate on taking control of Benghazi while not having to worry about a battle on other fronts. It remains to be seen if Libya Dawn will allow him to continue in this manner. In any event, it would seem that Haftar has managed not only to sabotage planned peace talks but also to threaten to destroy a key remaining Libyan institution that has kept Libya running through all the conflict. Since the main branch is in Tripoli, his action may cause the Tripoli government to cease control there.

Egypt and no doubt many western countries support Haftar and his campaign against Islamists, but perhaps there may be considerable doubts about the wisdom of his actions. Haftar through his Operation Dignity and his earlier ineffective attempt to dissolve the General National Council last year was in large part responsible for the present conflict. Operation Dignity was launched in May of last year with an attack on two Islamist militia bases in Benghazi and then an attack on the parliament which was ransacked and burned. Below is a video about the start of Operation Dignity: The present prime minister of the Tobruk government, Abdullah al-Thinni was then prime minister of the GNC government. He declared Haftar's action illegal and a coup attempt. Now the same Abdullah Al-Thinni is prime minister of the Tobruk government. On November 6, last year the Libyan Supreme Court ruled that the elections in June of last year were unconstitutional and that the Tobruk House of Representatives should be dissolved. Al-Thinni and the Tobruk government rejected the ruling. The international community has studiously ignored it. This is one more key Libyan institution simply ignored by the Tobruk government.

Al Thinni applauded the court when it decided that a rival prime minister appointed by the GNC by Islamists was ruled not to have been duly appointed leaving al-Thinni as the caretaker prime minister. The Islamist-supported candidate in that case accepted the ruling.

A commander of Haftar's forces, Col. Farraj al-Barasi. told Reuters that the forces were forming a committee to decide what to do with the money from the bank: “We’ve moved out the technical equipment.The cash is still in the safes.” This strikes me as bizarre. What government would allow their armed forces to make such a decision. Yet the Tobruk government expresses full confidence in Haftar: "The commander of the Libyan National Army, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, is operating on the authority of the internationally recognized Libyan government based out of Tobruk, Libyan authorities confirmed this week. " If that is true, then the UN and the international community should be taking action against that government. Not only are they sabotaging a cease fire but they are also sabotaging peace talks, and exacerbating the situation by seizing the assets of the Libyan Central Bank whose neutrality has been crucial to what unity and stability still exists in Libya.

While the UN has threatened sanctions against any party that blocks the transition to democracy in Libya it is unlikely any action will be taken against the Tobruk government or Haftar. Haftar is the champion of the fight against terrorism as is his mentor next door in Egypt, Prime Minister el-Sisi. Rather than being subject to sanctions he is likely to receive even more support. This is a recipe for more civil war not peace.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Syriza appears headed for victory in Greek election

Athens - In an attempt to reassure the EU public and officials that a Syriza victory is not a threat to the EU, leader Alex Tsipras, has published opinion pieces in both the FInancial Times and earlier in a German newspaper, Handelsblatt. In the Financial Times article, Tsipras promised that Syriza would not only respect European Union fiscal rules but would also commit to their targets on eliminating the deficit. Tsipras is trying to convince Greek creditors that his victory is not a threat to them or EU unity. At the same time Tsipras reiterates his demand for a " new social contract" and an end to austerity requirements, claiming that this would lead to "political stabililty and economic security". Tsipras also promised: “A Syriza government will respect Greece’s obligation, as a eurozone member, to maintain a balanced budget, and will commit to quantitative targets." Tsipras also spoke of a write off of some Greek debt as something that could be done cooperatively and without conflict:" “We have a duty to negotiate openly, honestly and as equals with our European partners. There is no sense in each side brandishing its weapons.”"

While all this sounds very promising and accommodating, officials of the Troika, the International Monetary Fund, European Commission, and the European Central Bank may not be willing to make changes to the austerity conditions demanded for the Greek bailout. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaueble has stressed many times that the radical changes sought by Tsipras are not even up for negotiation at all. In a television interview Dutch Finance Minister. Jeroen Dijsselbloem , said: "There's no political support to write off Greek debt". Tsipras' demands include a write off of some of the Greek debt. The Dutch minister did suggest that easier repayment terms might be arranged if conditions required that.

Syriza or Coalition of the Radical Left, is an alliance of many different types of leftists including a variety of socialists including Marxists, Maoists, Trotskyists and Greens.The Communist Party of Greece is not a member of the alliance even though Tsipras was himself once a member of the party. He stayed the Sinaspismos party when the communist party exited that group. He was president of the party for some time. The party is the largest group within Syriza. A poll released by the University of Macedonia on Tuesday showed that Syriza had a 6.5 percentage point lead on its nearest rival prime minister Samaras' center right New Democracy party. A graph chart of the average of recent polls can be found here. The graph shows Syriza with 35 percent of the vote compared to New Democracy at 31. A new party To Potami also left-leaning has 6.5 percent of the vote. Golden Dawn a radical right anti-immigrant party, with several prominent members in jail, nevertheless has 6 percent of the vote, and finally the Greek Communist Party KKE has 5.5 percent of the votes. The party that gets the highest number of votes get an extra 50 seats making it easier to form a coalition government. The leader of To Potami has not ruled out joining in with Syriza to form a government so Syriza does not need a majority in order to form a government. There are other minor parties who might join a coalition as well.

The Greek stock and bond markets seem not be soothed by Tsipras' attempts to dampen establishment fears. Greek bonds had the worst returns last month of any sovereign issues. Over the same period the Athens stock exchange performed worst of all major equity markets. The real drama will begin when the results of the Greek elections this Sunday begin to come in.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Obama's State of the Union Speech: talk to the left, act to the right

Obama's State of The Union Speech(SOTU) was upbeat about the economy and in general about the US situation. He set out many progressive measures that he intends to include in a new budget.

The entire Obama speech text can be found here, and I have appended a YouTube video of the speech as well. The speech enjoyed lavish praise for the performance of the U.S. economy, which is doing better than most advanced capitalist economies. However, it is far from booming and wage increases have not risen in tandem with the economic improvement. A trend upward in wage rates noted in Obama's speech was reversed in December last year. The speech was replete with promises of liberal policies, such as free tuition at Community Colleges, that Obama knows the Republicans will not support. Since the Republicans now control both the Senate and the House of Representatives he must know that these policies can never become law under present circumstances.

 Obama also invented a new type of economics, dubbed "middle class economics," which has nothing to do with economics but everything to do with politics. The middle class is the largest group of politically active voters and the US has faced the so-called hollowing out of the middle class as many of them are seeing their standard of living drop. Politicians thus advance policies that will be seen as improving the conditions for this group of voters even though when elected the promises will not be fulfilled or only to a very limited degree. Even Texas Republican Ted Cruz in his response to the Obama speech makes reference to "middle class economics." He accuses Obama of actually supporting the rich and powerful, the one percent, and ignoring the plight of the middle class. It is the Republican Party who will present policies to help the middle class and American worker: Cruz also supports wage growth, which he claims has not happened because of Obama's failed policies. However he does not suggest a $15 dollar minimum wage as does Kshama Sawant, a Seattle city councilor, in her response to the Obama speech. Both she and Cruz agree that Obama supports the rich and powerful! The first part of the speech is all about advancing liberal populist policies that are going nowhere and also threats to veto Republican bills but later he talks of working together with the Republicans. As Republican Senator Cory Gardner put it: “It was like he had two different speechwriters. In the first part of his speech, the president put forward policies that he knows we won’t support. In the second part of the speech, he talked about the need to work together.”

There are areas that the Republicans and Democrats can work together to push for policies that will advance the interests of international capital and reduce democratic control over policies. Obama talks of international trade deals in the context of competition with China: China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field. That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair. Note the arrogance: "We should write those rules." The TTP or Trans Pacific Partnership, which Obama refers to, involves 12 different countries as of 2014 but it is the U.S. that should write the rules. He also makes just passing reference to another huge deal that with Europe, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The TPP has been criticized by many Democrats:
The TPP has drawn the ire of Democrats including Elizabeth Warren who object it will destroy jobs, limit online freedom, increase outsourcing and derail climate agreements. Ironically, it has made allies of his GOP rivals

Obama can rely on Republican support. When Sen. Joni Ernst delivered the GOP's response to Obama's speech she called on Obama to "cooperate" with congressional leaders to advance new trade pacts. Obama will no doubt also get the cooperation of Republicans in passing cybersecurity legislation echoing CISPA. In his speech he notes: We are making sure our government integrates intelligence to combat cyber threats, just as we have done to combat terrorism. And tonight, I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children’s information. If we don’t act, we’ll leave our nation and our economy vulnerable. If we do, we can continue to protect the technologies that have unleashed untold opportunities for people around the globe. Obama's rhetoric promises progressive policies but he will act to pass reactionary bills that give more power to global corporations and to the national security state.

Houthi rebels in Yemen consolidate power by seizing presidential palace

Sanaa - In Yemen, Houthi rebels are reported to be in control of the presidential palace in the capital Sanaa. President Mansour Hadi is thought to be inside. Al Jazeera reports, based on witness accounts and security sources, that the seizure took place after a brief clash with the security guards at the presidential compound. Yesterday, the rebels seized a military base on a hill overlooking the palace. Yesterday as well, officials claimed that a ceasefire had been declared after a six hour fight between the Presidential Guard and the rebels.

There were troops deployed around the residence of President Hadi in Sanaa. Information Minister Nadia al-Sakkaf said that the Houthis have taken control of the state-run Republic of Yemen television station as well as the news agency Saba. She said: "This is a step toward a coup and it is targeting the state's legitimacy." There were two separate ceasefires agreed to, designed to facilitate ongoing negotiations today. The chief negotiator for the Houthi movement Ansarallah delivered a speech listing the Houthi grievances against the government. He claimed that president Hadi had failed to implement the terms of a peace deal with the Houthis agreed to last year in September, the Peace and National Partnership Agreement(PNPA). The Yemeni government accuses the Houthis of breaking the deal.

 Al Jazeera's producer in Sanaa, Khaled al-Hammadi said that Houthi fighters have "taken over and controlled completely the presidential palace." He claimed that the Third Brigade of the presidential guards surrendered without resisting and simply left the palace in spite of the fact that the brigade is said to have 280 Russian late-model tanks. Another report from Al Jazeera reporter Omar al Saleh said he had received reports that although Hadi was safe, his residence was surrounded by Houthi fighters.

The UN Security Council is holding consultations on the worsening situation in Yemen. Jamal Benomar, the UN special envoy to Yemen. had reported to the group on the latest situation but was now on his way back to Yemen. Most members of the Council were opposed to any military intervention in Yemen. The UK ambassador to the UN said that the meeting's goal was to release a statement expressing support for Hadi and his government and "making it clear that the international community will not tolerate the spoilers of the transitional government". Hadi was affirmed as the "legitimate authority". The statement called for implementation of the PNPA agreement, and finalizing of the constitution.

 Reporter, Hashem Ahelbarra, from Al Jazeera said it appeared that the Houthis were giving Hadi a last chance to agree to a political settlement. Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi on TV claimed that the recent two days of fighting that has been condemned by both US president Obama and the UN's Ban Ki-moon were attempts to protect a power-sharing deal, the PNPA. His speech was critical of President Hadi a staunch US ally. The accord is strongly supported by the Houthis since it grants them participation in all military and civil state bodies. He said: "We ... will not hesitate to impose any necessary measures to implement the peace and partnership agreement."

The Houthis have denied that they are attempting to topple the Yemeni government. Although there had been earlier gunfire at the house of Hadi, Mohammed al-Bukhaiti a member of the Houthi Politburo said there were no plans to target Hadi. He also claimed that Popular Committees had acted at the presidential palace to stop a local officer who was attempting to steal weapons from the compound. Obama's senior adviser Valerie Jarret claimed Obama was following events in Sanaa closely. Jarret said: ""He's obviously is in touch with the folks on the ground, our embassy, he's getting regular updates from his national security team...We are in close touch with our embassy.".." President Hadi has supported US drone strikes against Al Qaeda and joint operations as well.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Iran and Saudi Arabia struggle to achieve better relations

Iran and Saudi Arabia are competitors for influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia also represents Sunni influence in the area while Iran is a prime supporter of Shia groups. Lately, the rise of the Islamic State, both in Syria and especially in Iraq, has created common areas of interest that may lead to improved relations. The recent attack by the Islamic State on a Saudi border post showed the Saudis the degree to which the Islamic State was becoming a threat to the kingdom. The attack killed two border guards and also the commanding officer. The attackers included three Saudi nationals.

The Saudis have decided to reopen their embassy in Baghdad, establishing relations with a country that has close relations with Iran and has a Shia majority. The new Iraqi government is reaching out to Sunni powers such as the Saudis in the hope of getting support from them to help fight IS in return for more accommodation of Sunni interests within the Shia majority government. The Saudis have an interest in cooperating with Iran to meet the IS threat in Iraq. The Iran Daily noted that differences between Iran and the Saudis were not so substantial that they could not be resolved. The paper also claimed that the Islamic State "could jeopardize the system of government in Saudi Arabia." The drive to improve relations between the two countries is supported by prominent religious authorities as described in detail in this article in Al-Monitor :"Al-Monitor learned from a religious source close to Ali al-Sistani in Najaf that Sistani has a similar vision regarding the necessity of a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, since both countries face the common threat of Salafist jihadism as represented by the Islamic State (IS). Iraqi President Fouad Massoum visited Najaf Nov. 11 to meet with Sistani before embarking on a formal visit to Saudi Arabia. Sistani praised the Iraqi government’s efforts to improve its regional relations and called for the strengthening of ties with all neighboring countries. The Saudi king praised Sistani’s great positions, and expressed his wishes for further unity and consistency among the different components in Iraq." Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani is one of the most influential clerical leaders in Iraq.

 Of course, there are many issues that divide Iran and the Saudis. Iran supports the Assad regime in Syria and also the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah, while the Saudis oppose Assad and have aided rebel groups against him. In Yemen, Iran has supported the Shia Houthi rebels who have vastly increased their influence and area they control in the country, whereas the Saudis support Mansour Hadi the prime minister and the Sunni majority. However, the Saudis might decide to gain the support of Iran to pressure the Houthis to negotiate with the Sunni government an end to their continuing expansion. The unrest is leading to more Sunnis allying with Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula which is a threat both to the Saudis and the Yemen government.

Another main issue between the two countries is the price of oil. Iran wants the Saudis to cut production to stem the steep drop in the price of oil. The decline is hurting the Iranians. Iran claims that ultimately it could hurt the Saudis, as there will not be sufficient funds for the government programs that generate support for the monarchy. A visit to Saudi Arabia planned by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif was postponed due to the disagreement over oil policy. An article by Fariborz Saremi in CounterPunch claims that the three main policy foreign policy objectives of Iran are survival of the regime, national security, and regional influence. The article details the many obstacles to improving relations between Iran and the Saudis. However, some Gulf States such as Kuwait and Oman have had reasonably good relations with Iran for some time. The threat of the Islamic State may provide grounds to begin a process of cooperation between the two countries which can serve as a spring-board to improved relations.

Israel attack in Syria kills several Hezbollah fighters includng important leader.

Damascus - Several fighters from the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah were killed in an attack by an Israeli helicopter in the Syrian province of Quneitra. Different casualty figures are given but a Hezbollah statement said that six fighters had been killed.
One of the dead was Jihad Mughniyeh , the son of Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in Damascus in 2008 in a suspected attack by Israel. The attack took place on Sunday near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights as the Israeli helicopter fired missiles at Imad's car. This attack came just a few days after Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, threatened to retaliate against any Israeli attack either in Lebanon or Syria. He added that the group had missiles that could strike anywhere in Israel. Muhamad Issa, chief of Hezbollah operations in Syria was also reported as among those killed in the attack. Nicole Johnston of Al Jazeera also confirmed Issa was killed: "Mohamad Issa, the chief of Hezbollah operations in Syria, who died in the air strike, is also a big name, making this a major strike on Hezbollah. The group says there will be retaliation for the attack." 
 The Iranian news site Tabnak claims that several Iranian troops were also killed in the assault. Hezbollah and some Iranian fighters are aiding Assad's forces to fight against Syrian rebel groups. Israeli Channel 10 TV quoted an Israeli official source as confirming that Israel was responsible for the attack. An Al Jazeera correspondent in Jordan claims that this is the 7th Israeli attack on Syria close to the Israeli border since the civil war began. 
A columnist at an-Nahar in Lebanon said that the Israeli attack may have been in response to Nasrallah's earlier speech. He thought that Hezbollah would retaliate in some way. Al Manar TV, run by Hezbollah said Israel was "playing with fire that puts the security of the whole Middle East on edge." A Hezbollah statement said of the attack: "While a group of Hezbollah fighters were on a field inspection of the town, Mazrat al-Amal, ... they faced rocket shelling from helicopters of the Israeli enemy, leading to the martyrdom of a number of holy warrior brothers, whose names will be announced once their honorable families have been informed." There has been no official comment from the Israeli military as yet. Imad Salmey, a Lebanese political analyst, thought that Hezbollah would not want to fight on another front by attacking from Lebanon, and if it attacked from Syria it risked more attacks on its Syrian operations. 
 If only to save face, Hezbollah may feel that it must retaliate against continued Israeli attacks that are happening with complete impunity in spite of the fact that Israel knows that Hezbollah has formidable resources to attack Israel. Former Israeli national security adviser Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror estimates Hezbollah has an arsenal of more that 150,000 missiles and rockets, including surface-to-sea missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, modern anti-tank missiles and even drones. Pentagon officials claim that Hezbollah has 50,000 missiles including some capable of hitting Tel Aviv. Israel's actions could result in a dangerous escalation that could engulf the Middle East in a new war.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Two main parties in conflict agree to Libya ceasefire

The internationally-recognized Tobruk government announced a ceasefire as of midnight Sunday. The rival faction Libya Dawn associated with the Tripoli government had announced a truce two days before.

Peace talks are set to resume next week again in Geneva. Earlier talks had taken place without the participation of representatives from the Tripoli government but in spite of that the Libya Dawn militia called a truce shortly after the talks. The talks were able to map out a route to a unity government, that would rule until a new constitution is created, accepted and then new elections held. Both sides accept the committee that is drafting the new constitution. The announcement by the Tobruk government may mean little as the army said that it would continue to pursue "terrorists" but CIA-linked Khalifa Haftar whose former militia is the main part of the Libyan Army considers all Islamists who oppose him "terrorists".
 Ansar al-Sharia is considered a terrorist organization in the west but is part and parcel of the Shura Council of Revolutionaries who rule the parts of Benghazi controlled by the opposition. If Khalifa Haftar, whose Operation Dignity begun last May started the present conflict, continues to fight against Islamist militias in Benghazi on the grounds they are terrorists, the rest of the Shura Council and perhaps Libya Dawn as well will join in their defense. Perhaps there is an attempt being made to drive a wedge between opponents of the government with the more radical opponents being singled out as "terrorists". This could easily ruin a fragile truce. 
 The rival government, the General National Congress(GNC) has added as a condition for attending the Geneva talks scheduled for next week, that they be held in Libya. The GNC said that they are willing to negotiate. Omar Hmeidan, spokesperson for the GNC said that "Talks must be in Ghat, not in Geneva". A GNC member said that 100 of 110 who had attended the GNC meeting Sunday had agreed to the condition. Almost three hundred people have been killed in the last three months as pro-government forces fight with those allied to the Tripoli government according to medical staff in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city. General Haftar has been attempting to wrest control of the city from the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries.  
Jason Pack of Libya-Anlaysis. com told Al Jazeera that the ceasefire was only moderately promising noting that while Fajr Libya had agreed to the truce many other militia groups had not and added: "We also do not have both sides of the political leadership of Tripoli represented in Geneva." The army also said that it would be monitoring front lines "to prevent any change in front lines or transportation of weapons and ammunition". Does this include the army itself transporting weapons and ammunition? Probably not. This provision could enable the army to prepare for an offensive in selected areas while denying the other side the ability to prepare to defend itself adequately. 
 The Al Jazeera article, along with other news outlets, fails to point out relevant facts important to understanding the context. There is no mention of the Libyan Supreme Court decision that the Tobruk government should be dissolved and that the June elections last year were unconstitutional. There is no mention of the background of the crisis in which as part of Operation Dignity Haftar-allied militia burned the parliament. There is no mention that the present Prime Minister was then Abdullah al-Thinni, called the move illegal and an attempted coup. There was an arrest warrant out for Haftar. Now Haftar is in effect heading the charge against opponents of the government with the blessing of this same al-Thinni now prime minister of the Tobruk government. Of course the Tobruk government rejected the Supreme Court Decision saying that it was made under duress. Al-Thinni applauded the same Supreme Court when it decided against the validity of the appointment of an Islamist-supported prime minister, and left Al-Thinni himself as prime minister. The Islamists accepted the decision.
 The situation in Libya may appear much brighter than it seems. It remains to be seen if the parties really want peace or if they are just jockeying to give strength and international legitimacy to their side. The anti-government forces may be willing to join with their opponents in trying to control the most radical jihadist militias. We will see.

Impotent "International Common Law Court of Justice" rules Pope guilty of rape.

Brussels - The International Common Law Court of Justice(ICLCJ) in Brussels has ruled that Pope Francis, Jesuit Superior General Adolfo Pachon and Justin Welby Bishop of Canterbury are guilty of rape, torture, murder and trafficking of children. The report on the ICLCJ decision is written by Judy Byington who describes her credentials as follows: "Judy Byington: M.S.W, L.C.S.W, ret.; CEO, Trauma Research Center and Child Abuse Recovery Speakers Bureau; former Supervisor, Children Services, Alberta Mental Health; Clinical Director, Provo Family Counseling Center; Utah Child Welfare; CEO, Trauma Research Center; Author, Twenty-Two Faces: Inside the Extraordinary Life of Jenny Hill and Her Twenty-Two Multiple Personalities." Among the rather astonishing claims, the ICLCJ heard 48 eyewitness accounts about the activities of the Ninth Circle Satanic Child Sacrifice Cult: "The Ninth Circle Satanic Child Sacrifice Cult was believed to use privately owned forest groves in the US, Canada, France and Holland for their “Human Hunting Parties” for global elites including members of European royal families. Teens were said to be obtained by the mafia, then stripped naked, raped, hunted down and killed..Two adolescent women told the ICLCJ Court that Pope Francis raped them while participating in child sacrifices. " Here is Kevin Annett, whose websites seem to be the main locale of reports from the ICLCJ, explaining the Ninth Circle Satanic Sacrifice Cult and all the ins and outs of Vatican politics, with Pope Francis not really being in control. Notice that he appears to be reporting from his bathroom: Surely exciting testimony the Court heard. But what is the ICLCJ? Does it really exist? According to Byington's post it not only exists but has many branches:" The ICLCJ International Court has over 450 Common Law Peace Officers in 13 countries, with 51 local chartered groups operating. Organizing funds were available for common law groups wishing to apply. " The court even posts regularly on You Tube. The first ICLCJ case involved 50,000 missing aboriginal children. It ended in 2013 with the conviction of 40 global elites including Queen Elizabeth. Notice that the video shows no court, judge, or proceedings, just Kevin Annett, and testimony from various witnesses but never in a court setting. This site suggests the whole ICLCJ is simply a farce erected by Kevin Annett:"The concept of common law is derived from English Law, a system that was spread far and wide back in the days of the British Empire; most Commonwealth countries still use common law today. If you’re the observant type, you’ve probably already noticed the problem here. Annett’s claims his court is based in Belgium- a country that’s never been part of the Commonwealth, nor a subject of the British monarchy. Belgium’s legal system is based on Napoleonic Code, they don’t use common law. So, basically, Annett’s claim of creating a common law court in Belgium is a poorly executed farce." Another quite critical analysis of the ICLCJ can be found here. While the video about missing aboriginal school children is self-serving promotion of Annett and his agenda, the testimony reflects genuine reactions to the abuse of aboriginal children in the residential school system and much of what Annett says is in accord with the facts. The Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper even issued an apology on behalf of the Canadians. There has been compensation paid as well. It is unfortunate that facts about genuine abuses both in residential schools, and various other abuses by clerical authorities becomes bound up with far out conspiracy theories involving satanic ritual abuses. Often recognized professionals have become involved in what have been scandalous injustices to the accused as in the Martensville case in Saskatchewan Canada and the McMartin case in the US. Byington has appeared on the Dr. Phil show. Video's including a discussion of Byington's book 22 Faces can be found there. A letter was sent to Dr. Phil by Doug Mortensen suggesting that he should not give Byington a platform for her views. Byington thinks that the repressed memories of her subject are of real events giving rise to her opinion that her client was subject to abuse by a Satanic cult in the past. Her client was also brain-washed by a Nazi mind-controller Byington claims in this video interview with Dr. Phil. It is the video at the bottom in the middle. By the way, Annett has also dissolved Canada, but the mainstream press does not report it since they do not want you to know. This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of More about Judy Byington, Kevin Annett, pope francis

Monday, January 19, 2015

European banks get ready for possible Grexit

Both banks and brokers are dusting off contingency plans for a possible Greek exit from the eurozone (Grexit). While most think that Greece will remain in the zone, the snap elections to take place January 25 may make such an exit more likely.

The latest poll shows the leftist anti-bailout party Syriza increasing its lead over the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' New Democracy. Syriza has the support of 31.2 percent versus 28.1 percent for New Democracy. This 3.1 percent lead compares with a 2.6 percent lead in an earlier January poll. To win an outright majority the leading party would require from 36 to 40 percent of the vote. Syriza is not expected to achieve that, but under the Greek system the party getting the highest vote count receives an extra 50 seats and this will make it easier for Syriza to form a coalition with one or more smaller parties. The survey was carried out from January 13-15 and so is quite recent.

 Syriza opposes the austerity requirements imposed by the Troika , the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Central Bank (ECB), as part of the Greek bailout terms. It also wants to write off some of the Greek debt.The Troika has spent $284.23 billion bailing out Greece. Many think that Greece will stay within the eurozone even if Syriza wins and Tsipras himself says that he wants to stay in the eurozone, as do a considerable majority of Greeks. Banks, nevertheless, want to be prepared just in case Greece does eventually leave. Citigroup, and Goldman Sachs are among those who are running tests to ensure that their trading platforms could deal with a new Greek currency , probably the drachma.

 Malcolm Barr, of J.P. Morgan writes: “The region has come far enough since the heights of the crisis to withstand a Greek euro exit intact. Though there would be a shock to confidence and growth, we would not expect others to follow a Greek euro exit." J.P. Morgan believes that if Greece did exit the eurozone, the euro would fall from 1.181 to the US dollar now to just 1.05 if the ECB balance sheet expands by 4 trillion euros to stem any contagion.The company thinks that, unlike 2012, the structures now in place could deal with any strains Grexit would create.

 Tsipras has been busy modifying some of his more radical policies. He even penned an op-ed in the Handelblatt, a German business newspaper. In it he claims that Syriza sought a new deal for Greece but within the framework of the eurozone. The deal would allow Greece to finance growth and by doing so make it possible to sustain payment on its debts. Tsipras complained: “The truth is that Greece’s debt cannot be repaid as long as our economy is subjected to constant fiscal water-boarding.” A Syriza victory would encourage other leftist parties such as Podemos in Spain to continue the focus on jettisoning austerity programs to allow for growth.

US economy stars at Davos meeting

Davos - Usually emerging economies star at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland. This year talk is about the superior performance of the U.S. economy compared to that of most other developed countries. + Add Image Russia is entering a recession due to sanctions but mostly because of the decline in oil prices that in turn has caused the value of the ruble to drop. India is struggling with economic reforms. Even China is growing more slowly. The U.S. on the other hand, in the fourth quarter of 2014 grew at an annual rate of 5 percent. Jacob Frenkel of JP Morgan Chase and Co said : “The U.S. is now regaining its position in the world economy. It is the place where the recovery took hold in the most robust way.”

The Davos meeting runs from January 21-24. The US will have a high profile at the meeting as Secretary of State John Kerry will attend. Kerry is the highest level official the Obama administration has ever sent to Davos. Often at the meetings there will be talk of pending and possible takeovers. This year many investors are looking to invest in the U.S. Merck CEO Karl-Ludwig Kley said: “If you want to participate in innovation, you have to be in the U.S. No country on earth is investing as much in innovation.” This interest in the US extends to many countries. Last May Japanese distiller Suntory paid out $16 billion for US distiller Jim Bean. Even Canada got in on the act with Encana paying $5.9 billion for Athlon Energy in Texas. Also, Qatar's sovereign-wealth fund joined other investors to buy half of American Express's business travel unit.

Some analysts warn that the performance of the U.S. should be put in perspective. China overtook the US in 2014 as the world's largest economy. While the US economy is predicted to expand by 3.2 percent this year, China is set to expand by 7.1 percent down from the 7.5 percent projected last June. Last June, the world economy was predicted in Global Economic Prospects to be 3.4 percent but is now set to be 3.0 percent. The US growth rate has been revised upward but China is still expanding at a much faster rate. The full Global Economic Prospects report for 2015 can be found here.

 The following paragraph summarizes much of the outlook for the world economy: "While activity in the United States and the United Kingdom has gathered momentum as labor markets heal and monetary policy remains extremely accommodative, the recovery has been sputtering in the Euro Area and Japan as legacies of the financial crisis linger, intertwined with structural bottlenecks. China, meanwhile, is undergoing a carefully managed slowdown. Disappointing growth in other developing countries in 2014 reflected weak external demand, but also domestic policy tightening, political uncertainties and supply-side constraints."

 Lower oil prices will impact negatively on countries such as Russia, Venezuela, Iran and to some extent Canada. but will help countries such as China and India who need to import a great deal of oil. The stronger US dollar may hurt US exports along with decreased demand as growth in many countries remains sluggish.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Syriza moves to the middle as it seeks to win Greek election

In In order to gain enough votes to win elections leftist parties often jettison their more radical positions in order to attract voters more to the middle of the political spectrum. This is clearly a strategy that Syriza is pursuing.

The leader of Syriza, Alex Tsipras, has stressed recently that he does not want Greece to leave the Euro zone. He expresses optimism about creating conditions for repaying Greek debts:Tsipras reiterated that he wanted Greece to stay in the euro zone. "Our goal is to reach a new agreement -- within the euro zone -- that would allow the Greek people to breathe ... and to live in dignity by restoring debt sustainability and finding a way out of recession through financing growth," Syriza is either abandoning or not mentioning many of the policy planks adopted at its first Congress in July of 2013. The policies are set out in detail here. The policies include the following: "..withdrawal from NATO, closure of all foreign military bases, termination of military cooperation with Israel...and the application of the principle “no Greek soldier at war fronts outside Greece’s border”. The struggle for peace and nuclear disarmament is of top priority for SYRIZA and it is closely related to the struggle for democracy." Tsipras on Twitter the other night said: “A breach with NATO is not in the interest of the country.” He went on to say that Greece is bound by and will comply with international agreements that it has with the EU and NATO. As Eirini Karamouzi, of the University of Sheffield put it: “The flagship of their policy is debt relief, and their main preoccupation will be domestic. There’s no bargaining chip for Greece right now to lead on the main foreign-policy fronts.”

 The mainstream business press rather than becoming less strident in their critique of Syriza has suffered from bouts of hyperventilation at the thought of Syriza taking power, resulting in extremist rhetorical polemics: The Wall Street Journal has called SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras “the Hugo Chavez of the Balkans”, saying that his economic program will set him on a “collision course with the rest of Europe”. Bank of America Merrill Lynch described the SYRIZA economic program as a “Greek Tragedy”, and a senior analyst with the Capital Group, a fund with US$1.4 trillion in assets, described SYRIZA’s program as “worse than communism” and “total chaos”.

Syriza does still seem to be on a collision course but with the Troika, rather than with Europe as a whole, since France and Italy also oppose the strict adherence to austerity policies that the Germans are pushing. Syriza and the situation in Greece represent the same discontent with austerity policies that can be found in many southern European countries. Ian Kearns, of the European Leadership Network claims: “This is much more about a crisis of European politics now and whether particularly the southern European publics are willing to stay with this project if it means almost endless austerity.This all potentially contributes to a less cohesive Europe, to a weaker Europe.” The European status quo is also threatened by the growth of parties on the right as well as those on the left such as Syriza.

Hard line position on Greek debt may make crisis worse

Rather than supporting negotiations on the Greek debt crisis, many EU leaders continue to support the austerity programs imposed by lenders even though Greece may very well elect a government on January 25 that will insist on changing terms of the loans.

An article by Nicos E. Devletoglou, Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Athens, claims that the actual sovereign debt is not at the level of 350 billion euros. but not more than 150 billion euros, less than half that. Any solution to the problem , he claims, should take into account the damage to Greece both in financial and human terms caused by what he calls the "blind austerity" policies imposed on Greece for the last six years. The German finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, has been insistent that "all previously agreed Greek debt, must be paid in full regardless of the composition of the next Greek government." According to Devietoglou before Schauble's demand could even be carried out it has to be established what the remaining debt is. Devietoglou claims that the debt should be adjusted downward to take account of the costs of the austerity policies on Greece. He says of Schauble's demand: Such a proposition remains largely untenable, because first, as suggested, we would have to establish institutionally what the net remaining Greek debt is -- after downward-adjusting it to compensate for, say, the shocking and still-rising rates of hunger and suicide and the lethal levels of unemployment that are already practically eviscerating the social and economic fabric of Greece, driven by the devastating momentum of continuing austerity, which is also responsible for the endemically collapsing aggregate demand in the eurozone's longest-suffering country,....and nowadays threatening to bring Europe's Grande Démise yet closer as the euro continues depreciating and the eurozone slides deeper into deflation.

Josef Joffe, a fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford, and editor of the German newspaper Die Zeit has a quite different take on the situation. His analysis, in the New York Times claims there is a vastly different attitude of Italy and France to the situation and to deficit spending as compared to Germany. They, not Greece, pose the real problem: Forget the Grexit issue: It’s Europe’s historical trends that should worry us. In the decades since the economic miracle days of the ’70s, real growth in the European Union has dropped on average by three-quarters of a percentage point. Productivity growth has likewise slid, to 0.4 percent from about 2 percent per year. These ailments are deeply embedded in economies that lag behind on investment, innovation and competitiveness. According to Joffe, Greece has actually been able to come out of recession by carrying out labor market reforms and liberalizing its economy due to the fiscal discipline imposed upon them. Italy and France have not carried out such reforms and are calling for an end to this fiscal discipline. Both will then resort to lavish deficit spending. Joffe suggests that in "their soberer moments" Greek politicians might point out that after declining about seven per cent a year just three years ago, now Greece's growth is not much worse than that of Germany. Joffe admits that unemployment is still 25 percent but that is also is falling slightly. These conditions represent a huge reserve army of the unemployed that will drive down wages, improve profits, and attract some investment.

However, apparently the austerity measures inflicted on Greece have not been cruel enough since the Greek debt is now increasing again: The debt of Greece’s central government has almost doubled since 2011, and gross external debt has since risen from 370 billion euros to 412 billion over the same period. So Greece is still living beyond its means. Joffe thinks that with its tiny economy Greece will be saved once again. It is too small to fail as he puts it. That remains to be seen. Greece will only be saved if it continues privatization at fire-sale prices, further cuts to public employment, pensions and other social benefits, and institute other "reforms" that are thought to be make conditions better for investors.

Many liberal capitalist economists, following in the footsteps of Keynes, such as Paul Krugman, think that such moves are irrational and counter-productive. The leader of Syriza, Paul Tsipras, has claimed:"We will stick with the euro, no doubt.” It is difficult to see how Tsipras will be able to pull this off when the European Central Bank is threatening to cut off further funding unless the new government accepts conditions imposed by creditors that would no doubt include austerity measures Tsipras has vowed to change.

 The president of the ECU, Mario Draghi, appears to be willing to withdraw $35 billion in funding to Greece that could result in Greece deciding to or being forced to leave the Euro zone. This all may be part of a game of chicken but a very dangerous one if the ECB really wants Greece to stay in the Euro zone. James Nixon, an economist at Oxford Economics, said: “While these things might be threatened, bandied around, it would be remarkable if such a step were actually taken. The negotiation starts off with the threat of mutually assured destruction. But to actually withdraw funding from Greek banks is the sort of thing that would mean Greece is well on the road to exiting the euro.” Greek Finance Minister Gikas Hardouvelis claims that a Greek exit (Grexit) is not necessarily a bluff. The Greek agreement with the Troika, the ECB, European Commission, and IMF, runs out the end of February. The ECB said on January 8: Continuing to suspend normal collateral requirements assumes “a successful conclusion of the current review and an agreement on a follow-up arrangement”. Tsipras claims that he will roll back budget cuts to tackle poverty and that he could write off some Greek debt. Syriza may not win the election, now close, with one poll published on January 10 giving Syriza 28.1 per cent of the vote and 25.5 per cent for New Democracy president Samaras' party.

If he wins the election, Tsipras may decide that he needs to sell out his constituency in order to stay in the Euro zone and receive badly-needed funds. George Pagoulatos, of Athens University of Economics and Business told Bloomberg by phone: “It will not be in Tsipras’ interest to set his government on a collision course with the ECB, But in order for a potential Syriza government to make a U-turn, we’ll first see brinkmanship and edge-of-the-cliff diplomacy.” The Troika may force Tsipras into conflict with them if they keep to their present course. He may very well be forced into an exit from Euro zone, by demands from the Troika whose rejection was the reason he was elected in the first place.

 Pagoulatos makes the debatable assumption that it is not in Tsipras' interest to collide with the Troika. Tsipras' may decide that this is exactly the course that is necessary. He may actually want to exit the Euro zone and gain control over the Greek economy rather than have policy determined by the Troika, even though the adjustment process would be bound to be painful. He knows that a majority of the Greek public want to stay in the zone. He therefore needs to show them that this is impossible. If the Troika rejects his demands for relief from austerity and more social spending he will have shown why it is not possible to stay within the zone.

Defending freedom of speech and expressing solidarity with speech

Glenn Greenwald has a long article on the reactions to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo culiminating in the huge march in Paris expressing support for the satirical journal.

Greenwald is a famous American journalist and author, perhaps best known for articles based on documents he received from Edward Snowden. He is a staunch defender of free speech and is opposed to "hate speech" laws that are common in Europe including France but also Canada. He discusses Canada's criminalization of hate speech in this March 2010 article in Salon. Greenwald notes that activists are usually concerned with defending the right to disseminate one's opinions, however distasteful to certain groups or the establishment. Quite often these same activists may be vehemently opposed to the content of what is expressed.

 The ACLU defended the right of Nazis to march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie: ACLU attorney David Goldberger, caught in the ironic position of being a Jew defending the rights of Nazis against fellow Jews. While the ACLU did win the case, it was a costly victory--30,000 of its members left the organization. And in the end, ironically, the Nazis never did march in Skokie. Of course, Goldberger did not agree with the viewpoint of the Nazis or express any agreement with their ideas in defending them. Yet in the case of the attack on Charlie Hebdo the marchers express solidarity with Charlie Hebdo using the slogan "Je Suis Charlie " (I am Charlie).

As Greenwald put it. But this week’s defense of free speech rights was so spirited that it gave rise to a brand new principle: to defend free speech, one not only defends the right to disseminate the speech, but embraces the content of the speech itself. Numerous writers thus demanded: to show “solidarity” with the murdered cartoonists, one should not merely condemn the attacks and defend the right of the cartoonists to publish, but should publish and even celebrate those cartoons. “The best response to Charlie Hebdo attack,” announced Slate’s editor Jacob Weisberg, “is to escalate blasphemous satire.”

 There are many hypocrites among the marchers. Saudi Arabia condemned the attacks but some of Hebdo's cartoons are blasphemous in that they insult the Prophet. In Saudi Arabia this would result in the death sentence: The kingdom's laws treat blasphemy as an instance of apostasy....Sharia says apostasy is a hadd (line-crossing) offence. Sharia prescribes the death penalty for hadd offences.[1] This hardly shows much respect for free speech.

French president Hollande, who was in the march, presides over a country that has hate speech laws that restrict free speech. Indeed, Hebdo's editor-in-chief Philippe Val was charged with insulting a group of people because of their religion when the weekly published satirical cartoons in a 2006 issue. The charge was not successful with the court ruling that Muslims as a whole were not insulted but just terrorists or fundamentalists. In some cases however the charges have stuck with convictions for anti-Semitic and also anti-Muslim speech. Perhaps the most famous convictions are those of the popular French actress Brigit Bardot, who in 2008 was convicted for the fifth time under the hate laws for parts of a letter sent to the government complaining about the Muslim festival of Eid-al-Kibir.

Many of the officials represented in the march of solidarity come from countries that have hate speech laws and in which political correctness is the polite norm of discourse. Yet here they all are supporting not just the right of Charlie Hebdo to print the cartoons but suggesting there should be more to show those opposed that we support this sort of thing. But Hebdo's cartoons are often bigoted and sometimes even revolting.

 This cartoon represents Boko Haram sex slaves as welfare queens. The caption says that they are angry and the bubble: "Don't touch our child benefits". Many make fun of Muslims in general. Greenwald himself pulls off a bit of satire by publishing a number of anti-Jewish cartoons or cartoons that show the divergence between cartoons that have Muslims as their target and those with Israel as their target as this one.

Another article quite critical of the magazine and of the reaction to the attack can be found here. The author is Oliver Cryan who worked at Charlie Hebdo from 1992 to 2001. He walked out because of the dictatorial actions and corrupt promotion practices as he saw them of his boss, Philippe Val, the former editor. Historically, the Hebdo cartoons had many different targets often with a strong leftist slant. However, after 9/11 Cryan claims many in the magazine concentrated on Muslim fundamentalism and making fun of Arabs and Islam. He gives graphic examples of cartoons. Here is one cartoon. Cryan remarks caustically: From what psychological depths did you drag up the nerve to “laugh” at a cartoon representing veiled women baring their buttocks as they bow in prayer towards “Mecca-relle” [a pun onmaquerelle, the madam of a brothel - trans.]? This pathetic stream of crap isn’t even shameful; its stupidity embarrasses you, even before it reveals your state of mind, your vision of the world.

 Here is another cartoon. The captions read: “You’re sure that Mohammed had sex with a pig’s head?” “I can’t afford to pay a nine-year-old prostitute, dude!” This cartoon of course is also poking fun at the film-maker no doubt a take off on the film The Innocence of Muslims I expect.

 To demonstrate the depth of their hypocrisy, many of the European officials left the march to go back home and press not for more free speech but for internet censorship and more power for spies.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Tight security as Pope Francis begins his visit to the Philippines

Today, Pope Francis begins his visit to the Philippines. A huge security operation is planned with an estimated 37,000 police and military personnel deployed to ensure there are no attacks on the Pope. Gregorio Catapang Jr., the top commander of the military, said the Papal visit was the " the biggest security nightmare" the government faces.

Earlier Papal visits have been marred by attacks on the Pope. When Pope Paul VI visited in November of 1970 he was attacked by Bolivian artist Benjamin Mendoza. Mendoza had managed to pass through the airport security wearing a priest's robe. He slashed the Pope with a dagger, just missing his throat. When Pope John Paul visited in 1995, Ramzi Yousef who previously had attacked the World Trade Center, planted a bomb which luckily exploded prematurely. There have been threats reported against the Pope in recent months. Adding fuel to the fears, some armed jihadist groups in the southern Philippines have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The Philippines has been placed on "full alert status" for the full period of the Pope's visit. As many as 100 young Filipinos are thought to have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight for the Islamic State.

 There have been several videos of two Islamist groups, Abu Sayyaf, and BIFF, pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. For the arrival of the Papal plane, a no-fly zone has been declared and several flights have been cancelled as well. Those who plan to attend the Papal mass were warned not to bring bags or even umbrellas. Barricades are being set up in some areas of Manila to keep crowds from surging too close to the Pope. When John Paul II visited in 1995 it was estimated that five million people were present at the mass he gave. That record could very well fall when Pope Francis celebrates mass on Sunday.

One of the three vehicles that the Pope will use during his visit is built like a jeepney. Jeepneys were originally manufactured from converted US military jeeps left in the islands after World War II. They are used as buses and for transporting all kinds of goods throughout the country. Many are lavishly decorated and painted but the Pope's vehicle will be white with an elevated rear deck. The Pope does not like the Vatican's "popemobile" which he calls a "sardine can." He prefers open-top vehicles, no doubt causing considerable anxiety for those responsible for his security.

Manila traffic police are expected to spend long hours on the job without a break and are being required to wear diapers as described in an earlier article. The traffic enforcers had a good practice run wearing the diapers during the long procession of the Black Nazarene on January 9, shown in the appended video. Just click "Watch on You Tube" to view the video.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

President of Uruguay Jose "Pepe" Mujica set to retire

The outgoing president of Uruguay Jose "Pepe" Mujica is known for his humble lifestyle and donating most of his presidential salary to charity.
During his five years as president he donated $550,000 to charity, with $400,000 going to Plan Together, a social program that supports vulnerable Uruguayan families. Mujica donates about 90 percent of his 12,000 monthly presidential salary to charities benefiting the poor and small entrepreneurs. Mujica says about his donations: "You can talk all you want, but put your money where your mouth is." In 2010, as part of his mandatory wealth declaration, Mujica listed his old 1987 Volkswagen Beetle as his sole asset, with a value of $1,800. As president, Mujica refused to live in the presidential palace or use its staff. Commenting on his austere life style Mujica said: “I travel in life light in luggage, so those things don't rob me of my freedom.”

 Mujica will be turning 80 in May of this year. He will retire to a small farm owned by his wife who was his companion for many years before they married in 2005. Both of them were part of the Tupamaros leftist guerrilla movement in the 60s and early 70s. Mujica spent 13 years in custody in horrible conditions during the seventies and until 1985 when constitutional democracy returned to Uruguay and he was released in an amnesty.

While president, Mujica worked to raise the minimum wage. In 2015, the minimum wage will rise more than 13 percent. While Mujica is stepping down in March, his replacement Tabare Vasquez represents the same leftist grouping, the Broad Front, that elected Mujica. Vasquez was previously president from 2005 to 2010. Presidents cannot serve more than one consecutive term. Vasquez was elected last November with a majority of 56.6 percent over his center-right opponent at 43.4 percent. Vasquez said that voters had said yes to more democracy and increased public services.

Among the reforms that Vasquez will continue is the implementation of legalization of marijuana. Mujica had announced plans for legalization in June 2012 as a means of fighting drug-related violence and reducing other social problems associated with criminalization of the drug. Uruguay has also accepted Syrian refugees as well as six former inmates of Guantanamo Bay. The hour-long interview appended gives a fascinating look into the life and ideas of Mujica. The English subtitles make it easy to follow the interview for monolingual anglophones.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Conflict continues in Yemen

The National Dialogue Conference(NDC) in Yemen was held between March 18, 2013 and January 24, 2014. The Conference was a transitional dialogue sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council(GCC) subsequent to former president Saleh yielding power.

The NDC was plagued by problems from the beginning. Many in the southern separatist movement refused to join in the dialogue. There were problems with the Houthi separatists in the north as well who ultimately withdrew after two of their representatives were assassinated. The Dialogue members agreed that Yemen would become a federal system with six regions. Sanaa the capital and Aden the former capital of a separate southern state would also have special status. The federal system was rejected by southern leaders including Ali Ahmed who had been part of the NDC.

Many praised the dialogue including Marie Harf who was then a spokesperson for the US State Dept.: "The debates, discussions and compromises throughout the National Dialogue process are evidence of the will of the Yemeni people to work together constructively for the future of their country.” The Houthi leaders and the southern separatist leaders, both those who attended the NDC and those who did not, rejected the federal system proposed. Since that time, the Houthi's have extended their power from the north southward seizing the capital Sanaa and west to a port on the Red Sea. According to the Abaad Centre for Strategic Studies the Shia Houthi rebels now control up to 70 percent of the armed forces. The political transition, following on the transfer of power to vice-president and now president Mansour Hadi from former president Saleh, has failed.

 The Houthis are now threatening to take over the province of Marib that is rich in oil. Some analysts think that former president Saleh, who retains influence in the armed forces, allied with the Houthis in their advance outside areas in the north which they had held for a considerable time. The Houthis are a Shia minority in Yemen and are supported by Iran. It is unlikely that they could successfully rule the entire country which is majority Sunni. More likely, their aim is to be able to ensure that any Yemeni government recognizes their power and interest and is dependent upon their cooperation.

The situation is complicated by the strength of Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. The advance of the Houthis into Sunni territory has led some Sunni tribes to ally with AQAP in a unified front to resist and fight the Houthis. AQAP not only attacks the Houthis but has been in a continual guerrilla war with the Hadi government constantly launching attacks on the military and government facilities.

 An article in Al Jazeera by Sharif Nashashibi, a prominent journalist on Arab affairs, discusses the difficult scenarios the Gulf Cooperation Council could face in Yemen. One possibility is that the Houthis could extend their control in Yemen. Taking over the oil-rich province of Marib would help achieve this. Yemen would then come more into the Iranian orbit and away from the control of he GCC and Saudi Arabia.

 Given the increasing resistance to Houthi expansion a more likely scenario is a wider civil war, with Houthis, and government forces, fighting with Sunni tribes and AQAP. The southern separatists might choose to exploit this chaos to form their own independent state in the south. Saudi Arabia shares a long border with Yemen and violence within Yemen could cross the border. The Saudis have had sporadic conflict with the Houthis in the past. Sectarian tensions between Shia and Sunnis could also increase in countries such as Bahrain where the Sunnis rule but the Shia are the majority. Some parts of eastern Saudi Arabia could also see more conflict with Shia groups.

 The increased power of AQAP also poses a problem for Saudi Arabia which has itself fought a long internal battle to keep Al Qaeda forces at bay. The Islamic State portrays itself as a force that will combat Shia expansion and this could help it recruit adherents in Yemen. The GCC countries are reportedly suspending economic aid and also military aid to Yemen. This move may make the situation worse rather than better and increase the importance of Iranian aid.

Unlike countries such as Bahrain where the Shia are not a well-armed force and have little control of the government, the Houthis in Yemen are well-armed and have government support. Military intervention by the GCC in such a situation could be a complete disaster and no doubt a huge help to AQAP. No one in Yemen is seeking outside intervention.

Nashashibi believes that the best the GCC can hope for in this situation is to try and limit spillover effects from Yemen conflicts into their member countries. In Sanaa, the capital, there were large demonstrations on Saturday demanding the removal of Houthi fighters from the capital but of President Hadi as well. They also denounced an attack on a police academy on Wednesday that killed 38 people. The protests are called the Rejection movement and took place in other cities as well. The prospect for Yemen appears to be continued instability and an uncertain future.

UN sponsored Libyan talks to take place this week in Geneva

The UN envoy to Libya, Bernadino Leon, held talks with both the two rival governments in the country and the two main military groups, Libyan Dawn and General Khalifa Haftar, the latter associated with the Tobruk, internationally recognized government.

Libya Dawn supports the government in Tripoli with the prime minister Omar al-Hassi. Haftar supports and is supported by the Tobruk government with prime minister Abdullah al-Thinni. The UN has constantly demanded that the two groups in conflict should cease military activity so that talks could take place but so far that has not happened with both sides battling each other. Haftar's forces have also carried out a number of air raids on Tripoli, including on the last functioning airport in Tripoli, and also the airport at Misrata. As well, his air force bombed a Greek tanker in the port of Derna killing two crew members.

 Earlier talks in September in Ghadames went nowhere but they did not include representatives from either military group nor representatives of the alternate government in Tripoli. Talks were also scheduled for December 9th but were postponed after continued clashes and disagreement among the parties. At least, these new talks feature some of the main players. Even so, there are some radical Islamist militias who probably will not go along with any peace process.

 A group said to be allied with the Islamic State claims that it has executed two Tunisian journalists who had been abducted in September last year. The authorities both in Tripoli and Tobruk seem to lack control over some areas where radical groups hold sway. This execution was in the eastern town of Barca.

 The talks are scheduled to take place this week at the UN offices in Geneva Switzerland. Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief backed the talks saying: "This represents a last chance which must be seized. Libya is at a crucial juncture; the different actors should be in no doubt of the gravity of the situation that the country finds itself in." The full UN statement can be found here.

The statement says that the primary objective of the meeting is to reach agreement on how to manage the remainder of the transition period including the formation of a unity government to stabilize the situation until a constitution is drawn up and approved. Both sides support the constitutional committee drawing up a new constitution. Security arrangements to bring an end to the present clashes will also be discussed. These latter discussions will no doubt be quite challenging since neither General Haftar nor the Islamist and other anti-government militias will likely be agreeable to turning their power over to any other entity.

 Italy, however, has said that it would be willing to take part in a UN-peacekeeping role in Libya. The UN envoy, Leon, has proposed that the parties freeze their military operations for a few days prior to the talks. A specific date has not yet been proposed. The groups will not at first talk directly to each other since neither group recognizes the legitimacy of the other. As announcement of the talks was made, conflict continued in Benghazi with at least six killed and 20 injured. Those killed were said to be forces of General Haftar who has been attempting to retake Benghazi from the Islamist Shura Council for some time.

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