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Friday, July 17, 2009

Clinton seeks to deepen Indian ties

She skipped India on her first trip to Asia in March, but now Hillary Clinton is spending almost four days here, talking to business leaders and women activists in Mumbai and meeting Indian politicians in Delhi.

Before leaving Washington, Mrs Clinton emphasised that the US administration was going to do everything to broaden and deepen Washington's engagement with India.

It is a message that India is keen to hear - during the first months of the Obama administration, as Washington focused intensely on Pakistan, Afghanistan and the fight against al-Qaeda, India worried that the US would view its policy towards the whole region through that prism.

But the focus of Mrs Clinton's visit, at least publicly, is very clearly on US-Indian ties.

Two-fold aim

American officials often make a stop in Pakistan when they visit India, but Mrs Clinton will only go to Islamabad in the autumn.

Washington is keen to dispel any doubts about its commitment to ties with Delhi that its early focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan may have given rise to.

For Washington, there is a lot riding on the visit. And in an opinion piece published in the Times of India, Mrs Clinton points out that "the world has a lot riding on our cooperation" as well.

For Mrs Clinton, the aim is two-fold.

First, she wants to convince India that the Obama administration is as keen on close ties with India as George W Bush was. The Bush administration's 2008 nuclear agreement with India ended a three decade-long ban on nuclear trade with Delhi, so Mrs Clinton will be eager to maintain the momentum.

But Mrs Clinton is also seeking a variety of tangible results while she is here.

She is hoping to sign an end-of-use monitoring agreement, which would ensure that any arms technology sold to India does not end up in third countries. This is a legal pre-requisite for any US arms sales to India.

Washington is also hoping that India will announce it has reserved two sites for US companies to build nuclear power plants, thus allowing the US to benefit from any lucrative nuclear business deals, deals that were made possible after Washington helped India end its nuclear isolation with last year's agreement.

Travelling with Mrs Clinton is also the Obama administration's climate envoy Todd Stern.

The US House of Representatives last month passed a bill which imposes trade restrictions on countries which do not sign up to a carbon emissions cap.

The bill now moves to the Senate, but it is a source of concern for developing countries like India and China, which have refused to commit to emissions cuts unless developed nations present sufficient targets themselves.

Terror commemoration

In an interview with CNN-IBN, Mrs Clinton said that she was looking at "how together we can make the fight against climate change a win-win proposition".

"Certainly, you will not hear from me or President Obama or our administration any desire to prevent the continuing development of India. But we also understand the grave threat posed by climate change to coastal countries like India that will be on the front lines of the devastation likely to be reaped if we do not rein in the increasing temperature that is being recorded."

Before the political discussions in Delhi, Mrs Clinton is spending two days in Mumbai where she will hold meetings with business leaders, women activists and promoters of education initiatives.

The secretary of state is very keen on "people-to-people" diplomacy and usually holds town hall events and meetings with civil society leaders on foreign visits.

Her schedule on this trip is lighter than usual, however, as she tries to fit in several sessions a day of physiotherapy to recover from a broken elbow.

But Mrs Clinton will also be attending a small commemoration ceremony for the Mumbai terror attacks which left more than 170 people dead in November 2008.

Mrs Clinton is staying at the famous, century-old Taj Mahal Palace, the luxurious hotel which was targeted in the attacks and is still being refurbished.

The Indian Express newspaper said that the choice of hotel was a "gesture of solidarity with India against terrorism".

Pakistan admitted the attacks were planned on its soil. And so while India's ties with Pakistan are not officially on the agenda, the issue cannot be avoided.

The two neighbours have just held rare talks, after the Mumbai attacks sent their ties into the deep freeze.

For Washington, there is a lot riding on that as well - the US is embroiled in a battle against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, which uses Pakistan as a support base.

Mrs Clinton is likely to push in private for a smoothing of Pakistani-Indian ties and, in her India Times opinion piece, she urged Delhi to join Washington in supporting Pakistan's fight against radical militants.

Obama discovers pitfalls of healthcare reform

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama knew it was not going to be easy to overhaul U.S. healthcare.

"There's a reason why it hasn't happened for 50 years," he told supporters on Thursday. "Harry Truman wanted to do it; couldn't get it done. Every president since that time has talked about it; hasn't gotten it done,"

And now he is finding out just how hard it is.

Just this week, legislation to revamp how Americans receive their healthcare advanced in key committees in the U.S. Congress, thanks to Obama's Democrats, who control both chambers on Capitol Hill.

But it has come with a price, and it is a long way from final passage.

Douglas Elmendorf, director of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, dealt a sharp blow to the Democrats' healthcare proposals when he said the plans do not contain the spiraling costs of government health programs as Obama has said he wants.

"We do not see the sort of fundamental changes that would be necessary to reduce the trajectory of federal health spending by a significant amount," he said on Thursday.

Fiscally conservative Democrats, already worried about how to pay for the program's estimated $1 trillion cost over 10 years, raised doubts and Republicans were galvanized in their opposition.

"The CBO testimony yesterday should be setting off alarm bells. Instead of rushing through one expensive proposal after another, we should take the time we need to get things right," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

Doug Holtz-Eakin, who was chief economic adviser to Republican presidential candidate John McCain last year, said the CBO report put the costs of the program in dramatic relief.

"As it turns out, reform that was intended to control costs turned into legislation that didn't do that and indeed is built in a way that makes the problem substantially worse," he said.


Obama and his advisers found flaws in the CBO testimony, saying Elmendorf did not take into account the cost savings that will be carried out in separate legislation.

Obama rejected calls to give the legislation more time.

"Now's not a time to slow down," he said at a hastily arranged White House event on Friday, which was followed by an announcement via Twitter that he will hold a Wednesday night news conference.

Obama vowed healthcare legislation "will happen this year," and in spite of the obstacles, nobody was betting against him.

Democratic strategist Bud Jackson said Obama has two things going for him: the Democratic base still supports his goal of more affordable healthcare, and Democrats control Congress.

He has already signaled he is willing to get legislation passed using only Democrats, as he did in gaining approval of a $787 billion economic stimulus package last February.

The CBO report will likely cause Democrats to go back to the drawing board to find more cuts, Jackson said. "It's still a work in progress," he said.

Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said one complication for Obama is that there are several healthcare plans circulating on Capitol Hill.

"So it's easy for the Republican critics to just capitalize on the uncertainty that all these multiple plans have created to raise people's fears that reform might make things worse. And the fact that there is no one plan but several different ones is just making their job easier I think," she said.

Obama can be thankful for one thing: he does not have insurance companies lined up against him as President Bill Clinton did in 1993 when his healthcare plan went down in flames.

Powerful cleric says Iran in crisis

Sermon comes as demonstrators clash with police outside Tehran University
TEHRAN, Iran - In a sign of endurance for Iran's protest movement, demonstrators clashed with police Friday as one of the nation's most powerful clerics challenged the supreme leader during Muslim prayers, saying country was in crisis in the wake of a disputed election.

The turnout of tens of thousands of worshippers for former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's sermon at Tehran University and the battles with police outside represented the biggest opposition show of strength in weeks. Protesters faced fierce government suppression and hundreds were arrested following the disputed June 12 presidential election.

Outside the university, protests grew from several hundred before the sermon to thousands afterward as worshippers joined in, chanting, "death to the dictator," a reference to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Protesters were confronted by riot police and a menacing line of pro-government Basiji militiamen on motorcycles, who charged with batons. Plainclothes Basijis fired volleys of tear gas, and young protesters with green bandanas over their faces kicked the canisters across the pavement. Some set a bonfire in the street and waved their hands in victory signs. Dozens were arrested, taken away in trucks, witnesses said.

Protests, which flared following the election, had been stifled in recent weeks. The sometimes tearful sermon by Rafsanjani could be a significant boost to the movement's staying power. It was an open challenge to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, aired live on nationwide radio from one of the country's most potent political stages. By openly showing the divisions in the leadership, it punched a hole in efforts by Khamenei and hard-line clerics to end the controversy over Ahmadinejad's re-election.

A green movement Worshippers chanted "azadi, azadi," Persian for "freedom," during Rafsanjani's sermon, his first since the election. Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims to have won the election, sat among the worshippers, attending the country's main prayer service for the first time since the turmoil began.

Many of those gathered wore headbands or wristbands in his campaign color green, or had green prayer rugs, crowding the former soccer field where prayers are held and spilling into nearby streets.

Rafsanjani denounced the government crackdown on protests and called for the release the hundreds detained.

He reprimanded the clerical leadership for not listening to people's complaints over the election, which was declared a victory for Ahmadinejad despite opposition accusations of fraud.

"There is a large portion of the wise people who say they have doubts (about the election). We need to take action to remove this doubt," he said. "The trust that brought the people to vote in such large numbers is not there anymore. We need to return this trust."

Rafsanjani avoided directly mentioning Khamenei or outright calling the vote fraudulent. He couched his sermon in calls for unity in support of Iran's Islamic Republic, but it was clear he blamed the leadership for the loss of unity.

The cleric got tears in his eyes as he spoke of how Islam's Prophet Muhammad "respected the rights" of his people. He said the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, "would always say that if the system is not backed by the people, nothing would stand."

For Iranians listening across the country, the weekly Friday sermon in Tehran is the voice of the leadership and a symbol of its backing by God.

Internal split After hundreds of thousands joined protests against the election results in the days following the vote, the supreme leader used the podium to declare Ahmadinejad's victory valid and order a stop to unrest. The crackdown was launched soon after. In the weeks that followed, hard-line clerics have used the sermon to depict the protesters as tools of foreign enemies and tell worshippers to follow Khamenei.

Rafsanjani's sermon lay bare to the broader public that the dispute was internal and even Iran's ruling clerics are split. He directly referred to the divisions, saying the revered topmost theologians of Shia Islam, who have millions of followers, were not happy with the government.

Rafsanjani heads two powerful clerical bodies that oversee the government and parliament, the Expediency Council and the Experts Council. He is bitter rival of Ahmadinejad and is considered Mousavi's top supporter within Iran's clerical leadership.

A mercurial and savvy politician, Rafsanjani positioned himself as a leader emerging to resolve the unrest, saying he hoped his words would be a start to "help us pass safely through a problem that can unfortunately be called a crisis."

He specifically criticized his top rivals within the clerical leadership — the Guardians Council, a body dominated by hard-liners. The council oversaw the election, then held a partial recount that upheld Ahmadinejad's win but was dismissed by the opposition.

Rafsanjani said the Guardians Council missed an "opportunity to unite the people and regain their trust."

Inside the prayers, worshippers traded competing chants with some hard-liners in the congregation. When the hard-liners chanted "death to America," Mousavi supporters countered with "death to Russia" and "death to China," a reference to Ahmadinejad's alliance with both countries.

The Iranian government has accused the U.S. and other Western countries of inciting the massive street protests and interfering with the election. On Thursday, Ahmadinejad demanded and apology from the U.S. as a step toward dialogue between the two countries.

"They tried to interfere in our elections. They talked nonsense. They were rude. They fomented aggression against people's wealth and property," Ahmadinejad told a crowd of thousands in the northwestern city of Mashhad.

The U.S. has denied the government's allegations.

Tear gas fired More than 500 remain in prison following the government's crackdown and at least 20 were killed. In the past three weeks, the opposition held only one other significant protest before Friday's.

The scene outside the university on Friday was tumultuous. Before the sermon, police fired tear gas at hundreds of Mousavi backers trying to enter.

When Mahdi Karroubi, another pro-reform candidate in the June election, headed for the prayers, plainclothes Basijis attacked him, shouting "death to the opponent of Velayat-e-Faqih," or supreme leader, witnesses said.

Also arrested was a prominent women's rights activist, Shadi Sadr, who was beaten by militiamen, pushed into a car and driven away to an unknown location, Mousavi's Web site said.

Protests died down by nightfall. After sunset, Iranians could be heard shouting from rooftops, "God is great" and "death to the dictator" — a show of opposition support that has been held every night since the election, but appeared louder and more widespread Friday night.

Police: Suspected hotel bombers stayed at Marriott

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Jakarta's police chief says several suspects in the bombing of the Marriott were staying at the hotel.

Maj. Gen. Wahyono said the suspects stayed on the 18th floor of the hotel where un-detonated explosives were found after Friday's twin explosions at the J.W. Marriott and neighboring Ritz-Carlton.

Wahyono told reporters, "There were several perpetrators."

"They were disguised as guests and stayed in room 1808."

He said the attacks killed 8 and wounded 50, including 18 foreigners. Earlier the security minister said nine people died, but that number was later revised by authorities.

It was the first major terror strike in Indonesia since three suicide bombers hit restaurants on the resort island of Bali nearly four years ago.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Suspected suicide bombers set off explosions that ripped through two luxury hotels in Jakarta Friday, killing nine and wounding at least 50 more, ending a four-year lull in terror attacks in the world's most populous Muslim nation. At least 18 foreigners were among the dead and wounded.

The blasts at the J.W. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels, located side-by-side in an upscale business district in the capital, blew out windows and scattered debris and glass across the street, kicking up a thick plume of smoke. Facades of both hotels were reduced to twisted metal. An Associated Press reporter at the scene saw bloodied bodies being shuttled away in police trucks.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the attack was carried out by a "terrorist group" and vowed to arrest the perpetrators. He said it was too early to say if the Southeast Asian Islamic militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, blamed for past attacks in Indonesia, including a 2003 bombing at the Marriott, was responsible.

"Those who carried out this attack and those who planned it will be arrested and tried according to the law," a somber-looking Yudhoyono told a news conference.

The Marriott was hit first, followed by the blast at the Ritz two minutes later. The attacks came just two weeks after presidential vote expected to re-elect Yudhoyono who has been credited with stabilizing a nation previously wracked by militancy.

Theo Sambuaga, chairman of the parliamentary security commission, said "there are indications of suicide bombs" at the two hotels. "That is being investigated."

Local MetroTV reported that investigators suspect the attackers may have been hotel guests, who smuggled explosives past security checks. An unexploded bomb was found on the 18th floor of the Marriott after the blasts and removed by an explosives disposal team, said an investigator who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

But top anti-terror official Ansaad Mbai told AP it was too early to conclude suicide bombers were responsible.

Security Minister Widodo Adi Sucipto told reporters at the scene the hotel blasts happened at 7:45 a.m. and 7:47 a.m. (0045 GMT, 8:45 p.m. EDT) and that "high explosives were used." He said at least nine people were killed and 50 wounded.

Alex Asmasubrata, who was jogging nearby, said he walked into the Marriott before emergency services arrived and "there were bodies on the ground, one of them had no stomach," he said. "It was terrible."

Anti-terror forces with automatic weapons were rushed to the site, and authorities blocked access to the hotels in a district also home to foreign embassies.

"This destroys our conducive situation," Sucipto said, referring to the nearly four years since a major terrorist attack in Indonesia — a triple suicide bombing at restaurants at the resort island of Bali that killed 20 people.

The security minister and police said a New Zealander was among those killed, and that 17 other foreigners were among the wounded, including nationals from Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, India, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea the U.S. and Britain.

The dead New Zealander was identified by his employer as Timothy David Mackay, 62, who worked for cement products manufacturer PT Holcim Indonesia. He was reportedly attending a business meeting at the Marriott Hotel when the explosions occurred.

Noel Clay, a U.S. State Department spokesman in Washington, said that several American citizens were among the injured.

Earlier, South Jakarta police Col. Firman Bundi said that four foreigners were killed, but gave no details.

Manchester United football team canceled a planned visit to Indonesia. The team had been scheduled to stay at the Ritz on Saturday and Sunday nights for a friendly match against the Indonesian All Stars, the Indonesian Football association said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, but terrorism analyst Rohan Gunaratna said the likely perpetrators were from the al-Qaida-linked Jemaah Islamiyah.

"The only group with the intention and capability to mount attacks upon Western targets in Jemaah Islamiyah. I have no doubt Jemaah Islamiyah was responsible for this attack," he said.

There has been a massive crackdown in recent years by anti-terror officials in Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim nation of 235 million, but Gunaratna said the group was "still a very capable terrorist organization."

Police have detained most of the key figures in the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah, and rounded up hundreds of other sympathizers and lesser figures.

But Gunaratna said that radical ideologues sympathetic to JI were still able to preach extremism in Indonesia, helping provide an infrastructure that could support terrorism.

Jakarta chief of police operations, Arief Wahyunadi, said the blasts were in the Ritz-Carlton's Airlangga restaurant and in the basement of the Marriott. He gave no details on what kind of bombs were used and whether they were suicide attacks.

Government spokesman Dino Patti Djalal told CNN the scene of the blasts were "eerie," when he arrived.

"The bodies I saw, some were being collected, some were on the floor," he said. "What we know, of course, is this was a coordinated attack."

When asked if Jemaah Islamiyah was behind the attack, Djalal said: "We always knew there are terrorists out there. But we've had a number of very good successes; no major attacks since the Bali bombings."

He was referring to the October 2002 bombings of two Bali nightclubs that killed some 202 people, many of them foreign tourists.

"This is a blow to us," Djalal said, but said the government would find those behind the attacks.

"The president has built his reputation on ... anti-terrorism policies," he said. "Make no mistake, he will hunt whoever is behind this."

Because of past attacks, most major hotels in Jakarta take security precautions, such as checking incoming vehicles and requiring visitors to pass through metal detectors. Still, international hotels make attractive targets, since the nature of their business requires them to be relatively open and accessible.

On Friday, Australia and New Zealand updated their travel advisories, which had already warned against unnecessary travel to Indonesia because of the risk of terrorism.

"We advise you to reconsider your need to travel to Indonesia due to the very high threat of terrorist attack," the Australian Foreign Ministry said on its Web site. Those in Indonesia were warned to exercise "extreme caution."

New Zealand urged its citizens in Indonesia to keep a low profile.

Britain also updated its travel warning, though it did not raise its alert level.

Obama to NAACP: 'We need a new mind-set'

NEW YORK -- President Barack Obama told the nation's oldest civil rights group that prejudice and discrimination aren't the steepest barriers for the black community and urged his audience Thursday night to focus on education and good parenting to improve the lives of the next generation.

"Government programs alone won't get our children to the Promised Land," Obama said in a speech to the 100th convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in New York. "We need a new mind-set, a new set of attitudes."

"One of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way that we have internalized a sense of limitation," he said. The black community has "come to expect so little of ourselves."

Milestones acknowledged

The president acknowledged the two milestones of the evening: his election as the first black U.S. president and the centennial of the NAACP.

His journey to become the 44th president was possible "because ordinary people made the civil rights movement their own," he said.

The nation's first black president bluntly warned, though, that racial barriers persist.

"Make no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America," the president said in honoring the organization's 100th convention.

Rousing up a friendly crowd, Obama made his first speech so directly linked with race since he took office; the White House says he worked on it for about two weeks. Implicit in his appearance is the fact that he is seeking the backing of the powerful NAACP and its members for his ambitious domestic agenda.

The president said that in the current down economy, blacks are suffering high unemployment and are afflicted with more diseases but are less likely to have health insurance.

He said that the African-American child is about five times as likely as a white child to be sent to jail.

Education essential

Obama touted education as essential to improving the lives of all children. He said the state of schools is an American problem, not an African-American one.

"You know what I'm talking about," Obama said. "There's a reason the story of the civil rights movement was written in our schools. There's a reason Thurgood Marshall took up the cause of Linda Brown. There's a reason the Little Rock Nine defied a governor and a mob. It's because there is no stronger weapon against inequality and no better path to opportunity than an education that can unlock a child's God-given potential.

"We have to say to our children, 'Yes, if you're African-American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher,'" Obama said, returning to his tough-love message familiar from his two-year presidential campaign. " 'Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that someone in a wealthy suburb does not.'

"But that's not a reason to get bad grades, that's not a reason to cut class, that's not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school," he said. "No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands and don't you forget that."Obama also pressed for NAACP members to encourage their young people to find new role models beyond sports or music.

"I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers," Obama said. "I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court justice. I want them aspiring to be president of the United States."