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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.