Wednesday, April 8, 2009

President Asif Ali Zardari Interview....Replies to questions from The Independent

Pakistan’s embattled leader tells Andrew Buncombe what the US should be doing to help him tackle the extremist menace.
From the outside, Pakistan appears to be lurching from one crisis to the next. What is the Pakistan People's Party government doing to address to bring some stability?

Obviously this has been a transformational time in Pakistan. You must keep in mind that Pakistan has suffered the aftermaths of the cold war and that cold war had left deep imprints on our society. We were the worst sufferers from the ills of the Afghan war. Recently, ten years of dictatorship had badly damaged the basic democratic infrastructure of the state -- from political parties, to the civil society, to an independent media, and to a fully functioning parliament and provincial governments. From the outset the PPP determined that the key element for Pakistan was reconciliation. After the assassination of my wife, our nation was perilously close to civil strife. If I, as the co-chairman of the Party, had asked my people to take to the streets, the very existence of the federation would have been threatened. We chose a different course; the course of rule of law; the course of ballots and not bullet; of democracy by elections and not anarchy by mob rule. When my party won the elections convincingly on February 18th, 2008, we immediately reached out to other parties to form broad based coalitions of national unity in the National Assembly and in the four provincial assemblies. Frankly, we could have formed much narrower governments in the center, and even a PPP led government in the Punjab with different coalition partners. Once again, we chose the route of reconciliation. Today, Pakistan's democracy is growing stronger each day. Our Prime Minister was elected with a unanimous vote of confidence. Earlier this month, the PPP candidate for Chairman of the Senate (who is next in line to the Presidency) was elected unanimously, with support from all parties and all provinces. We are working with all parties and all opposition leaders to bring civility and dialogue back into our political culture. And I reaffirm our party's commitment to restore to the parliament that powers that had been abrogated by dictators in the past. We may be at war; we may be in a major economic crisis; But we refuse to turn our back on strengthening our democracy. For half our life my nation has been governed by military dictatorships. This time we intend to do it right and build a permanent democracy for generations of Pakistanis yet unborn. What appear to some people as lurching from crisis to crisis are the birth pangs of a lasting democracy. Not all political actors share our vision of fighting terrorism, lessening tensions in the region and focusing on building the economy. It is natural that they would challenge the government but we have fought every challenge effectively. The daily ups and down of democracy should not be interpreted as lack of stability.

What is the biggest problem currently facing Pakistan - militancy, a troubled economy or political turmoil? Or something else?
We face a multitude of serious problems simultaneously. There is a violent insurrection in the areas bordering Afghanistan that has caused much death and destruction. This is the legacy of the jihad the whole world came to fight against the Soviet Union from our soil during the 1980s. Pakistan, above all nations, has been the principal victim of terrorism in this world. We also face foreigners who came here in the aftermath of war in Afghanistan to use our territory to plan and execute attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan. We must now fight the terrorists and extremists to defend our traditional way of life. So this is our war as much as it is any other nation's war. We are doing everything within our power to confront, contain and destroy terrorism, but the task is not easy. If it were easy, NATO would have long ago quelled the Taliban and al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan. But we are doing our best, and with the support and encouragement of the international community, we think we will have even more success in the months ahead.

But as your question noted, militancy is not our only problem, although we think it is fundamental related to our other problems. Poverty and militancy are co-related. They breed on one another. Our economy was scarred and weakened by the priorities of dictatorship and decades of failure to address the social needs of our people. We had made some strides under my wife's second PPP government in attracting enormous foreign investment into our country; in greatly expanding our power generation and delivery capability; in focusing on decreasing illiteracy among our children and especially among our girls and women; in immunising our babies; in electrifying our villages and providing clean and safe water to our people. But those advances were reversed by dictatorship, and after the February 18th election we faced enormous problems, not leased of which were energy and food shortages for the first time in our nation's history. As we began to address this economic quagmire, the world fell into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Donor nations that would have been expected to help us through our transition period suddenly faced enormous economic constraints. In many ways we have been left on our own. It has been tough, but I think we have bottomed out and are now moving forward once again.

We must always remember that fanaticism thrives on the discontent of the people. When people are unemployed and their children are hungry, they become desperate. Desperation is what the demagogues and fanatics exploit for their own political advantage. These fanatics manipulate Islam and distort it, and exploit the difficulties of our people. We will never really succeed in containing and destroying the militants and fanatics, if we do not address the social needs of our people. The Untied States understood that when it committed to the Marshall Plan after World War II, containing the spread of communism in Europe - in Italy, in France, in Greece - by stabilising the economies of the continent. This is the model we must apply to containing terrorism today. Happily, it is a centerpiece of the Obama strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

After last year's elections, there was a great deal of public goodwill. Now that goodwill appears to be turning to frustration. Why is that?

As I have said, after a decade of dictatorship the people had enormous expectations of rapid improvement in their lives. That is still very much our goal, but the enormity of the economic crisis both within Pakistan and internationally, compounded by the war that we fight within and along our borders, has made progress much slower than we had hoped. The international community has been slow in funneling assistance. As you have seen that the transition from Republican to Democrats slowed down the process of help and aid to Pakistan. There was world wide recession and serious and severe oil prices hike. We did not receive any democracy dividends initially. We were hard hit by the economic recession and we had to resort to an IMF program and we faced the domestic unpopularity of this difficult decision. The terrorists are aware that we intend to put them out of business so they have also mounted many attacks in an attempt to demoralize our nation. Then there is the usual tug of power politics and the tendency of some observers to paint doomsday scenarios. But I think that the people appreciate that our democratic government is functioning. There is no frustration as such among the people. A clear indication to this fact is our successful Senate elections held recently which showed continued support to PPP and its government. The National Assembly, the Senate and the four provincial assemblies and the Presidency are all working within the constitution to restore the writ of law to Pakistan. And our military and intelligence agencies are behaving responsibly and respecting the sovereignty and legitimacy of the elected government. That is an enormous and positive change that bodes well for the future. We have been elected for five years and there is no point in giving a final verdict on our performance within a few months or even a year of our taking office.

The recent decision to allow Sharia Law to operate in the Swat Valley appeared like a climb-down in the face of a threat from religious militants. Why did a secular party such as the PPP agree to such a deal?

As you know that PPP is sharing Government with Awani National Party in Pashtunkhwa province. So we have to take along all the political forces with us. In its historic perspective, the Swat Valley was incorporated into Pakistan only in the late 1960s; It has always had a different and unique place in our politics and culture. The area is very traditional, and we respect those traditions. Much of the problems in Swat this year have been caused by the frustration of the people with the slowness of the judicial system, and there were people in the valley who wanted a return to the traditional judicial based that existed before Swat's merger into Pakistan. The people of the valley identified tradition with Islam. The Taliban started taking advantage of this local Swati demand to create an insurgency that was threatening security in the entire area. Instead of allowing the Taliban to gain momentum by attaching themselves to a local demand, we decided to separate the local Islamic law campaign from the broader Taliban insurgency. Our government and the government of the Pashtunkhwa Province recognise that there is a broad spectrum of ideology and degrees of militancy in Pakistan today, and we are trying very hard to separate more moderate elements from the real terrorists. That is what the Swat dialogue has been all about. You see that the Obama administration has also decided to use dialogue as one of their main strategies for fighting the war on terror. But let me assure you that this does not mean that we are relegating the Valley to fanaticism. The girls schools that were destroyed over the last year will be rebuilt. Indeed, there are many girls elementary and secondary schools that are already functioning in Swat today. We pragmatically have addressed the traditions of this region, but we have not turned our back on our party's manifesto and our basic commitments to human rights and social opportunity. We need to take into account the ground realities. I think it would be premature to call it a bad deal. It is an evolving situation.

India says that Pakistan is not doing enough to assist in the investigation into the Mumbai attacks. How is Pakistan helping? How is Pakistan 's own investigation progressing?

I think the Indian government is not dissatisfied with the level of our cooperation. We have offered to help, and we have helped. We have made substantial arrests of people within groups that may have been involved in the Mumbai attacks. But we need cooperation from India to build the case for effective prosecution of these accused in our courts. Many of the extremists are the same people that conduct acts of terrorism within our own country. Mumbai was attacked and we condemn it. But let us remember that every day Pakistan is attacked by terrorists. They destroyed our Marriott hotel in Islamabad and killed over 50 people. We will cooperate with all nations including our neighbours in identifying and pursuing terrorists wherever and whoever they are. We will prosecute them and we will punish them upon conviction. Remember, this is OUR war. Our children and women are dying, and hundreds of our soldiers have been killed. Pakistan above all nations on earth is in the trenches of the war against these fanatics and terrorists. Our very existence is at stake.

Is there any news about the nine other militants, whose bodies are still in the mortuary in Mumbai. Is Pakistan ready to accept they are Pakistanis - as the Indian authorities allege?

Our investigation into the Mumbai attacks is continuing. Some of these terrorists may in fact have been born in Pakistan. But we believe that this operation was international, with significant support from within India itself.

There are reports that the US is considering extending its use of drone-carried missiles to Balochistan. Furthermore there are claims that Pakistan - while publicly decrying their use - actually cooperates with such strikes. How do to respond to these claims?

Pakistan has made it clear both publicly and privately to the Untied States government that we are willing to take out high value terrorist targets on our own, and we welcome the technology and intelligence assistance that will give us the ability to succeed. President Obama once said that he would act if we weren't willing and able. We certainly are willing, and with international support we will become even more able. I am the President of Pakistan and I cannot condone violations of our sovereignty, even when they are done by allies and friends. We would much prefer that the US share its intelligence and give us the weapons, drones and missiles that will allow us to take care of this problem on our own. President Obama has denied any such intentions to extend the use of drone attacks to Balochistan. These drone attacks are counter productive.

It has been two years since the PPP put its support behind efforts to reinstate the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry. Why has it taken so long? There are reports that you, personally, have been opposed to the move to reinstate Mr Chaudhry. How do you respond to such allegations?

The question is irrelevant on two counts. Firstly, we could not appoint second Chief Justice when one was already present and secondly, at the end of the Chief Justice Dogar's tenure, I restored Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary through an executive order. Our government many months ago sent to our coalition allies a 33 page draft proposal to dramatically amend the constitution of Pakistan to bring it into conformity with the original intent of our founding fathers. One of the key elements of that draft proposal was the restoration of the judges who were dismissed during Musharraf's Emergency Rule. We also proposed the elimination of Musharraf's two term ban on people serving as Prime Minister, which would allow Mr. Nawaz Sharif, if he so wished, to contest for the Prime Ministership in four years when the current government's term expires. We proposed a whole package of reforms but very sadly, the key party in opposition in our National Assembly never responded to our Constitutional package. If they had joined with us when we proposed the package, the chief justice of the Supreme Court would have been restored many, many months ago and the entire judicial system of our country would be reformed and restructured.

The recent scenes in Lahore , where police were firing tear-gas at unarmed protesters, reminded many people of what used to happen under Mr. Musharraf's rule. How can a democratic party such as the PPP order police to use such tactics?

This incident is now behind us. But let us remember that the government conducted itself at all times within the framework of the constitution and law. It is one of the most fundamental responsibilities of any government to keep order and protect against violence. Our government had credible intelligence that the planned march was going to be targeted by terrorists to disrupt the country. Thus our police intervened. There may and probably were examples of overreaction by both the police and the protestors, and that is unfortunate but not totally unexpected at time of unusual tension. It is a sign of our commitment to reconciliation that the issue was resolved peacefully without any loss of life. My office and the office of Prime Minister Gilani worked in concert to defuse the problem, restore order and address fundamental concerns of the protestors and parties. The issue was resolved peacefully, democratically, and within the writ of law.

The PPP was also committed to reducing the Constitutional powers of the presidency. Now that you are president, such a commitment appears to have disappeared. Are you ready to trim some of your own powers?

The Parliament is sovereign and we are a signatory to the Charter of Democracy. The PPP government is willing to trim the powers of the presidency with the consent of all the political forces present in the Parliament. The constitutional package that our government proposed to all political parties in Pakistan not only eliminated the power of the president to sack democratically elected government but restored to the government all of the powers that had been usurped by military dictators in the past. Although our opposition parties have refused to endorse that Constitutional package, when I spoke to the National Assembly of Pakistan [recently] I once again reiterated my commitment to return to the basic structure of our 1973 constitution. I fully understand that this entails giving up very significant powers of my office, but that is my commitment, it was the commitment of my wife and it is in the manifesto of my party. The package of constitutional reforms will be introduced, and Insha'Allah shall be passed with the support of the requisite majority in both houses of parliament. Ours is a new Pakistan. It is a democratic Pakistan. We intend to change our history and become a model to the entire Islamic world of democracy, technology and economic development. That's why the PPP was elected, and that is why I am President.

China calls on Zardari to take action against rebels

China has called on Islamabad to take action against a separatist militant group it claims is planning to launch attacks from inside Pakistani territory to coincide with the 60th anniversary celebrations of the communist revolution, a prominent politician has told The Independent. In two separate meetings over recent months, senior Chinese officials warned President Asif Ali Zardari's government that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (Etim), a separatist group originally from Xinjiang province, was plotting attacks from inside Pakistan's wild tribal areas.Chinese officials revealed details of the meetings to Mushahid Hussain, an ally of the former Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, and the most visible supporter of Islamabad's alliance with Beijing, during a visit to central Asia. "They told me that the Etim has its military headquarters in [the tribal areas] and is planning to attack China on the 60th anniversary celebration of the communist revolution in October," said Mr Hussain.He said that Meng Jianzhu, China's Minister for Public Security, flew from Beijing to Shanghai to discuss the threat with Mr Zardari during his visit to China in late February. "President Zardari was not there to meet with the Chinese leadership," said Mr Hussain. "The minister met with him for 90 minutes to discuss this issue."More recently, Beijing dispatched a special envoy to Islamabad in March to discuss the alleged threat posed by the Etim, Mr Hussain added.The Etim and Chinese militants have long maintained a low-profile presence in Pakistan's tribal areas. Both Washington and Beijing have listed Etim as a terrorist group and suspect it of links with al-Qa'ida. The Pakistani army killed Hasan Mahsoum, the group's leader and founder, in Pakistan in 2003.A spokesman for Mr Zardari denied knowledge of the meetings between the President and Chinese officials."We know that China is extremely concerned about terrorism in the region, but we are unaware of any such meeting having taken place," the spokesman said.

US ship crew repel Somali pirates

Maersk Line confirmed that the crew had retaken control of the hijacked ship [AFP]
Somali pirates who attempted to hijack a US-flagged, Danish-owned container ship have been repelled by the vessel's 20-strong US crew.But the pirates, who attempted the hijack off the east coast of Africa on Wednesday, managed to capture the captain and were holding him hostage.The high seas standoff drew an expression of concern from Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, who called on the world to unite to "end the scourge of piracy"."Specifically, we are now focused on this particular act of piracy and the seizure of the ship that carries 21 American citizens. More generally, we think the world must come together to end the scourge of piracy," she said.
US sends warship
Lieutenant-Colonel Elizabeth Hibner, a Pentagon spokesperson, said on Wednesday that the US Navy warship Bainbridge was en route to the scene.Maersk Line, the US subsidiary of Denmark's AP Moller-Maersk which owns the ship, confirmed that the crew had regained control of the 17,000-tonne Maersk Alabama after the pirates left the ship with one hostage.Security firms hired to take on pirates.A spokesman said no injuries had been reported for the crew left on board.Ken Quinn, the second mate on the 17,000-tonne Maersk Alabama, said by telephone that crew members were trying to negotiate the captain's release.Quinn said all four pirates were on a lifeboat with the captain having sunk their own boat after boarding the container vessel.He said the captain had talked the four pirates into getting off the ship and into the lifeboat with him.The crew then overpowered one of the pirates and sought to exchange him for the captain, but the attempted swap failed, with the crew releasing their captive but the pirates still holding the captain, he told US broadcaster CNN.Among the ship's cargo were 400 containers of food aid, including 232 containers belonging to the UN World Food Programme that were destined for Somalia and Uganda.
Attacks resume
The Maersk hijacking comes just days after armed men took control of a British-owned ship, and the seizure of three other ships over the weekend.There had been a relative lull in the number of hijackings in the first three months of 2009, with eight ships overrun by pirates in the Gulf of Aden, a major shipping route between the southern and northern hemispheres.Somali pirates last year seized dozens of vessels close to the Somali coastline in their attempt to secure ransom payments, taking hundreds of sailors hostage.The drop in the number of successful pirate attacks in the past three months was largely due to the increased presence of foreign navies in the area.But the pirates have begun looking as far as the Seychelles in order to find unguarded ships to attack.The gangs use speedboats launched from "mother ships" to give them an advantage over foreign navies patrolling the shipping lanes.Pirates last year seized a Saudi supertanker containing $100m worth of crude oil.
The Sirius Star and its 25 crew were freed in January after $3m was dropped on to its deck.Last September, a Ukrainian cargo ship carrying 33 Soviet-era T-72 tanks was also hijacked. It was released five months later after $3.2m was reportedly paid as a ransom.

US proposal for joint ops in tribal areas nixed

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Tuesday rejected a US proposal for joint operations in the tribal areas, DawnNews quoted official sources as saying.
Simultaneously, the top leadership also asked US envoy Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Mike Mullen to shift drone technology and authority to the Pakistan Army.
The officials emphasised the need for trust between their countries to counter the al-Qaeda and the Taliban threat, even as Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi complained Tuesday about American missile strikes on Pakistani soil.
Richard Holbrooke and Mike Mullen were visiting Pakistan on the heels of President Barack Obama's announcement of plans to reinvigorate the war in Afghanistan by sending more troops to the region and boosting aid to Pakistan to help it stave off al-Qaeda and Taliban-led militancy on its soil.
Pakistani leaders say they are happy about getting billions more in assistance, but Obama's insistence that the money won't come without conditions - no 'blank cheque' - has rankled some here and underscored a trust deficit between the two camps.
'We can only work together if we respect each other and trust each other,' Qureshi said during a joint news conference.
It was a sentiment echoed by Mullen, who said he was committed to improving the nations' relationship to the point where there is a 'surplus of trust.'
Pakistan's civilian government points to the deaths of hundreds of Pakistani troops in battling insurgents along the Afghan frontier in questioning the line from Washington. But US officials have complained that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence still has ties to some militant groups, something Pakistan denies.
'Pakistan is committed in eliminating extremism from the society, for which it needs unconditional support by the international community in the fields of education, health, training and provision of equipment for fighting terrorism,' President Asif Ali Zardari said in a statement after meeting the envoys.
Zardari also urged the use of negotiations to resolve some tensions with the militants, something the US is considering.
'Military action is only one aspect of the solution,' the statement said.
Pakistan faces rising terrorist attacks on its soil by militants upset over its cooperation with the United States.
Pakistani citizens have held protests denouncing recent attacks, but there is widespread worry that cooperating with the US in the anti-terrorist fight is what is damaging the nation's security.
Many Pakistanis also are irritated with US missile strikes on militant targets in the northwest, and the government has officially and repeatedly requested they be stopped because they inflame anti-American sentiment.
On that subject, 'let me be very frank. There's a gap between us and them,' Qureshi insisted Tuesday. 'I want to bridge that gap.'
'My view is that they are working to the advantage of the extremists. We agree to disagree on this. We will take it up when we meet again in Washington,' Qureshi told reporters.
Many analysts suspect the two countries have a secret deal allowing the strikes, which American officials say have killed some top militant leaders.
The foreign minister further said that Pakistan has 'red lines' that should not be crossed, but would only specify its objection to any sort of US ground operation on its territory when asked to elaborate.
Asked about whether the US could simply hand over Predator drones to the Pakistanis so they could carry out the strikes, Mullen did not directly answer, but said the Americans were eager to share counter-insurgency techniques and lessons with Pakistan.
Holbrooke said the countries face a common challenge and task.
'We have had a long and complicated history, our two countries,' he said. 'We cannot put the past behind us, but we must learn from it and move forward.'
The envoys' visit also comes just days after Hakimullah Mehsud, a deputy to Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, warned that the group would carry out two suicide bombings per week in Pakistan unless the US stops the missile strikes.

Cuba -United States-relations begin the long thaw

"It's time to talk to Cuba."
That frank assessment from Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, has resonated loud and clear from the island of Cuba -- 90 miles from the southernmost point of Florida -- to the halls of Congress.For the first time in nearly 50 years, relations between the two nations, which has a history steeped in tension, have seemed to ease a bit.
That was apparent this week as a delegation from the Congressional Black Caucus traveled to the communist country on a fact-finding mission, with plans to deliver a report to the White House."Our purpose was to see if there were preconditions on the Cuban side. We heard that there were no preconditions," Lee said Wednesday. "And, in fact, we wanted to find out if they were interested. We have to remember that every country in Latin America, 15 countries, have normal relations with Cuba. ... We're the country which is isolated.But even more significant were the meetings the group had with Cuban President Raúl Castro and with his brother and predecessor, 82-year-old Fidel Castro, a controversial political and social figure.President Obama has said he is in favor of changing the relationship with Cuba. The $410 billion budget Obama signed in March makes it easier for Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba and to send money to family members on the island. It could also allow the sale of agricultural and pharmaceutical products to Cuba.Three provisions attached to the omnibus spending bill loosened restrictions enacted by former President Bush after he came to office in 2001.Analysts see the lawmakers' trip and Obama's campaign rhetoric as a way for the new administration to start thawing relations with Cuba before the Fifth Summit of the Americas. The summit will bring together the U.S. president and 33 other leaders from the Western Hemisphere in mid-April in Trinidad and Tobago.
It's a point that Fidel Castro seemed to hint at. In a letter published Tuesday in the online version of Granma, a state-run Cuban newspaper, Castro wrote that an unnamed caucus member told him "he was sure that Obama would change Cuba policy but that Cuba should also help him.""I value the gesture of this legislative group," Fidel Castro wrote. "The aura of [Martin] Luther King is accompanying them. Our press has given broad coverage of their visit. They are exceptional witnesses to the respect that U.S. citizens visiting our homeland always receive."Currently, U.S. citizens are allowed to visit Cuba, an island shrouded in a virtual blackout to the U.S. and other parts of the world, but must apply for special licenses to do so. Though it is illegal, some citizens will travel to a country like Mexico or Canada and then into Cuba.
Not everyone is eager for change.
Cuban-American members of Congress, in particular, have voiced outrage over the easing of relations.Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, who was born in Cuba, doesn't want to see changes to the embargo."Having tourists on Cuban beaches is not going to achieve democratic change in Cuba," Martinez has said.New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat and Cuban-American, said in a recent speech that the Cuban government is "pure and simple a brutal dictatorship. ... The average Cuban lives on an income of less than a dollar a day."Fidel Castro led the 1959 revolution that overthrew Cuba's Batista dictatorship. The United States broke diplomatic ties with the nation in 1961. The following year, the U.S. government instituted a trade embargo. Both policies remain in effect.
The State Department, per its Web site, officially recognizes the country as "a totalitarian police state which relies on repressive methods to maintain control. These methods, including intense physical and electronic surveillance of Cubans, are also extended to foreign travelers."
Although Castro was credited with bringing social reforms to Cuba, he has been criticized around the world for oppressing human rights and free speech.
But Lee hopes the meeting in Cuba this week will help open diplomatic channels between the two nations."It's time to change our direction in our foreign policy. The president is doing a phenomenal job in the world, reshaping America's image and role in the world," she said. "So we want to make sure that we have the proper information to make recommendations to the president, our secretary of state and our speaker with regard to U.S. policy toward Cuba.Though the current stance of the U.S. government toward Cuba fits well with an older generation of Cuban-Americans who despise Castro, not all are of that mindset. Namely, members of a younger generation see great benefits of opening trade and direct tourism between the United States and Cuba.
Jessica Rodriguez, who owns Cuba de Ayer restaurant in Burtonsville, Maryland, is part of that younger generation looking to change the views of her community.
"I think it would be good to open up some of those doors. I have so many customers who say, 'oh, I'd like to go to Cuba.' And I say, 'me too.' "
"I think it would be great for the world to see Cuba for itself," she added.
Some Cuban-Americans like Tessie Aral, owner of a Miami, Florida, travel agency that specializes in trips to Cuba, see the financial benefits of lifting the travel ban.
"I think a lot of Americans are going to want to travel to Cuba because it's been the forbidden fruit for so long," Aral said. "For our country to tell us which country we can travel to, I think that's just archaic."But others in Congress see opening greater relations with Cuba as vital to the United States.A group of senators and other supporters unveiled a bill March 31 to lift the 47-year-old travel ban to Cuba.
"I think that we finally reached a new watermark here on this issue," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, one of the bill's sponsors.Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, another sponsor of the bill, issued a draft report in February that said it was time to reconsider the economic sanctions. Lugar is the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.Nonetheless, there is more political and diplomatic work to be done before restrictions on travel and trade could be lifted. Though it's a first step, Lee sees it as a crack in the proverbial ceiling."We went to Cuba to listen to Cuban officials to make sure that we had the information and the facts that were necessary to bring back and at least let our administration know what we believe is possible."

Iran Charges American With Spying and Treason

BEIRUT -- Iran's judiciary charged Roxana Saberi, a 31-year-old Iranian-American freelance journalist, with espionage on Wednesday after detaining her in prison for more than two months.

The charge was outlined on state television Wednesday evening by the Revolutionary Court judge in charge of the prosecution of Ms. Saberi, who was arrested Jan. 31.

Judge Sohrab Heydarifard said that Ms. Saberi had been collecting interviews and documents from government circles under the cover of a reporter, sometimes working without an Iranian government press card, and then transferring the information to American intelligence services.

"This has been uncovered by the counterespionage section of the Information Ministry, and she has thus been arrested. She will stand trial in the course of the following week," said Mr. Heydarifard.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was deeply concerned by the reported charge against Ms. Saberi and demanded her immediate release.

According to Iranian judiciary officials, Ms. Saberi has admitted to the charge against her. However, her lawyer, Abdulsamad Khoramshahi, said that she is innocent and has been wrongly accused.

"My first goal is to get her out on bail as soon as possible and then prove to the court that she must be acquitted on all charges," said Mr. Khoramshahi in a telephone interview from her home in Tehran.

Allegations against Ms. Saberi have fluctuated since her arrest. Iranian authorities first said Ms. Saberi had broken the law by purchasing a bottle of wine. Then they said she was working without a valid press card, although working without such a permit isn't a crime under Iranian law. They said initially that she would be released within weeks, and then that it might take months or years.

"We are very concerned for Roxana and for her safety. There is a serious lack of information in her case. What is the evidence against her?" said Mohamad Abdel Dayem, the Middle East director for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Espionage is an extremely serious crime in Iran's penal code, and cases go to trial in the Revolutionary Court, a separate court system that also deals with such high-level crimes as treason and drug trafficking.

A senior public prosecutor in Tehran said that if Ms. Saberi were convicted of spying, she would face between three and 10 years in prison. If the court found her guilty of spying with intent to overthrow the government, she could face execution.

Over the past two months, as Ms. Saberi's case has received global attention, with petitions circling on the Internet for her immediate release, the U.S. Congress has lobbied on her behalf and Ms. Clinton said last week that the U.S. had sent Iran an official letter asking for her release. Iran denies receiving such a letter.

Ms. Saberi's case could complicate recent diplomatic gestures between Iran and the U.S., aimed at thawing ties severed in 1979. President Barack Obama has said he is ready to negotiate with Iran to try to resolve their differences. Tehran has said it too is willing to negotiate if it sees real policy change from the U.S.

Some analysts in Iran say that Ms. Saberi's case has taken a political tone and that she might be used as leverage to secure the release of three Iranian nationals arrested in Iraq in a U.S. military raid in 2007. The three Iranians are accused by the U.S. of spying for Iran's Revolutionary Guards but so far haven't been formally charged.

Ms. Saberi was born to an Iranian father and a Japanese mother in the U.S. and grew up in Fargo, N.D. She was an accomplished student, star athlete and a beauty queen who was crowned Miss North Dakota in 1997.

She moved to Iran six years ago to work as a freelance journalist and did broadcast and print stints for the BBC, National Public Radio, CBS and other media organizations. Two years ago, her press card was revoked, but she continued to work on personal projects, conducting interviews for a book on Iran.

Colleagues and friends in Iran say that she was mild-mannered and careful in her reportage and they were shocked to hear of her arrest. Ms. Saberi's parents flew to Tehran last week and met with their daughter in jail on Monday, according to her attorney. She was in better spirits, eating and exercising and was allowed to watch television and read books.

He parents have appealed for her release to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, who is the only person in Iran possessing the power to pardon prisoners.

Clinton: U.S. to join direct talks with Iran on nuclear program

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that the United States would be a "full participant" in talks by major powers with Iran over its nuclear program.
"Obviously we believe that pursuing very careful engagement on a range of issues that affect our interests and the interests of the world with Iran makes sense. There is nothing more important than trying to convince Iran to cease its efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon," Clinton told reporters.Clinton's statements mark another significant shift from former U.S. President George W. Bush's policy toward a nation he labeled a member of the Axis of Evil.The State Department said the U.S. would be at the table from now on when senior diplomats from the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany meet with Iranian officials to discuss the nuclear issue.The Bush administration had generally shunned such meetings, although it attended one last year.U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the decision to engage Iran was conveyed to representatives of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia by the third-ranking U.S. diplomat William Burns at a Wednesday meeting in London.That group, known as the P5+1, announced earlier that it would invite Iran to attend a new session aimed at breaking a deadlock in the talks.
"The U.S. remains committed to the P5+1 process; what is different is that the U.S. will join P5+1 discussions with Iran from now on," Wood said, adding that Washington was hopeful Iran would attend."If Iran accepts, we hope this will be the occasion to seriously engage Iran on how to break the logjam of recent years and work in a cooperative manner to resolve the outstanding international concerns about its nuclear program," he said. Any breakthrough will be the result of the collective efforts of all the parties, including Iran.Wood said the administration wants a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue and believes that requires a willingness to engage directly with each other on the basis of mutual respect and mutual interests."We hope that the government of Iran chooses to reciprocate," he added.
The invitation is to be sent to the Iranians by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana. In a statement the group said it welcomed the new direction of U.S. policy toward Iran. No time frame was given for a date of the meeting.
Prior to word from State, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's hard-line president, said that his country welcomes talks with the United States should it prove to be honest in extending its hand toward Iran, one of the strongest signals yet that Tehran welcomes Obama's calls for dialogue."The Iranian nation welcomes a hand extended to it should it really and truly be based on honesty, justice and respect," Ahmadinejad said in a speech broadcast live on state television.Ahmadinejad is expected to announce Iran has mastered the final stage of nuclear fuel production when the country celebrates its National Nuclear Day on Thursday."I will have good nuclear news for the respectful Iranian nation tomorrow (April 9)," Amadinejad said on Wednesday in a televised speech at the central city of Isfahan.Analysts expect he will announce that Iran has completed the long process of uranium enrichment, enabling the country to produce its own fuel.

China's 2020 vision on universal health

CHINA has inked a blueprint for universal healthcare by 2020, ahead of the US which has struggled with the concept for the past decade.

In a landmark document delivered yesterday, China's Government aims to have basic healthcare for 90 per cent of its 1.3 billion people by 2011.

The policy underscores the aim of China's leaders to push its economy forward by repairing the country's social safety net, which has been fundamentally damaged in the past three decades as thousands of state-owned enterprises have been privatised and regional communes disbanded.

After three years of intense debate and repeated revision, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council, or China's cabinet, jointly endorsed and issued a 13,000-word document called Guidelines on Deepening the Reform of the Health-care System.

According to the plans, by 2020 the world's most populous country will have a basic healthcare system that can provide "safe, effective, convenient and affordable" care for its citizens.

Professor Zhou Zijun at the Public Health Institute of Beijing University told Chinese media on April 5 that 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the Chinese population was not covered by medical insurance, and those covered also needed to pay 30-40 per cent of medical costs.

The move has been described as laudable by the World Health Organisation, and the World Bank said China's commitment to universal access to basic healthcare in its reform plan was encouraging.

After the Communist Party took power in 1949, central governments covered more than 90 per cent of medical expenses for urban residents, while rural people enjoyed simple but essentially free healthcare, a briefing document for the strategy said.

When China began its economic reforms in the early 1980s, the system was dismantled in favour of a market-oriented healthcare system, but this created a growing social gap. With low government funding, doctors at state-run hospitals were forced to "generate" incomes for the hospitals through prescribing profitable, sometimes unnecessary, drugs and treatment. This could account for 90 per cent of a hospital's income. Soaring medical costs became less affordable to ordinary citizens.

Medical care has been a continuing issue for China, with deaths from fake drugs, pharmacy factories bribing authorities to get product licenses and a lack of trust between patients and doctors.

Taliban pushing deep into Pakistan

TALIBAN militants, who struck a peace deal in the Swat Valley in February in exchange for the implementation of sharia law, have begun extending their reach deeper into Pakistan, confirming US fears the agreement would embolden extremists.

The Islamic militants, who waged a two-year campaign of beheadings and bombings in Swat before the Pakistan Government ceded to their demands, fought a fierce battle with troops and tribal leaders in the neighbouring Gokand Valley yesterday.

Twenty-one people were killed in the clashes -- 16 militants, three police officers and two local militia men -- after tribal elders failed to convince the Taliban in several rounds of talks to leave the area. Pakistani media reported the militants said they were under orders from Tehrik-e-Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud to consolidate their hold on the region, less than 200km north of the capital, Islamabad.

Mehsud has claimed responsibility for several attacks in Pakistan in recent weeks, including the ambush of Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore in which eight people died. He is also suspected of masterminding the December 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

The clash shows the size of the challenge faced by the US in its bid to suppress the insurgency in Pakistan, which is not only feeding Islamic extremism across the border in Afghanistan but also threatens to destabilise Pakistan's civilian Government. The US believes the bulk of the Taliban leadership is in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan.

US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen accused Mehsud this week of orchestrating attacks on NATO forces, including US troops, in Afghanistan. Admiral Mullen and US special envoy Richard Holbrooke were in New Delhi last night for talks aimed at convincing India to pull back its rhetoric on the disputed territory of Kashmir, so that Pakistan can concentrate its troops on the border with Afghanistan.

Mr Holbrooke said last night the threat posed by al-Qa'ida and its allies could be met only with the joint efforts of India and Pakistan, as well as the US.

"For the first time since partition (in 1947), India, Pakistan and the United States face a common threat, a common challenge and we have a common task," he said. "Now that we face a common threat we must work together."

US President Barack Obama's new strategy for stabilising the region, unveiled last month, includes 21,000 additional troops for Afghanistan and a tripling of Pakistan's civilian aid budget -- conditional on greater co-operation from Pakistan. The US has long suspected Pakistan of taking its money to fight militants while at the same time supporting Islamic extremists in order to maintain leverage in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

But Pakistan civilian and military leaders hit back at those accusations, warning it would be difficult to bridge the "trust deficit" if the US continued to ignore the contributions of the Pakistan army in the war on terror.

World’s largest salt mines located in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan is the only country for having the world’s largest salt mines with proven reserves of about 10 billion ton in three mines including more than 6.687 billion ton only in the Khewra rocky salt mine, located in the area of district Jhelum. Other two salt mines are Warcha and Kalabagh.The main habitat of salt lies there in Punjab at Khewra in Tehsil Pind Dadan Khan, District Jhelum. The salt found here at Khewra Salt Mines is the best, finest and in natural state in the world. Salt was first worked out in Khewra which is at about 175 km and the history tells that long before the Alexander the great invaded the area, Salt was being mined at Khewra at that time.At present the Khewra Salt Mine is being managed by Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation (PMDC). According to availability of data with PMDC, it is said that still large quantities of salt exist in its unexplored areas of the mines.
The annual production of salt at Khewra is about 300,000 tonnes according to the data. According to the available data there is still enough salt to last about 400 years to come in the existing mines. These reports reveal that about 534, 512 tonnes of fine rock Salt had been extracted up to 1850 and till March 1923 the production obtained from Khewra Salt Mines was 49,71,420 tonnes. Not only we meet our salt requirements from the Khewra Salt Mines, but Pakistan also exports salt to India to the tune of 10 thousand to 18 thousand tonnes annually. It is also a source of earning foreign exchange for the government.Khewra Salt Mines has 1290 meters long tunnels. The mine is anopen challenge to an adventurous spirit. It has 17 levels and there are 50 feet of rock salt between each level in which there are veryl arge chambers, made when salt was extracted.It is pertinent to mention here that Pakistan is a land of rich natural wealth including precious metals and fluids beneath it like iron, gold, silver, bronze, gas, gypsum and rubies. The richness of our soil is unbelievable having rich treasures of nature beneath the surface.

Militants seize more territory in Buner

BUNER: Tense calm prevailed as armed militants expanded their activities to Bagra and Kalabatt areas of Buner on Wednesday despite repeated calls by the Quami Jirga to vacate the district.

The militants, after consolidating their positions in Gokand valley, claimed more territory by occupying Kalabatt village (some two kilometers from Pacha Bazar) the, strategic Bagra police post and a government-run school on Wednesday. They also established their base-camp on the roadside in the area, just four kilometers from district headquarter Daggar.

The militants handed over dead bodies of two Lashkar men and three police personnel to a third party in Barwazee area after talks with renowned religious figure Shiekhul Hadiath Maulana Waliullah Kabalgrami.

The bodies were brought to civil hospital Pacha for autopsy and were handed over to their relatives for burial.

The deceased Waseem Khan and Peer Mohammad Khan were bodyguards of a key leader of Qaumi Lashkar. The militants reportedly torched several houses and took control of a petrol pump of the Lashakar leader on Tuesday evening.

A large number of residents left Sultanwas village and shifted to safer places due to fear of militants attack.

The local jirga elders and district administration officials through reconciliatory committee including leaders of Tehrik Nefaz-i-Shariat Muhammadi (TNSM) held several rounds of talk with Taliban to convince them to leave the area by giving safe passage to them. But the militant commander was of the view that Tehrik Taliban high command has ordered their Tashkeel (stay) in the area and they would leave after holding a peace march and visit to six killed Taliban in Shalbandi.

Malakand commissioner Mohammad Javed Khan, Taliban commander Mehmood Khan, TNSM vice chief Maulana Mohammad Alam, district chief Maulana Salar and others visited Dara Gokand on Tuesday to calm tensions.

They held several rounds of talks with the Taliban commander Rizwan Bacha of Puechar, Swat. The dialogue continued till late on Tuesday evening but no breakthrough was reported.

Sources close to Taliban said that the militants are in no mood to leave the area. They have declared their headquarters in Buner district and were bent on holding peace march in the district and to monitor the affairs in accordance with the Nizam-i –Adl Regulation.

The reconciliatory committee members and a delegation including commissioner Malakand Mohammad Javed, TNSM vice chief Maulana Mohammad Alam and Taliban commander Mehmood Khan has failed to resolve the crisis.

As a last ditch effort to avoid bloodshed in the once a peaceful Buner district a delegation of local religious leaders led by Maulana Waliullah was in talk with the elders of Quami jirga at Madrassa Taleem ul Quran at Adalat Chowk Daggar. He has earlier held dialogue with Taliban commander Rizwan Bacha of Peuchar in Gokand Valley.

Extremists relocating to big cities to avoid drone attacks

WASHINGTON: Al Qaeda, Taliban and other militants have been relocating from the Tribal Areas to Pakistan’s overcrowded and impoverished cities, which is likely to make it harder to find and stop them from staging terrorist attacks, officials say.
Concerns are growing among US intelligence and military officials that CIA’s drone strikes are bolstering the insurgency by prompting radicals to disperse from the Tribal Areas into Pakistan’s heartland.“Putting these guys on the run forces a lot of good things to happen,” said a senior US defence official. “It gives you more targeting opportunities. The downside is that you get a much more dispersed target set and they go to places where we are not operating.”Moreover, the officials point out, the strikes by the missile-firing drones are a recruiting boon for extremists because of the civilian casualties.Windfall: The attacks “may have hurt more than they have helped”, said another US military official involved in counter-terrorism operations. The official called the drone operations a “recruiting windfall for the Pakistani Taliban”.As a result of the drone attacks, insurgent activities are “more dispersed in Pakistan and focusing on Pakistani targets”, said Christine Fair of the RAND Corp, a think tank that advises the Pentagon.US officials have long identified Karachi as the headquarters of the Afghan Taliban’s fundraising committee, and many top Taliban were educated at the Binori Mosque. An upheaval in Karachi would be catastrophic, they say.

17-year old girl flogging....... A catalyst for change?


WHY did civil society in Pakistan vociferously protest the flogging of a 17-year old girl in a public square in Swat and not when many other atrocities were committed against women in recent times?

The demonstrations and protests began when this barbaric incident that was filmed on a cellphone came to light last week. It seemed to have touched a raw nerve and received wide publicity in the electronic and print media and on the internet, making an impact that went beyond expectations.

Now there are counter allegations that the video was fake and meant to undermine the February peace deal. The police produced before the Supreme Court a statement from Chand Bibi, the girl who was said to have been flogged in Kabbal district of Swat, denying that the incident ever took place. What has become more significant today is the fact that the incident triggered off protests and they still continue.

Worse brutalities have been visited upon women in our society in the past without stirring the conscience of the nation. Less than a year ago, there were reports that three teenaged girls, along with two chaperones, were buried alive in the Jafarabad district of Balochistan for the ‘crime’ of attempting to marry men of their choice. Subsequently a senator from that province had the temerity to justify the incident as something that fell within the bounds of ‘tribal customs’. He was later rewarded with a specially created ministerial portfolio in the cabinet much to the anger of women. But there was no outcry of the kind witnessed against the Swat flogging incident.

Earlier, in September 2007, two women were beheaded in Bannu in the NWFP by religious extremists posing as the custodians of public morals. The men had arbitrarily pronounced the women guilty of running a brothel and ‘executed’ them for their ‘sins’.

Swat itself has been the scene of so much violence – victims have also included women – for the last 18 months. Nearly 131 girls’ schools have been torched or bombed. Even today my contact in Mingora tells me that female attendance in schools is poor and fear pervades the air. Women have been forced to confine themselves to their homes and thousands have been forced to flee. Monday’s killing in Mansehra of three women working for an NGO promoting education sends a chilling message to parents. Beware!

Then why this display of pent-up public rage this time? The fact is that the controversial video graphically presented to a national viewership scenes depicting the brutal violation of human dignity with the claim of the perpetrators that it was decreed by Islam. Could this prove to be the much needed catalyst to galvanise the silent majority in Pakistan to make its voice heard against terrorism and Talibanisation?

In the absence of reliable opinion surveys and the reluctance of people to express their views candidly on issues related to Islam it may be difficult to assess public opinion about the role of religion in matters of the state. The prevailing impression in the pre-Zia years was that the common man was happy to keep his religious beliefs within the confines of his personal life while politics was left as a secular matter to the whims of the political/military leadership.

Religious parties did not receive the public backing they now lay claim to. The moderate psyche of the people contributed to the failure of the Jamaat-i-Islami, the JUI and their like to garner collectively more than five per cent of the votes in any polls. In the absence of general elections at regular intervals until 1970, the myth of the invincibility of religious parties was successfully perpetuated.

Ziaul Haq adopted the strategy of exploiting religion – resorting to coercion where necessary – for his political empowerment. This transformed the socio-cultural scene in Pakistan and encouraged the growth of religiosity. Yet there is no way of knowing what people expect in terms of the nitty-gritty when leaders speak of Sharia being introduced as the law of the land. Didn’t the people of Swat vote overwhelmingly for the ANP, an avowedly secular party in the last elections?

As a result political leaders have played to the piper’s tune when vying for public support. They have sought to establish their Islamic credentials. It didn’t seem to matter how deep in corruption they were steeped or how ‘un-Islamic’ their lifestyle so long as they observed religious rituals with attendant publicity. The voters never really cared.

When problems did arise, as they inevitably did in a religion with numerous fiqhs, solutions were found by making compromises on a case-by-case basis. Shias were granted exemption from zakat when they protested by blocking the capital in 1979. Women’s lobbies were pacified by introducing amendments to the Hudood Ordinances through the Protection of Women Act. Where the contender – like the Ahmadi community – lacked clout, a policy of suppression was adopted.

The Swat flogging video has brought people face to face with the reality of the emergence of extremism in the name of Islam. It has brought to the surface the paradoxes that had until now been swept under the carpet for expediency’s sake. The video has forced difficult choices on the people compelling them to at least think about issues that affect them very personally.

If the chains of fear that had silenced the people have been broken we can assume that the matter will not be forgotten soon. People have articulated their shock and are asking questions forcing the Taliban to prevaricate with regard to the incident. Apart from the militants and the extremist religious lobby, which makes its routine appearance on the electronic media, no one wants to justify flogging in the name of Islam.

History is replete with examples of the ‘one incident’ that proved to be the turning point. In Pakistan itself the first sentencing under the Hudood Ordinances of a couple led to the creation of the Women’s Action Forum in 1981. Since then, there has been no turning back of the tide that pushed the issue of women’s rights onto the national agenda.