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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Bangkok rocked by deadly blasts

At least two people have been killed in a series of bomb blasts in the Thai capital, Bangkok. Dozens of others - including foreigners - were wounded in the eight explosions that occurred in various locations around the city. The first six went off within the space of an hour. There were two more detonations several hours later.

The attacks have shocked the nation and authorities in Bangkok have cancelled planned New Year's celebrations as a result. There has been no claim of responsibility so far. But police have said they do not believe it is the work of militants in the Muslim-majority far south who have been blamed for similar bombings elsewhere in the past.

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Cell Phone Video of Saddam Execution

Warning: The content of this video is graphic in nature and discretion is advised before viewing

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Iran wants euros for oil

Iran is looking to receive payment for oil exports in euros as it moves its currency reserves away from the US dollar, reported Reuters. Around 57% of Iran's income on nearly 2.4m bpd of oil is now in euros according to Gholamhossein Nozari, the MD of the National Iranian Oil Company. But he added oil contracts were still based on the US dollar to fit in with accepted international practice.

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Iran, CNOOC $16bn gas deal

China National Offshore Oil Corp has signed $16bn deal to develop Iran's giant North Pars gas field, news agencies reported. The upstream-downstream project will be built over four phases, and includes the construction of plants to liquefy gas. The development will take eight years to complete.

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Saddam Execution Video Coverage on Arab TV

Saddam execution TV video coverage on Arab TV:

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Iran, refining capacity boost

Iran is to crank up its oil refining capacity in the next few years to meet burgeoning local and international demand, reported Bloomberg citing the IRNA news agency. The country is aiming to hit a refining capacity of 2m barrels per day by 2011 once an assortment of upgrading programmes is completed. It is hoped Iran will be able to process 3.2m bpd by 2021; it can currently refine just over 1.3m bpd.

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Ethiopia Advances on Somali Islamists’ Last City

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, Dec. 30 – A phalanx of Ethiopian tanks and armored personnel carriers chugged toward the last city occupied by Somalia’s diminished Islamist movement, witnesses said today, setting the stage for one final major battle.

According to residents along Somalia’s coast, the Ethiopian troops, along with soldiers from Somalia’s transitional government, were preparing to seize Kismayo, a port city near the Kenyan border where the Islamist leaders have holed up.

Sheilk Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a high-ranking cleric, vowed not to go down without a fight.

"I want to tell you that the Islamic courts are still alive and ready to fight against the enemy of Allah," Mr. Ahmed told residents of Kismayo in a speech today. "We left Mogadishu in order to prevent bloodshed in the capital, but that does not mean we lost the holy war against our enemy.”

Mr. Ahmed called on Somalis to begin an anti-Ethiopian insurgency, and already several masked gunmen have surfaced on Mogadishu’s streets.

Diplomats in Kenya, though, said that they were talking to moderate representatives of the Islamic movement today, trying to persuade them to back down.

In Mogadishu, the presence of Ethiopian troops continued to spark violence, with supporters of the Ethiopians battling street by street against the remaining Islamist partisans. Gunshots rang out, men and women battled with sticks and rocks and the thick black smoke of burning barricades lifted into the air.

Just two days ago, in a stunning reversal of fortune, Somalia’s transitional government, with the muscle of the Ethiopian military, reclaimed Mogadishu, driving out the Islamist movement which had ruled large swaths of Somalia. More than a thousand people have been killed in the fighting and Somalia’s leaders now face the daunting task of trying to piece together a country that has not had a central government for 15 years.

Sheikhdon Salad Elmi, the director of a large hospital in Mogadishu’s Medina neighborhood, said the prospects of stability depend on how long the Ethiopian troops stay.

“I think it’s naïve for them to go right now,” Dr. Elmi said. “We need them for security. But they are very visible and most people don’t like them. The longer they stay, the more resentment that will come.”

Somalia has fought -- and lost – two wars with Ethiopia but never before have Ethiopian troops occupied the capital.

“It’s very humiliating,” Dr. Elmi said.

Ethiopian officials have said that they plan to withdraw troops in a matter of weeks but not before neutralizing the Islamists, who declared a holy war against Ethiopia, Somalia’s larger, more powerful and Christian-dominated neighbor.

One week ago, the Ethiopian military, with tacit American approval, unleashed a fierce counterattack against the Islamists, bombarding their positions with jet fighters and pushing tanks deep into Somali territory.

Since then, the Islamists have been steadily on the run, their teenage troops no match for a well-equipped modern army.

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Iran FM to travel to Lebanon in coming days – report

Iran Focus

Tehran, Iran, Dec. 30 – Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki will soon travel to Beirut to meet and hold talks with Lebanese religious leaders, a state-run news agency reported on Friday.

ISNA quoted a Saudi daily as saying that Mottaki’s trip would take place in the next few days.

Mottaki will invite religious personalities to take part in an upcoming Islamic conference in Tehran, the report said.

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Explosion in eastern Turkey injures six

ISTANBUL, Dec 30 (Reuters) - An explosion in a bar in eastern Turkey injured six late on Friday, local television station CNN Turk said on its Web site.

The police chief in Malatya said the explosion could have come from a percussion bomb, but that the reason for the blast was not yet known.

Ethnic separatists, leftists and Islamic militants have carried out bomb attacks in the past to gain exposure for their causes.

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ETA car bomb breaks cease-fire in Spain

MADRID (Reuters) - A car bomb wrecked a car park at Madrid's international airport on Saturday, injuring at least 19 people in an attack the government said smashed a nine-month-old cease-fire by ETA Basque guerrillas.

One person was still missing after the explosion which brought down several concrete floors of the multi-storey car park at about 9 a.m. (8 a.m. British time), an hour after the first of three telephone warnings of an attack at Barajas Airport's ultra-modern Terminal Four, officials said.

The attack took place on a day Barajas was crowded with holiday season travellers.

"I want to firmly condemn this attack, the attack ends nine months without ETA violence, it breaks ETA's permanent cease-fire," Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba told a news conference.

He did not say whether it meant the end of a peace process started by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in June to end ETA's four-decade armed struggle for independence of the Basque Country in which the group killed over 800 people.

An end to the peace process would be a major blow to Zapatero, a Socialist.

Rescue workers were still searching for a man who had driven to the terminal to pick up a passenger. If the man is found dead, it would be the first time ETA has killed in more than three years.

There were minor injuries to at least 19 people including two police officers and a taxi driver, emergency services said, adding that another seven people had been attended for panic and psychological reactions.


There was chaos at Terminal Four, which police did not evacuate until after it filled with smoke from the explosion.

"There were people running all over the place and no police in sight. Then somebody said 'there's another bomb', so everyone turned and ran in the other direction," said Rene Chica, who had been waiting in the arrivals hall for a relative from Colombia.

"I was knocked over by the force of the explosion. The windows were all shattered and there was smoke and dust everywhere," his sister-in-law, Sandra Ceron, told Reuters.

Officials received three telephoned warnings about a bomb in a purple Renault Traffic van in the hour before the explosion, one of them claiming responsibility for ETA.

Police cordoned off the carpark area before the bomb blew up, sending a huge pall of smoke over the airport terminal.

Stranded passengers were hurried out on to the airport runway, together with their luggage. Terminal Four suspended all flights for several hours.

Several Saturday newspapers, printed before the blast had front page stories about Zapatero saying he was optimistic about the talks, which have been criticised by the opposition.

Conservative opposition leader Mariano Rajoy said the blast showed ETA had no interest in peace. "I call on the government to break off contacts with these terrorists," he said.

ETA said in November it would break off contacts with the authorities unless there was quick progress in separate talks among political parties in the Basque Country over the region's future.

But these talks were bogged down over issues including the continued ban on ETA's political party ally Batasuna and vandalism and low-level political violence by ETA supporters in the Basque Country.

Spanish media reports said ETA had also demanded the government move ETA prisoners closer to their homes and ease police pressure on the group's members still in liberty.

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Hizb-ut-Tahrir's Growing Appeal in the Arab World

By James Brandon
Hizb-ut-Tahrir (or Hizb al-Tahrir) is an ostensibly non-violent Islamic political movement dedicated to the recreation of a global caliphate. Although founded in Jordanian-ruled Jerusalem in 1953, it has traditionally been strongest in Europe and Central Asia. Today, however, it is becoming increasingly popular in the Arab world [1]. Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) works covertly to convince Muslims to overthrow their present governments peacefully and establish a worldwide caliphate, which will then impose conservative Islam over all Muslim majority countries. Once this is accomplished, HT hopes that the caliphate will make the whole world Islamic through conversion in the first instance and, as a last resort, offensive jihads against all non-Muslim states. HT is highly organized and has national leaderships as well as an overall leader, Abu Rashta, who lives in secret in Lebanon. The group says that it will take power peacefully by persuading influential members of the elite to overthrow the government. The organization is illegal in all Arab countries except for Lebanon, Yemen and the UAE where it is tolerated. The group does not believe in using either elections or violence to take power and there is no evidence that HT members have carried out any attacks in the Arab world. There is mounting evidence, however, that HT is growing in popularity in the Arab world.

Evidence of Growing Popularity

Throughout the fall of 2006, an apparently unprecedented spate of HT campaigns and related arrests took place throughout the Arab world, suggesting that the group could become an increasingly important factor in Islamic politics in the region. In the last two years, HT has slowly become more visible in Palestine. In August, several thousand members of HT marched through central Hebron on the anniversary of the dissolution of the caliphate [2]. On October 27, several hundred members demonstrated on the Temple Mount to call for the recreation of the caliphate (Arutz Sheva, November 14). In Morocco, the largest-ever arrests and trials of HT members occurred on October 3. In September, 14 members of HT were jailed after being arrested in Meknes, Casablanca and Tetouan [3]. The convicted men were mostly well-educated, engineering graduates who had studied in Europe. They were given short sentences for forming unauthorized associations and receiving money from abroad (Maroc Hebdo International, October 6).

In Zanzibar, HT members launched a massive new publicity campaign. Overnight, the group's estimated 3,000 members on the predominately Muslim archipelago plastered the region's towns with posters arguing that a caliphate would stop the islands' Islamic culture from being corrupted by Western tourists (al-Jazeera, October 31). No arrests were reported. In Jordan, HT appears to have found its greatest opportunities. Senior Jordanian members of the party claim to have gained numerous recruits in senior positions in the army and government, while they also enjoy growing support among the Amman intelligentsia. Numerous arrests have taken place and around 40 HT members are believed to be in prison [4].

In Lebanon, there is increasing evidence that HT stepped up its activities after the government legalized the group in May. Anecdotal evidence suggests that HT is becoming especially popular among Palestinian refugees (for example, in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp), in Sidon and in Sunni areas around Tripoli. Lebanese Interior Minister Ahmad Fatfat, however, warned that he would take action against any HT members who were planning violent actions or threatening the state's security (al-Balad, October 17). In Syria, HT's popularity is harder to measure. Since the late 1990s, however, there has been a steady stream of arrests of HT members [5]. The Syrian government treats HT members as it does members of the Muslim Brotherhood, trying them in State Security Courts and sentencing them to long prison terms. In other repressive Arab countries, HT's underground following is harder to estimate; members have been arrested in 2006 in Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia.

Trends Collide

HT's growing popularity is partly due to its increasingly organized and media-savvy leadership, and partly because in many Arab countries a series of local and global factors have combined to increase HT's appeal. In Palestine, the movement's growth reflects dissatisfaction with the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. While Hamas has thwarted certain Israeli policies, it has publicly failed to rejuvenate Palestinian society, repair the economy or reverse the constant deterioration of education, infrastructure and healthcare. In Jordan, dissatisfaction with the country's Westernizing monarchy is increasing. However, the main Islamist opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood Islamic Action Party, is dominated by Palestinian refugees and has been linked to alleged attempts by Hamas to carry out attacks in the kingdom. HT allows Palestinians and native Jordanians to work together to address their common problems, while its non-violent approach has obvious appeal following several al-Qaeda attacks that killed mainly Muslims.

In other countries like Syria, Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia, HT presents itself as a religious alternative to existing regimes as well as a way to overcome ethnic and sectarian tensions. In addition, HT offers an attractive alternative to the many Arabs who, although increasingly observant, are also uneasy with the willingness of Salafi or Muslim Brotherhood-influenced jihadis to kill innocent Muslims during anti-Western operations.

The idea of reviving the caliphate has also been given a boost by Osama bin Laden, who has publicized neo-caliphate concepts. Al-Qaeda's actions have demonstrated how Muslims can unite to defend the ummah. Caliphatist dreams have also been lent new credibility by the expanding and increasingly interlinked Islamist insurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere that might, if successful, someday unite to form a caliphate-like alliance—just as elements in Algeria's GSPC have recognized Mullah Omar as caliph. While al-Qaeda at present offers little beyond the nihilistic policies of perpetual opposition, HT presents the caliphate as a viable solution to the Muslim world's problems. Al-Qaeda focuses almost entirely on its military struggle to defeat the enemies of Islam. In contrast, HT has published detailed plans for the organization of the economy, society and structure of the caliphate that they aim to establish [6]. In addition, HT plays down Sunni-Shiite divisions, claiming to accept Shiites as party members without reservation. This stance is likely to become more attractive if sectarian conflict in Iraq continues to worsen, giving new credence to HT's argument that Western powers deliberately exploit Sunni-Shiite rivalry to divide the Muslim world.

The internet has allowed HT's ideas to spread faster than ever, while also proving that recreating the caliphate in the modern, ever-shrinking global community is no mere fantasy. HT members in Jordan point to the internet and the success of the European Union as evidence that a global caliphate can realistically overcome historical differences and national rivalries. HT has deftly played a lead role in many recent pan-Islamic issues. For instance, it rapidly deployed its members to organize global boycotts and protests against Denmark following the publication of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons by the Jyllands-Posten.

Nevertheless, the group does have limitations. Its gradualist approach has a limited appeal for the Arab world's increasingly numerous, unemployed and ill-educated youths who generally demand immediate action against their rulers and against Israel. HT's calm, non-violent methodology—largely developed by well-educated South Asian immigrants in Western Europe—also falls slightly flat among Arab cultures that appreciate bold, confrontational rhetoric. The movement has apparently failed to gain significant traction in countries like Egypt or Oman whose people are reluctant to see their distinctive historical, ethnic and cultural identities submerged within a caliphate. HT has also floundered in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states where political discourse is often simplistic and clan-based. Gulf citizens recognize that a caliphate would force them to share their oil wealth with the rest of the Muslim world.

HT may have been set back by the recent Lebanon war in which Hezbollah won a strategic military victory over Israel. The conflict reignited belief that Israel can be defeated militarily. The fallacy of this position, however, is likely to be exposed (at least in the short-term) as Israel adapts to its defeat and the region's true military balance reasserts itself. Once this happens, HT may receive a further boost if its non-violent position is vindicated.

Increased Significance

HT is regarded with some confusion by Western analysts because while its goals of recreating a caliphate and then converting the world to Islam by force if necessary are almost indistinguishable from bin Laden's, its methods are entirely different. Although HT members sincerely believe that the caliphate will be recreated soon, HT's real significance is likely to be its increasingly important role in radicalizing and Islamizing the Middle East. For example, HT's ideologies also fuel the increasingly common view that the present conflict between Western democracies and Islamists is not a resolvable dispute over land, territory and temporal politics, but is rather an inevitable clash of civilizations, cultures and religions.

HT, by saying that non-Muslim attempts to prevent the creation of a global Islamic empire amount to the deliberate persecution of Muslims, feed the victim culture that fuels Islamic radicalism today, as well as provide the necessary theological justification for individual acts of defensive or pre-emptive jihad. HT argues that the Quran says that all non-Muslim countries, cultures and individuals must submit to Islam. HT members who accept this theory naturally begin to see the world exclusively in terms of Muslims and non-Muslims, and inevitably begin to see all non-Islamic entities as worthy of destruction. In addition, HT's absolute rejection of democracy as un-Islamic is considerably more hard line than that of the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups, while the group also takes highly conservative positions regarding women, alcohol and freedom of speech.

HT's long-term strategy is to take over countries by progressively winning over the elite. More pressing, however, is the threat posed by the "conveyor belt" effect of HT [7]. The conveyor belt theory says that HT members often leave the group much more radicalized than when they joined and that they might then consequently commit terrorist acts [8]. In Europe and Central Asia, this theory is supported by growing evidence that a larger flow of people through HT leads to an increased number of attacks against Western targets and non-Islamic governments by former HT members. Although it is presently impossible to fully document this trend in the Arab world, it seems logical that the conveyor belt theory would apply there just as it does elsewhere.

In addition, HT splinter groups tend to be Salafi-Jihadi movements led by people dissatisfied with HT's gradualist approach and its refusal to alter its opposition to political violence. For example, in the UK, a senior leader, the Syrian-born Omar Bakri Muhammad, quit HT to establish al-Muhajiroun, which advocated violent attacks against British, U.S. and Israeli targets around the world. Several peripheral members of al-Muhajiroun later carried out jihadi attacks, while Bakri now lives in Lebanon where he is believed to be involved in radical Islamic politics among Palestinian refugees (particularly in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp) and among Lebanese Sunnis in the Tripoli region [9].

In conclusion, despite HT's increasing popularity in the Middle East and its stated aims of overthrowing existing Arab regimes, the group is not in itself a threat to regional stability. Instead, for the moment at least, the group's growing importance is in the effect that its rhetoric has on its members, former members and those who hear its message.


1. Most of the background information on HT in the Arab world came from interviews conducted with senior members of HT's Jordanian branch in Amman in April 2006. The three members interviewed were Abdullah Shakr, the group's Jordanian spokesman, and Abu Abdullah and Abu Muhammad, who were described as being senior leaders of the Jordanian branch. All three have been members of HT for more than 20 years and each has spent several years in prison for their membership in the group.
2. See Hizb-ut-Tahrir Britain, http://www.hizb.org.uk.
3. See http://www.khilafah.com.
4. Interview with Jordanian HT members.
5. Syrian Human Rights Committee, http://www.shrc.org.uk.
6. See http://www.hizb-ut-tahrir.info/english/constitution.htm.
7. The "conveyor belt" theory has been most notably put forward by Dr. Zeyno Baran of the Nixon Center.
8. For example, Omar Sharif, the British Muslim who carried out a suicide attack in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2003, was a member of al-Muhajiroun. British police recovered a substantial amount of HT literature from his house (although Sharif never formally joined HT).
9. For example, Richard Reid, the British "shoe-bomber," was closely associated with al-Muhajiroun.

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China’s military spending to reach $36bn

China’s defence spending is expected to reach Rmb283.8bn ($36.4bn) this year, up nearly 15 per cent from last year, according to rarely released government data that are likely to heighten concerns over Beijing’s military build-up.

The boost in funds, which many experts argue greatly underestimates actual military expenditures, is aimed at modernising the 2.3m-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a nimbler, more technologically-advanced entity, said a white paper released by the government yesterday.

President Hu Jintao, who also leads the Central Military Commission, this week said there was particular emphasis on developing a powerful navy that can respond “at any time” to safeguard national sovereignty.

The rise of China’s military, expanding in tandem with its red-hot economy, is likely to trigger greater concern in the US and Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.

China’s military modernisation is at the same time a worrying trend for Japan because of lingering historical tensions over Japan’s wartime past. Beijing is wary of a strong US-Japan military alliance and Tokyo’s efforts to reorganise its military which it views has been hamstrung by its postwar pacifist constitution.

China’s white paper, significant since the government rarely publishes specific details about its armed forces, estimates that defence spending over the past 15 years has grown on average 15.4 per cent annually. Last year, spending grew 12 per cent from the previous year to Rmb247.5bn.

Official military spending reached Rmb247.5bn last year, up from Rmb220bn in 2004. In the past, the Pentagon has said China’s real military spending could be as much as three times the stated amount.

However, Beijing defended the size of its military budget by arguing that spending remained modest compared with that of developed economies such as the UK, France, Japan and especially the US. The Chinese government said military spending accounted for 1.4 per cent of projected gross domestic product in 2006 and 6.2 per cent of US military expenditures.

“China pursues a national defence policy which is purely defensive in nature,” said the paper, the fifth of its kind since 1998. “China will not engage in any arms race or pose a military threat to any other country.”

Although the white paper says China’s general security situation is good, it says Taiwan remains a serious threat to regional stability and the task of opposing independence-minded “splittist forces” on the island is now “complex and grim”.

It also says “the issues of border complexities and sensitive historical problems” still weigh on its security assessment, while North Korea’s missile and nuclear bomb tests have made security of the Korean peninsula and northeast Asia “more complicated and severe”.

China has in the past fought brief border wars with India, Vietnam and the former Soviet Union, and is still entangled in territorial disputes with Japan over gas fields in the East China Sea. It is also disputing the ownership of islets in the South China Sea with Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

The paper says the increased funds have gone into investment in new weapons, personnel training, international cooperation projects, and military salaries and accommodation.

It says the military will rely on home-grown research and the ability to “acquire, digest and apply’’ overseas technology to develop new weapons, without specifying which kinds of weapons it wishes to develop.

financial times

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Exclusive: Videographer of Saddam Execution

Dec. 30, 2006 - Ali Al Massedy was 3 feet away from Saddam Hussein when he died. The 38 year old, normally Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's official videographer, was the man responsible for filming the late dictator's execution at dawn on Saturday. "I saw fear, he was afraid," Ali told NEWSWEEK minutes after returning from the execution. Wearing a rumpled green suit and holding a Sony HDTV video camera in his right hand, Ali recalled the dictator's last moments. "He was saying things about injustice, about resistance, about how these guys are terrorists," he says. On the way to the gallows, according to Ali, "Saddam said, ‘Iraq without me is nothing.’"

Ali says he followed Saddam up the gallows steps, escorted by two guards. He stood over the hole and filmed from close quarters as Saddam dropped through—from "me to you," he said, crouching down to show how he shot the scene. The distance, he said, was "about one meter," he said. "He died absolutely, he died instantly." Ali said Saddam's body twitched, "shaking, very shaking," but "no blood," he said, and "no spit." (Ali said he was not authorized to disclose the location, and did not give other details of the room.)

Ali said the videotape lasts about 15 minutes. When NEWSWEEK asked to see a copy, Ali said he had already handed the tape over to Maliki's chief of staff. "It is top secret," he said. He would not give the names of officials in attendance, though he estimates there were around 20 observers. One of them, Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, told CNN that Saddam clasped a Koran as the noose was tied around his neck, and refused to wear a hood. He also said that government officials had not decided whether or not to release the videotape. The execution reportedly took place at 6:05 a.m. local time. Prime Minister Maliki did not attend.

Ali was greeted as a hero when he returned from the execution a little after 7 a.m., flying in with other officials and landing in two helicopters in the Green Zone. A convoy of 20 or so GMCs and Toyota Land Cruisers waited outside to drive some of the Iraqi officials home.

The Iraqi bodyguards, mostly Shiites they said, had passed the time smoking and praying—some prayed on cardboard mats on the street.

It was a cold morning in Baghdad, a few degrees above freezing, and in the post dawn light the guards' breaths could be seen in the air. When the thudding of helicopters began, the body guards rushed towards the entrance to the landing zone. They swarmed around Ali, snapping digital pictures on camera phones and cheering. "Saddam finished, Saddam finished," a guard who gave his name as Mohammed told NEWSWEEK. Ali looked somewhat stunned as he exited, carrying the camera.

"All Iraqis will be happy," he says. "This is the most important day for me [as a cameraman,]" he said. "This page [in history] is over, this page is over. All Iraqis will be happy from the north to the south to the east to the west." One of the judges who presided over the execution then came out to the street; Ali jumped in a car with him. The convoy of SUVs drove off, one after the other, with the occasional honk of the horn.


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Friday, December 29, 2006

Russia Delivers Five Helicopters to Venezuela: Report

Russia has delivered five military helicopters to Venezuela, the manufacturer Rostvertol said on dec. 28, the Ria-Novosti agency reported.

The delivery comprised four Mi-35M helicopters and one Mi-26T transport aircraft, Rostvertol, which is based at Rostov-on-the-Don in southern Russia, said.

Executives at the factory would not comment but a statement on the company’s web site and dated December 21 said that the helicopters were “ready to leave for Venezuela.”

The statement said that “four Mi-35M helicopters have already been delivered to Venezuela in July and one of these took part in a military parade” in Caracas.

Under an agreement between Russia and Venezuela, Russia is to deliver 10 Mi-35M helicopters and three Mi-25T helicopters, the factory said.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, during a visit to Moscow in July, signed a contract worth more than $3.5 billion (2.67 billion euros) to buy 24 Sukhoi aircraft to replace ageing F16 fighter planes acquired from the United States.

This agreement went down badly in Washington.

Russia delivered two of these aircraft at the end of November.

In 2004, Chavez signed an agreement to buy helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov AK103 assault rifles.

Venezuela is also studying the construction of a factory to make Kalashnikov rifles under license.

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Iran Becomes Regional Superpower

MOSCOW (RIA Novosti): Iran may become one of the top 10 features of the outgoing year for a number of reasons, including its nuclear dossier and the Holocaust conference, as well as the anti-Israeli rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In short, Iran has made others view it as a regional superpower and the key player in the Middle East.

Its nuclear program remains the top issue, with good reason, because it threatens the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

If Iran implements its nuclear program in the proclaimed format, namely on the basis of its own uranium enrichment technologies, this will deal a death blow to the NPT. Iran's program will trigger the domino effect, encouraging Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to follow suit.

The bomb is not the issue, as Iran will most likely decide against creating it. But it will hover merely one step away from it, forcing Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to cover the same distance. Tehran promises to share its nuclear technology with Kuwait and Syria, which, taken together with Israel's 200 nuclear charges, will turn the region into a nuclear powder keg.

There are reasons to suspect that Iran's nuclear program is neither peaceful nor civilian. Its Natanz facility will have 54,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges, and it has already put into operation two cascades with 164 centrifuges each. Iran intends to turn on all of the 54,000 centrifuges. What for?

Russian nuclear experts say this number will allow Iran to produce its own nuclear fuel for 20 nuclear power units. So far, Iran plans to turn on only one unit, at the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which is being built with Russia's technical assistance. The unit is expected to be put into operation in September 2007 and start generating electricity in November. The construction of the other 19 units is not planned so far.

On the other hand, the same experts say, given the political will, the 54,000 centrifuges can be used to create five to seven nuclear charges within two weeks at the most.

Therefore, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) cannot issue guarantees of the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program, although it cannot prove its military goals either. The IAEA has questions to Tehran which it has refused to answer so far, keeping the world on nuclear tenterhooks.

The talks on Iran's nuclear program, as well as endless debates by experts, political analysts and other specialists, have turned into a cliffhanger compounded by Iran's intricate diplomatic embroidery. More than three months have passed since the UN's August 31 deadline, by which Tehran should have stopped work on its first cascade of 164 uranium enrichment centrifuges. Since then, Iran has put into operation a second cascade and announced the intention to increase the number of working centrifuges to 3,000 by March 2007.

It is certainly bluffing, as it does not have the necessary capacity for this. Yet it has played a joke on the UN Security Council no other country has dared to play before.

Ahmadinejad's statements to the effect that "Iran has made a crucial decision and is moving honorably along its chosen path," and that Tehran would consider any Security Council resolution on sanctions as a hostile move are most likely just verbal bravado, which the world has learned to regard calmly.

Tehran fears sanctions, or else why did Ali Larijani, head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, rush to Moscow shortly before the planned stopover in Moscow by U.S. President George W. Bush? Tehran thought President Bush and Vladimir Putin would discuss the Iranian nuclear dossier, and feared that Bush would convince Putin to vote for harsh sanctions against Iran. Tehran needed Russia's support, and Larijani received it. But nothing lasts forever.

Putin later said that Russia's support to Tehran was aimed at encouraging it to maintain relations with the IAEA so as to clarify the nuclear watchdog's questions and restore the world's trust in the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear programs. But it appears that Tehran is not willing to resume talks, at least not now.

On December 23, the UN Security Council voted on the Iranian resolution. The permanent members of the council, who form, together with Germany, a six-country group on Iran, have coordinated sanctions against Iran. The resolution proposed by the European Trio, which is negotiating with Iran on behalf of the European Union, differed radically from Russia's stand.

Moscow argued that the sanctions should cover only the areas that worry the IAEA - enrichment-related and reprocessing activities and work on all heavy water-related projects, and the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems.

The Security Council heeded the Kremlin's arguments, but future developments are almost impossible to predict, especially considering the "Persian motifs" in Tehran's foreign policy. One way or another, Russia's neighbor, Iran, will continue to play a key role in the region, and this is the main result of the story with its nuclear dossier.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.

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Revered Saudi cleric denounces Shi'ites as infidels

DUBAI, Dec 29 (Reuters) - An influential cleric of Saudi Arabia's hardline Sunni school of Islam has denounced Shi'ite Muslims as "infidels" in a new religious edict that comes amid rising sectarian tension in the region.

"The rejectionists (Shi'ites) in their entirety are the worst of the Islamic nation's sects. They bear all the characteristics of infidels," Sheikh Abdel-Rahman al-Barrak said in the fatwa, or ruling, distributed on Islamist Web sites.

"They are in truth polytheist infidels, though they hide this," it said, citing theological differences 14 centuries after the death of the Prophet Mohammad, such as reverence of shrines which followers of Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi school consider abhorrent.

Concern is growing in Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam, over Shi'ite-Sunni violence in Iraq which has taken the northern neighbour to the brink of civil war. Sunni-Shi'ite tensions are also high in Lebanon, where Shi'ites are leading efforts to bring down a Sunni-led cabinet.

"The Sunni and Shi'ites schools of Islam are opposites that can never agree, there can be no coming together unless Sunnis give up their principles," the fatwa said.

Barrak, an independent scholar, has come to be regarded by many as the highest authority for Wahhabi Muslims.

Clerics of the austere Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam have long dismissed Shi'ites as virtual heretics and Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite minority complains of second class treatment.But Barrak's fatwa was the strongest in recent years.

The fatwa, which was published on Barrak's Web site in response to a follower's question, also appeared to criticise efforts by some government-backed Saudi preachers at reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

Saudi Arabia fears that violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites could lead to the break-up of Iraq and spill over its borders.

Barrak was among 38 clerics who issued a statement this month calling on world Sunnis to support their brethren in Iraq.

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Death of religious tolerance in Malaysia

LAWYER Malik Imtiaz Sawar seems a most unlikely person to attract death threats. A small, softly spoken, friendly man, the impression he gives is above all one of consideration.

What has earned him the death threats is his appearance in court on behalf of Lina Joy, a case that has become a battleground of Malaysian political and cultural identity, and of freedom of religion.

The case highlights what some analysts believe is the Arabisation of Malaysian Islam, a dynamic that can also be seen in Indonesia.

Lina Joy was once a Muslim but has converted to Christianity. She didn't do so to make any broad point or to lead any social movement. It was entirely a private decision. But in Malaysia the state takes official notice of your race and religion.

Lina Joy tried to get herself deregistered as a Muslim and reregistered as a Christian. As a Muslim she is not allowed to marry a Christian man and any children she has must be brought up as Muslims.

When the state authorities refused to accept her conversion she appealed to the courts on the basis of Article 11 of the Malaysian constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.

The case, in which judgment could be given at any time, has polarised Malaysia. Many Muslims believe apostasy - changing your religion - is not only a sin but should be punishable by death.

Imtiaz told The Australian that traditionally Malaysia was pragmatic and liberal about such matters. Apostasy would always cause a social reaction but if a Malaysian converted they could make this official by changing their name and publicising the change.

In recent years, however, a body of case law has grown up that requires a Malaysian to go before a sharia - Muslim religious - court to get a kind of exit permit from the religion.

Sharia courts, Imtiaz argues, were only ever meant to consider a fairly narrow range of family matters exclusively for Muslims, not to impinge fundamentally on a citizen's relationship to the state.

But the Lina Joy case, and a raft of others involving similar issues, have touched off a wave of Islamist activism in Malaysia. There has been a rash of anti-apostasy campaigns. Islamic defenders' groups, mirroring those in Indonesia but without the violence, have been set up.

A crazy text message spread to the effect that there was to be a mass baptism of Islamic converts in northern Malaysia. It led to much hysteria but was baseless.

Then came the death threats to Imtiaz, a Muslim, with posters branding him an enemy of Islam and urging his murder.

It is important not to exaggerate Malaysia's problems. Malaysia remains a mostly peaceful, prosperous and law-abiding society in which the different races and religions mostly rub along OK. But there is a good deal of evidence that popular Malay Muslim attitudes are hardening, are being at least somewhat Arabised.

A well conducted survey of Malay attitudes recently found that a majority of Malays think of themselves first as Muslims, rather than as Malays or Malaysians, the one civic identity that embraces all of Malaysia's races and religions.

The same survey also shows that Malays tend to conceive of Malaysia as an Islamic state, and want it in the future to be more Islamic. Similarly, while supporting freedom of religion, there is little community support for the idea that a Muslim has the right to change their religion.

Says Noordin, a young Malaysian working in the non-government sector: "When I was growing up here there weren't as many people cloaked in religious piety. In Malaysia it (the process of Arabisation) denotes a sense of insecurity about our comprehension of Islam, and of our place in Islam. We have more Muslims in Southeast Asia than anywhere else but we still look to the Middle East to set the standard.

"Unfortunately, when we think of Islam here we think of it in its Middle Eastern guise."

Haji Zaid Kamaruddin does not agree with Noordin. Kamaruddin is the president of Jamaah Islah Malaysia, a non-government organisation that aims for the full implementation of Islamic sharia law by 2020.

I meet Kamaruddin in JIM's modest offices in a Kuala Lumpur shopping centre. One of his book cases contains English-language titles. Some of these are leadership manuals. But I am struck by the familiarity of so many other titles. There is Rogue State, which denounces US foreign policy, there is a book by George Soros, who denounces George W. Bush, and inevitably there is Noam Chomsky, the chief denouncer of them all.

Kamaruddin, an amiable, balding man with a pious goatee, is no extremist. He stresses the obligation of courtesy and good treatment that all humans owe to each other regardless of religion. And he wants Malaysia to evolve to a sharia state, not have it forced on the society.

He does not use the term "Arabisation" of Malaysian Islam, but, revealingly, he talks approvingly of the standardisation of Islam, a beneficial consequence, he believes, of the information revolution.

"Traditional Malay Islam is becoming more like international Islam," he says.

I ask Kamaruddin whether it is not the case that it says in the Koran that apostasy is punishable by death.

"Let me check the precise reference," he says, rising to consult a religious book.

After a few moments he gives up the search for the particular reference and continues: "That is the general understanding among the ulamma (Muslim people) that it is punishable by capital punishment. But there is the question of how this should be handled. In Islam, punishment is the last resort - the first is to encourage the good. But this system (in Malaysia) is not an Islamic system so there is no authority that will enforce it. But even in an Islamic society as practised in the time of the Prophet, you don't seek out those who have converted and hunt them down.

"This is the difficulty where the state has not lived up to its responsibility to uphold Islam. I don't think it's relevant here."

Malaysia's Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, himself an Islamic scholar, has pioneered the concept of Islam Hadari, by which he means a tolerant and inclusive Islam. Abdullah is certainly a foe of extremism and a beacon of tolerance in his own society.

But even Islam Hadari, Imtiaz argues, suggests a special role specifically for Islam in determining the constitutional relationship between the state and the citizen.

Zaid Ibrahim, a politician from the ruling United Malays National Organisation and a successful commercial lawyer, worries more about racial than religious attitudes. "Obviously we must have done something right in the past, but race relations are fragile," he says.

This is evident in schooling. Only 6 per cent of Chinese Malaysian students attend national schools, which are meant to be for all races. The Chinese prefer Chinese schools. This may be partly because of the increasing role of Islam in national schools.

Khairy Jamaluddin is the deputy president of the UMNO, a much more powerful position than it sounds. Oxford educated, suave and polished in every way, he is also married to the Prime Minister's daughter and destined for great things.

He accepts the proposition of a greater degree of Arabisation and Islamisation in Malaysia over the past few years but offers a wider context: "There's nothing particularly new about the Arabisation of Islam around the world. You see the rise of Islamic movements of a more conservative type after the oil shocks of the 1970s and Iranian revolution produced a surge of Islamic consciousness.

"Today is the culmination of two decades of the Islamic situation. Islam has a more conservative colour today, yes. Default position is a more conservative one. It also has something to do with the post-9/11 world. There is a feeling that Muslims are under siege."

Khairy adds that this deepening religiosity is not unique to the Muslim world. "Look at non-Muslim societies like the United States. The conservative population is larger than the liberal population. It's really a worldwide trend."

Malaysia's success, and its social strength, remain formidable and it is overall a tolerant and decent society. But the trend for cultural, religious and ultimately political norms to be imported from the Middle East is unmistakable, and must be profoundly troubling.

The Australian

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Hizbullah paying for Kassam attacks

Hizbullah is paying Palestinian splinter groups "thousands of dollars" for each Kassam rocket fired at the western Negev, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

According to Israeli intelligence information, Hizbullah is smuggling cash into the Gaza Strip and paying "a number of unknown local splinter groups" for each attack.

Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) sources said the Islamist organization paid several thousand dollars for each attack, with the amount dependent on the number of Israelis killed or wounded.

"We know that Hizbullah is involved in funding terrorist activity in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank," a security official said.

"Palestinian terrorists get thousands of dollars per attack. Sometimes they are paid before the attack and sometimes they submit a bill to Lebanon afterward and the money gets transferred a short while later."

According to the officials, while Islamic Jihad was behind most recent rocket attacks - including the one on Tuesday night that critically wounded 14-year-old Adir Basad in Sderot - several splinter terrorists groups are also involved and have received direct funding from Hizbullah.
According to security officials, Islamic Jihad gets the money via its headquarters in Damascus while Fatah's Tanzim terror group and the Popular Resistance Committees receive payment from Hizbullah in Lebanon.

All of the money originated in Iran, the officials said.

Government officials said Hamas was not currently involved in firing missiles, but was doing nothing to stop those who were.

Also Wednesday, the IDF Operations Directorate relayed new orders to the Southern Command following Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision earlier in the day to permit the army to once again target Kassam rocket cells.

This decision came after a meeting Olmert held with Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, and other senior security officials.

Following the meeting, the Prime Minister's Office issued a statement saying that in light of the increase of rocket attacks, despite the cease-fire, "an instruction was given to the security forces to take pinpointed action against the launching cells."

At the same time, the statement said, Israel would continue to observe the cease-fire and to work with the Palestinian Authority to get it to take immediate action to stop the firing of the rockets.

Peretz told the cabinet on Sunday that there have been cases over the last month where the IDF spotted terrorists preparing to fire rockets, but - because of the cease-fire - did not act. The new policy would put an end to that situation.

In the past two weeks, OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant has recommended taking much more extensive action inside Gaza to stop the rocket fire, but on Wednesday - according to government sources - he was resigned to accepting the new policy.

According to the IDF, troops will not be allowed to operate inside the Palestinian Authority except when provided precise intelligence concerning a specific Kassam rocket cell.

According to government officials, Olmert argued at Wednesday's meeting that the cease-fire had strategic value, and that Israel's policy of restraint had earned it "a lot of understanding and appreciation" around the world that would provide "leeway" in the future.

Israel, according to officials in Olmert's office, can afford to continue to observe the "overall parameters" of the cease-fire, and can always take more forceful action down the line.

These officials also said that even when Israel did employ more force in Gaza it was unable to stop the rocket fire, and that the 64 rockets that have fallen during the monthlong cease-fire were only one-quarter of the number of rockets fired in the month preceding the agreement.

lmert has argued in recent days that a strong military response would only unite Hamas and Fatah.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Abu Hamza alluded to this when he expressed the hope that renewed fighting with Israel would help end internal Palestinian violence in the Gaza Strip.

A Kassam rocket hit near Sderot after the security meeting. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility, with Abu Hamza saying it was a response to Israel's arrest of operatives in the West Bank, which is not covered by the cease-fire.

According to the new orders, the IDF is allowed to fire at Kassam cells before and after they launch rockets at Israel. The rules of engagement are dependant on intelligence, primarily on the location of the cell and whether there is a possibility that Palestinian civilians would be harmed. Terrorists often use urban areas to launch sites the rockets.

"We are aware of the sensitivity of the situation," said an officer in the Southern Command. "We do not want to cause diplomatic problems."

According to the officer, the IDF is also allowed to target Kassam launchers if no people are present. Based on the government decision, the IDF will continue to refrain from targeting Kassam workshops and will only fire at people if they are "ticking bombs" - terrorists on their way to, or in the midst of, an attack. Armed gunmen who approach the Gaza security fence were also, the officer said, legitimate targets.

"When there is a danger, we will not stand idly by but will open fire," he said. The IDF plans to utilize the air force to target the Kassam cells and launchers.

"The terrorists need to feel like they are being hunted," said one officer. "We intend to make that happen."


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Newly-powerful Shi'ite opposition disrupts Bahrain parliament

ABU DHABI — Bahrain's large Shi'ite opposition has been making its power felt within parliament.

The Shi'ites, who have won nearly half of the 40-seat parliamentarian, have boycotted the opening session. The Al Wefaq Islamic Society, a 17-member Shi'ite bloc led by an Iranian-trained cleric, said the boycott was in protest of an alleged government attempt to manipulate parliament and the Cabinet.

Al Wefaq has sought senior posts in parliament and the Cabinet. King Hamad, who was to have addressed parliament on Dec. 15, has appointed a Shi'ite, Nizar Al Baharana, as minister of state for foreign affairs, Middle East Newsline reported. But the Shi'ite opposition said it was not satisfied.

"Al Baharna was appointed based on talks between him and the government and we were not consulted about this political message, so it does not concern us," Al Wefaq chairman Ali Salman said.

Sunni parliamentarians have given Al Wefaq three days to return to parliament. The constitution requires a full parliament session to decide on the chair and two deputies of the National Assembly.

"We could have easily got inside parliament and held the vote, but members of parliament took a noble stand against such a move, saying that Al Wefaq should be given a chance to attend," outgoing parliamentary speaker Khalifa Al Dhahrani said. "Al Wefaq has until 9.30 a.m. Tuesday to attend because that will be parliament's first session, when posts will be decided regardless."

The boycott by Al Wefaq was said to reflect the increasing power of the Shi'ite opposition. The parliamentary bloc, whose members have called for the expulsion of the U.S. military from Bahrain, has been accused of receiving Iranian support and financing.

"Although we are appreciative of Al Wefaq's participation, we didn't like what has happened today," Al Dhahrani told a news conference on Dec. 15. "I hope that this doesn't happen again, because it threatens the unity of not just this establishment, but the whole country."

Al Wefaq has sought to chair at least two of the five council committees. The opposition has also warned the king not to undermine the National Assembly by transferring authority to the non-elected Shura Council.

"We have won 62 percent of the total votes while the 22 pro-government deputies had only 38 percent," Salman said. "We should have a greater say in the major political issues in Bahrain."

world tribune

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Afghan President Criticizes Pakistani Mine Plan

Afghan President Hamid Karzai denounced Pakistani plans to fence and mine sections of its border with Afghanistan. The proposal was announced earlier this week, amid mounting criticism from Afghanistan that Islamabad was not doing enough to end deadly cross-border raids by suspected Taleban insurgents. VOA corespondent Benjamin Sand reports from the Pakistani capital.

Speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon, Afghan President Hamid Karzai urged Pakistan to reconsider its controversial proposal, which he said would have little impact on cross-border terrorism, but would seriously disrupt local communities.

"We, politically, are against it. We, in terms of humanitarian values are against it. It's only going to prevent, hinder movement by civilian families," he said. "So, if they mean a separation of people, that is the way. If they mean a prevention of terrorism, that is not the way."

The plan was announced in Islamabad on Tuesday. Pakistan says it will fence and mine selected areas along its almost 2,500 kilometer long border with Afghanistan.

The border itself remains both ill-defined and largely unguarded more than a hundred years after it was initially drawn by the British.

Local Pashtun tribesmen live on either side of the so-called Durand line, and travel relatively unhindered across the border.

Afghan officials say Taleban insurgents are doing the same thing after establishing a series of base camps inside Pakistan. They say such bases are a major factor in a surge of militant violence in the last 12 months.

More than 4,000 people have been killed this year, with most of the fighting occurring in those Afghan provinces sharing a border with Pakistan.

Thursday, President Karzai said the only way to defeat the militants would be to eradicate their safe havens.

Mr. Karzai has repeatedly accused Pakistan of turning a blind eye to the insurgents, and relations between the two countries have become increasingly strained in the last year.

U.N. officials in both countries were also quick to speak out against the new proposal. U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique voiced his concerns to reporters in Kabul on Wednesday.

"Afghanistan is already one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, and it's very difficult to see how laying fresh mines would be of benefit to people living on either side of the border," said Siddique.

Pakistan meanwhile insists the plan would only be executed inside its national borders where it has the right to operate however it sees fit.

Islamabad says it is doing everything it can to help improve regional security.

Pakistan has already deployed some 80,000 soldiers to help secure the border, and recently announced plans to send additional forces to the troubled region.


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US official: Saddam could be executed within days

The Iraqi government has told US Officials that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein could be executed within the next few days, a senior Bush administration official said on Thursday. "I've heard that it's going to be a couple more days, probably," The official said while Bush took a holiday break at his Texas ranch.

He said he had heard from U.S. Officials in Baghdad that the execution would not be Thursday U.S. Time or Friday Baghdad time. "It's going to be maybe another day or so," The official said. (Reuters)

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US: Arafat responsible for diplomat's death

State Dept. declassifies document revealing Yasser Arafat was behind attack on US embassy in Sudan 34 years ago. During attack, terrorists killed US ambassador, his deputy, and Belgian diplomat

WASHINGTON - Thirty four years after Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and killed the American ambassador to Sudan, the US Department of State announced Thursday that the person who was behind the planning of the attack was none other than PLO chairman and later Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

The attack was carried out on March 1, 1973. According to a declassified State Department document, eight "Black September Organization"
terrorists seized the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Khartoum as a diplomatic reception honoring the departing United States Deputy Chief of Mission was ending.

After the takeover, the terrorists kidnapped US Ambassador Cleo Noel, his deputy George Curtis Moore, the two deputy ambassadors of Belgium and Jordan. In return for the freedom of the hostages, the terrorists demanded the release of various individuals, mostly Palestinian guerrillas, imprisoned in Jordan, Israel and the United States.

When the terrorists became convinced that their demands would not be met and after they reportedly had received orders from Fatah headquarters in Beirut, they killed the two United States officials and the Belgian Charge, sparing the life of the Jordanian envoy.

'Inimical to Palestinian interests'

US intelligence agencies managed to intercept a message from Arafat to the terrorists in Khartoum before the attack, prompting an urgent message to the embassy warning of the attack. Unfortunately, the message did not reach the embassy in time.

"The Khartoum operation was planned and carried out with the full knowledge and personal approval of Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the head of Fatah," the document reads.

"Fatah representatives based in Khartoum participated in the attack, using a Fatah vehicle to transport the terrorists to the Saudi Arabian Embassy. Initially, the main objective of the attack appeared to be to secure the release of Fatah/BSO leader Muhammed Awadh (Abu Da'ud) from Jordanian captivity."

The document also estimates that one of the primary goals of the operation was to strike at the United States because of its efforts to achieve a Middle East peace settlement which many Arabs believe would be inimical to Palestinian interests.


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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Moscow Set On Selling More Weapons To Remain a Superpower

AFP: Moscow must develop and sell more sophisticated weapons to remain “a superpower,” Russian defense minister Sergei Ivanov said Dec. 25.

”Our country cannot keep its status as a superpower on the basis of its territory and natural resources alone,” The Ria Novosti agency reported Ivanov as saying.

”We only have one solution: to create competitive products and conquer the international markets,” he added.

”A stable defense industry contributes to the development of related science industries and to the progression to an economy based on our raw materials and innovation,” the minister said.

President Vladimir Putin hailed Russia’s 2006 arms sales at the start of December which he said reached $6 billion and placed the country among the leading arms exporters in the world.

According to a U.S. Congressional report published in late November, Moscow signed arms contracts worth seven billion dollars in 2005 with countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, a sharp increase from $5.4 billion in 2004.

The result made Russia the leading weapons exporter to emerging countries, ahead of France and the United States.

The ranking is largely the result of Russian sales to India, China and Iran.
This year, Russia has also signed large contracts with Algeria and Venezuela.

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China's Hu calls for powerful, combat-ready navy

Chinese president and commander-in-chief Hu Jintao urged the building of a powerful navy that is prepared "at any time" for military struggle, state media reported on Thursday.

At a meeting of delegates to a Communist Party meeting of the navy on Wednesday, Hu said China, whose military build-up has been a source of friction with the United States, was a major maritime country whose naval capability must be improved.

"We should strive to build a powerful navy that adapts to the needs of our military's historical mission in this new century and at this new stage," he said in comments splashed on the front pages of the party mouthpiece People's Daily and the People's Liberation Army Daily. "We should make sound preparations for military struggles and ensure that the forces can effectively carry out missions at any time," said Hu, pictured in green military garb for the occasion.

China's naval expansion includes a growing submarine fleet and new ships with "blue water" capability, fuelling fears in the United States that its military could alter the balance of power in Asia with consequences for Taiwan.

China has said it would attack if the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own formally declares independence.

Analysts say China sees a stronger navy as a way to secure energy supplies and seaborne trade routes to help ease security fears over supplies of resources and oil it needs to feed its booming economy.

Hu also called for the "strict management of the navy according to law," a possible reference to a scandal in which a vice admiral was jailed for life on a charge of embezzlement.

Wang Shouye was convicted by a military court earlier this month, Hong Kong's Wen Wei Po reported, making him the most senior Chinese military officer to be jailed for corruption.

Earlier this year, Wang was sacked as navy deputy commander for bad morals and using his position to demand and accept bribes and violate laws and discipline, the report said.

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Wave of gang attacks in Rio kills 18 people

RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 28 (Reuters) - At least 18 people were killed in gang attacks on buses and police posts in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, a state official said, as the Brazilian city fills up with tourists for New Year celebrations.

Seven of the people were burned to death on a bus and nearly two dozen were wounded in the violence, which was similar to a wave of bloodshed that hit the business capital Sao Paulo earlier this year on orders from a powerful prison-based gang.

Rio state public security secretary Roberto Precioso blamed drug gangs and their jailed kingpins for 12 attacks across the oceanside city.

"It's an act against changes in the penitentiary administration," he told a news conference.

The attacks came as Rio prepared for its spectacular New Year's Eve beach party, which draws huge crowds of tourists. More than 2 million people are expected to flock to Ipanema and Copacabana beaches where performers including U.S. hip-hop band Black Eyed Peas will take part in a globally-broadcast show.

Preciosa said police had occupied 10 slums, which are controlled by drug gangs, and reinforced patrols.

"The result (of the attacks) was tragic. If it had not been for police action it could have been worse," Precioso said.

Police killed seven suspected attackers and arrested three. Two officers had been killed, he said.

Firefighters said they found seven charred bodies inside a bus that was torched on the busy Avenida Brasil thoroughfare by attackers. Three suspects were arrested, police said.

Unidentified assailants sprayed a police post with bullets in the beachside neighborhood of Botafogo, killing a street vendor. One officer was killed in an attack in wealthy Barra da Tijuca district and another near Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon.

Three buses and a police post were torched in the Bangu area on the outskirts.

Over 200 people were killed in Sao Paulo after a powerful prison gang, known as the First Command of the Capital (PCC), ordered attacks on public targets in May. Police retaliated in violence that continued into July. The gang was protesting against transfers of ringleaders to tighter security prisons.

Rio police are notorious for tough tactics and their retaliation could be harder. Police kill over a 1,000 suspects per year in Rio, more than in some war zones, and human rights groups accuse police of summary executions.

The PCC is not active in Rio, but some of the city's drug gangs have links to it, police say.

Rio has a murder rate of around 40 per 100,000 people, which is one of the world's highest, and crime is rampant. Last March, army troops were sent into the slums, or favelas, in a crackdown on drugs gangs.

Municipal tourism secretary Rubem Medina told Reuters the attacks would further hurt Rio's image. Apart from its famed Carnival in February, the city will host the Pan-American Games next July.

"It's such a shame that we are working so hard to show the positive sides of our city and this act damages it all," Medina said. "It is lamentable, sad," he said.

He expected 550,000 tourists for the New Year's bash.

Earlier this month, police arrested about 80 fellow officers for links with organized crime and involvement in drugs and arms sales in the state's most high-profile attempt yet to stamp out police corruption.

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Iran politics: Not bothered


The sanctions imposed on Iran as part of UN Security Council Resolution 1737, which was passed unanimously on December 23rd, will not, in themselves, seriously inconvenience the Iranian government as it continues down the path of developing its nuclear industry. The price of maintaining a unified international front on the issue has been to incorporate fully the views of states, such as China and Russia, which favour gentle persuasion over coercion in their approach to Iran.

Nevertheless, Iran's insistence on forging ahead with its nuclear programme on its own terms is by no means cost-free. There is scope for tougher sanctions to be imposed should Iran refuse to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, and eventual military action against Iran's nuclear facilities cannot be ruled out. Even without such punitive measures, the nuclear-stand-off is imposing a heavy opportunity cost on Iran's economic development, slowing down investment in the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors, as well as in critical infrastructure projects, including electricity.

The resolution seeks to enforce a ban on the supply of equipment or technology to Iran which could contribute to the enrichment effort or to heavy-water related activities and the development of nuclear weapons delivery systems. This is unlikely to bother Iran, as it seems that most of the materials and know-how it requires has already been procured. The resolution also provides an exception for equipment and supplies needed for the start-up of the 1,000-mw nuclear power station being built by Russian firms at Bushehr. The low-enriched uranium for the plant is to be provided by Russia, which will also handle the spent fuel rods.

The other main measures included in the resolution are a freeze on funds and assets of a number of designated entities and individuals tied to the nuclear programme and to Iran's military industries and a travel ban on these individuals. Again, this is hedged around with numerous exceptions, including one framed to ensure that contractual payments to Russia for work on the Bushehr project are no affected.

IGRC connection?

The list of entities and individuals provides some insights into the concerns harboured by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as to the risks of Iran's nuclear programme having a possible military dimension. The entities include the Defence Industries Organisation, "some of whose subordinates have been involved in the centrifuge programme making components, and in the missile programme," according to an annex to the resolution. The individuals are listed as either being involved in the nuclear programme or involved in the ballistics programme--with one exception, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, who is listed as being involved in both programmes.

Iran has responded to the resolution by announcing plans to accelerate its enrichment programme. The Majlis (parliament) has also passed a law calling on the government to "revise" its relationship with the IAEA. There has been no suggestion of any counter-measures, for example withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The relatively low-key reaction suggests that Iran sees no real threat in the resolution, which was passed almost five months after the expiry of a deadline set by the UN Security Council for Iran to suspend its enrichment activities. Resolution 1737 states that the director-general of IAEA has been requested to submit a report within 60 days on whether Iran has complied with the renewed call for it to suspend enrichment. If it is found not to have complied, further measures will be considered. In light of the laborious progress towards passing this mildest of sanctions resolutions, Iran can be fairly confident that it has plenty of time to press forward with its nuclear plans without risk of serious penalties. The Iranian government can take comfort from the fact that the resolution was adopted under Article 41 of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which covers measures to be taken not including the use of armed force

End game?

Iran's commitment to mastering the nuclear fuel cycle appears to be unshakeable. The central question is whether the government is prepared eventually to give ground in negotiations about safeguards against nuclear weapons proliferation. Such concessions could be forthcoming if Iran were genuinely not interested in developing nuclear weapons--and satisfied with merely a theoretical capability to do so--or if the international will to block Iran's plans were to weaken to the extent that lax safeguards would be deemed acceptable. It seems more likely that Iran will continue to brazen it out, on the assumption that the united international front against it will crumble.

Forging ahead regardless exposes Iran to the risk that the affair will inexorably lead to a military confrontation. This risk can be mitigated by subtle diplomacy, spreading the message that even supposing Iran were pursuing nuclear weapons capability, its purpose would be entirely defensive. However, the rhetoric of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the actions of Iran's allies in the Middle East suggest a more expansionary theme--that a nuclear-capable Iran would be intent on regional domination. Recent comments by the UK prime minister, Tony Blair, to the effect that "those presently in charge of the Iranian government's policy" posed a strategic threat to regional stability, produced a sharp rejoinder from the Iranian authorities, who summoned the British ambassador in Tehran to receive a dressing down.

Own goals?

If Iran does succeed in warding off a military attack on its nuclear facilities, it still has to reckon with the economic effects of continuously strained relations with the outside world. Investment in Iran's oil, gas and petrochemical sectors has lagged in the past few years, as Western firms have grown more circumspect and the management of these sectors has been affected by internal political upheavals. The government's hopes for large inflows of investment from Asia have yet to materialise, and shortages of refining capacity, combined with the pernicious effects of subsidies, have left Iran depending on imports to meet more than 40% of its petroleum products demand. The slowdown in developing Iran's gasfields has raised questions about where Iran is to source the fuel for future power projects. Nuclear power may indeed be an appropriate solution. However, as the IAEA has repeatedly observed, the logical approach for Iran would be to start the process by initiating nuclear power station projects--in addition to Bushehr, which was started in the 1970s--rather than producing the fuel.

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Hijacking attempt made on Russian plane

Russian Aeroflot Airliner Makes Unscheduled Landing in Prague After Apparent Hijacking Attempt

PRAGUE, Czech Republic Dec 28, 2006 (AP)— A Russian Aeroflot airliner made an unscheduled landing at Prague's Ruzyne international airport Thursday after an apparent hijacking attempt, police said.

The Airbus A320 flying from Moscow to Geneva landed in Prague shortly before 11 a.m., the airport spokeswoman Pavlina Hajkova said.

Police spokesman Pavel Hantak said police did not have to intervene, as the would-be hijacker was "already pacified on board the plane."

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Security developments in Iraq, Dec 28

Dec 28 (Reuters) - Following are security developments in Iraq as of 1400 GMT on Thursday:

* MOSUL - A suicide bomber in a minibus attacked the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in the northern city of Mosul and there were an unknown number of casualties, eyewitnesses said.

BAGHDAD - One U.S marine was killed in combat in Anbar province on Wednesday, the U.S military said.

TIKRIT - Gunmen attacked an Iraqi army checkpoint, killing two soldiers and wounding one in Tikrit, 175 (110 miles) north of Baghdad, army sources said.

KIRKUK - Four gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms opened fire and killed a policeman and seriously wounded another in the northern oil city of Kirkuk, police said. The gunmen were arrested.

BAGHDAD - A car bomb exploded at a petrol station near the Shaab stadium in central Baghdad, killing 10 people and wounding 25, police said.

BAGHDAD - Two roadside bombs exploded in Bab al-Sharji in central Baghdad, killing seven people and wounding 35, Interior Ministry and police sources said.

BAQUBA - Gunmen killed a police captain and wounded two other policemen in a drive-by shooting in Baquba, 65 km north of Baghdad, police said.

HAWIJA - A roadside bomb targeting an Iraqi police patrol wounded three policemen in Hawija, 70 km (43 miles) southwest of Kirkuk, police said.

YUSIFIYA - Iraqi special forces backed by U.S. advisers have captured an al Qaeda cell leader believed to be behind the kidnap in June of two U.S. soldiers who were found tortured and dead, the U.S. military said. The man was captured in a raid on Tuesday in Yusifiya, 15 km south of Baghdad.

BAGHDAD - A total of 51 bodies were found on Wednesday in different districts of Baghdad, an Interior Ministry source said.

BAGHDAD - A roadside bomb exploded near a U.S military patrol, killing two soldiers and wounding another on Wednesday southwest of Baghdad, the U.S. military said.

BAGHDAD - A roadside bomb detonated near a U.S. military patrol, killing one soldier and wounding two other soldiers on Wednesday in eastern Baghdad, the U.S. military said.

NEAR MAHMUDIYA - U.S. and Iraqi army troops arrested 30 suspected insurgents on Tuesday southwest of Mahmudiya, about 30 km south of Baghdad, the U.S. military said.

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Supersonic Combustion for a Hypersonic Space Plane; Discovery Could Enable Two-Hour Flights From DC to Australia

Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute (MTECH)

COLLEGE PARK, Md: Here’s the promise: two-hour flights from anywhere to the other side of the world, replete with 30 minutes of Space Shuttle-like views while in orbit.

The problem: how to mix fuel in the engine of an efficient, hypersonic space plane invented by Astrox Corporation that travels as fast as Mach 25, or 17,500 miles-per-hour, above the Earth’s atmosphere.

The answer: Through two Maryland Industrial Partnerships Program projects, A. James Clark School of Engineering faculty members Ashwani Gupta and Kenneth Yu, along with graduate student Ram Balar, have successfully designed and tested a combustor for the Astrox space plane, which uses something called an inward-turning scramjet engine.

“Hypersonic space planes could revolutionize the transportation industry, much like jet planes did for subsonic commercial aviation 50 years ago,” said Astrox President Ajay Kothari. “Seemingly remote parts of the world would be nearly as accessible as a two-hour drive.”

Vertical takeoff version of the same hypersonic space plane. (click for larger image)
Mechanical engines don’t work at hypersonic speeds. Moving parts simply cannot work at 3,500-7,500 miles-per-hour, or 5-10 times faster than the speed of sound, according to Kothari.

Instead, hypersonic jet engines typically employ rectangular, duct-like engines with no moving parts, also called scramjets. Air enters the engine inlet at hypersonic speeds and is compressed to supersonic speeds, after which it is mixed with fuel and ignited. The air leaves the engine traveling faster and at a higher pressure than when it came in—creating thrust.

But the large surface areas created by rectangular designs generate tremendous heat transfer into a vehicle, requiring extra fuel loads just to cool areas around the engine chamber. “Not only are the large surface areas inefficient, but the extra fuel also adds significant volume and weight to the aircraft,” said Kothari, who holds a patent on an inward-turning vehicle design. “Single-stage-to-orbit travel utilizing a rectangular-shaped engine design would be difficult.”

Kothari’s engine is shaped like a funnel, where air comes in through a circular opening, increases in pressure as it passes through, then leaves with more thrust and less heating than through a rectangular design. The challenge is injecting fuel into the fast-moving air efficiently as it travels through the engine.

“Roughly speaking, you’re looking at the air flow traveling 1,000 meters-per-second inside the combustor,” said Yu. “The combustor is a meter long, so you have one millisecond for everything to happen—not just the fuel and air mixing—but the burning as well.

Inward-turning hypersonic space plane ready for take-off from a runway. (click for larger image)
“The combustion is fast, so that’s not the problem,” explained Yu, “but before combustion can occur, you have to mix your fuel with the air quickly. This is more difficult when the air’s traveling at such high speeds.”

Kothari, Gupta, Yu and Balar designed an injector resembling a small, aerodynamic wing, which enters the engine at an angle in the same direction the air is flowing. Fuel is injected just at the wake where the air crosses the wing-shaped injector.

“You have to inject the fuel in the same direction as the air is traveling,” said Gupta. “That’s where the novelty comes in, as it gives you both high thrust and good mixing.”

The research team has tested the combustor at Mach 2, twice the speed of sound, in the university’s supersonic wind tunnel.

Kothari plans to test both his design and the combustor in a small, model space plane.

Astrox will market its vehicle design initially for military use, both as a stand-alone plane and as a weapons delivery system.

Eventually, Kothari envisions consumer planes taking off horizontally from large airports and reducing 20-hour flights to as little as 1.5 hours.

Kothari and the MIPS team have published three academic papers on their combustor design, while Astrox has published 25 papers on hypersonic vehicles.

Founded in 1988, the company has won $5 million in contracts from the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration—including three Small Business Innovation Research grants to design hypersonic airplanes and rockets.

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Iraqi Qaeda allies urge backing for Somali Islamists

DUBAI, Dec 28 (Reuters) - An al Qaeda-backed group in Iraq has urged Muslims to support Islamists in Somalia fleeing the capital Mogadishu under siege by Ethiopian and Somali government forces.

"In this great showdown, the Islamic State in Iraq calls on all Muslims to stand with their brothers in Somalia and support them with money, arms and men and to pray for their victory over the enemy," the so-called Islamic State in Iraq said in a statement dated Dec. 27 posted on the Internet.

"Muslim blood is being shed and their homes and villages are being destroyed and thousands of their women, children and elderly people are being displaced for no reason except being Muslims," it said.

The authenticity of the statement could not immediately be verified, but it was posted on a Web site used by al Qaeda-linked groups and other insurgents in Iraq.

The Islamic State in Iraq was declared in October by groups linked to al-Qaeda. It is led by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi who this month offered in another Internet statement to stop attacking U.S. forces if they withdrew from Iraq within a month and left their heavy weaponry behind.

A joint Ethiopian and Somali government force seized control of the main routes into Mogadishu and was poised to capture the capital on Thursday after the Islamists who had been in control left.

Ethiopia says the Islamists are supported by al Qaeda and its arch foe Eritrea. The Islamists say their support comes from the Somali people.

A leader of the Somalia Islamic Courts Council, which seized the capital from U.S.-backed warlords in June, said their leaders and troops had all withdrawn from Mogadishu and that the the city had descended into chaos. Witnesses reported looting and gunfire from late on Wednesday.

It was not clear if the statement was written before or after the withdrawal of the Islamists from Mogadishu.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Spy drive to tackle Chinese

News.com.au: ASIO has stepped up espionage against Chinese spies and Muslim extremists by more than doubling in only two years the number of intelligence officers from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

The domestic spy agency, dominated by white Anglo-Saxon males during the Cold War, has recruited an unprecedented 88 foreign-language-speaking spies since late 2004 as part of the Government's plan to fast-track ASIO's expansion.

The Australian understands many of the new recruits are fluent Chinese speakers who have been assigned to a new ASIO counter-espionage unit specifically to combat the increased number of Chinese spies in Australia.

However, despite the sharp rise in foreign-language speakers, the domestic spy agency is still unable to attract the number of Arabic speakers it needs to operate inside the Muslim community and better monitor the terrorist threat inside Australia.

At least five key intelligence and security agencies, including ASIO, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, the Defence Signals Directorate, the Defence Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Federal Police are struggling to recruit Arabic speakers. Their experience mirrors that in the US where the CIA and FBI are desperately short of Arabic-speaking agents.

The Washington Post has revealed that five years after Arab terrorists conducted the September 11 attacks on the US, less than 1 per cent of FBI agents have any proficiency in Arabic and none of these works in the section of the bureau investigating international terrorism.

In Australia, it is believed that there are fewer than a dozen fluent Arabic speakers working full-time inside intelligence and security agencies.

The problem is exacerbated by the difficulty in obtaining timely security clearances for Arabic speakers, as ASIO is required to delve deep into their past, including time spent in the Middle East.

Federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock told The Australian that ASIO needed recruits with "a range of experience and backgrounds".

"The Government is committed to appropriately resourcing our intelligence agencies," he said.

"ASIO already has approximately 1200 staff - double the number it had at the end of 2000-2001. It has developed innovative recruitment campaigns to recruit high-quality staff with a range of experience and backgrounds."

A spokesman for Mr Ruddock declined to reveal details of ASIO's foreign-language capabilities, except to confirm that the number of ASIO officers from non-English-speaking backgrounds had soared from 78 to 166 since 2004.

ASIO has also been recruiting a new generation of computer specialists to man a new specialist technology information division to help monitor persons of suspicion.

The new intake of Chinese-speaking ASIO officers has bolstered its capacity to monitor the activities of Chinese spies, which now outnumber the Russians that dominated Canberra intelligence circles during the Cold War.

The Australian revealed last year that senior government sources believed Australia had been targeted aggressively in recent years by Chinese spies seeking information on military-related technology and strategic policy secrets.

"China would be the biggest now by a fair way ... they have built up their capabilities over the last 10 years and are more aggressive in their activities," the source said.

China has denied it has spies in Australia, a claim dismissed by security officials who say they operate mostly under diplomatic cover and under the guise of businessmen.

ASIO is in the middle of the most dramatic expansion in its history, with $642 million in additional funding over the next five years and plans to increase its numbers from 1200 personnel to 1860 by 2010-11.

ASIO chief Paul O'Sullivan says it was now growing at its "maximum sustainable rate".

ASIO has spent about $1million this year on advertising for recruits, taking in about 240 new people for a net gain of 170.

One ad shows a shoe sitting on a floor with the caption: "To you, this is just a shoe. To an ASIO surveillance officer, it's still just a shoe. ASIO officers are just like you."

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Belarus warns Russia over gas transit to Europe

MINSK/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Belarus issued an implicit threat that it could stop Russian gas deliveries through its pipelines to western Europe unless Russia's gas monopoly Gazprom relented on demands Minsk pay steep price increases in 2007.

The threat is likely to revive unpleasant memories of gas cuts to Europe last year when Russia was locked in a similar pricing row with Ukraine. But Belarus ships smaller volumes of gas to Europe via its territory and Russia said Europe was safe as Gazprom (GAZP.MM) had stockpiled extra gas in Germany.

"We are inter-dependent. If I don't have a domestic gas supply contract, Gazprom won't have a transit deal," Belarus's Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko said at Minsk airport late on Tuesday after his return from failed talks in Moscow.

About 80 percent of Russian exports to Europe are pumped via Ukraine, with the rest going through Belarus. Russia supplies a quarter of Europe's gas to more than 20 countries.

Belarus, whose President Alexander Lukashenko is accused in the West of crushing human rights, has long been a Russian ally.

Relations have soured due to what analysts say is Kremlin leader
Vladimir Putin's distaste for Belarus's Soviet-style economic policy and reluctance to share enterprises with Moscow.

Semashko did not say whether Belarus was prepared to stop all gas transit via its territory.

Two years ago, Minsk took no such action in a similar dispute, but Gazprom accused it of taking gas from transit pipelines for its domestic needs. Gazprom said it viewed Semashko's latest comments as a new threat to steal gas.

Two years ago, the row generated no major criticism of Russia in the West due to Lukashenko's poor political image.

Last year, Russia came under fire from politicians in the
European Union and the United States following gas cuts to Ukraine. The dispute accentuated rocky relations between Moscow and Ukraine's pro-Western leadership, since tempered by the return of a prime minister friendlier to Russia.


The sniping reached a climax when Vice President
Dick Cheney accused Russia earlier this year of using energy to intimidate and blackmail smaller neighbors.

Some analysts say Moscow may decide against resorting to cuts this year given the Ukrainian experience and the growing importance of Germany as its top trade partner.

"Belarus has a very strong negotiating position with its gas transportation infrastructure and we believe that Gazprom will have to be very flexible with its Belarus pricing policy," said Yelena Savchik from Renaissance Capital brokerage.

But a Gazprom source told Reuters some top employees had been told to cancel New Year holidays: "It looks exactly like one year ago with Ukraine."

Gazprom still hopes for a deal to allow Belarus to receive supplies and Gazprom to transit gas to Poland and Germany.

Gazprom says it offered major concessions to Belarus on Tuesday such as lowering the proposed price to $110 per 1,000 cubic meters from the previous proposal of $200. On Wednesday, it lowered its offer still further to $105. Gazprom has also said the country could pay part of its bill in assets.

Belarus now pays $46.7, or as much as consumers in Russia. By comparison, Gazprom will charge Moldova $170 in 2007 and Georgia $235, while consumers in Europe pay over $250.

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Islamabad, 27 Dec. (AKI/DAWN) - Pakistan has decided to put in place landmines and a fence along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as a 'last resort' to stop cross-border movement of terrorists, Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao said on Tuesday. "By taking such steps we want to show our intention to those who have been blaming Pakistan for not controlling the infiltration of the Taliban into Afghanistan," said the minister. He said the government had already deployed 80,000 troops and established over 800 check posts on the border.

Expressing similar sentiments, Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan at the weekly Foreign Office briefing said that Islamabad had decided to “selectively” mine and fence the border with Afghanistan. It also planned to expand the deployment of Frontier Corps to prevent cross-border militant activity.

“In keeping with our policy to prevent any militant activity from Pakistan inside Afghanistan, the Pakistan Army has been tasked to work out modalities for selectively fencing and mining the Pakistan-Afghanistan border,” said the foreign secretary.“We think these measures would be helpful and in the future if there are any further measures that we think are necessary we would be quite ready to undertake those,” he said.

Notably, the announcement about additional measures comes amid mounting complaints from Afghanistan, the US and Nato that Pakistan is not doing enough to help stabilise the situation in the border areas and the growing concern about tribal areas turning into safe havens for the Taliban and militants.

The foreign secretary said these measures would take into account the need for having designated crossing points to facilitate movement of people across the border under the ‘easement rights’ which the tribals had traditionally enjoyed in the area.

“Of course the population will also have to be fully informed about such measures so there are no untoward incidents,” he remarked. Khan noted that it had also been decided to “strictly monitor” the Afghan refugee camps, adding that the government was expediting the process of registration of Afghan refugees which he hoped would be completed soon.

“We also request the international community, specially the United Nations, to expedite refugees return to Afghanistan and to relocate some of the camps which are closer to the border and which have been cause of much contention to territories inside Afghanistan.”

To a question if Pakistan had reached an agreement with the Afghan government on fencing and mining of the border given that it had been opposed to these measures, his response was: “There is no question of an agreement in this regard as this is a measure that we will be taking on our side of the border.” He said Pakistan’s suggestion to take such measures had been well-known to all sides as it had been stated publicly a number of times.

When his attention was drawn to the international convention on mining, he said Pakistan like a number of other countries, including India, was not a signatory to the Ottawa Convention that forbids mining and added: “We understand the sentiment behind this convention but there is an extraordinary situation and we need extraordinary measures to respond to this”.

Defending Pakistan’s decision to fence segments of the border, he cited the example of fencing on the US-Mexico border to check cross-border movements. He argued that the move was a necessary measure to carry out Pakistan’s commitment that its territory would not be used for militancy inside Afghanistan.

When asked when implementation of fencing and mining plan would start, Khan said: “The task which has been given to the armed forces is already in hand.” Indicating that the process would take some time, he maintained that while fencing was a more time-consuming process and also needed to be guarded as it could be tampered, mining was easier and could be done quite expeditiously in selective areas. However, he gave no timeline for it.

On whether Pakistan would seek international assistance for undertaking fencing and mining, Khan said he had not thought about it but he did not rule it out, saying: “We can look into the pros and cons.” He then added: “We have not asked and so far we don’t intend to request the international community to help us in this regard.”

However, he stressed that where the international community could really help was in repatriation of Afghan refugees on urgent basis and come up with important initiatives and funds to expedite this.

On media reports that the US government had demanded of Pakistan fresh military operations in North and South Waziristan he said: “Well there is no such demand that I am aware of.” Khan said the much commented North Waziristan peace agreement represented a very important policy on the part of Pakistan. “This policy is that in addition to military action or measures that may be necessary it is important to have a political and an administrative approach and socio-economic development plan and programmes,” he explained. This approach, he said, was also being replicated elsewhere in South Waziristan, Bajaur and other tribal agencies. He pointed out that raising of fresh levies and strengthening the institution of the political agent and the tribal Maliks were among the measures that the government had taken to address the problem of extremism which had affected these regions of Pakistan and also to combat terrorist elements there.

While mentioning the measures taken by Pakistan, including 700 check posts along the border with Afghanistan, he underscored that the responsibility for interdicting or preventing militancy was not the sole responsibility of Pakistan side but was equally the responsibility of the ISAF, Nato, and the Afghan forces.

He said apart from the army deployment Pakistan was very actively cooperating within the framework of the tripartite military commission and intelligence sharing through bilateral means between the concerned agencies of the two sides and also cooperation through Nato-ISAF related intelligence.

Khan also emphasised the need for a Marshall Plan-like effort to help Afghanistan and declared: “Nothing short of that kind of an endeavour of that magnitude will make a difference.”

Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Syed Kamal Shah told Dawn that fencing and land mining would not be done along the whole 27,000kms border but at the most critical patches from where the movement of the Taliban could be possible.

Responding to a question on whether the laying of land mines would be a violation of the UN Geneva Convention, the official said: “There would be no bar on land mining if the areas, where it is put in place, are marked otherwise it is a violation of UN resolutions.”

The official said earlier Pakistan was not in favour of erecting fence or laying land mines, but now such steps were being taken as a last resort to ward off the apprehensions of the Afghan government that Pakistan was taking serious steps to control the cross border movement of the Taliban.

The interior minister in his statement in March this year had revealed that Pakistan will erect fence on the border as a "last resort' to check infiltration of terrorists.

He had said: "We are suffering from large scale poppy cultivation and gun running in Afghanistan and the Afghan government had no writ in some of its provinces to overcome the situation."

Afghanistan has reportedly asked Pakistan to increase security at the border by deploying more troops and erect fence.

Sherpao said that Pakistani troops were effectively safeguarding the borders and the government was fully satisfied with their performance.

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