Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Russia warns West against military action in Syria

Russia will block any attempt by the West to secure U.N. support for the use of force against Syria, Russia's foreign minister said Wednesday.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia's draft of a U.N. Security Council resolution on the violence in Syria that circulated Monday was aimed at making it explicitly clear that nothing could justify a foreign military interference. Western diplomats said it fell short of their demand for strong condemnation of Syria's President Bashar Assad's crackdown on civilians, that has left more than 5,000 people dead.

The Security Council has been unable to agree on a resolution since the violence began in March because a strong opposition from Russia and China. In October, they vetoed a West European draft resolution, backed by the U.S., that condemned Assad's attacks and threatened sanctions.

Lavrov said Russia would reject any attempts at securing a U.N. sanction for a military interference in Syrian affairs.

"If some intend to use force at all cost ... we can hardly prevent that from happening," he said. "But let them do it at their own initiative on their own conscience, they won't get any authorization from the U.N. Security Council."

Lavrov also said that Russia doesn't consider it necessary to offer an explanation or excuses over suspicions that a Russian ship had delivered munitions to Syria despite an EU arms embargo.

Lavrov told a news conference that Russia was acting in full respect of the international law and wouldn't be guided by unilateral sanctions imposed by other nations.

"We haven't violated any international agreements or the U.N. Security Council resolutions," he said. "We are only trading with Syria in items, which aren't banned by the international law."

Lavrov accused the West of turning a blind eye to attacks by opposition militants and supplies of weapons to the Syrian opposition from abroad.

"They are dodging the main question — why we should keep silent about the extremist opposition's actions against administrative buildings, hospital, schools," he said, urging the West to use its contacts with the opposition to urge it to refrain from violence.

He said that arms supplies to the Syrian opposition are "unacceptable and absolutely counterproductive, because it only fuels more violence."

Russia has been seen as a backer of the Syrian regime since the Soviet times when Syria was led by Bashar Assad's father, although Russian officials last fall hosted prominent Syrian opposition leaders in Moscow in a bid to sponsor talks.

Meanwhile, activists said Syrian troops have shelled a town near the border with Lebanon, and living conditions were deteriorating there after six days of siege.

A resident and activist of the mountain resort of Zabadani describes the town as a "war zone." He says dozens of anti-government army defectors are deployed at the entrances to prevent any attempt by forces loyal to Assad to storm the area.

The man who identified himself only as Fares for fear of government reprisals told The Associated Press by phone that the town was shelled with mortars shortly before noon Wednesday.

Thousands of people have been killed in the regime's crackdown on the anti-Assad revolt, which began as a peaceful uprising but which has turned increasingly militarized in recent months.

Bahrain: Activists defy ban on downtown protest

Witnesses say Bahraini riot police have chased anti-government protesters out of the center of the island kingdom's capital.

The scuffles Wednesday came a day after authorities denied the country's main Shiite-backed opposition party, Al Wefaq, permission to hold protests in central Manama.

Witnesses say hundreds of protesters were scattered throughout the old city and diplomatic area, and police used stun grenades to disperse some of them.

Bahrain's majority Shiites have been the driving force behind widespread protests inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings over the past year.

Wednesday's protests erupted a day before Bahrain hosts an air show that runs through Saturday.

Pakistani crisis shows army's limits

Pakistan appears on the brink of chaos again, with the judiciary and army bearing down on its elected leaders. But already the crisis has underlined how Pakistan has changed in recent years: The military can no longer simply march in and seize power as it has done three times over the last six decades.

As a result, opportunities remain for both sides to back down. The civilian government may be able to ride it out until elections now seen likely in late summer.

"If this were the '90s, there would have been a coup a year ago," said Moeed Yusuf of the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace.

A watchful media poised to hound the generals — and a populace under few illusions that the top brass can be saviors after failing so many times before — seem to have acted as a brake on any designs by the army. The judiciary itself, although regarded by some as out to get President Asif Ali Zardari, would not sanction a coup.

It's also unclear how much of an appetite the judges have for dismissing a government that heads a coalition with a solid majority in parliament and with just one year left before it has to call elections.

Opposition parties are happy to see the government weakened. But the country's largest party, that of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is no fan of the army and might not want to come to power on the shoulders of a military intervention.

"The status quo remains, despite all the institutions coming to a head. Every scenario you paint, there will be chaos and no one benefits," Yusuf said.

To be sure, tensions are higher now than they have ever been since Zardari took office in 2008, and the crisis could yet turn in unpredictable and dangerous directions. The political turmoil has all but paralyzed governance in the nuclear-armed country, hampering American hopes of rebuilding strained ties with Islamabad and securing its help with negotiating peace in neighboring Afghanistan.

Last week, coup jitters spread after the army issued an unusual warning of "grievous consequences" for the country over a scandal involving an unsigned memo sent last year to Washington asking for U.S. help in preventing a coup in the aftermath of the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

But pundits and government critics alike have been predicting the imminent fall of either Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani or the government they head for much of the past four years. Each time, they have been proven wrong.

The next crunch date will be Thursday, when Gilani has been summoned to appear before the Supreme Court to explain why he has not ordered the attorney general to reopen a corruption case dating back years against his boss, Zardari.

Zardari and his late wife, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, were found guilty in absentia in a Swiss court in 2003 of laundering millions of dollars in kickbacks when they were in government.

They appealed, and Swiss authorities abandoned the case in 2008 at the request of the Pakistani government. The case was among thousands dropped as a result of an amnesty that allowed Bhutto to return from exile and contest elections in 2008.

Supporters of the deal said most of the cases were politically motivated and that "reconciliation" was needed to allow the country to move forward after years of cutthroat politics. The Supreme Court struck down the amnesty in 2009, and the standoff has simmered since then.

Gilani is being asked to write to Swiss authorities and request that they reopen the case against Zardari.

The government has resisted doing this for the past two years, saying the president has immunity from prosecution while in office.

If the court convicts Gilani of contempt, he could serve up to six months in prison and be disqualified from holding office. Faced with the prospect of time behind bars, Gilani may now agree to send a letter.

The most likely option, though, is that Gilani will make a conciliatory speech and play for time, dragging the process out. Zardari has publicly said he would never send a letter to Geneva because it would disrespect the memory of his wife, who was killed by Islamist militants in 2007.

If Gilani resigns or is forced to stand down by the court, the ruling party will elect another prime minister from the loyalists that stack the benches in the parliament.

The government has its eyes set firmly on Senate elections in March that are likely to result in a majority for Zardari's party in the upper house. That would give the party significant clout for the next six years even if it crashes in general elections.

Even if Gilani does write the Swiss, it is hard to see how the president will be in any immediate danger. Last year, Swiss prosecutors told reporters they couldn't prosecute Zardari since he had immunity. There are also questions of whether the statute of limitations has expired.

The Supreme Court has also formed a commission to investigate the memo delivered to Adm. Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military officer at the time. The American-Pakistani businessman who allegedly handed over the letter has hinted that it was drafted on Zardari's orders. If that can be proven, Zardari would be vulnerable to possible criminal proceedings — though that would likely take months.

Many observers suspect Zardari's party is happy to play up conflict with the army and the judges because it diverts attention from its paltry list of achievements in office. The party may even embrace the prospect of being kicked out because it would fire up its base ahead of elections.

The Pakistan People's Party has a long history of battles with the army. Benazir Bhutto's father, Former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was executed by a military dictator in 1979. Zardari himself was elected on a massive sympathy vote after Benazir Bhutto's Dec. 27, 2007 assassination, which the party was happy to hint could have been orchestrated by elements of the army establishment.

Army, ISI chiefs adopted wrong procedure for SC reply

Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) president Yasin Azad on Wednesday said that the army chief and DG ISI did not follow the right procedure for filing their replies in the court, DawnNews reported.

Speaking to media representatives, Azad said that army was subordinate to prime minister under the constitution.

He said that the Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani will be welcomed in the apex court on January 19.

Commenting on national politics, the SCBA president said that the country and the political parties lack absolute democracy.

Wikipedia, others to go dark to protest anti-piracy proposals

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia will go offline Wednesday, joining a daylong Internet strike to protest proposed laws aimed at combating digital piracy.

More than a dozen other large websites — including discussion forums Reddit and Boing Boing, and Firefox browser designer Mozilla — also are closing down Wednesday in protest.

Hundreds of other sites, such as search-engine giant Google, are posting links on their home pages highlighting opposition to the legislation.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) in the Senate target foreign websites that violate copyrights online by banning U.S. companies from providing them with advertising, payment or other Internet services.U.S. payment processors and advertisers would have to end service to foreign websites that copyright holders say are infringing their rights, or be liable to be sued. Search engines and Internet companies would be banned from providing links to infringing sites.

The proposed laws “endanger free speech both in the United States and abroad, and set a frightening precedent of Internet censorship for the world,” said Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales in a statement.

He said Wikipedia’s English-language community decided to join the strike after a three-day debate in which 1,800 members of the encyclopedia’s global community had participated.

Critics argue that the proposals would stifle Internet innovation, a key driver of U.S. and global economic growth.

“Had these bills been passed five or 10 years ago, even YouTube might not exist today,” said the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group promoting Internet openness and deregulation. “The collateral damage from this legislation would be enormous.”

Mozilla Corp., the nonprofit that produces the Firefox browser, said the proposed laws would “protect content at all costs, creating the opportunity for abuse and damaging online capabilities for all of us.”

“We hope the blackout of our U.S. sites will educate people about this important issue,” the company said.

Supporters of the bills include movie and music companies such as Walt Disney, content providers such as the National Football League and News Corp., pharmaceutical companies such Eli Lilly, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

They argue the bills’ sweeping provisions are necessary to shutter the burgeoning numbers of foreign-based cybercrime sites that sell counterfeit goods, pirated software or fake pharmaceuticals, or stream copyrighted content like music and movies.

Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and the main author of SOPA, defended his legislation Tuesday, saying it is needed to protect U.S. companies that generate jobs and export earnings.“It is ironic that a website dedicated to providing information is spreading misinformation” about SOPA, said Mr. Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

“The bill will not harm Wikipedia, domestic blogs or social-networking sites. This publicity stunt does a disservice to its users by promoting fear, instead of facts. Perhaps during the blackout, Internet users can look elsewhere for an accurate definition of online piracy.”

Afghan air force learns to fly _ and fix aircraft

Twenty years ago, Afghan Air Force pilot Maj. Abdul Aziz was streaking across the sky in the Soviet Union's deadliest fighter-bomber.

Now 45, his new task is less dramatic or flamboyant, yet perhaps even more important: Help build and train a new skilled air force that can keep the planes and helicopters in the air after Western mentors go home.

The challenge of forging a modern, technically proficient air force in a country at war is an immense but essential element in the West's exit strategy. The target date for having an Afghan Air Force able to operate fully independently, with about 8,000 trained personnel and 145 aircraft, is 2016.

The war against the resurgent Taliban has relied heavily on NATO aircraft to fly infantry units to remote outposts, keep them supplied in battle and provide close air support. Missiles fired from drones and exploding roadside bombs may get the media attention, but in a mountainous country with few paved roads, this has largely been a helicopter war.

Schooling a new cadre of pilots and air crews to fly is tough enough. But Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who until last year headed NATO's training mission in Afghanistan, stressed that training the thousands of support and maintenance personnel is even more critical — if the force is to be sustainable in the long run.

If not, history will repeat itself. In the 1990s, the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance fighters battling the Taliban were flying Soviet-made helicopters left in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

"The Northern Alliance chief of staff told me they had 70 helicopters, mostly Mil Mi-17s," Caldwell said. "Within a one-year period, none of them could fly anymore — not because they were shot out of the sky, but because the (Afghans) could not maintain and sustain them."

The NATO-led force is due to end its combat role in 2014, when it will hand over responsibility for security to the Afghan military and police. But thousands of troops and advisers will likely remain behind for at least several years to help train and mentor the government's security forces.

Allied nations have already supplied refurbished Italian-built C-27A tactical transports, Mi-35 helicopter gunships and Mi-17 transport choppers. Aside from the attack helicopters, the only dedicated close air support aircraft will be about two dozen A-29 Super Tucano counterinsurgency turboprops.

Afghanistan's air force dates to the 1920s, and reached its zenith during the 1980s Soviet occupation with nearly 500 fighter planes and bombers, transport aircraft and helicopter gunships. But it became little more than a scrap heap, left to decay by the Taliban during the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, then destroyed on the ground by U.S. bombing in 2001.

So when the corps was reformed in 2005, it had to start from scratch. Thousands of different specialists — including crew chiefs, engine and airframe technicians, avionics and communications experts, loadmasters and air base firefighters — had to be recruited and trained. The force currently has about 5,000 members and 86 aircraft.

"I loved being a pilot, but I chose to become an instructor because I wanted to serve my country," said Maj. Aziz, whose exchanged the cockpit of a Sukhoi Su-22 fighter jet for a classroom. "I am training the trainers who will in the future be able to train all the personnel that the air force needs, without the help of foreign advisers and supervisors."

And the search for the right personnel became the major challenge in developing the service.

In contrast to the effort to reconstitute the Iraqi Air Force in the 1990s, which retained a large cadre of trained and experienced pilots and engineers from before the 2003 U.S. invasion, the task in Afghanistan is much more complicated because it requires that the air force be created from the ground up — including basics such as teaching recruits how to read and write.

"About 85 percent of our current recruits are illiterate — and that's on a good day," said Col. Michael T. Needham, commander of the 738th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron. The unit's American, Canadian, Jordanian and Portuguese instructors are assisting, training and advising the 230 Afghan staff of the aviation college at Kabul airport to provide general, as well as military, education.

"The goal is really to get them to a point where the mentors are not necessary," Needham said. "We would like to work ourselves out of the job."

A potentially equally serious problem is the air force's annual attrition rate of nearly 20 percent. While not as bad as the rate at which troops are leaving the desertion-ravaged Afghan Army, this makes it difficult to retain a cadre of trained and experienced personnel.

Pilots are being trained in Shindand in western Herat province. The school at Kabul airport is in charge of developing the maintenance skills that the ground crews will need to keep the planes flying.

In a sign of the difficulties faced by the air force in finding reliable personnel, an Afghan military pilot opened fire after an argument last April at Kabul airport, killing eight U.S. trainers and advisers and an American civilian contractor.

U.S. military investigators found no conclusive evidence that the officer, Col. Ahmed Gul, had any ties to the insurgency. But the incident illustrated the dangers faced by military and civilian trainers and advisers who work daily with Afghan forces to prepare for the eventual departure of international troops.

No ‘Tsunami’ can deter us: Bilour


Talking to media in Hayatabad, Bashir Bilour said government does not favour clash among the institutions.

He said government respects judiciary and Prime Minister will appear in the court on January 19th. Bilour urged all political parties to focus on national interest instead of criticising each other.

Giving his views on Imran Khan’s growing political support, Bilour said that no ‘tsunami’ can deter his party (ANP) as its members have a strong political background.

Army subordinate to executive

Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) President Yasin Azad said the Army was subordinate to the executive.

Speaking to the media Azad said Army Chief Kayani and DG ISI Pasha did not follow the correct procedure in submitting their replies to the Supreme Court in the memo case.

The SCBA president added that absolute democracy did not exist in the country or in political parties.

Aitzaz, Talpur discuss Govt-Judiciary relationship

Prime Minister’s counsel Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan and President Zardari’s sister Faryal Talpur met during meeting of aspirant candidates for Senate election from Lahore division at Zardari House Islamabad.

According to sources, consultation was also made to give Aitzaz Ahsan Senate ticket. After the meeting, Faryal Talpur and Aitzaz Ahsan discussed the strategy to address the challenges faced by the government and the party.

The discussions were also held to normalize the relationship between the government and the judiciary. Jahangir Badar, Raja Pervez Ashraf, Faisal Karim Kundi and Ch Manzoor were also present in the meeting.

PIA official 'held' for not delaying flight for Sindh IG

Karachi Police arrested a PIA official for not delaying the flight for Sindh IG Mushtaq Shah.

Boat Basin Police raided the house of PIA’s Deputy Shift Manager Irshad Ali Rind and arrested him for not delaying the flight from Karachi to Sukkur for Sindh IG Mushtaq Shah.

Talking to Dunya News, Irshad said that the Sindh IG had to leave for Sukkur by PIA flight PK 509 but he could not arrive at the airport on time.

He said that the police officials pressurised him to delay the flight otherwise threatened to face dire consequences.

Irshad said that the police raided his house harassed his wife and children and arrested him and detained in police station for several hours. Afterward, Irshad was released on the intervention of Sindh Home Minister Manzoor Wasan.

According to police sources, the Home Minister has immediately suspended SHO Boat Basin.

Saudi Women Attempt Escape from Male Guardianship Laws

Mona Hamid left Saudi Arabia 8 years ago for a career in marketing in Dubai. Now, the mother of two and a career woman is fighting back against what she calls the archaic practice of male guardianship in her home country.

“When I wanted to leave Saudi Arabia after university, I had to get permission from my father, and that took a lot of convincing,” she told “I had to explain why this was a good idea and how I would still be able to find a husband.”

Hamid did find a husband, an Irish man, which led to years of battles with her family, who demanded she divorce and marry a Saudi man.

“It was ridiculous and for at least three years, my father didn’t talk to me,” she continued.

This is when she started to blog, anonymously, about male dominance in the ultra-conservative Gulf kingdom and the male guardianship system as a whole, which demands a woman have permission to travel abroad and conduct everyday life in Saudi Arabia.

A married woman in Saudi must also get permission to work, which often leads to a struggle inside the home, she said. “What we see is that many women are married young and forced to stay at home and have children. It is a tough life for women in Saudi Arabia,” Hamid said.

With women like Hamid, there are now groups online battling against the ultra-conservative ways of Saudi Arabia. They are demanding women have the right to drive, work as they please and travel at their whim.

Many women’s rights activists cite the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, as clear evidence that women have the right to work. Islam, they say, is clear that women can have a job.

In Saudi, however, women are only permitted to work if their job does not interfere with their duties as a wife and mother. More specifically, their profession should not allow them to mix with men.

“Women should also have special skills, such as in teaching or medicine. Islamic scholars generally agree that women seeking employment do not need a guardian’s permission. But the government does not see it this way and allows the conservatives to control what a woman does and where she goes,” said Riyadh-based women’s rights activist and blogger Rania Abdullah, who told that she works with local women to empower them before marriage.

“The key for Saudi women’s future is to start working before getting married, because this gives young women the ability to choose their life, and their partner easier,” she added.

Last fall, a group of Saudi women launched a campaign to abolish the Ministry of Labor’s rule that women must have guardian approval to seek employment. Alia Banaja, a spokeswoman for the group, told the Saudi media recently that the Saudi constitution affirms women’s equality by stating in gender-neutral language that, “Equality, justice and consent are the basis for ruling.”

“For women to have the chance to work in the profession of her choice, obstacles must be eliminated out of her way,” Banaja told the English language newspaper Arab News.

By challenging the Ministry of Labor’s guardianship rules, the group is doing what was unthinkable just a few years ago.

While this battle will likely continue for years to come, for women like Hamid and Abdullah, it is the first step in what they hope will be a women’s revolution in the Gulf kingdom.

“If we can continue to maintain pressure and push women to the forefront, it will be a matter of time before we start to change society,” Hamid said.

Michelle Obama whisked away to lavish dinner by Barack and friends to celebrate birthday

First Lady Michelle Obama turned 48 in style last night, escorted by her husband to a celebratory dinner in Washington to mark the occasion.

The president and first lady were dining Tuesday at BLT Steak, a classy establishment not far from the White House.

Outside the restaurant, the Secret Service was out in force to secure the area as President Obama and the first lady were joined inside by White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and friends.Earlier, with his wife at his side, the president gave her a lighthearted compliment at an event celebrating the St. Louis Cardinals' World Series victory.

He said: 'When we first married, it was a little controversial that she was 20 years younger than me, but now it seems to have worked out OK.'

Mrs Obama spoke up to say she's 48. The president is 50.

But while the first lady was winded and dined at BLT Steak, there was a security alert back at the White House, where an Occupy protester is believed to have hurled a smoke bomb over the fence.
Even as she ages another year, Mrs Obama has shown that she is still young at heart.

Last week, she launched own her Twitter account, as if demonstrating -if any confirmation were needed- that she is well and truly in touch with the youth.

On Monday night, she showed off some of her acting and dancing chops as she appeared on an episode of Nickelodeon’s iCarly.

Obama’s dance moves drew plaudits from the 'iCarly' cast.

I think she showed everybody up in the dance department,' said Jennette McCurdy, who plays Samantha on the show.

In an interview with CBS News last week, Mrs Obama disputed a portrayal of herself in a new book about her relationship with the president.

She said: 'That's been an image people have tried to paint of me since the day Barack announced, that I'm some kind of angry black woman.'

She added that she's 'just trying to be me, and I just hope that over time, that people get to know me.'

Russia: U.S. deserves no explanation on Syria arms

Russia, which has been criticised for its sale of weapons to conflict-torn Syria, has no intention to justify its actions to the United States, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday.

Lavrov spoke after a Russian-operated ship carrying what a Cypriot official said was ammunition arrived in Syria last week from St. Petersburg after being held up in Cyprus. The United States said it had raised concerns about the ship with Russia.

"We don't consider it necessary to explain ourselves or justify ourselves, because we are not violating any international agreements or any (U.N.) Security Council resolutions," Lavrov told an annual news conference.

The U.S. envoy to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said on Tuesday that the United States had "very grave concern about arms flows into Syria from any source."

She said it was unfortunate that there was no arms embargo against Syria, where the United Nations says more than 5,000 civilians have been killed in a 10-months crackdown on opposition to President Bashar al-Assad's rule.

Russia, which along with China blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution in October that threatened an arms embargo on Syria, says an embargo would cut of supplies to the government while enabling armed opponents to receive weapons illegally.

President Zardari enjoys complete immunity

Senior member of the PPP Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan said that President Asif Ali Zardari enjoyed immunity under article 248 of the constitution, Geo News reported. He was talking to media here on Wednesday.

Aitzaz Ahsan said that there was no harm in writing a letter to Swiss authorities as President Asif Ali Zardari enjoyed immunity under article 248.

Answering a question regarding former president Pervaiz Musharraf’s immunity, Ahsan said that he did not have immunity as there was a civil suit against him while President Zardari faced criminal cases in which he enjoyed complete immunity until he was holding the president office.

Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan would be defending Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani before the Supreme Court on Thursday in the contempt of court case.

Aitzaz Ahsan along with other senior PPP members would accompany Prime Minister Gilani to the Supreme Court when he appears on Jan 19 to reply in person to the contempt of court notice, sources informed.

Websites go dark to highlight protest

Wikipedia and several websites shut down at midnight in protest of anti-piracy bills that critics say could amount to censorship.