Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Punjab govt accused of selling Rs3.8bn track for Rs90million

Senate Chairman Farooq Naek has directed the federal government to present a comprehensive report on the alleged shady sale of 40-kilometre-long railway track in Bahawalpur by the Punjab government when the house meets on Wednesday morning.

“Please ask the minister to come to the house with a comprehensive report on the matter,” Mr Naek directed Leader of the House Nayyar Bokhari to convey the message to federal Minister for Railways Ghulam Ahmed Bilour after an opposition senator belonging to Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) drew the attention of the house towards the alleged sale of 40-km railway track in Bahawalpur worth Rs3.8 billion for a price of only Rs90 million to a Lahore-based company, the Nawaz and Co, by the Punjab government.

PML-Q Senator and a former information minister in the previous military regime Mohammad Ali Durrani claimed that the fisheries department of the Punjab government had sold the railway track which was the only link between Ahmadpur and the Panjnad Headworks.

The senator alleged that the 40-km track had been sold at a price which was even less than the cost of laying a 1-km-long track. He claimed that while making this deal, the Punjab government had even breached its own rules as the railway record showed that Rs800 million had been offered for the same track in 2004 but the-then administration had rejected that amount.

Senator Durrani also shared copies of two letters written by the Pakistan Railways authorities in Multan asking the Punjab government not to go for the sale and seek a “no objection certificate” from it but the sale was made setting aside these communiqué. He said the railway authorities had also sent copies of these letters to district coordination officer (DCO), Bahawalpur, and the chief engineer (irrigation) but the same were trashed and the government went ahead with its sale plans which reflected “irregularities in the deal”.

“Rather than cancelling the deal, the fisheries and the police officials escorted the employees of Nawaz and Co and the track dismantling process was launched. The wooden and metal tracks were loaded into huge trucks and sent to Lahore under the supervision of police officials,” added the senator.

He termed it a “mega corruption scam” and called for a thorough probe into it. He asked the Senate chairman to use his powers and get the deal cancelled and the track reinstalled.

“If this house fails in getting the corrupt officials fixed, the people of the country will be justified in believing that parliament is merely a debating club and is helpless in checking corrupt practices,” he added.

Balochistan...Pakistan's secret dirty war

Declan Walsh
In Balochistan, mutilated corpses bearing the signs of torture keep turning up, among them lawyers, students and farm workers. Why is no one investigating and what have they got to do with the bloody battle for Pakistan's largest province?
The bodies surface quietly, like corks bobbing up in the dark. They come in twos and threes, a few times a week, dumped on desolate mountains or empty city roads, bearing the scars of great cruelty. Arms and legs are snapped; faces are bruised and swollen. Flesh is sliced with knives or punctured with drills; genitals are singed with electric prods. In some cases the bodies are unrecognisable, sprinkled with lime or chewed by wild animals. All have a gunshot wound in the head.
This gruesome parade of corpses has been surfacing in Balochistan, Pakistan's largest province, since last July. Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have accounted for more than 100 bodies – lawyers, students, taxi drivers, farm workers. Most have been tortured. The last three were discovered on Sunday.
If you have not heard of this epic killing spree, though, don't worry: neither have most Pakistanis. Newspaper reports from Balochistan are buried quietly on the inside pages, cloaked in euphemisms or, quite often, not published at all.
The forces of law and order also seem to be curiously indifferent to the plight of the dead men. Not a single person has been arrested or prosecuted; in fact, police investigators openly admit they are not even looking for anyone. The stunning lack of interest in Pakistan's greatest murder mystery in decades becomes more understandable, however, when it emerges that the prime suspect is not some shady gang of sadistic serial killers, but the country's powerful military and its unaccountable intelligence men.

This is Pakistan's dirty little war. While foreign attention is focused on the Taliban, a deadly secondary conflict is bubbling in Balochistan, a sprawling, mineral-rich province along the western borders with Afghanistan and Iran. On one side is a scrappy coalition of guerrillas fighting for independence from Pakistan; on the other is a powerful army that seeks to quash their insurgency with maximum prejudice. The revolt, which has been rumbling for more than six years, is spiced by foreign interests and intrigues – US spy bases, Chinese business, vast underground reserves of copper, oil and gold.

And in recent months it has grown dramatically worse. At the airport in Quetta, the provincial capital, a brusque man in a cheap suit marches up to my taxi with a rattle of questions. "Who is this? What's he doing here? Where is he staying?" he asks the driver, jerking a thumb towards me. Scribbling the answers, he waves us on. "Intelligence," says the driver.

The city itself is tense, ringed by jagged, snow-dusted hills and crowded with military checkposts manned by the Frontier Corps (FC), a paramilitary force in charge of security. Schools have recently raised their walls; sand-filled Hesco barricades, like the ones used in Kabul and Baghdad, surround the FC headquarters. In a restaurant the waiter apologises: tandoori meat is off the menu because the nationalists blew up the city's gas pipeline a day earlier. The gas company had plugged the hole that morning, he explains, but then the rebels blew it up again.

The home secretary, Akbar Hussain Durrani, a neatly suited, well-spoken man, sits in a dark and chilly office. Pens, staplers and telephones are neatly laid on the wide desk before him, but his computer is blank. The rebels have blown up a main pylon, he explains, so the power is off. Still, he insists, things are fine. "The government agencies are operating in concert, everyone is acting in the best public interest," he says. "This is just a . . . political problem." As we speak, a smiling young man walks in and starts to take my photo; I later learn he works for the military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency.

We cut across the city, twisting through the backstreets, my guide glancing nervously out the rear window. The car halts before a tall gate that snaps shut behind us. Inside, a 55-year-old woman named Lal Bibi is waiting, wrapped in a shawl that betrays only her eyes, trembling as she holds forth a picture of her dead son Najibullah. The 20-year-old, who ran a shop selling motorbike parts, went missing last April after being arrested at an FC checkpost, she says. His body turned up three months later, dumped in a public park on the edge of Quetta, badly tortured. "He had just two teeth in his mouth," she says in a voice crackling with pain. She turns to her father, a turbaned old man sitting beside her, and leans into his shoulder. He grimaces.Bibi says her family was probably targeted for its nationalist ties – Najibullah's older brother, now dead, had joined the "men in the mountains" years earlier, she says. Now a nephew, 28-year-old Maqbool, is missing. She prays for him, regularly calling the hospitals for any sign of him and, occasionally, the city morgues.

Over a week of interviews in Karachi and Quetta, I meet the relatives of seven dead men and nine "disappeared" – men presumed to have been abducted by the security forces. One man produces a mobile phone picture of the body of his 22-year-old cousin, Mumtaz Ali Kurd, his eyes black with swelling and his shirt drenched in blood. A relative of Zaman Khan, one of three lawyers killed in the past nine months, produces court papers. A third trembles as he describes finding his brother's body in an orchard near Quetta.

Patterns emerge. The victims were generally men between 20 and 40 years old – nationalist politicians, students, shopkeepers, labourers. In many cases they were abducted in broad daylight – dragged off buses, marched out of shops, detained at FC checkposts – by a combination of uniformed soldiers and plain-clothes intelligence men. Others just vanished. They re-emerge, dead, with an eerie tempo – approximately 15 bodies every month, although the average was disturbed last Saturday when eight bodies were found in three locations across Balochistan.

Activists have little doubt who is behind the atrocities. Human Rights Watch says "indisputable" evidence points to the hand of the FC, the ISI and its sister agency, Military Intelligence. A local group, Voice for Missing Persons, says the body count has surpassed 110. "This is becoming a state of terror," says its chairman, Naseerullah Baloch.

The army denies the charges, saying its good name is being blemished by impersonators. "Militants are using FC uniforms to kidnap people and malign our good name," says Major General Obaid Ullah Khan Niazi, commander of the 46,000 FC troops stationed in Balochistan. "Our job is to enforce the law, not to break it."

Despairing relatives feel cornered. Abdul Rahim, a farmer wearing a jewelled skullcap, is from Khuzdar, a hotbed of insurgent violence. He produces court papers detailing the abduction of his son Saadullah in 2009. First he went to the courts but then his lawyer was shot dead. Then he went to the media but the local press club president was killed. Now, Rahim says, "nobody will help in case they are targeted too. We are hopeless."

Balochistan has long been an edgy place. Its vast, empty deserts and long borders are a magnet for provocateurs of every stripe. Taliban fighters slip back and forth along the 800-mile Afghan border; Iranian dissidents hide inside the 570-mile frontier with Iran. Drug criminals cross the border from Helmand, the world's largest source of heroin, on their way to Iran or lonely beaches on the Arabian Sea. Wealthy Arab sheikhs fly into remote airstrips on hunting expeditions for the houbara bustard, a bird they believe improves their lovemaking. At Shamsi, a secretive airbase in a remote valley in the centre of the province, CIA operatives launch drones that attack Islamists in the tribal belt.

The US spies appreciate the lack of neighbours – Balochistan covers 44% of Pakistan yet has half the population of Karachi. The province's other big draw is its natural wealth. At Reko Diq, 70 miles from the Afghan border, a Canadian-Chilean mining consortium has struck gold, big-time. The Tethyan company has discovered 4bn tonnes of mineable ore that will produce an estimated 200,000 tonnes of copper and 250,000 ounces of gold per year, making it one of the largest such mines in the world. The project is currently stalled by a tangled legal dispute, but offers a tantalising taste of Balochistan's vast mineral riches, which also includes oil, gas, platinum and coal. So far it is largely untapped, though, and what mining exists is scrappy and dangerous. On 21 March, 50 coal workers perished in horrific circumstances when methane gas flooded their mine near Quetta, then catastrophically exploded.

Two conflicts are rocking the province. North of Quetta, in a belt of land adjoining the Afghan border, is the ethnic Pashtun belt. Here, Afghan Taliban insurgents shelter in hardline madrasas and lawless refugee camps, taking rest in between bouts of battle with western soldiers in Afghanistan. It is home to the infamous "Quetta shura", the Taliban war council, and western officials say the ISI is assisting them. Some locals agree. "It's an open secret," an elder from Kuchlak tells me. "The ISI gave a fleet of motorbikes to local elders, who distributed them to the fighters crossing the border. Nobody can stop them."

The other conflict is unfolding south of Quetta, in a vast sweep that stretches from the Quetta suburbs to the Arabian Sea, in the ethnic Baloch and Brahui area, whose people have always been reluctant Pakistanis. The first Baloch revolt erupted in 1948, barely six months after Pakistan was born; this is the fifth. The rebels are splintered into several factions, the largest of which is the Balochistan Liberation Army. They use classic guerrilla tactics – ambushing military convoys, bombing gas pipelines, occasionally lobbing rockets into Quetta city. Casualties are relatively low: 152 FC soldiers died between 2007 and 2010, according to official figures, compared with more than 8,000 soldiers and rebels in the 1970s conflagration.

But this insurgency seems to have spread deeper into Baloch society than ever before. Anti-Pakistani fervour has gripped the province. Baloch schoolchildren refuse to sing the national anthem or fly its flag; women, traditionally secluded, have joined the struggle. Universities have become hotbeds of nationalist sentiment. "This is not just the usual suspects," says Rashed Rahman, editor of the Daily Times, one of few papers that regularly covers the conflict.

At a Quetta safehouse I meet Asad Baloch, a wiry, talkative 22-year-old activist with the Baloch Students' Organisation (Azad). "We provide moral and political support to the fighters," he says. "We are making people aware. When they are aware, they act." It is a risky business: about one-third of all "kill and dump" victims were members of the BSO.

Baloch anger is rooted in poverty. Despite its vast natural wealth, Balochistan is desperately poor – barely 25% of the population is literate (the national average is 47%), around 30% are unemployed and just 7% have access to tap water. And while Balochistan provides one-third of Pakistan's natural gas, only a handful of towns are hooked up to the supply grid.

The insurgents are demanding immediate control of the natural resources and, ultimately, independence. "We are not part of Pakistan," says Baloch.His phone rings. News comes through that another two bodies have been discovered near the coast. One, Abdul Qayuum, was a BSO activist. Days later, videos posted on YouTube show an angry crowd carrying his bloodied corpse into a mortuary. He had been shot in the head.

The FC commander, Maj Gen Niazi, wearing a sharp, dark suit and with neatly combed hair (he has just come from a conference) says he has little time for the rebel demand. "The Baloch are being manipulated by their leaders," he says, noting that the scions of the main nationalist groups live in exile abroad – Hyrbyair Marri in London; Brahamdagh Bugti in Geneva. "They are enjoying the life in Europe while their people suffer in the mountains," he says with a sigh.

Worse again, he adds, they were supported by India. The Punjabi general offers no proof for his claim, but US and British intelligence broadly agree, according to the recent WikiLeaks cables. India sees Balochistan as payback for Pakistani meddling in Kashmir – which explains why Pakistani generals despise the nationalists so much. "Paid killers," says Niazi. He vehemently denies involvement in human rights violations. "To us, each and every citizen of Balochistan is equally dear," he says.

Civilian officials in the province, however, have another story. Last November, the provincial chief minister, Aslam Raisani, told the BBC that the security forces were "definitely" guilty of some killings; earlier this month, the province's top lawyer, Salahuddin Mengal, told the supreme court the FC was "lifting people at will". He resigned a week later.

However, gross human rights abuses are not limited to the army. As the conflict drags on, the insurgents have become increasingly brutal and ruthless. In the past two years, militants have kidnapped aid workers, killed at least four journalists and, most disturbingly, started to target "settlers" – unarmed civilians, mostly from neighbouring Punjab, many of whom have lived in Balochistan for decades. Some 113 settlers were killed in cold blood last year, according to government figures – civil servants, shopkeepers, miners. On 21 March, militants riding motorbikes sprayed gunfire into a camp of construction workers near Gwadar, killing 11; the Baloch Liberation Front claimed responsibility. Most grotesque, perhaps, are the attacks on education: 22 school teachers, university lecturers and education officials have been assassinated since January 2008, causing another 200 to flee their jobs.

As attitudes harden, the middle ground is being swept away in tide of bloodshed. "Our politicians have been silenced," says Habib Tahir, a human rights lawyer in Quetta. "They are afraid of the young." I ask a student in Quetta to defend the killing of teachers. "They are not teachers, they work for the intelligence agencies," one student tells me. "They are like thieves coming into our homes. They must go."

The Islamabad government seems helpless to halt Balochistan's slide into chaos. Two years ago, President Asif Ali Zardari announced a sweeping package of measures intended to assuage Baloch grievances, including thousands of jobs, a ban on new military garrisons and payment of $1.4bn (£800m) in overdue natural gas royalties. But violence has hijacked politics, the plan is largely untouched, and anaemic press coverage means there is little outside pressure for action.

Pakistan's foreign allies, obsessed with hunting Islamists, have ignored the problem. "We are the most secular people in the region, and still we are being ignored," says Noordin Mengal, who represents Balochistan on the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

In this information vacuum, the powerful do as they please. Lawyer Kachkol Ali witnessed security forces drag three men from his office in April 2009. Their bodies turned up five days later, dead and decomposed. After telling his story to the press, Ali was harassed by military intelligence, who warned him his life was in danger. He fled the country. "In Pakistan, there is only rule of the jungle," he says by phone from Lørenskog, a small Norwegian town where he won asylum last summer. "Our security agencies pick people up and treat them like war criminals," he says. "They don't even respect the dead."

Balochistan's dirty little war pales beside Pakistan's larger problems – the Taliban, al-Qaida, political upheaval. But it highlights a very fundamental danger – the ability of Pakistanis to live together in a country that, under its Islamic cloak, is a patchwork of ethnicities and cultures. "Balochistan is a warning of the real battle for Pakistan, which is about power and resources," says Haris Gazdar, a Karachi-based researcher. "And if we don't get it right, we're headed for a major conflict."

Before leaving Quetta I meet Faiza Mir, a 36-year-old lecturer in international relations at Quetta's Balochistan University. Militants have murdered four of her colleagues in the past three years, all because they were "Punjabi". Driving on to the campus, she points out the spots where they were killed, knowing she could be next.

"I can't leave," says Mir, a sparky woman with an irrepressible smile. "This is my home too." And so she engages in debate with students, sympathising with their concerns. "I try to make them understand that talk is better than war," she says.

But some compromises are impossible. Earlier on, students had asked Mir to remove a portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founding father, from her office wall. Mir politely refused, and Jinnah – an austere lawyer in a Savile Row suit - still stares down from her wall.

But how long will he stay there? "That's difficult to say," she answers.

Syrian Communities in Lebanon, Greece, Bahrain, India Stress Support to Syria against Foreign Conspiracy

Hundreds of the Syrian workers on Tuesday launched a rally in front of Hermel Municipality, north-east of Lebanon.

The participants stressed support to the national unity, security and stability in Syria under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad.

Lebanese National News Agency reported that members of the Syrian community rallied in the Lebanese City of al-Nabatiya to express adherence to the national unity and stability in Syria.

In Greece, hundreds of the Syrian community members rallied in front of the Syrian Embassy in Athens, chanting national slogans in support of Syria's security and stability.

Meanwhile, the Syrian community in Bahrain stressed standing as one people under the leadership of President al-Assad in the face of plots against Syria and the Arab nation.

The community members rejected all vandalism acts of strangers in Syria, stressing adherence to the national unity in Syria.

In India, the Syrian community stressed support to the reform and development process taking place in Syria under the leadership of President al-Assad, condemning conspiracies targeting Syria's unity.

In turn, the Syrian communities in Belarus, Austria and the Russian city of St. Petersburg condemned the foreign targeting of Syria's national unity and stability.

The members expressed solidarity with their homeland Syria and full support to its leadership and people.

Israel's favorite Arab dictator of all is Assad

As strange as it sounds, everyone in Israel loves Arab dictators. When I say everyone I mean both Jews and Arabs. The favorite dictator of all is president Assad

. As Assad junior inherited the oppressive regime in Syria, so did both Jews and Arabs transfer their affection for the dictator from Damascus from Assad senior to his son.

Following the intifada in the Arab states, Bashar al-Assad maintained in an interview to the Wall Street Journal that the situation in Syria is different, adding that Syria is not like Egypt. He also emphasized that Syria was not susceptible to sliding into a similar situation, because it was in the "resistance" front and belongs to the anti-American, anti-Israeli axis.Well, Assad is right. The situation in Syria is indeed different. The Syrian regime is more like Saddam's defunct regime. The Ba'ath Party that ruled Iraq and the one still ruling Syria both held aloft flags of pan-Arab national ideology. But slogans are one thing and reality is another. All the ideological sweet talk was only talk. For the Ba'ath Party, both in Iraq and in Syria, constituted a political platform to perpetuate tribal, ethnic oppression.

Indeed, the situation in Egypt is completely different. If we put aside the Coptic minority, then Egyptian society is homogenous religiously and not tribal at all. The demoted Egyptian president, Mubarak, never had a tribal-ethnic crutch to lean on. The Egyptian army is also different and not at all like the Syrian or Iraqi armies.

For example, when the United States invaded Iraq, the Iraqi army splintered into its tribal and ethnic fragments. The soldiers took off their uniforms and each joined his tribe and ethnic community. Saddam too adhered to those tribal codes. He did not flee Iraq but went to hide in the well-protected areas of his tribesmen. This is what happens in these societies. In the land of the cedars, as soon as the civil war broke out, the Lebanese army dissolved into its ethnic components and disappeared.

True, Syria is not Egypt. Syria is also different in terms of the price in blood inflicted by the tyrannical Syrian regime. The Syrian tribal government is based on the force exercised by the security branches ruled by the tribesmen and their interested allies.

Inherently, a tribal regime of this kind will always be seen as a foreign reign. This kind of reign can be called tribal imperialism, which rules by operating brutal terror and oppression. This is underscored when a minority tribe rules, like in Syria. Thus every undermining of the government is seen as a challenge to the tribal hegemony and a danger to the ruling tribe's survival. Such a regime by its very nature is totally immersed in a bloodbath.

Both Assad senior and Assad junior advocated resistance against Israel. This slogan was hollow, serving the regime merely as an insurance policy against any demand for freedom and democracy. The Syrian "resistance" government has not uttered a peep on the Golan front since 1973. Instead, the "resistance" regime was and still is ready to fight Israel to the last Lebanese, and if that doesn't do the trick - then to the last Palestinian.

As voices in Israel have recently spoken out in favor of Hamas' continued rule in Gaza, so many Israelis are worried these days over the Syrian regime's welfare. Astonishingly, not only Jews are praying secretly for the Damascus regime's survival, but many in the Arab parties as well. These parties' leaders have been dumbstruck, their voices have been muted and no outcry has been raised against the Syrian regime's massacre of civilians.

All the hypocrites, Jews and Arabs alike, have united. It seems Assad has wall-to-wall support here, as though he were king of Israel.

Saudi regime 'not ready for women voters'

Activists for women's rights in Saudi Arabia say its decision to keep a voting ban in place was "outrageous" at a time that Arab governments are taking steps to avert pro-democracy revolts.

The head of the electoral committee charged with preparing for next month's municipal polls said the kingdom was not ready to allow women to vote.

"We are not ready for the participation of women in these municipal elections," said Abdulrahman al-Dahmash, while at the same time renewing promises that authorities would allow women to take part "in the next ballot".

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At a time of pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world, Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, announced last week that it is to hold municipal elections for only the second time, kicking off on April 23 from region to region.
Monday's announcement, however, was "an outrageous mistake that the kingdom is committing. It's just repeating the same mistake of 2005," said Hatoon al-Fassi, a history lecturer at King Saud University in Riyadh.
The oil-rich Gulf state held its first men-only municipal polls in 2005, when Saudis elected half the members of 178 municipal councils across the previously elections-free kingdom.
The government in May 2009 extended the mandate of the councils by two years, postponing a second vote expected to have taken place that year.
Women in the conservative Muslim state were not allowed to run as candidates or to vote in the 2005 polls, a first for the highly-centralised monarchy where all government posts are appointed.
Women's rights activists have long campaigned to lift the many bans which deprive women in Saudi Arabia of what are considered basic freedoms in most parts of the world.
Saudi women are banned from driving and cannot travel without authorisation from their husband or a related male guardian.
They have also to cover from head to toe in public.
"Banning women participation only perpetuates the stereotype of the kingdom being a state that oppresses women and constrains their freedom. A state that does not care about its female citizens," Fassi said.
Fassi, a longtime leading women's rights activist in the kingdom, said the decision was "negative" at a time of uprisings in the Arab world demanding a wider political role for ordinary people.
"Changes surround us, but we face them with such a negative position... Burying our head in the sand is fruitless," she said.
King Abdullah has announced unprecedented economic benefits worth nearly $US100 billion and warned against any attempt to undermine security in the country, largely spared by the Arab uprisings.
In late February, he already ordered social benefits worth an estimated $US36 billion, mostly aimed at youth, civil servants and the unemployed.
However, Saudi activist Wajiha al-Hwaidar on Monday appeared to have resigned herself to the "oppression of women" in her country.
"I have grown used to the [attitude of] Saudi officials and women's oppression. All their decisions are disappointing," she said, accusing the authorities of being out of touch with modern life.
"I know these mentalities that despise women... These men who run society still live in the pre-globalisation and pre-modernity times," she said.
But she said that women in Saudi Arabia were also to blame for their situation because they had failed to establish a strong movement to demand rights from the male-run government.
"Men are not going to voice women's demands on their behalf. There should be a real women's rights movement in the kingdom," she said.

Russia, U.S. have cooperation potential in Afghanistan

Russia and the United States

have not fully used potential of their cooperation in terms of Afghanistan's economic recovery, top Russian diplomats told U.S. special envoy in Afghanistan Marc Grossman here Monday.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin and special presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov said Moscow and Washington must enhance coordination in fighting illegal drug trafficking in Afghanistan.

They also discussed with the American diplomat the process of transferring the control over security in Afghanistan from NATO-led forces to the national army and police, Russian media reported.

According to Kabulov, Afghan authorities have not been ready to bear full responsibility for security in their country, but Washington and NATO have done "very little to build capable combat forces in Afghanistan" for the last 10 years as well.

The Russian envoy noted that about 30 percent of Afghan military and police personnel are deserting the forces every year. Besides, Afghan forces have been armed mostly with handguns with little armor and aircraft, Kabulov added.

But he said Moscow would not supply Kabul with arms.

Kabulov said Russia was ready for negotiations with Afghanistan's Taliban movement, though no direct contacts have taken place yet.

Kabulov became Russia's first special envoy to Afghanistan on Tuesday.

The president makes his case on Libya


Before President Obama's address to the nation about Libya, three questions about U.S. involvement there loomed large: Why, among all the places with vulnerable civilian populations, did the U.S. and its allies choose to intervene in Libya? Was the mission designed to prevent civilian suffering or to topple Moammar Kadafi? How (and how quickly) would the U.S. extricate itself from this engagement?

In his speech Monday, Obama addressed these thorny questions and many others with cogency and clarity, though not all of the answers were persuasive. He was at his most eloquent when he discussed the Libyan regime's crimes against its own people, his reluctance to put Americans in harm's way and his eagerness to work within a multinational coalition. We were pleased to hear him reaffirm that the U.S. has limited interests in Libya and a limited role to play.

But at the same time, we were left unpersuaded on several key points. His dramatic recounting of Kadafi's misdeeds — including the targeted killings of individuals, attacks on hospitals and ambulances, the choking off of food and water — did not sufficiently explain why the U.S. and its allies would use military force in Libya and not in other states where governments brutalize their people. The president argued essentially that the humanitarian crisis in Libya was unique, but he did not describe genocide, or atrocities all that different from those that occur in many civil wars around the world, so he left us wondering where this mission fits with America's foreign policy objectives more broadly.

Second, he was not terribly reassuring about the exit strategy. To be sure, he said that the U.S. would hand off the lead role in the operation to NATO and that he would not introduce ground troops or pursue a military strategy to depose Kadafi — all of which we were pleased to hear. But it was still unclear whether the nonmilitary steps aimed at ousting Kadafi would succeed or how the allies would continue to protect civilians indefinitely if he does not leave. And if the regime does fall, what exactly is the plan for what comes next?

The president ended his speech by welcoming "the fact that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa, and that young people are leading the way. Because wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States." One clear challenge ahead, of course, is to make good on that vision in dealing with oppressive regimes that are U.S. allies.

Obama may not have changed the minds of those who believe that the Libyan operation was unwise or of others who believe it didn't go far enough. But no one can complain that he didn't make a thoughtful, compelling case for his decision to intervene.

Pakistan’s Sherry Rehman stands alone after colleagues’ assassinations

In the past three months, Sherry Rehman’s

rambling, art-filled house in this southern city has become a self-imposed prison. The liberal lawmaker knows that for her to move about freely in Pakistan now would be to step into the cross hairs of religious radicals who have assassinated two of her like-minded colleagues this year.
Rehman’s offense, in the extremists’ view, is proposing reform of laws that make blasphemy a capital crime and that are often used to persecute religious minorities or personal enemies. Pakistan’s violent fundamentalists consider the mere idea of such reform poison, a point they made clear with the killings of Salman Taseer, governor of the eastern province of Punjab, and federal minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti.

With the deaths of her ruling-party peers, Rehman, 50, is the country’s only vocal advocate for amending the blasphemy laws — a cause she now backs mostly from home, and more quietly. Armed guards and police stand watch outside. Inside, the former journalist receives friends and colleagues, fending off pleas that she flee the country.

“I don’t want to leave,” she said in a recent interview. “I want to be able to stay here as long as possible, and if it means I’m not going to go to the shops or go to the Sunday bazaar, okay.”

At large rallies, clerics have named Rehman an apostate. In Multan, a city in Punjab province, a local politician filed a blasphemy complaint against her after she said on television, citing the Koran, that radical mullahs were wrong to defend the blasphemy laws. She and her attorneys spent weeks on the case before police decided not to bring charges.

But if extremists have sent Rehman a message to keep quiet, her secular Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has appeared to do the same. After a court sentenced a Christian woman to death on blasphemy charges in November, President Asif Ali Zardari formed a committee to review the laws and indicated he might pardon the woman. Rehman, a longtime sponsor of bills to strengthen the rights of women and minorities, authored legislation to amend the blasphemy statutes.

But as an outcry from religious groups swelled, the ruling party backed down. Its fragile coalition government was teetering, and PPP members said privately that it was not the time to stoke religious passions. In February, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said Rehman had withdrawn her bill.That was news to her.

“These are wars you have to fight all the time,” Rehman said, shaking her head. Yet, although she does not disavow her position on the blasphemy laws, she is now cautious when discussing the topic and declines to criticize the PPP.

Most like-minded Pakistanis are doing the same. Human rights activists and English-language media condemned Bhatti’s death, but they sounded more weary than they did after Taseer’s killing. The prominent lawyers who spearheaded Pakistan’s democracy movement three years ago have stayed silent, and there has been no popular groundswell against radicalism.

Civic activists say it is the secular coalition government’s duty to galvanize demonstrators to counter the 40,000 Islamists who rallied here in January against changes to the blasphemy laws. Rehman disagrees, saying any government in the volatile country would be unwise to foment even peaceful street protests.

Islamist groups have long exploited fundamentalism to gain power in Pakistan, Rehman said, adding that the hysteria they whip up always cools. Then again, she acknowledged, the violent militancy now engulfing the country is far more dangerous than political opportunism.

“Other than appeasement, what’s the plan?” she said.

Rehman is no stranger to threats. When former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s convoy was bombed in Karachi on her return from exile in 2007, Rehman was in the car, and her back still bears burn scars. When Bhutto was killed in a gun and bomb attack weeks later, Rehman escorted her body to the hospital.

“Being scared no longer works,” Rehman said. “The physical attack happens, and you keep working the next day.”

Rehman, a former editor of a leading Pakistani newsmagazine, the Herald, joined the National Assembly in 2002. She became information minister in 2008 but resigned a year later to protest the government’s curbs on TV stations that had criticized it.

But Rehman has remained in Parliament, and she says it is there that the battle for ideas can be fought. While pushing for bills against domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace, she said, she has seen politicians from religious parties compromise. She said the main task now should be righting the faltering economy, which fuels extremism.

“Tolerance is the big issue,” Rehman said. “But the government will have to deal with how people are facing the next day and getting the next meal.”

Rehman said she sees hope amid the frenzy. Clerics call with words of support. The Pakistani media, which fanned public outrage against Taseer before his assassination, have largely left her alone.

And after allegedly calling Rehman a “non-Muslim” in January, an imam who preaches near her house retracted his words after a journalist filed a complaint that could have led to incitement charges. That shows “the removal of impunity does work,” Rehman said.

Still, the imam was not punished, and clerics in other parts of the country continue to say Rehman deserves death.

“This is a sobering moment,” she said. “It may get worse before it gets better. But it has to.”

Pentagon puts Libya operation’s price tag at about $550 million

The military intervention in Libya has cost the United States “about $550 million” in extra spending so far, a Defense Department spokeswoman said Tuesday, providing the first official estimate of the mission’s price tag.Future costs involved in maintaining a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone in Libya and protecting civilians remain “highly uncertain,” said the spokeswoman, Cmdr. Kathleen Kesler.

But Kesler said those costs are expected to run about $40 million over the next three weeks as the U.S. military scales back its activity and NATO forces take the lead. Thereafter, the Pentagon estimates that its added costs for the Libyan operation will total about $40 million a month.

Almost 60 percent of the total cost has been for munitions — the most expensive of which are Tomahawk missiles, which cost more than $1 million each to replace. The added higher operating costs of aircraft, ships and submarines are relatively small since they would normally be in service.

Unforeseen military operations typically require supplemental appropriations because they fall outside the core Pentagon budget.

President Obama has said the Libya mission could be paid for with money already appropriated for the Pentagon, but Republican lawmakers have pressed the president on whether supplemental funding will be requested from Congress.

'Bahraini villages besieged by troops'

Bahraini security forces backed by troops from Saudi Arabia have put several villages near the capital city of Manama under siege.
Gunshots were also heard in the villages near Manama on Tuesday, a Press TV correspondent reported.Saudi-backed Bahraini forces fired tear gas in the village of Tashan on Tuesday.
On March 13, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar dispatched armed forces to the country to intensify crackdown on anti-government protesters.
At least 24 people have been killed and at least 1,000 others injured since riot police and troops initiated a second round of offensives against the protesters.
The security forces fired live ammunition during security sweeps on March 15, 16, and the subsequent days, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
The latest victim of government violence in Bahrain was a 71-year-old man who died of asphyxiation from teargas used against demonstrators in the village of Ma'ameer on March 25.
Witnesses also told HRW that another two people have died of teargas inhalation after security forces attacked protesters at the Pearl Roundabout March 16.
Human Rights Watch, however, could not confirm the identities of the individuals.

Genevieve Nnaji,Nollywood's Julia Roberts

With her glamorous looks and exceptional talent, Nigerian movie star Genevieve Nnaji is one of Africa's most successful actresses.
The screen diva -- dubbed the Julia Roberts of Africa -- has starred in dozens of films, enchanting millions of movie fans across the continent.
The 31-year-old actress is considered to be a poster girl for Nollywood, the booming Nigerian movie industry, which according to UNESCO, is the world's second-largest film producer after India's Bollywood.
Nnaji has been performing in front of the camera from the age of 8. She is now one of Africa's most instantly recognizable faces and has won several accolades, including the 2005 African Academy Movie Award for Best Actress.
CNN's Pedro Pinto caught up with Nnaji before her latest movie premiere in London to discuss fame and her passion for Nigeria. An edited version of the interview follows.

Tunisia's breathtaking change

'Flickers' of al Qaeda in Libyan opposition, U.S. NATO leader says

There is a good chance NATO pressure will encourage Libyan tyrant Moammar Gadhafi to leave power, the U.S. NATO commander told Congress Tuesday, but the opposition that could come in the Libyan leader's wake has "flickers" of al Qaeda.
While there is a wide range of possible outcomes in Libya, running from a static stalemate to Gadhafi cracking, there is a "more than reasonable" chance of Gadhafi leaving power, Adm. James Stavridis said before the Senate Armed Services Committee,
But potential "flickers" of al Qaeda and Hezbollah elements have been seen in intelligence regarding the Libyan opposition, which is poised to take power if Gadhafi leaves, Stavridis said. However, he added there is no evidence of a significant presence of al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. Stavridis is also the commander of U.S. European Command.
"The intelligence that I'm receiving at this point makes me feel that the leadership that I'm seeing are responsible men and women who are struggling against Col. Gadhafi," Stavridis added.
The comments come the same day as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with a leader of Libya's opposition in London. Clinton and the heads of 40 other countries met Tuesday to discuss Libya's future.
A senior counterterrorism official, unnamed because he is not authorized to speak on the record, backed up Stavridis' assessment, downplaying the concern about al Qaeda among the Libyan opposition.
There is probably "a sprinkling of extremists to perhaps include al Qaeda" in Libya among the rebels, "but no one should think the opposition is being led by al Qaeda or one of its affiliates," the official said. Al Qaeda has had a presence in North Africa for years. It "wouldn't be surprising if small numbers -- a handful"-- of extremists or al Qaeda are in Libya.
"It's hard to tell who all the leaders are in the opposition," the official said, but "the rebels do not appear to be adopting an al Qaeda bent or ideology in Libya."
If Gadhafi's forces cease fighting there would be a series of decisions on how NATO should proceed. Leading the senators through the NATO command chain, Stavridis said the intelligence and ground assessments would work their way up through NATO, first going through Canadian Gen. Charles Bouchard leading the NATO operation in Libya, then up to Stavridis and eventually going up to the United Nations for the ultimate decision on course of action, Stavridis said.
"I think there would be actually another level that this discussion would have to go to, which would be the United Nations since the authority for NATO to participate in this operation is under the United Nations Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973," Stavridis pointed out.
During this process there would be a pause in NATO activity over Libya.
But for now the fight is still very much on. No-fly air zones have been set up to allow air assets to strike Libyan forces if the civilian population is threatened, Stavridis said, going beyond a basic no-fly zone patrol mission.
For the first time, A-10 and AC-130 ground attack aircraft were used over the weekend in Libya, Vice Adm. Bill Gortney said at a press briefing on Monday. These aircraft fire machine gun rounds from cannons, up to thousands of rounds a minute, and due to their low-altitude flying ability provide more precision in densely populated areas. On Monday night, one A-10 aircraft attacked Libyan coast guard ships in the port of Misrata after reports were confirmed that the ships were firing at merchant vessels.
NATO is set to take control of the full operation in Libya including protecting civilians on Thursday, greatly easing the financial costs on the United States, which has already hit $550 million as of Monday, according to Pentagon figures. Of those costs, 60% were for munitions, the Pentagon said, including Tomahawk missiles, which cost $1.4 million each. The United States has launched approximately 200 since the beginning of the operation.
"Future costs are highly uncertain," Pentagon spokeswoman Cmdr. Kathleen Kessler said, but the U.S. expects to incur another $40 million in costs over the next three weeks. After the transition to NATO control is complete, the Pentagon expects the cost of the U.S. support operation to drop significantly, costing $40 million per each subsequent month.

Comedy of Errors in Kabul as Karzai Aide Is Arrested Then Released

President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday ordered the release of a prominent presidential aide two hours after his arrest on corruption charges, according to two officials in the office of Afghanistan’s Attorney General.The move resulted in a comedy of errors in which the Attorney General’s office first announced the arrest of the official, Noorullah Delawari, on corruption charges, then convened a press conference to detail the charges against him. By the time the press conference took place, however, the office’s spokesman, Amanullah Eman, said the announcement had been a "misunderstanding" and Mr. Delawari had been questioned rather than charged.

Between the announcement and the retraction, the two high-ranking officials in the Attorney General’s office said, President Karzai had called Attorney General Mohammed Ishaq Aloko and ordered Mr. Delawari released.

"Mr. Aloko came under extreme pressure from the president," one of the officials said.

A ministerial level presidential adviser on the banking and private sector, Mr. Delawari, 64, heads the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency and is a former governor of the Central Bank, as well as a current member of the bank’s board. He is the most prominent official currently serving in Mr. Karzai’s government to be arrested on corruption charges, albeit briefly.

Last year, Mr. Karzai intervened to win the release from custody on charges of soliciting a bribe by Mohammad Zia Salehi, head of administration for the president’s National Security Council. Mr. Salehi had been arrested after an investigation by American-supported corruption agencies, and was also released after Mr. Karzai telephoned Attorney General Aloko. All charges were eventually dropped against Mr. Salehi.

A spokesman for President Karzai did not respond to requests for comment on Mr. Delawari’s release.

"I heard the president was extremely displeased and felt they should never have announced this and ruined someone’s reputation," Mr. Delawari said in a telephone interview after his release.

He added however that it did not appear to him that President Karzai had ordered his release because in his view he was simply held for four hours for questioning.

"I was being kept in an office under investigation," he said. "I don’t think it required the President’s action to release me. Although as a minister-adviser to the President, they should have gone through the President’s office in the first place."

Some officials in the attorney general’s office saw the matter differently, however. "Mr. Delawari was brought to the Attorney General’s office and after two hours Mr. Aloko got a call from President Karzai to release him as soon as possible," said an official who was present when the call came in, but spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

"Unfortunately when it comes to high-ranking government officials we can’t do anything," said another official, requesting anonymity for the same reason. "Unfortunately, we have opened corruption cases against almost all of the members of the President’s cabinet. Maybe we won’t be able to do anything about Mr. Delawari, but his file will be in the attorney general’s office for the next ten years, and someday someone will."

Mr. Delawari’s brief arrest came a day after the arrest of a former member of Mr. Karzai’s cabinet, the ex-minister of transport and aviation, Anayatullah Qasimi, also on corruption charges. The two arrests were both related to an investigation into corruption in contracting for Ariana Afghan Airlines, the state-owned carrier.

In Mr. Qasimi’s case, he is charged with embezzlement for the government’s loss of $9 million in bad deals related to the purchase of new aircraft for the airline. Under Afghan law, embezzlement includes mismanagement of government funds as well misappropriation of them.

The charges against Mr. Delawari were also for embezzlement, in his case for allegedly approving, through the investment commission he heads, the hiring of six Lufthansa aviation consultants by Ariana, at a cost of $3 million for one year, Mr. Delawari said. Investigators wanted to know why less expensive consultants could not have been hired, he added.

"It’s sad because you can’t do anything in Afghanistan, if you make a mistake, it’s considered a crime," Mr. Delawari said. Although he said he was never actually charged --despite the claims by authorities earlier in the day -- he said officials told him that "the case is continuing."

Mr. Delawari, a dual Afghan and American citizen, is highly regarded in the business community and has a reputation as an opponent of corruption. He returned to Afghanistan in 2002 after having spent most of his life in the United States, where he had a career as a banking executive.

'Bahrain revolution will not stop'


of Bahrain Freedom Movement Abdul Rauf Shayeb says anti-government protesters will keep up with the rallies until their demands are met.
“We are not going to stop this revolution no matter, what they (the government) are going to use against us,” Shayeb told Press TV.
“We have now reached a point, where there is no way back. We move ahead till we reach our demands,” he added. Shayeb went on to say that peaceful demonstrations are the main strategy for achieving ultimate goal, stressing that Bahraini opposition groups defy violence in all forms.
Shayeb cautioned that this is while “they (the government) are using all their forces to make the revolution go to a violent narrow way.”
The fact that the revolution belongs to the whole Bahraini nation, Shias and Sunnis, is another key motive contributing to its success, Shayeb added, argueing that by “Bahrainis” he means those who have a real nationality of the country not a political naturalization.Demonstrators in the Shia-majority Persian Gulf country demand the ouster of the 230-year-old Sunni-led al-Khalifa monarchy as well as constitutional reforms. Bahraini forces along with troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on the other hand, have stepped up their attacks against protesters.
At least 24 people have been killed and about 1,000 others injured since the anti-government protests started in mid-February.

Bahraini troops close in on protesters

Bahraini army troops have besieged mourning demonstrators in the northeastern village of Ma'ameer as the Persian Gulf state sees more violence against anti-government protests.

This was the latest in a string of mourning ceremonies held for the people killed by security forces in the government's crackdown on opposition demonstrations.

Hundreds more have been arrested or gone missing since the crackdown, according to Bahrain Center for Human Rights, as well as the country's largest Shia opposition group, Al-Wefaq.

The party's 11 lawmakers have all resigned to protest the use of deadly force against protesters.

The Bahraini parliament, which is the country's only elected body and holds limited authority, has accepted their resignation.

Bahrain's main opposition bloc, Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, said on Monday that 250 people have been detained and 44 others gone missing in since a brutal crackdown of protesters earlier in the month.

On March 13, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar dispatched armed forces to crisis-hit Bahrain upon a request by Manama to help quash anti-government protests in the kingdom.

The move highlighted concerns among Arab leaders of a possible spillover of an anti-regime uprising from the country, where month-old protest rallies seek to break the Western-backed government's monopoly on power.

Foreign military interventions in Bahrain raised concerns in the United Nations, where Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for a meaningful and broad-based national dialogue.

Ban has also urged Bahrain's regional neighbors and the international community to support a dialogue process and an environment conducive to credible reform in Bahrain.

Bahraini demonstrators maintain that they will hold their ground until their demands for freedom, constitutional monarchy as well as a proportional voice in the government are met.

At least 20 people have so far been killed and about 1,000 others have been injured since anti-government protests in the Persian Gulf island nation began in mid-February.

Israel not eager to see Syria's Assad go

Syria has fought three wars with Israel and maintains close ties to its fiercest enemies in the region, including Iran and the Hamas and Hezbollah militant groups.
So it may come as a surprise that many in Israel view the current unrest convulsing Syria with a wary eye, fearful that a collapse of Bashar Assad's regime might imperil decades of quiet along the shared border.
Israeli leaders, who voiced fears — unfounded so far — that the earlier uprising in Egypt might spell the end of the two countries' peace agreement, are keeping quiet about the tumult that has spread to Syria.
Several officials said that while Israel is closely following the situation in Syria — where mass protests are posing the greatest threat to the Assad family's four decades in power — there is no consensus on how to react or even what the best-case scenario is for Israel.
In Geneva on Monday, President Shimon Peres said only that the unrest "changes the status quo in Israel," while hoping Palestinians and Syrians "will be peaceful and free."
Privately, officials note that Syria has been careful for decades to avoid direct violence, while fighting proxy wars by backing anti-Israel groups like Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
"That has been the working assumption in Israel for years: Better the devil you know than the devil you don't," said Eyal Zisser, director of the Middle East Studies department at Tel Aviv University. "(Syria) scrupulously maintained the quiet. And who knows what will happen now — Islamic terror, al-Qaida, chaos?"
Last month, Israel's government watched with trepidation as Egyptians toppled longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, afraid that the ouster of its staunchest Arab ally might put a three-decade-old peace treaty in jeopardy and help to boost Islamists.
Israeli leaders quickly came out in defense of the embattled Mubarak until his last moments in power and issued dire predictions for what a post-Mubarak era might bring. Those fears, so far, have not materialized, and the military rulers who took control of Egypt from Mubarak offered quick reassurance, saying the country would abide by all international agreements, which would include the 1979 treaty.
The desire to see Assad survive appears less intuitive: Assad is closely allied with Israel's bitterest foe, Iran, and harbors and aids the violently anti-Israel groups in Gaza and Lebanon. Earlier this month, Israel's navy seized a ship carrying a load of weapons that it said was sent by Iran and Syria to Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Despite its connections with Israel's enemies, Syria has avoided direct confrontation with Israel for nearly four decades.
With the exception of some air battles in 1982, Israel and Syria have not gone to war since 1973.
Syria has not responded to direct attacks on its soil widely attributed to Israel, including a 2007 airstrike on a suspected nuclear reactor or the assassination of a top Lebanese guerrilla the following year. Israel has never acknowledged carrying out these attacks.
It also has engaged in multiple rounds of peace talks, most recently in 2008. Although these talks have not yielded an agreement, their repeated failure has led to nothing worse than continued chill.
Israeli experts say that instability or regime change in Syria could change this long-standing arrangement, and even tempt Damascus to deflect attention from its internal problems by heating up the Israeli front.
In contrast, some experts in Israel, including Itamar Rabinovich, the former chief negotiator with Syria, say an end to the Assad era could be beneficial.
"Syria is the keystone of the pro-Iran axis," Rabinovich wrote in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper on Sunday. "Weakening the Assad regime, to say nothing of its collapse, would be a blow to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah."
So far, the protests that started in southern Syria and have since spread to several other parts of the country have not left Assad's regime teetering or even exposed cracks. The security forces appear to be remaining loyal and there have been no defections of diplomats, lawmakers, or military commanders that have occurred in uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.
Just weeks ago, Assad boasted that his country was immune from the upheaval sweeping through Tunisia and Egypt, in part because he has united Arabs in common cause against Israel.
If the regime were to fall, "this could be a really good message that benefits Israel, that trying to go against Israel and American doesn't give you eternal legitimacy," said Einat Wilf, a lawmaker in Independence, a small faction inside Israel's governing coalition.
The unrest in Syria is expected to put off any prospects of reviving peace talks for now.
Some Israelis, including hardline members of parliament, are breathing a sigh of relief that Israel didn't make peace with a regime that might be headed for extinction. But others say the country may have squandered an opportunity by not engaging Assad.
"There was a golden opportunity because Syria was controlled by one person, Assad, and he was the only one to make decisions and he could have signed an agreement," said Alon Liel, a former diplomat. If Syria splinters into rival factions, "it will be like the Palestinian situation where the Palestinians are split and there is no one to talk to."

How Obama's Libya claims fit the facts

There may be less than meets the eye to President Barack Obama's statements Monday night that NATO is taking over from the U.S. in Libya and that U.S. action is limited to defending people under attack there by Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
In transferring command and control to NATO, the U.S. is turning the reins over to an organization dominated by the U.S., both militarily and politically. In essence, the U.S. runs the show that is taking over running the show.
And the rapid advance of rebels in recent days strongly suggests they are not merely benefiting from military aid in a defensive crouch, but rather using the multinational force in some fashion — coordinated or not — to advance an offensive.
Here is a look at some of Obama's assertions in his address to the nation Monday, and how they compare with the facts:

"Our most effective alliance, NATO, has taken command of the enforcement of the arms embargo and no-fly zone. ... Going forward, the lead in enforcing the no-fly zone and protecting civilians on the ground will transition to our allies and partners, and I am fully confident that our coalition will keep the pressure on Gadhafi's remaining forces. In that effort, the United States will play a supporting role."
THE FACTS: As by far the pre-eminent player in NATO, and a nation historically reluctant to put its forces under operational foreign command, the United States will not be taking a back seat in the campaign even as its profile diminishes for public consumption.
NATO partners are bringing more into the fight. But the same "unique capabilities" that made the U.S. the inevitable leader out of the gate will continue to be in demand. They include a range of attack aircraft, refueling tankers that can keep aircraft airborne for lengthy periods, surveillance aircraft that can detect when Libyans even try to get a plane airborne, and, as Obama said, planes loaded with electronic gear that can gather intelligence or jam enemy communications and radars.
The United States supplies 22 percent of NATO's budget, almost as much as the next largest contributors — Britain and France — combined. A Canadian three-star general was selected to be in charge of all NATO operations in Libya. His boss, the commander of NATO's Allied Joint Force Command Naples, is an American admiral, and the admiral's boss is the supreme allied commander Europe, a post always held by an American.
OBAMA: "Our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives."
THE FACTS: Even as the U.S. steps back as the nominal leader, reduces some assets and fires a declining number of cruise missiles, the scope of the mission appears to be expanding and the end game remains unclear.
Despite insistences that the operation is only to protect civilians, the airstrikes now are undeniably helping the rebels to advance. U.S. officials acknowledge that the effect of air attacks on Gadhafi's forces — and on the supply and communications links that support them — is useful if not crucial to the rebels. "Clearly they're achieving a benefit from the actions that we're taking," Navy Vice Adm. William Gortney, staff director for the Joint Chiefs, said Monday.
The Pentagon has been turning to air power of a kind more useful than high-flying bombers in engaging Libyan ground forces. So far these have included low-flying Air Force AC-130 and A-10 attack aircraft, and the Pentagon is considering adding armed drones and helicopters.
Obama said "we continue to pursue the broader goal of a Libya that belongs not to a dictator, but to its people," but spoke of achieving that through diplomacy and political pressure, not force of U.S. arms.
OBAMA: Seeking to justify military intervention, the president said the U.S. has "an important strategic interest in preventing Gadhafi from overrunning those who oppose him. A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya's borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful — yet fragile — transitions in Egypt and Tunisia." He added: "I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America."
THE FACTS: Obama did not wait to make that case to Congress, despite his past statements that presidents should get congressional authorization before taking the country to war, absent a threat to the nation that cannot wait.
"The president does not have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation," he told The Boston Globe in 2007 in his presidential campaign. "History has shown us time and again ... that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the legislative branch."
Obama's defense secretary, Robert Gates, said Sunday that the crisis in Libya "was not a vital national interest to the United States, but it was an interest."
OBAMA: "And tonight, I can report that we have stopped Gadhafi's deadly advance."
THE FACTS: The weeklong international barrage has disabled Libya's air defenses, communications networks and supply chains. But Gadhafi's ground forces remain a potent threat to the rebels and civilians, according to U.S. military officials.
Army Gen. Carter Ham, the top American officer overseeing the mission, told The New York Times on Monday that "the regime still overmatches opposition forces militarily. The regime possesses the capability to roll them back very quickly. Coalition air power is the major reason that has not happened."
Only small numbers of Gadhafi's troops have defected to the opposition, Ham said.
At the Pentagon, Vice Adm. William Gortney, staff director for the Joint Chiefs, said the rebels are not well organized. "It is not a very robust organization," he said. "So any gain that they make is tenuous based on that."
OBAMA: "Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."
THE FACTS: Mass violence against civilians has also been escalating elsewhere, without any U.S. military intervention anticipated.
More than 1 million people have fled the Ivory Coast, where the U.N. says forces loyal to the incumbent leader, Laurent Gbagbo, have used heavy weapons against the population and more than 460 killings have been confirmed of supporters of the internationally recognized president, Alassane Ouattara.
The Obama administration says Gbagbo and Gadhafi have both lost their legitimacy to rule. But only one is under attack from the U.S.
Presidents typically pick their fights according to the crisis and circumstances at hand, not any consistent doctrine about when to use force in one place and not another. They have been criticized for doing so — by Obama himself.
In his pre-presidential book "The Audacity of Hope," Obama said the U.S. will lack international legitimacy if it intervenes militarily "without a well-articulated strategy that the public supports and the world understands."
He questioned: "Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma? Why intervene in Bosnia and not Darfur?"
Now, such questions are coming at him.

Syrian government resigns after protests sweep country

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accepted his government's resignation on Tuesday after nearly two weeks of pro-democracy unrest that has posed the gravest challenge to his 11-year rule.

But the move was unlikely to satisfy protester demands since the cabinet has little authority in Syria, where power is concentrated in the hands of Assad, his family and the security apparatus.

Tens of thousands of Syrians held pro-government rallies on Tuesday, awaiting a speech in which Assad was expected to announce a decision on lifting emergency laws that have served to crush dissent for almost 50 years.

That is a key demand of anti-government demonstrations in which more than 60 people have been killed.

"President Assad accepts the government's resignation," the state news agency SANA said, adding that Naji al-Otari, the prime minister since 2003, would remain caretaker until a new government was formed.

Protesters at first had limited their demands to greater freedoms. But, increasingly incensed by a security crackdown on them, especially in the southern city of Deraa where protests first erupted, they now call for the "downfall of the regime."

The calls echo those sounded during the uprisings buffeting the Arab world that, since January, have toppled veteran autocratic presidents in Tunisia and Egypt and also motivate rebels fighting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Syrian state television showed people in the Syrian capital Damascus and in Aleppo, Hama and Hasaka waving the national flag, pictures of Assad and chanting "God, Syria, Bashar."

"Breaking News: the conspiracy has failed!" declared one banner, echoing government accusations that foreign elements and armed gangs are behind the unrest. "With our blood and our souls we protect our national unity," another said.

Employees and members of unions controlled by Assad's Baath Party, which has been in power since a 1963 coup, said they had been ordered to attend the rallies, where there was a heavy presence of security police.

All gatherings and demonstrations not sponsored by the state are banned in Syria, a country of 22 million at the sensitive heart of generations of Middle East conflict.

Media organisations operate in Syria under restrictions. The government has expelled three Reuters journalists in recent days -- its senior foreign correspondent in Damascus and then a two-man television crew who were detained for two days before being deported back to their home base in neighboring Lebanon.


More than two hundred protesters gathered in Deraa chanting "God, Syria, and Freedom" and "O Hauran rise up in revolt," a reference to the plateau where Deraa is located.

Deraa is a center of tribes belonging to Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, many of whom resent the power and wealth amassed by the elite of the Alawite minority to which Assad belongs. Latakia, a religiously mixed port city, has also seen clashes, raising fears the unrest could take on sectarian tones.

The government has said Syria is the target of a project to sow sectarian strife.

Pakistani stocks end up; rupee firms; o/n rates flat

Pakistani stocks ended more than one percent higher amid healthy turnover on Tuesday, following foreign buying in the cement sector on hopes of healthy exports, dealers said.

The Karachi Stock Exchange (KSE) benchmark 100-share index ended 1.11 percent, or 128.37 points, higher at 11,711.40.

Volume rose to 110.39 million shares, compared with 78.9 million shares traded on Monday.

"The market rallied based on renewed foreign interest, which gave confidence to local investors to step in as well," said Asad Iqbal, chief investment officer at Faysal Asset Management Ltd.

Lucky Cement ended 1.67 percent higher at 65.94 rupees and Maple Leaf Cement closed 2.56 percent up at 2.40 rupees.

In the currency market, the rupee firmed against the dollar amid fewer import payments, and dealers said the local unit is expected to be range-bound in the coming days because of higher remittances from overseas Pakistanis.

The rupee closed at 85.25/35 to the dollar, compared with Monday's close of 85.31/36.

In the money market, overnight rates remained at a high of 13.90 percent amid tight liquidity in the interbank market. Dealers said rates would likely stay high because of the end of the quarter.