Sunday, April 26, 2009

'Iran will honor any two-state decision'

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in an interview broadcast Sunday that the Islamic republic would honor any decision made by the Palestinians with regards to a two-state solution in a future peace deal with Israel.

"Whatever decision they take, we will support that. We think that this is the right of the Palestinian people," he told ABC's This Week in a rare face-to-face interview with an American news network.

He also called on other nations, specifically the US and European governments, to respect the Palestinians' right to determine their fate.

Ahmadinejad went on to say that while the Islamic republic believes "in talking, in negotiating, based on sincerity, respect and justice," the country would not hold talks with the Obama administration unless "a clear-cut framework" and "clear agenda" were agreed upon beforehand.

In the interview, which took place Wednesday in Teheran, Ahmadinejad said that while Iran welcomed the recent overtures from US President Barack Obama, "an administration which, up until yesterday, was saying that I'm going to kill you, and today says that I'm not going to kill you, is that sufficient?"

Ahmadinejad stressed that he had "no reservations when it comes to talking," but that the nuclear program was "a special issue."

"We think that the nuclear issue needs to be resolved in the context of the agency and regulations. We are just utilizing our legal rights," the Iranian leader said.

The Iranian president went on to say he had "fully expected" Obama to participate in the UN racism follow-up conference held in Geneva last week, noting that while he didn't believe Obama supported racism, he "should have been there and should have condemned outright racism and racial discrimination."

Several nations, including the US, boycotted the conference as they feared it would serve as a stage for attacking Israel, which was in fact the focus of Ahmadinejad's speech.

However, the Iranian leader said that when he was talking against "the Zionist regime, the first proviso for successful talks would be to give the other party the freedom to speak. Mr. Obama has the right to have his own opinion, obviously."

"My point of view is that the Zionist regime is the manifestation of racism," Ahamdinejad stated.

He went on to say that Western diplomats who walked out during his speech in Geneva "are free to have their own points of view," but noted that he did not understand "why they want to deny me my ideas."

He also criticized Obama's support for the IDF's Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.

"The gentleman's support of the massacre of Gazans in support for the criminals who were responsible for that atrocity was a major mistake on the part of the gentleman," Ahmadinejad said.

When asked why he insisted on questioning the Holocaust even when it has established as an historical fact and even though Iranian politicians worry that this kind of talk isolates Iran, Ahamdinejad explained why he believed the issue was not being treated fairly.

The two main problems with the way the world regards the Holocaust, the Iranian president said, were that the Palestinians were expected to pay the price for European racism, and that research that questions the Holocaust was not permitted.

"If this is a historically documented event, why do Western states show so much sensitivity toward a historical event? They do not want the lid to be taken off. I am asking them to permit studies," he said.

In Islamabad, a Sense of Foreboding

Pakistanis Nervously Look to Northwest, Where Taliban Fighters Are Taking Control
Washington Post Foreign Service

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, April 26 -- Every spring, the Margalla Hills overlooking this capital city burst into life. Evening thunderstorms send torrents of water down the slopes, scenic paths attract hikers and picnickers and bands of monkeys scramble down from the trees to watch the weekend visitors.

But this season, the forested ridges have taken on a new, ominous significance for jittery residents. Suddenly, the hills are being depicted as the last barrier to hordes of Islamist insurgents sweeping south from the Afghan border, and as perfect places for suicide bombers to lurk.

"If the Taliban continue to move at this pace, they will soon be knocking at the doors of Islamabad. The Margalla Hills seem to be the only hurdle in their march toward the federal capital," Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a religious party leader, warned last week in a speech to Parliament. He was exaggerating for effect, but the image struck home.

Islamabad, a placid, park-filled city of 1.5 million people, was built in the 1960s as a symbol of Pakistan's modern and democratic aspirations. Its boulevards are lined with grandiose federal buildings and its shady side streets are home to an elite class of politicians and professionals. Until several years ago, the orderly capital seemed immune to the religious violence that bedeviled the country's wilder rural fringes.

But now, a psychosis of fear has gripped the Pakistani capital, driven partly by recent televised images of turbaned Taliban fighters occupying town after town in the northwest districts of Swat, Shangla and Buner -- as close as 60 miles from Islamabad -- and partly by a rash of bombings and threats in the quiet, heavily-policed federal district.

Private schools that cater to international and wealthy families have installed security cameras and gun turrets; many are losing foreign students as embassies and other agencies send families home. The local World Bank office just moved into the heavily guarded Serena Hotel.

Police barricades, detours and checkpoints are sprouting so fast that drivers barely have time to learn the new traffic patterns. Without a foreign passport or a VIP license plate, it is almost impossible to enter the federal district that includes the Supreme Court, the Parliament and the diplomatic enclave.

"We're not going to let anyone come and capture Islamabad, but we have too few resources to secure the city," said Nasir Aftab, the superintendent of police, his eyes red after a night of little sleep. "We need more weapons and men. We need explosive detectors and vehicle scanners on the highway entrances. If a mullah tells a boy of 15 to blow himself up, how do you stop him? This is the capital, and we don't even have a sniffer dog."

It is the insidiousness of suicide bombers, more than the bravado of gun-toting Taliban troops, that keeps officials such as Aftab up at night. The biggest bombing yet here came in September, when a truck full of explosives rammed into the luxury Marriott Hotel, killing 52 people.

The hotel has since reopened, and the lobby has been restored to its former elegance. But the inviting scene is hidden behind blast walls, and the doormen who once swept open wide glass portals guard a narrow opening with a huge metal detector.

"Sometimes I think we've overdone it. The hotel looks like a fortress, but security has to be our top priority," said Zulfikar Ahmed, the Marriott's general manager. He said hotel occupancy had plunged to 40 percent of what it once was. "We maintain a calm atmosphere, but if something happens tomorrow, it will drop again," he said.

A less spectacular but equally worrisome attack occurred last month, when a young man approached an open camp for off-duty paramilitary guards, located in a small park in an upper-class residential area. The man blew himself up, killing himself and five guards.

The blast sent shoppers fleeing in panic from the exclusive Jinnah Market a few blocks away. Now, the market is half-empty, waiters stand idle and merchants sit behind sale racks on the sidewalk.

"The future looks very bleak. Fear chases us everywhere, from the moment we leave home to the moment we return at night," said Mohammed Ismael, 46, who sells fabric for party dresses. "These blasts and attacks don't hurt the ruling class, but they destroy our business . . . The tension is everywhere."

The tension is relatively new to Islamabad, which until 2007 had been tranquil. But that summer, the calm was shattered by a violent face-off between the government and radical leaders of the Red Mosque, who had turned their compound in central Islamabad into an armed camp. After a standoff, security forces stormed the mosque, killing at least 100 people, and the leaders vowed revenge.

Since then, terrorist assaults, bombings and kidnappings have become regular occurrences across the country. The targets included former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, U.N. officials, NATO supply convoys, police checkpoints, video shops, mosques of minority sects, an Italian eatery in Islamabad and a Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore.

There was also a growth in the number of religious schools, or madrassas, some of which espoused radical visions of Islam.

This month, the former chief cleric at the Red Mosque was released from detention and appeared there, nearly two years after the deadly siege. More than 5,000 people gathered to hear Maulana Abdul Aziz urge his excited followers to bring a "true Islamic system" to the nation.

"We know very little about some of these madrassas, and where their funding comes from is a mystery," said a police intelligence official.

Islamabad is far better known for its top-quality academic schools and colleges, including private institutions tailored for foreign students. Several weeks ago, police learned of terrorist threats to attack such schools, and recommended that they take security measures.

The capital also houses a well-regarded national university. The student body includes thousands of women, and though more of them wear Islamic garb than before, many make clear they have no sympathy for fundamentalists.

"We've been discussing what would happen to us if the Taliban come here. Would I have to wear a burqa?" demanded Fatima Tanvir, 21, in reference to an all-covering garment. Like several of her classmates, she said she resented the negative impression many foreigners now have of her country. "People see the TV images and think we are a rogue, barbarian society. It makes us really sad," she said.

With extra contingents of paramilitary police being sent to beef up security, it seems unlikely that militant hordes will swarm down from the Margalla Hills any time soon. But the recent attacks, and the calls to arms ringing from dozens of mosques, suggest there is more religious violence ahead.

"If they come again, we'll be ready," said an off-duty paramilitary guard in the camp that was bombed in March. Since then, the survivors have dug a trench around their tents and piled earth into a perimeter wall. On one side are wreaths from well-wishers, and a hand-lettered sign that says, "Resist or Die."

U.S. Declares Public Health Emergency Over Swine Flu

Responding to what some health officials feared could be the leading edge of a global pandemic emerging from Mexico, American health officials declared a public health emergency on Sunday as 20 cases of swine flu were confirmed in this country, including eight in New York City.

Other nations imposed travel bans or made plans to quarantine air travelers as confirmed cases also appeared in Mexico and Canada and suspect cases emerged elsewhere.

Top global flu experts struggled to predict how dangerous the new A (H1N1) swine flu strain would be as it became clear that they had too little information about Mexico’s outbreak — in particular how many cases had occurred in what is thought to be a month before the outbreak was detected, and whether the virus was mutating to be more lethal, or less.

“We’re in a period in which the picture is evolving,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, deputy director general of the World Health Organization. “We need to know the extent to which it causes mild and serious infections.”

Without that knowledge — which is unlikely to emerge soon because only two laboratories, in Atlanta and Winnipeg, Canada, can confirm a case — his agency’s panel of experts was unwilling to raise the global pandemic alert level, even though it officially saw the outbreak as a public health emergency and opened its emergency response center.

American investigators said they expected more cases here, but noted that virtually all so far had been mild and urged Americans not to panic.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, at a Washington news conference, called the emergency declaration “standard operating procedure,” and said she would rather call it a “declaration of emergency preparedness.”

“It’s like declaring one for a hurricane,” she said. “It means we can release funds and take other measures. The hurricane may not actually hit.”

The speed and the scope of the world’s response showed the value of preparations made because of the avian flu and SARS scares, public health experts said.

The emergency declaration lets the government free more money for antiviral drugs and give some previously unapproved tests and drugs to children. One-quarter of the national stockpile of 50 million courses of antiflu drugs will be released.

Border patrols and airport security officers are to begin asking travelers if they have had the flu or a fever; those who appear ill will be stopped, taken aside and given masks while they arrange for medical care.

“This is moving fast and we expect to see more cases,” Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at the news conference with Ms. Napolitano. “But we view this as a marathon.”

He advised Americans to wash their hands frequently, to cover coughs and sneezes and to stay home if they felt ill; but he stopped short of advice now given in Mexico to wear masks and not kiss or touch anyone. He praised decisions to close individual schools in New York and Texas but did not call for more widespread closings.

Besides the eight cases in New York, officials said they had confirmed seven in California, two in Kansas, two in Texas and one in Ohio. The virus looked identical to the one in Mexico believed to have killed at least 86 people and sickened 1,400. As of Sunday night, there had been no deaths from swine flu in the United States, and one hospitalization.

Other governments tried to contain the infection amid reports of potential new cases from New Zealand to Hong Kong to Spain.

Dr. Fukuda of the W.H.O. said his agency would put off until Tuesday a decision on whether to raise the pandemic alert level to 4. Such a move would prompt more travel bans, and the agency has been reluctant historically to take actions that hurt member nations.

Canada also confirmed six cases, at opposite ends of the country: four in Nova Scotia and two in British Columbia. Canadian health officials said the victims had only mild symptoms and had either recently traveled to Mexico or been in contact with someone who had.

Other governments issued advisories urging citizens not to visit Mexico. China, Japan, Hong Kong and others set up quarantines for anyone possibly infected. Russia and other countries banned pork imports from Mexico, though people cannot get the flu from eating pork.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control confirmed that eight students at St. Francis Preparatory School in Fresh Meadows, Queens, had been infected with the new swine flu. At a news conference on Sunday, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said that all those cases had been mild and that city hospitals had not seen a surge in severe lung infections.

On the streets, people seemed relatively unconcerned, in sharp contrast to television pictures from Mexico City, where soldiers handed out masks.

Hong Kong, shaped by lasting scars as an epicenter of the SARS outbreak, announced very tough measures. Officials there urged travelers to avoid Mexico and ordered the immediate detention of anyone arriving with a fever higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit after traveling through any city with a confirmed outbreak, which would include New York. Everyone stopped will be sent to a hospital for a flu test and held until it is negative. Since Hong Kong has Asia’s busiest airport hub, the policy could severely disrupt international travel.

The central question is how many mild cases Mexico has had, Dr. Martin S. Cetron, director of global migration and quarantine for the Centers for Disease Control, said in an interview.

“We may just be looking at the tip of the iceberg, which would give you a skewed initial estimate of the case fatality rate,” he said, meaning that there might have been tens of thousands of mild infections around the 1,300 cases of serious disease and 80 or more deaths. If that is true, as the flu spreads, it would not be surprising if most cases were mild.

Even in 1918, according to the C.D.C., the virus infected at least 500 million of the world’s 1.5 billion people to kill 50 million. Many would have been saved if antiflu drugs, antibiotics and mechanical ventilators had existed.

Another hypothesis, Dr. Cetron said, is that some other factor in Mexico increased lethality, like co-infection with another microbe or an unwittingly dangerous treatment.

Flu experts would also like to know whether current flu shots give any protection because it will be months before a new vaccine can be made.

There is an H1N1 human strain in this year’s shot, and all H1N1 flus are descendants of the 1918 pandemic strain. But flus pick up many mutations, and there will be no proof of protection until the C.D.C. can test stored blood serum containing flu shot antibodies against the new virus. Those tests are under way, said an expert who sent the C.D.C. his blood samples.

Reporting was contributed by Sheryl Gay Stolberg from Washington, Jack Healy from New York, Keith Bradsher from Hong Kong and Ian Austen from Ottawa.

Pakistan kills at least 30 militants

Armed helicopters attack positions in the Lower Dir district. Peace pact with the Taliban may be jeopardized by the action, which suggests a tougher line by the Pakistani government. Pakistan launched a military operation against militants today in a district that has been covered under a controversial peace deal concluded with the Taliban, suggesting a tougher line by the government -- at least temporarily.

The military said at least 30 militants were killed, including a commander of the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban, a Pakistan umbrella group of extremists, as armed helicopters attacked their positions in the Lower Dir district.

The military action in the Lower Dir region could jeopardize the peace pact, under which the Taliban has been allowed to enforce Sharia, or Islamic law, giving it de facto authority in the Swat Valley and nearby areas.

The United States, some Pakistani lawmakers and analysts have criticized the deal, arguing that it could embolden the extremists rather than leading to genuine peace. Some of those fears appeared justified when Taliban fighters moved into the Buner district abutting Swat in recent weeks, hoping to extend their influence.

Government warnings caused the groups to retreat to Swat late last week, although militants were still on the streets when a reporter visited Saturday. Residents said they were local Taliban members.

Sunday's action may have been intended to send a signal to the Taliban. The attack was carried out in the hometown of Maulana Sufi Mohammed, an influential cleric who brokered the deal between the government and the Taliban in Swat.

Also Sunday, the remains of Polish geologist Piotr Stanczak, who was taken hostage and apparently beheaded by Taliban militants, were delivered in a casket to a paramilitary camp, Pakistani officials said.

Stanczak had been kidnapped on Sept. 28. A video released this year showed his apparent beheading, which Polish officials said they believed was authentic. His body will be handed over to Polish authorities. Despite the new military action, government officials said the peace deal remained intact. Under the agreement, Taliban militants were supposed to disarm, although by many indications this has not happened.

A statement by the military today said the Lal Qila area in Lower Dir district was fully secured after the successful operation by the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary unit.

In Islamabad, top Interior Ministry official Rehman Malik warned militants not to challenge government authority.

"Militants have no option but to lay down their arms because the government is serious about flushing them out," he told local television reporters. "Enough is enough."

Analysts said today's operation suggested that the government was now more willing to challenge the militants, although the effects of its actions might be short-lived.

The operation probably won't succeed militarily unless the government sends in significant numbers of infantry, said Tariq Rahman, a professor at Quaid-i-Azam University. And politically, he said, any gains could be temporary because Pakistani society is deeply divided on the topic of fighting Islamic militants.

"Unfortunately, in Pakistani society, there's a view that anyone who uses the name of Islam must be right," Rahman said. "If you start to see a lot of Taliban get killed, you will probably see more criticism against the army."

Today's operation, which took place in an area close to Afghanistan and the Swat Valley, a one-time tourist area, was somewhat unexpected, given that the government has in recent months appeared more interested in negotiating than confronting homegrown militants.

Television footage from the district showed helicopter gunships flying toward the mountains and soldiers guarding a road blocked with paramilitary trucks.

Malik denied that the government launched the military operation at the behest of the U.S. A military statement said the offensive in Lower Dir was carried out at the request of the provincial government and residents.