Sunday, March 20, 2011

Bahrain Rights Activist Claims He Was Detained, Beaten

The head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights says he was detained, beaten and questioned by security forces Sunday.

Nabeel Rajab said he was blindfolded, handcuffed and placed in the back of a car. He says he was beaten and threatened before he was released several hours later. He said state security forces also confiscated computers, CDs and mobile phones.

The human rights activist and his center have spoken out about Bahraini authorities' crackdown on anti-government protesters.

At least five people were killed Wednesday when security forces swept through Pearl Square in the capital, Manama. The square has been a rallying point for the thousands of mostly Shi'ite demonstrators who are demanding reforms from the minority Sunni government.

The government declared a three-month state of emergency this week to try to end the protests. Authorities also arrested at least six opposition leaders on charges that include communicating with foreign countries.

Gadhafi's compound damaged

Air strikes in Libya raise concern in U.S. on cost

President Barack Obama's decision to join Western intervention in Libya is raising concerns in the United States about the cost and duration of the military operation.

Even if the U.S. role in Libya remains limited, as Obama has promised, the effort will add to record-high debt and deficits that have led to a budget standoff between Republicans and Obama's Democrats.

"It's a strange time in which almost all of our congressional days are spent talking about budget, deficits, outrageous problems and yet at the same time all of this passes," said Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Lugar, a senior lawmaker who has been in sync with Obama on many foreign affairs issues, told CBS's "Face the Nation" program that he understood the mission was to stop the "cruelties and the murder" of civilians in Libya.

But he said he worried that the Libya intervention could draw the United States more deeply into the unrest in the Middle East than the Obama administration intends.

The Libyan intervention marks a third military operation in a Muslim country, with the U.S. armed services' resources already stretched thin by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Until last week, Obama himself had been reluctant to support calls by France and Britain for a no-fly zone over Libya because of concerns about its effectiveness and wariness over where it might lead.

His decision resolved a debate within his administration about whether to intervene, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates among the chief skeptics and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton coming around to backing intervention after she initially had been hesitant, too.

With troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is now fighting three conflicts while struggling under a huge budget deficit and national debt. The Pentagon also has plans to cut $78 billion in defense spending over five years.

A protracted conflict in Libya adds to the Defense Department's budget worries.

"Just the missiles cost $1 million each. So that's, what, $112 million in the first hour?" said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.

"We have just spent months debating how many billions we're going to cut from various domestic programs. That is the focus in Washington. It does seem incongruous to a certain degree," he said.


The United States has still not fully recovered from recession and unemployment is near 9 percent, putting Obama's chances of re-election in 2012 at risk.

"We need help here with crime, violence, education. Jobs are scarce, we've got so many homeless people here. Can you help us before we help others?" said Maria Garcia, 52, a real estate agent in Los Angeles.The upheaval in the Middle East has added to the risks to the U.S. economy by causing global oil prices to surge.

Concerns over a budget deficit that is projected to hit $1.65 trillion this year have dominated the U.S. political debate in recent months, with Republicans and Democrats sparring over deep cuts in domestic programs the conservative party is seeking.

The budget fight has raised the possibility of a government shutdown and has forced the Congress to pass a series of temporary spending bills to fund operations for this year.

Congress would need to approve any funds for U.S. action in Libya.

Senior Republicans urged Obama on Sunday to do more to communicate to the American public what his aims are in Libya.

"The president is the commander-in-chief, but the administration has a responsibility to define for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is, better explain what America's role is in achieving that mission, and make clear how it will be accomplished," House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said.

Some lawmakers said they were reassured by the narrow scope of the U.S. intervention.

"The goal of this mission is not to get rid of Gaddafi and that is not what the U.N. licensed and I would not call it going to war," said John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman.

"This is a very limited operation that is geared to save lives and it was specifically targeted on a humanitarian basis," Kerry, a close Obama ally, told NBC's "Meet the Press."

Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said there was "strong bipartisan support in Congress for going into Libya" because it was limited.

Russia calls for end to Libya invasion

The Russian government has called on the Western military alliance in Libya to stop the attacks, since they resulted in civilians casualties almost immediately after invasion.

The Russian foreign ministry called on the United States, Britain and France on Sunday to stop air strikes against non-military targets in Libya.

"In that respect we call on countries involved to stop the non-selective use of force," Foreign Ministry's spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement.

Libyan state television announced that 48 people were killed and 150 were wounded in the strikes, including civilians.

China and the African union have also condemned the military action.

Moreover, Americans have taken to the streets in their thousands to protest against US military intervention in Libya.

They also rallied against the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Press TV correspondent reported from Los Angeles.

The developments come as US and European forces have unleashed airstrikes and cruise missile attacks against forces loyal to embattled Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

Nineteen US planes, including three B2 stealth bombers, took part in a dawn raid.

Scores of people, many of them civilians, were killed in the attacks.

However, top US military commander, Michael Mullen, has described the first stage of the war as successful.

The action follows a Thursday UN Security Council resolution which endorsed intervention in Libya.

Canada is also sending warplanes to the region, while Italy has offered the use of its military bases.

Gaddafi has promised retaliation, saying he will open arms depots to people to fight the allied forces.

"We promise you a long, drawn-out war with no limits," Gaddafi said on state TV on Sunday morning.

It is the biggest Western military intervention in the Arab world since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Raymond Davis case: Slain men’s families secretly flown to UAE

Family members of the two men shot dead by CIA contractor Raymond Davis have secretly been flown out of the country, The Express Tribune has learnt.
A chartered plane carrying 18 family members of Faizan Haider and Faheem Shamshad, the two men killed by Davis, left the Chaklala air base on Friday at 4:30 pm for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), sources said.
The plane landed at the Dubai airport from where the 18 people proceeded to Abu Dhabi where two houses have been rented for them. Four American Green Cards and two residences in the US have also been arranged for the two families.
Interestingly, husbands of the seven sisters of the two victims have also disappeared along with their children, the sources said. They have been shifted to undisclosed location for their safety.
They will soon be shifted to Abu Dhabi to be reunited with other members of their respective families. They include Muhammad Afzal and Ramzan, spouses of Faheem’s sisters Nazia and Mumtaz, and Amir Hashmi, Malik Khurram, Rasheed Chohan, Ayub and Imran, husbands of Faizan’s sisters Mumtaz, Nazia, Aasia, Zille Huma, Shazia and Saima.
Davis was acquitted by a court on Wednesday after the two families agreed to execute a ‘blood money’ deal to pardon him.
Court documents show discrepancies in the amount of money given to the legal heirs of the two slain men. It has also been learnt that the heirs of the two deceased men had no idea about the blood money deal, even hours before the deal was struck on Friday.
The documents, copies of which are available with The Express Tribune, do not mention how the money was paid.
Interestingly, three payment receipts, written on plain paper without any official attestation, were presented in the court on Friday. The heirs of Faizan and Faheem were made to sign these receipts in the Kot Lakhpat jail minutes before the hearing.
The amount of money given to each heir of Faheem’s family was handwritten to show that overall Rs100 million in blood money was paid to the family. A similar one-page document was used to show the amount paid to members of Faizan’s family.
Legal experts believe that because the documents are in Urdu language, they must have been drafted by Pakistani authorities in a bid to allow members of both the families to accept the deal without consulting any outside legal expert in order to keep Davis’ release a secret.
The sources said that US Consul-General Carmela Conroy, Consular Officer Jasson Rieff and Officer of Foreign Litigation Paul Harrep, struck the blood money deal, which was brokered by functionaries of a Pakistani intelligence agency and the Punjab government.
They added that the families of the two victims were taken into ‘protective custody’ on March 14 at the start of negotiations for the blood money deal and remained in custody until Friday when they boarded a chartered plane at the Chaklala air base.
According to documents presented in the court, Faheem’s father Shamshad Ali received Rs11.11 million as blood money, Halima Begum (mother) got Rs33.33 million, Muhammad Saleem, Muhammad Waseem, Muhammad Jamshaid and Muhammad Akram (brothers) got Rs11.11 million each, while Nazia Afzal and Mumtaz (sisters) received Rs5.55 million.
Similarly, Faizan’s mother Perveen Akhtar got Rs33.33 million, his widow Zehra got Rs25 million, while Imran, Usman and Salman (brothers) received Rs7.5 million each, and his sisters got Rs3.78 million each.
According to the deal, four persons from the two families would first go to the US after completing visa formalities. Later, other family members would be considered for permanent residence in the US, the sources said.
Earlier arrangements had been made for the two families in Pakistan, so that they could complete the necessary paperwork. The situation, however, changed when Iqbal Jaffery, a senior lawyer, requested the court to summon the legal heirs of Faizan and Faheem. It was then that the authorities decided to send both the families to the UAE.

Karzai invites Pak PM to Afghanistan

President Hamid Karzai today invited Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to visit Afghanistan in the "immediate future" for consultations.

Karzai conveyed the invitation when he telephoned Gilani this evening, said a statememt issued by the Prime Minister''s office.

Gilani accepted the invitation and said mutually convenient dates for a visit in the near future would be worked out by the Foreign Ministries of the two countries.

Gilani said he would look forward to the visit and he "was certain that it would provide another useful opportunity for consultations on the whole gamut of bilateral relations for further strengthening cooperation in diverse fields".

Child labour at alarming stage in Pakistan

Daily Times

KARACHI: Ironically, there is no separate policy to ban child labour in the country according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) while growing inflation is compelling people to send their children to work which is clear usurpation of their due rights besides destruction of their personality.

President Initiator Human Development Foundation (IHDF) Rana Asif Habib said this while talking to Daily Times on Sunday.

He said being a poor country Pakistan is indebted to the international financial institutions and to pay the loans and interest, the government is compelled to increase the prices of utilities and indirect taxation is imposed on masses, which results in increasing child labour. Different natural disasters like earthquake of 2005 and the flood of 2010 further escalated child labour in the country. The traditional labour in the agricultural sector also exploits children and makes the situation worse, he added.

Whereas, there are significant child labour legislations in Pakistan including the employment of children Act 1991 in which a child’s age is still a question mark, he said.

IHDF President said child labour has been included in labour, education and the child right policies as well as the national planning action of children rights. The Ministry of Labour and Manpower and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have done lots of work to tackle the problem of child labour with the likes of Decent Work Country Programme (DWCP) addressing the issues, policies and programme levels, but population growth, increasing poverty, low tax to GDP ratio, consumer economy, vested interests, feudalism, hypocrisy, nepotism and intellectual corruption are the stubborn resistance to change the state of children in Pakistan.

According to the recent study conducted by Habib which aimed to critically evaluate the effectiveness of child labour policies from 1947 to 2010, an attempt has been made to point out the major socio-economic factors responsible for making the policies ineffective and to attract the attention of the policy makers, planners, legislators and child labour experts to overcome the complex and multi-dimensional problem of child labour.

Another aim is to analyse the status of reflection of policies in national laws and program level impact of government interventions.

The methodology is to review constitution and laws and their implementation mechanism with respect to child labour issue and international conventions relating to child labour and their obligations.

“I also analysed the labour policies, children’s rights and plan of action in special reference to child labour”, Habib said.

He maintained that Pakistan has an agriculture-based economy with colonial background and less industrialisation. Fifty-four percent of the total population was living below the poverty line. In the population paradigm 73 million were children (under 18 years of age) who were skilled as well. However this massive flood of talent has no channel to run in smooth flow. If this human capital is invested and utilised through institutions, the outcome will be a healthy society.

Otherwise the same can be the reason of destruction for the whole country as these children involve themselves in street crimes, suicide bombings and drug peddling, he said.

He informed that no comprehensive work on the extent of child labour in Pakistan has been conducted since 1996, making it difficult to assist the severity of the issue and address the problem appropriately.

“According to a 1996 study by the ILO 3.3 million children are the victims of child labour in the formal sector in Pakistan. There are insufficient programmes to identify and protect victims of forced labour, particularly bounded labour, child labour in the informal sector such as domestic work, rug picking, and children in commercial sex.”

At the time of independence, Pakistan adopted some hereditary laws also which include Contract Act of 1872, Pakistan Penal Code (1860) Children Employment Act (1938) and Shop and Establishment Act etc. In the first five-year plan only Pakistan realised that its population would be a bigger threat to its economy. Measures were taken, however, due to the political turmoil, instability in the country and inconsistent policies made the situation worse.

He said since inception, Pakistan has had several wars with its neighbour country (India). Due to its Geographical setting and political reasons, a huge amount is allocated for defence.

When Pakistan faced the barriers in the international trade in nineties, then only the issue became a topic of discussion for the concerned authorities.

“According to the Section 2 of Employment of Children Act (ECA) 1991, a ‘child’ is any person under the age of fourteen years. Section 3 bans employment of children under-14 in jobs connected to transport by railways, cinder picking, cleaning of an ash pit or building operations in railway premises, catering at a railway station or on a train, construction of a railway station, working close to or between railway lines, working in a port area, and manufacture or sale of fireworks.

“The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992 clearly defines different terms such as peshgi (or advance), bonded debt, bonded labour, bonded labourer, bonded labour system, family, and nominal wages. According to this act any form of bonded labour is against peshgi. The Act abolishes the bonded labour system with immediate effect.

“The Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance (promulgated in October 2002) is applicable to all those who are 18 years or less. Exploitative entertainments, according to this law are all activities in connection with human sports or sexual practices, and related abusive practices.

Habib said other then the ordinances listed above Pakistan is a signatory to different international laws which include ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (No 182); ILO Forced Labour Convention (No 29); ILO Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (No 105); and UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Though Pakistan is signatory to UN convention for the rights of child which says every person under 18 years of age is a child, whereas, the employment of children act (ECA), 1991 prohibits only children under 14 years of age from working in factories and hazardous employment, he pointed out.

Though there is an act for bonded labour, its implementation has been a problem since its existence. The utilisation of funds has not been without problems. The Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance (promulgated in October 2002) does not save children from being victims of the law. Trafficked children are arrested and detained as illegal aliens, rather than being recognised as victims. The prosecutions of criminals need to be complemented with legislation that focuses on protecting children in custody, have access to rather families and other support services.

In 2009 the policy makers from, the ministry of labour and manpower outlined a new law, the Employment and Services Conditions Bill 2009. This proposed law aims to consolidate all labour legislation under new law by completely cancelling 11 existing laws and partly cancelling two laws. Exclusive laws dealing with child labour i.e. Employment of Children Act 1991 and Employment of Children (pledging of labour) Act 1933 stand to be repealed once the proposed law is propagated.

With the active support of ILO, Pakistan has developed a DWCP and the Ministry of Labour, Employer Federation of Pakistan, Pakistan Worker Federation has expressed commitment to implement it. The DWCP addresses the issue of child labour both at policy and programme level.

Two district coordination committees on child labour have been established for the district of Sukkur and Sahiwal, he informed.

Habib said a lot has been done regarding policies, laws, capacity building, and awareness, however, there is need to have a comprehensive child labour program from all sectors for example domestic child work, rug picking, bounded labour and child trafficking.

Fresh explosions rock Libyan capital

US says operation "effective" in degrading Gaddafi air defences as international forces launch second night of attacks.Loud explosions have rocked the Libyan capital, Tripoli, a day after international forces launched an operation to enforce a no-fly zone over the North African country.

Anti-aircraft tracer fire erupted in Tripoli late on Sunday, indicating a second wave of incoming jets aimed at targets belonging to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Britain's ministry of defence said one of its submarines had again fired guided Tomahawk missiles on Libyan air defence systems on Sunday.

Gunfire could also be heard from the area around Gaddafi's residence in the Bab el-Aziziya barracks in the south of Tripoli, with reports of separate explosions coming from the same area.

Al Jazeera's Anita McNaught, reporting from the capital, said it was not immediately clear where the explosions had occurred as journalists were not allowed to visit the sites targeted.

"The principle firing happened around nine o'clock in the evening local time and that's when we believe there was a strike in the region of Gaddafi's compound," she said.

"We saw a large plume of smoke coming from an explosion somewhere in that general direction. It is likely there were plenty of useful military targets there if you were a major international force looking to persuade Gaddafi to make peaceful noises."

The blasts came two days after the United Nations Security Council authorised international military action to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, as well as "all necessary measures" to prevent attacks by Gaddafi forces on civilians.

'Gaddafi not a target'

The US military said the bombardment so far has succeeded in degrading Gaddafi's air defences.
But a Pentagon spokesman stressed in a press briefing on Sunday that the Libyan leader is not a target for the international military assault on the country.

However, Navy Vice Admiral William E Gortney added that any of Gaddafi's ground troops advancing on pro-democracy forces are open targets for US and allied attacks.

"If they are moving on opposition forces ... yes, we will take them under attack," he told reporters.

"There has been no new air activity by the regime and we have detected no radar emissions from any of the air defence sites targeted and there's been a significant decrease in in the use of all Libyan air surveillance radars."

Gortney said the coalition acting against Gaddafi, which originally grouped the US, Britain, France, Italy and Canada, had broadened to include Belgium and Qatar.

Army announces ceasefire

His comments came shortly after the Libyan military announced its second ceasefire since the UN resolution authorising the no-fly zone was passed.

But the White House has said it will not recognise a ceasefire declaration.

"Our view at this that it isn't true, or has been immediately violated," White House National Security
Adviser Tom Donilon told reporters on Sunday.

Despite the strikes, the Libyan leader has vowed to fight on and in a televised address, a defiant Gaddafi promised a "long war" that his forces would win.

"We will fight for every square in our land," Gaddafi said. "We will die as martyrs."

He said the air attacks by foreign forces amounted to a "cold war" on Islam and threatened retribution against Libyans who sided with the foreign intervention.

"We will fight and we will target any traitor who is co-operating with the Americans or with the Christian Crusade," he said.

Conflicting casualty claims

The comments came as Tripoli's official media said the air strikes were targeting civilian objectives and that there were "civilians casualties as a result of this aggression".

However, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, denied that any civilians had been killed in the bombardment, which saw some 110 cruise missiles being shot from American naval vessels in the Mediterranean sea.

Gaddafi "was attacking Benghazi and we are there to stop that ... we are ending his ability to attack us from the ground, so he will not continue to execute his own people," Mullen said.

"It was a significant point when the Arab League voted against this guy. This is a colleague [of theirs], and we've had a significant number of coalition countries who've come together to provide capability."

But Arab League chief Amr Moussa on Sunday condemned what he called the "bombardment of civilians" and called for an emergency meeting of the group of 22 states to discuss Libya.

He requested a report into the bombardment, which he said had "led to the deaths and injuries of many Libyan civilians".

"What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians," Egypt's state news agency quoted Moussa as saying.

The Arab League had urged the UN to impose a no-fly zone on Libya and Arab support provided crucial underpinning for the passage of the UN Security Council resolution last week that enabled Western powers to take military action.

Edward Djerejian, a former US assistant secretary of state and former US ambassador to Syria, said it had been made very clear that a no-fly zone could not be established without taking military action against airfields and anti-aircraft installations.

"A no-fly zone is not just a computer model game," he told Al Jazeera.

"It means military action and that was clear to all parties, including the Arab League."

Libya declares new immediate ceasefire

Libya declared a fresh ceasefire Sunday after a day of bombardment from Western forces seeking to protect civilians from government troops.

"The Libyan armed forces ... have issued a command to all military units to safeguard an immediate ceasefire from 9 p.m. (1900 GMT) this evening," a Libyan army spokesman said, according to an official interpreter.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has been using tanks and artillery to try to crush an uprising against his four-decade rule.

Minutes before the army spokesman made the announcement, heavy anti-aircraft gunfire boomed above central Tripoli, followed by sustained machinegun fire.

Earlier in the day, residents of Misrata, east of Tripoli, said government tanks and snipers had entered the center of the city after a military base on the outskirts was hit by Western strikes.

The Libyan government in Tripoli had already announced a unilateral ceasefire last week, but Western powers then accused Gaddafi of breaking the truce -- a charge denied by the government.

The latest announcement appeared to contradict a defiant speech by Gaddafi earlier in the day in which he said he was giving out weapons to his people to help defend Libya against Western forces. He also said Libya was ready to fight a long war to defeat its enemies.

Mohamed Sharif, a tribal official, delivered a statement in the name of the government inviting people to join a symbolic procession, "using all means of transport," from Tripoli to the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi, to open reconciliation talks.

"... we could sit down as one family to discuss the affairs of our homeland and the future of Libya in a democratic and peaceful way," he told reporters.

Yemenis remember revolution 'martyrs'

Tens of thousands of Yemenis gather in the capital to mourn the “martyrdom” of tens of people during a ferocious crackdown on recent anti-government protests.On Sunday, the crowd swarmed the square near the Sana'a University, commemorating the 30 people, who died along with 22 others on Friday in an attack by the military's snipers, AFP reported. “These people must be held responsible for every drop of blood that has been shed,” said Ali Abed Rabbo al-Qadi, the head of the independent parliamentary bloc, who had joined the mourners. The gathering defied a state of emergency enforced by the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The protests have been raging on since January, calling for an end to the 32-year-long rule of Saleh.Since the beginning of the popular revolution, scores of people have been killed and hundreds more wounded during the armed attacks by the loyalists to the Saleh regime.
The opposition has accused Saleh of committing crimes against humanity and the government-sanctioned violence has prompted condemnation from the United Nations. The country's influential Muslim clergymen have released a statement, calling on the Army and the security forces “to not carry out any order from anyone to kill and repress” the demonstrators. Despite the countrywide rallies, the head of state has said he would remain in power until the end of his term in 2013. His tribe and several senior religious leaders have joined the protesters' camp, calling for his removal.
Prominent members of the president's ruling General People Congress party, including the human rights minister and the country's ambassadors to Lebanon and the UN, have resigned in protest at the deadly attacks.

Obama woos Brazil while Libya air assault unfolds

President Barack Obama heaped praise on Brazil's rise as a democratic, global power on Sunday as he courted Latin America on a trip overshadowed by a U.S. and European air assault on Muammar Gaddafi's forces in Libya.

On the second day of what aides call his signature first-term trip to the region, Obama viewed Rio de Janeiro's famed beaches and mountains from his helicopter and played soccer with slum kids in a display of cultural affinity.

In a speech at a historic theater broadcast live on television, he said Brazil had emerged from decades of underperformance to become a powerful economy and a flourishing democracy that had many shared values with the United States.

An old joke that Brazil would always be a "country of the future" because of its unfulfilled potential no longer held true, he said.

"For the people of Brazil, the future has arrived," he said to warm applause from hundreds of invited guests at Rio's Municipal Theater.

Obama, who is seeking improved relations with Brazil after a period marked by tensions and neglect, focused heavily on the two countries' shared culture and history, including their fights against colonial powers and their multicultural people.

"We became colonies claimed for distant crowns, but soon declared our independence. We welcomed waves of immigrants to our shores, and eventually cleansed the stain of slavery from our land," he said.

Obama's attention was divided by the biggest military intervention in the Arab world since the Iraq invasion.

The military campaign against Gaddafi's forces that was launched on Saturday intruded on Obama's schedule of diplomacy and business promotion in both Rio and the capital Brasilia, the first leg of his trip.

The White House has justified Obama's five-day Latin American tour in large part for its potential dividends of boosting U.S. exports to help create American jobs, also considered crucial to his 2012 re-election chances.

His talks on Saturday with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff focused heavily on bolstering economic ties with Latin America's powerhouse, though little progress was made on key disputes such as trade barriers.

Conservative critics may seize the opportunity to chide Obama for being away from Washington -- and in a city renowned for its pristine beaches -- at a time when he is putting U.S. forces in harm's way. Republican foes have accused him of a failure of leadership in a string of international crises.

But in keeping with his "no-drama Obama" image, the White House wants to avoid any sense the U.S. president is being held hostage by events or unable to tend to other crucial business.

Obama was huddling with top aides in Brazil as the military operations in Libya unfolded.

Bahrain-Saudi deal exposed

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have reportedly struck a secret deal, which would compel each side to protect the other's political interests.

The deal was signed during Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's visit to Saudi Arabia last month, the Iraqi news website, Nahrain-Net reported. Based on the accord, the Bahraini monarch should confer with Saudi King Abdullah on political, military and security affairs as well as issues related to Manama's foreign policy.
It also allows Riyadh to set up autonomous and permanent military bases in Bahrain.
The deal enabled Saudi Arabia's recent invasion of Bahrain in support of Manama's suppression of the popular revolution, the website said.
Demonstrators in the Shia-majority Bahrain have been demanding the ouster of the Sunni-led Al Khalifa monarchy as well as constitutional reforms since February 14. More than a dozen people have been killed and about 1,000 injured since the start of the anti-government protests. violence has intensified against the demonstrators ever since the deployment of Saudi forces, which have started operating in the country alongside servicemen from the United Arab Emirates.
The deal allows Saudis to control Bahrain's intelligence and carry out any measure to change Bahrain's demographics.

Thousands of Bahrainis protested earlier in the month against what they denounced as Manama's naturalization policy, through which it attempts to change the country's demographic map.

"All those who are naturalized will be pro-government, and those in the police and army will follow their orders even if they are against the Bahraini people," said a protester.

Riyadh has to keep its side of the bargain by helping Al Khalifa to continue ruling Bahrain.

Thousands have turned out in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia in recent days to protest the Saudi invasion.

Resetting on the Libyan Front

Russia’s vote Thursday in the United Nations Security Council on Libya Resolution 1973 is more evidence of the changing nature of Moscow’s foreign policy. The trend toward an improved relationship with the United States that has been evident since 2009 has reached a new level. In a nutshell, the Kremlin has dropped its former policy of vetoing anything in the UN Security Council that it doesn’t like. Instead, it appears to be focusing on its truly vital interests only. And Libya, today, is not among them.

This change is another step away from the Kremlin’s inflated self-image as a guardian of the global order — a role that hasn’t fit Russia ever since the Soviet collapse in 1991. Although Moscow couldn’t prevent NATO’s air war against Serbia or the U.S. invasion of Iraq, its UN veto sent a clear message to the West that it opposed unsanctioned military aggression against sovereign states. As a result, in 1999 and 2003 Russia’s relations with NATO and the United States were at record low points.

The image of NATO coalition forces waging their first-ever war in Europe or of former President George W. Bush sending thousands of U.S. troops into Iraq was terrifying and outrageous for most Russians. But not so with Libya. Leader Moammar Gadhafi may have been useful to Moscow in the past, but he was also notoriously mercurial. Moscow did not have much to lose in Libya except for a couple billion dollars’ worth of potential arms contracts that would clearly have been annulled anyway once the Gadhafi regime was replaced.

Even more important, Moscow sees U.S. President Barack Obama differently from both Bush and former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Obama is someone the Kremlin can do business with. He is neither patronizing nor irritating. He doesn’t try to remake Russia in the West’s own image or to encircle it with pro-U.S. client states. Obama’s foreign policy focus is on the issues where there is a sufficient degree of overlap between Russian and U.S. interests — for example, Afghanistan.

For the first time since the early 1990s, Russia has something resembling a positive foreign policy agenda. This is largely driven by a compelling domestic need to develop technological modernization. For that effort to succeed, Moscow needs good relations with both the European Union and the United States. Russia’s leaders are in no mood to pick battles with those whom they are seeking to engage.

To be sure, this West-friendly course will not run unopposed. Russia’s anti-Americanism has its roots in the Cold War and even more so in the immediate post-Cold War period. In particular, there is a history of strong opposition to U.S.-led military actions, from Kosovo to Iraq. To the born-again cold warriors, President Dmitry Medvedev is far too accommodating to the West, and this was made clear long before Libya. There may be some opposition or at least disagreement with the Kremlin’s course, as the recent abrupt sacking of Russia’s ambassador to Libya seemingly suggests.

Yet, this course will likely continue. Russia is still wedded to realpolitik as its guide in foreign policy, but this is now becoming post-imperial. Moscow will still be able to speak its mind and say openly what it does not like. It will surely oppose military intervention on humanitarian grounds, but it will not stand in the West’s way. Put plainly, Moscow will mind its own business.

This is a clear departure from the stance Moscow took in 2008 on the sanctions against Zimbabwe, which the Kremlin effectively blocked. By contrast, where Russia has a more direct interest — for example, in Belarus — the Kremlin would reasonably expect its partners to tacitly recognize its interests and defer to Moscow.

What will happen next in Libya is difficult to predict. Wars can be tricky business. They tend to be messy and prolonged with a high likelihood of turning into a quagmire. It is well understood that the Libyan intervention is largely accidental, undertaken as much for humanitarian reasons as for domestic political exigencies of the intervening powers. It is also clear that Obama was highly reluctant to approve the use of force, but the alternative — high carnage at Benghazi while the United States sat idly and helplessly — would have been even worse, especially since Obama is only 20 months away from elections.

The Libya war, by itself, is unlikely to spoil U.S.-Russian relations. The stakes in Libya are minimal, while the stakes elsewhere in the relationship are high.

The critical question, however, is whether the United States will decide it has to intervene in Iran as well to help the Iranian people topple the country’s tyrannical theocracy. Seen from Moscow, Iran is certainly closer to home than Libya.

But if Washington and Moscow focus on their new post-reset agenda, which offers opportunities for developing a joint missile defense system in Europe and Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization, the basis for the relationship may expand and solidify.

China expresses regret for military strike against Libya

China's Foreign Ministry on Sunday expressed regret over the multinational military strike against Libya, saying that it did not agree with resorting to force in international relations.

"China has noticed the latest development in Libya and regrets the military strike against Libya," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.

China, as it always, does not agree with the use of force in international relations, Jiang said, when asked to comment on the strike carried out by multinational forces early Sunday.

China believes that the tenet and principles of the United Nations Charter and relevant international laws should be adhered to, and Libya's sovereignty, independence, unification and territory integrity should be respected, she said.

"We hope stability could be restored in Libya as soon as possible so as to avoid more civilian casualties caused by the escalation of military conflicts," she said.

Is a Revolution Starting Up in Syria?

Has the wave of popular revolts rocking the Arab world finally reached Syria, one of the region's most policed states, a country its young president boasted was "immune" from calls for freedom, democracy and accountable government? Or were the unprecedentedly large protests on Friday just a one-off?

Syria was always going to be a tough nut for pro-democracy activists to crack. It is a country where NGOs and political parties other than the ruling Baath have long been banned; and where dissent, however mild, is viciously crushed. The omnipresent secret police, who are much more visible these days, and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad they serve, have instilled a public fear so heavy, it's almost tangible.

But on Friday and Saturday something changed. Several thousand Syrians publicly gathered to cast off that yoke by calling for greater freedoms. The extraordinary protests took place across several cities; in Dara'a in the south, Banias, along the Mediterranean, in the capital Damascus at the renowned Umayyad Mosque, and in Homs — not to be confused with Hama, site of a merciless crackdown in the 1980s against the Muslim Brotherhood by Bashar's late father, former President Hafiz Assad. Tens of thousands of people were killed in that uprising, which still remains a potent reminder of the price of rising against the Assads.
It's unclear exactly how many people were killed on Friday in Dara'a after police opened fire on the crowd. Some media reports say six, others five. On Saturday, police in Dara'a reportedly fired tear gas at thousands of mourners taking part in a funeral procession for two protesters killed the day earlier, Wissam Ayyash and Mahmoud al-Jawabra. Mazen Darwish, a Syrian human rights activist just released after spending several days in custody, told the media that Dara'a has been cordoned. The police were letting people leave but not to return into the town.

Assad has moved quickly to tamp down unrest in Dara'a, according to Ayman Abdel Nour, a prominent Syrian dissident and former political prisoner who now edits from Dubai. The 45-year-old president has ordered the release of those detained in Friday's protests, and sent a high-ranking Baath delegation to offer his condolences. "Ten bodies were delivered to their parents," Abdel Nour told TIME. "It is the start of a Syrian revolution unless the regime acts wisely and does the needed reforms," he says. "It will continue in all cities, even small groups, but the brutality the regime will use — it will show its Gaddafi face, the one it has been trying to hide for the last 30 years after the Hama massacres," Abdel Nour says, referring to the Libyan leader, Moammar Gaddafi.
Facebook calls for Syrian "days of rage" in early February fizzled, despite the fact that the country, with its burgeoning youth population, faces many of the same socio-economic factors that helped precipitate uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Oman and other states. Still, a Facebook page entitled "The Syrian Revolution 2011" which has more than 56,000 fans, appears to be emerging as a key virtual rallying point for pro-democracy supporters. On Saturday it posted a 39-second video purportedly shot in Dara'a of a group of men gathered around a bloodied youth in a black t-shirt who appeared to be dead. A volley of gunshots is heard, scattering the crowd. There was no date on the video, nor any way to verify where the footage had been obtained. Syria recently lifted its ban on Facebook, although human rights activists worried that the measure had more to do with greater surveillance of activities on the site than it did with more freedom.
In a twist on a common slogan often heard to praise the president, protesters across the country chanted "God, Syria, freedom and nothing else!" instead of the usual "God, Syria, Bashar and nothing else!" Khaled al-Abboud, a member of parliament representing Dara'a, told Al Jazeera that it wasn't so much what the protesters said, but the mere fact that they were protesting, and blamed the unrest on "Islamists" and a "foreign agenda." "I don't think that we are against what was said, but against what some of these demonstrations might lead to," he told the Arabic satellite television station. "They are fulfilling foreign agendas, they don't represent the street, they want to manipulate the street."
Syria's official SANA news agency confirmed the violence in Dara'a and also blamed "acts of sabotage" for Friday's events there. "A number of instigators tried to create chaos and unrest damaging public and private properties and setting fire to cars and shops," it said, adding that the security forces stepped in "to protect citizens and their property." Blaming a hidden foreign hand and Islamists is vintage Assad. The barrier of fear Syrians must surmount is significant if they are to seriously take on the regime, but then again, as protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and even Libya have proven, so too are the opportunities.

`Enough!' the Arabs say, but will it be enough?

In this Nov. 17, 1973 file picture, army tanks prepare to drive through the gates of the student-occupied Polytechnic Institute in Athens. In 1974, Greece's military regime collapsed and democracy was restored. For almost 40 years, Freedom House think tank's New York researchers have annually assessed the state of democracy and associated freedoms, classifying nations in three categories — free, partly free or not free. Almost half the world's nations were rated not free in 1972, but by 2010 that proportion had dropped below one-quarter. (AP Photo/File)

The cry first rang out from the fed-up people of Lisbon and Madrid: "Basta!"
It echoed across South America, to the banging of pots and pans. It resounded in the old capitals of a new Asia, was taken up in a Polish shipyard, awakened a slumbering Africa. And now, a generation later, it's heard in the city squares of the Arab world: "Kifaya!"
From Morocco in the west to Yemen in the east, the sudden rising up of ordinary Arabs against their autocratic rulers looks like a belated postscript to the changes that swept the globe in the final decades of the last century — a period scholars dubbed the "third wave of democracy."
"Now we're witnessing the fourth wave of democracy," a smiling Oraib al-Rantawi, Jordanian political activist, assured a visitor to Amman. "We're lucky to live to see it."
You could see it one brilliant afternoon on Talal Street in this cream-colored city of minarets and hills, where more than 2,000 Jordanians marched along in a river of flags and protest signs, adding their voices to those in almost a dozen other Arab lands demanding greater freedoms, a bigger say in running their societies.
"The people across the region have risen and our leaders are still asleep," protest leader Sufian Tal told these unhappy subjects of Jordan's King Abdullah II.
"Enough is enough!"
In Amman and Cairo, in Sanaa and Benghazi, it's clear: They've had enough. But is the Arab world truly on the threshold of democracy? Why did it take so long? And why in our lifetimes did this idea of "one person, one vote" spread so swiftly over the globe?
Twenty-six floors up in a Wall Street office tower, near the spot where George Washington took the oath to lead a newborn American democracy, Arch Puddington and his Freedom House staff meticulously track the idea's planetary progress.
For almost 40 years, this think tank's New York researchers have annually assessed the state of democracy and associated freedoms, classifying nations in three categories — free, partly free or not free. The numbers tell a striking story: Almost half the world's nations were rated not free in 1972, but by last year that proportion had dropped below one-quarter.
"What impresses me is how it's exploded when you had centuries when democracies didn't exist at all, and for quite a few years were restricted to a few places," Puddington said.
Political scientists identify democracy's "first wave" as the revolutionary period of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the second as the post-World War II restoration of traditional democracies.
The third wave, they now see, began in the mid-1970s, when people in Portugal and Spain threw off decades of military dictatorship. That upheaval helped inspire their former Latin American colonies to topple their own authoritarians-in-uniform in the 1980s, when the rhythmic banging of cookware in the Santiago night signaled that Chileans, for one, were fed up.
The wave rolled on to east Asia, to the Philippines' "People Power" revolution, South Korea's embrace of civilian democracy, Taiwan's ending of one-party rule. Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down.
Eastern Europe's postcommunist transition, foreshadowed by Solidarity's rise in a Gdansk shipyard, delivered a dozen nations to Puddington's democratic column. The wave then reached sub-Saharan Africa, where the number of countries with multiparty electoral systems soared from a mere three in 1989 to 18 by 1995.
From about 40 democracies worldwide late in Spain's Franco dictatorship, the number stood at 123 by 2005. Despots by the dozen — the Duvaliers and Marcoses, Stroessners and Ceausescus — were abruptly consigned to a grim past.
Elections in some transformed states proved not always free and fair. Some failed to protect minorities against the "tyranny of the majority," the bane of mass rule. Some did little to better their impoverished people's everyday lives.
But, seemingly overnight, the world's political landscape had unmistakably shifted, to power for the people. What had happened?
A complex of factors is usually cited: the failed economic policies and military misadventures of the generals and strongmen; rising education, expanding middle classes, improved communications widening people's horizons; a liberalizing Catholic Church in Latin America; a well-financed push by the U.S. and the European Union to nurture more democracies through aid and political training programs.
Puddington sees another big driver: the fading of what many once viewed as a non-democratic alternative, the communist promise of economic development with social equality in a one-party state.
"In the '70s, looking back, the communist idea had exhausted itself as an economic force," he said.
When the third wave finally ebbed a decade ago, only Arab societies were left untouched, noted al-Rantawi, director of Amman's Al Quds Center for Political Studies.
"Sometimes we believed we were another kind of human," he said with a laugh. "Practically all the world had become democratic, except us."
Why? Again, a list of reasons is cited: poverty and illiteracy; a postcolonial period, including wars with Israel, that empowered local militaries; oil wealth enriching traditional sheiks and other authoritarians; the U.S. and other oil-importing powers favoring the predictability of friendly autocrats.
Now the shock of Tunis and Cairo, the removal of two seemingly immovable presidents, accompanied by explosions of protest elsewhere, seems to be leapfrogging those obstacles, propelled by the Internet and instant communication.
But where the fed-up Arab millions are headed in Egypt and Tunisia, and possibly soon in other lands, is the unanswered question of the moment.
"Democracy is not the certain outcome," said Vidar Helgesen, head of the Sweden-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a 27-nation consortium that aids political transitions.
"Mass protests can overthrow a dictatorship but cannot build democracy," Helgesen said. That requires overhauling constitutions, establishing free, fair elections, adopting laws guaranteeing political rights, freedom of expression, independent judiciaries.
The biggest uncertainties hang over the biggest Arab nation, the 80 million people of Egypt.
Will its military commanders, "interim" leaders now that President Hosni Mubarak is gone, fully surrender the control they have exercised directly or indirectly for almost 60 years? Can strong political parties emerge soon enough? Will the well-organized Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood dominate a new Egypt?
This prospect of Islamist ascendancy has long been another obstacle to Arab democracy.
Arab leaders, U.S. politicians, Israeli voices spoke nervously of "one man, one vote, one time" — imposition of undemocratic, puritanical Quranic rule if open elections put religious parties in power. It's a fear that led Algeria's military to suppress an incipient democracy there as Islamists neared election victory in 1992.
But other voices today insist political Islam doesn't endanger democracy. They point to the "Turkish model," where an elected Islamist party governs without remaking the secular, multiparty state.
"The majority of Muslims in the Middle East today believe there is no incompatibility between Islam and democracy," said Radwan Masmoudi, founder of the U.S.-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.
Mideast scholar Lisa Anderson agrees.
"There have been Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists in Europe for 100 years, and nobody thought that was going to capsize democracy," said Anderson, president of the American University in Cairo.
Elsewhere in Cairo, after group prayers in the Muslim Brotherhood's cramped offices beside the Nile, leading spokesman Mohammed Saad el-Katatney outlined plans for a new Freedom and Justice Party to contest elections expected as early as June. He clearly wanted to allay concerns about a takeover.
"We think it would be unsuitable to be opportunistic and seek a majority in Parliament," he told The Associated Press, saying his party instead intends to vie for only a limited number of parliamentary seats.
Ultimately, said this 58-year-old microbiologist, "our goal is to establish a civil state, not a religious state." But it would be a civil state "in reference to the principles of the laws of Islamic sharia" — something, he noted, already enshrined in Egypt's constitution.
In Cairo's central Tahrir Square, on the edge of a roaring throng of tens of thousands gathered for another Friday demonstration, two very different young women sounded unpersuaded by Brotherhood reassurances.
"Young people, a mixture of people, will dominate the democracy, not Islam," said jeans-clad teenager Amira Esam Shwihi. "We want to separate religion and politics."
Nearby, Samah Amer, 25, black Islamic garb covering all but her eyes, said the Muslim Brotherhood "doesn't represent all of Egypt. I want a changed political system, not turn it into an Islamic system."
Some say the change may occur in the Brotherhood itself.
Tariq Ramadan, grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brothers, sees a "generation gap, generational tension" in which younger members are pressing for acceptance of a Turkish model within the organization.
"Islamism is not a static ideology. People are moving forward," said Ramadan, an Islamic studies professor at Oxford University.
That's what liberal activist Abdallah Helmy said he found in the tumult of Egypt's winter revolution.
"In two weeks of camping in Tahrir Square, we exchanged ideas with young Muslim Brothers," said Helmy, 34. "And we found exactly the same point of view. They would accept having a Christian president, for example. They would accept men and women meeting together."
Ramadan cautioned Islamists and secularists alike, however, against expecting too much too soon. With the army's heavy hand on Egypt's transition, "I think it's going to be very difficult to have an achieved, complete democracy," he said.
It has seldom been easy. It took a civil war and more for Washington's America to evolve into today's democracy. And in just one example from Puddington's latest report, Freedom House downgrades Ukraine's democracy, once viewed as a postcommunist model, to "partly free" because of new authoritarian tendencies.
Stable democracies "will take a very long time in the Middle East," said Carl Gershman, head since 1984 of the non-governmental U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, whose $100 million in annual congressional appropriations help promote democracy worldwide.
"But now it's clear we're entering a new period for democracy," he said. "There's really no large competing idea."
And what of the biggest democracy vacuum of all, the one-party state of China, where a democracy movement was crushed, with hundreds killed, in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989?
"I don't think China will be able to avoid this trend," Gershman said. "It all amounts to a question of human dignity. And that's universal."

Egyptians say 'yes' to military's post-Mubarak plans

Egyptians voted 77% in favour of the military's plans for a swift return to civilian rule after mass protests ousted president Hosni Mubarak last month, official results showed Sunday.
More than 14 million Egyptians, or 77.2% of those who voted, approved the constitutional amendments intended to guide the Arab world's most populous nation through new presidential and parliamentary elections within six months, organising commission chairman Mohammed Attiya said.
Four million, or 22.8%, said "no", Attiya told a news conference.
A total of 41% or 18.5 million of the estimated 45 million eligible voters turned out on Saturday to seize their first taste of democracy, after 18 days of demonstrations ended Mubarak's 30 years of authoritarian rule, he added.
The turnout for Mubarak-era elections was always minuscule as none was genuinely competitive and in any case nobody had any faith their vote would count amid widespread vote-rigging and fraud.
The referendum on the limited changes to the constitution inherited from the Mubarak regime had been bitterly fought.
The youth groups which spearheaded the protest movement, and a host of secular political parties and opposition figures, called for a "no" vote, saying the timetable being set by the military was too tight for new movements to organise at grass-roots level.
But the changes were supported by the Muslim Brotherhood -- powerful and well-organised despite being outlawed under Mubarak -- and elements of his former ruling National Democratic Party.
The military council, which has ruled Egypt since Mubarak's resignation on Feburary 11, was also widely perceived to back the changes, although its members remained studiously non-partisan in all their official pronouncements.
The army's stock has been running high ever since it sided with the protesters against Mubarak.
The military council has been keen to hand over the reins of power as quickly as possible and keep the army above the political fray.
It gave a panel of experts just 10 days to draw up the amendments put to Saturday's referendum, which was held only five weeks after Mubarak's ouster.
The changes are by themselves uncontroversial, although critics argued they did not go nearly far enough in overhauling the Mubarak-era charter, which they said needed to be completely rewritten.
The president will serve a maximum of two four-year terms and will no longer have the power to refer civilians to the military courts.
The state of emergency which has governed Egyptian life for decades will be able to be imposed for just six months without endorsement in a popular referendum.
Restrictions on who can stand for president will be eased, if not entirely relaxed, and judicial supervision of all elections will be restored to prevent vote-rigging.
Leaders of the Coptic Christian minority, which makes up as much as 10 percent of Egypt's population, also urged a 'no' vote after no representative of the community was appointed to the panel of experts.
But for many ordinary Egyptians, the pace of change after decades of authoritarian rule has been extraordinary, and a step-by-step transition to democracy and renewed stability had great appeal.
"I am happy that this is the first time in my life that I am voting," said Sayed Mursi, 80, as he waited to cast his vote in Cairo's twin city of Giza, site of the famed Pyramids.
"I am going to vote 'yes' because it should be step by step. We need time to change Egypt."
On a visit to Cairo, senior US Senator John Kerry described as "very exciting" the unprecedented turnout for Saturday's vote.
"People voted for the first time in 30 years, not knowing what the outcome would be and I think it's a very good sign for the steps ahead, a very good sign," he said.
Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was speaking to reporters as he toured Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square, epicentre of the protests that ended Mubarak's rule.

Yemen president sacks government

Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh has fired the government, state media has reported.

Sunday's announcement from the state news agency comes after weeks of mass protests calling for political reform and Saleh's resignation.

Several ministers have resigned from the government after security forces killed at least 52 protesters on Friday.

Saleh has asked the cabinet to be a caretaker government until he forms a new one.

Saleh has been in power since 1978, and is facing one of the toughest challenges during his tenure.

Thousands in Morocco march for rights, end to graft

Thousands took to the streets in cities across Morocco on Sunday demanding better civil rights and an end to corruption in the moderate North African country where the king this month promised constitutional reform."Morocco should start drawing some serious lessons from what's happening around it," said Bouchta Moussaif, who was among at least two thousand people marching alongside the city's medieval walls in the capital Rabat.

Thousands joined protests in Morocco's main city, Casablanca, in Tangiers in the north, and in Agadir on the Atlantic coast where witness Hafsa Oubou said several thousands were marching.

A government official said at least as many were protesting as on February 20 when interior ministry estimates were 37,000.

Unrest has swept across North Africa since December, toppling regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, prompting international military intervention against Libya, and protests in Algeria.

"The king did not meet the demands made during the first nationwide protest, that's why we are here again. He promised to reform the constitution and we all know how far those promises have got us," Moussaif said.

Morocco's King Mohamed promised on March 9 to reform the judiciary, create a stronger role for parliament and political parties and boost the authority of local officials, and appointed a committee to work with political parties, trade unions and civil society groups to draw up proposals by June.

"The Moroccan people want something that goes beyond the king's speech," said Abdelhamid Amine of AMDH human rights group. "They want their society to cease being one of subjects and become a society of citizenship."

Added Moncef Haddari, 82, said: "We will demonstrate until we get a new constitution chosen by the people."


Many women, some with hijab fully covering their faces, carried pictures of relatives jailed in the wake of a security crackdown that saw thousands of people sentenced to often long prison terms after 12 suicide bombers killed 33 people in Casablanca in 2003.

"My son has been on death row for seven years now. They have sentenced him to death because he prays. Death for being a good Muslim," said Zahra Sahif, who carried a pink prison visit card with both her picture and her son's.

"They did not even give him the chance for an appeal," she continued. "What kind of justice is this? Is it because the Americans give them money?"

King Mohamed VI succeeded his father in 1999 and holds ultimate power in the country of 32.6 million. Some in the crowd carried his picture and said they wanted changes under which the country would remain a kingdom.

"We all are for our king. But I agree that the prime minister and the king's two aides should get out," said protester Dalila, referring to Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi, Mohamed Mounir El-Majidi, the king's secretary who has made a fortune from billboard advertising and Fouad Ali Himma, a classmate of the king and former deputy interior minister.We want an end to the corruption you find everywhere," said Dalila, a woman dressed in Western clothes.

Some protesters carried brooms as they chanted "We want an end to corruption." A few people carried cardboard "F"s, a reference to the Internet site Facebook which has played an important role in helping organising anti-government protests.

The Socialists' USFP party announced late on Saturday that it would join the protest -- the first government coalition party to do so.

Morocco was seen as less likely to face public protests than other countries in North Africa and the Middle East, but calls for change have intensified as people sense a rare opportunity.

Gaddafi forces in ruins after air strikes

Burnt out vehicles and bodies are strewn across a strategic road on the outskirts of Benghazi after Western powers use air strikes to target Gaddafi's forces.

Security Personnel Jailed in Yemen after Chanting Anti-Government Slogan

Commander of the Central Security Forces in Dhamar province has ordered to jail 20 security personnel after they had chanted the slogan: “the people want to oust the regime,” which is being said by the anti-government protesters across the republic, informed sources said.
The soldiers were sent to a military prison, the sources said. However, a relative of one of the jailed personnel said that the soldiers are supporting the demands of the protesters and sit-inners demanding the departure of President Saleh across the country.
“They asked me to convey a message to the tens of thousands of the sit-inners in the square of change outside Sana’a University assuring them the soldiers will join them once they are released,” the relative said.
The information comes as many republican guards and central security forces have recently joined the anti-government protests in various cities in protest against the deadly crackdown on those demanding the ouster of the government.
The jailed soldiers were also quoted as saying that the demand of the protesters is the same as of the armed forces’, as they condemned the attacks on the protesters at Sana’a University on Friday that killed at least 42 and injured hundreds, tens seriously.


Yemen protests: Evidence snipers shot to kill
Image after image of the dead, men and boys, showed that those killed in the most violent day in the capital city Sana'a for 30 years had been systematically shot through the head and neck by gunmen positioned on city rooftops.

Yet even as the international community condemned Friday's violence, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's president of 32 years, remained unbowed as his security forces visited more bloodshed on protesters in the port city of Aden, a strategic British colony until 1963.
Police used live fire to disperse demonstrators calling for Mr Saleh's resignation. Local human rights groups said that at least four people died, while more than a dozen more were wounded.
Abandoning all pretence of defending his people's legitimate right to protest, a pledge that he had made just a week before, Mr Saleh deployed tanks on the streets of Sana'a after declaring a state of emergency.
But if he hoped to scare the ever-growing movement demanding his overthrow, Mr Saleh appeared to have misjudged the public mood.On streets still stained with the blood of their comrades, protesters came in their tens of thousands to gather once more along the mile-long stretch of road outside Sana'a' University that has become the symbolic headquarters of the growing insurrection.
Just 24 hours earlier, many had stood defiant at the same spot as bullets flew around them.
Video footage released on Saturday suggested the callousness of a plot that seemed design to kill as many people as possible.
One clip shows smoke billowing from the southern end of the protesters' camp where unidentified men had erected a burning barricade of tyres to prevent the demonstrators, many of whom had been outside the university for days, from escaping.
Suddenly, there is a crackle of gunfire and scores of people duck involuntarily. But even as one man is felled, blood turning his white dishdasha (Italics please) robe white, others around him resume their anti-government slogans undeterred.
On the other side of what the demonstrators have begun to call "Taghyir" or "Change" Square, others stripped off their jackets and advanced towards the ever more relentless gunfire, pointing towards their chests as if in an invitation to shoot.
As the carnage continued, killing 52 and wounding hundreds more, victims were brought to a nearby mosque that had been turned into makeshift hospital.
Photographs showed the dead, identity cards and miniatures of the Koran laid on their corpses, lain in rows across the carpeted floor on an inner prayer room.
One young boy, barefoot and dressed in an Arsenal football club T-shirt, had been shot just above the eye. Another photograph showed a veiled woman cradling the body of her young son, his arms outstretched as if in supplication.
In one video, a man holding the body of his dead brother is shown making a tearful telephone call to his mother to tell her, in a faltering voice, that her son is dead.
Nearly all the bodies in the photographs had bullet wounds either in the forehead, neck or in the back of the head. There seems little doubt that this was the work of trained marksmen.
Yet President Saleh, while expressing his sorrow, claimed that the gunmen were either the demonstrators themselves or irate residents neighbouring the university who had grown tired of the noise of the protests – a claim denied by the residents themselves.
The opposition coalition at the forefront of the protests accused Mr Saleh, a key US ally against al-Qaeda, of perpetrating crimes against humanity.
"It is a massacre," said opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri. "This is part of a criminal plan to kill off the protesters, and the president and his relatives are responsible for the bloodshed."
Much of the sniper fire emanated from a building allegedly owned by a regional governor close to President Saleh, further evidence, the opposition said, of the regime's involvement in the killings.
Video footage showed a masked man crouching behind a balustrade on the building's roof.
As the gunfire continued unabated, a group of protesters stormed the rooftop, braving gunfire to capture 10 of the snipers – seven of whom were said to have possessed government identification papers.
One of the suspected snipers was dragged into the streets, where he was beaten and clubbed by protesters, while a second was allegedly flung off the edge of the building.
Although 20 protesters had been killed in scattered incidents before Friday's violence, the scale of President Saleh's retribution proved too grotesque even for some of his longtime allies.
Three resigned in the aftermath, including one cabinet minister, a prominent ruling party figure who condemned the killings as "totally unacceptable" and Nasr Taha Mustafa, the high-profile head of the state news agency, a major source of regime propaganda.
"Nothing can justify the deaths of scores of youths whose only sin was to exercise the freedom guaranteed by Islam and the constitution to demand change," Mr Mustafa said.
Under the urging of Egypt's new military leadership, Mr Saleh had, before Friday, exercised a week of restraint after initially responding to protests that erupted last month with force.
But he appears to have changed course after hardliners in the Bahrain royal family reversed a policy of tolerance this week to shoot dead over a dozen protesters in this island kingdom before calling for and getting military intervention led by Saudi Arabia.
Backed by Saudi Arabia, and believing the West to be absorbed in implementing a no-fly zone in Libya, Mr Saleh apparently calculated that he could get away with a crackdown on the opposition protest movement, analysts said.
He may also have taken heart from only criticism for the United States, which did not repeat calls made in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia for regime change.
Seeing Mr Saleh as both a bulwark against the growing al Qaeda presence in Yemen and a safeguard against instability in a country plagued by two secessionist rebellions, the United States instead urged the protesters to be more "constructive" and engaged with the president.
In an effort to quell the unrest, Mr Saleh offered a raft of economic and political reforms as well as a pledge not to seek a further term at Yemen's next presidential election in 2013.
But Mr Saleh has promised not to contest elections in the past and few in the opposition trust him to honour his word this time.
With dozens of Mr Saleh's one-time allies deserting him, among them the head of a powerful tribal confederation to which the president belongs, the opposition senses that it now has the advantage.
"Sending tanks to the street is a sign that the regime is in a state of panic," said Mr al-Sabri.
"The widespread killing that took place, followed by the declaration of emergency law, demonstrate that the power of the people on the street has become greater than that of the government."
Although President Barack Obama condemned Friday's violence, Washington is also coming under pressure to take a more robust line with its ally and there have been calls for a suspension of US military aid to Yemen.
"Time and again, President Saleh promises he will stop attacks on peaceful protesters and yet the number of dead keeps rising," said Sarah Lee Whitson, the Middle East director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"The United States should back up its words condemning the carnage with action and halt all military aid to Yemen."
Yet Washington remains uneasy about some of the high-profile figures among the protesters, in particular the prominent cleric Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, who has been termed a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" by the US treasury department.
Mr Zindani, who is accused of once serving as a spiritual mentor to Osama bin Laden and has links with the radical Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, has attended the protests to call for the president's resignation and the creation of an Islamist state in Yemen.
Although Mr Zindani is influential, there is no evidence that his vision is shared by the bulk of the protesters, many of whom are lawyers and university professors from Yemen's middle class.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, has also publicly fretted about possible Iranian influence in the protests because Tehran has offered support to Houthi tribesmen waging a rebellion in the north of Yemen.
The Houthis, however, only represent a tiny fraction of the protests, analysts say.
While Washington's muted reaction has done little to endear it to the protester movement that could well form the next government in a key front line state in the war on terror, European diplomats are privately warning that Yemen could sink into a tribal war if Mr Saleh is not ousted soon.
"We are witnessing ever greater fragmentation within Yemen's all-important tribal structure," one western official said. "Allegiances are shifting quickly and Saleh's hold over the patronage system that keeps Yemen from collapsing is visibly slipping."
"It is not in the West's best interests to see this degenerate into a Libya-style conflict that would play into the hands of Islamist militants, which is why it would be better for Saleh to go sooner rather than later."

Mullen: No-fly zone effectively in place in Libya

Transfer of Security Responsibilities to Afghan Forces

March 21 marks the advent of the New Year 1390 according to the solar calendar which is used in Afghanistan. The upcoming year, in all likelihood, will be a different year for Afghanistan. It will be a defining period in the political life of the country with an array of important developments set to take place. The long-awaited transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan security forces is scheduled to begin on the first day of the year, March 21st. Parallel to this transition, the drawdown of international military forces under the command of NATO will begin in July although it has become clear by now that the withdrawals of foreign forces will be very limited and only token numbers of soldiers will be initially evacuated. The war against the Taliban and other militant groups waged by Afghan and international forces is also going to enter into a decisive phase in the upcoming year. The U.S., NATO and Afghan National Army commanders in charge of the war are already warning that this year will be a particularly bloody year with the military campaign set to be beefed up by both sides of the war.

The start of the process of so-called Afghanization of security responsibilities is good news for Afghanistan. According to David Petraeus, the top American and NATO commander in the country, the transfer is going to be a gradual process with more relatively calm areas first handed over to Afghan forces. The hand-over of security provisions will be based on a map of various regions with varying security parameters and the Afghan government and international forces plan to complete the process by the end of 2014. The Afghan National Army has so far been on a fairly satisfactory progress track and is by any standard, able to provide security to those areas and regions where militant activity is limited or non-existent. Therefore, the security transition is indeed going to be smooth over the short-term but the real test for the National Army comes when they have to face the enemies in their areas of activities. Here I take a look as the Afghan National Army and its preparedness over the long-term to meet the challenge of security provision.

There have been concerns regarding the level of readiness of Afghan National Army to be effective providers of security and a good match for the Taliban and other militant groups. The Afghan National Army now stands at 160,000 soldiers and is planned to reach 171,000 by the end of 2011. It enjoys relatively positive image among the people in the country in general and the trust of people reposed in it have been growing in recent years. Corruption has not been a major problem within the Afghan National Army but formidable problems lie in the way of its development. Shortage of equipments and supplies, desertion rates, leadership deficit and most important, the long-term commitment of international community to its further expansion are the major concerns. The desertion rates were once very high but with the salary levels increased and internal discipline strengthened in recent years it has sharply come down but still remains a serious problem as admitted by Afghan and foreign commanders and trainers. The sudden increase in the number of new recruits in recent years has faced the Afghan National Army with new sets of challenges. The number of foreign trainers required to train new cadres is not keeping up with growing numbers of new recruits coming in. The Afghan and foreign trainers have been successful in building a huge corpus of motivated and ready-to-fight soldiers but what has been lacking are leaders who can act not only as simple foot soldiers but also able to serve as commanders of various kandaks and brigades. The corpus of military leaders and commanders that served during the Communist era and earlier is exhausted by now. The talent to replace them has been scarce among the new recruits who could largely fail to show that they are able to quickly rise through the ranks and serve as leader-commanders of their military units.

One persisting problem in Afghan National Army has been the shortage of supplies and military equipments and other logistical problems in some areas that have faced the preparation of forces with challenges. President Obama has many a time reaffirmed his unwavering support to building a strong and capable Afghan National Army and the U.S. government has so far spent billions of dollars on the Afghan National Army; but still certain logistical problems remain in place that is expected to be sorted out as the deadline of 2014 draws closer.

Many foreign military experts have pointed out weak civilian oversight on the Afghan National Army as one of the more important challenges that need to be addressed. However, they are right in pointing out that in the absence of international forces’ support, this problem can lead to severe disruption in the ranks and activities of the army. This appears to be a structural problem and the civilian authorities in the Ministry of Defense need to address the problem in the run-up to the 2014 deadline.

The most important concern regarding the long-term viability of Afghan National Army is the pressing need to maintain large-scale international commitment to the army and its future expansions. The Afghan National Army requires a massive annual budget reaching billions of dollars each year in order to remain a strong force that can provide security to the country against Taliban and other militant groups. In order to meet the challenge of militancy in the country, the size of the army must be increased. Providing this large amount of funds will not be possible without long-term and firm commitment of international community to the Afghan National Army and its expansion. It is up to the government of Afghanistan and the leaders to cultivate their foreign partners and make them long-term stake-holders in our National Army.

Afghan colleges struggle for funds

Already coping with war, poverty, and corruption, Afghan colleges are struggling under a government policy that forbids them from charging tuition.

The law also restricts public universities from having endowments, leaving the schools dependent on an Afghan government and US-led coalition largely focused on confronting the Taliban.

“Security is a priority,’’ said A. Quadir Amiryar, senior adviser to the Ministry of Higher Education. “Higher education is a luxury, given the configuration of the government.’’

With limited funds, the universities cannot graduate the needed supply of civil servants and engineers who can keep roads paved and power plants humming, said Afghan officials, academics, and development specialists. All 22 public universities and education institutes operated on a combined $35 million last year, which represents about 1.5 percent of the Afghan government’s core budget.

Separate funds come from outside the Afghan bureaucracy, most notably through the US Agency for International Development, which has paid for the construction of dormitories and teacher training.

In its budget request for this year, USAID asked for $249 million to cover higher-education projects worldwide, including $20 million for Afghanistan. The greatest share of the request, $70 million, was for Pakistan.

The agency spends close to $3 billion a year in Afghanistan. It has financed projects for health care, farming, and infrastructure, all of which can have a broader and more immediate impact than bolstering universities.

“We’re at the level we think we can provide in terms of a balance of our priorities,’’ said a USAID official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending the Afghan partners.

The official noted that fewer than half of Afghan professors have a master’s degree or doctorate, suggesting that additional money might not help schools that have yet to meet international standards.

As part of a fraud investigation, USAID recently suspended its lead contractor, the Academy for Educational Development, on a project to improve professors’ classroom skills. The project closed down as scheduled Jan. 31, though the agency said it is looking for ways to keep things “moving forward.’’

Critics said that not investing earlier and more aggressively in universities has prolonged a reliance on international consultants. The first major higher-education projects by USAID and the World Bank began about two years into the war.

“If we had started programs in 2002, there would be a lot of Afghans who could be doing the work of foreign contractors,’’ said Edward Friedman, who directed a Cold War-era USAID program that established an engineering school at Kabul University.

The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan caused faculty and students at that school to find refuge abroad. Some now hold prominent academic positions at Kansas State, Ohio, and Purdue universities.

Access to a college education could surface as a broader security issue that overlaps with President Obama’s 2014 deadline for ending the US combat mission.

About 600,000 Afghans are expected to graduate from high school that year, many of them without avenues for employment or further studies, according to the Ministry of Higher Education.

Out of frustration, they may join factions of the Taliban, a concern that has been shared with the US government, according to Afghan officials and a former staff member of the US National Security Council.

“We hope that’s not the case, but it’s a logical consequence,’’ said Amiryar, who advises the higher education ministry.

During a recent visit to Kabul University’s engineering school, cobwebs blackened by dust hung across the ceiling. Broken equipment sat in bare labs. The most visible sign of foreign assistance was a room of desktop computers.

Fraidoon Alkozai, chairman of the civil engineering department, knocked on the door of his colleagues’ shared office but no one answered. He said they were probably away working second jobs for aid organizations and contractors at eight times their monthly teaching salary of $400.

It costs $5,500 a year to attend the American University of Afghanistan, which was founded in part with grants from USAID. About 70 percent of the students receive some form of financial aid.

A November report by the USAID inspector general called the “financial sustainability’’ of that university “questionable.’’ The school is embarking on an $80 million fund-raising campaign, said its president, C. Michael Smith.

The university’s emphasis on teaching business management and accounting is critical for Afghanistan’s future, Smith said.

“When we started the program, we were told there was one certified accountant who was Afghan,’’ Smith said. “Here you’ve got a country where corruption is talked about a lot. You’ve got to have trained accountants.’’