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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Al-Aqsa flares up tensions between Israel, Jordan

Jordan has threatened to expel Israel's ambassador over the regime's aggression in the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the occupied East Jerusalem Al-Quds.

According to a report by the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, Jordan threatened the expulsion in response to Israeli violation of the sanctity of Al-Aqsa mosque over the last two weeks.

Israel deployed thousands of troops in the area after it closed down the Al-Aqsa mosque compound to Palestinians and allowed Jewish worshippers to hold a religious ceremony in the site.

The closure of the holy compound caused fierce clashes in the city.

Under a peace treaty signed in 1994, Israel recognized Jordan's right to look after all Islamic and Christian holy sites in East Jerusalem al-Quds, which is considered by the United Nations as an occupied territory.

Last week, a senior Jordanian official called on Israeli police to keep Jewish religious extremists away from the compound d— known to Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount — and keep the Mugrabi Gate closed, Haaretz reported.

"That will calm the atmosphere while respecting the Jordanian role in Al-Aqsa mosque," said the official.

Before the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, visits to the holy site had to be coordinated with the Waqf religious trust, which is under Jordanian control.

Between 2000 and 2003, non-Muslims were completely barred from the area until the Israel police decided unilaterally to reverse the ban.

Israel occupied East Jerusalem Al-Quds during a 1967 aggression and later annexed it.

Abbas defends decision to defer vote on UN Gaza report

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Sunday defended his controversial decision to support deferring a vote on a damning Gaza war report at the UN Human Rights Council.

Exiled Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal, meanwhile, slammed the Palestinian leadership's decision as a "scandal" and said "the timing is not right" for a reconciliation deal between his movement and Abbas's Fatah party.

In a televised address, the embattled president accused the Islamist movement Hamas of leading the storm of criticism at the decision only as a means to postpone a long-delayed Palestinian reconciliation.

Abbas said the Palestinian delegation at the Geneva-based council backed the October 2 postponement of a vote on the so-called Goldstone report which was highly critical of Israel in order to gather maximum support for the measure.

"Since we felt that we would not be able to gather enough support, we asked for the postponement of the draft resolution until the upcoming session of the Human Rights Council" in March, he said.

Abbas said following the outrage over the deferral, which sparked criticism from Palestinian civil society groups and across the Arab world, he was directing Palestinian representatives at the UN to work toward bringing the Goldstone report for an early vote at the Human Rights Council.

He said the "storm of criticism" at the decision by Hamas was aimed at postponing a long-delayed Palestinian reconciliation deal that Egypt had announced for October 25-26 in Cairo.

"We are totally aware of this campaign by Hamas aimed at serving their interests, which is to postpone the signature of the reconciliation agreement," Abbas said. "They want to consolidate their rule and their regime in Gaza."

But Meshaal, in a speech in Damascus shortly after Abbas's address, said the atmosphere was not right for a deal between the rival factions.

"The Goldstone report was the final straw ... We can not accept any more mistakes," Meshaal said in a speech in Damascus, shortly after Abbas's address. "This is not a leadership which deserves our trust."

The decision to ask for a delay was a "scandal," he said. "The timing is now not right" for a reconciliation deal.

"The attitude of the Palestinian leadership on the Goldstone report has blocked the continuation of the inter-Palestinian dialogue," he said, although efforts were continuing with Egypt on a new timetable.

"Fatah deserves a better leadership" than one which had lied to the Palestinian people over the delay, said Meshaal.

Hamas has led the torrent of criticism of Abbas, charging he "betrayed" the some 1,400 Palestinian victims of the December-January war and has asked Egypt to postpone the signing of the reconciliation deal because of the decision.

In Gaza City, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said Abbas's speech "does not improve the national dialogue atmosphere."

Hamas routed long-dominant Fatah in the last Palestinian legislative election on January 25, 2006, ushering in months of tensions between the two main Palestinian factions that often boiled over into deadly street clashes and culminated with Hamas's bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007.

Egypt has been trying for months to persuade the two camps to sign a reconciliation deal and has already twice postponed signing ceremonies.

Ban supports Abbas on Goldstone report

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas received a supportive nod from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who on Sunday praised the Palestinian leader's engagement with UN member states regarding the Goldstone report on Operation Cast Lead, and told him he was a credible partner for peace.

The two men spoke by phone, as Abbas faces growing criticism from Palestinians and the Arab world for his decision earlier this month to defer a UN Human Rights Council resolution on the Goldstone Commission's report, which denounces Israel's military action in Gaza.

On the same day that Abbas reversed his decision and called for the council to hold a special session on the report, Ban spoke with him about the report as well as the recent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in east Jerusalem, according to his spokeswoman Michele Montas.

Ban "also expressed his support for President Abbas's engagement with member states on a proper process for the consideration of the Goldstone Report," said Montas.

She added that Ban would disclose his views on the report while it stands before UN bodies.

In a televised address on Sunday, Abbas called on the UN Human Rights Council to hold a special session to endorse the Goldstone Report.

"I gave instructions to our envoy to hold an extraordinary meeting of the Human Rights Council to vote on the resolution, in order to punish all those who committed the most brutal crimes against our children and women in Gaza," Abbas said.

The call for a special session marked a sudden turnaround from Abbas's stance at the start of the month, when he agreed to defer until March the council's vote on endorsing the report.

U.S. tells Egypt: Fatah-Hamas deal undermines Israel-PA talks

The United States sent a message to Egypt stating it does not support the proposed reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas as it would undermine negotiations with Israel, Haaretz has learned.

George Mitchell, the U.S. envoy to the Middle East, met on Saturday night in Cairo with the chief of Egyptian intelligence, Gen. Omar Suleiman, and told him the United States would not support an agreement not aligned with the principles of the Quartet.

According to the agreement, which was supposed to have been signed by Thursday, Abbas was to issue a presidential decree no later than October 25, scheduling both parliamentary and presidential elections for June 28. Eighty percent of the delegates to the Palestinian parliament were to be elected by party basis, and 20 percent by constituency.
A special committee with delegates from all factions was supposed to have assumed control of the Gaza Strip, reporting to Abbas. The Strip was also to see a new security force, staffed with members of all Palestinian factions.

Sources told Haaretz that Mitchell made clear to the Egyptians on Saturday the United States expects any Palestinian government to follow the conditions of the Quartet, which include recognition of the State of Israel, acknowledging earlier agreements and renouncing terrorism.

Mitchell also said certain aspects of current agreement were poorly timed as they would undermine relaunching negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The administration official said that the United States would continue to oppose those aspects of the agreement at any time. He noted American views on Palestinian governance have been made clear to the Egyptians several times.

The proposed Hamas and Fatah reconciliation agreement would have ended three years of civil strife and political discordance. The actual reconciliation ceremony between chief of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Meshal, and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, was to be held after the Id al-Adha holiday.

Formal ceremony

The agreement was authored by the Egyptian mediators, who suggested postponing the formal ceremony as Hamas announced it could not participate in the signing with Abbas after the Palestinian Authority president asked the United Nations to postpone discussion of the Goldstone report.

The mediators then announced they would send the agreement to the principal parties of Fatah and Hamas, expecting them to sign it and return it on October 15 at the latest. All other Palestinian groups are expected to add their signatures by October 20.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that on October 16 the PA will ask the UN Human Rights Council to forward the Goldstone report either to the UN Security Council or to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Abbas received a copy of the Egyptian-drafted agreement on Sunday evening, and Fatah had already said it was in full agreement with the Egyptian document. The Hamas position on the document remained unclear.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the meeting of the Likud caucus Monday that American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to visit Israel, perhaps as early as the end of the month. The prime minister said he is "more optimistic than some commentators about relaunching the peace process."

Pakistan suicide bombing toll mounts to 45

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The death toll from a suicide bombing carried out by a teenage boy who struck in a busy market in northwest Pakistan has risen to 45, officials said Tuesday.

The bomber, wearing a vest packed with explosives, flung himself at a military convoy as it passed through a bazaar in Shangla district on Monday, in the fourth deadly attack blamed on Taliban rebels in eight days.

"Two people died overnight and two more died this morning," doctor Ehsanullah Khan of the state run Alpuri hospital told AFP. Thirty-eight people remained in hospital with injuries from the blast, he added.

Fazle Karim Khattak, the administration chief of Malakand region, said that 39 of the dead were civilians and six were soldiers.

"The attacker was a young boy. He was standing at the side of the road. As soon as the convoy arrived, he rushed into the vehicles and blew himself up," Khattak told AFP.

A military official Monday said the bomber was about 13 or 14 years old.

After a brief lull following the death of Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud in a US missile strike in August, Pakistan has again been plunged into crisis with a wave of militant attacks killing 125 people in eight days.

Monday's attack in Alpuri town came after a group of 10 Islamist extremists raided Pakistan's army headquarters over the weekend leaving 23 people dead and underscoring the vulnerability of the nuclear-armed nation.

Shangla borders the scenic Swat valley, where the government claims to have quashed the Taliban threat in an offensive launched in April after Taliban rebels advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad.

The surge in violence comes as the army says it plans a full-scale offensive on Pakistani Taliban bases in lawless South Waziristan, bordering Afghanistan.

Monday, October 12, 2009

NKorea missile tests breach UN resolutions: Seoul

SEOUL — South Korea accused North Korea Tuesday of flouting a United Nations ban with its latest short-range missile tests, amid reports the communist state is planning more launches.

The North Monday launched five missiles off its east coast despite making a series of peace overtures since August.

Military experts said the launches could be part of routine exercises, but may also be a show of firepower for political purposes.

The North is under pressure to return to six-nation nuclear disarmament talks, which it quit in April.

The South's Yonhap news agency said there were signs the North was preparing later Tuesday for more launches, this time off the west coast.

Japan's coast guard said the North had warned of "firing exercises" day and night until October 25 in the Yellow Sea.

Pyongyang nevertheless agreed Tuesday to Seoul's request for talks on various issues.

They will meet Wednesday to discuss flood prevention in a cross-border river, and on Friday for talks on humanitarian issues including family reunions, according to Seoul's unification ministry. Related article: SKorea may resume food aid to North

The North on September 6 released millions of tonnes of water from a dam across the Imjin river, sweeping away six South Koreans camping or fishing downstream.

Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Jung Ok-Keun told South Korean lawmakers the KN-02 missiles fired Monday have a range estimated between 130-160 kilometres (80-100 miles), greater than the 120 kilometres previously believed.

The foreign ministry said the launches breached UN Security Council resolutions banning ballistic missile tests, and urged the North not to repeat them.

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama told reporters in Tokyo that if the launch reports were correct, "I think it's very regrettable."

Regional tensions rose in April when the North fired a long-range Taepodong-2 rocket. When the UN censured the exercise, the North quit the six-party nuclear talks and staged its second atomic weapons test.

Monday's missile tests were the first for over three months. They came a week after leader Kim Jong-Il expressed conditional willingness to return to the six-party talks.

But Kim insisted on first holding direct negotiations with the United States to improve "hostile relations".

Washington has said it is open to bilateral talks but only in order to bring the North back to six-party negotiations, which are hosted by China and also group the two Koreas, the United States, Russia and Japan.

The latest launch operation appears part of regular military exercises but also has a political motive, said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.

"It is designed to take the upper hand in future negotiations with the US, not South Korea," he told AFP.

The North in recent weeks made conciliatory gestures both to Washington and Seoul after months of fiery rhetoric and rising military tensions.

It freed five South Korean detainees, eased curbs on the operations of a joint industrial estate and sent envoys for talks with President Lee Myung-Bak.

It also resumed a reunion programme for families separated by the 1950-53 war, after a lapse of two years. Hundreds of separated relatives held tearful and brief reunions two weeks ago.

A media report said the South was considering resuming food aid, which was suspended as ties soured.

Chosun Ilbo newspaper, quoting an unidentified government official, said Seoul was mulling providing its hungry neighbour with up to 30,000 tons of food -- much smaller than annual shipments in previous years.

The unification ministry said no decision would be made before the results of the inter-Korean talks later this week were studied.

Obama didn't choose himself for peace prize

It was just a small reminder that we live in interesting times in regards to the 44th president of the United States.

Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize last week and almost nobody thought to congratulate the guy! As my mother would say: "Where are your manners?"

According to the Nobel Prize Committee, Obama was chosen "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."

Or, as other pundits put it, he won mainly for not being George W. Bush.

If you spent any time talking politics to co-workers or friends last Friday, Obama's Nobel Peace Prize probably came up. Soon after the announcement became public, there was an explosion of opinions - some would call it a meltdown - on the Internet.

(Best Twitter line: "The committee decided to give him the Nobel peace prize after he called Kanye West a jackass.")

Loud protests were heard from many of the same folks who have been proclaiming for months that Obama was the absolute worst president in the history of modern America. They thought he was so dangerous, he shouldn't be allowed to speak to the nation's schoolchildren. The same folks criticized Obama for "losing" the 2016 Olympic Games for Chicago and called it a sign he had no respect from the international community.

And then he goes and wins the Nobel Peace Prize! (Is it any wonder Rush Limbaugh can't stand this guy?)

Many readers who discussed this subject on my Raising Kane blog on expressed surprise and more than a little confusion as to what Obama had actually done to deserve it. Even White House officials reportedly thought they were being "punked" before confirming the information.

After all, it's the same prize won by Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel, Lech Walesa, Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter. Last year, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari was the winner for his efforts resolving international conflicts. If you can't remember much hoopla about it, that's not surprising.

Most people doing real work for peace usually go unrecognized.

Obama appeared appropriately humbled during his acceptance speech last week, freely admitting he didn't feel he deserved to be included in the pantheon of names who have won the award in the past. Actually, he also seemed pretty shell-shocked at the prospect of suddenly becoming a Nobel Peace Prize winner who is also commander in chief of the U.S. military during an ongoing war.

How is that supposed to work exactly?

The Nobel Peace Prize probably looks great on the mantel, but getting chosen as this year's "American Idol" registers way higher on the popular culture scale for many Americans. Obama's prize might not seem appropriate based on his track record to date, but sometimes the Nobel committee has grand designs in mind that aren't necessarily tied to any single accomplishment as much as sending an international message.

If you don't agree, your beef isn't with Obama; it's with the Nobel committee. I don't think he can give it back.

Winning the Nobel Peace Prize this early in his presidency places a heavy burden on Obama, but since he's already the first black president of the United States, how much more pressure can it be?

So let me take this opportunity to offer my congratulations to our president; he didn't really seem to get much last week.

us healthcare overhaul poised for big step forward

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama's push for sweeping healthcare reform was poised to clear a key Senate hurdle on Tuesday, opening a new phase in the raging debate over his top domestic priority.

The Democratic-controlled Senate Finance Committee will consider its plan to cut healthcare costs, regulate insurers and expand coverage at a meeting starting at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT), with a vote a few hours later.

If approved as expected, the bill would be merged with the Senate Health Committee's version over the next few weeks and moved to the full Senate, setting off an eventual floor battle with Republicans who call it too costly and a heavy-handed government intrusion.

The Finance Committee vote will be closely watched to see if Senator Olympia Snowe, a moderate from Maine, becomes the first Republican in Congress to back a health reform bill and if any of Obama's fellow Democrats defect on the issue.

Snowe's support could give Democrats a crucial swing vote as they try to hold the 60 Senate votes needed to overcome procedural roadblocks. Democratic defections would create a major threat to passage in the Senate, where the party controls only 60 seats and has no margin of error.

Two weeks of panel debate left the key elements of Chairman Max Baucus's plan intact. Support was strengthened by last week's estimate from nonpartisan analysts that it would cost $829 billion -- well below Obama's target of $900 billion -- and meet the president's goal of reducing the budget deficit.

The insurance industry launched an attack on the measure on Monday, releasing a report it commissioned that charged the bill would drive up costs and insurance premiums. The White House dismissed the report as "self-serving."

The Finance Committee bill requires all U.S. citizens and legal residents to have health insurance and provides subsidies on a sliding scale to help them buy it.

It would create state-based exchanges where individuals and small businesses shop for insurance and would bar insurers from refusing to cover people with pre-existing conditions or dropping those with serious illnesses.

The bill does not include a government-run "public" insurance option backed by Obama and liberal Democrats as a way to create competition for insurers. Republican critics say that approach would undermine the private insurance industry.

The other Senate bill, passed by the Health Committee, includes a public insurance option and supporters have vowed a floor fight over the issue in the Senate.

Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives have been trying to meld three versions of a healthcare bill. Last week they submitted a single bill to budget analysts for cost estimates that included three different versions of a public insurance option.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hamas is not al-Qaida

The New Statesman's interview with Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader, was one of the most significant interviews with the leading figure in a movement that has been demonised and excommunicated by most of the western world and its media. The fact that Meshal realises that his words will be scrutinised by his allies and supporters as closely as his adversaries confirms that he speaks of the official position of Hamas on a number of crucial issues which the pro-Israel propaganda apparatus has managed to manipulate for so long.

Arguably, the most important assertion made in the interview, conducted by Ken Livingstone, is that in which Meshal clearly stated that the Palestinian struggle was anything but a conflict between Muslims and the Jewish people. He insisted that the Palestinians were fighting against the occupier who had dispossessed them of their homes and lands, regardless of religion, creed or race. He also went on to confirm that the concept of coexistence was largely present in the Palestinian psyche, and that genocide, as suffered by Jews in Europe (and which he described as "horrible and criminal") was alien not only to the Palestinians but to the inhabitants of the region as a whole.

His statement that Jews, Muslims and Christians had for centuries lived side by side – implying there was nothing intrinsic to prevent this happening again in the future – is crucial. This mirrors Ismail Haniyeh's response, after he became prime minister in 2006, to the question of whether the Palestinians wished to throw the Jews into the sea: "Does a besieged people that is waiting breathlessly for a ship to come from the sea want to throw the Jews into the ocean? Our conflict is not with the Jews, our problem is with the occupation."

This unequivocal stand is one that ought to be welcomed by Jewish communities around the world. Rather than the fear-mongering tactics of the Israeli media machine, particularly during the Gaza attack earlier this year, warning Jews of imminent attacks against them and their facilities, Meshal was sending a clear message of assurance that the Palestinian struggle was political rather than religious and about real political grievances and not against the Jewish people per se. This comes after Meshal had himself publicly rejected any attack committed anywhere in the world which exploited the premise of the Palestinian struggle.

His comments on democracy were equally enlightening. He explained that since the Palestinian people included the entire political, religious and ideological spectrums, Hamas would abide by the outcome of their vote, respect the rights of different faiths and political views, and refrain from imposing Islamic law against the wishes of the people. This position has been condemned by al-Qaida and the leading Salafi-jihadi theologian Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi who stated that they and Hamas shared "neither ideology nor doctrine".

Meshal's interview was denounced by Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis on grounds that would equally exclude the government from talking to Israel were it not for the double standards applied to Palestine and the Middle East. Indeed, the very fact that Ivan Lewis should be made a minister with responsibility for the Middle East, given his clear bias as a former deputy leader of the Labour Friends of Israel, is a sad indication of how little interest it displays in convincing people of any kind of fairness in its approach to this part of the world.

The British government led the way in proscribing Hamas when the Islamic movement won the majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament in January 2006. More recently it is reported that the British government has been heavily involved in training and supporting the security forces of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which have been accused of imprisoning, torturing and physically abusing members of Hamas and other political factions. While finding time to condemn an interview in a weekly magazine, neither Ivan Lewis nor the British government as a whole has accepted the finding of the authoritative UN report on Gaza authored by a committee led by a South African judge well known for his support for Israel, which condemned Israel for war crimes and possibly even crimes against humanity in Gaza.

A few weeks ago in Oxford, the foreign secretary, David Miliband, spoke promisingly on the Palestinian issue, making clear that al-Qaida and Hamas were quite different. On that he was right. When the Twin Towers were attacked in September 2001, the Palestinian intifada was at its peak and people around the world were gripped by the resolve and tenacity of the Palestinian people. Visiting South Africa at the time, I found most universities had unions supporting the Palestinian struggle and comparing it to their own successful struggle against apartheid.

However, one immediate reaction to the collapse of the towers and the death of almost 3,000 Americans was the mobilisation of the Israeli propaganda machine which claimed that the fight it was engaged in on the streets of Palestinian towns and villages was the same as that which the US and its people had horrifically come face to face with. The message was that Hamas, which was in the forefront of the Palestinian struggle, was one and the same as al-Qaida, and that their persecution of Hamas was simply part of the global war on terror. The radical different policies and methods of Hamas and al-Qaida, not least the refusal of Hamas to take up arms outside Palestine, were dismissed.

Even the most superficial examination exposes these lies. Al-Qaida has four main features: it has called for a "global war on the Crusaders and Jews"; it sees any target anywhere around the world that serves its cause as legitimate; it dismisses democracy as an affront to Islam and a satanic system of rule; and it believes in enforcing Sharia law in all Muslim countries, if not beyond.

As Gideon Levy, a columnist for the popular Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, explains in the New Statesman, Hamas is totally different. In fact, Hamas supports democracy, is the democratically elected majority representative of the Palestinian people and takes up arms solely within Palestine because there is no alternative against an illegal occupying power that confiscates its people's lands and destroys their livelihoods. In similar circumstances, as Israeli leaders have themselves admitted, any people in the world would do the same.

It is high time that we act assertively to resolve the 61-year Palestinian tragedy and end the ongoing crisis. It is time for the British government to stop discrediting itself by blatant double standards and to listen to many, including the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, and to recognise and speak directly to those whom the Palestinian people have chosen to represent them: Hamas.

Meshal: reconciliation accord to be signed next month in Cairo

Hamas Politburo's Head Khaled Meshal has declared that Cairo is crystallizing the final formula of national reconciliation and all the Palestinian groups would be invited to sign the accord next month.
Speaking in a press conference followed his meeting with the Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman in Cairo, Meshal said :"Hamas positively dealt with the Egyptian paper as a suitable ground base for achieving reconciliation".
"Not sending a written reply by Hamas on the Egyptian paper is due to our keenness on coming to Cairo to affirm our stance that supports sealing a reconciliation deal to end Palestinian division", Meshal added.
He appealed to Fatah to open a clean slate to confront occupation, protect Jerusalem and guarantee refugees' right to return.
Hamas Leader called for halting security coordination between Palestinian authority and Israel and returning to resistance choice.
On the other hand, Meshal called on Arab and Islamic states to shoulder their responsibility towards Jerusalem cause, warning against response to the US call for normalization with Israel in exchange for rewards.
In this context, member of Hamas Politburo Mahmod al-Zahhar stressed that positive reply on the Egyptian paper does not mean concession but an actual attempt to heal the rift and to reach a deal.
The attempt to coordinate response of the Palestinian groups in Damascus on the Egyptian paper was failed because number of groups (Popular and Democratic Fronts, and Islamic Jehad Movement) separately sent their replies to the Egyptian leadership.

US urges Israel to probe Gaza

US urges Israel to probe Gaza crimes to boost peace.

* U.S. urges Israel to conduct credible probes of war crimes

* Says confidence-building measure would boost peace process

* UN rights council debates Goldstone report on Gaza crimes

* Goldstone says MidEast impunity has reached "crisis point"

GENEVA, Sept 29 (Reuters) - The United States called on its close ally Israel on Tuesday to conduct credible investigations into allegations of war crimes committed by its forces in Gaza, saying it would help the Middle East peace process.

Michael Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, said that Hamas leaders also had a responsibility to investigate crimes and to end what he called its targeting of civilians and use of Palestinian civilians as human shields in the strip.

The U.N. Human Rights Council was holding a one-day debate on a recent report by Richard Goldstone, a South African jurist and former U.N. war crimes prosecutor.

His panel found the Israeli army and Palestinian militants committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity during their December-January war. Israel did not cooperate with the U.N. inquiry and has rejected the report as biased.

"We encourage Israel to utilise appropriate domestic (judicial) review and meaningful accountability mechanisms to investigate and follow-up on credible allegations," Posner said in a speech to the Geneva forum.

"If undertaken properly and fairly, these reviews can serve as important confidence-building measures that will support the larger essential objective which is a shared quest for justice and lasting peace," he said.

The United States joined the Council, set up three years ago, for the first time earlier this year.

Posner reiterated Washington's view that the Council paid "grossly disproportionate attention" to Israel, but said that the U.S. delegation was ready to engage in balanced debate.

Earlier, Goldstone said a lack of accountability for war crimes committed in the Middle East has reached "crisis point", undermining any hope for peace in the region. [ID:nLT514167]


"A culture of impunity in the region has existed for too long," Goldstone told the Council.

"The lack of accountability for war crimes and possible war crimes against humanity has reached a crisis point; the ongoing lack of justice is undermining any hope for a successful peace process and reinforcing an environment that fosters violence."

Israel says its offensive was intended to stop militants firing rockets at Israel. Israeli human rights group B'Tselem says 773 of 1,387 Palestinians killed were civilians. Israel says 709 combatants and 295 civilians were killed. Thirteen Israelis, 10 soldiers and three civilians, died.

Goldstone's report urges the U.N. Security Council to refer the allegations to the International Criminal Court in the Hague if either Israeli or Palestinian authorities fail to investigate and prosecute those suspect of such crimes within six months.

"Our primary recommendation is that Israel and the authorities in Gaza should carry out good-faith, transparent investigations. International courts are courts of last resort, not first resort," he said on Tuesday.

Israel's ambassador Leshno Yaar rejected the report as "shameful" and "one-sided". It was "based on carefully-selected incidents, cherry picked for political effect".

Israel had opened more than 100 investigations, including damage inflicted on U.N. centres and medical facilities in Gaza, 23 of which had resulted in criminal proceedings, he said.

It faced "an enemy that intentionally deploys its forces in densely populated areas, stores its explosives in private homes and launches rockets from crowded school yards and mosques".

Ibrahim Khraishi, ambassador of the Palestinian delegation, urged the Council to adopt the report which he called objective.

"My people will not forgive the international community if the criminals are left without punishment," he said.

By Stephanie Nebehay

Facebook pulls Obama death poll

Facebook Inc. reportedly took down a poll Monday that was launched by a member which asked if President Barack Obama should be killed.

The Associated Press reported that the U.S. Secret Service launched an investigation into the online survey that appeared on the Palo Alto, Calif.-based social networking site that asked whether people thought Obama should be assassinated.

The choices on the poll were no, maybe, yes, and yes if he cuts my health care.

AP said Facebook took down the poll and disabled the application that was used to create it.

"We're working with the U.S. Secret Service, but they'll need to provide any details of their investigation," AP quoted Barry Schnitt, Facebook's spokesman for policy, as saying.

We'll change world again - Brown

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has urged Labour to "change the world again" as he makes his make-or-break speech to the party's annual conference.

He said voters at the election, due to be held by next June, would have the "biggest choice for a generation".

He unveiled a string of policies including in what is being seen as a make-or-break Labour conference speech.

These included more free childcare for poor families paid for by ending tax breaks for better-off families.

In a repeat of last year, wife Sarah delivered a heartfelt tribute to her husband from the conference stage.

She told delegates Mr Brown was "no saint" but they had "been together through some tough times, and some great times, and we will be together forever".

And she added: "I know he loves his country and I know he will always, always put you first."

Tories 'wrong'

Mr Brown set out the differences between Labour and the Conservatives on the economy in an address seen as vital to ending threats to his leadership and lifting party morale.

He said: "Our country confronts the biggest choice for a generation. It's a choice between two parties, yes. But more importantly a choice between two directions for our country."

And in a hard-hitting attack on "right wing" ideology, he told delegates: "The Conservative Party were faced with the economic call of the century and called it wrong."

He vowed to protect the "squeezed middle" of low and middle income earners from global market forces.

"In a crisis what the British people want to know is that their government will not pass them by on the other side but will be on their side," he said.

Before the speech, Downing Street sources said the PM would commit to provide within five years 10 hours of free childcare a week for 250,000 two-year-olds from families "on modest or middle incomes".

The plans would be paid for by scrapping existing tax relief for childcare called the Employer Supported Childcare scheme which can save basic rate taxpayers as much as £962 a year, rising to £1,195 for top rate payers.

The sources refused to say how it defined "middle or modest incomes" and claimed the existing scheme benefited richer families too much saying about a third of the total - went to top rate taxpayers.

Spirits among the Labour delegate in Brighton will not have been boosted on Tuesday morning with the news that an Ipsos Mori survey suggests the Conservatives are on 36%, Labour on 24% and the Liberal Democrats on 25% - the first time since 1982 that this polling firm has recorded Labour in third place.

'Lawless minority'

Mr Brown is continuing the "fight-back" theme of the conference after Business Secretary Lord Mandelson urged the party faithful to be "fighters, not quitters".

On anti-social behaviour the prime minister will tell delegates: "We will not stand by and see the lives of the lawful majority disrupted by the behaviour of the lawless minority.

"Because the decent, hard working majority are getting evermore angry - rightly so - with the minority who who will talk about their rights but never accept their responsibilities."

As part of a wider package of crime measures, he will announce moves to combat "problem families" he will claim are causing misery in communities with fourfold increase in the use of Family Intervention Projects.

These are binding contracts which require parents of children guilty of anti-social behaviour to accept one-to-one support or else lose their benefits.

He will also pledge to force the courts to issue more Drinking Banning Orders - so-called drink Asbos - against anyone convicted of a crime who was under the influence of alcohol at the time.

But Conservative leader David Cameron said the government had made it harder for police to tackle anti-social behaviour.

"They hardly spend any time on the streets," he said. "They spend all their time at their desks, filling in orders from the Home Office.

"We've got to get rid of police paperwork, we've got to get them back on the streets and we've got to make them feel empowered to intervene and clear these people off the streets.

"And [we've got to] make them accountable locally so there are consequences if they don't deliver."

Mr Brown is also thought to be ready to take part in a series of TV debates with David Cameron not just during the general election campaign but before it, the BBC understands.

If the debates took place they would be the first ever televised prime ministerial debates to be held in Britain.

Death Toll Hits 240 in Philippine Flooding

All Maximo Merioles Jr. could think about were his two children. As the floodwaters that had swamped his neighborhood came close to submerging him, he grabbed his two kids, ages 12 and 10, and swam toward another house, clambered up to the third floor, jumped between roofs and climbed down a wall to safety across the street.

Mr. Merioles’s heart sank Saturday as he watched not just the flood but also a raging fire eat up most of the houses in Tatalon, a slum area in Quezon City, one of the cities that make up Greater Manila.

As residents dealt with the aftermath of Tropical Storm Ketsana, the government was facing criticism on two fronts: Did it provide enough warning before the floods, and was it doing enough to help people recover?

To help with the recovery, the government on Monday appealed for international help as the death toll rose to at least 240.

The American Embassy deployed Navy personnel to help out in the rescue and relief operations and also promised $50,000 in immediate disaster aid.

“The system is overwhelmed, local government units are overwhelmed,” Anthony Golez, a spokesman of the National Disaster Coordinating Council, told reporters during a briefing on Monday. “Our assets and people are spread too thinly.”

In Tatalon, unlike the other areas that were ravaged by the storm, what the flood did not destroy, the fire did. Seven residents died in Tatalon, officials said.

Mr. Merioles and the others interviewed in his neighborhood said electrical power remained in their area even as the floodwaters rose above four feet. No one knows exactly how the fire started. “Either you die from the fire or from the flood,” said Mr. Merioles, a stocky electronics repairman.

The tropical storm arrived in the Philippines over the weekend, releasing the largest amount of rainfall in nearly half a century and flooding 80 percent of Greater Manila before moving on to Vietnam, where it has killed at least 23 people, The Associated Press reported Tuesday morning.

Nearly 2 million people in the Manila area were affected, including more than 100,000 who were displaced after the storm dumped 16.7 inches of rain in just 12 hours on Saturday.

In Pasig City, one of the hardest-hit suburbs near the heavily silted and polluted Pasig River, the floodwaters in many communities hardly decreased. “The water is not moving,” a tearful Nene Monfort, 71, told ABS-CBN television in a live interview. She said she and her family, who have been holed up on the second floor of their apartment, could not come down because of the water.

The Health Department warned Monday of a possible spread of infectious diseases, especially in the refugee centers of Manila, which number more than 200.

And as the affected residents tried to rebuild their lives, they were seeking answers as well.

Many, like Rene Anselmo, 57, a retired driver in Tatalon whose three-story house was burned down except for about 5 feet of browned concrete and singed wood, wanted to know “why there was no warning about a flood this big.”

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, the government’s weather bureau, denied in local reports that it had been negligent in warning people, saying it had issued warnings as early as Thursday, even raising storm alert levels the next day.

In an attempt to help deal with the aftermath of the storm, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo decided to open a portion of the grounds of the presidential palace to refugees. “The president has allowed the use of Malacanang itself, her own home, to be a center of relief operations,” said her press secretary, Cerge Remonde. He said the first family would be transferred to another area in the presidential compound.

The government also had declared a “state of calamity” in metropolitan Manila and 25 storm-hit provinces, including many that had not flooded before, allowing officials to use emergency funds for relief and rescue.

Mrs. Arroyo earlier announced that her government would not relent in its efforts to help those hurt by the storm.

Criticism of Mrs. Arroyo’s response could affect the presidential election, which is eight months away. The administration’s candidate is Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, who also leads the National Disaster Coordinating Council.

In the narrow streets of Tatalon, residents spent Monday taking out burned trash, dumping it on the main street outside of the slum, where mounds of black debris had been piled, practically blocking the street. Filthy floodwaters snaked beneath the rubbish.

Zoraya Tera, a 39-year-old homemaker, spent hours scrubbing her floor tiles and cleaning up her burned utensils. “Nothing is left, as you can see, but I am glad that none of my children were hurt,” she said, gesturing at what remained of her home, which had nothing in it except the burned and now rusting galvanized iron roofs.

Congress: Public option day

It's public option day at the Senate Finance Committee. The big mystery: Will Olympia Snowe offer her plan -- a public option trigger -- as an amendment? “The Senate Finance Committee is expected to consider whether the government should offer its own insurance plan for the middle class in competition with private carriers. A public option is the top goal for liberals, but it has no Republican support and moderate Democrats say the Senate will never go along.”

“So Tuesday's debate is expected to pit Democratic liberals against moderates. Although the public plan isn't expected to get a majority of the panel, supporters say at least they'll know where everybody stands.”

The Hill breaks down the Senate Finance Committee mark-up. There are 13 Dems and 10 Republicans. “Apart from Snowe, the GOP is lined up strongly against the legislation. Baucus can afford to lose one Democrat when the final vote comes -- or two if Snowe jumps aboard.”

Schumer’s influence: “Sen. Charles Schumer has revived the prospect of a public insurance option in the Senate’s version of healthcare reform. Whether it ultimately passes may depend on a handful of first-term Democrats who owe their seats, in significant measure, to the support they received from Schumer (D-N.Y.) when he headed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in 2006 and 2008.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's health care leadership seems to be in the media's crosshairs of late. Yesterday, it was about how he's relying on the White House to cut the big deals needed to get 60 votes. And today, the New York Times focuses on how he's gotten a Medicaid exception of Nevada in the Finance Committee bill.

The Washington Times has a good analysis of the GOP strategy in the Senate which, surprisingly to some, has meant the party will NOT offer a policy alternative and instead will continue to strategically target the bill on things like, transparency. "But the Republican strategy, so far, doesn't have much to show for it. One of the most substantial Republican arguments - and one that shows signs of resonating with the public - came from Mr. Bunning. It called for the entire bill to be posted online in legislative text for three days before the committee casts its final vote. The Congressional Budget Office would also have to submit a full analysis of the bill - requiring two weeks of work."

The Democratic-leaning group Americans United for Change is running a new TV ad ($25,000 buy in Orlando, Louisville, and DC) targeting health insurer Humana.

by Mark Murray

Iran Offers Eventual Inspection of Nuclear Plant

PARIS — One day after it said it test-fired missiles capable of striking targets 1,250 miles from its soil, Iran said Tuesday it would soon offer a timetable for international inspectors to visit a hitherto secret nuclear enrichment facility, but was not prepared to renounce its nuclear program or debate its “rights” to operate the previously undeclared plant.

The existence of the facility near the holy city of Qum was revealed last Friday by President Obama and the leaders of France and Britain, at the same time as the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency’s announced that Tehran had informed it of the plant’s existence earlier in the week.

Coming only days before the first direct contact between the United States and Iran at international talks in Geneva on Thursday, the disclosure sharply raised tensions between Tehran and Washington, fueling suspicions that Iran is secretly seeking a nuclear weapons capacity — a charge it has long denied.

Alluding to the talks on Thursday, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told reporters in Tehran on Tuesday: “We are not going to discuss anything related to our nuclear rights, but we can discuss about disarmament, we can discuss about non-proliferation and other general issues.”

“The new site is part of our rights and there is no need to discuss it,” he said, adding Tehran would not abandon its nuclear activities “even for a second,” Reuters reported.Western concerns over the nuclear program and its hostile potential deepened on Monday when Iran said that its Revolutionary Guards had test-fired missiles with sufficient range to strike Israel, parts of Europe and American bases in the Persian Gulf.

“Iranian missiles are able to target any place that threatens Iran,” a senior Revolutionary Guards official, Abdullah Araqi, was quoted as saying by the semiofficial Fars news agency.

The reported tests were of the liquid-fueled Shahab-3 and the solid-fueled Sejil-2 missiles, which can travel up to 1,250 miles. The test-firings recalled a debate among spy agencies in the United States, Germany and Israel over whether Iran planned to build not only a nuclear weapon but also the means to launch it.

Press TV, Iran’s English-language satellite broadcaster, also quoted Mr. Salehi on Tuesday , as saying the government was preparing a “timetable for inspection of its recently-announced nuclear facility.” Mr. Salehi was speaking in an interview late Monday, Press TV said. It did not say when the international weapons inspectors would be permitted to view the plant, which is not yet in operation, according to Iranian accounts.

Mr. Salehi repeated Iranian assurances that the new plant will “produce enriched uranium of up to 5 percent, consistent with its nuclear energy program.” That level of enrichment is far less than required for nuclear weapons.

“Salehi noted that the plant is under construction within the framework of the I.A.E.A. regulations,” Press TV said. It quoted the official as saying, “Iran has taken all the precautionary steps to safeguard its nuclear facilities.”

Mr. Salehi accused Western leaders of politicizing Iran’s nuclear activities but promised that Iran would seek to resolve the dispute over the newly disclosed plant “both politically and technically” with the I.A.E.A. and with the outside powers that deal with the issue — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.

Mr. Salehi described as “baseless” accusations that Iran was planning to use the hitherto secret plant to make weapons-grade material. According to Press TV, he said it was “against our ethics and religion” to build nuclear weapons.

“It is against our tenets, it is against our religion to produce, use, hold or have nuclear weapons or arsenal, how can we more clearly state our position? Since 1974 we have been saying this,” Mr. Salehi was quoted as saying.

Despite such protestations, the Obama administration is now working to assemble a package of tougher sanctions, which could include a cutoff of investments to the country’s oil and gas industry as well as restrictions on many more Iranian banks, senior administration officials said Sunday.

A spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry said at a news conference Monday that Iran’s missile tests had been planned for some time and were not linked to the nuclear dispute, Press TV reported.

Less than two weeks ago Mr. Obama canceled a plan from the administration of George W. Bush to station a radar facility in the Czech Republic and 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland as part of what had been described as a shield against potential missile attacks from Iran.

The Obama administration now plans to deploy smaller SM-3 interceptors by 2011, first aboard ships and later in Europe, possibly in Poland or the Czech Republic.

The military exercise and escalating tensions with the West coincide with a period of political uncertainty in Iran, in the aftermath of Iran’s disputed June 12 election.

On Monday a protest erupted at Tehran University, the first of the new school year and the first since the demonstrations that had followed the vote, when opponents accused President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of falsifying results.

The Revolutionary Guards were essential to safeguarding the president’s victory and led the violent crackdown after the election that opposition leaders say killed at least 72 people.

The force, which also runs the country’s missile program, remains close to Mr. Ahmadinejad and accountable only to the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The Revolutionary Guards, in addition to being part of Iran’s military, has in recent years become one of the largest conglomerates in the country. It has been awarded more than 750 construction, oil and gas contracts and has its own ports.

On Sunday, in a deal that underlined its expanding economic and political power, the Revolutionary Guards purchased just over 50 percent of Iran’s Telecommunication Company in a $7.8 billion deal.

The organization’s political influence has also increased, with many of its members elected to Parliament in 2003 or appointed as cabinet ministers in 2004.

Now, the Revolutionary Guards’ hold on the country’s telecommunications systems will give it further control over land-line, Internet and cellphone services. On election day, the country’s text messaging service was cut off; the cellphone network was disconnected during the unrest that followed. Opposition leaders accused the government of misusing state-run services.

The deal announced Sunday was part of the government’s plan to privatize business sectors. But critics have complained that the government is awarding institutions close to it while the real private sector is excluded. The Revolutionary Guards’ unit involved in the deal competed only with a company affiliated with the Basij, a paramilitary organization that assisted the Revolutionary Guards in putting down the postelection protests.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Obama to Attend Olympic Vote

WASHINGTON — President Obama will travel to Copenhagen later this week to support Chicago’s bid to play host to the 2016 Summer Games, the White House and the Chicago organizers announced on Monday. It will be the first time an American president attended an International Olympic Committee vote and lobbied in person for an American city to become host of the Games.

Mr. Obama had initially said that the pressing issue of health care reform would prevent him from making the trip to Copenhagen, where one of four cities — Chicago, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro or Tokyo — would be named the host city after Friday’s vote. Mr. Obama said he would send his wife, Michelle Obama, a lifelong Chicagoan, in his place. But there were signals last week that Mr. Obama was likely to make the trip after all, and the White House sent an advance team to Copenhagen to prepare the way. The final decision was made public early Monday morning.

“President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama symbolize the hope, opportunity and inspiration that makes Chicago great, and we are honored to have two of our city’s most accomplished residents leading our delegation in Copenhagen,” Mayor Richard M. Daley said in a statement. “Who better to share with members of the International Olympic Committee the commitment and enthusiasm Chicago has for the Olympic and Paralympic Movement than the President and First Lady.”

The Chicago bid leader, Patrick G. Ryan, said he was honored that Mr. Obama would join the bid team “for the pinnacle moment in our bid.”

The host city will be announced Friday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time, after each city delivers a 70-minute final presentation to the 100-plus I.O.C. members. Mr. Obama is expected to be a part of that final presentation. Heads of state from Brazil and Spain are also expected to be present in Copenhagen.

The competition to become the host city for the 2016 Games is said to be the tightest in years. Rio, trying to become the first South American city to play host to the Games, is thought to have a slight lead over Chicago. The vote may be won by one or two votes, so Mr. Obama’s presence there is “very critical” because he is likely to sway votes Chicago’s way, said Robert Livingstone, the producer for the Web site, which follows the business of Olympic bids.

Mr. Obama and his wife will join a large delegation that will be in Copenhagen, including more than two dozen Olympians and Paralympians. Oprah Winfrey, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also will make the trip.

Other bid cities will have their own large group of supporters in Copenhagen. But in the recent past, the presence of the heads of states made the difference.

Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain set the bar high in 2005, when he and his wife, Cherie, traveled to the I.O.C. meeting in Singapore to lobby for London’s bid for the 2012 Games. London won those Games in an upset over Paris. Mr. Blair’s last-minute efforts were said to have won the day.

At the next vote to choose a host city, in 2007, Vladimir Putin, who was then president of Russia and is now prime minister, addressed the I.O.C. membership in Guatemala City in English, pushing for the resort city of Sochi, Russia, to host the 2014 Winter Games. Sochi was chosen.

For China, Iran uranium plant no game changer

By Emma Graham-Harrison - Analysis

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's distaste for sanctions and appetite for Iran's oil may hamper Western efforts to ramp up pressure on Tehran after disclosure of the country's second uranium enrichment plant.

The United States and Western European powers want greater force behind demands that Iran come clean on its nuclear plans, following last week's revelation of the new nuclear facility.

China may be persuaded to back some sanctions, especially if Russia joins U.S. and European calls for action, experts say.

But Beijing is likely to flex its power as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to dilute any proposed resolution that could threaten its ties with Tehran.

"On the one hand China knows that relations with the United States and Europe are very important, but on the other hand it has substantial diplomatic, strategic and energy interests in Iran," said Shi Yinhong, professor of International Relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

"China is in the middle ground so it will go some way to meet the West, but less than half way. It will make some criticism and censure of Iran, but this will be very soft."

The United States and its Western allies have made clear they will focus on Iran's nuclear program at rare talks with Iranian officials in Geneva on Thursday, which China will attend.

Iran has offered wide-ranging security talks but says it will not discuss its nuclear "rights." Adding to tensions, Iran test-fired mid-range missiles on Monday.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says the new nuclear facility was legal and open for inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency -- the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

U.S. officials said work began on the covert plant as an alternate site for possible weapons development as scrutiny at a first plant made it hard to conduct such activities there. Iran says its nuclear work is for peaceful power generation purposes.

The news has triggered calls from Western capitals for additional "sanctions that bite" if Tehran does not come clean on its nuclear plans and address international concerns.

Even Russia -- previously reluctant to go along with further penalties -- showed greater willingness to consider such action.

Yet for China, which has long insisted it does not interfere in other nations' affairs, there has been no change in stance beyond a hint of frustration with Tehran.

Even with neighbor North Korea, which poses a more immediate security threat because it has exploded two nuclear devices, Beijing has been consistently wary of tightening sanctions.

"A political solution to the Iranian nuclear issue is in the interests of the world," said the popular Global Times tabloid, owned by Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily

Iran flexes muscle ahead of talks with major powers

TEHRAN, Sept 28 (Reuters) -

Iran test-fired missiles on Monday which a commander said could reach any regional target, flexing its military muscle before crucial talks this week with major powers worried about Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

The missile drills of the elite Revolutionary Guards coincide with escalating tension in Iran's nuclear dispute with the West, after last week's disclosure by Tehran that it is building a second uranium enrichment plant.

News of the nuclear fuel facility south of Tehran added urgency to the rare meeting in Geneva on Thursday between Iranian officials and representatives of six major powers, including the United States, China and Russia.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who says any military action against Iran would only "buy time" and stresses the need for diplomacy, mentioned possible new sanctions on banking and equipment and technology for Iran's oil and gas industry.

Iran's Foreign Ministry said there was no link between the missile manoeuvres and the nuclear activities.

"This is a military drill which is deterrent in nature," spokesman Hassan Qashqavi told a news conference broadcast by English-language Press TV. "There is no connection whatsoever with the nuclear programme."

Press TV said the Shahab 3, a surface-to-surface missile with a range of up to 2,000 km (1,250 miles), was "successfully" test-fired on the second day of an exercise that began on Sunday, when short and medium-range missiles were launched.

Such a range would put Israel and U.S. bases in the region within striking distance. Television footage of the launches showed missiles soaring into the sky in desert-like terrain, to shouts of Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest).

"All targets within the region, no matter where they are, will be within the range of these missiles," said General Hossein Salami, commander of the Guards' air force.

Salami said the exercise was over and had achieved its goals. "All the test-fired missiles managed to hit their targets without any errors and with precision," the forces website quoted him as saying.


The tests sparked swift international condemnation.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the missile test was "part of an annual provocation" by Iran and should not distract from the pending Geneva talks.

"On Thursday (Iran will) need to ... show that they are serious about ensuring that their civilian nuclear power programme does not leak into a military programme," Miliband told Britain's Sky News.

European Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana, who will head the Western delegation in the Geneva talks, said "everything that is done in that context is a concern."

He said the aim of Thursday's talks was "engagement".

When asked what sanctions Iran should face if it failed to comply with Western demands over its nuclear programme, Solana said "now is not the time to talk about that".

France called on Iran "to choose the path of cooperation and not that of confrontation by immediately ending these profoundly destabilising activities and by immediately responding to the requests of the international community in order to reach a negotiated solution on the nuclear dossier."

The United States and its Western allies have made clear they will focus on Iran's nuclear programme at the Geneva meeting. Iran has offered wide-ranging security talks but says it will not discuss its nuclear "rights".

Washington, which suspects Iran is trying to develop nuclear bomb capability, has previously expressed concern about Tehran's missile programme. Iran, a major oil producer, says its nuclear work is solely for generating peaceful electricity.


The Pentagon chief told CNN he hoped the disclosure of the second facility would force Tehran to make concessions. "The Iranians are in a very bad spot now because of this deception, in terms of all of the great powers," Gates said.

"There obviously is the opportunity for severe additional sanctions. I think we have the time to make that work."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Iran must present "convincing evidence" at the Geneva meeting.

"We are going to put them to the test on Oct. 1," Clinton told CBS' "Face the Nation. "They can open their entire system to the kind of extensive investigation that the facts call for."

Both interviews were taped before Iran started the two-day missile exercise, designed to show it is prepared to head off military attacks by foes like Israel or the United States.

Iran's state broadcaster IRIB said "upgraded" versions of Shahab 3 and another missile, Sejil, had been tested. Officials have earlier said Sejil has a range of close to 2,000 km (1,250 miles). They were powered by solid fuel, IRIB said.

Neither the United States nor its ally Israel have ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to resolve the nuclear row.

Iran has said it would respond to any attack by targeting U.S. interests in the region and Israel, as well as closing the Strait of Hormuz, a vital route for world oil supplies.

Iran's defence minister warned Israel on Monday against launching any attack on the Islamic Republic, saying it would only speed up the Jewish state's own demise.

"If this happens, which of course we do not foresee, its ultimate result would be that it expedites the Zionist regime's last breath," Ahmad Vahidi said on state television.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Saturday the discovery of a secret nuclear plant in Iran showed a "disturbing pattern" of evasion by Tehran. He warned Iran on Friday it would face "sanctions that bite" unless it came clean.

Iran has rejected Western accusations that the plant was meant to be secret because it did not inform the U.N. nuclear watchdog as soon as plans were drawn up, saying the facility near the holy city of Qom is legal and can be inspected.

"Nothing has been illegal. It has been absolutely based on law," said the Foreign Ministry's Qashqavi. "All activities are transparent ... we are prepared to clarify other aspects."

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the BBC he had had a couple of meetings with IAEA inspectors and it was agreed they would be given access to the site "in the near future". He gave no date. (Reporting by Tehran and Washington bureaux, Avril Ormsby in London; writing by Samia Nakhoul; editing by Dominic Evans)

By Fredrik Dahl and Hossein Jaseb