Friday, April 25, 2008

Mosaic News - 4/24/08: World News from the Middle East

Inside Story-Israeli espionage and the US

Inside Story explores the ramifications of the Ben Ami Kadish case.

Detroit: American Axle workers hold protest amidst heavy police presence

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By Shannon Jones

Striking American Axle workers held a picket outside the company’s headquarters Thursday afternoon ahead of a scheduled stockholders meeting.

The UAW local at the striking plants in Detroit called the protest, which drew about five hundred American Axle workers and supporters. The demonstration followed the cancellation by the UAW of a strike support rally set for last Friday in downtown Detroit.

Workers briefly blocked the entrance to American Axle headquarters before dozens of heavily armed police cleared the street. The crowd regrouped on the sidewalk in front of the headquarters before dispersing after about one hour. There were no reports of arrests. The police presence, however, was extremely heavy, in an evident attempt to intimidate the workers.

About 3,600 American Axle workers in Michigan and western New York have been on strike since late February. They are resisting demands by the auto parts supplier for wage cuts of up to 50 percent and a reduction in benefits.

Those participating in the protest evinced the determination of the working class not to surrender its hard won gains. However, local level UAW officials who attended the rally offered no policy to fight the attacks by American Axle other than hurling insults at CEO Richard Dauch. Workers continue to express frustration over the fact that they get no information from either the local or the international union about the content of negotiations. Reports in the media demonstrate that even prior to the strike the UAW had agreed to substantial concessions to the auto parts manufacturer.

The decision by the UAW to call off last week’s scheduled rally has evidently emboldened American Axle to take an even harder line. In a press statement Tuesday the company demanded concessions equivalent to those granted by the UAW to other parts suppliers and restated its threat to shut down production at the striking plants. “If the International UAW is not willing to consider a US market labor agreement...AAM will be forced to plan for the potential closure of some, or all of these uncompetitive facilities,” the statement declared.

WSWS supporters distributed a leaflet at the rally titled, “Appeal to working class, not corporate shareholders, to back American Axle strike.”

The statement called on American Axle workers to make a direct appeal to workers in the auto industry to carry out a struggle against the concessions accepted by the UAW.

The WSWS interviewed workers who attended the rally. Scott, a worker with 14 years seniority, told the WSWS that the turnout was “only a small percentage of what we could have gotten. We needed this demonstration to boost up morale, but I know that the shareholders don’t care; they are with Dauch.”

“They brought in the two-tier contract on us in 2004 and look at what is happening to the Big Three workers. They have it now. If we accept more concessions the same thing will happen to other workers. We have to take a stand against this.”

Scott spoke about his previous experience in the auto parts industry. “I used to work for ITT Automotive. They went out of business in 1994. GM came in and said they were unprofitable. But what was happening was they were shifting production to other plants; we were paying for all the other plants they were building. They shut us down and moved all their operations to Ohio.

Scott said that workers saw signs that GM was preparing to resume operations at plants idled by the strike. “What is making it bad is that GM is getting parts from other plants. I heard that Dana is retooling to make our axles. The truck plant in Arlington, Texas, is going back up. They say they are getting parts from an undisclosed source.”

“Sometimes I look at it and I think the union is selling us out,” Scott added. “They are walking this line and they are teetering, tottering. I heard they even accepted the $14 before the strike. The only gripe was the buydown.”

Latanya Richardson, an American Axle worker with 13 years, told the WSWS, “What happens to us will have a major impact on what happens overall. Next they will go after others.”

Like many workers we spoke to, Latanya was angered by the decision of the UAW to call off the strike support rally set for last week. “It was a smack in the face. We were told we were close to something - then they cancelled it. I think it was to limit the exposure to us.”

She was also unhappy about the lack of information from the UAW. “We should know what we are getting into. The cost of living is getting worse. A lot of us are sole providers; we have a lot to lose. We want to maintain what we have established over the years. No one is getting rich. It just allows us to be comfortable.

“It is definite that they want to eliminate the middle class. They want to pay poverty wages for the working class.”

Alex Clements said there was growing frustration and tension among American Axle workers. “People are getting upset. We go back in there, and we won’t be able to buy the products we make.

“They cancelled the rally for no reason, they said they were close to an agreement—and then they said there was no agreement. I think it was a ploy or a trick.”

Alex felt that strike pay should be increased, given that the UAW had close to $750 million in its strike fund. “What are they saving it for? An emergency? This is an emergency.”

A worker from Chrysler Sterling Heights Assembly came to show his support for the American Axle workers. He noted the provocative police presence outside the American Axle corporate headquarters. “I think they are trying to incite something.”

He said that many workers had been prepared to attend the strike support rally in Detroit the previous week. “They cancelled that day’s rally and they would have had people from all over the country there.”

Latoya, who has worked at AAM for 10 years, said she would not accept having her standard of living cut in half, which would happen if the UAW accepted the cuts proposed by American Axle. “I am not willing to settle for just having a job,” she said. “We need jobs with decent wages.”

How the Pentagon manipulated the media to promote the Iraq war

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By David Walsh

On April 20, the New York Times published a lengthy article by investigative reporter David Barstow detailing the US Defense Department’s extensive and ongoing program of manipulating news coverage of the Iraq war. The article provides a glimpse into the intimate connections between the government, military and mass media and the means by which they have attempted to package and sell a neo-colonial war to the US population.

Barstow writes that the record indicates a “symbiotic relationship where the usual dividing lines between government and journalism have been obliterated.” Essentially, the US mass media has allowed itself to become little more than a propaganda instrument of American militarism.

According to the April 20 piece, more than 75 retired officers have been coached by government and military officials to ‘spin’ the news about Iraq—or simply lie—on countless network and cable channel news programs and talk shows over the course of the past five years or more. Fox News has led the way in presenting these individuals to the public, but NBC, CNN, CBS and ABC have followed suit.

The military analysts have not simply propagandized for ideological reasons; in many cases, they work for defense contractors and are “in the business of helping companies win military contracts.”

The existence of such a program, worthy of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, will come as no surprise to anyone who has observed the increasing resort to anti-democratic and illegal methods by the White House and the Pentagon.

The military analysts’ program was put in place prior to the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, as the Times makes clear, “even before Sept.11,” Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Victoria Clarke had “built a system within the Pentagon to recruit ‘key influentials,’” who might be called on to “generate support” for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s policies.

By early 2002, as detailed planning for an Iraq invasion was under way, the Bush administration encountered an “obstacle”—US public opinion. “Many Americans, polls showed, were uneasy about invading a country with no clear connection to the Sept. 11 attacks. Pentagon and White House officials believed the military analysts could play a crucial role in helping overcome this resistance.”

Clarke and her team set about recruiting the analysts, all of whom were personally approved by Rumsfeld (and with whom he met as a group at least 18 times). “In the fall and winter leading up to the invasion,” writes Barstow, “the Pentagon armed its analysts with talking points portraying Iraq as an urgent threat. The basic case became a familiar mantra: Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons, was developing nuclear weapons, and might one day slip some to Al Qaeda; an invasion would be a relatively quick and inexpensive ‘war of liberation.’”

The analysts then obediently repeated the administration’s line all over the broadcast media. As one of Clarke’s lieutenants told the Times, on certain days, “We were able to click on every single station and every one of our folks were up there delivering our message. You’d look at them and say, ‘This is working.’”

The analysts were instructed not to indicate they had been briefed and prepared by the Defense Department.

The increasingly disastrous character of the war, along with revelations of torture and abuse at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, provided further opportunities for the military experts to be trotted out before the public. In September 2003, for instance, as the insurgency was beginning to have an impact and the administration was attempting to justify Bush’s request for $87 billion in war financing, a group of analysts—four from Fox, one each from CBS and ABC—were invited to tour Iraq and promised a look at “the real situation on the ground.”

Needless to say, on their return, they offered glowing reports about the situation. Paul E. Vallely, a retired army general who specialized in psychological warfare, told Fox News, about the conditions in Iraq, “You can’t believe the progress.” He predicted the insurgency would be washed up within months.

Barstow makes the point that the trip also “represented a business opportunity: direct access to the most senior and military leaders in Iraq and Kuwait,” some of whom had decision-making power over how the billions of US dollars were to be spent.

Media treatment of the horrific conditions at Guantánamo was another source of major concern at the Pentagon. Groups of analysts visited the base six times from June 2005 to counter “the growing perception” of the internment camp “as an international symbol of inhumane treatment.” The collection of retired officers carried out their assignment. “The analysts went on TV and radio, decrying Amnesty International, criticizing calls to close the facility and asserting that all detainees were treated humanely.”

The Pentagon analyst program is apparently illegal under US statutes. A provision of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 forbids the Voice of America from disseminating information about the US and its policies domestically. The Foreign Relations Act of 1972 amended that act to include a ban on disseminating within the US any “information about the United States, its people, and its policies” prepared for distribution abroad. The so-called Zorinsky Amendment (named after Nebraska Democratic Senator Edward Zorinsky) of 1985 forbids US Information Agency funds to “be used to influence public opinion in the United States.”

The article concentrates on the television appearances of the military analysts, and this was undoubtedly where they had their greatest impact. Barstow is too modest, however, about the role played by the print media and the New York Times in particular. He notes merely that members of the group “often published op-ed articles or were quoted in magazines, web sites and newspapers. At least nine of them have written op-ed articles for the Times.”

Editor & Publisher points out that a number of the analysts were regularly cited in the press and that one of their number, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, was quoted often in 2002 and 2003 in support of the attack on Iraq and wrote op-eds for the Washington Post.

Thomas McInerney, “one of the prominent cabal members,” writes Editor & Publisher, “shows up in several Times articles since 2002—as late as 2006 he is quoted as still believing Saddam had WMD and simply hid them in Syria and elsewhere.”

In an online question-and-answer session April 21, Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor, responded to a question about the Times op-ed pieces written by Pentagon analysts. Rosenthal refers to only one of the pieces by name, “Rebels, Guns and Money” (November 10, 2004), authored by retired army Gen. James A. Marks. He claims blandly that the column “discussed the tactics, strategies and techniques involved in urban warfare, looking ahead to an impending military assault on the city of Falluja. General Marks did not take a stand on how the war was going in Iraq.”

This is serious misrepresentation of Marks’ repellent propaganda piece. First of all, Rosenthal claims that the assault was “impending” on November 10. In fact, the attack by US marines began November 8, and by November 10 it was already clear that a major war crime was underway. The Times does not care to reveal that it published an article celebrating the destruction of a major city while it was taking place.

Marks’ article begins triumphantly, “The Marine and Army forces now entering Falluja, Iraq have prepared for this fight for some time, and not just since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime last spring.” It strongly touts the US forces’ prowess at “urban fighting.” The piece is meant to prepare the American public for the devastation and loss of life in Fallujah.

“We will use precision weapons where there is a high probability of killing innocent Iraqis, but for the most part we will use conventional artillery, mortars and rockets. Buildings will crumple—the train station demolished on Monday will not be the last [so much for Rosenthal’s “impending”]—because we will destroy them and so will the insurgents. Dust will be everywhere, small fires and smoke will obscure the vision of our troops and the enemy.

“But it will not be as out of control as it may seem; the destruction will have a purpose... Our goal is to bring democracy and liberty to Iraq, and that won’t happen if we destroy whole cities and towns. Fortunately, our soldiers have extensive training in urban operations down to the platoon and company level.”

Marks concludes by asking rhetorically when American troops would come home, and continues: “One of the most difficult aspects of counter-insurgency operations is deciding when to declare victory and head on home, and it is far too early to even begin thinking about that. But with each American and Iraqi soldier that steps into Falluja this week, we are that much closer to the end.”

The retired general, as part of the Pentagon propaganda campaign, was making the case on the pages of the New York Times for mass murder.

In any event, the Times did not especially need the intervention of outside “experts.” It had a sufficient number of internal advocates for the Iraq war and for US domination of the Middle East in columnist Thomas Friedman and reporters like Judith Miller and Michael Gordon.

During the buildup to the war, Miller’s articles on Iraqi WMD served as a transmission belt for government misinformation and lies. The pieces, it later emerged, were largely based on information provided by Iraqi exile leader and convicted embezzler Ahmad Chalabi. The whole operation was directed by the office of Vice President Dick Cheney and the civilian leadership in the Pentagon.

The response of the US media to the revelation of the Pentagon campaign to manage the war news has been largely to ignore it. The television networks, the guiltiest parties in Barstow’s piece, have either stonewalled inquiries or played the innocent victim.

CBS News and Fox wouldn’t make any comment at all. NBC News issued a brief and evasive statement, claiming it had policies in place “to assure that the people who appear on our air have been appropriately vetted and that nothing in their profile would lead to even a perception of a conflict of interest.” CNN officials said they were unaware that Gen. Marks, one of its main analysts, was, according to Barstow, “deeply involved in the business of seeking government contracts, including contracts related to Iraq.”

The network executives knew precisely what was going on with their military analysts and approved the program. They were as interested as the government and the military in spreading false information to justify an invasion and occupation. As the complicity of the Democrats in Congress has underscored, the need to control Middle East oil reserves is the consensus policy of the American ruling elite.

The moral and intellectual deterioration of the American media has reached an advanced stage. The US has become a society dominated by massive social differentiation. The top officials at the media conglomerates are enormously sensitive to the need to conceal social reality in America as well as the consequences of US foreign policy.

In 1922, at a time when America was a rising political and industrial power, the liberal journalist and political commentator Walter Lippmann could write confidently that “on the whole, the quality of the news about modern society is an index of its social organization. The better the institutions, the more all interests concerned are formally represented, the more issues are disentangled, the more objective criteria are introduced, the more perfectly an affair can be presented as news.”

Following from Lippmann, the opposite holds true as well. ‘The worse the institutions ... ’

US-backed crackdown in Basra paves way for opening up Iraq’s oil and gas

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By James Cogan

The Iraqi government is following up its US-backed campaign of terror against the Shiite Sadrist movement and its Madhi Army militia in Basra with moves to open up the country’s oil and gas resources for exploitation by transnational conglomerates.

On April 16, Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani announced that four undeveloped oil fields in southern Iraq will be tendered to international companies in coming months—three in Basra province. The massive Akkaz natural gas field in the western province of Anbar and an untapped oil field near the northern city of Kirkuk are to be offered up as well. Earlier this month, the Oil Ministry published the names of the first 35 companies—out of 120 that applied for licenses to operate in the Iraqi oil industry—that will be permitted to make bids.

The Akkaz gas field, which is believed to hold seven trillion cubic feet of natural gas, will be developed from start-up production of 50 million cubic feet per day to as much as 500 million cubic feet per day. The long-term plan is to extend an existing pipeline to Syria into Turkey, and sell gas on the lucrative European Union markets. The supply of Iraqi gas to the EU was one of the main agenda items during a two-day visit to Brussels by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in mid-April.

The aim of the southern oil projects is to increase Iraqi production by at least 500,000 barrels to close to three million barrels per day. Longer term, the opening up of dozens of other untapped fields is anticipated to enable production to be pushed to between six million and 10 million barrels per day. Iraq has estimated oil reserves of 115 billion barrels, though one analyst, Fadhil Chalabi of the London-based Centre for Global Energy Studies, puts the figure at more than 300 billion barrels—the largest reserves in the world.

The list of companies highlights the predatory motives behind the 2003 invasion and the subsequent international support for the occupation. It includes US giants ExxonMobil, Chevron, Conoco Phillips, Occidental Petroleum, Hess, Marathon and Anadarko, Britain’s BP, BG and Premier, and Australian firms BHP-Billiton and Woodside. These are the three countries that deployed troops. Royal Dutch Shell, France’s Total, Germany’s BASF, and a number of Japanese, Russian and Chinese firms have also gained the right to tender.

The operations against the Madhi Army in Basra have been used to tackle a number of obstacles to large-scale corporate involvement in the oil industry. The Sadrists, who oppose foreign exploitation of Iraq’s oil industry from the standpoint of Iraqi nationalism, have effectively been driven underground in the city and hundreds of their loyalists killed. In addition, the US, British and Iraqi government forces have targeted the Basra-based Fadhila party, which holds the provincial governorship and dominates trade unions in the oilfields and ports.

Over the past several years, government representatives in Baghdad have repeatedly accused Fadhila of using its control of the Basra administration and the state-owned southern oil company to operate a highly organised and profitable oil smuggling racket. According to an unconfirmed April 10 report in the British-based Times, Fadhila governor Mohammed Al-Waili has been placed under house arrest by Iraqi troops. There are no media reports, but it is highly likely that a purge of Fadhila appointees is taking place, especially within the oil industry.

In the wake of the Basra offensive, security in the oilfields and pipelines has been taken out of the hands of a Fadhila-controlled force and delegated to Iraqi army and police units loyal to the two Shiite parties that dominate the central government—the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Maliki’s own Da’wa. The weakened position of Fadhila is reflected in signals this week that the party wanted talks on rejoining the Maliki government and the dominant Shiite parliamentary faction—the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). With the incorporation of Fadhila and the physical suppression of the Sadrists, the UIA expects to take control of the Basra government in the upcoming October provincial elections.

The deployment of government forces into the oilfields also seeks to intimidate members of the Basra Oil Union, who have taken strike action several times in opposition to the US occupation. The union opposes privatisation of the oil industry. Government troops have occupied the port of Umm Qasr, from which much of the country’s oil is shipped. The New York Times foreshadowed the move onto the docks in a March 13 article that denounced “a militia-controlled union that will load and unload ships only eight hours a day—rather than the 24 hours a day typical of modern ports”.

Transnational companies will initially enter the Iraqi oil and gas industry on the basis of two-year “technical support agreements”, for which they will be paid a flat fee and have no rights over reserves or any share in profits. Sharp differences among the various sectarian and ethnic-based factions in the Iraqi parliament have prevented the passage of a proposed oil law that would legalise foreign control of oil resources.

Concerted efforts are underway to remove that obstacle, however. US Vice President Dick Cheney held meetings with representatives of the main Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs during his visit to the country last month. He reportedly demanded a crackdown on the Sadrists and pressed for an agreement on the terms of the oil law.

On April 16, the Maliki government and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which controls the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, announced that a deal had been reached. Legislation based on a February 2007 draft, already approved by Maliki’s cabinet, will reportedly be presented to parliament soon. The KRG will have the right to enter into contracts with foreign firms for oil and gas projects within its territory—a key Kurdish demand.

A central feature of the 2007 draft was that it legitimised “production sharing agreements” (PSAs)—a one-sided form of contract that allows companies developing oil fields to use initial revenues to recoup all their costs and gives them a proportion of subsequent profits. The KRG has signed as many as 20 PSAs for oil and gas operations in northern Iraq.

The quid pro quo from the Kurdish elite is to shelve their ambitions to incorporate the city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oil fields into their autonomous territory. A UN mission is currently preparing a report on whether it is feasible to hold a referendum in Kirkuk on joining the KRG. The UN team is expected to recommend that four largely Kurdish areas be included in the autonomous Kurdish region, but not Kirkuk.

Under the Iraqi constitution, a referendum on the future status of Kirkuk was meant to have taken place by December 2007. It was postponed in the face of vehement opposition by ethnic Arabs and Turkomen in the city and threats of Turkish intervention. The Turkish government opposes any expansion of the Kurdish region on the grounds that it could encourage separatist agitation among Turkey’s own large Kurdish minority. In February, Turkish troops carried out an eight-day incursion into the KRG to hunt down members of the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The operation was a clear message to the Iraqi Kurds to back off on the issue of Kirkuk.

The largest Sunni parliamentary bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front (IAF), has indicated that it too wants to rejoin the government, suggesting that it is prepared to accept the oil law. The plan to develop gas fields in Anbar province, which has an overwhelming Sunni population and is currently governed by parties belonging to the IAF, provides a definite incentive to do so.

The repression of opposition in Basra to meet US demands and accommodate big oil underscores the venal character of the Iraqi government and its various factions. The Iraqi elite are concerned with securing their own privileged position within the framework of US occupation, regardless of the consequences for the mass of the population.

Food Riots Erupt Worldwide

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By Anuradha Mittal

It's time to stop worshiping at the alter of "market forces."

Food riots are erupting all over the world. To prevent them and to help people afford the most basic of goods, we need to understand the causes of skyrocketing food prices and correct the policies that have fueled them.

World food prices rose by 39 percent in the last year. Rice alone rose to a 19-year high in March - an increase of 50 per cent in two weeks alone - while the real price of wheat has hit a 28-year high.

As a result, food riots erupted in Egypt, Guinea, Haiti, Indonesia, Mauritania, Mexico, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen. For the 3 billion people in the world who subsist on $2 a day or less, the leap in food prices is a killer. They spend a majority of their income on food, and when the price goes up, they can't afford to feed themselves or their families.

Analysts have pointed to some obvious causes, such as increased demand from China and India, whose economies are booming. Rising fuel and fertilizer costs, increased use of bio-fuels and climate change have all played a part.

But less obvious causes have also had a profound effect on food prices.

Over the last few decades, the United States, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have used their leverage to impose devastating policies on developing countries. By requiring countries to open up their agriculture market to giant multinational companies, by insisting that countries dismantle their marketing boards and by persuading them to specialize in exportable cash crops such as coffee, cocoa, cotton and even flowers, they have driven the poorest countries into a downward spiral.

In the last thirty years, developing countries that used to be self-sufficient in food have turned into large food importers. Dismantling of marketing boards that kept commodities in a rolling stock to be released in event of a bad harvest, thus protecting both producers and consumers against sharp rises or drops in prices, has further worsened the situation.

Here's what we must do to prevent an epidemic of starvation from breaking out.

First, it is essential to have safety nets and public distribution systems put in place. Donor countries should provide more aid immediately to support government efforts in poor countries and respond to appeals from U.N. agencies, which are desperately seeking $500 million by May 1.

Second, we should help affected countries develop their agricultural sectors to feed more of their own people and decrease their dependence on food imports. We should promote production and consumption of local crops raised by small, sustainable farms instead of growing cash crops for western markets. And we should support a country's effort to manage stocks and pricing so as to limit the volatility of food prices.

To embrace these crucial policies, however, we need to stop worshipping the golden calf of the so-called free market and embrace, instead, the principle of food sovereignty. Every country and every people have a right to food that is affordable. When the market deprives them of this, it is the market that has to give.

US to Heighten Afghan Role?

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By Gordon Lubold

Pentagon weighs lead role in NATO's combat mission in the south to better fight Taliban.

Washington - The Pentagon is considering whether it should push to change the NATO mission in volatile southern Afghanistan to give the US greater control in the fight against a growing Taliban threat.

The move is one of many being assessed as fears rise that the collective effort of NATO forces there lacks coherence. The Taliban's comeback over the past two years has been marked by a spike in suicide bombings and other violence - at the same time that critics say the complex command structure governing NATO and US forces has stifled combat and reconstruction efforts.

American officials see a possible answer in modeling the southern region after the east, which falls under NATO but is led by a subordinate US command and viewed as relatively successful.

The issue is not a new one, but has been overshadowed by the need for more forces in Afghanistan. With new commitments by some allies in place, the focus now is on creating more workable relationships on the ground - without conjuring images of "American bullying," as one retired US officer puts it, among allies whose commitments already hang by a slender thread.

All discussion is in "incubation," says a Pentagon official with firsthand knowledge of the situation, and a decision is still some months away.

"This is the sausage being made," says the official, who like others quoted in this article asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the discussions.

Support for change comes from outside the military as well. "I think there is a strong rationale for making that command and control much more efficient," Seth Jones, a political scientist at the Rand Corp., told a House panel this month. "We have multiple US chains of command that go through European Command, Central Command, Special Operations Command," he said. "I think there are a range of options on the table about making that arrangement more efficient."

NATO took over what was a security-and-stabilization effort, but is now confronting a combat mission in some of the country's most dangerous provinces. The size of the 61,000-member force, about half of which is American, with the rest from 39 countries, remains a major challenge for commanders. Also of concern is their view that troops as well as provincial reconstruction teams can be more responsive to their countries' domestic concerns than to the commanders under whom they technically fall.

But a particularly thorny issue is the frequent rotations of commands. The southern sector rotates a new subordinate coalition command every nine months. The current Canadian commander, for example, will be replaced by a Dutch counterpart by the end of the year. The frequency of change allow the Taliban to exploit the seams of those transitions, critics say.

In contrast, the Americans cast the US-led eastern sector as successful, in part because of the longer tours - 12 to 15 months or more.

"You get American soldiers and their leaders who establish, maintain, and exploit relationships with the terrain, the indigenous people, and their leadership and their enemy to a fare-thee-well," says Gen. Dan McNeill, senior NATO commander based in Kabul.

"Each time you get a change in nationality in one of these commands, the Afghans as well as the international force have to make adjustments," says General McNeill, who believes the overall strategy in Afghanistan is working and that the larger command structure is succeeding. But he acknowledges that the frequency of rotations in the south is "probably not the most helpful."

Many others believe the overall command needs overhaul. "I have to believe that all my instincts and experience tells me that it ain't working well," says one senior American officer with intimate knowledge of the mission.

But requesting that the coalition forces in the south essentially expand on their commitment by extending their forces is not seen as a simple change.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, typically quick to address issues as they arise, has so far been reluctant to make changes, following the advice of the Pentagon's Joint Staff earlier this year. On Wednesday, Gates said there are always efforts under way to make sure the mission is as effective as possible, but didn't hint at a new approach anytime soon.

"There's been a lot of discussion in this building about whether we have the best possible command arrangements in Afghanistan," he said. "I've made no decisions."

Meanwhile, Afghanistan is as much a political mission as it is a combat and reconstruction one, say military commanders and analysts.

The coalition there is in many ways as important as the mission itself, and is a test of the overall NATO alliance, military commanders and analysts say

"The fact that we have problems with some allies is in no way an indication that we have problems with all the allies," says Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. "We couldn't have done what we could without them."

Many coalition forces are watching the US closely to gauge the extent of its commitment to the Afghanistan mission. The nomination of Gen. David Petraeus, an expert in counterinsurgency and now the top commander in Iraq, to lead US Central Command could mean a new emphasis on what Afghanistan needs.

Gates has indicated he will send more US forces to Afghanistan some time in 2009, something that depends partly on how many troops are brought home from Iraq. But there is discussion of sending a division headquarters and or an additional brigade there.

At the same time, discussion is ongoing about other options for improving the effectiveness of the command structure, in addition to the US assuming more responsibility in the south. Some Pentagon officials believe that the head of the NATO coalition in Afghanistan, a four-star general, should be "dual-hatted." In addition to reporting to the NATO leadership in Brussels, he should also have a direct link to Washington.

Supporters of this plan believe Washington's direct input would help to bring more unity of effort to the mission. Another, perhaps more politically palatable, option is to add a new American three-star general to oversee all American forces. That commander would serve as a deputy to the NATO commander but would also answer directly to Washington.

David Barno, who retired from the Army after serving as the senior NATO commander in Afghanistan, testified before the same House panel that the loss of the senior US commander who had directly answered to Washington hurts the mission. Now, the senior NATO commander only answers directly to NATO.

"I think [it is] a disturbing trend again, given the importance of this mission," he said.

Any of these changes would require approval of the NATO alliance.

Other senior military veterans would like to see "tactical areas of responsibility" drawn that would allow the various forces to "own their own battle space." This would allow them to operate as independently as possible from one another unencumbered by the political reluctance of one country or the military bureaucracy of another.

But if the next administration is to eschew the go-it-alone strategy, the US must find a way to create coalitions that rise above the sum of their parts, analysts say. Working with other countries on what amount to basic organizational issues is ultimately the answer, says one retired officer.

"If the nature of future conflict is going to be a coalition, and we have enough recent examples to show that we put troops at risk if we greatly encumber command and control," says one retired officer. "Then you have to come up with a solution to this."

Why Palestinian Unity is Not an Option

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By Ramzy Baroud

Just days after the Hamas-Fatah clash last June in Gaza, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas looked firm and composed as he shook hands with members of his new emergency government. He made sure his move appeared as legitimate as possible, issuing decrees that outlawed the armed militias of Hamas, and also suspended consequential clauses in the Palestinian Basic Law, which had thus far served as a constitution.

The Basic Law stipulates that the Palestinian parliament must approve of any government for it to be constitutional. Abbas simply decreed that such a clause was no longer valid, effectively robbing Palestinians of one of their greatest collective achievements — democracy.

This system, when truly representative, is indeed precious and meaningful. Considering the impossible circumstances under which Palestinian democracy in particular was spawned and nurtured — military occupation, international pressure, extreme poverty — it was also deeply historic. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that followed the US occupation in Iraq, Arabs showed themselves as ultimately capable of carrying out democratic process.

Unfortunately, the achievement of democracy cannot guarantee its preservation.

Almost immediately after Hamas’ sizable election victory in January 2006, both local and international forces scrambled to suffocate and reverse the outcome of this vote. Conceited intellectuals wrote about the incompatibility of Islam and democracy, politicians decried Hamas’ victory as signalling the encroachment of militarism and extremism, and world leaders clambered to affiliate themselves with the ‘legitimate’ Abbas, as opposed to the ‘illegitimate’ Hamas. Indeed, it was a mockery.

For Israel, the clash between Abbas’ Fatah and Islamic Hamas was a golden opportunity, one that is comparable to the benefits gleaned from another opportune moment, the terrorist attacks of September 11. The latter was recently — and not for the first time — described by Israeli Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu as good for Israel (Haaretz, April 16).

The Palestinian fight was also good for Israel; no longer would the nuisance of Palestinian democracy compete with Israel’s self-ascribed “only democracy in the Middle East.” More, Palestinians were once again depicted as the unruly mob, incapable of producing responsible peacemakers and creating an environment of ‘security’, which the state of Israel so often claims to covet.

As for Abbas and his ministers, they knew too well that the newfound American-Israeli fondness for them was conditional. After all they are the same people, holding the same position and playing the same roles that they have always played. They are the ministers, aides, friends and officials of late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who were, like their president, repeatedly shunned. They also understood well their new appeal in representing the antithesis to Hamas. Rather than rejecting the role of the stooges, Abbas’ cabinet ministers played along.

Suddenly the conflict that was hitherto seen as one between Israel and the Palestinians became one between Abbas and his supporters (Israel and the US) on one hand, and Hamas alone on the other. The problem as reported in mainstream media ceased being about settlements, occupation, and violations of international law, but rather about the anti-democratic ‘forces of darkness’ in Gaza as opposed to the forces of peace and civilization in Ramallah and Tel Aviv. To re-enforce these highly deceptive images with ‘action’, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert initiated their quest for illusive peace. This started in Annapolis and was followed by regular, although equally futile ‘rounds’ of talks in Israel. Few expected such meets to yield any meaningful outcomes; they were clearly intended only to further isolate Hamas and underscore the Abbas-Israeli alliance.

In order for the show to go on, Hamas and Fatah will not be allowed to reconcile, at least not until Israel and the US decide to change tactics. Of course this doesn’t mean that there is no basis for reconciliation. Palestinian factionalism equals capitulation in the face of a harsh, emboldened enemy. Recently we have seen the 2005 Cairo Agreement, the 2007 Mecca Agreement and the March 2008 Yemen Agreement. But to win the approval of Israel in the West Bank — and to avoid the tragic fate of Gaza — Abbas is not interested in the points of agreement, but rather in the points of discord. Aljazeera reported that Azzam al-Ahmad, the Fatah member who signed the Hamas-Fatah memorandum in March, was chastised openly for keeping Abbas “in the dark”, regarding the nature of the agreement. Al-Ahmad insisted that Abbas knew exactly what the agreement stipulated. It seems that a document that merely highlights a course of action towards full reconciliation between the two parties was too much for Israel to accept. Not even the blood of over 120 Palestinians in Gaza, who were killed in the matter of six days in early March, seemed a strong enough motive to override Israel’s threats of Palestinian unity signalling the end of the futile ‘peace process’.

And, of course, there is the money trail. Just days before the Yemen fiasco, the US had agreed to transfer $150 million in support to the Palestinian Authority as “part of past pledges to boost President Mahmoud Abbas’ government.” Boost against whom? Surely not Israel.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad reportedly said it was “the largest sum of assistance of any kind to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority by any donor in one tranche since the Palestinian Authority’s inception (in 1994).” Heart-rending indeed, Mr Fayyad, but one must wonder how much of the money will go to feed the starving in Gaza, or rehabilitate the refugee camps of the West Bank?

While such noble efforts by the UN’s John Dugard, former US President Jimmy Carter and Bishop Desmond Tutu have brought much needed attention to the plight of Palestinians and Gazans in particular, PA officials are too busy attending donor’s conferences and issuing empty statements which few even bother to read. They act as if they are a neutral party caught in the middle of religious fanatics and Israel. Their fight no longer seems even remotely related to Palestine or its people. These are hardly the qualities of any liberation movement or leadership anywhere, in any period of history, recent or otherwise. Neither Abbas nor Fayyad are likely to be the exception.

Syrian Nukes: the Phantom Menace

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By John W. Farley

Last September 6, Israel bombed a Syrian building at Dair el Zor. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, little was said in public, by either Israel or Syria, but later the Israelis started claiming that the Syrians were building a nuclear reactor. On the radio today (April 25), I heard NPR's Tom Jelton repeat, as if it were undisputed fact, the US. government claim to have "proof" of a Syrian-North Korean nuclear connection. Now I see that AP writers Pamela Hess and Deb Reichmann have a story headlined "White House says Syria 'must come clean' about nuclear work," while ABC news has a video entitled "Syria's Nuclear Reactor".

Are the wonderful mainstream media, who gave us Saddam's mythical Weapons of Mass Destruction, lying to us again? The answer is yes.

Last fall, journalist Laura Rozen spoke with Joseph Cirincione, director of nuclear policy at the Center for American Progress. Cirincione says
"In attacking Dair el Zor in Syria on Sept. 6, the Israeli air force wasn’t targeting a nuclear site but rather one of the main arms depots in the country. Dair el Zor houses a huge underground base where the Syrian army stores the long and medium-range missiles it mostly buys from Iran and North Korea. The attack by the Israeli air force coincided with the arrival of a stock of parts for Syria’s 200 Scud B and 60 Scud C weapons."

Cirincione says that there is a small Syrian nuclear research program, which has been around for 40 years and is going nowhere. "It is a basic research program built around a tiny 30 kilowatt reactor that produced a few isotopes and neutrons. It is nowhere near a program for nuclear weapons or nuclear fuel," he said. Over a dozen countries have helped Syria develop its nuclear program, including Belgium, Germany, Russia, China and even the United States, by way of training of scientists, he said.

So what is really going on here? Cirincione told the BBC that "This appears to be the work of a small group of officials leaking cherry-picked, unvetted 'intelligence' to key reporters in order to promote a preexisting political agenda." The preexisting political agenda may be promoting a war with Syria and/or Iran, or torpedoing negotiations between the US and North Korea. Finally, Cirincione adds ominously "If this sounds like the run-up to the war with Iraq, then it should."

Debt Collection Done From India Appeals to US Agencies

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By Heather Timmons

Gurgaon, India - In a glass tower on the outskirts of New Delhi, dozens of young Indians are on the telephone, calling America's out of work, forgetful and debt-stricken and asking for cash.

"Are you sure that's all you can afford?" one operator in a row of cubicles asks politely. "Well, how do you take care of your everyday expenses?" presses another.

Americans are used to receiving calls from India for insurance claims and credit card sales. But debt collection represents a growing business for outsourcing companies, especially as the American economy slows and its consumers struggle to pay for their purchases.

Armed with a sophisticated automated system that dials tens of thousands of Americans every hour, and puts confidential information like Social Security numbers, addresses and credit history at operators' fingertips, this new breed of collectors is chasing down late car payments, overdue credit card debt and lapsed installment loans. Debt collectors in India often cost about one-quarter the price of their American counterparts, and are often better at the job, debt collection company executives say.

"India will be the only place we grow this year," said J. Brandon Black, the chief executive of the Encore Capital Group, a debt collection company based in San Diego. India is the company's largest operating area, with about half the company's collection force of more than 300.

Although the stereotype of a collector may be "some guy with chains and a cut-off shirt," Mr. Black said, collectors in India are "very polite, very respectful, and they don't raise their voice." He added, "People respond to that."

Companies like Encore buy bad loans from banks and credit card issuers for pennies on the dollar and pocket the cash they collect. The delinquent borrowers often owe at least a thousand dollars.

So far just a tiny fraction, maybe 5 percent, of American debt collection is done outside the country, industry executives estimate. But new business is in the pipeline.

Financial services clients are saying, "We want you to collect my debt, to analyze it and change the way that we sell" the loans, said Tiger Tyagarajan, executive vice president at Genpact, the business processing company spun off from General Electric that has roots in India. Genpact, which works with lenders to get customers to pay, rather than buying loans directly like Encore, employs thousands of debt collectors in India, Romania, Mexico and the Philippines, and is hiring in all those locations.

In the past, the prevailing wisdom about wringing money from late payers has been "if you're calling the Midwest, you want someone from the Midwest to twist their arm," said Mark Hughes, an analyst with Sun Trust Robinson Humphrey who covers the industry. That theory is changing as the pool of trained phone professionals in India and other locations deepens, and companies look outside the United States for lower costs.

Telephone debt collection represents new, more aggressive territory for India. "This is really a sales job," Mr. Hughes said. "It is commission-intensive, and you're paid on your ability to collect."

Like many sales teams, Encore's collectors in India gather for a daily pep talk before their shift. In one recent session, they were schooled on the intricacies of American tax policy.

"One hundred thirty million U.S. families will get a tax rebate this season" as part of the new economic stimulus package, Manu Sharma, the team leader, explained to a roomful of top-earning collection agents, most in their 20s. Those who qualify for the rebates will get as much $600 a person or $1,200 a household, he said, and "the I.R.S. is going to start paying this money in May."

Start bringing up the rebate during calls, he told them. "This gives you an advantage so you can increase your wallet share," he went on. "Get them set up on minimum balance arrangements" based around their tax rebates.

Once the calls start flowing, Encore's Gurgaon office resembles nothing less than the headquarters for an enthusiastic fund-raising telethon. Just minutes after collectors have put on their headsets, a supervisor yells out "Rajesh, for $35 a month for three months." All employees enthusiastically respond by clapping three times, and Rajesh is the first on the day's sales board.

Companies like Encore often schedule dozens of payments and make dozens of calls before the loan is paid off.

Encore - which also operates as Midland Capital Management - also files sheaves of lawsuits against customers who do not respond. Sometimes the debt is so old that the statute of limitations for filing a suit has passed, and it may already have vanished from a person's credit report. If the debtor makes a new payment, though, the statute of limitations starts all over again.

Credit counselors in the United States say more and more of their clients are being contacted by debt collectors based in India. Sometimes, it can cause problems. When clients "run into someone who doesn't speak English well or there is a communication gap, it can add to the frustration of the customer," said Bill Druliner, manager and financial counselor for GreenPath Debt Solutions in Milwaukee.

Debt collection, no matter who does it, can have "a devastating impact on people's lives," Mr. Druliner said, because calls can stress family relationships and sometimes debtors are pressed into paying late bills instead of buying necessities like prescriptions. Still, he said, he had not run into any specific problems with overseas debt collectors. "What they may lack in authority or ability to handle slang, they do handle the process very well and are very well spoken," he said.

Mortgage loans, which involve complex state and national laws, are nearly always handled by collectors in the United States. But credit card, auto and other debt are prime candidates for collection overseas.

Just over 4.5 percent of all bank credit card accounts were delinquent in the fourth quarter of 2007, according to the Federal Reserve, up from 3.5 percent two years before. Businesses in the United States put $141 billion in delinquent consumer debt up for collection in 2005, according to a PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey commissioned by an industry group, and debt collection agencies collected $51 billion that year. They kept nearly a quarter of that in profits.

Collection veterans are seeing an unusual phenomena in this economic downturn. "People are walking away from their homes and hanging on to their credit cards, because that is their lifeline," said Rajinder Singh, the head of global analytic services for Genpact.

Encore hires people with call center experience in India, and then trains them in unexpected skills like sympathy. Clients "get very abusive, very emotional, very sad," said Manu Rikhye, vice president at the Encore unit in Gurgaon. The collector's job is to "try to empathize with the consumer," he said and try to figure out, if they're angry, why. "Maybe it's us, maybe it's someone else," he said. "You have to hear what they have to say."

Collectors are taught to handle abuse by telling debtors: "This attitude is not going to get you anywhere. We can either work with you or refer you for further action," implying a lawsuit. Collectors who raise their voices or try "tough" tactics are warned, Mr. Rikhye said, and those who misrepresent facts can be fired.

Manju Muddanna, 27, who uses the name Michelle Green when she is on the phone, is one of Encore's best collectors. With laced-up stiletto sandals, wood bangles and a wad of chewing gum, she wheedles work and cellphone numbers out of debtors' relatives to track them down. Like most Encore collectors, Ms. Muddanna handles several hundred calls a day, but actually makes contact with only a handful of borrowers.

Ms. Muddanna's telephone voice veers to the school-marmish, her learned American accent into Blanche DuBois territory . When people on the other end of the phone mumble, she upbraids them, politely, "Ahhh just can't understand you, ma'am."

Encore pays its collectors in India an average base salary of 17,000 rupees ($425) a month, and they earn bonuses - sometimes more than $1,000 a month - for getting customers to pay. In contrast, collectors in the United States, make about $6,500 a month. Thanks to the income, a windfall in India, where the average monthly income is $63, collectors are amassing some of the status symbols that probably got their clients into trouble in the first place - new scooters, iPods, Swatch watches and exotic vacations.

Canada, US, Mexico Accused of Interference With NAFTA Watchdog

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Toronto, Ontario, Canada - An international coalition of academics, environmental, and conservation groups today called on the governments of the United States, Mexico, and Canada to "stop interfering" with the tri-national Commission for Environmental Cooperation, CEC, particularly its core citizen complaint procedure.

The 20 groups and individuals say in their letter to the top environmental officials of the three countries that the citizen submission process "has reached a critical point with its future threatened by ongoing political interference."

"We are deeply concerned by increasingly blatant government interference in the operations of this important environmental watchdog," said Albert Koehl, lawyer with Ecojustice, Canada’s largest environmental law organization.

Based in Montreal, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation was established in 1994 in a side agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, to address fears that NAFTA would prompt businesses to leave the United States because of lax environmental enforcement elsewhere.

The Commission was the first of its kind in the world in linking environmental cooperation with trade relations.

The coalition says the CEC has waited too long to address the environmental problems of Mexico’s Lake Chapala in Guadalajara.

The side agreement includes a provision allowing citizens to request investigations into a country’s failure to enforce its own environmental laws.

The Citizen Submissions on Enforcement Matters mechanism enables the public to play an active whistleblower role when a government appears to be failing to enforce its environmental laws effectively.

Members of the public trigger the process by submitting to the CEC a claim alleging such a failure on the part of any of the NAFTA partners.

After a review of the submission, the CEC may investigate the matter and publish a factual record of its findings, subject to approval by the CEC Council, which consists of the top environment official in each of the three NAFTA countries.

While, all appears calm and cooperative on the surface, the groups allege that the three governments are undermining the work of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation by obstructing its investigations and limiting their scope.

"When the CEC was established, we saw it as a novel and promising model for other trade agreements," said U.S. Professor John H. Knox of Wake Forest University School of Law. "It’s sad that this promise is being squandered by our leaders to avoid the small fallout of scrutiny that comes from citizen complaints."

In their letter to the members of the CEC Council - Canadian Environment Minister John Baird, U.S. EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, and Mexican Environment Secretary Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada - the coalition alleges that they are not only limiting the scope of CEC investigations to a narrow set of facts, but also that they are taking too long to address serious environmental issues that can distort trade relations at the expense of the environment.

Among the total of 23 factual records that have been recommended since the CEC was established, the complainants point out three that have been subject to long delays that they say are due to political interference - one in each of the three NAFTA countries.

  • United States: Coal-fired power plants (SEM 04-005): There has been no vote to date on a factual record recommended in December 2005 relating to an allegation that the U.S. EPA is failing to enforce its Clean Water Act against power plants for mercury emissions contaminating shared water bodies.

  • Mexico: Lake Chapala II (SEM 03-003): There has been no vote to date on a factual record recommended in May 2005 relating to an allegation that Mexico is failing to enforce environmental laws to protect the Lerma-Chapala-Santiago-Pacifico basin.

  • Canada: Ontario Logging (SEM 02-001 and SEM 04-006) and Pulp and Paper (SEM 02-003): It took seven months before approval was given by the CEC in February 2007 the release of factual records, even though votes on publication are normally required within 60 days.

"The failure to make decisions discourages public participation and, since Council communication usually takes place behind closed doors, promotes public distrust and suspicion," the coalition says in its letter.

"The CEC’s watchdog role is a small price to pay by our governments for a measure of credibility to their assertions that NAFTA respects the environment and other social values," said Gustavo Alanis of the Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental in Mexico City, a coalition member.

"It’s too bad our governments are so short-sighted that they can’t bear even this small amount of scrutiny," he said.

The coalition’s call to the NAFTA parties to halt political interference coincides with a three-day CEC symposium and public forum on environment and trade issues in Phoenix, Arizona that winds up today with a public forum focusing on how well NAFTA is addressing environmental issues.

It also coincides with the two-day North American leaders summit in New Orleans that ended Tuesday with a pledge to "redouble efforts to address climate change" by the leaders of the three NAFTA countries - Prime Minister Stephen Harper, President George W. Bush, and President Felipe Calderon.

The three leaders also agreed to "implement compatible fuel efficiency regimes and high safety standards to protect human health and the environment" in the auto industry; upgrade border crossing systems with more uniform procedures; and install advanced screening equipment at ports of entry to deter and detect the smuggling of nuclear and radiological materials.

They agreed to make food and product safety standards more compatible.

The three leaders agreed to develop a framework for harmonization of energy efficiency standards, and sharing technical information to improve the North American energy market.

They agreed to reduce barriers to expanding clean energy technologies, especially carbon dioxide capture and storage to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. "We are working to better North America’s air quality and working together to improve the safety of chemicals in the marketplace," the three leaders said.

They did not say they would work to remove political interference from the core citizen complaint process of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation.

The coalition says the failure to consider all the facts and the failure to act promptly to resolve environmental problems "undermine the legitimacy of NAFTA" and "the principles of environmental accountability, transparency, and public participation" that the environmental side agreement was intended to bring to the NAFTA arena.

Many States Appear to Be in Recession

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The finances of many states have deteriorated so badly that they appear to be in a recession, regardless of whether that’s true for the nation as a whole, a survey of all 50 state fiscal directors concludes.

The situation looks even worse for the fiscal year that begins July 1 in most states.

"Whether or not the national economy is in recession - a subject of ongoing debate - is almost beside the point for some states," said the report to be released Friday by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The weakening economy is hitting tax revenue in a number of ways: People’s discretionary income is being gobbled up by higher food and fuel costs, while the tanking housing market means people are spending less on furniture and appliances associated with buying a house.

The situation is grim in Delaware, with a $69 million gap this year, and bleak in California, with a projected $16 billion budget shortfall over the next two years, the report said. Florida does not expect a rapid turnaround in revenue because of the prolonged real estate slump there.

By mid-April, 16 states and Puerto Rico were reporting shortfalls in their current budgets as the revenue those budgets were built on - typically, taxes - fell short of estimates. That’s double the number of states reporting a deficit six months ago.

The NCSL said the news is even worse for the upcoming fiscal year, with 23 states and Puerto Rico already reporting budget shortfalls totaling $26 billion. More than two-thirds of states said they are concerned about next year’s budgets.

The results are consistent with a drumbeat of bad economic news for states that several budget groups have produced in the past few months.

Last week, the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said 27 states are reporting projected budget shortfalls next year totaling at least $39 billion.

President Bush said Tuesday that the economy was not in a recession but a period of slower growth. However, some economists have pointed to the string of declines in manufacturing orders to argue that the economy has fallen into a recession.

Bolstering their position, the Commerce Department reported Thursday that sales of new homes plunged in March to the lowest level in 16 1/2 years. The government also reported that orders to factories for big-ticket goods fell for a third straight month in March, the longest string of declines since the 2001 recession.

Some states "have declined so much that they appear to be in a recession," the NCSL report said.

It also noted the silver lining for states where the economy is based on energy, such as North Dakota and Wyoming. Alaska is making so much money from oil that it announced an estimated surplus next year of $8 billion, almost twice the state’s annual budget.

In North Dakota, revenue is above legislative predictions by 13 percent, and in Louisiana, the oil and gas sector is robust.

"For energy-producing states, the fiscal situation is strong and the outlook is good," the report said.

Among Other Findings:

  • More than half the 16 states reporting deficits this year have cut spending, including $1 billion by Florida lawmakers last year and across-the-board cuts in Nevada. At least eight states are debating raising taxes or fees, including a proposed $1-per-pack cigarette tax increase in Massachusetts to raise $175 million.

  • Twelve states, including Georgia, Idaho and Illinois, reported that personal income tax collections were failing to meet estimates, and in eight of these, collections were even below a reduced forecast.

  • Many states, including Alabama, Arizona, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada and Wisconsin, plan to tap their rainy day funds, which contain money set aside for fiscal emergencies. Nevada may use its entire rainy day balance.

On the Web:


New US Embassy in Iraq Can't House All Its Workers

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By Bradley Brooks

Baghdad - The new U.S. Embassy complex does not have enough fortified living quarters for hundreds of diplomats and other workers, who must remain temporarily in trailers without special rooftop protection against mortars and rockets, government officials have told The Associated Press.

Sorting out the housing crunch and funding could further delay moving all personnel into the compound until next year and exposes shortcomings in the planning for America's more than $700 million diplomatic hub in Iraq.

The issue of "hardened" housing in the U.S.-protected Green Zone has gained renewed prominence since Shiite militias resumed steady attacks on the enclave in late March as part of backlash to an Iraqi-led crackdown.

More than a dozen people have been killed in the Green Zone in the latest waves of attacks, including a U.S. civilian government worker whose housing trailer was hit.

At one point - during the heaviest barrages early this month - the State Department ordered all its Baghdad employees to wear body armor and other protective gear while outside buildings in the Green Zone, which also contains the British Embassy, key Iraqi government offices and other international compounds.

Staffers also were ordered not to sleep in their trailers, and hundreds of cots were placed inside the current embassy - a former Saddam Hussein palace.

The State Department took legal possession of the new embassy site last week - a step that had been delayed for months by construction problems - and the move could begin next month.

But there is not enough blast-resistant housing at the new site for "hundreds" of embassy workers, said Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management. One reason is because staffing levels are more than double than projected in 2005 when the compound was being designed.

The precise figure for the looming housing shortfall was not disclosed. Currently, the trailers behind the embassy hold more than 1,000 people including diplomats, embassy employees, translators, civilian support staff and others. Private security contractors generally have their own housing.

The new embassy compound also needs to absorb about 100 workers from the State Department's aid division - which currently has a separate facility - and others from the U.S. military command staff.

To meet the demand, many apartments inside the embassy compound are being divided into two units.

Capital Hill officials with knowledge of the embassy plans told the AP that the State Department is working to secure funding for 600 to 700 trailers - with overhead protection - to be located at the new compound.

But they said it could be a year or more before everyone can move into the compound. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the embassy plans.

That means a significant portion of embassy personnel will remain in the trailers behind the former Saddam palace. Some trailers have sandbags, but no strengthened roof coverings that are common at the embassies of other nations and the villas of many private companies.

One senior U.S. official who spent more than a year in Baghdad described the living situation as "Russian roulette" for staffers in the trailers that could resolved with a relatively small investment. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was not authorized to speak to media.

Kennedy said money was not budgeted for overhead protection for the trailers - estimated at between $15 million and $20 million - because they were deemed "a temporary installation."

"The permanent installations are at the new embassy compound. So that is where we have put our funding," he said.

A senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the trailers at the palace will receive some "enhanced protection" but that it would not include overhead shielding. The official, who was not authorized to speak to journalists, would not provide more details.

It's left some embassy staffers bitter.

An American diplomat - who hunkered down during the wave of attacks in recent weeks - called it a "difficult pill to swallow." The diplomat asked not to be named, lacking authorization to speak to media.

The request for funding for the reinforced trailers at the new embassy appears to be on track, but it's met with some grumbling in Washington from lawmakers who want to reduce the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Rep. Nita Lowey, chairwoman of the state and foreign operations subcommittee of the House appropriations committee, said "it is critical that the embassy in Iraq keep our diplomatic and development personnel safe."

But Lowey, a Democrat from New York, said the diplomatic mission must concentrate on "hastening the withdrawal of military forces" and helping bolster Iraq's government.

"The administration's recent proposal to reconfigure the embassy would delay both of these goals," she said.

Steven Kashkett, vice president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents State Department employees, said the group wants the new embassy compound to stop using the aluminum trailers.

"U.S. diplomats who have volunteered in large numbers for combat zone assignments in Baghdad for the past five years have every right to expect living quarters that afford appropriate security," he said.

Syria Statement on US Nuclear Claim

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Below is the full text of the statement released by the Syrian embassy in Washington in response to US claims that Pyong Yang aided the construction of a nuclear reactor in Syria.

"The government of the Syrian Arab Republic regrets and denounces the campaign of false allegations that the current United States administration continually launches against Syria claiming the presence of nuclear activity.

"And while Syria utterly denies these allegations, it also stresses that this campaign aims primarily to misguide the US Congress and international public opinion in order to justify the Israeli raid in September of 2007, which the current US administration may have helped execute.

"It has become obvious that this maneuver on the part of this administration comes within the framework of the North Korean nuclear negotiations.

"Syria calls on the US to act responsibly and desist from creating further crises in the Middle East, which already suffers from the results and repercussions of failed American policies in the region.

"Furthermore, the Syrian government hopes that the international community and the American public, particularly, will be more cautious and aware this time around in facing such unfounded allegations."

US Statement on Alleged Syria Nuclear Links

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Full text of the White House statement accusing Damascus of accepting North Korean aid to build a nuclear reactor

"Today administration officials have briefed select Congressional committees on an issue of great international concern.

"Until September 6, 2007, the Syrian regime was building a covert nuclear reactor in its eastern desert capable of producing plutonium.

"We are convinced, based on a variety of information, that North Korea assisted Syria's covert nuclear activities.

"We have good reason to believe that reactor, which was damaged beyond repair on September 6 of last year, was not intended for peaceful purposes.

"Carefully hidden from view, the reactor was not configured for such purposes.

"In defiance of its international obligations, Syria did not inform the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the construction of the reactor, and, after it was destroyed, the regime
moved quickly to bury evidence of its existence.

"This cover-up only served to reinforce our confidence that this reactor was not intended for peaceful activities.

"We are briefing the IAEA on this intelligence. The Syrian regime must come clean before the world regarding its illicit nuclear activities.

"The Syrian regime supports terrorism, takes action that destabilises Lebanon, allows the transit of some foreign fighters into Iraq, and represses its own people.

"If Syria wants better relations with the international community, it should put an end to
these activities.

"We have long been seriously concerned about North Korea's nuclear weapons program and its proliferation activities.

"North Korea's clandestine nuclear cooperation with Syria is a dangerous manifestation of those activities.

"One way we have chosen to deal with this problem is through the Six Party Framework. Through this process we are working with our partners to achieve the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

"The United States is also committed to ensuring that North Korea does not further engage in proliferation activities.

"We will work with our partners to establish in the Six Party Framework a rigorous verification mechanism to ensure that such conduct and other nuclear activities have ceased.

"The construction of this reactor was a dangerous and potentially destabilizing development for the region and the world.

"This is particularly true because it was done covertly and in violation of the very procedures designed to reassure the world of the peaceful intent of nuclear activities.

"This development also serves as a reminder that often the same regimes that sponsor proliferation also sponsor terrorism and foster instability, and cooperate with one another in doing so.

"This underscores that the international community is right to be very concerned about the nuclear activities of Iran and the risks those activities pose to the stability of the Middle East.

"To confront this challenge, the international community must take further steps, beginning with the full implementation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions dealing with Iranian
nuclear activities.

"The United States calls upon the international community to redouble our common efforts to ending these activities and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction in this
critical region.

US rebuked over Syria nuclear case

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The head of the UN nuclear monitoring agency has criticised the US for withholding intelligence information that it says showed the construction of a nuclear reactor in Syria.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on Friday also hit out at Israel for bombing the site before inspectors could investigate.
Washington alleged that the facility had a military purpose until Israel destroyed it in a bombing raid last September.

The watchdog was critical of both the US and Israel for their handling of the matter.

"In light of the above, the director-general views the unilateral military action by Israel as undermining the due process of verification that is at the heart of the non-proliferation regime," it added.

The agency said it was taking seriously the allegations that were passed on by the United States on Thursday and will investigate the findings.

"[We] will treat this information with the seriousness it deserves and will investigate the veracity of the information," it said.

"Syria has an obligation under its safeguards agreement with the IAEA to report the planning and construction of any nuclear facility."

'Come clean'

The White House said in a statement on Thursday that Syria "must come clean" over its alleged secret co-operation with North Korea on the reactor.

It also described the alleged assistance as a "dangerous manifestation'' of North Korea's nuclear proliferation activities, but said it would continue six-party talks to try to resolve the nuclear standoff with the isolated nation.

The claims follow a briefing of US congressional officials in Washington DC by intelligence chiefs, including William Hayden, the CIA director.

However, some US legislators earlier warned that the claims could wreck vital six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme.

Later on Thursday, Syria's ambassador to the US dismissed claim as a "ridiculous story".

Imad Moustapha told Al Jazeera that his government maintained there was no evidence of any alleged secret nuclear activity.

Timothy Savage, an analyst from the Nautilus Institute, told Al Jazeera that the US claims could be treated with a degree of sceptism.

"The Bush administration doesn't have a great track record with intelligence, so it's natural that people will approach this with some scepticism," he said.

'Nuclear facility'

The controversy began last September, when an Israeli air raid destroyed a target in Syrian territory which some reports later said was a nuclear facility being built with North Korean help.

Syria, a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has maintained in the past that the site was an unused military facility.

It later razed the site and built a larger building in its place.

The target of Israel's raid has been veiled in secrecy, with US intelligence and government officials refusing to confirm for months that such a raid even took place.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Says U.S. Preparing Military Options Against Iran

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By Ann Scott Tyson

The nation's top military officer said today that the Pentagon is planning for "potential military courses of action" against Iran, criticizing what he called the Tehran government's "increasingly lethal and malign influence" in Iraq.

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a conflict with Iran would be "extremely stressing" but not impossible for U.S. forces, pointing specifically to reserve capabilities in the Navy and Air Force.

"It would be a mistake to think that we are out of combat capability," he said at a Pentagon news conference.

Still, Mullen made clear that he prefers a diplomatic solution to the tensions with Iran and does not foresee any imminent military action. "I have no expectations that we're going to get into a conflict with Iran in the immediate future," he said.

Mullen's statements and others by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently signal a new rhetorical onslaught by the Bush administration against Iran, amid what officials say is increased Iranian provision of weapons, training and financing to Iraqi groups that are attacking and killing Americans.

In a speech Monday at West Point, Gates said Iran "is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons." He said a war with Iran would be "disastrous on a number of levels. But the military option must be kept on the table given the destabilizing policies of the regime and the risks inherent in a future Iranian nuclear threat."

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, who was nominated this week to head all U.S. forces in the Middle East, is preparing a briefing soon to lay out detailed evidence of increased Iranian involvement in Iraq, Mullen said. The briefing will detail, for example, the discovery in Iraq of weapons that were very recently manufactured in Iran, he said.

"The Iranian government pledged to halt such activities some months ago. It's plainly obvious they have not. Indeed, they seem to have gone the other way," Mullen said.

He said recent unrest in the southern Iraqi city of Basra had highlighted a "level of involvement" by Iran that had not been understood by the U.S. military previously. "It became very, very visible in ways that we hadn't seen before," he said.

But while Mullen and Gates have recently stated that Tehran must know of Iranian actions in Iraq, which they say are led by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Mullen said he has "no smoking gun which could prove that the highest leadership [of Iran] is involved in this."

In an incident early local time yesterday, a cargo ship contracted by the U.S. military fired "several bursts" of warning shots at two fast boats that approached in international waters off the Iranian coast, defense officials said today.

The unidentified small boats approached the Westward Venture, a ship carrying U.S. military hardware, as it headed north through the central Persian Gulf at about 8 a.m. local time, said Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, spokeswoman for the Navy's Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain.

The U.S. ship initiated bridge-to-bridge communications, and, after receiving no response, it fired a flare. The speed boats continued to approach, so the ship fired warning shots with a .50-caliber machine gun and M16 rifle. The boats then left the area, she said.

"They fired several bursts, it went pretty quickly," Robertson said.

Soon afterwards, an Iranian coast guard boat queried the Western Venture, Robertson said. It was unclear whether that was one of the small boats.

"There have been some Iranian boats that have operated this way, and some unidentified boats," said Robertson, adding that the crew had no voice communication with the small boats.

In January, five Iranian patrol boats sped toward a U.S. warship and dropped small, boxlike objects in the water, an incident that alarmed military officials and that President Bush called "a provocative act." The objects turned out to pose no threat to the USS Port Royal or two other U.S. vessels accompanying it.

U.N. nuclear watchdog in 'milestone' Iran deal

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Agreement aims to provide answers about alleged weapons development

VIENNA, Austria - The U.N. nuclear monitoring agency on Wednesday announced a "milestone" agreement with Iran that aims to provide answers about allegations Tehran tried to develop nuclear weapons under cover of a peaceful atomic program.

International Atomic Energy Agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming divulged no details in a brief statement about the deal. But IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei called the agreement "a milestone" that — if successful — should signal the end of his organization's years of attempts to probe Tehran's secretive nuclear program.

"An agreement was reached during the meetings in Tehran on a process that aims to clarify the so-called alleged (nuclear weapons) studies during the month of May," Fleming said in a statement from the Vienna-based agency. She was alluding to talks Monday and Tuesday between senior Iranian officials and IAEA Deputy Director General Olli Heinonen.

ElBaradei, in Sarajevo before collecting an award from a Bosnian university, said he was hopeful that by the May deadline "we will be in a position to get the explanation and clarification from Iran as to these alleged studies," adding: "This, in my view, is a positive step."

He called the issue "the only remaining topic for us to investigate about past and present Iran nuclear activities" — a statement sure to be challenged by the U.S. and other nations suspicious that Tehran may be hiding an undeclared nuclear program from the agency.

Still, any agreement by Iran to at least further discuss the allegations is a positive sign. On April 13, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran's nuclear program, abruptly canceled a meeting with ElBaradei. The Aghazadeh-ElBaradei meeting had been considered a test of whether Iran will continue to stonewall the IAEA in its attempt to investigate the alleged military programs.

Intelligence received by the IAEA from the U.S. and other agency board member nations and the agency's own investigations suggests that Iran:

experimented with an undeclared uranium enrichment program that was linked to a missile project drew up blueprints on refitting missiles to allow them to carry nuclear warheads was researching construction of an underground site that apparently could be used for test nuclear explosions ordered "dual use" equipment from abroad that could be part of a nuclear weapons program, and, appointed officials to work on these projects who were also active in Iran's civilian nuclear programs.
Additionally, Iran possesses diagrams showing how to mold uranium metal into the shape of warheads.

Denials from Iran
Tehran has denied ever trying to make nuclear weapons and has rejected the evidence as fake. But U.S. intelligence agencies say Tehran experimented with such programs until 2003, and other countries believe it continued past that date.

Iran is under three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment and meet other council demands designed to ease fears its civilian nuclear program is a cover for attempts to make atomic arms.

While the Islamic Republic says its enrichment program is meant to generate nuclear fuel, its past nuclear secrecy and defiance of the Security Council are fueling fears it could decide to use the technology to make the weapons-grade enriched uranium used for the fissile core of nuclear arms.

In Iran on Wednesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned that those imposing pressure on Iran on enrichment will suffer even as he said that his country remained prepared to discuss its nuclear activities with the outside world.

"The enemies should know that the Iranian nation is for logic and dialogue with any of you if the criteria is justice and respect," Ahmadinejad told thousands of Iranians in Hamedan, western Iran. "But if you resort to deception and seek to impose (your demands), ... the Iranian nation will heavily slap bad-wishers in the mouth."