Tuesday, June 30, 2009

China scraps filtering software mandate _ for now

BEIJING (AP) - China's state media says the government will postpone enforcement of a new rule mandating all new computers be sold with a filtering software.

The rule was to go into effect starting Wednesday, but the official Xinhua News Agency said in a brief report late Tuesday that the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology had decided to delay the plan. It did not say why or give any other details.

Authorities say the filters is needed to shield children from online violence and pornography, but analysts who have examined the system say it also contains code to filter out political material the government dislikes.

Observers report some flaws in Albania vote

TIRANA, Albania (AP) - Albania's governing party was in a close race with the Socialist opposition on Monday as the votes were slowly counted in the country's parliamentary election.

The conduct of the ballot is seen as a crucial test of the Balkan country's hopes of EU membership, and a preliminary report by international election observers found signs of both improvement and violations.

Exit polls from Sunday's vote indicated that Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha's Democratic Party had won another term in office.

But official results from 57 percent of the ballot boxes counted by 9 p.m. (1900 GMT, 3 p.m. EDT) Monday showed Albania's 12 electoral districts equally split between the Democrats and the Socialist Party, led by Tirana Mayor Edi Rama.

Berisha was narrowly ahead in the largest district, Tirana, which elects 32 of Albania's 140 lawmakers.

But officials said the counting process was delayed as ballots were being counted electronically for the first time in Albania, and it was unclear when the first nationwide results would be announced.

Central Election Commission spokesman Leonard Olli said the counting was expected to end Tuesday morning, after which central authorities would have 48 hours to calculate the final results.

Olli said the voting and counting process were "free of incidents."

But monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted that, despite improvements from previous elections, violations had persisted.

And opposition leader Rama called on police to intervene in what he claimed was an effort by the Democrats to influence the vote-counting process.

"I am speaking about a plan for verbal aggression with the illegal presence of persons at the counting centers where the Socialist Party is ahead," Rama told a news conference late Monday.

Berisha rejected Rama's allegations as "absurdities."

An OSCE statement said observers "noted procedural violations related in particular to inking procedures and widespread family voting."

"The country has matured, it has made progress, and many of the fears we had only some months ago have not materialized," said Wolfgang Grossruck, a top official among the 500 international election observers. "I'm certainly happy about the progress we saw, but there is also a considerable number of issues that need to be tackled, in particular the polarized political climate."

U.S. Ambassador John Withers said he agreed with the monitors' findings.

"I ... urge the Albanian authorities to build on (Sunday's) success to meet higher, more demanding international standards on future occasions," he said.

Berisha and Rama's parties campaigned on similar platforms, pledging to fight poverty and take Albania closer to the European Union.

In its seventh parliamentary election since the fall of communism in 1990, Albania came under intense international pressure to make sure the vote was fair and free of the reports of fraud that have marred previous polls. Albania became a NATO member on April 1 and is seeking to join the 27-nation European Union.

Some 4,300 candidates representing 34 political parties were vying for the 140 seats in Parliament.

Three people have been killed in recent weeks in what local media said were politically motivated attacks, although that remains unclear.

A regional leader for the small Christian Democratic Party was driving when his car exploded earlier this month. A man was shot dead during an argument over a campaign poster, also in June, and an opposition lawmaker was gunned down in May.


Iran can monitor calls with Nokia technology

Finnish-German telecom equipment maker Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) said Monday technology it sold to Iran in 2008 could be used to monitor calls, but denied claims it can be used for web censorship.

A petition calling for a boycott against Nokia has begun circulating over the Internet, claiming the technology had helped Iran to monitor mobile phones and read emails during the recent post-election protests.

At least 17 people have been killed in Iran in unrest that rocked the country after the landslide victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 12 presidential election, with the opposition claiming massive fraud.

"There is a lot of misinformation out there," NSN spokesman Ben Roome said, pointing out that NSN is a separate organization from Nokia.

He explained that NSN had delivered a network expansion with voice call monitoring centre to Iranian telecommunication operator TCI in the second half of 2008.

"Voice call monitoring is required by the courts to listen to phone calls coming from a particular phone number, the telecommunication systems have an ability to do that," Roome said.

He added that the standard for call monitoring was set by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute and available in many other countries as well.

The technology "we provide in Iran allows millions of Iranians to communicate every day," Roome noted.

A spokeswoman for the world's biggest mobile phone maker Nokia said the company had received some feedback relating to NSN delivery in Iran.

Al Arabiya

Monday, June 29, 2009

Venezuela to borrow to pay oil debts

Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez' announcement that the state will borrow more money to help pay off national oil company debts follows the disclosure by President Hugo Chavez of a letter urging Moscow to cooperate in selling oil at $100 a barrel.
State petroleum company Petroleos de Venezuela has run up billions of dollars in debts to contractors since global oil prices began tumbling nearly a year ago.

Although denying that PDVSA had cash-flow problems, Ramirez said that outstanding debts to contractors, both domestic and foreign, stood at $5.6 billion. That figure is far short of PDVSA's previous reckoning of $12 billion in financial debt last year.

The minister said he would try to raise money by selling domestic bonds to finance public spending. He gave no details when the sale would take place or how much debt would be taken on.

But his announcement is in line with a government plan outlined in March to sell almost $16 billion worth of new bonds this year.

And a law was passed in May permitting PDVSA, which he heads, to pay debts with bonds rather than cash, and to compensate assets at book value.

The state-owned oil company now insists that the drop in prices means oil companies are charging too much and it wants to renegotiate what it now refers to as "overvalued contracts."

Oil firms should take a 40 percent cut in their bills, Ramirez insists.

In May the Venezuelan military seized some 30 oil terminals and 300 boats belonging to 60 oil service companies. Chavez said that the oil industry rightly belongs to the nation and its people.

Oil producers have protested, with some taking Venezuela to international arbitration or suspending operations until the bills are paid.

The national oil company says it needs to reduce expenses by 60 percent, due to the low price of oil, which stood at around $70 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange Friday.

That figure is more than 50 percent below last year's peak of $147 a barrel in July.

In an attempt to boost the price of crude, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has kept output low since it slashed production last September.

Mexico and Russia are selling less oil to assist the cartel.

And like OPEC, Venezuela continues to almost totally depend on oil revenue, which provides 93 percent of its export revenue.

Chavez said he sent Russian President Dmitry Medvedev a letter last week urging that "big oil-producing countries unite" to raise oil prices to $100 a barrel.

The letter was taken by Venezuelan Vice President Ramon Carrizalez, who visited Moscow last Monday.

Energy Daily

A Caliphate of Toxic Assets

When a pro-terrorist organization announces its intention to launch a financial jihad against the West, it is well worth learning their methods. More significant than the promotion of a religious pseudo-financial scheme is the possibility their largely unregulated practices could release a new wave of toxic assets into the wider economy and trigger a series of small-scale Enrons.

The Muslim organization Hizb Ut Tahrir capitalizes on Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna's 20th century derivative, encouraging followers to build a parallel financial structure. Al-Banna envisioned the resultant Shari'a-compliant finance as a “back door” into Western financial markets and institutions through which to supplant liberty and prosperity with Islam. Muslim clerics including MB spiritual leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi promote Shari'a finance as generally safer than Western investments, a diversification method to steady personal assets -- and a stable economic system that should replace capitalism. Call it “financial replacement theology,” if you wish.

In July, Hizb Ut Tahrir plans to launch its U.S. arm with a huge Chicago “Khalifah conference” heralding the coming Caliphate and global Islamic supremacism. After 9/11, Germany and Sweden outlawed Hizb Ut Tahrir. In July 2005, Pakistan's then-president Pervez Musharaf warned Britain not to tolerate its continued U.K. presence. But in the U.S., Hizb Ut Tahrir has proudly announced intentions to replace capitalism with Islam.

Founded five years into Jordan's illegal occupation of East Jerusalem in 1953, Hizb Ut Tahrir labels itself “peaceful” but strategically objects to violence only for the time being. The group sympathizes with the Muslim Brotherhood, considers Europe's democracies “a farce” -- and deems the U.S., UK, and Israel works of “the devil” -- and seeks to impose Islamic law (Shari'a) worldwide.

Major banks from Citigroup, HSBC, Chase, Bank of America and Lloyds TSB -- probably unaware of the etymology of Islamic finance -- established subsidiaries offering Shari'a-compliant products. Mutual funds at Principal Financial Group, UBS, Amana Funds and SEI Investments, among others, followed suit. Especially late last year as the devastating toll of sub-prime mortgage lending mounted, clients were assured that Islamic banking -- in many respects a dangerous financial fad -- was much safer than other banks and investment houses.

Yet bad economic news has not escaped the supposedly secure Islamic investing sector. Islamic securities can also (like all other asset classes) go into default, moreover. Holders of East Cameron Partners LP's “safe,” asset-backed Islamic bonds (sukuk) now line up before a Louisiana bankruptcy judge with all the other hapless creditors of the Texas-based Easter Cameron Oil and Gas Co. that filed for Chapter 11 reorganization last October.

The East Cameron default was no one-time Islamic finance anomaly, either. In May, Kuwait's Investment Dar Co. -- 50 percent owner of the Aston Martin Lagonda luxury car manufacturer -- defaulted on a $100 million sukuk. And in June Saad Group Islamic bonds traded at a quarter of their “face” value -- that is, the the roughly $650 billion price at which issued by Saudi billionaire Maan al-Sanea's company. The Saad Trading Contracting & Financial Services subsidiary, like East Cameron, went into financial restructuring, aka bankruptcy, after the Saudi Central bank froze the al-Sanea family accounts.

As I've often previously warned, events now show that Shari'a banking may prove more susceptible to market dislocations than other financial sectors.

Islamic bonds employ “some of the most complex” Western structured finance tools ever created. They transform liquid, traceable cash flows from interest-bearing debt into illiquid assets -- that cannot be easily unwound. In the 1980s, bond sponsors transformed trillions of dollars in cash flow claims on illiquid real assets into liquid, traceable mortgage-backed “pass-throughs” and “collateralized debt obligations” (CDOs).

The Muslim Brotherhood quickly re-branded the “special purpose entities” (SPEs) -- that kind that, coincidentally, sank Enron -- as Islamic “special-purpose vehicles (SPVs).” Shari’a banks use these vehicles to “restructure interest-bearing debt, collecting interest [as] rent or [a] price mark-up.” Issuers of sukuk al-ijara -- Shari'a bonds like those now in default -- sell hard assets to SPVs, which sell share certificates to fund their investment and in turn lease the purchased assets back to the sukuk issuers, collecting the principal plus interest that they then pass to sukuk investors as “rent.” But now, sukuk issuers are defaulting on “rent,” implying that SPVs can't sell or return property to issuers when their sukuks mature.

That means, in essence, Shari'a finance is a sham. “There is no such thing as interest free investment,” warns Columbia MBA Joy Brighton, echoing Rice University Islamic economics and finance chairman Mahmoud el-Gamal. “All Islamic finance today is interest based,” el-Gamal complained in the Financial Times two years ago. Furthermore, Islamic finance features a few other unique “complexities,” namely:

“Shari'a regulations can override commercial decisions.”
Documentation is not standardized
Inter-creditor agreements can be complex
As U.S. financial institutions crumble, rattling markets, Congress has focused on regulating the opaque, previously unregulated securities called credit default swaps that Brighton describes as guaranteed boxes of counter-party risks. “One party pays a premium, the second guarantees payment, and a third guarantees the guarantor.” AIG, for example, guaranteed payment on billions of dollars worth of sub-prime mortgage loans. “The credit default swap is the guarantee, and AIG bore the default risk burden in exchange for upfront fees on maybe trillions of dollars in loans.”

But credit default swaps are old news, Brighton says. “A new generation of toxic assets has not yet hit anyone's radar.” While touted as such, Islamic securities aren't immune to default. Many more Islamic issues are likely to succumb as the global economy worsens.

“Islamic banking is in the toxic derivatives genre,” says Brighton. Each counter-party agreement within its complex “boxes” of interwoven counter-party risks, is a contract for “payment” and “delivery/receipt of funds.” Issuers create derivatives when they “peel off and resell pieces” from individual securities containing multiple counter-party contracts. One default by a party to any of the interwoven contracts in a “box” can cause its whole structure to collapse.

Moreover, Islamic finance is doubly toxic. Many banking corporations have created Islamic subsidiaries, says Brighton -- segregated oil wealth managed by “outside money managers” and Islamic radicals who don't circulate money globally, but keep it “within the Islamic community, as a charity- and jihad-funding mechanism.” They're just another economic time bomb that financiers have blindly bought.


Baghdad parties ahead of US pullout

TENS of thousands of Iraqis partied amid massive security in Baghdad overnight to mark the imminent pullout of US troops from urban areas and celebrate the restive nation's reclaimed sovereignty.

The American pullback, agreed under a security accord signed last year, will be completed today, which has been declared a national holiday, but soldiers and police were out in force as festivities began.

"Since 2003, I have never been to a party," Ahmed Ali, 20, said as a large celebration got under way in Zawra Park, the largest in the capital, "but today I am coming to hear the singers I love."

Popular Iraqi singers including Salah Hassan, Kassem Sultan and Abed Falek, who all live abroad, had travelled to Baghdad for the occasion.

Revellers had to undergo three security checks to enter the park but no one seemed to complain amid a jubilant atmosphere, where an onstage banner declared Baghdad's sovereignty and independence had been recovered.

Even policemen joined in the fun, dancing with the party-goers.

"Today is the day that we got back our country," said Salim Mohammed, from the sprawling Shi'ite working-class district of Sadr City.

From July 1, Iraq's army and police will take sole charge of security in the country's cities, towns and villages.

Baghdad civil defence spokesman Tahsin al-Sheikhli said: "All Iraqis are happy today because it's the first day that they're going to protect themselves.

"We know that Iraq's enemies will attempt to disrupt security but our forces are ready to take them on."

In the wake of several massive bombings that have killed more than 200 people this month, all leave for security force personnel has been cancelled. Motorcycles, the favoured transport of several recent bombers, have been banned from the streets.

"Our expectation is that maybe some criminals will try to continue their attacks," said Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf, the interior ministry's operations director and spokesman.

"That is why orders came from the highest level of the Prime Minister that our forces should be 100 per cent on the ground until further notice."

Overnight, the former defence ministry building in the capital, taken over in the wake of the US-led invasion of 2003, was handed back to the Iraqi Government.

"This marks the end of the rule of the multinational force," said General Abboud Qambar, commander of Baghdad Operation Command, the central headquarters for the Iraqi security forces.

In the first reaction from Iraq's dominant Shi'ite Muslim community, Sheikh Ali Bashir al-Najafi, one of the community's four supreme religious leaders, said the US withdrawal was a significant sign of progress.

"It is a step we hope to follow up with other steps to achieve independence and stability of the country, and it is a real test of the efficiency of the security forces to shoulder their responsibilities," he said.

"Iraq will after this day be just like many other Arab countries where there is the presence of foreign troops organised according to agreements signed between the country and the Government of those forces."

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned earlier this month that insurgent groups and militias were likely to step up attacks in the run-up to the June 30 deadline in a bid to undermine confidence in Iraq's security forces.

There have been several large bombings since, the deadliest of which came in the northern oil hub of Kirkuk on June 20, when a truck loaded with explosives was detonated, leaving 72 people dead and more than 200 wounded.

The toll from a bomb in a market in Sadr City five days ago was also bloody, with at least 62 dead and 150 wounded.

But Maliki and senior government officials have since insisted Iraq's 750,000 soldiers and police can defend the nation against attacks.

Only a small number of US forces in training and advisory roles will remain in urban areas, with the bulk of American troops in Iraq, 131,000 according to Pentagon figures, quartered elsewhere.

The June 30 withdrawal is the prelude to a complete American pullout by the end of 2011.

The Status of Forces Agreement, which set the pullback deadline, says US commanders must seek permission from Iraqi authorities to conduct operations, but American troops retain a unilateral right to "legitimate self-defence".

Daily Telegraph

Hey, they are sending us off with a party. How did that happen.

Baghdad puts police on high alert, cancels leave

BAGHDAD: Iraq cancelled leave for all its police and put them on high alert on Sunday ahead of the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraqi towns and cities at the end of the month, an official said. Security was tightened across the capital on Sunday, with troops and police closing roads and carefully searching cars. “The alert has gone to all of our forces. There will be no days off. They are at their full strength across the whole country, at 100 percent,” said Major General Abdul-Karim Khalaf, spokesman for the interior ministry, which controls the police. “All of our units have seen an increase in their numbers, not only at the checkpoints,” he told Reuters. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Saturday that the US withdrawal sent a message to the world that Iraq could handle its own security. The government trusted its forces to defeat Al Qaeda militants and criminal gangs, he added. reuters
Daily Times

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Chavez threatens military action over Honduras coup

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Sunday put troops on alert after a coup in Honduras and said he would respond militarily if his envoy to the Central American country was kidnapped or killed.

Chavez said Honduran soldiers took away the Cuban ambassador and left the Venezuelan ambassador on the side of a road after beating him during the army's coup against his leftist ally, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.

The Honduran army ousted Zelaya and exiled him in Central America's first military coup since the Cold War, after he upset the army by trying to win re-election.

Chavez said on state television if his ambassador to Venezuela was killed, or if troops entered the Venezuelan Embassy, "that military junta would be entering a de facto state of war. We would have to act militarily ... I have put the armed forces of Venezuela on alert."

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, part of a coalition of leftist governments headed by Chavez that includes Honduras, said he would support military action if Ecuador's diplomats or those of its allies were threatened.

The socialist Chavez has in the past threatened to use his armed forces in the region but never followed through. He said that if a new government is sworn in after the coup it would be defeated.

"We will bring them down, we will bring them down, I tell you," he said, while hundreds of red-shirted supporters gathered outside Venezuela's presidential palace in solidarity with Zelaya.


The United States has long accused the Venezuelan former soldier of being a destabilizing force in Latin America. Chavez himself tried to take power in a coup in 1992 and was briefly ousted in a 2002 putsch but was reinstated after protests.

Chavez, who accused the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush of backing his removal, said there should be an investigation into whether Washington had a hand in Zelaya's ouster.

"They will have to get to the bottom of how much of a hand the CIA and other imperial bodies had in this," he said.

The White House denied any U.S. participation in the coup. "There was no U.S. involvement in this action against President Zelaya," a White House official told Reuters.

President Barack Obama said he was deeply concerned by the events in Honduras and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton condemned the action taken against Zelaya. A senior U.S. official said Washington recognizes only Zelaya as president.

The United States supported a number of military coups in Central America during the Cold War and used Honduras as a base for its counter-insurgency operations in the region in the 1980s.

Washington still has several hundred troops stationed at Soto Cano Air Base, a Honduran military installation that is also the headquarters for a regional U.S. joint task force that conducts humanitarian, drug and disaster relief operations.

Chavez and other Latin American leaders from his ALBA coalition, including Ecuador's President Rafael Correa and Bolivia's President Evo Morales, were headed to Nicaragua on Sunday to discuss what action to take over Honduras.

ALBA's nine members also include Cuba, Honduras and Nicaragua. Ecuador said Sunday it will not recognize any new government in Honduras.


Understanding Iran: Repression 101

WASHINGTON — When the rallying cry on the streets of Tehran turned from “Death to America!” to the stranger-sounding “Death to the Dictator!” there was a great temptation to conclude that the days of the mullahs were numbered.

Maybe they are and maybe not; as President Obama said on Tuesday, “we don’t know yet how this thing is going to play out.” But inside Mr. Obama’s National Security Council, and around the world, versions of the same question were being asked: Will the resort to raw repression work? Or will it eventually backfire, only widening the huge political breach that the election laid bare?

The history of repression to save regimes — or at least their leaders — is long. And every case is different: Some regimes are brittle in the face of popular pressure while others are supple in adapting to it; some can use nationalism as their trump card, while for others, it is an Achilles’ heel. And if some regimes are simple tyrannies, the structure of Iran’s political system is especially complex and opaque.

Still, a common thread is clear: It is the security services on which the regime’s fate ultimately hinges. If they decide their best interests lie with the powers that they have protected, and that have protected them, they will stick it out. If they decide they are more likely to prosper under new leadership, power can collapse at the speed of a show trial.

There are a lot of gradations along that scale.

Twenty years ago this month, many inside and outside of China who witnessed Tiananmen Square confidently predicted the beginning of the end for the Communist Party. They were wrong. Two decades later the party itself has changed radically enough — tossing aside its revolutionary ideology and replacing it with a social compact built on stupendous annual economic growth — that it remains secure, with its grip on power as solid as ever.

How has it done that? Over the past two decades, the Chinese Communist Party has allowed some local elections, tolerated some protests over pollution or corruption (as long as they did not cut deeply at the powers of the national leadership), and allowed greater freedom to travel abroad and surf the Internet (with some strict limits). And the educated, rising classes accepted the unwritten rules: You can enjoy your rising expectations, but don’t challenge the party’s authority.

Meanwhile, the military has reaped spoils; not only is it being modernized, but today its financial enterprises are a large part of China’s rising economy.

It is an example that the Iranians have, presumably, watched carefully, if only in this sense: their Revolutionary Guard, too, has grown in standing and financial clout in recent years.

Reach back a bit further in history, though, to the Solidarity uprisings in Poland in the early 1980s, and the lesson is different. There, at first, repression also worked. The security forces, part of the Warsaw Pact, were called on to enforce martial law and remained loyal to a government firmly in the Soviet Union’s orbit. But over a decade’s time the regime’s hold on power — and on the soldiers’ loyalties — eroded as union workers, intellectuals, a pope and eventually even the security forces lost all confidence in a government that they viewed as illegitimate.

Part of the reason the regime proved vulnerable was that Poles themselves saw it as a foreign implant. So when the Soviet Union began to fall apart, the security forces recognized that their own patron was heading for the rocks. They made a strategic (some might say survival) decision to back whatever government the people chose.

That was the beginning of a swift end. But the model doesn’t really fit Iran. The mullahs may be many things — fundamentalist, intolerant, even vote fixers — but their trump card is that they are Iranian to core, and that their own revolution 30 years ago ejected an autocrat whose chief supporter abroad was the United States.

The examples do not stop there: Burma’s brutal junta, which rewards a loyal, if corrupt, military even as the general economy withers, has resisted a democracy movement’s protests for three decades; North Korea’s all-powerful military has never let protests fester at all, even as it pursues nuclear weaponry while the population goes hungry. On the other hand, in Indonesia and Nicaragua, the first cracks in dictatorships quickly shattered myths of impregnable control.

Nicaragua’s case, in the 1970s, was a lesson in the price of losing core supporters. The Somoza dynasty had weathered rebellions before, but made a crucial mistake when it squandered foreign aid sent to help the shattered economy rebuild after a 1972 earthquake. That, combined with its brutality, alienated important middle-class leaders, who made common cause with the leftist Sandinistas as the United States slashed military aid. By 1979, the rebels had beaten the army.

Experts say that case may offer little parallel to Iran, whose economy is insulated whenever oil prices rise and whose populist president can appeal to the masses even when the elite grumble about the cost of Western sanctions.

South Korea’s experience was different still, but also limited as a parallel to Iran. Its generals, who had run an authoritarian government during the cold war, were persuaded that they would not lose all their power in a democracy; that became the key to establishing one in the late 1980s.

“It’s too early to draw any conclusions about which model fits in Iran,” said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was born in Warsaw and had the thankless task, as Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, of trying to establish relations with the leaders of Iran’s revolution in 1979. “But in this case, I have to say I’m pessimistic in the short term, and optimistic in the long term.”

That pretty well captures the mood of Mr. Obama’s advisers. In background conversations last week, several cautioned that it was not clear what the Iranians had in mind. “The students in Tiananmen wanted real democracy, the Poles wanted regime change, but the Iranians might be looking for something in between,” one of Mr. Obama’s top advisers said. “But the more the supreme leader cracks down, the more radicalized the opposition may become.”

Robert Litwak, the author of “Regime Change,” a study of how modern regimes have fallen, said last week: “The truth here is that a soft landing for Iranian society is not a soft landing for the leadership.” So far, he observed last week, “the Iranians are not as sufficiently united against the regime as the Poles were in the late ’80s.” Moreover, the Polish regime was more fragile: Because it was considered a Soviet tool, the opposition could play to nationalist emotions.

Not so in Iran. The clerics may be repressive hardliners, but they are authentically Iranian. And so far, the Revolutionary Guard seems completely on the side of the supreme leader and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

That will be hard to shake. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s rise to power was in part because of Guard support, and he has since rewarded it handsomely. The Revolutionary Guard runs Iran’s nuclear program; if the opposition gains power, the Guard has to wonder what it might negotiate away. And outside agencies estimate that Iran could become able to assemble a nuclear weapon between 2010 and 2015.

As one of Mr. Obama’s aides said the other day, “for the leadership, that suggests the next five years are no time to be messing with the formula.”


Some things can be true, even if Bush did believed them to be.
I feel like if we are at the intermission of this movie.

Maybe it's a munchies break

US withdraws from Iraqi cities despite violence

BAGHDAD (AP) - Death squads roamed the streets, slaughtering members of the rival Muslim sect. Bombs rocked Baghdad daily - until thousands of U.S. troops poured in two years ago, establishing neighborhood bases and taking control of the Iraqi capital and other cities.

By Tuesday, all but a small number of American soldiers will have left Baghdad and other urban areas, handing over security to Iraqi soldiers and police still largely untested as an independent fighting force.

State television has been showing a countdown clock with a fluttering Iraqi flag and the words "June 30: National Sovereignty Day."

If the Iraqis can hold down violence, it will show the country is finally on the road to stability. If they fail, Iraq faces new bloodshed, straining a nation still divided along sectarian and ethnic lines.

American commanders insist publicly that they're confident Iraqi forces are up to the task after years of training. Privately, many U.S. officers worry the Iraqis will be overwhelmed if violence surges, having relied for years on the U.S. for everything from firepower to bottled water.

Fears that Iraqi forces can't cope have been rising since a spike in bombings and shootings this month that killed more than 250 people. U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned they expect more violence as insurgents try to stage a show of force in the days surrounding the withdrawal.

"The Americans are pulling out but they haven't accomplished the task that they came for, which is defeating terrorism," said Miriwan Kerim, a 32-year-old watch peddler in Kirkuk. "The security situation is still fragile so the withdrawal will not restore us to square one but to square zero."

President Barack Obama insists there's no turning back. Handing over control of the cities brings him one step closer to fulfilling his campaign pledge to end an unpopular war that has claimed the lives of more than 4,300 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Despite public unease, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears eager to see the Americans leave and has urged Iraqis to hold steady against continued violence. Ahead of national elections next year, al-Maliki is portraying himself as the leader who defeated terrorism and ended the U.S. occupation.

He has declared June 30 a national holiday, telling a national television audience Saturday that the U.S. departure will "bolster Iraq's security" and show the world that Iraqis can manage their own affairs.

Many Iraqis are also eager for the U.S. occupation to end, although more than 130,000 American troops remain in the country.

"It is good to see the departure of American troops as the first phase of ending the foreign occupation of our country," said Ibrahim Ali, 26, a teacher from Kut. "Our troops are able to protect Iraqi cities, but they need more training and naval and air support."

Others fear the security forces, especially the police, are still under the influence of Shiite militants and will not enforce the law evenhandedly.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq said government forces had made "incredible" progress and the time was right to turn over responsibility to the Iraqis.

"I believe we are still on the right path," Gen. Ray Odierno said Sunday in an interview with CNN. "I am much more confident than I've ever been in the Iraqi security forces."

The withdrawal, required under the U.S.-Iraqi security pact that took effect this year, marks the first major step toward withdrawing all American forces from the country by Dec. 31, 2011. Obama has said all combat troops will be gone by the end of August 2010.

American soldiers will remain in the cities to train and advise Iraqi forces as well as protect U.S. diplomatic missions and provincial reconstruction teams. With only hours to go, U.S. and Iraqi officials were still haggling over numbers and locations.

Combat operations will continue in rural areas but only with permission of the Iraqi government. U.S. troops will return to the cities only if asked.

The absence of tens of thousands of American troops who once lived, fought and patrolled the streets of Baghdad and other cities will be a major challenge for Iraqi forces.

With the deadline approaching, U.S. troops have been packing up their gear and moving to bases outside the cities, such as the giant Camp Victory complex on the western edge of Baghdad or Forward Operating Base Marez on the outskirts of Mosul.

Days before the deadline, streets of Baghdad were crowded with cars and pedestrians as music blared from the shops. Iraqi police and soldiers manned checkpoints, inspecting identity cards and checking vehicles for weapons.

Not a single U.S. soldier could be seen on the streets in many Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods.

That was a far cry from the early years of the U.S. mission, when heavily armed U.S. soldiers, tanks and other armored vehicles rumbled through the streets bearing signs warning Iraqis they could be shot if they came too close.

The withdrawal from the cities marks an end to the U.S. troop surge strategy of 2007, when the U.S. rushed thousands of reinforcements to Iraq to stem fighting between Sunnis and Shiites.

Before the surge, the U.S. tried moving troops out of the cities, handing over security to the Iraqis. American units would patrol Baghdad by day and return to bases outside the city at night, leaving control of the streets to death squads and militias.

The surge changed all that. U.S. soldiers moved out of giant bases and into former schools, clinics and police stations where they lived and worked round-the-clock with their Iraqi partners.

Now, the focus of the U.S. effort will be training and mentoring.

"Our sustained success in Iraq will hinge on how well we replace massive U.S. forces with an effective and lasting U.S. advisory effort and the level of military aid we continue to provide," former Pentagon analyst Anthony Cordesman said.

The U.S. must decide how to deal with crises as its leverage over the Iraqis fades "and Iraqi politics dominate events," Cordesman said.

Sunni lawmaker Mustafa al-Hiti said the drawdown is coming too soon "but the government has made its decision and will shoulder the responsibility of any failure if the security situation unravels."

The Americans will also become more dependent on the Iraqis for tracking insurgents since U.S. troops will not be in key urban areas, raising concerns about increased vulnerability of the Americans.

"We'll be relying a lot on the Iraqis for that situational awareness," said military spokesman Brig. Gen. Stephen Lanza.

Rockets have been fired in recent weeks at the Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government headquarters.

In past times a full military response would have been seconds away. Soon it will be up to the Iraqis to respond.

The No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, said if U.S. troops come under fire "they'll defend themselves" but "their job is to support and assist and advise Iraqi security forces."

U.S. commanders plan to assume a low public profile for the first two weeks of July to avoid any perception they're not honoring the agreement.

Most convoys will travel at night - even for the short distance between Camp Victory and Baghdad's protected Green Zone. They will also travel with Iraqi escorts to show they are not operating unilaterally.

In Mosul, U.S. vehicles must be marked with signs to show they are noncombat forces.

One U.S. officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive, acknowledged it will be hard for many American soldiers to let go.

"You have to cut the cord at some point and this is it," he said.


Iraq PM aims to ease security fears

Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, has attempted to ease concerns that a wave of violence will follow the pullback of US combat troops from cities and major towns.

More than 250 people have been killed in a series of attacks in recent days, raising fears that Iraqi security forces will struggle to cope after the June 30 withdrawal.

But al-Maliki said that the planned move showed that Iraqi institutions were ready to ensure the safety of their own people and would be celebrated as "victory day".

"We are on the threshold of a new phase that will bolster Iraq's sovereignty," he said on Saturday.

"It is a message to the world that we are now able to safeguard our security and administer our internal affairs."

Al-Maliki has blamed the recent violence on fighters from al-Qaeda in Iraq, but said they would not be successful if the country remained united.

He made the remarks as parliament met to debate the reasons for the apparently deteriorating security situation.

Caution urged

Tariq al-Hashimi, Iraq's Sunni vice-president, echoed the concerns of many Iraqis when he urged "our people to be more cautious and avoid, whenever possible, crowded areas unless there is something important".

In a statement posted on his website on Saturday, al-Hashimi urged Iraqi security forces to increase their presence in public areas, markets and mosques.

At least 13 people were killed and dozens wounded in a bombing at a motorcycle market in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad on Friday.

It was the latest in a string of attacks on crowded public areas across the country.

Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni member of the Iraqi parliament and the leader of the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, told Al Jazeera: "Iraqis have a right to be scared, they know very well that the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq will leave a political vacuum in the country.

"This is an irresponsible withdrawal from Iraq, because there is not much change in the political process or the American policy in Iraq adopted by the previous US administration.

"Al-Maliki is not aware of the consequences after the American troops leave the country, he wants to deliver what the Iraqis want - an end to the occupation."

Ayad Allawi, a former Iraqi prime minister, said that the surge in violence was likely to continue unless "drastic measures" were taken.

"Always we anticipated that once there was a drawdown in forces ... the Iraqi institutions - military and police - are not capable of shouldering the responsibility. Nor will the political landscape in the country encourage stability," he told Al Jazeera.

US forces are also to leave all cities and major towns of Iraq by the end of June, including Mosul and Kirkuk, where levels of violence remain persistently high.

A "small number" of US troops would be left in some Iraqi cities after the June 30 deadline at so-called Joint Security Stations to train and advise local security forces, a military spokesman said.

The US military will also continue to provide intelligence and air support to Iraqi security forces.

Al Jazeera

With Iran licking it's wounds, they are likely to lash out at the worthless dogs under their control. I'd expect more fireworks as the Mullahs mush the team out of the hole.

That should help cement ties, right.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

US announces big shift in Afghanistan drug policy

TRIESTE, Italy (AP) - The U.S. is shifting its strategy against Afghanistan's drug trade, phasing out funding for opium eradication while boosting efforts to fight trafficking and promote alternate crops, the U.S. envoy for Afghanistan said Saturday.

The aim of the new policy: to deprive the Taliban of the tens of millions of dollars in drug revenues that are fueling its insurgency.

The U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, told the Associated Press that poppy eradication - for years a cornerstone of U.S. and U.N. drug trafficking efforts in the country - was not working and was only driving Afghan farmers into the hands of the Taliban.

"Eradication is a waste of money," Holbrooke said on the sidelines of a Group of Eight foreign ministers' meeting on Afghanistan, during which he briefed regional representatives on the new policy.

"It might destroy some acreage, but it didn't reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar. It just helped the Taliban. So we're going to phase out eradication," he said. The Afghan foreign minister also attended the G-8 meeting.

Eradication efforts were seen as inefficient because too little was being destroyed at too high a cost, U.N. drug chief Antonio Maria Costa told the AP.

The old policy was also deeply unpopular among powerless small-scale farmers, who often were targeted in the eradication efforts.

Afghanistan is the world's leading source of opium, cultivating 93 percent of the world's heroin-producing crop. While opium cultivation dropped 19 percent last year, it remains concentrated in Afghanistan's southern provinces where the Taliban is strongest and last year earned insurgents an estimated $50 million to $70 million, according to the U.N. drug office.

While there was no immediate comment from Kabul on Saturday, the U.S. policy shift was likely to be welcomed by Afghanistan's government. Officials eradicating poppies have often been attacked by militants. Afghan citizens, many of whom rely on farming for sustenance and income, would also invite new agricultural programs.

The new policy calls for assisting farmers who abandon poppy cultivation. Holbrooke said the international community wasn't trying to target Afghan farmers, just the Taliban militants who buy their crops.

"The farmers are not our enemy, they're just growing a crop to make a living," he said. "It's the drug system. So the U.S. policy was driving people into the hands of the Taliban."

While Holbrooke did not provide the AP with a dollar figure for the new U.S. commitment, he told the G-8 ministers that Washington was increasing its funding for agricultural assistance from tens of millions of dollars a year to hundreds of millions of dollars, said Foreign Minister Franco Frattini of Italy, the current G-8 president.

"We're essentially phasing out our support for crop eradication and using the money to work on interdiction, rule of law, alternate crops," Holbrooke told the AP.

The policy also calls for coordinating a crackdown on drug trafficking across Afghanistan's border before the heroin reaches addicts in Europe, Russia and Iran.

In recent months, U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan have begun attacking drug labs and opium storage sites in an effort to deprive the Taliban of drug profits.

The G-8 foreign ministers "strongly appreciated" the policy shift, Frattini said. Costa, of the U.N., said the new focus "seems to be the winning strategy, and I'm glad that all of this has received support from the G-8 ministers."

The G-8 ministers along with Afghan counterpart Rangin Dadfar Spanta issued a statement at the end of their three-day summit Saturday saying it was urgent to find alternatives for farming communities where "narco-trafficking and extremism are endemic."

They said sustainable farming was key to Afghanistan's and Pakistan's future in that it would boost incomes, create jobs, improve rural development and lower regional tensions.

"Food insecurity and chronic poverty are root causes of civil instability and forced migration," the statement said.

The ministers also called for a regional intelligence network to prevent opium from leaving Afghanistan and the chemical precursors needed to turn it into heroin from getting in.

Costa told the G-8 meeting that the recent dip in cultivation was "vulnerable to relapse" without helping farmers with new crops and boosting law enforcement operations to disrupt drug markets, production labs and convoys.

According to a U.N. report this week, opium eradication reached a high in 2003, after the Taliban were ousted from power, with over 21,000 hectares (51,900 acres) destroyed. In 2008, only 5,480 hectares (13,500 acres) were cut down, compared with 19,047 hectares (47,000 acres) in 2007.

Costa said Afghan opium would kill 100,000 people this year in the parts of world where demand for heroin is highest: Europe, Russia and West Asia.

To fight it, he said major powers had to expand their counter-drug efforts to neighboring Pakistan as well as Iran, where half the 7,000 tons of exported Afghan opium transits, "causing the highest addiction rate in the world."

"Facing a grave health epidemic, Iran should be given the chance to engage in common efforts to combat illicit trafficking," he said.

Iran had been invited to attend the G-8 meeting on Afghanistan, because anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan have been identified as a key area where the United States and Iran can work together - part of President Barack Obama's outreach effort.

But Italy withdrew the invitation after Iran failed to respond and after its bloody postelection crackdown on protesters, which has sparked international condemnation.


U.S. and Russia Differ on a Treaty for Cyberspace

The United States and Russia are locked in a fundamental dispute over how to counter the growing threat of cyberwar attacks that could wreak havoc on computer systems and the Internet.

Both nations agree that cyberspace is an emerging battleground. The two sides are expected to address the subject when President Obama visits Russia next week and at the General Assembly of the United Nations in November, according to a senior State Department official.

But there the agreement ends.

Russia favors an international treaty along the lines of those negotiated for chemical weapons and has pushed for that approach at a series of meetings this year and in public statements by a high-ranking official.

The United States argues that a treaty is unnecessary. It instead advocates improved cooperation among international law enforcement groups. If these groups cooperate to make cyberspace more secure against criminal intrusions, their work will also make cyberspace more secure against military campaigns, American officials say.

“We really believe it’s defense, defense, defense,” said the State Department official, who asked not to be identified because authorization had not been given to speak on the record. “They want to constrain offense. We needed to be able to criminalize these horrible 50,000 attacks we were getting a day.”

Any agreement on cyberspace presents special difficulties because the matter touches on issues like censorship of the Internet, sovereignty and rogue actors who might not be subject to a treaty.

United States officials say the disagreement over approach has hindered international law enforcement cooperation, particularly given that a significant proportion of the attacks against American government targets are coming from China and Russia.

And from the Russian perspective, the absence of a treaty is permitting a kind of arms race with potentially dangerous consequences.

Officials around the world recognize the need to deal with the growing threat of cyberwar. Many countries, including the United States, are developing weapons for it, like “logic bombs” that can be hidden in computers to halt them at crucial times or damage circuitry; “botnets” that can disable or spy on Web sites and networks; or microwave radiation devices that can burn out computer circuits miles away.

The Pentagon is planning to create a military command to prepare for both defense and offensive computer warfare. And last month, President Obama released his cybersecurity strategy and said he would appoint a “cybersecurity coordinator” to lead efforts to protect government computers, the air traffic control system and other essential systems. The administration also emphasizes the benefits of building international cooperation.

The Russian and American approaches — a treaty and a law enforcement agreement — are not necessarily incompatible. But they represent different philosophical approaches.

In a speech on March 18, Vladislav P. Sherstyuk, a deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council, a powerful body advising the president on national security, laid out what he described as Russia’s bedrock positions on disarmament in cyberspace. Russia’s proposed treaty would ban a country from secretly embedding malicious codes or circuitry that could be later activated from afar in the event of war.

Other Russian proposals include the application of humanitarian laws banning attacks on noncombatants and a ban on deception in operations in cyberspace — an attempt to deal with the challenge of anonymous attacks. The Russians have also called for broader international government oversight of the Internet.

But American officials are particularly resistant to agreements that would allow governments to censor the Internet, saying they would provide cover for totalitarian regimes. These officials also worry that a treaty would be ineffective because it can be almost impossible to determine if an Internet attack originated from a government, a hacker loyal to that government, or a rogue acting independently.

The unique challenge of cyberspace is that governments can carry out deceptive attacks to which they cannot be linked, said Herbert Lin, director of a study by the National Research Council, a private, nonprofit organization, on the development of cyberweapons.

This challenge became apparent in 2001, after a Navy P-3 surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter plane, said Linton Wells II, a former high-ranking Pentagon official who now teaches at the National Defense University. The collision was followed by a huge increase in attacks on United States government computer targets from sources that could not be identified, he said.

Similarly, after computer attacks in Estonia in April 2007 and in the nation of Georgia last August, the Russian government denied involvement and independent observers said the attacks could have been carried out by nationalist sympathizers or by criminal gangs.

The United States is trying to improve cybersecurity by building relationships among international law enforcement agencies. State Department officials hold out as a model the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime, which took effect in 2004 and has been signed by 22 nations, including the United States but not Russia or China.

But Russia objects that the European convention on cybercrime allows the police to open an investigation of suspected online crime originating in another country without first informing local authorities, infringing on traditional ideas of sovereignty. Vladimir V. Sokolov, deputy director of the Institute for Information Security Issues, a policy organization, noted that Russian authorities routinely cooperated with foreign police organizations when they were approached.

This is not the first time the issue of arms control for cyberspace has been raised.

In 1996, at the dawn of commercial cyberspace, American and Russian military delegations met secretly in Moscow to discuss the subject. The American delegation was led by an academic military strategist, and the Russian delegation by a four-star admiral. No agreement emerged from the meeting, which has not previously been reported.

Later, the Russian government repeatedly introduced resolutions calling for cyberspace disarmament treaties before the United Nations. The United States consistently opposed the idea.

In late April, Russian military representatives indicated an interest in renewed negotiations at a Russian-sponsored meeting on computer security in Garmisch, Germany.

John Arquilla, an expert in military strategy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who led the American delegation at the 1996 talks, said he had received almost no interest from within the American military after those initial meetings. “It was a great opportunity lost,” he said.

Unlike American officials who favor tightening law enforcement relationships, Mr. Arquilla continues to believe in cyberspace weapons negotiations, he said. He noted that the treaties on chemical weapons had persuaded many nations not to make or stockpile such weapons.

The United States and China have not held high-level talks on cyberwar issues, specialists say. But there is some evidence that the Chinese are being courted by Russia for support of an arms control treaty for cyberspace.

“China has consistently attached extreme importance to matters of information security, and has always actively supported and participated in efforts by the international community dedicated to maintaining Internet safety and cracking down on criminal cyber-activity,” Qin Gang, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said in a statement.

Whether the American or Russian approach prevails, arms control experts said, major governments are reaching a point of no return in heading off a cyberwar arms race.


Don't forget, my interest!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Window on the Universe

Spread across 128 monitors at NASA's Advanced Supercomputing facility in California, colorized red and green nebulae span a vast region of our galaxy. Called hyperwall-2, the system helps researchers visualize huge amounts of data from the latest telescopes.
National Geographic

Why Afghanistan might gain a CEO

"So I will vote for bad," says Mr. Najman, a law student at Kabul University.

Mr. Karzai's popularity has slipped among Afghans and in Washington. Yet he enters the presidential race in a strong position, having sidelined and co-opted his strongest opponents.

Analysts and opposition figures blame the political paradox on the centralized nature of the government and the concentration of power in the presidency. And with elections fast approaching, proposed reforms are buzzing around Kabul, including the creation of a prime ministerial post. Perhaps most intriguing of all the possible solutions to decentralize power are the reports that former US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad could step in as the country's "chief executive officer."

The CEO idea appears to hold appeal among frustrated Afghans, while the position's lack of definition and constitutional legitimacy worries experts.

"The office of president is … a 48-hour job given a 24-hour time frame," says William Maley, an Afghanistan expert at Aus­tralian National Uni­ver­sity. "Some­thing to relieve the burdens of the office is vital. On the other hand, simply going down the path of having a CEO as an agent of the president, there's no foundation for institutionalizing the office."

As president, Karzai controls the appointments of governors and heads of ministries. With his popularity eroding, Karzai pulls this lever of power to manage political rivals, most recently choosing notorious warlord Muhammad Fahim to be one of his two running mates.

The allegiances of these Afghan officials are to Karzai, as there's little anyone else can do about the appointments. Indeed, when parliament tried recently to exercise its oversight role in requesting a new foreign minister, Karzai refused.

The idea of a CEO provides the possibility of taking some powers away from the presidency.

The New York Times first reported last month that Mr. Khalilzad and Karzai were discussing the possibility of the Afghan-American becoming an unelected CEO for the country, citing unnamed senior US and Afghan officials. Other reports followed, as did denials by the Afghan palace, the US, and Khalilzad himself.

Yet Kabul power brokers remain unconvinced, saying the signals have been mixed.

The business paradigm of the CEO frames the Afghan government's problem less in terms of accountability and more as a bottleneck in bureaucracy.

Some analysts suspect the CEO, if instituted, would be tasked with coordinating the relationship between the Afghan government and the international community. Westerners are frustrated with working through ministers who owe their positions to patronage. Afghans are frustrated that their government lacks the capacity to oversee projects.

"A CEO might be someone who could be in control of monitoring all these projects that are implemented by the government or by donor countries, especially these contractors," says Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based analyst. But he joins a chorus of reservations about the idea: "I don't think it's a good thing for democracy. A nonelected person would have huge influence of power in the country."

Another danger: The person winds up having no power. Ashraf Ghani, a top presidential candidate, warns that the position has no legal basis – and no real sway with ministers.

Yet in more than a dozen interviews across Kabul and in Bamiyan and Parwan provinces, northwest of the capital, voters mostly viewed Khalilzad as a strong administrator. Many didn't mind having an American citizen in the No. 2 position.

"He played the role of a bridge between the West and Afghanistan and I'm sure he could do that well," says Mortaza Nabizada, a fuel seller in Kabul. "And he always united different commanders and different factions."

Mr. Ghani questions whether Khalilzad's tenure as ambassador proves administrative chops. "His power derived from being an American ambassador," he says. "If he comes as an Afghan player, that's on very different terms."

Another potential solution is to have a government run by a prime minister. That would give parliament greater oversight. A leading opposition candidate for president, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, is pushing for adding the post.

"It would make the government more accountable and transparent," Mr. Abdullah says, denying a Reuters report that Karzai offered him the CEO post in exchange for exiting the race.

Parliamentary systems "better contribute toward stabilization of disrupted societies" by allowing more voices to be heard, Mr. Maley says.

Afghanistan rejected the idea of a prime minister, however, when the Constitution was ratified in 2004: Ethnic minority leaders backed the idea while the dominant Pashtuns came to see it as an effort to constrain their power. The debate around adding a prime minister continues to be based on ethnicity, says Maley.


Could there be a worst idea?

Honduras heads toward crisis over referendum

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – With backing from Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, Honduras' leftist president pushed ahead Friday with a referendum on revamping the constitution, risking his rule in a standoff against Congress, the Supreme Court and the military.

Government supporters began distributing ballots at 15,000 voting stations across the country, defying a Supreme Court ruling declaring Sunday's referendum illegal and ordering all election material confiscated. President Manuel Zelaya had led thousands of supporters to recover the material from an air force warehouse before it could be confiscated.

Under Honduran law, soldiers are normally responsible for distributing ballots ahead of elections, but the military leadership has opposed the vote. Zelaya has fired the military chief for refusing to support the referendum and vows to ignore a Supreme Court ruling ordering him reinstated.

Zelaya has the vocal support of his fellow leftist Latin American leaders as he seeks to follow in the path of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in transforming his country through a constitutional overhaul. The Venezuelan leader and former Cuban President Fidel Castro have warned a coup is under way in Honduras and pledged their support for Zelaya.

Zelaya says the constitution protects a system of government that excludes the poor, but has not specified what changes he will seek.

His opponents fear he will try to extend his rule by lifting a constitutional ban presidential re-election.

The showdown between the president and virtually all other circles of power in Honduras plunged the impoverished Central America country into a political crisis with no solution in sight. Congress — led by members of Zelaya's own Liberal Party — has opened an investigation into his mental stability and could declare him unfit to govern.

Thousands of Zelaya opponents marched through the capital of Tegucigalpa to demand his ouster Friday, chanting "he must leave now!" Many shops, gasoline stations and some schools were closed for fear of disturbances.

In Washington, the Organization of American States held a session to discuss the situation in Honduras. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged "restraint by all concerned in order to prevent any further escalation" of the crisis, said U.N. associate spokesman Farhan Haq.

Zelaya lashed out at Congress early Friday for considering his ouster.

"Congress cannot investigate me, much less remove me or stage a technical coup against me because I am honest, I'm a free president and nobody scares me," Zelaya said in his two-hour speech, at one point bursting — Chavez-like — into song.

"But we have to forgive them. Glory to God! We have to forgive, and I know who to forgive because the people are my support and my best ally in this political process," he said.

He referred to Congressional President Roberto Micheletti — a member of his own party — as "a pathetic, second-class congressman who got that job because of me."

Micheletti, who by law would take over the presidency if Zelaya were ousted, retorted, "We should not have to suffer the aspirations of a disturbed man who wants to hold onto to power."

Sunday's referendum has no legal effect: it merely asks people if they want to have a later vote on whether to convoke an assembly to rewrite the constitution.

The Supreme Court, Congress and the attorney general have all said the referendum he is sponsoring is illegal because the constitution says some of its clauses cannot be changed.

The constitution, approved in 1982 as Honduras was throwing off two decades of nearly uninterrupted military rule, states that any politician who promotes presidential re-election will be barred from public service for 10 years.

The showdown over Sunday's referendum has all but overshadowed the election campaign, which pits Porfirio Lobo of the opposition National Party against Liberal Party candidate Elvin Santos, who resigned as vice president last year complaining that Zelaya had been trying to sideline him in the government.

Zelaya, whose four-year term ends in January, has seen his approval ratings fall over the past year as the country grapples with soaring food prices and a spike in drug violence that has saddled Honduras with one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America.

His campaign for changing the constitution has energized his support base of labor groups, farmers and civil organizations who have long felt marginalized in a country where a wealthy elite controls the media and much of politics, said Manuel Orozco, a political analyst with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

But "the bottom line is that whether he has some level of popular support or not, this is democracy and he has to follow the rule of law," Orozco said.


Somalis create world's largest refugee camp

DADAAB, Kenya (AP) - The bloody conflict in Somalia has created the world's largest refugee camp, with 500 hungry and exhausted refugees pouring into this wind-swept camp in neighboring Kenya every day, the U.N. refugee agency said Friday.

Dadaab, just 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the Somali border, is home to more than 280,000 refugees in an area meant to hold just 90,000.

So far this year, the U.N. refugee agency has registered nearly 38,000 new arrivals, UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said Friday. The vast majority of them are fleeing violence and poverty in Somalia as Islamic insurgents try to topple the government.

"It is hunger and destitution that drove us from our country," Abdullahi Abdi Dahir, 50, said earlier this week. He fled Somalia with his wife and their five children, the youngest just 3 months old. "All we need now is something to eat and a shelter for the family."

Since May 7, fighting between Islamist insurgent groups and government forces has killed at least 225 people, and displaced nearly 170,000 from their homes in the capital, Mogadishu.

The three camps that make up Dadaab were established in 1991 after Somali warlords toppled dictator Siad Barre and carved the country into armed camps ruled by clan law. The area was never meant to hold so many people, and overcrowding has become a massive problem.

"The new influx of refugees is putting more pressure on an already aged infrastructure," said Anne Campbell, head of the UNHCR's office in Dadaab. "We are appealing to the Kenyan government to provide us land to settle them (new refugees), and call on the donors to give us the funding we need to set up a new camp and upgrade the old ones."

Many longtime refugees also lament the fact that they cannot leave the camp to make a life in Kenya. The government has strict rules requiring them to stay, arguing that integration into Kenya is not a "durable solution" for refugees.

Kenya closed its border in January 2007 to prevent Islamists fleeing Somalia from entering the country, but the closure also has forced refugees to sneak into Kenya.

Some refugees, like Dahir's family, avoid border points entirely and use donkey routes in the bush. Dahir said the trip to the refugee camp took his family 10 days, two of which they walked on foot. He said he begged drivers of the cars heading for border towns to take his family.

The Dadaab camp complex is the world's largest refugee camp, followed by Tindouf in Algeria, where some 90,000 are staying, according to UNHCR.

Before this year's influx of refugees began at Dadaab, the refugees were complaining about shortage of services and aged infrastructure, such as health, sanitation and water systems.

The U.N. said it needs funding to build 39,000 new latrines to cater for the increasing number of refugees.

"The consequences of not having a functioning water system and adequate latrines could be very severe," said Daniel Dickinson, spokesman for the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office, which is spending $4 million to repair the aged water system in the camps and says it will build more than 5,000 latrines for refugees this year. "Certainly there could be a humanitarian catastrophe if these people are not getting enough water."

But those fleeing violence care less about the aged facilities or the overflowing camps. Reaching safe camps, away from bullets and grinding poverty in Somalia, is all Dahir's wife, Hawo Ahmed, needs.

"If you get food, what else do you need?" she said while breast-feeding her youngest child. "He will not get enough milk, I know. But when we settle down and I get enough food to eat, he will get sufficient milk."


Diplomat says US to consider F-16 sale to Taiwan

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) - The de facto U.S. ambassador in Taiwan said Friday the Obama administration will consider the contentious sale of F-16 fighter jets to the island after key American officials are settled into their jobs.

The comments by Stephen Young of the American Institute in Taiwan come amid strong opposition to the sale by China because of its view that the U.S. has no business providing arms to a territory Beijing claims as its own.

Earlier this week China raised the issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan during its first high-level bilateral military dialogue with the Americans in 18 months. Beijing suspended the talks in late 2007 because of the Taiwan arms sales issue.

Speaking to reporters in Taipei, Young said Washington will continue to help Taiwan enhance its security and the sale of the 66 F-16 C/D jets is still on the table.

"As (senior officials) get into place, they will continue to look closely at this whole question," Young said, adding Washington does not consult with Beijing on arms sales to Taiwan.

Young cited Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, National Security adviser Jeffrey Bader, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Wallace Gregson as officials who will be involved in the F-16 matter.

The U.S. transferred its recognition of China from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 but is obligated by law to provide the island the means to defend itself.

China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949.

Taiwan initially requested the F-16s during the administration of its former President Chen Shu-bian, who said they were necessary to help Taiwan counter a decade-long Chinese military buildup.

China continues to threaten Taiwan with an attack if the democratic island moves to make its break with the mainland permanent. Chen was a strong advocate of formal Taiwanese independence.

Since assuming office 13 months ago, Chen successor Ma Ying-jeou has said repeatedly that he too wants the F-16s, despite his policy of pushing for better relations with Beijing.


China likely to reject Hummer acquisition: report

BEIJING (AP) - China's planning agency is likely to reject a Chinese company's bid to acquire General Motors Corp.'s Hummer unit, in part because its gas-guzzling vehicles conflict with Beijing's conservation goals, state radio reported.

The National Development and Reform Commission is also likely to say Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Corp., a maker of construction machinery, lacks the expertise to run Hummer, China National Radio said late Thursday. It cited no source.

Tengzhong said it has yet to reach a definitive agreement with GM, which the company said previously was required to make a formal request for government approval of the deal.

"Some people may have views and speculation but the Chinese government has a process that we respect," said a company statement. "We do not yet have a definitive agreement, but are developing our proposals with GM and Hummer and we will continue to engage with the appropriate authorities in an appropriate manner."

Employees who answered the phone at the NDRC referred questions to its foreign affairs office, where calls were not answered.

Hummers, which roar along on oversized tires and can weigh more than 3 tons (2.7 metric tons), are based on U.S. military vehicles that gained fame during the 1991 Gulf War. But sales have been battered by soaring fuel prices.

Tengzhong, based in the southwestern city of Chengdu, emerged as Hummer's surprise buyer this month after GM sought court protection from its creditors. The companies said the sale still required regulatory approval and refused to disclose the price.

Auto industry analysts questioned how Tengzhong, which makes construction vehicles such as cement mixers and tow trucks, could succeed with Hummer, known as "Han Ma," or Bold Horse, in China.

GM said the planned sale would save some 3,000 jobs in the United States. Tengzhong said it would invest in research to create more fuel-efficient Hummers and would keep Hummer's headquarters and manufacturing in the United States.

The Chinese government is trying to promote conservation and the use of more fuel-efficient vehicles. It has cut sales taxes on cars with smaller engines and is encouraging automakers to develop electric and other alternative-energy vehicles.

Communist authorities are encouraging companies to expand abroad to diversify the economy but have cautioned against being too hasty or ambitious.

Tengzhong is privately owned, which means it is free of some of the controls on Chinese state-owned companies. But regulators still can block foreign acquisitions.


Albania's Berisha pledging free and fair elections

TIRANA, Albania (AP) - Prime Minister Sali Berisha faces a tough fight Sunday in national elections seen as a key test of the country's political maturity as it eyes European Union membership.

One of Europe's poorest countries, Albania joined NATO this year and is to hold its seventh parliamentary election since the fall of communism in 1990. Until now, none has met international standards, the ballots plagued by reports of voter fraud and irregularities.

In the past few weeks, three people have been killed in what local media have said were politically motivated attacks, although whether that is true is unclear.

A regional leader for the small conservative Christian Democratic Party was driving his car when it exploded; a man was fatally shot following an argument over a campaign poster; an opposition lawmaker was shot dead in May.

Both the EU and United States have stressed Albania must do better this time.

"The elections ... will be an important test of Albania's democratic maturity and readiness to move forward toward closer integration with the EU," the European Union said in a statement.

On Friday, tens of thousands of supporters of the top two candidates held separate rallies in central Tirana, complete with concerts, speeches, flags and party slogans.

"We shall do our utmost until the Albanian star shines in the EU's proud flag," Berisha said in his speech in Skanderbeg Square.

Berisha's center-right government has been beset by scandal for months, despite being voted back into power four years ago largely on campaign promises of eradicating corruption.

He faces a strong challenge from the current mayor of Tirana and Socialist Party leader, Edi Rama, an artist probably best known outside Albania for his project to paint Tirana's drab buildings in vibrant - and sometimes clashing - colors.

At the Socialists' rally on Martyrs of the Nation Boulevard, Rama told his supporters: "There is no reason why Albania cannot be a beautiful lady among others at the EU."

Polls show the two main political parties - Rama's Socialists and Berisha's Democratic Party - to be neck-and-neck.

Berisha, who was the country's first post-communist president, has campaigned on his recent successes, such as getting Albania into NATO and applying for EU candidate status. He has pledged to turn the country into a small regional energy power with hydroelectric, wind and coal-based production, after recently signing three billion-euro deals on energy production with Italian, Austrian and Norwegian companies.

The government has improved the business environment and has been praised by World Bank reports for its reforms, including the introduction of a 10-percent flat income tax. Health and education workers' salaries and pensions have doubled and large tracts of Albania's crumbling road network have been repaired.

Authorities have been racing to complete Albania's biggest infrastructure project, the 170 kilometer (105 mile) Durres-Kukes-Morini highway linking Albania to neighboring Kosovo, before the election.

But the opposition blames Berisha's government and the premier himself for a series of scandals, including embezzlement of public funds for the Durres-Kukes highway. They accuse Berisha of using his position for the personal enrichment of himself and his family.

"I don't want to be a prime minister who exploits the country to serve a corrupt group of people that has kidnapped the government," Rama said recently.

The two main parties have similar platforms, both pledging to fight poverty and secure between 160,000 and 200,000 new jobs, raise salaries and make health insurance affordable for all.

About 3.1 million people are eligible to vote in a new regional proportional system. A total of 4,300 candidates are running for 140 parliamentary seats.


American's how-to guide to toppling dictatorships

Excerpts from the book "From Dictatorship to Democracy," a guide to nonviolent resistance written by retired American scholar Gene Sharp and being cited by some Iranian protesters:


The guide lists 198 different "methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion," including: public speeches, skywriting, display of flags and symbolic colors, protest "disrobings," vigils, performances of plays and music, strikes and sit-ins.


"Nonviolent struggle is a much more complex and varied means of struggle than is violence. Instead, the struggle is fought by psychological, social, economic, and political weapons applied by the population and the institutions of the society. These have been known under various names of protests, strikes, noncooperation, boycotts, disaffection and people power."


"The common error of past improvised political defiance campaigns is the reliance on only one or two methods, such as strikes and mass demonstrations. In fact, a multitude exist that allow resistance strategists to concentrate and disperse resistance as required."


"About two hundred specific methods of nonviolent action have been identified, and there are certainly scores more. The use of a considerable number of these methods - carefully chosen, applied persistently and on a large scale, wielded in the context of a wise strategy and appropriate tactics, by trained civilians - is likely to cause any illegitimate regime severe problems."



Elite Iraqi troops in forefront after US pullback

BAGHDAD (AP) - As Iraqi security services prepare to take back their towns from the Americans on Tuesday, the sharpest arrow in their quiver is an elite, American-trained force with a reputation that leads many Iraqis to call it "the dirty brigade."

Its real name is the Counter Terrorism Bureau, and its commander insists it's professional, nonsectarian and not dirty at all.

Violence is already rising and will likely continue after the handover as different factions test the government's ability to manage without American backup. But Kalib Shegati al-Kenani, the Iraqi Army general who heads the bureau, is confident his force can cope and that his country will not slide into renewed sectarian warfare.

The elite units, armed with high-tech U.S.-made equipment, often pair up with American special forces to go after Iraq's most wanted foes - both al-Qaida extremists and Shiite militants.

They are thought to have been the main force that assisted the Americans during an offensive in Baghdad's Sadr City quarter last year to rout Shiite militias, and on operations targeting Sunni insurgents.

Formed soon after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the force became known as the "Dirty Brigade" because it was secretive and until recently operated outside the Iraqi chain of command, reporting directly to its U.S. handlers.

It was so little known that it even was rumored to be used against the Shiite-dominated government's opponents in the political mainstream- a charge denied by the Iraqis and the Americans.

Originally numbering about 4,500 members, it is reported to have doubled in size and now reports directly to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"We are professional and not sectarian forces, and we bring together people from all sections of the population. Each member of the bureau signs a document vowing not to speak about sectarianism, partisan affairs and nationalities. Their commitment is only to Iraq," al-Kenani told The Associated Press in an interview this week.

Al-Kenani, a 59-year-old veteran of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War and the first Gulf War, is a Shiite, his deputy is a Sunni and one of his top generals is a Kurd.

The force has sought to reinforce its nonpartisan makeup by refusing to accept recruits who previously served in sectarian militias. Also, says Maj. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saedi, a senior commander, it "does not allow any minister or government official to enter its headquarters to prevent any interference in investigations and security operations."

Its ranks are made up of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, al-Saedi said, but it does not publish breakdowns.

A statement in Arabic posted on the U.S. military's Web site acknowledged the public's "misconceptions about this very viable and important unit."

It picks its targets on the basis of rigorous checks, the statement said. "In short," it added, "the CTB's mission is targeting terrorists, not the Iraqi public or political foes."

Al-Kenani said the bureau has a good intelligence-gathering machine and "cooperation with all ministries."

The Americans are already leaving the towns and cities, and once they are gone full responsibility will fall to the Iraqi police and military, which numbered 654,362 members at last count.

Although some troops will remain as trainers and advisers, the remaining 133,000 U.S. military personnel will be confined to base unless called in by the Iraqis. A full withdrawal is envisioned by the end of 2011.

The Iraqi government has declared Tuesday a public holiday.

"June 30 is considered an Iraqi victory day," al-Kenani said, "and we will all celebrate the withdrawal of American forces."

Explosions around the country have claimed more than 160 lives since June 20, when a truck bomb in the northern city of Kirkuk killed 82. A bombing in Baghdad's Shiite district of Sadr City killed at least 61 people on Wednesday.

But al-Kenani said the days of mass violence and near-civil war were over. "Whoever carries out explosions and security breaches after the withdrawal of forces will have no excuse," he said.

"They were repeatedly bragging about fighting the occupation; now the occupation is out."


Hezbollah accuses West of fomenting turmoil in Iran

BEIRUT - Lebanese militant group Hezbollah accused the West on Thursday of fomenting protests in Iran over this month’s presidential election but added that it had no worries about the stability of its main foreign backer.

“The extent of Western and American involvement in Iran’s internal affairs is now clear,” the Shiite militant group’s deputy leader, Sheikh Naim Qassem, told AFP in an interview.

“What is going on in Iran is not a simple protest against the results of the presidential election,” he said. “There are riots and attacks in the streets that are orchestrated from the outside in a bid to destabilise the country’s Islamic regime.”

Tensions have been rising between Iran and the West over the Islamic regime’s suppression of mass street protests sparked by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s contested re-election on June 12.

Qassem insisted that his party, still blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Washington and regarded by its critics as an Iranian proxy, would not be affected by the events Tehran.

“Hezbollah has nothing to do with Iran’s internal affairs,” he said. “We don’t side with anyone. This is an internal Iranian issue.

“What is happening there has nothing to do with our situation,” he added. “We have our own Lebanese identity and popularity, and these events don’t concern us.”

He said he felt certain the situation in Iran would soon return to normal.

“The Islamic republic has succeeded in overcoming this plot from overseas aimed at destabilising the internal situation,” Qassem said, singling out Britain for criticism of its role.

Khaleej Times

Russia, rest of G8 clash on approach to Iran

TRIESTE, Italy, June 25 (Reuters) - Group of Eight powers were divided on how to respond to Iran's disputed election on Thursday, with hosts Italy pushing for a strong condemnation of violence and Russia calling the vote "an exercise in democracy".

Western nations at a meeting of G8 foreign ministers in Trieste were pushing for tough language in a final communique on Iran, where about 20 people have been killed in demonstrations following the June 12 presidential election two weeks ago.

"We are working on a document that should condemn the violence and the repression and at the same time stress that electoral procedures are an (internal) Iranian matter," said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.

But he cautioned: "We (the international community) can't recount the vote." The statement is expected on Friday. Delegates to the G8 conference, getting under way with a dinner on Thursday evening, were wrestling over the wording of the statement on Iran to take into account the sensibilities of Moscow, which has already said it considers all issues linked to the election as Iran's internal affair.

Official results handed hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a landslide victory but defeated candidate Mirhossein Mousavi has said that the vote was rigged.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made clear that Russia was not prepared to sign up to a G8 statement condemning Iran's handling of the election.

"No one is willing to condemn the election process, because it's an exercise in democracy," Lavrov told reporters.

Russia is one of six powers that have been trying to solve a long-running dispute with Iran over its nuclear programme.

Iran says it wants nuclear power to generate electricity but Western powers suspect it of seeking to develop a nuclear bomb.


"We agreed that we will develop a language which would allow us to concentrate on the main task -- to move toward resolving the issues of the Iranian nuclear programme...," Lavrov said after separate talks with Frattini.

"Isolation is the wrong approach ... Engagement is the key word," he said.

Italian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maurizio Massari said the G8 would express concern over Iran's nuclear programme but added "we want to maintain as far as possible a climate of dialogue".

Events in Iran have cast a shadow over the G8 meeting that should have focused on stabilising Afghanistan and pursuing Middle East peace.

Diplomats had seen the June 25-27 event as a rare chance for the Group of Eight nations to sit down with regional powers like Iran to discuss shared goals for Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Iran declined to answer Italy's invitation to attend.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also absent after hurting her arm.

Speaking in Washington before the meeting, a senior U.S. State Department official said foreign ministers were expected to discuss the impact of the situation in Iran on efforts to engage Tehran over its nuclear programme.

European Union External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner condemned excessive force by Iranian security forces against demonstrators, urged a halt to arbitrary arrests and called a crackdown on journalists unacceptable.

As delegates gathered, a small group of Iranian protesters held up signs condemning the violent crackdown in Iran.

"We want the G8 to exert pressure so Iran allows peaceful protests, free elections, democracy," said Siamak, an Iranian expatriate who fled Iran after the 1979 revolution. He declined to give his last name out of fear for his family still in Iran.


Kind of make you feel sorry for the Russian people, they never get a break

Denmark begins expulsion of Iraqi refugees

The Danish government for the first time is forcibly deporting Iraqi nationals whose application for asylum has been turned down.

The government's deportation of 244 Iraqis has been the point of fierce public outrage since the Danish and Iraqi governments agreed in May to repatriate Iraqi refugees whose asylum requests were rejected, dpa reported.

Some of the Iraqi individuals and families who are to be deported have been in Denmark for up to ten years.

Human rights organizations, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and numerous Danish civil societies have asked the government to allow them to stay on a humanitarian basis, citing Iraq's precarious security situation.


Iranian cleric: Some in unrest should be executed

Iran's increasingly isolated opposition leader effectively ended his role in street protests, saying he'll seek permits for future rallies. A senior cleric demanded in a nationally broadcast sermon Friday that leaders of the unrest be punished harshly and that some are "worthy of execution."

Iran's ruling clergy has widened its crackdown on the opposition since a bitterly disputed June 12 presidential election, and scattered protests have replaced the initial mass rallies.

The official Web site of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, his main tool of communicating with his supporters, was hacked Friday, leaving it blank, an aide said.

Mousavi has said victory was stolen from him through fraud, challenging the proclamation of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the winner.

Mousavi has sent mixed signals to his supporters in recent days, asking them not to break the law, while pledging not to drop his challenge of the election.

Hundreds have been detained since the vote, including journalists, academics and university students, and a special court has been set up to put them on trial.

In Friday's central Muslim sermon at Tehran University, a senior cleric, Ayatollah Ahmed Khatami, called for harsh retribution for dissent.

"Anybody who fights against the Islamic system or the leader of Islamic society, fight him until complete destruction," he said in the nationally broadcast speech.

The cleric alleged that some involved in the unrest had used firearms.

"Anyone who takes up arms to fight with the people, they are worthy of execution," he said. "We ask that the judiciary confront the leaders of the protests, leaders of the violations, and those who are supported by the United States and Israel strongly, and without mercy to provide a lesson for all."

Khatami said those who disturbed the peace and destroyed public property were "at war with God," and said they should be "dealt with without mercy."

He reminded worshippers that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rules by God's design and must not be defied.

The cleric also lashed out at foreign journalists, accusing them of false reporting, and singled out Britain for new criticism.

"In this unrest, Britons have behaved very mischievously and it is fair to add the slogan of 'down with England' to slogan of 'down with USA,'" he said, as his remarks were interrupted by worshippers' chants of "Death to Israel."

Iran's rulers have accused the West, which has become increasingly vocal in its condemnation of the postelection clampdown, of meddling in Iran's internal affairs. Earlier this week, Iran expelled two British diplomats, prompting the expulsion of two Iranian diplomats by Britain.

In Trieste, Italy, foreign ministers of the Group of Eight countries called for an end to the violence in Iran and urged the authorities to find a peaceful solution.

Khatami, meanwhile, alleged that the icon of the opposition, slain protester Neda Agha Soltan, was killed by demonstrators, not the Iranian security forces. Soltan, 27, was killed by a shot to the chest last week, on the sidelines of a protest.

"The proof and evidence shows that they (protesters) have done it themselves and have raised propaganda against the system," he said. "I say hereby that these deceitful media have to know that the ordeal will be over and shame will remain for them."

In London, an Iranian doctor who said he tried to save Soltan as the young woman bled to death, told the BBC she apparently was shot by a member of the Basij militia. Protesters spotted an armed member of the militia on a motorcycle, and stopped and disarmed him, said Dr. Arash Hejazi.

The man appeared to admit shooting Soltan, shouting "I didn't want to kill her," but the furious protesters confiscated his identity card and took photographs of him before letting him go, Hejazi said.

In quelling protests, Basij militiamen have broken up even small groups of people walking together to prevent any possible gathering. Still, dozens of friends and relatives of Soltan managed to pay tribute Friday, arriving at Tehran's Behesht-e Zahra cemetery in groups of two and three, uttering brief prayers and placing flowers on her grave, witnesses said.

Vigils for Soltan have been held around the world.

Mousavi, who has said he is being increasingly isolated, lost his main link to the world after his official Web site, Kalemeh, came up blank and stripped of any text or pictures. Mousavi's associate Ali Reza Beheshti told The Associated Press the site had been taken down by unknown hackers.

In a message on the site late Thursday, Mousavi had said he would seek permission for future protests, even though he said unfair restrictions were being imposed. He said he has been asked by the Interior Ministry to apply in person, a week ahead of time.

The opposition leader noted that Ahmadinejad has been able to hold two postelection marches and a Tehran rally "that were well-publicized on state television, seeming to encourage participation with their regularly advertised march routes."

Mousavi has said the authorities are pressuring him to withdraw his challenge by trying to isolate and discredit him. He hasn't led a rally in more than a week.

Khamenei has ordered a large security detail around Mousavi—ostensibly to protect him, but presumably also to restrict his movements. Authorities have also targeted those close to Mousavi.

Late Thursday, state TV reported that the head of Mousavi's information committee, Abolfazl Fateh, was banned from leaving Iran for Britain. The report, which could not be verified independently, identified Fateh as a doctoral student in Britain.

The semiofficial Fars news agency said Fateh was banned from travel so authorities could investigate "some of the recent gatherings," a reference to election protests.

At least 11 Mousavi campaign workers and 25 staffers on his newspaper have been detained.

On Wednesday, 70 university professors were detained immediately after meeting with Mousavi. All but four have been released. Those still in custody included Qorban Behzadiannejad, Mousavi's former campaign manager.

At least 17 people have been killed in postelection protests, in addition to eight members of the Basij, the government has said.


"Victory or Death"