Friday, March 20, 2009

Balochistan to discuss ‘actions against Pakhtuns’ in Karachi

QUETTA: The Balochistan Assembly admitted for debate on Friday an adjournment motion to discuss what was called Muttihada Qaumi Movement’s coercive actions against Pakhtuns aimed at forcing them out of Karachi.

The session was presided over by Speaker Mohammad Aslam Bhootani. The motion was tabled by PML-Q’s Jaffar Khan Mandokhel who cited incidents of 1985, 1994, May 12, 2007, and July 2008 which forced Pakhtuns out of business in MQM-dominated areas in Karachi and drove thousands of them out of the city. He accused the Sindh government of keeping quiet on the issue in order not to offend its coalition partner.

Senior Minister Maulana Wasay supported the motion and said that targeting a particular ethnic group did not bode well for national integrity. The speaker allowed a two-hour debate on the motion on Saturday.

Earlier, the house approved a resolution moved by Minister for Irrigation Sardar Aslam Bizenjo, praising the federal government, political parties, media and civil society for resolving the judicial crisis in an amicable manner. It also appreciated the role played by Chief Minister Nawab Raisani in settling the issue.

Home Minister Mir Zafarullah Zehri assured that complaints about kidnapping of Nadra officials would be investigated.

Curfew in Landi Kotal after clashes

LANDI KOTAL: The Khyber political administration imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in Landi Kotal and adjoining areas on Friday after fierce clashes between troops and militants left 10 people dead and 41 injured.Officials said that a warehouse, about two dozen houses, a private school, a government-run rehabilitation centre and offices of a private TV channel were damaged.The clashes followed a rocket attack on an army base on Thursday night, and troops pounded militants’ positions on Friday.
A large number of people are reported to have left the affected area and moved to Jamrud and Peshawar. This was the militants’ first massive attack in the area close to the Afghan border.The militants first fired two rockets on the base and then a barrage of rockets and mortars were fired from three sides.Local people said that heavy artillery, mortars and rockets were used by both sides. Residential areas and commercial centres suffered severe damage.

50pc Bajaur students miss SSC examination

KHAR: Some 50 per cent of students missed the Secondary School Certificate (SSC) examination that began on March 17, as majority of schools in the militancy-hit areas of Bajaur Agency are yet to reopen after the military operation.

Though separate examination centres have been established at the Government Degree College for Boys and Girls at Khar, the agency headquarters, many a Class IX and X students failed to appear in the examination.

According to the agency education officer, Gul Rahman, a total of 2,000 to 2,200 students had to appear in the Class IX and X examination, but scores of them could not make it to the examination centres because their families had migrated to far-flung areas because of the operation against militants in the agency over the previous several months.

“We did contact each and every student wherever he was. But very few from Karachi or other distant districts of the country turned up at in the examination,” said Gul Rahman. He said the officials had given concessions to students of the affected areas and admissions were allowed to them just a day before the examination without charging any examination fee.

The officer said attendance was quiet encouraging as students from all the affected areas, like Inayat Killay, Bar Khlozo, Badan, Zorbandar, Loisam, Shagai, Nawagai and Chamarkand, were taking the examination.

The common people of the agency believe that the education authorities should give some relaxation in marking to the Bajaur students as the trouble in the area seriously affected their studies over the past six months.

Schools were closed and most of students had been shifted to peaceful districts or camps for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to operation in the area, said a Senior English Teacher (SET), serving in a higher secondary school in the agency. In such a situation, he said, how the students could manage to properly prepare themselves for the exam.

The agency education officer sees the situation with a different angle. He said the education department and non-governmental relief organisations should take steps to save the precious time of the students. He said the education department and non-governmental relief organisations had taken all possible measures to save the valuable time of the students.

Classes were arranged for the Bajaur students at the relief camps and schools in the down districts and those having interest in the studies continued it despite some problems, he added. “And this is the reason that a great number of students are appearing in the examination,” he remarked.

He said that arrangements had also been made for girl students and 70 girls were taking their examinations at the Government Degree College for Girls in Khar town. The overall educational situation in the agency is pitiable. All the educational institutions in four of the seven tehsils of the agency remained closed throughout the military operation. Some 41,000 of the total 90,000 students of public sector educational institutions were affected by the turmoil in Bajaur. Around 36 schools were destroyed during the military operations while nine were being used to accommodate personnel of the security forces.

In the areas where schools have been reopened, the students are studying on the mud tracks near the schools, which are under occupation of the security forces. Government Primary School Muslim Bagh is one of such schools, where the students are seated on the ground alongside a dirty road in the middle of a wheat field.

Even no arrangements have been made for the girl students, who along with their female teachers, could not continue their educational activities on roads and in the fields. The two-storey building of Government Primary School in Jar area is one such example. However, the agency education officer was committed to making alternative arrangements for students of the demolished schools and those occupied by the security forces.

Gul Rahman said with the exception of Tangi, schools in Barang, Utmankhel and Salarzai tehsils have already been opened, while the institutions in the restive tehsils — Mamond, Riyasat, Nawagai and Chamarkand — are speedily being reopened. “We are returning from the most critical situation to peace now and educational activities are gradually being resumed in the agency,” he remarked.

Khyber Agency: curfew imposed in Landikotal

PESHAWAR: Curfew has been imposed in Tehsil Landikotal of Khyber Agency.According to political administration, the curfew was imposed in the wake of ongoing clashes between security forces and militants which erupted last night.The curfew will remain in force till 7:00 AM Sunday.

Former US officials seek improved Russia ties

MOSCOW -- Some of the biggest names in U.S. diplomacy of the past decades met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and other Kremlin leaders Friday, in an effort to improve frosty relations that experts say could threaten many U.S. foreign policy goals.

In some of his most upbeat comments about U.S. relations since President Barack Obama took office, Medvedev said his meetings with current and former U.S. officials in recent weeks "reflect the goal of our nations to significantly improve ties."

After greeting a delegation led by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Medvedev praised the American initiative, first announced by Vice President Joe Biden, to "press the reset button" on U.S.-Russia relations.

"The surprising term 'reset' ... really reflects the essence of the changes we would like to see," Medvedev said. "We are counting on a reset. I hope it will take place."

Kissinger, an architect of U.S. Cold War strategy toward the Soviet Union, said he and a group including former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Sen. Sam Nunn had discussed energy and other "strategic issues" with the Russian president.

"I'm happy to report that the differences were not so remarkable and the agreements were considerable," Kissinger said.

Kissinger also told Medvedev the U.S. group hoped the Russian leader's April meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in London would help improve ties.

"We believe in the generally optimistic attitude, and we hope ... that the meeting between you and our president will begin a new period in our relationship and will lead to concrete results," Kissinger said.

Kissinger also met privately with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday, in a meeting shown briefly on state-run TV.

Experts say chilly bilateral relations have complicated efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, ease tensions in eastern Europe and expand the war in Afghanistan.

Kissinger's group has pushed for drastic reductions in global nuclear arsenals. And reviving talks on limits to nuclear arms, especially the START I treaty, which expires in December, is at the top of the U.S. agenda.

But the broader aim appears to be repairing the damage to relations over the past eight years between Washington and Moscow, which are at their lowest point since the early 1980s _ a point highlighted by both Russian and U.S. officials in Moscow.

"I see we are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe," Nunn told reporters at a briefing.

"We are certain that the low point of this period of chill in our relations is behind us," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters Friday. "The reset ... has really begun."

While the Kremlin has welcomed the U.S. initiatives, it has also sent signals that it is up to Washington to make concessions, not Moscow, if relations are to improve.

Ryabkov expressed confidence that Moscow and Washington can resolve deep differences over the proposed U.S. missile defense facilities in Eastern Europe and forge a new treaty to replace START.

But Ryabkov suggested it is up to Washington to give ground over missile defense. He said Moscow wants an equal say in evaluating threats, plotting responses and designing any missile shield in the region.

"We are ready for cooperation on missile defense, but not as a cart horse that is attached to a harness and pulls in a direction given by others," he said.

Ryabkov also said missile defenses and offensive weapons subject to cuts under treaties like START are "inextricably linked." He suggested Russia could hold back on an arms control pact if it is dissatisfied with U.S. moves on missile defense.

Washington says the missile shield based in Poland and the Czech Republic would protect against a potential threat from Iran. The Obama administration has told Russia that it could eliminate the need for such a system by using its influence on Iran to help ensure Tehran poses no threat.

But Ryabkov said Moscow sees no signs that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, indicating the Kremlin does not plan to toughen its stance toward Tehran.

He welcomed Obama's address to the Iranian people _ a video released Friday from Washington that said the U.S. is prepared to end years of strained relations if Tehran tones down its bellicose rhetoric.

"We are moving along the path that we believe should lead to the disappearance of concern about Iran's nuclear program. The path proposed by the Russian Federation is the path of dialogue," he said.

It is not clear if Russia is adopting a tough position to give itself room to bargain, or whether it will refuse to make concessions in upcoming negotiations.

Russia concerned by deteriorating situation in Kabul

UNITED NATIONS : Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin said on Thursday Moscow is “seriously concerned” by deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. “Despite efforts of Afghan authorities and international military presences, the situation in the sphere of security continues to deteriorate in the country,” he told a session of the UN Security Council. “Terrorist activities of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other extremists are constantly mounting and undermining the basics of the Afghan statehood and impeding stabilization and restoration. Specific concern is caused by the fact that terrorists actually control several regions of Afghanistan and form parallel bodies of authority there,” Churkin said. “Today it is important as never for Afghan power structures and international military presences to break the negative security situation by joint effort,” the ambassador said. Drug trafficking remains the main source of financing the terrorists. “Despite certain recent positive changes in fighting Afghan drug threat, it is necessary to mount joint anti-drug efforts,” Churkin said. This week Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Kabul to sign a bilateral intergovernmental agreement on the fight against illegal drugs. “The implementation of the agreement will enhance joint Russian and Afghan efforts to fight drug crimes,” the ambassador said, adding the special conference on Afghanistan scheduled for March 27 in Moscow will give a political impulse to the solution of the task. Russia “is interested in the development of Afghanistan as a democratic, stable and flourishing state,” Churkin said and recalled that Russia helped build 140 industrial, infrastructure, transport and communication objects in the country.

PAKISTAN.. Political crisis brought US back to the military

WASHINGTON: Chief of the Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani had an unscheduled meeting with US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton soon after the governor deposed the provincial government in Punjab on Feb. 25, US sources told Dawn.US special envoy for Pakistan Richard Holbrooke also attended this meeting, which, according to these sources, focused on the political situation in Pakistan.Before this meeting, the Obama administration had made it a point not to raise politics in its discussions with the army chief.A cursory look at Mr Kayani’s itinerary showed that military and security matters dominated the general’s agenda in Washington.During his week-long stay in the US, the general met Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen and the US Army Chief General George Casey.He also met CIA Director Leone Panetto, Director National Intelligence Admiral Dennis C Blair and Commander Special Operations Command Admiral Eric T Olson to discuss security matters.But he was not scheduled to meet those officials who deal with political matters because the Americans wanted to assure the new democratic setup in Islamabad that they were sincere to strengthening democracy in Pakistan.During Gen. Kayani’s stay in Washington, another important Pakistani delegation was also in town. It was headed by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and included the ISI chief and Director General Military Operations.As Mr Qureshi later said at a news conference, it was the first time that a minister was heading a delegation that included two senior military officials and the purpose was to convey the message that ‘all branches of the Pakistani government were united under the new political setup in Islamabad,’ as the foreign minister said.Ambassador Holbrooke also stressed this point when he told several US media outlets even before the foreign minister’s delegation arrived in town that this time the ISI chief was coming as a member of a delegation headed by a civilian.The point was further stressed at a reception Ambassador Husain Haqqani hosted for the foreign minister and the army chief on Feb. 23.The foreign minister was the guest of honour at the central table, dominated by US lawmakers and political officials. The army chief shared another table with US generals and senior defence and security officials.But attitudes in Washington changed on Feb. 25, when the Supreme Court verdict declared Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif ineligible to contest elections or hold public offices and later the government imposed governor’s rule in Punjab.‘It was seen as a reckless move in Washington,’ said an insider. ‘The Americans hoped to see true democracy in Pakistan, not divisive power politics.’US policy makers felt that President Asif Ali Zardari’s policies could trigger street violence and may lead Pakistan to yet another military rule. ‘And they wanted to avoid both,’ said a source familiar with the US thinking on this issue. ‘So they decided to invite Gen. Kayani to the State Department and hear his views on the latest political developments in Islamabad.’
Informed sources in Washington say that the Americans did not consult Ambassador Haqqani before inviting the general, indicating the Americans did not want to share their concerns over the developments in Punjab with Mr Zardari’s representative in Washington.Later, the National Public Radio, one of the most respected media outlets in North America, did a programme on Mr Kayani, pointing out that the general ‘is the key to US strategy in the region.’The radio recalled that when Kayani became chief of staff just over a year ago, the appointment was met with high praise from US officials.The radio recalled that the US considers its relations with Pakistani military extremely important because of the insurgency of Taliban and al-Qaeda along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.Diplomatic observers in Washington noted that the dismissal of the Punjab government caused US policy makers to think that such actions could endanger America’s main objective: fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda militants with Pakistan’s help.‘So they decided to go back to their old ally, the military, to consult how to react,’ said one such observer.The Americans and the Pakistani military, however, agreed that while the army should play its role in strengthening the current political setup, ‘there’s no room for yet another military takeover,’ the observer said.‘And the impression the Americans got from Gen. Kayani was that he also did not want another military government in Islamabad,’ the observer added.
During the same visit to Washington, Gen. Kayani had assured US lawmakers that the army had no desire to take over the government.
During a meeting with leaders of the US Congress, the general pledged to keep the military out of politics.The most interesting assessment of Gen. Kayani’s views on this issue came from Admiral Mullen who told reporters on March 13, when Mr Kayani was busy reducing tensions between President Zardari and Mr Sharif, that the Pakistani army chief did not want to take over the government like his predecessor Pervez Musharraf did in 1999.‘I have had upwards of 10 interactions with Kayani. He wants to do the right thing for Pakistan. But he is in a very tough spot,’ Admiral Mullen said in an interview.The US military chief, however, said that while Gen. Kayani will not stage another coup, the military cannot allow the political crisis to deteriorate.Political observers in Washington noted that as the admiral had predicted, Gen. Kayani did not topple the government but he did play a key role in defusing the judicial and political crises threatening Pakistan.

Pakistan Still in turmoil

It was thought with the sacked judges' restoration a measure of sobriety and normality would return to our body politic. It has not. Rather, the nation is looking dismayingly into new political feuds, court battles and power games, with Punjab becoming a bloody battleground. Worse, mob politics seem gaining currency to settle disputes that should be resolved on the negotiating table, if not in the parliament, reduced into a poor thing by the very ones even now quite ludicrously proclaiming it to be supreme. But what demon is that has possessed these egotistic partisans? So blinded are they by their craziness that they see not what a deeply perturbed citizenry is seeing with so much of horror: their enactment of a Greek tragedy. Quite evidently, the country is in the throes of existential threats, a frightful economic meltdown, and a ravaging mass poverty. Yet these partisans are wholly engrossed in their own fracas and vendettas, as if the country is wholly at peace, with not a speck of trouble spot. Not bothered a wee bit are they even about the vile prowling extremism with its roots at home and abroad, which if it succeeds in its sinister design to throw this country into utter anarchy could spell death for their very power ambitions, of which they have made a hostage of this unfortunate nation as also an unwilling spectator of their ugly power circus. So blinded are they that they show not the least concern about how injuriously is going to be made a scapegoat of this country in the days ahead by the American and the NATO occupiers of neighbouring Afghanistan for their failures there. Already, in unison they are raising a noisy cacophony that for pacifying Afghanistan, Pakistan has to be tackled first. And their shrill is sure to become deafening if their contemplated changed strategies and surges in Afghanistan fail to deliver. Yet, this upcoming storm has made no appearance at all on these feuding partisans' radar screens. Nor do they show even bleak awareness of how perilously have our strategically-placed tribal regions, settled areas and Balochistan been softened up by foreign powers for their geopolitical objectives. And as the global economic crisis has hit hard even the world's most prosperous and robust nations with their leaders struggling desperately to somehow hold together their teetering national economies, these warring partisans of ours are behaving as if we are an unshakeable economic giant, not the ones living on foreign aid and dole. Mass poverty, mass unemployment, mass deprivation, mass denial, and mass sickness have become the eternal fate of a whole lot of our citizenry. Yet these partisans, most of them wallowing in dirty wealth and slush cash with their leaders counting among the world's billionaires, seem to think that no home, no family on this land has an economic problem but only a political woe. More worryingly, by flaunting unthinkingly their irrational contrivance to the nation's teeming millions of hungry mouths and unemployed hands that their miseries would end with the sacked judges' restoration, they have made for a very severe and dangerous public backlash. And this may happen sooner than later, as these partisans have raised expectations, and hyperbolically, where these exist not. The judges, after all, are just administrators of justice and law. Creation of jobs or opportunities, catering to the people's basic needs and wants, and alleviating poverty and uplifting the people's economic lot is not their job but of the state's executive branch. Yet the desperate poor citizenry has been led up the garden path by these partisans to expect this from the judiciary, which obviously cannot deliver on this. A public backlash is thus inevitable any time soon, thanks to these partisans' wilful deceit. Even now, these characters can pull back, if they have any love lost for this unlucky nation which to its great woe has had the misfortune of having them as its leaders. They can condescend to bury the hatchet, sink their egos, abandon stridency, embrace conciliation and give way to mutual accommodation to settle their feuds. In that alone lays the nation's ultimate good, their own no lesser. Some of them are talking of a revolution. How earnestly one wishes for it, but for a real one, a people's, not elite's! If it comes, it will rid the nation of the whole pack of these aristocrats pretending to be the masses' representatives, which they are not, along with their cheerleaders, and usher in the masses' true leaders from amongst themselves.
Saved from:
Dated: Saturday,March 21, 2009, Rabi-ul-Awwal 23, 1430 A.H.


Noruz is the most glorious of Iran’s national spring festivities and dates back to the beginning of Persian history from time immemorial. Both foreign and domestic historians admit they do not know precisely when nor how the festival of Noruz emerged in ancient Persia and have expressed divergent opinions concerning the festival’s historical background.

Recently however, after extensive scientific research carried out by his team of archaeologists, a prominent Iranian university professor claims that “the Noruz Festival emerged 8,000 years ago” even though his idea is in conflict with views of other historians.

Dr. Fereydoon Joneydi, founder of the Neishabur Cultural Foundation, in an exclusive interview with the Tehran Times said, “I take a different approach towards Noruz. My opinion stems from the dramatic events that have taken place on earth in ancient times and takes into account the emergence of global warming and cooling, as well as earthquakes and the reactivation of the volcano, Mount Damavand.”

Dr. Joneydi explains that as we compare these cataclysmic junctures in the history of Iran with Ferdowsi’s epic Persian poem Shahnameh and the Zoroastrians’ holy book Avesta, astounding facts and figures are revealed.

“We conducted our studies based on geology using the physics of carbon-14 dating techniques and mathematical calculations. As a result, we have come to the conclusion that Noruz has a history of some 7500 to 8000 years, as opposed to opinions the Europeans have expressed concerning Noruz.”

“In ancient Persia, the beginning of every month started with the name of Ahura Mazda, which in the Pahlavi language is called ‘Ormuzd’ and in modern Farsi is known as ‘Hormuz.’ The first month of the New Year is Hormuz Farvadin or Farvardin and is the start of Jamshidi Noruz,” he elaborated.

Dr. Joneydi has a full command of the Pahlavi language.

He further shed light on the subject and added that the end of the Jamshid kingdom in Shahnameh coincides with the invasion of the Babylonians (Biorasb or Zahak) which occurred 7000 years ago.

He said Shahnameh refers to three basic elements: the origin of the solar calendar, the invention of pottery and the beginnings of music. Neither the date of the solar calendar nor of music could be determined but the exact date of the invention of pottery could be traced as he pointed out.

In recent years, mud pottery dating back 10400 years has been discovered in excavations conducted by archaeologists in Ganj-Dareh in Harsin situated in Kermanshah Province. However, the age of the mud pottery and jars is not consistent with other scientific studies.

The emergence of baked pottery traces back to 7500-8000 years and is the best criterion to determine the date of emergence of the solar calendar and music. Since all these elements have been explicitly referred to in Shahnameh, today’s Noruz festivities must date back some 8000 years.

The most prominent theme in the emergence of the Noruz festival is the spring equinox, which occurs on the first day of spring.

Another very important question which comes to mind is that if Iranians did not have some kind of time measurement apparatus how could they have determined the exact equality of day and night and thus precisely fix the time of the spring equinox?

“Undoubtedly, our forefathers had some kind of a device for time measurement whose function was similar to a present day watch or a clock.

The Noruz festival is a celebration of mathematics and astronomy -- the solar calendar--among Iranians and since our ancestors embraced Noruz and embellished it with beautiful flowers, Sabzeh (green sprouts) and sweets, we also deserve to celebrate this special occasion,” Dr. Joneydi said. Today, after the lapse of thousands of years, Iranians from all walks of life enthusiastically celebrate the Noruz festival, irrespective of their language, age, gender, race, ethnicity, or social status.

In essence, the Noruz festival celebrates the rebirth of nature. This reawakening symbolizes the triumph of good over the evil forces of darkness, which is manifested in the cold darkness of winter.

Noruz is the point when the oppressive presence of the bitter cold winter begins to recede and the lively and hopeful spring commences.

This symbolic and romantic image of springtime change has been expressed extensively and eloquently in invaluable works of both contemporary and classical Persian writers and poets, which in recent decades has been widely translated into various other languages as well..

Iran Cautiously Welcomes Obama's Unexpected Olive Branch

Iran was quick to welcome, albeit cautiously, U.S. President Barack Obama's unexpected olive branch to Tehran on the occasion of the Iranian New Year, but called for American action to back up the words of reconciliation.
Iranian Energy Minister Parviz Fattah said Friday that Obama's video message to his country was "positive," while a top adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, "welcomed the wish of the president of the United States to put away past differences."

But both men stressed the need for action to show seriousness toward a new beginning in relations between the two countries, whose ties were severed shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"The Iranian leaders will precisely assess this message," said Fattah on the sidelines of the World Water Forum in Istanbul. "We believe that in addition to messages, we need positive action from Mr. Obama as well as from his government. So in addition to talk, we need actions."

Ahmadinejad's press adviser, Javanfekr, indicated Iranian conditions for a rapprochement, insisting that the Obama administration "has to recognize its past mistakes and repair them as a way to put away the differences."

He told AFP news agency, "If Obama shows willingness to take action, the Iranian government will not show its back to him."

Obama, who had previously called for diplomacy to resolve the Western crisis with Iran over its nuclear program, nevertheless took Iran and the whole region by surprise early Friday with a direct message to the Iranian people and leadership offering "a new beginning."

The message, distributed to Iranian media outlets with Farsi subtitles and posted on the White House's official Web site, was released to coincide with the Iranian Nowruz, or New Year, that marks the arrival of spring.

"With the coming of a new season, we're reminded of this precious humanity that we all share," Obama said. "And we can once again call upon this spirit as we seek the promise of a new beginning."

He added that the United States "wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have rights, but it comes with real responsibilities."

"This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect."

Analysts say that for the Iranian leadership, the key to finally engaging in direct diplomacy was "mutual respect" – a concept that Tehran has for years wanted to hear, but also to see what that means on the ground.

They say that the U.S. president's use of the term "Islamic Republic" was a sign of a fresh recognition and acceptance of the Islamic nature of the Iranian regime. And his talk about threats could also mean threats by both sides, not just Iranian.

Commentators suggest that Obama's bold gesture will be closely studied in Tehran and predict Iran will reciprocate by starting to "unclench its fist," a term used by Obama at his inaugural speech, to whom he promised his administration would extend its hand in friendship.

They say that it will take time to overcome three decades of animosity between the two countries, which further deteriorated under U.S. President George W. Bush, who labeled Iran as part of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea, and often threatened to use military force against it for its nuclear program. And since the Islamic revolution, Iranian officials have often described the United States as the "Great Satan."

However, for the rest of the Western world, and the Western-allied Arab region, Obama's unprecedented offer comes as a relief and an important first step toward defusing tensions in an already-turbulent region, where Iran's nuclear standoff has sent major jitters.

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana said he hoped Obama's message "will open a new chapter in the relations with Tehran," describing it as "very constructive." He urged the Iranian leadership to "take good attention of what has been said by President Obama" and to "act intelligently" in response.

Western diplomats say an Iranian-U.S. rapprochement would be essential toward resolving Iran's nuclear dossier. The West fears that Iran plans to build nuclear weapons, but Tehran insists its program is designed only for peaceful, energy purposes.

While Obama's message did not go into specifics, he indicated that Iran's return to the international fold after years of isolation "cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions." He was clearly referring to Iran's backing of armed groups in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, which the United States view as "terrorist" organizations but Tehran see as legitimate resistance against occupation.

However, Obama's words and tone, which Arab analysts say showed modesty and lacked the traditional U.S. condescension toward what it calls "rogue states," indicates that the new leadership in Washington is seeking a strategic shift in ties with Iran – despite Obama's decision earlier this month to extend sanctions against Tehran for another year on the grounds that it still poses a threat to U.S. national security.

Commentators say that Obama's message will likely be reciprocated by Iranian leaders through toning down their own rhetoric against the United States, especially if reports prove to be true that the U.S. State Department is considering sending a reconciliatory letter to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the ultimate say in Iranian policies.

A Brave New World Facing Beirut and Damascus

DAMASCUS -- In just a few short months the evolution of relations between Syria and Lebanon has progressed drastically. Now a Syrian flag flies over an embassy in Beirut, something unmentionable just 12 months ago. On March 15 Lebanon opened its own embassy in Damascus.
Politicians in Beirut and Damascus have in the past volleyed accusations at each other, the former accusing the latter of harboring intentions of absorbing Lebanon back into a 'Greater Syria.' In return, Syria was (and remains) fearful of America's influence in the tiny country, using Lebanon as a base from where to expand its control as it has done in the Gulf and continues to do in Iraq. In recent times such noise has diminished.

With the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, the Cedar Revolution, formed to oust the Syrian presence in Lebanon, was foremost in pointing blame at Damascus. Before this, Syrian soldiers were accused of carrying out unwarranted attacks on Lebanese civilians during the Lebanese civil war.

However, the feeling of animosity oozing from Lebanon is lost on Syrians.

In 1976 as violence in Lebanon flared, the Syrian army entered Lebanon – at the request of Christian forces - as an Arab peacekeeping force to help stop fighting. They began pulling out just weeks after Hariri's assassination.

During the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon Syria took in thousands of Beirutis fleeing shelling, it states it is and will comply with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Last May Syrian laborers, an important undercarriage of Lebanon's economy, were shot, beaten and several killed when violent clashes erupted after pro- and anti-government groups fought for control of Beirut's streets.

Hundreds of Lebanese missing since the civil war when the Syrian army controlled Lebanon's security and dozens of Syrians still being held in Lebanese prisons have added to the strained relations.

In September last year Syria amassed a reported 10,000 troops on the border with northern Lebanon saying it was acting to stop smuggling. Lebanese politicians including Wael Abou Faour feared "Syria wants to promote the idea that there is a serious terrorism threat and al-Qaida's presence in north Lebanon and that it is willing to interfere militarily to solve this problem whenever the occasion arises."

This followed shortly after a bombing in Damascus that killed 17 people and preceded a televised confession by suspects saying the purveyors of the attack were sourced in northern Lebanon.

One can speculate that the poor turnout of state leaders at the Arab summit in Damascus last March forced Syria's hand in seeking better relations with the Arab countries facing it down.

Also perhaps seeing George W. Bush's presidential tenure coming to an end, Damascus saw an opportunity to create a platform for communication.

Earlier this month the presidents of Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia met in Riyadh to mend relations damaged in large part because of Syria's hand in Lebanon.

And since a landmark agreement was settled by the Lebanese government and opposition in Doha last May (after fierce clashes that divided Beirut akin to civil war lines), relations between Syria and Lebanon have changed beyond recognition.

With a nod from Damascus, the Hezbollah-led opposition signed up to the accord, and despite difficulties attributed to the buildup of Syrian troops on the border and the Damascus bombing, neither country has looked back.

In November Michel Suleiman visited Damascus as president of Lebanon in a remarkable turn of events (though Suleiman was formerly an army general with links to Syria), and since then diplomats from both countries have exchanged visits.

A visit by Syria's President Bashar Assad to Lebanon has been rumored to take place for several months, something which would represent a huge forward step in understanding by the majority of Lebanese people and the Beirut government itself.

On Sunday Michel Khouri became Lebanon's first ambassador to Syria and is expected to take up his post next month. Damascus opened its own embassy in Beirut last December but has yet to name an ambassador. Earlier this week Walid Muallem, Syria's foreign minister was quoted as saying this would happen "very soon."

With parliamentary elections marked out for June, Lebanese politicians from certain quarters will no doubt ratchet up anti-Syrian and anti-American rhetoric. Furthermore, whatever the tribunal uncovers, already with four senior Syrian military figures in hand, relations between the two are far from cozy.

However, the turnaround that has taken place in recent months was born out of decades of trepidation and gripe; and despite the rhetoric, few in either country have an appetite to go back to that.

Moreover, with support and an understanding from Washington – absent in the previous administration – and with U.S. President Barack Obama "willing to listen," Beirut and Damascus are looking toward a future that hopefully can put the past behind.

India bought advanced spy satellite from Israel

India has recently purchased an advanced spy satellite from Israel in order to boost its surveillance capabilities, in the wake of the murderous terror attacks in Mumbai last year, the Indian NDTV news channel reported Friday.

In late November 2008, more than 10 coordinated shooting attacks and bombings rocked Mumbai's financial district killing dozens and leaving hundreds wounded.

The acquisition was fast-tracked after the Mumbai siege, perpetrated by 10 gunmen. India says the attackers came by boat from the Pakistani port city of Karachi to Mumbai, based on its investigations and the confession of the lone gunman captured alive after the 60-hour siege, in which 165 people were killed.

According to the report, the satellite can see through clouds and is capable of carrying out all-weather imaging during both day and night.

The 300 kilogram (650 pound) RISAT 2 will be launched by India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket in the next few weeks, the report said.

The Indian security establishment has been seeking such a satellite, capable of monitoring events around the entire globe and especially in neighboring countries, for a long time.

NDTV said the new acquisition would also provide New Delhi with the capability to track incoming hostile ballistic missiles.

India's existing satellites are rendered "blind" by darkness and by changes in weather during the monsoon season.

During recent years, Israel has replaced France as Indian's second largest arms supplier, after Russia.

10 Afghan police, 40 Taliban killed as unrest soars

KABUL - Nine Afghan policemen and a district police chief died in a battle with Taliban fighters Friday, as troops killed 40 militants in operations to counter the mounting insurgency, authorities said.

The series of bloody clashes came as Afghanistan welcomed in its New Year, based on the solar calendar, amid alarm about the rise of a Taliban insurgency which has led Washington to deploy 17,000 extra troops.

The police officers and district head died fighting the Taliban in the remote northern province of Jawzjan, an unusual battlefield for the extremists, who focus their activity in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

"Today in a clash between Taliban and police, the district chief and nine police were killed," provincial police chief Khalil Aminzada told AFP.

The fighting was in a district called Koshtipa, on the border with Turkmenistan, he said.

Aminzada was unable to say if any militants were also killed. A Taliban spokesman confirmed the fighting in an Afghan media report.

The U.S. military said troops killed 30 militants on Thursday in the flashpoint southern province of Helmand, in a district where a key anti-Taliban lawmaker was killed in a bomb attack the same day.

The toll was the highest from a single clash announced by the military in more than two months, with Afghanistan gearing up for another year of intense fighting against the al-Qaida-linked Taliban after the winter months.

The Afghan army led a joint patrol into an area of Gereshk district where gunmen were known to operate, the U.S. military said.

"The patrol was attacked by numerous armed militants with heavy small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire," it said in a statement.

The "combined element returned fire with small-arms and close air support, killing 30 militants," it added.

There was no independent confirmation of the toll.

The province is one of Afghanistan's most dangerous, with Taliban militants tied into a lucrative illegal opium trade holding large swathes of territory.

On Thursday, lawmaker Dad Mohammad Khan was killed with three of his bodyguards and a senior policeman when a bomb tore through their vehicle in Gereshk. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the blast.

Elsewhere on Friday, Afghan and U.S.-led troops killed seven Taliban fighters who gathered in the southwest province of Farah to attack the provincial governor's house, the governor told AFP.

Intelligence officials were tipped off about the planned assault and called troops to the scene, governor Rohul Amin told AFP.

The U.S. military said three more militants were killed in a raid against a cell involved in making bombs to attack the capital Kabul.

The Taliban held power in Afghanistan from 1996 until late 2001, when they were removed in a U.S.-led invasion.

The escalating conflict in their insurgency has caused concern among the international community trying to stabilize the war-torn nation and stop it again becoming a lawless breeding ground for Islamist extremists.

U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered 17,000 extra U.S. troops to the country and a top-to-bottom review of his war policy, shifting the focus from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the fight against Islamic militants.

There are currently 75,000 international soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, about 38,000 of them Americans, to help Kabul fight the insurgency, which last year reached its deadliest point yet.

Concern grows for UN refugee official seized by militant group in Pakistan

The United Nations is increasingly concerned for the health of an American official from its refugee agency, after the passing this week of a deadline for the Pakistani government to meet the demands of his abductors.

The Baluchistan Liberation United Front, the shadowy group that claims to be holding John Solecki, has made no comment since setting a deadline of Wednesday this week for the government to release hundreds of political prisoners. Solecki, who was snatched at gunpoint nearly eight weeks ago in Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan, works for the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), serving tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who live in the city and surrounding area.

"The deadline has passed and we haven't had any fresh news," said Jennifer Pagonis, spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Pakistan. "His health is deteriorating. We don't know what sort of care he's been getting."

This week the US ambassador, Anne Patterson, visited Quetta, which is close to the Afghan border, where she held talks about Solecki with the police chief and the head of the paramilitary Frontier Corps for the province.

Baluchistan has been home to successive national insurgencies since the 1970s. But until now foreigners had not been targeted by the secular rebel groups who have sought international sympathy for their cause.

The Pakistan Taliban, who also have a strong presence in Quetta, do kidnap foreigners, and are currently holding at least two diplomats elsewhere in Pakistan. Many have suggested that the Bluf is a front for a Taliban group or another Baluch nationalist outfit, with even its acronym suggesting that it is not a real organisation.

The UN has been unable to hold direct talks with Solecki's kidnappers, who have communicated only through the press. Bluf has previously set deadlines which passed.

In setting the latest ultimatum, on Monday, of a 48-hour cut-off, a Bluf spokesman, Shahak Baloch, told a Pakistani news agency that his group had given the government a list of 1,109 people and 141 women it wanted released but blamed UN officials for not showing "seriousness".

"His condition is deteriorating, we are providing him every possible medical treatment, but it is making no difference," Baloch had said.

The Pakistani authorities have put forward different theories of who is holding Solecki. The police have suggested that it is the local Marri tribe, while the Frontier Corps has accused a militant nationalist group, the Baluchistan Republican party, whose leader is based in Afghanistan.

Baluchi separatists accuse Pakistan of exploiting the province's natural resources, principally gas deposits. Militant groups are seeking to separate the province from the rest of Pakistan. The Pakistani army has ruthlessly suppressed Baluch nationalism, partly by taking those thought to be involved into unofficial military custody.

Brutal ancestor inspires prince to be the next iron man of Afghanistan

The great grandson of Afghanistan's legendary Iron Amir – who once forced an adulterous man to eat his mistress – has joined the race to be the country's next president. Prince Abdul Ali Seraj, who opened Afghanistan's first nightclub in the 1970s, says it is time to launch "psychological warfare" against the Taliban and reclaim Islamic law from the extremists. He insists Afghanistan needs a "change candidate" because President Hamid Karzai has failed.

His great grandfather Abdur Rahman Khan ruled from 1880 to 1901, massacring tens of thousands on the battlefield, while executing and torturing hundreds more who he suspected of dissent. He made slaves of an entire province, yet he is fondly remembered inside Afghanistan as one of the few rulers in the last 250 years to unite the country's tribes.

Prince Ali fled Afghanistan in 1978 after a communist coup, disguised as a hippy. He returned in 2002 after the Taliban regime collapsed, and says Abdur Rahman is his hero. "Afghan-istan needs a strong leader," he said. "Afghan people have never rallied around policies; they have rallied around people."

He owes his life to a bunch of stoned Australian hippies who smuggled him out of the country in their bus. They even gave him a guitar, as a disguise, when secret police boarded close to the Pakistan border. "I had no idea how to play a guitar," he said. "But they just told me to strum it whenever they did, so I did." He left behind a string of businesses including Kabul's first disco, called 25 Hours, a bowling alley and a Chinese restaurant.

Echoing his great grandfather's nickname, he said the president needs an "iron fist". "Afghanistan needs a ruler with two heads," he said. "He needs compassion for 95 per cent of the people, and an iron fist for the other five per cent – the terrorists, al-Qa'ida and corrupt officials."

The Amir was famous for the ruthless punishments meted out to anyone who disobeyed him. He claimed he was chosen by Allah and allegedly strangled a mullah who accused him of betraying Islam by accepting British subsidies.

The Taliban make similar claims about Hamid Karzai's government, which is largely dependent on foreign aid.

The Amir kept the sons of his provincial governors hostage in Kabul, to guarantee their fathers' loyalty. If tribal chiefs erred, his army dragged them back to Kabul in chains.

Today, President Karzai is often accused for failing to rein in his own brother Ahmed Wali, who is a tribal leader in Kandahar and head of the provincial council. He is widely suspected of controlling a billion dollar heroin trade. "Karzai is weak," fumed Prince Ali. "He can't even control his own brother, how can he control a whole country?"

Abdur Rahman's worst punishments were saved for adulterous couples, according to the specialist historian Bijan Omrani. "In one case a woman was boiled to a broth which was then fed to the man before his execution. Cannibals, according to Islam, are incapable of entering Paradise," he wrote.

Prince Ali insists he is a reluctant candidate, pressured into running by the tribal elders who support him. He is president of the National Coalition for Dialogue with Tribes of Afghanistan. A report he issued warned: "At the current rate of decline, support for the coalition forces is likely to have evaporated by early 2010. We could then be faced with the prospects of a nationwide jihad."

His uncle was the modernising King Amanullah who introduced girls' schools, outlawed torture, and let women unveil in Kabul. He fled Afghanistan in 1929 amid a conservative revolt. Prince Ali is also a distant cousin of the late King Zahir Shah, who tried to turn Afghanistan into a democracy. He was exiled in 1973, amid a conservative coup.

"Trying to force fit Afghanistan into a Western template is likely to arouse resistance and risk failure," Prince Ali warned. "Afghan history has plenty of examples where reforming zeal has foundered on the rocks of conservatism."

president obama on jay lono show