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Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Bias Against Israel

Amnesty International’s report on the conflict in Gaza is fundamentally biased against Israel (“Report Accuses Israel and Hamas of War Crimes in Gaza,” news article, July 3). Nothing illustrates this more starkly than when the report deals with the issue of Gaza civilians caught up in the conflict.

When assessing Israeli efforts to warn civilians of an impending attack, whether by telephone or by leaflet, the report says that all such warnings did was create panic because the civilians had nowhere to flee.

On the other hand, when the report looked at Hamas’s placing military infrastructure in the heart of civilian areas, it minimized the effect by arguing that Hamas did not force people to stay in their homes so civilians could flee attacks.

In other words, Amnesty adjusted its version of the facts to suit its a priori assumptions that Israel was the main party responsible for civilian deaths.

In fact, in a complicated situation, Israel did all it could to avoid civilian casualties. The main violator of human rights was Hamas; its eight-year rocketing of Israeli civilians and its deliberate placing of its military in civilian buildings, homes, schools, hospitals and mosques were major violations of international law. One would barely know this from the Amnesty “investigation.”

Kenneth Jacobson
Deputy National Director
Anti-Defamation League
New York, July 5, 2009

Op-Ed: Israel backers must support a settlement freeze

DURHAM, N.C. (JTA) -- The Jewish community in America has always supported Israel. We have raised funds, walked in solidarity, visited whenever possible and prayed for the safety of the Jewish state since its very inception. “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel” is a comment made sincerely by many.

But surely, if we stand with Israel, if we want what’s best for the Jewish state, we must be honest -- we must tell the leadership of our spiritual home the truth. And the truth is, President Obama is right when he says that settlement building must stop.

There are many reasons to argue for a settlement freeze. The economic drain of the settlements on the Israeli economy is enormous. The government has spent more than half a billion dollars on the settlements annually, with each settler getting thousands of dollars more in benefits than other Israelis. Furthermore, the Israeli government has already signed an international agreement committing itself to a freeze – the 2003 "road map."

Also, the establishment of a viable Palestinian state depends on territorial contiguity, and more construction makes the achievement of a state that much more difficult. Finally, as a rabbi, I might be expected to concern myself with the moral implications of the settlement project.

But the American Jewish community really needs to focus on only one thing in this battle over settlements: Freezing construction will lead to an improvement in Israel’s security. This result will not be direct, nor will it be immediate. But calling a halt to Israeli construction on the West Bank will serve as the first, vital step in a process that, simply put, will make Israel a safer place to live.

One need only look at a map to see what Palestinians see every day: Israeli settlements -- and the attendant bypass roads, roadblocks and security fence -- have served to carve the West Bank into ever shrinking pieces. Palestinians look at the cranes and bulldozers and know what we are often loath to admit: Each new stone laid in an Israeli settlement is further reason to distrust the Israeli government’s statements that it wants peace.

A settlement freeze is a requirement if the sides want to start a true negotiation process. Not only will it will allow the Palestinian leadership to sit at the table in good faith, it also will free the rest of the Arab world to begin to act on the promise of normalization made in the Arab League Peace Initiative. It will serve as the single clearest statement Israel can make that it is serious in its intention to see the establishment of a durable Palestinian state alongside Israel. And a sincere negotiating process, difficult and painful as it may yet prove, is the one thing that can lead Israel to real peace and true security.

In fighting the freeze, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is risking not only this process but also the alienation of Israel’s strongest, staunchest ally. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have made it abundantly clear that unlike the Bush administration, they mean what they say and they say what they mean. They expect the Israeli government to stand by its commitment to freeze all construction in the settlements. Can Israel afford to push the Americans away?

Furthermore, the settlements have proven themselves a burden on Israel’s military for years. Every soldier sent to protect settlements or escort settlers on the roads is a soldier unavailable to guard Israel’s borders. Each soldier trained to check Palestinian IDs at one of the hundreds of West Bank roadblocks is a soldier unavailable for training in modern warfare. Every dollar spent on patrols around West Bank cities is a dollar unavailable for upgraded equipment. The state of Israel’s military preparedness was revealed in the summer of 2006 during the Second Lebanon War, and the Israeli public and Jewish Diaspora grieved together to see the high cost of going to war unprepared.

A settlement freeze would not immediately halt attacks on Israel. It would not immediately free up financial or military resources with which to build a stronger country, nor would it guarantee that Israel and the United States will see eye-to-eye in the future.

But it would be an incalculably important first step, demonstrating clearly to the American administration, the Palestinian people and the world at large that Israel is serious in its peaceful intentions. And this, in turn, will allow peace talks to move forward.

If we are to truly stand with and for Israel, we must stand for peace. If we stand for peace, we as a community must stand for the settlement freeze.

Worst violence since US pullback hits Iraq

BAGHDAD (AP) — Bombs killed nearly 60 people in Iraq on Thursday in the worst violence since U.S. combat troops withdrew from urban areas last week, and American forces released five Iranian officials suspected of aiding Shiite insurgents.

U.S. officials said they believe the Iranians, detained in northern Iraq in January 2007, had facilitated attacks on American-led forces but handed them over to the Iraqi government at its request because they were obliged to do so under a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement.

The U.S. State Department said it was concerned their release could present a security threat to American troops in Iraq.

Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, called the release a "good initiative" that could encourage dialogue between Washington and Tehran, which are longtime foes.

Iranian Embassy spokesman Amir Arshadi said Iraq had transferred the Iranians, described by their government as diplomats, to the embassy. Washington believes they are associated with the Quds Force, part of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps, and that they trained Iraqi militants.

The carnage within Iraqi borders Thursday was a sign that insurgents remain intent on destabilizing Iraq as the United States shifts its focus to the war in Afghanistan. Attacks are down sharply from past years of war and militants have been driven from many strongholds, but they routinely inflict casualties in Baghdad and northern Iraq, a cauldron of ethnic and sectarian tension.

The most lethal attack Thursday was in the northern city of Tal Afar, where women sat in the street amid torn and bloodied bodies in the aftermath of suicide bombings, wailing and beating their chests in grief. Several men crouched and wept into their hands. Others rushed the wounded to ambulances; some used a bed sheet as a makeshift stretcher.

In a statement on his Web site, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani condemned the attacks and said the "forces of evil and terrorism" were trying in vain to demoralize Iraqi security forces and the civilian population.

Some 130,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, but they have a much lower profile and are preparing for a complete pullout by the end of 2011. Iraqi attitudes are mixed, with some rejoicing over the absence of American troops in their streets and a new sense of sovereignty, and others worried that extremists will now have more freedom to operate.

"Our security forces are still weak, with poor intelligence," said Saeed Rahim, a government employee in Baghdad. "Deploying more unqualified troops into the streets does not necessarily lead to better results."

The day's violence began at 6:30 a.m., when a suicide bomber in a police uniform and carrying a radio and a pistol knocked on the door of an investigator in the anti-terrorism police force in Tal Afar. When the officer opened the door, the bomber detonated his explosive belt, killing the officer, his wife and son, said Maj. Gen. Khalid al-Hamadani, police chief of the northern Ninevah province.

As people gathered in the aftermath, another suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt, al-Hamadani said. The coordinated attack killed a total of 38 people and injured 66. Army Brig. Abdul-Rahman Abu Raghef said the first suicide bomber was a local resident who had been jailed for one year on suspicion of terrorism, but was released in an amnesty in June.

A day earlier, car bombs in two Shiite villages near Mosul, another northern Iraqi city, killed 16 civilians and injured more than two dozen.

Haneen Qaddo, a lawmaker representing Shiites in the Mosul region, complained about a "big security vacuum" in the north and said Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, should withdraw from some areas and allow Iraqi army units to deploy. Tensions between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds, who run a virtual mini-state in part of northern Iraq, are considered a major threat to long-term stability.

Factions are maneuvering for control of Kirkuk, a disputed northern city in an oil-rich area that is seen as a flash point for conflict. Police there said a civilian bystander died in a bomb attack on a police patrol on Thursday.

Insurgents also struck Baghdad on Thursday morning, detonating bombs that killed 18 people and injured dozens. Eight of them died and 30 were injured in coordinated blasts near an outdoor market in the Shiite district of Sadr City, said Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Mousawi, spokesman for the city's operations command center.

Hassan Abdullah, a vegetable salesman, said he heard the first blast and went to see what was happening when a second bomb hidden in trash about 100 yards away exploded. He was taken to a hospital with hand and leg injuries.

In the Karrada district of central Baghdad, one civilian died in a bomb attack on the convoy of Central Bank Gov. Sinan al-Shibibi, a police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. The governor was unharmed.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the U.S. had to release the Iranians under a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that took effect in January. Kelly said the release was not part of a deal or prisoner exchange with Tehran.

He said Iraq has issued arrest warrants for all non-Iraqi detainees held by American forces and asked the U.S. to transfer them to the Iraqi government's custody.

Kelly described the five Iranians as being "associated with" the Quds force. Kelly said the possibility of the five creating security problems in Iraq was "a big concern."

A senior Iraqi government official said on condition of anonymity that the Americans had advised Iraqi counterparts that the Iranians should leave the country.

Also Thursday, the U.S. military said it was investigating the death of a U.S. soldier who had been found "unresponsive" on a military base.

Global Warming Agreement Reached at G8 Summit

U.S. President Barack Obama said the G8 and its partners have reached a historic consensus on climate change and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Thursday's announcement came at the end of two days of discussions at the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy.

President Obama said G8 members and their partners from the world's major emerging economies made important strides in combating climate change.

"Developing nations committed to reducing their emissions in absolute terms and for the first time, developing nations also acknowledged the significance of the two degree Celsius metric and agreed to take action to meaningfully lower their emissions relative to business as usual in the next decade or so," he said.

G8 members also agreed to work toward an 80 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050. While developing nations have committed themselves to negotiating cuts, they have not yet agreed on specifics.

President Obama said it is also crucial that developed nations understand the concerns of developing countries and their fear that some of these measures could hamper their economic growth. That need not be, said Mr. Obama, citing economic growth and clean energy and reduction of greenhouse gases can go hand in hand. The American president acknowledged much work lies ahead.

"We made a good start. But I'm the first one to acknowledge that progress on this issue will not be easy," he said.

President Obama said no one nation caused global warming and no one country can resolve the problem. A broad global effort is crucial, he said.

"Ultimately, we have a choice. We can either shape our future or we can let events shape it for us," he added.

Mr. Obama said consensus in L'Aquila has shown which path nations here want to take.

But there has been criticism of the proposed measures, with some environmental groups saying they are not enough. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said the 2050 targets are too far in the future and that more needs to be done sooner. Many analysts said tough negotiations lie ahead before the next international conference on climate change in Copenhagen in December.

Here in L'Aquila, G8 leaders and their partners continue discussions on Friday, when the top agenda items are development assistance and Africa.

Obama Shakes Hands With Libya's Qaddafi

President Obama's gesture was his latest effort to reach out to controversial world leaders in an attempt to improve the United State's standing around the world that he says was damaged by former President Bush's unilateral diplomacy.

President Obama on Thursday shook hands with Libyan President Muammar al-Qaddafi in a sign that relations have improved considerably between the U.S. and the North African nation.

The two met as they posed for pictures ahead of a G-8 summit dinner hosted by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

Obama's diplomatic gesture was his latest effort to reach out to controversial world leaders in an attempt to improve the United States' standing around the world, which he says was damaged by former President Bush's unilateral diplomacy.

Obama also had shooked hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in April at the Summit of Americas, where Chavez gave Obama a book critical of U.S. foreign policy.

Libya was once an isolated country accused of sponsoring terrorism. But international sanctions were lifted in 2003 when Qaddafi promised to give up his ambition of acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

In Italy, Obama posed for a photo, standing between Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and then socialized with others, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Qaddafi entered the room in a colorful outfit, with red and gold draping over his shoulder and a matching shirt and pants.

Despite improved international relations, Qaddafi remains a controversial figure. He criticized the U.S.-led war in Iraq during a speech last month to the Italian senate.

"Iraq was a fortress against terrorism. With Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda could not get in, but now thanks to the United States it is an open arena and this benefits Al Qaeda," he said.

He also compared the U.S. air strike on Tripoli in 1986, in which one of his daughters was killed, to an Al Qaeda attack.

"What difference is there between the American attack on our homes in 1986 and bin Laden's terrorist actions," he asked. "If bin Laden has no state and is an outlaw, America is a state with international rules."

Teutonic Fashion Plate Flaunts His Umlauts

In his various incarnations — Ali G, Borat and now, at feature length, Brüno — Sacha Baron Cohen leads his audience in a two-step of squirming discomfort and smug affirmation. Like “Borat,” “Brüno” (Mr. Baron Cohen’s new vehicle, also directed by Larry Charles) offers both succor and sucker bait for liberal-minded viewers who may feel harassed and hemmed in by prevailing and ever-shifting cultural sensitivities.

We all know, for example, that it’s wrong to laugh at foreigners, that making fun of their accents and customs is worse than passé. But Borat, with his outlandish attitudes and offensive behavior, granted an exemption to anyone who was in on the joke. You could titter and guffaw at his backward, ignorant buffoonery because, of course, the real xenophobes were the people on screen who fell for the hoax that this guy was a journalist from Kazakhstan.

They — Americans just like you but of course nothing like you — were exposed as bigots either for being outraged at the things Borat did or for politely agreeing with his misogynistic, anti-Semitic or otherwise objectionable statements. Any twinge of guilt you might have felt on behalf of the actual glorious nation of Kazakhstan was quickly soothed by the spectacle of American intolerance and idiocy that “Borat” purported to expose.

In “Brüno” the main character’s foreignness — he’s from Austria, identified as the land of Hitler but not of Wittgenstein, Schwarzenegger or Freud — is at once amplified and trumped by his homosexuality. Brüno, a strapping fellow with good cheekbones and an obsession with high fashion, minces and swishes his way from Vienna to Los Angeles and then makes improbable and sometimes very funny excursions to Africa, the Middle East and the American South. Wherever he goes his bizarre fashion sense and his utter lack of inhibition elicit raised eyebrows, angry scowls and occasional bursts of full-blown rage. (One of them comes from Representative Ron Paul, the former Republican presidential candidate, who is unwittingly cast in a Brüno sex tape.)

The film demonstrates, at a fairly high level of conceptual sophistication, that lampooning homophobia has become an acceptable, almost unavoidable form of homophobic humor, or at least a way of licensing gags that would otherwise be out of bounds. An early sequence that graphically shows Brüno and his lover exerting themselves in various positions and with the assistance of, among other things, a Champagne bottle, a fire extinguisher and a specially modified exercise machine, derives its humor less from the extremity of their practices than from the assumption that sex between men is inherently weird, gross and comical. The same sequence with a man and a woman — or for that matter, two women — would play, most likely on the Internet rather than in the multiplex, as inventive, moderately kinky pornography rather than as icky, gasp-inducing farce.

But anyone made uncomfortable by Brüno’s extravagant incarnation of a silly, retrograde stereotype of gayness may be relieved and amused to see the panic and confusion he causes in others. And it is of course these others —mainly white Southerners, with a mostly African-American talk-show audience thrown in, perhaps for balance — who are the real targets of the film’s humor. Mr. Baron Cohen and Mr. Charles’s search for ugly Americans yields a meager bounty compared to “Borat,” partly because the success and notoriety of that movie diminished the ranks of potential patsies. This time the filmmakers went to Alabama and Arkansas, set up a barrel with a “Free Fish Food: All You Can Eat” sign, and blasted away.

Sometimes their aim feels true, as when Brüno visits a minister who tries to counsel him toward heterosexuality. And another encounter, with a group of straight swingers, yields some fascinatingly queasy and hilarious moments. But the climactic set piece — a he-man cage match orchestrated to turn into a man-on-man sex show and an antigay brawl — feels both strained and a little too easy.

It’s not all that hard to find people in America who will expose their fear, ignorance and hatred on camera, as anyone with access to YouTube during the last presidential election knows. Derision, though, is not the same as insight, and “Will you look at those dumb rednecks” is not much of a punch line.

“Borat” presented itself as “Cultural Learnings of America,” but as Mr. Baron Cohen has spun himself into something of an entertainment franchise his curiosity has waned along with his satiric daring. In America as seen by Brüno there are, oddly enough, no openly gay people nor anyone whose awkwardness is likely to trouble the composure of the presumed audience.

It should be noted that Mr. Baron Cohen remains a brilliant slapstick artist and a master of voices — Brüno’s mock-German and scrambled American idioms are in some ways even more crazily spot-on than Borat’s gibberish — and a performer of no small discipline and physical courage. He is able to stay in character even, for example, when a naked woman is flogging him with a belt. But in spite of Mr. Baron Cohen and Mr. Charles’s high-level skills and keen low-comic instincts, “Brüno” is a lazy piece of work that panders more than it provokes.

The episodic plot — Brüno comes to America with a sidekick from home (Gustaf Hammarsten), seeks fortune and fame, encounters humiliations to which he is obdurately immune and achieves a redemption of sorts — is a photocopy of “Borat.” Like a thrift-store outfit “Brüno” is an ensemble of borrowings, mostly from wittier, more inventive movies. The vacuity of the fashion world was skewered to zanier effect in “Zoolander,” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” remains the definitive exploration of the collision between Teutonic sexuality and American mores.

What “Brüno” tries hardest to be, and fails most significantly to become, is a sendup of the empty vanity of celebrity culture. Brüno, in his quest for stardom, encounters and exploits bottom feeders, hangers-on and desperate aspirants for membership in the charmed circle of fame. “Will you look at those dumb losers” is the punch line here, and it sometimes elicits a spasm of shocked laughter.

Still, the arrow of satire flies straighter and lands harder when it is aimed upward, and poking fun at the powerful and the entitled is no longer something Mr. Baron Cohen is inclined to do. Why should he? He’s A-List all the way, showing some leg on the cover of GQ and able to wrangle the likes of Sting, Bono and Snoop Dogg into a music video tacked onto the end of “Brüno.” It’s a pretty clever bit — Snoop’s line about Brüno as “the white Obama” may be the funniest one in the movie — and all the musicians look happy to be playing along with the joke. Good for them. But the joke is on you.

Iran police tear gas protesters

Iranian police have fired tear gas at hundreds of demonstrators who defied government warnings that any fresh attempt at protests would be "smashed".

The marchers were heading towards Tehran University to commemorate the 10th anniversary of student unrest.

All gatherings have been banned in a crackdown on mass protests that erupted after the disputed election of 12 June.

The BBC's Jon Leyne says the opposition is trying to put momentum back into the campaign against the vote result.

Website campaign

Our correspondent says there were also a number of smaller demonstrations in other Iranian cities.

They were organised to mark the anniversary of protests in 1999 between pro-reform activists and the loyalist Basij militia.

Small student-led groups have commemorated the event every year since then.

According to AFP news agency, between 200-300 protesters chanted "Death to the dictator".

A witness told Reuters news agency the marchers had also shouted in favour of defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who says last month's vote was rigged.

But the numbers of people involved appear to have been a fraction of the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets last month.

Hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of the presidential election by a landslide.

'Smashed'

Plans for the rally had circulated for days on social media and opposition websites.

There has not been a major protest for nearly two weeks and Tehran Governor Morteza Tamaddon warned earlier no more would be tolerated.

He said: "If some individuals plan to have anti-security move through listening to a call by counter-revolutionary networks, they will be smashed under the feet of our aware people," reported state news agency Irna.

According to AP news agency in Iran, mobile phone text messaging services were down for a third day on Thursday.

A similar cut-off took place after the election, in a move thought to have been aimed at thwarting protest organisers.

In a separate development, another member of Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi's rights group was reportedly arrested in Tehran on Wednesday.

Mohammad Ali Dadkhah is said to have provided legal representation for some of the hundreds of people detained since the election.

Abdolfatah Soltani, also a lawyer and member of Ms Ebadi's Human Rights Defenders' Centre, was detained last month.

Fans line up to honor slain ex-NFL QB Steve McNair


NASHVILLE (AP) — Dozens of Steve McNair fans donned Tennessee Titans gear as they lined up around a funeral home Thursday to honor the slain ex-NFL quarterback's accomplishments and charity work.

Inside the building, a closed silvery-gray casket topped with white lilies sat next to a portrait of the former Titans star.

A line formed around the corner and police were directing traffic around the north Nashville funeral home. Many mourners showed up wearing Titans jerseys and T-shirts to pay their respects to a man they say was a leader of the team.

Derrick Lewis said McNair "put the Titans on the map."

Lewis, wearing a Titans jersey, said he and his family were devastated when they learned of McNair's death. Police have said McNair, 36, was shot four times July 4 by a girlfriend who then killed herself in a condo McNair shared with a friend.

"Myself and my family were completely shocked and some of us were crying because you almost feel like you are related," Lewis said.

But Lewis said the details of the killing haven't changed his opinion of McNair.

"I will always remember him for the good things that he did for the community and the Tennessee Titans," Lewis said. "Nobody's perfect."

Annetta Moore brought her grandson, Darrien James, 9, and granddaughter Olivia Cole, 11, to the funeral home and said she planned to take them to LP Field for another public memorial Thursday and visit his restaurant.

Moore said it wasn't uncommon to see McNair hanging out around town.

"I think he just blended right in with everybody," Moore said.

Loretta Lang said the details of the death should be a private family issue and shouldn't take away from his charitable work.

"He's definitely going to be missed because he gave back like many of the original Houston Oilers that became the Tennessee Titans," she said after viewing the casket.

The Tennessee Titans have also opened LP Field to the public, where a video tribute to McNair is being shown and fans can write messages in a book for McNair's family.

McNair's wife, close friends and ex-teammates are expected at a memorial service Thursday night at Mount Zion Baptist Church where the family has attended since moving to Nashville in 1997.

States told to prepare for worst-case swine flu scenario

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The nation's secretary of health and human services told government leaders at a swine-flu preparedness summit Thursday that a vaccine to fight the H1N1 virus should be ready for distribution in mid-October.

Kathleen Sebelius also advised 500 government, health and education leaders to plan for the worst-case scenario: that the virus will reappear with renewed strength this fall.

"What we need to assume is that it will come back in a much more severe form," she said at the conference in Washington.

Commonly called swine flu, the virus is also known as influenza A(H1N1). The World Health Organization declared the virus a global pandemic on June 11.

Sebelius emphasized that extensive forward planning to combat the spread of the virus could always be scaled back later, but that officials could not delay starting work on those preparations.

"We can step back from our planning. What we can't do is wait until October," she explained.

The fight against H1N1 will be federally funded, the secretary said. She said the government will announce $350 million in preparedness grants on Friday: $260 million will go to state health departments and $90 million to hospitals preparing for a possible surge of patients.

The summit was requested by President Obama. He spoke to the group via video link from Italy, where he is attending the G-8 meeting of industrialized nations

"We want to make sure we aren't promoting panic, but we are promoting vigilance and preparation," Obama said.

Obama urged state and local officials, including school districts, to prepare for a vaccination campaign in the fall and to anticipate that schools could be significantly affected by the virus.

Health care workers hope to evaluate a candidate vaccine against H1N1 in early August, said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who also spoke at the meeting.

Sebelius said medical experts are testing virus strains, preparing the production lines and beginning clinical trials.

She said the initial target group for the vaccine will be pregnant women, children ages 5 to 17, health care workers, the elderly, and anyone with chronic health conditions such as asthma.

A new Web site has been set up for H1N1, http://www.flu.gov/, which has information on the virus and helpful tips.

Swine flu continues to circulate in the United States and more than 120 other countries -- especially in the southern hemisphere, where flu season is under way. The virus could hit the United States as children are returning to school, which is only a few weeks away, Sebelius told CNN earlier in the day.

Thursday's symposium is an opportunity to look ahead and begin to put things in place, Sebelius explained on CNN's "American Morning."

There are more than 33,900 confirmed and probable cases of the H1N1 virus in the United States, with 170 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 98,000 cases have been documented worldwide, with 440 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

The virus has bucked traditional flu outbreak patterns. Influenza is typically more active during winter and then slows when the weather turns hot.

"Now, in the UK, as in many of the North American countries -- Canada, Mexico and the United States -- there has been quite widespread activity, or a lot of activity of this pandemic influenza virus. And right now, it is at a typical point of the year where the activity should be pretty low, but the activity is quite high because it is a pandemic situation for these countries," Keiji Fukuda, WHO assistant director-general, said this week.

Regular seasonal flu kills about 36,000 Americans annually. Sebelius said the vaccine for seasonal flu is ready for use.

Michael Jackson memorial cost L.A. $1.4 million

Los Angeles officials say Tuesday's memorial service for Michael Jackson cost the city $1.4 million to cover security, traffic control, and other services, according to the Associated Press. The figure includes $1.1 million in overtime pay for the 4,173 police officers securing the Staples Center, Forest Lawn cemetery, and other areas that attracted fans and media, the Police Department said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa lauded the final cost, saying it was "far less" than the initial estimate of $4 million. City attorney Carmen Trutanich said his office is looking into ways to legally require third parties to pick up some of the tab. The City of Los Angeles has also set up a Web page asking citizens to contribute money to help defray the costs. So far, fans have donated $17,000 through the site, but the effort has been hampered by heavy Web traffic that crashed the servers Tuesday night and several times Wednesday, according to the mayor's office.

Whirlwind auto deals raise conflict questions

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Obama administration's dash through the bankruptcies for General Motors Corp (GMGMQ.PK) and Chrysler is nearly done, but the debate about the government's conflicted role in reshaping the American auto industry has only just begun.

While the administration has been praised for its rapid reorganizations of GM and Chrysler, it has also been blamed for placing itself and its officials in situations with conflicts of interest.

The U.S. government stepped in to save GM by becoming its largest creditor and majority investor, positions that inevitably clashed with its role as regulator and referee of its pending deals with outside investors.

"Whenever you have a group that is regulator, owner and funder, there is a massive conflict of interest," said David Logan, associate dean at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.

One of the most controversial moves came when the White House-appointed task force pushed Chrysler's secured lenders to accept 29 cents on the dollar owed for $6.9 billion in loans.

It did so by negotiating first with a group of banks led by JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N). Banks in the group had received federal bailout money under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, prompting criticism the U.S. Treasury Department had wielded undue leverage to get the banks to accept a low payout for the debt.

That drew a complaint from hedge funds that also held Chrysler secured debt.

"I'm sure in the fullness of time we'll all look back and think of things that might have been done differently, or perhaps should have been done differently," Steve Rattner, head of the autos task force, said this week.

"These were tough, tough choices and we still have some in front of us and we're making them as best we can," he said.

GM's proposed deal to sell the Hummer brand to China's Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co could be one of those tough choices.

Some bankers say the deal might need approval from the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investments because of the indirect military links on both sides. If it does, the deal would go for review to a group chaired by the U.S. Treasury, the same arm of the U.S. government that owns 60 percent of GM.

PLUGGING THE DELPHI DRAIN

Over the past four years, GM has lost $82 billion. It has been kept in operation since the start of the year with $60 billion in funding from the United States and Canada.

As its crisis deepened, GM's fate also became intertwined with that of its bankrupt former subsidiary Delphi Corp (DPHIQ.PK).

It spun off the auto parts supplier in 1999 but has been hurt by Delphi's cash-draining bankruptcy for the past four years because it still relies on the company for key parts.

It spun off the auto parts supplier in 1999 but has been hurt by Delphi's cash-draining bankruptcy for the past four years because it still relies on the company for key parts.

Now Delphi's emergence has become a priority for U.S. officials eager to protect their investment in GM.

One investment banker, who asked not to be identified because he works with automakers, said: "Let's not forget, Delphi's emergence from bankruptcy is contingent on federal funding. The connections and conflicts here are unprecedented."

A government-backed plan that would have allowed private equity firm Platinum Equity to buy Delphi assets was challenged by Delphi's bankruptcy creditors, who complained it was a sweetheart deal negotiated in secret.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain agreed with the creditors and ordered Delphi to conduct an auction in which Platinum must compete with other bidders to win those assets. Bids are due on Friday.

Then there have been the potential conflicts involving key members of the cast involved in the Delphi restructuring.

Investment bank Rothschild Inc is advising Delphi, as well as the task force. Harry Wilson, the task force member who played a key role in negotiating the Delphi deal with Platinum, joined the Obama administration from Silver Point Capital, a major debtor-in-possession lender to Delphi.

Matthew Feldman, a legal adviser to the auto task force, was also a partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, the law firm representing Silver Point and other Delphi lenders.

"Clearly, this isn't business as usual," said Josh Lerner, professor of investment banking at the Harvard Business School.

"If you want to get knowledgeable experts with transaction experience to help out, it's almost inevitable there will be a conflict of interest," Lerner said.

At times, the government has been in an apparent conflict with itself. When GM said it would bring a new small car plant to the United States, state and local governments in Tennessee, Wisconsin and Michigan competed to attract the federally owned automaker with tax incentives.

Essentially, that meant Washington was taking tax dollars away from local governments. Michigan won the plant after offering a $1 billion tax and training package.

USC's Logan said the government was "trying to move very fast" to resolve its conflicts with GM and Chrysler.

"But the very process of extricating itself and the elements involved in that process become highly questionable," he said.

The debate on how the government balanced its competing concerns has only begun, he said.

"There's a trade-off here, and I don't know what the answer is and I think people will probably debate this for decades to come," he said.

China extends hand to foreign media, but tightens grip elsewhere

SHANGHAI (AFP) — Foreign journalists have been given unprecedented access in the aftermath of deadly unrest in Urumqi, in what China has hailed as a new era of openness to the outside world.

At the same time, however, the government has choked the information flow within China, shutting down the Internet in Urumqi, cutting phone lines and blocking Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other independent websites.

"They're trying to seize the initiative and guide the coverage instead of just reacting passively as they did last year to the riots in Tibet," said Willy Lam, a Chinese politics expert at US think tank the Jamestown Foundation.

Beijing's new tactics are not only a response to the anti-China riots in Tibet last year, which gave China a public relations black eye before the Olympics, but also the protests in Iran after last month's election, Lam said.

"They have been watching the Iranian situation with a lot of nervousness, particularly this so-called Twitter revolution," Lam told AFP.

"Globally, Beijing's image to a certain extent has improved because of this. There has been less criticism of Beijing and total censorship this time compared to last year."

Unlike in Tibet and for other sensitive news stories in China, foreign reporters have been allowed into restive Xinjiang region, of which Urumqi is the capital, and given freedom to interview people on both sides of the unrest.

But their access has not been unfettered. Some journalists have been detained for a short time and police have occasionally stopped others from conducting interviews.

Other difficulties have been caused by curbs on the Internet, international phone calls and mobile phone lines that the government has said are aimed at cutting Xinjiang residents off from the outside world.

Those measures appeared to be a bow to the power of Twitter, Facebook and other Internet forums.

Lam said it remained to be seen how long the access for foreign reporters would last.

"They are just testing the reaction -- if the end results turns out to be very negative, they will put the brakes on again," Lam said.

During last year's deadly earthquake in southwest China, access for foreign press was initially lauded as unprecedentedly open but was quickly curbed as the focus shifted from humanitarian efforts to corruption and protests.

The openness after the riots may also indicate Beijing is realising it has become increasingly hard to keep information hidden, said David Zweig, a China expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"They know they didn't do very well in Tibet ... rather than journalists not have access and get stories from Uighurs overseas, this way they go in and see for themselves," he said.

Photos of foreign journalists working in Urumqi have appeared in Chinese newspapers alongside daily updates on how many journalists are in the city.

Despite the state-run media's attention paid to the presence of foreign reporters, their own reports bear little resemblance to those produced by foreign media and they continue to strictly follow the government agenda.

Images in the Chinese media have typically shown bloody Han Chinese injured in the violence along with torched buses and other damaged property.

The state media's focus on Han Chinese victims while not telling the Uighurs' story risks causing longer term damage, William Moss, a Beijing-based PR executive and media commentator, wrote on his blog Imagethief.com.

"It inflames the very tensions it attempts to paper over. And, with marvellous efficiency, it inflames them on both sides," Moss wrote.

"Uighurs are given the impression that their concerns are considered unworthy of acknowledgement by the State ... Other Chinese, meanwhile, are deprived of any context for the riots."

Climate Change, World Trade at Forefront of Day Two of G8 Summit

Climate change and trade figure prominently on this second day of the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy as leaders of the world's most powerful economies expand talks to take in counterparts and representatives of major emerging economies.

Summit host, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi welcomed world leaders for a second day of discussions in L'Aquila.

The agenda items are much the same - the global economic crisis, the environment, climate change and trade. But, Thursday's talks were expanded from the G8 group to include the so-called G5 nations of major emerging economies - China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico. But others were invited to the table as well, along with international organizations.

On climate change, G8 leaders agreed Wednesday on new targets to limit greenhouse gas emissions and try to limit global warming to just two degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels.

In announcing that decision, Prime Minister Berlusconi spoke of the need to bring other countries into the process, especially India, China and Brazil.

It would be counterproductive, Mr. Berlusconi said, if the United States, Europe, Canada and Japan implement strategies to cut emissions if other countries do not.

G8 leaders have said the group wants to be inclusive and bring other nations into discussions on global issues. The move is also widely seen as an increasing understanding that while G8 members may be the world's most powerful nations, they cannot solve issues such as the global economic crisis or climate change without the help of others.

Iran's crackdown proves that the 'Twitter revolution' has made things worse

Almost a month on from Iran’s presidential election, it is now time to recognise that the so-called “Twitter revolution” has utterly failed to achieve anything - save dead and injured young Iranians, and up to 2,000 new political prisoners. President Ahmadinejad retains power after a violent crackdown. There has been no recount of the votes. And the blatantly rigged election results have been upheld.

So what went wrong? Well, I would argue that the answer is twofold. Firstly we need to accept that there was a hell of a lot of hype surrounding the online freedom emerging in Iran. Despite what Bobbie Johnson wrote in The Observer, Tweets do not “shake” the political world. More accurately, we have just witnessed a mini dotcom boom and bust: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr were seen to be “powerful political tools”. They aren’t. Especially when they are only being used by a relatively small urban elite.

Admittedly, as Leyla Ferani argued in the Telegraph, these websites have “brought down a virtual wall between Iran and the West”. She is even right to suggest that Barack Obama initiated the process with his message of goodwill broadcast on YouTube at Nowruz (the Farsi new year holiday). But the Iranian fist remains firmly clenched - Ahmadinejad has attacked Obama’s interference, and Britain has once again been denounced as “the little Satan“.

Which brings me to my second point. Ahmadinejad’s power is largely guaranteed by a virulent form of Islamist-inspired xenophobia. Any hint of Western interference only strengthens his hold. In other words the revolutionary tweets were about as effective as putting a “Free Tibet” bumper sticker on your car circa 1985, and expecting China to suddenly make peace with the Dalai Lama.

I’ve just been in touch via email with a British-Iranian friend my age, who has relatives in Tehran. What’s the atmosphere like out there, I asked? This was his deeply depressing response:

Two weeks ago, five Revolutionary Guards knocked on my uncle, Arash’s door in Tehran. They entered, searched his room, confiscated his laptop and accused him of conspiracy against the state. In front of his family, he was pushed out of his home and into a waiting car. We haven’t heard from his since, but believe he is being held in Evin prison.

The family don’t know what has happened to Arash. But what they do know is this: he attended protests in Tehran and was badly beaten up. He then published photos of the protests on Facebook - and inflammatory statuses - all on a publicly listed profile. What more needs to be said? The “Twitter revolution” wasn’t only impotent, it has put Iranians in extreme danger.

Iran police fire in air to disperse protesters

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iranian police fired in the air to disperse pro-reform demonstrators in central Tehran on Thursday, nearly four weeks after a disputed election triggered mass protests in the capital, a witness said.

The witness also said he saw police detaining several people among about 250 protesters who had gathered near Tehran University in defiance of a ban on gatherings for the anniversary of violent student demonstrations in 1999.

It appeared to be the worst outbreak of unrest in Tehran since security forces last month quelled days of opposition protests over the June 12 election, which moderate opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad say was rigged in his favor.

"Police are shooting in the air and they have arrested several people," the witness said.

Another witness at the scene in downtown Tehran said: "Police used tear gas twice to disperse the crowd. There were also many Basij militia on motorbikes patrolling the area."

Police urged passers-by through loudspeakers to leave the area, the witnesses said.

"They were about 250 people who shouted in favor of (defeated presidential candidate Mirhossein) Mousavi and made the victory sign. Police dispersed them," one witness said.

There was none of the chanting of slogans against the clerical elite that could be heard during protests in Tehran and other cities after last month's presidential election.

Witnesses said riot police and Basij militia members fiercely loyal to Iran's most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were out in force in Tehran on Thursday for the anniversary of student protests in 1999, in which one student was killed.

"The area is closed to traffic and a lot of Basij forces on motorbikes are driving through the square," one witness said.

Iranian police chief Esmail Ahmadi-Moghaddam said the force would strongly confront any anniversary protests.

"Police do not even allow formation of small groups," one witness said.

Iranian authorities have said at least 20 people were killed in violence after the June election as protesters clashed with riot police and Basij militia. The clerical establishment and Mousavi blame each other for the bloodshed.

The government accuses the West, particularly the United States and Britain, of inciting unrest after the election, which led to the most widespread street protests in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Climate targets around the world


Climate change is high on the agenda at the G8 summit in L'Aquila. Leaders of the major industrial countries are discussing targets for reducing global warming with counterparts from developing countries. Here are the promises that countries and supra-national bodies have already made.

G8

The G8 leaders said on Wednesday that rich nations should cut emissions by 80% by 2050, while the world overall should reduce them 50% by 2050.

They said they had agreed to try to limit global warming to just 2C (3.6F) above pre-industrial levels.

EUROPEAN UNION

The EU has promised a 20% cut in emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020, compared with 1990 levels. It has said that the target will be increased to 30% if there is a satisfactory international agreement.

It also says 20% of the total energy mix should come from renewables by 2020, and there should be a 20% cut in energy consumption by the same year.

UNITED STATES

President Barack Obama is backing a law which would set a target to cut emissions by 17% by 2020 and 83% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. But the US Senate might block the proposals or reduce the targets.

JAPAN

Japan has set a target for cutting emissions by 15% by 2020 but the baseline for this reduction is 2005, not 1990. This makes a significant difference because emissions were 6% higher in 2005 than they were in 1990.

AUSTRALIA

The Australian government says it will cut emissions by 5 - 25% by 2020 compared to 2000 levels depending on what other countries agree, and by 60% by 2050. It is also planning to introduce an emissions trading scheme but it faces opposition in the Australian Senate.

CHINA

China has set domestic targets for energy efficiency and use of renewable energy but nothing specifically on emissions. It may introduce an "emission intensity" target, i.e. the level of emissions for each unit of economic output. But that has not happened yet.

INDIA

India has not set targets to cut emissions.

BRAZIL

Brazil has not set targets to cut emissions. It is probable that any new deal negotiated at the United Nations climate change conference in December will place obligations on China, India and Brazil. These will probably take the form of limits on the future growth of emissions and, in the longer term, cuts in emissions.

Does letter back Pelosi on CIA criticism?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sought today to avoid diving back into the controversy over what she knew about harsh interrogations of terrorist detainees and when she knew it, despited being armed with more ammunition on her side.

In May, she acknowledged for the first time that she knew by early 2003 that the Central Intelligence Agency had subjected terror detainees to waterboarding, but saw little recourse to challenge the practice except by achieving Democratic control of Congress and the White House.

In defending herself, she also accused CIA officials of misleading Congress about the extent of the use of waterboarding, which she, President Obama, and others say is torture and have harshly criticized. CIA Director Leon Panetta, a former congressional colleague, denied the accusation, and some Republicans called for Pelosi to resign as speaker.

But in a letter disclosed Wednesday, seven Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee asserted that Panetta told Congress last month that senior CIA officials have concealed significant actions and misled lawmakers repeatedly since 2001.

Pelosi told reporters today that Panetta has not told her that, and said she only knew of the letter from media reports.

Asked if the letter ends the debate over the "propriety" of her accusations about the CIA, she replied, "I didn't know there was any question about propriety. I'm very proud of my work in human rights over the years. And people know where I am on the issues on which we've agreed."

It's not clear what Panetta privately told the committee on June 24, but committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat, said the CIA clearly lied in one case.

Republicans say the letter is part of a campaign to protect Pelosi.

The top Republican on the committee, Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, called the letter "one of the most bizarre episodes in politics that I've seen in my time here in Washington." "It looks like they're working on the political equation," Hoekstra said on CBS' "The Early Show." "They're not trying to foster a bipartisan consensus on national security."

The back-and-forth comes on the eve of what is likely to be a politically charged debate on intelligence legislation -- a bill that Obama has threatened to veto.

BETHESDA, Maryland(AFP) (AFP) — A vaccine for swine flu could be ready for testing next month and ready for mass distribution by October, US health officials told a high-level meeting here Thursday.

"We hope to help evaluate the first candidate vaccine in early August," Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told US government officials and hundreds of state, local and health representatives at the H1N1 Influenza Preparedness Summit here.

US Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told the summit, which was called by the White House, that a vaccine could be ready for distribution by mid-October.

It would be purchased by the federal government and sent to state and tribal leaders for populations most in-need of protection from the virus, Sebelius said, pointing out that young people have been hard hit by swine flu.

A handful of pharmaceutical companies around the world are working to develop a vaccine against (A)H1N1 influenza, which the World Health Organization says has infected 100,000 people in 137 countries and territories, and caused 440 deaths around the world.

The worst hit countries are the United States, with 170 dead, and Mexico, where the outbreak began in April, with 121 people killed.

US government to pay for flu vaccine campaign

*Vaccines to be offered in autumn

WASHINGTON, July 9 (Reuters) - The U.S. government will fully pay for any autumn vaccination program against the new H1N1 swine flu, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on Thursday.

Although it is not certain Americans will be offered the vaccine, Sebelius said plans were on track for a mid-October vaccination program.

"We have already appropriated about a billion dollars to buy the bulk ingredients," Sebelius told a swine flu "summit" of state and local leaders at the National Institutes of Health.

She said a further $7.5 billion was available from emergency preparedness funds.

"We may end up averting a crisis. That's our hope," Obama told the summit by video link from the G8 meeting of industrial nations in Italy.

Sebelius said HHS would make $350 million available to states by the end of the month to help them get ready. States must apply for grants of the money and explain how it would be spent.

She said it was possible that the federal government would seek reimbursement from private insurers -- which usually pay for vaccinating their patients -- but it was unlikely.

She said states must get ready now for a worst-case scenario with the new flu, which she says has infected at least a million Americans and which the World Health Organization has designated a pandemic. It has killed more than 400 people globally since it emerged in March.

"It is a lot easier to walk back as we learn more, if we learn the flu is not as severe, if it goes away," Sebelius told the meeting.

"What we can't do is wait until October and then suddenly decide that we have a very serious situation on our hands."

NEW FOCUS

Sebelius said it appeared that any vaccination campaign would focus on young adults and older children and older people with underlying health conditions such as asthma and pregnancy, who are more likely to develop severe symptoms from influenza.

But, Sebelius noted, flu viruses are unpredictable. "Prepare to be surprised at every step of the way," she said.

Although federal health officials lead an annual seasonal influenza vaccination campaign, this one is likely to be different, Sebelius said in an interview. [ID:nN79445472]

"We are likely to have a different target population," Sebelius said. "We will be seeking partnerships with schools potentially and other vaccination sites."

Companies already are working on an H1N1 swine flu vaccine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has scheduled a July 23 advisory panel meeting to discuss clinical trials of the vaccines against the H1N1 influenza virus.

Companies working on an H1N1 vaccine include Sanofi-Aventis (SASY.PA), Novartis AG (NOVN.VX), Baxter International Inc (BAX.N), GlaxoSmithKline (GSK.L), Solvay (SOLB.BR) and nasal spray maker MedImmune, now part of AstraZeneca (AZN.L). (Editing by David Storey)

Glaxos’ HPV Vaccine Cervarix Protects Against Strains Linked to Cervical Cancer

Boston (DbTechNo) - GlaxoSmithKline have announced study results that suggest their cervical cancer vaccine Cervarix protects women from numerous types of HPVs.

Currently Merck’s Gardasil is the leading cervical cancer vaccine on the market.

According to Glaxo, their study of more than 18,000 women proved that their vaccine prevented HPV 16 and 18, and also showed the ability to fend off HPV 31, 33 and 45.

The women in the study were between 15 and 25 years of age, and received either Cervarix or a hepatitis A vaccine.

Those women who received all 3 shots of Cervarix were up to 92% protected from HPVs linked to cervical cancer.

Cervarix has been approved for cervical cancer protection in Europe but not yet in the United States.

Cervical cancer is one of the more lethal forms of the disease, and few women survive it fully.

Weight problems cost California $41B a year

Obesity and weight-related problems cost California $41 billion a year, a cost that has nearly doubled in six years, according to a study released Thursday by an organization that fights obesity.

The California Center for Public Health Advocacy said the study showed a 33 percent increase in obesity rates, which resulted in health care costs and lost productivity.

“The economic cost to California of adults who are obese, overweight and physically inactive is equivalent to more than a third of the state’s total budget,” said California State Controller John Chiang in a statement announcing the study results. Chiang called obesity an epidemic in California.

The study updates California Department of Health Services research in 2000 that attempted to find the economic cost of obesity. The study, and the update, both by Chenoweth and Associates of North Carolina, found that overweight and obesity cost $21 billion annually and physical inactivity cost $20.2 billion. The consulting firm said it expects total costs to rise to $53 billion by 2011.

The study released Thursday broke down costs by county, with the largest counties accounting for the highest, with Los Angeles County leading the way. The four counties in the Los Angeles area broke down as follows:

  • Los Angeles - $11.9 billion
  • Orange - $3.3 billion
  • Riverside - $1.6 billion
  • San Bernadino - $1.5 billion

The study recommends policies to promote physical activity and healthy eating.

Can Stem Cells Become Sperm Cells?

A Potential New Hope for Infertile Men

The face of infertility -- in literature, in the media, in advocacy groups -- is so predominantly female that many often forget about the other part of the equation. But more than a third of infertility cases, which affect 7.3 million people in the United States, can be attributed to the male partner, according to a 2002 National Survey of Family Growth from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now, new research may provide a glimmer of hope that infertile men may one day be able to contribute to the gene pool.

"We have a system which enables us for the first time to produce human sperm from stem cells," said Dr. Karim Nayernia, a professor of stem cell biology at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom and the lead researcher on this study, published July 8 in the journal Stem Cells and Development.

Skeptics are unconvinced that the researchers have gone as far as creating viable sperm -- sperm that could someday stand in for a male. But the researchers note that the study's data is too premature to consider writing men out of the reproductive picture.

In fact, Nayernia said the study may lead to treatments that could keep men squarely in the picture, even when they have problems with fertility.

"Studying sperm maturation is not accessible in vivo [in a body]. You cannot follow the system," Nayernia said. "Now we have a system to monitor the stages of male infertility."

Growing Sperm Cells From Stem Cells

Nayernia and his team developed XY (male) stem cells into haploid gametes -- sex cells with half the normal number of chromosomes. These new cells were able to grow into mature sperm, called In Vitro Derived sperm (IVD sperm).

Nayernia attempted to create sperm cells using XX (female) stem cells, but their development arrested, showing that the genes on the Y chromosome are necessary for sperm maturation.

The researchers had used this technique to produce viable sperm that were used to create offspring in mice and are currently developing a new system in which the stem cells are derived from human skin instead of an embryo.

A Long Way for Test-Tube Sperm

But the test-tube sperm are abnormal. The baby mice born of the sperm died shortly after birth and it is certain that the test-tube sperm would not be able to support a human embryo. British law bans researchers from even trying.

"I would be very skeptical at this point and really look at what they define as sperm. An actual moving sperm cell or just a haploid cell that can be used to implant into an egg cell?" said Byron Petersen, associate professor in the Department of Pathology at the University of Florida. "The devil is in the details and it will be how they define their cell phenotype and whatnot."

Real Baby Einsteins?

And there are ethical concerns about Nayernia's research as well as viability concerns.

"What's most concerning about this potential technology, is that anyone, young or old, fertile or infertile, straight or gay, could potentially pass on their genes to a child from just a few cells," said Dr. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer at Advanced Cell Technology and adjunct professor at the Institute of Regenerative Medicine at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

"For instance, if you had a few skin cells from Albert Einstein -- or perhaps even a hair follicle from the pope or Queen Elizabeth -- you could generate pluripotent stem cells," he said. "Any couple could go to an IVF clinic and have a child that is half, say Albert Einstein or perhaps Brad Pitt or Elizabeth Taylor."

But Nayernia said any clinical applications derived from his research were at least five years away, after significant vetting by further experiments.

Right now, he said, his research offers a proof of principle -- that it is possible to create sperm cells, even if they are not fully viable yet, using his technique. And it is the process of how sperm forms, not the sperm themselves, that can show how a variety of factors may contribute to infertility.

"With those techniques, we can then model the individual situation of the patient and then see.. why those men are infertile," Nayernia said. "Once we have this factor -- it could be genetic, it could be environmental -- we will be able to offer the proper clinical application."

Prepare for swine flu outbreak, Obama tells local officials


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Obama told governors and health professionals at a swine-flu preparedness summit Thursday that he expects "rigorous" planning by them to prepare for a possible outbreak of the H1N1

We want to make sure we aren't promoting panic, but we are promoting vigilance and preparation," Obama said.

He spoke to the group via video link from Italy, where he is attending the G-8 meeting of industrialized nations.

Obama urged state and local officials, including school districts, to prepare for a vaccination campaign in the fall and to anticipate that schools could be largely affected.

Before Obama spoke, the nation's secretary of health and human services said some H1N1 vaccine should be available for distribution in mid-October. Kathleen Sebelius' announcement came at the opening of a "flu summit" called by the Obama administration. She spoke to a seminar of governors, top health planners and managers who have gathered to discuss preparations for a possible swine flu reappearance this fall.

Health care workers hope to evaluate a candidate vaccine in early August, said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who also spoke at the meeting.

The White House, months before flu season, rolled out the big guns for the summit, underscoring the importance the Obama administration is placing on the pandemic.

The sessions at the National Institutes of Health will be attended by Sebelius, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and National Security Adviser John Brennan.

"The goal of the summit is to launch a national influenza campaign by bringing federal, state and local officials, emergency managers, educators and others together with the nation's public health experts to build on and tailor states' existing pandemic plans, share lessons learned and best practices during the spring and summer H1N1 wave, and discuss preparedness priorities," Sebelius said in a statement.

Commonly called swine flu, the virus is also known as Influenza A(H1N1). The World Health Organization declared the virus a global pandemic on June 11.

The H1N1 virus continues to circulate in the United States and more than 120 other countries, especially in the southern hemisphere, where flu season is under way.

"Scientists and public health experts forecast that the impact of H1N1 may well worsen in the fall -- when the regular flu season hits -- or even earlier -- when schools start to open -- which is only five or six weeks away. in some cases," Sebelius said.

There are more than 33,900 confirmed and probable cases of the virus in the United States, with 170 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 98,000 cases have been documented worldwide, with 440 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

The virus has bucked traditional flu outbreak patterns. Influenza is typically more active during winter and then slows when the weather turns hot.

"Now, in the UK, as in many of the North American countries, Canada, Mexico and the United States, there has been quite widespread activity, or a lot of activity of this pandemic influenza virus. And right now, it is at a typical point of the year where the activity should be pretty low, but the activity is quite high because it is a pandemic situation for these countries," Keiji Fukuda, WHO assistant director-general, said this week.

Swine flu has become so widespread that the WHO will, in a few days, recommend that nations that already have major outbreaks no longer test for the H1N1 virus, Fukuda said.

"The reason for this is that, because the numbers of cases have increased in so many countries, it is very hard to keep up," according to Fukuda. The virus is showing up in most of the lab tests in countries with major outbreaks.

"Now in countries that do not have cases, however, we will be continuing to recommend that people who are suspected to have pandemic influenza be tested, so that the presence of this virus can be confirmed in countries,"