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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dutch Foe of Islam Ignores US Allies' Far Right Ties

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The fiercely anti-Islam Dutch MP Geert Wilders has been traveling through the U.S. this week on a highly-publicised trip to meet with politicians, promote his controversial film ‘Fitna’, and raise money for his legal defence back home.

Although Wilders’s stated goal has been to campaign for free speech, his trip has been sponsored and promoted by an unlikely coalition of groups united primarily by their hostility towards Islam. His backers include neoconservative and right-wing Jewish groups on the one hand and figures with ties to the European far right on the other.

Since he was charged with incitement to hate and discrimination in the Netherlands in January and denied entry to Britain earlier this month on public safety grounds, Wilders has become something of a cause celebre for the U.S. right.

This week, he gave a private viewing of his 17-minute anti-Islam film in the U.S. Senate, where he was hosted by Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican. He also appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s and Glenn Beck’s popular right-wing TV shows, met privately with the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and hobnobbed with former U.N. ambassador John Bolton at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

On Friday, he capped his busy week with an appearance at the National Press Club. At the event, he reiterated his calls for a halt to immigration from Muslim countries and pronounced, to raucous applause from the audience, that "our Western culture based on Christianity, Judaism, and humanism is in every aspect better than Islamic culture".

Wilders is also known for campaigning to ban the Koran, Islamic attire, and Islamic schools from the Netherlands, and for proclaiming that "moderate Islam does not exist."

His chief sponsors during the trip have primarily been neoconservative organisations such as Frank Gaffney’s Centre for Security Policy, David Horowitz’s Freedom Centre, and Daniel Pipes’s Middle East Forum, which is also helping to raise money for Wilders’s legal defence.

An event he held at a Boston-area synagogue was sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition, an influential group whose board members include casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, and neoconservative writer David Frum, who attended Wilders’s Friday event in Washington.

His trip has also been heavily promoted by conservative blogger Pamela Geller, who sponsored a reception for him in Washington on Friday. Geller is perhaps best known for alleging during the 2008 presidential campaign that now-President Barack Obama is the illegitimate child of the late Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X; she also continues to argue that Obama is a secret Muslim.

A less well-known but key backer of Wilders’s trip has been the newly-formed International Free Press Society (IFPS), which is headed by Danish journalist Lars Hedegaard and upon whose advisory board Wilders sits. The IFPS has been instrumental in promoting Wilders’ case as a free-speech issue, joining him in calling for an "International First Amendment", and it was a co-sponsor of Friday’s event at the National Press Club.

Wilders might seem to be an unlikely free-speech martyr - he famously called for the Netherlands to ban the Koran in an August 2007 op-ed, on the grounds that it was hate speech no different from Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf.’ Wilders and his defenders now claim that he is actually in favour of the repeal of all hate speech laws, although he made no mention of this issue in the original op-ed.

While the IFPS has strong ties to neoconservatives - its staff includes members of Pipes’s and Gaffney’s organisations - it also has ties to the European far right, and specifically the Belgian rightist party Vlaams Belang (VB), or Flemish Interest.

The IFPS’s vice president Paul Belien is married to Vlaams Belang MP Alexandra Colen, and has been a fierce defender of the party against its critics.

And in 2007, Hedegaard and Belien - along with IFPS board members Bat Ye’or, Andrew Bostom, Robert Spencer, and Sam Solomon - appeared with VB leader Filip Dewinter at the CounterJihad conference in Brussels. Although "the VB did not organise the conference, it provided an important part of the logistics and the security of those attending," according to Belien.

These VB ties among some of Wilders’s most important backers may raise difficulties for the politician, who has taken care to differentiate himself from far-right leaders such as Jean-Marie Le Pen of France and the late Joerg Haider of Austria. In particular, they may complicate his efforts to market himself to mainstream Jewish groups, which have traditionally been suspicious of the European far right due to its reputation for anti-Semitism and fascist tendencies.

"My allies are not Le Pen or Haider," Wilders told the Guardian in 2008. "I’m very afraid of being linked with the wrong rightist fascist groups". However, this past December he told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that he would consider an alliance with the VB.

The VB is the successor to the Vlaams Blok, the Flemish secessionist party that was banned by Belgian authorities in 2004 for violating the country’s racism and xenophobia laws.

The party’s defenders reject the characterisation of the VB as far right or neo-fascist. "The implication that Vlaams Belang is somehow neo-Nazi or racist is salacious," Geller told IPS. "They are the only party in Belgium that is staunchly pro-Israel."

VB leaders have insisted that their party is philo-Semitic and free of neo-Nazi elements, but Belgian Jewish groups have criticised the party for failing to sufficiently dissociate itself from Nazi sympathisers and other extremists.

The party’s outreach to Jews has also been hindered by the December 2008 conviction of senior VB leader Roeland Raes on charges of Holocaust denial.

The party has drawn a great deal of criticism even from figures known for being outspoken critics of Islam. Former Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali, now a fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, has called for the VB to be banned, saying that "it hardly differs from the Hofstad [terrorist] group" and that its "way of thinking will lead straight to genocide."

Charles Johnson of the widely-read conservative blog Little Green Footballs has been a particularly harsh critic of the VB, which he calls "neo-fascist." He has also warned of "the incredible amount of support for the Vlaams Belang among U.S. white power and neo-Nazi groups."

While no one is accusing Wilders or his backers of anti-Semitism, the VB connection illustrates the difficulties involved in forging a transatlantic coalition against Islam. Many of the most influential critics of Islam in the U.S. are neoconservatives, such as Pipes and Gaffney, who are also strongly pro-Israel; by contrast, anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe is often manifested in far-right parties whose views are anathema to much of the U.S. population, particularly Jews.

Wilders’s success and influence will likely depend on how well he can straddle the two camps, retaining his popular base of support in Europe while cultivating right-wing elites in the U.S.

Thursday’s event at the Senate was an important step for Wilders, and may have helped legitimise him in the eyes of U.S. conservatives. Sen. Kyl, who hosted the event, shares with Wilders a hard-line stance on immigration issues; he is also an honorary co-chairman of the neoconservative organisation Committee on the Present Danger.

Aside from Kyl, the list of congressmen attending the Wilders event was not released, but sources present at the event told IPS that attendees included Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, and possibly Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican.

Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota and the only Muslim member of Congress, criticised Kyl for bringing Wilders to the Senate.

"At a time when President Obama has said to the Muslim world, ‘We are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest,' the showing of a film that denigrates the faith of 1.4 billion of the world's citizens does not foster mutual respect or mutual interest," Ellison said in a statement.

*With additional reporting by Ali Gharib.


Women Migrant Workers With HIV Get Raw Deal

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BANGKOK, Mar 13 (MT) - Thousands of Asian women flock to the affluent sheikhdoms of the Middle East annually, seeking jobs as domestic workers. For many this quest for a livelihood comes to a humiliating end when they test positive for HIV.

‘’The women learn about their HIV status when they go and get tested before their job contract is renewed,’’ says Malu Marin, director of the Manila-based Action for Health Initiative, or ‘Achieve’, a member of a regional non-governmental organisation (NGO) network dealing with migration.

‘’This test is mandatory and done every two years, but without any counselling services available,'' she added.

‘’Once they are identified as having HIV, the employer is informed, and the women are placed in a holding centre in a hospital until their departure is processed,’’ Marin said during a telephone interview from the Philippines capital. ‘’These holding centres are to restrict the movement of these vulnerable women.’’

‘’They are not allowed to go out and they are deported with no chance of packing their belongings or even getting salaries due to them,’’ she revealed. ‘’They can never go back to work in those countries.’’

The scale of the problem faced by these women from countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines was singled out in a report released this week by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Joint U.N. Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

‘’(The women) often leave for overseas work under unsafe conditions, live in very difficult circumstances, and are often targets of sexual exploitation and violence before they depart, during their transit and stay in host countries and on return to their countries of origin,’’ states the report, ‘HIV Vulnerabilities of Migrant Women: from Asia to the Arab States’.

‘’With little or no access to health services and social protections, these factors combine to make Asian women migrant workers highly vulnerable to HIV,’’ it adds.

‘’Migrant women often have limited or no access to justice and redress mechanisms, especially in Gulf countries,’’ the report reveals, referring to places like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that were among those surveyed for the report.

‘’If they are found HIV positive, they face deportation and back in their countries of origin they experience discrimination and social isolation in addition to the difficulty of finding alternative livelihoods,'' the report said.

‘’Cases of HIV among domestic workers have been recorded in a number of migrant-sending countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka,’’ the report adds. ‘’As it is often the case in countries with low HIV prevalence, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, migrant workers represent a large percentage of those identified as living with HIV.’’

In fact, the U.N. report was prompted by concerns expressed by Pakistan during the annual assembly of the World Health Organsation’s (WHO) member states in Geneva in 2007. The South Asian nation had been worried at the increasing number of its citizens labouring as migrant workers in the Arab region being forced back after having been infected by the virus.

‘’During that assembly, Pakistan convened a meeting with other Asian countries to discuss the issue of migrant workers being deported from the Arab region because of HIV,’’ Marta Vallejo, an editor of the UNDP-UNAIDS report, told IPS. ‘’It is a sensitive issue in the Arab states.’’

Concerns by the Asian countries that send the female migrant workers to the Middle East is understandable due to the substantial amounts of foreign exchange these women plough back to their home countries. ‘’Women migrants from the region generate substantial economic benefits to their countries of origin and their host countries,’’ states the report.

Filipinos working in Arab countries sent back 2.17 billion US dollars in 2007 according to the report. ‘’Current remittances by migrant workers from Sri Lanka amount to three billion US dollars,’’ it added.

As for impoverished Bangladesh, remittances sent home by its workers resident in the UAE alone reached 804.8 million dollars in the last fiscal year which ended in July, according to the Bangladesh Bank. That figure represents 7.4 percent of all remittances sent to Bangladesh in the last fiscal, which totalled almost six billion dollars.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there are an estimated 9.5 million foreign workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, of which 7.5 million are from Asia. The GCC includes Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

‘’The flow from Indonesia is largely female; they are concentrated in Saudi Arabia,’’ says Manolo Abella, chief technical adviser at the ILO’s Asia-Pacific office. ‘’Migrant workers from Sri Lanka are 75 percent women, and from the Philippines, 85 percent are women.’’

What has made these female migrant workers so vulnerable in the Middle East is that ‘’domestic work is not covered by labour laws,’’ Abella said in an interview. ‘’That means if you have complaints about non-payment of salaries or a violation of your labour rights you have no access to a formal procedure.’’

And even if there is some protection offered in the employment contract, female domestic workers have little access to mechanisms that protect their rights, since ‘’they are confined in a home,’’ adds Abella. ‘’The domestic workers are completely beholden to their employees.’’

‘’It is very very tough to actually to take the active role of a complainant,’’ says Abella. ‘’There is very little the domestic workers can do when abused.’’

More Troops, More Worries, Less Consensus on Afghanistan

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Even Washington's precise war aims in Afghanistan more than seven years after U.S.-backed forces chased the Taliban out of the country appear subject to continuing debate, as, in the face of what virtually all analysts and officials concede is a deteriorating situation, the Pentagon is actively downgrading the Bush administration's hopes of ushering in a thriving democracy to something far less ambitious.

That was made abundantly clear last week when Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned Congress "to be very careful about the nature of the goals we set for ourselves in Afghanistan. If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose, because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience, and money," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

And while Gates insisted that Washington faces a "long slog" to achieve even its minimal aims, fears that Afghanistan could become a "new Vietnam", a deadly quagmire in which already overstretched U.S. forces could become bogged down in an unwinnable war, have gained sudden new currency in the mass media.

Indeed, the cover story in the latest edition of 'Newsweek' magazine is headlined, "Obama's Vietnam: The analogy isn't exact. But the war in Afghanistan is starting to look disturbingly familiar."

Public statements about the current situation by senior Pentagon officials, including Gates, have been grim. A Pentagon report released Monday noted that last spring and summer saw the "highest levels of violence" since the U.S. intervention in 2001, and that 132 U.S. troops were killed last year, up from 82 in 2007.

"You all have been covering recent events in Afghanistan long enough to know that the situation there grows increasingly perilous every day," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, told foreign reporters at the top of a special briefing here last week.

"Suicide and IED (improvised explosive device) attacks are up, some say as much as 40 percent over the last year," he went on. "The Taliban grows bolder implanting fear and intimidating the Afghan people, and the flow of militants across the border with Pakistan continues."

The U.S. has about 33,000 U.S. troops currently deployed to Afghanistan. These are augmented by another 30,000 troops from other NATO countries, of which, however, only British, Canadian, and Dutch contingents are fully cleared for combat in largely Pashtun areas in the east and south where the Taliban and its allies are strongest.

Commanders in the field, led by U.S. Gen. David McKiernan, have requested an additional 30,000 U.S. troops over the next six to nine months, a figure that Mullen echoed during last week's press briefing.

Gates has taken a more cautious approach, telling senators last week that 10,000 to 12,000 troops - or the two to three brigades that Obama said were necessary during his presidential campaign - are likely to be deployed over the next six months. At the same time, he said he would be "deeply sceptical" of further increases, adding that Washington expected the Afghan military (currently about 100,000 troops) and police to take a stronger role.

The new administration is also hoping that other NATO members, which were repeatedly pressed by the Bush administration for more support, will provide more troops - for both combat and accelerated training of Afghan forces.

Obama is sending a high-powered delegation led by Vice President Joe Biden; Obama's national security adviser, Gen. James Jones; and his special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, former Amb Richard Holbrooke, to Munich next week in the first of a series of international meetings culminating in NATO's 60th anniversary summit in April in Strasbourg where he hopes to secure new commitments.

But, despite all the goodwill generated abroad by Obama's election, public opinion both in Canada and Europe is running strongly against new deployments, according to recent surveys there, and analysts here warn that Washington is likely to be disappointed by the response.

Meanwhile, Holbrooke, working with the chief of the U.S. Central Command (Centcom), Gen. David Petraeus, as well as Washington's new ambassador-designate to Kabul, ret. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who has served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, will take part in a comprehensive review of U.S. strategy that is unlikely to be concluded before April.

The review is aimed at both defining U.S. short- and long-term goals in Afghanistan and elaborating a strategy to achieve them.

The one goal on which virtually all policy-makers and analysts are agreed is that expressed by Gates during last week's hearing: "To prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists to attack the United States and its allies."

But how to achieve even that minimal goal - given obvious constraints on resources and the secure bases that the Taliban continue to enjoy in Pakistan's frontier areas - remains the subject of considerable debate.

The dominant view for now is that increasing security for the civilian population, particularly in the Pashtun areas where the Taliban is strongest - much as the U.S. "surge" of 30,000 additional U.S. troops purportedly accomplished in Iraq - is essential. Success should deprive the Taliban of much of its popular support and persuade "reconcilable" leaders to negotiate with the government and reduce the level of violence.

In addition, pressure on President Hamid Karzai to address the corruption that has become endemic under his administration and renewed efforts to persuade - in part through significantly enhanced training - the Pakistani military to conduct an effective counter-insurgency campaign against its home-grown Taliban in the frontier areas, as well as the al Qaeda leadership that is based there, are also seen as indispensable.

But critics, of which there are a growing number, are sceptical. Among other things, they question comparisons between Iraq and Afghanistan, noting, among other things, that, even if 30,000 troops are added to the existing deployment in Afghanistan, the ratio of troops - both foreign and indigenous - to people will remain substantially below the ratio in Iraq, and far below the ratio recommended by conventional counter-insurgency doctrine.

There is also disagreement - even within the military itself - over how best to deploy those troops: whether close to the rugged Pakistan border to try to block supply and infiltration routes; or in cities, towns, and villages to provide "security" to the population, as the Surge purportedly did in Iraq.

In a new report released Tuesday by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Gilles Dorronsoro, a French expert on South Asia, argued that adding troops would actually be counter-productive because the mere presence of foreign soldiers in Pashtun areas has fueled the Taliban's resurgence and that the best way to weaken it is to reduce military confrontations. In that respect, "the only meaningful way to halt the insurgency's momentum is to start withdrawing troops."

Indeed, Dorronsoro argues, as do other critics, that most effective way to ensure that Afghan territory is not used as a base to attack the U.S. is to "de-link" the Taliban from al Qaeda, "which is based mostly in Pakistan."

"We will be in a much better position to fight al Qaeda if we don't have to fight the Afghans," he said. "We have to stop fighting the Taliban because it is the wrong enemy."

*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.

Was Bush Doctrine Just a Little Bit of History Repeating?

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Or did the Bush years merely demonstrate, in exaggerated form, impulses that were already present in the U.S.'s dominant foreign policy traditions? Particularly, was the Iraq war an expression or a betrayal of the liberal internationalist tradition of President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)?

These questions have taken on special relevance given the high hopes attached to the inauguration of Barack Obama. If his administration will mark a return to the U.S.'s liberal internationalist heritage, as Obama seemed to suggest in his inaugural address, will this be sufficient to avoid future debacles of the sort that marked the Bush years?

In the new anthology "The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century" (Princeton, 2009), four prominent U.S. political scientists - G. John Ikenberry, Thomas Knock, Tony Smith, and Anne-Marie Slaughter - debate these questions. Knock and Slaughter aim to defend the liberal internationalist tradition and differentiate it from Bush's foreign policy, while Smith argues that liberal internationalism actually set the stage for Bush and the neoconservatives.

What this thought-provoking but ultimately frustrating volume demonstrates, however, is how little consensus there is about what Bush really represented - or, for that matter, what Wilson really represented. With so little agreement about the basic terms of debate, there are few satisfying conclusions to be drawn about how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past eight years.

The primary point of debate between Knock and Slaughter on the one hand and Smith on the other is whether a reliance on multilateral institutions or democracy promotion is more fundamental to Wilson's internationalist vision.

If Wilsonianism is fundamentally about multilateralism, then the (relatively) unilateral Iraq war would fail to qualify as Wilsonian. But if Wilsonianism is fundamentally about democracy promotion, this might seem to open the door to democratisation by force of arms, as in Iraq.

But this question raises others that are equally difficult to resolve. For one, how relevant is Wilson's original vision to liberal internationalism as it developed over the course of the twentieth century?

As Ikenberry and Knock point out, the peaceful global community that Wilson envisioned never came to pass due to the imperatives of Cold War geopolitics. Instead of a single law-governed international community, the Cold War years saw the development of two separate international systems: a cooperative set of "inside" relationships between Western democracies under U.S. dominance, and a competitive "outside" system governed by force and realpolitik, in which the West battled communism and postcolonial nationalism.

Knock argues convincingly that this Cold War order was a betrayal of Wilson's vision. A U.S.-dominated military alliance like NATO was a far cry from the sort of multilateral institution Wilson had in mind.

But liberal internationalism in practice has always had an ambivalent relationship with its idealistic origins. While paying homage to the goal of an egalitarian and cooperative global community, liberal internationalists have nevertheless tended to fall back pragmatically on those multilateral institutions that have been more pliable as instruments of U.S. power. Liberal internationalists therefore often talk as if the answer to Bush's unilateralism is simply to update the Cold War status quo and win back European allies in support of U.S. power.

But is this Wilsonian? More importantly, does it resolve any of the problems with Bush's foreign policy, or simply provide it with a sheen of legitimacy? It is quite possible that, with a bit more humility and diplomatic finesse, Bush could have won over France and Germany and perhaps gotten an additional Security Council resolution in support of the Iraq war. But would this have made the war just, or wise? If not, it suggests then multilateralism as such cannot provide the answers to these problems.

Slaughter's essay illustrates some of the difficulties involved in separating liberal internationalism from Bush-era foreign policy. Slaughter's views are of particular interest since she has just been appointed head of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, making her Hillary Clinton's house intellectual at State.

Although she initially supported the Iraq war, Slaughter is now adamant that it could not be in any way justified under a liberal internationalist framework. Wilsonianism is built upon the self-determination of peoples, not their democratisation by force; U.S. leadership, not U.S. hegemony; legitimate multilateral institutions, not coalitions of the willing.

But these apparently sharp distinctions come to seem fuzzier in practice. The line between U.S. "leadership" and "hegemony" is often ambiguous, and since World War II the former has often been a euphemism for the latter.

Furthermore, Slaughter argues for U.N. reform to provide the world with a single arbiter of legitimacy, but concedes that in the absence of a more pliant U.N. the U.S. must settle for "broadly representative regional institutions" such as NATO instead of ad hoc alliances. But if the U.S. accepts the authority of whatever reasonably legitimate international body is willing to sanction its plans, is this so different from an ad hoc coalition of the willing?

Although Slaughter is adamant that democracy cannot be imposed by force, she does maintain that the international community - or its more conscientious members - have a "responsibility to protect" populations by force from atrocities committed by their rulers.

And if the "cornerstone of Wilsonianism" is, as Ikenberry sympathetically claims, the conviction that autocracies make war and democracies make peace, this would seem to give the U.S. not merely a moral imperative but a compelling national security interest in spreading democracy however it can. This goes beyond "making the world safe for democracy" to imply that democracy can only be safe when it is universal.

Smith's essay effectively critiques Wilsonianism along all these lines, showing how these arguments easily slide into those used to justify Iraq. But his attack on liberal internationalism, like Slaughter's defence of it, suffers from a simplistic view of what the Iraq war was about.

Whereas for Slaughter, the essence of the Bush years was unilateralism, for Smith, it was democracy promotion, plain and simple. This naturally suggests - although Smith never quite states it - that what the U.S. needs is a return to realism, a focus on the national interest rather than utopian dreams of democratisation abroad.

It is far from obvious, however, that democracy promotion was the essential motivation for the Iraq war rather than an ex post facto justification. The war was initially argued for in terms of threats rather than ideals, WMDs rather than human rights, and most of the war's architects appear to have been motivated less by democratic idealism than by a grandiose and aggressive conception of the national interest.

This is why a simple end to democracy promotion and return to realism may not be a cure-all. It is likely that the next push for war, wherever it is, will be justified as a hard-headed response to external threats rather than an act of humanitarianism. What is needed is therefore not simply a renunciation of liberal internationalism but a more realistic assessment of the U.S. national interest and the threats to it.

As the Obama years begin, we are faced with a widespread consensus that the Iraq war was wrong, but little agreement on how or why it was. As the essays in this volume indicate, neither Wilsonians nor anti-Wilsonians seem to have any clear solutions for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past eight years.

The "war on terrorism"

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The "war on terrorism" launched by U.S. President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 made it clear that no matter where we live -- Iraq, Indonesia or Iceland -- we belong to a globalised world. The frozen Far North is hit hardest by global warming fed by factories far to the south, headlines in newspapers all over the world speak of the World Bank's debacle, and telephone orders placed by U.S. consumers for Asian-made computers are answered by telecentre workers in India trained to "sound American." An increasingly vocal civil society accuses the UN and other global institutions like the WTO of serving the interests of rich and powerful nations at the expense of the poorest. Multinational corporations forge ahead, relentlessly serving profit. IPS, with its history of amplifying the voices of the world's unheard and with its network of writers and editors in 150 countries, will help you make sense of these global forces.

PAKISTAN/INDIA: Taliban As Common Enemy

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These include the Taliban, the international al-Qaeda and Pakistan’s own home-grown ‘holy warriors’, cultivated during the 1980s Afghan war against the occupying Soviets.

The approach taken by Zardari, Pakistan’s first popularly elected president in over a decade, differs markedly from the Pakistani establishment’s long-held stand that the country’s real enemy is India.

Since gaining independence from colonial rule and partition on religious grounds, in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought four wars, counting the Kargil ‘war-like situation’ of 1999 - a year after both countries tested nuclear weapons.

"India," Zardari has said categorically, "is not our enemy."

Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik recently took many by surprise with his belated public acknowledgement that the Mumbai attacks of Nov. 2008 in which 180 people died were partly plotted in Pakistan. He also announced criminal proceedings against eight suspects, including three alleged ringleaders.

"I want to assure the international community, I want to assure all those who have been victims of terrorism, that we mean business," said Malik said at a news conference on Feb. 12 in Islamabad, showing journalists a copy of Pakistan’s findings that were later handed over to India.

This was, as Indian journalist Siddharth Varadarajan wrote, "the first time the Pakistani state has ever publicly acknowledged that specific individuals and organisations based on its territory were actively involved in staging a terrorist attack on India" (‘Time for India to think of carrots too, not just sticks’, The Hindu, Feb. 13, 2009).

Pakistan’s admission appears to have confounded critics in India who had been certain that Pakistan would never admit to India’s allegations that the conspiracy was hatched in Pakistan or that the attackers were Pakistani nationals.

The admission "raised suspicion in New Delhi's paranoid security establishment," commented Sanjay Kapoor in the ‘Hardnew’s magazine, New Delhi, "The obvious questions that are being asked are: why did Pakistan do a volte-face and where will this new trajectory of their probe lead to?"

There is a widespread perception that Pakistan’s admission was due to pressure from Washington, which has repeatedly voiced concern that tensions between the two countries would distract Pakistan from the ‘war on terror’ against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Both Washington and New Delhi have welcomed the move. So have peace activists.

"They should have made this admission much earlier," said Musarrat Hilali, a former (and first woman) additional advocate general of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) that borders Pakistan’s tribal areas next to Afghanistan, and vice chairperson of the NWFP chapter of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

"Everyone knew that the attackers came from Pakistan," she added. "What was the point of denying it for so long? It would have built up confidence if they had said it earlier. Perhaps the rift between the two countries will decrease if Pakistan takes an honest stance to what is an international level problem, so that we stop being seen as liars around the world."

Even so, the "dramatic reversal of Islamabad’s long-standing policy of denial and its significance ought not to be minimised in any way... The international political cost to the establishment of turning back from here has risen dramatically," said Varadarajan, writing that this was possibly the main reason behind the delay in Pakistan’s admission.

The Indian government must now "resist the temptation to gloat or to pick quick holes in what the Pakistani investigation into Mumbai has revealed", and it must take "a constructive approach" to sharing information and evidence, he urged.

Analysts hope that such information sharing can lead to the possibility of starting a joint-terror mechanism or reviving one that exists under the largely toothless South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

Varadarajan wisely suggests communicating responses "directly to Pakistan rather than through piecemeal, or even misleading, leaks to the media" and an urgent "moratorium on hostile rhetoric and accusatory statements".

However, nothing will really change as long as Pakistan continues to invest heavily in Afghanistan in a bid to develop what policy makers term as ‘strategic depth’ and counter the growing Indian influence across Pakistan’s western border, says lawyer Kamran Arif, speaking to IPS over the phone from Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province NWFP, where he is based.

"If Pakistan continues this policy, things will just continue as they are," Arif said. "Afghanistan, India and Pakistan - it’s all linked."

The United States includes itself in this loop, as special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke acknowledged during his recent visit to India.

"For the first time in 60 years, your country, Pakistan and the U.S. all face an enemy (the Taliban) that poses direct threats to our leaderships, our capitals and our people," Holbrooke told reporters in New Delhi after meeting with top-level Indian ministers.

Hilali and Arif were both among the high-profile 24-member delegation that recently visited India under the aegis of South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a non-government organization started, among others, by the prominent lawyer and HRCP Chairperson Asma Jahangir.

"Everyone we talked to agreed that war is not an option," said Arif. "But there was great anger among ordinary people who saw continuous coverage of the Mumbai attacks on numerous television channels for three days straight. There was also anger about how the Pakistan government and some journalists handled matters."

Arif noted two positive aspects. One was that in the state elections just after the Mumbai attacks, people did not vote for the right-wing parties which tried to whip up war hysteria.

Secondly, public anger was not directed against India’s sizeable Muslim minority (150 million) as has happened in previous cases of tension between India and Pakistan.

Pakistan and India have also maintained diplomatic ties - although the composite dialogue process remains on hold - despite pressure from the hawks.

Still, either due to disorganisation or reluctance to give Pakistan a face other than the stereotypes popularized in the media, the Indian media largely ignored the delegation, according to Jawed Naqvi, a senior Indian journalist who works as New Delhi-correspondent for the Pakistani daily Dawn.

Naqvi criticised the Indian media for its self-absorbed, blinkered view of Pakistan, "happy to show repeated looped shots of a mullah on a Pakistani channel ranting that India be destroyed, if necessary with nuclear weapons" (‘Peace activists are great folks, so why are we still in trouble?’, Dawn, Jan. 26, 2009).

The security establishments of both India and Pakistan rely on stereotypes about each other, reinforced through the school curricula, popular media and entertainment industries of both countries, to build up an image of ‘the enemy’ populated by ‘the other’ to buttress nationalism.

Peace activists in both countries reject these stereotypes at the risk of being labeled ‘traitors’ and ‘anti-national agents’.

Hilali told IPS that an Indian delegation is due to arrive in the near future in a bid to continue the "people to people links between the two countries, which is so important".

Only two Indians attended the recently concluded Kara Film Festival in Karachi, the prominent director Mahesh Bhatt and the actor Nandita Das whose directorial debut ‘Firaaq’ (Separation) made its Pakistan premiere at the international festival.

Das, the only Indian on the flight to Karachi she took, told the audience that people were surprised she was making the trip. "It is when times are difficult that there is more of a need to speak out," she said.

POLITICS: 'New US President Must Review Pakistan Policy'

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"Continuing drone attacks on our territory, which result in loss of precious lives and property, are counterproductive and difficult to explain [for] a democratically elected government. It is creating a credibility gap," Zardari told Gen. Petraeus, according to a statement issued by the President's office.

Pakistan army chief Ashfaq Kayani and Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar also reportedly raised similar objections in their meetings with Gen. Petraeus.

The ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government came to power after general elections on Feb. 18, 2008, following almost a decade of military rule during which Washington dealt exclusively with the man at the helm of affairs, former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

Eighty percent of the 10.8 billion US dollars that Washington sent to Pakistan since Sep. 11, 2001 went unconditionally to the military. But militancy, instead of decreasing, has increased, with Taliban elements taking refuge on the Pakistan side of the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Lack of development and economic opportunities pushed local youth into the Taliban’s arms, says Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Ali, currently a World Fellow at Yale University.

Ali points to "economic desperation and a failure of both Pakistan’s government and the international community to provide viable alternatives" as major factors in the rise of militancy (‘Foreign Policy Challenges for the New US President’, Yale Global Online, Oct 31, 2008).

He also notes that the new civilian, PPP dispensation provides an opportunity to negotiate with the tribesmen to bring them into mainstream Pakistan. "That would allow judicial systems and political parties to function in the region, making it easier to build schools and offer jobs to compete with madrassahs (Islamic religious schools) and militias. Aside from providing alternative to the indoctrination, trade and interface with the rest of the world breaks the Taliban’s monopoly on ideas."

Instead, US airstrikes in the area since August have further alienated the local people.

The latest spate of attacks has claimed over 40 lives. On Oct. 29, the Pakistan government formally protested to the US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, over an air strike on Oct. 26 that killed 15 people.

Two days later, as Gen. Petraeus assumed command as head of Centcom (Central Command) which covers the Middle East and Central Asia on Oct. 31, air strikes inside Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) killed at least 27 people.

The past two months have seen some 20 airstrikes and a ground incursion. Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani has denounced these operations as "acts of terrorism", but they have continued despite US officials’ assurances to the contrary.

"An Obama victory will not necessarily be to Pakistan’s advantage," columnist and member of the National Assembly, Ayaz Amir, told IPS. "The US appears to be shifting focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. If that happens, we will come under more pressure. And these airstrikes will only weaken the government and undermine its stand against terrorism." US strikes in Pakistan - and Syria, where seven civilians were killed during an Oct. 26 attack by US special forces - also blatantly flout international law, say analysts.

However, US officials "apparently have weighed the negative consequences of illegal military operations against their perceived benefits and opted in favor of the latter," commented Marcia Mitchell in the web publication Truthout (‘Who Watches While the US Invades - Again’, on Nov. 1) Such strikes appear likely to continue, going by media reports of the Bush administration’s carte blanche since July to the US military to unilaterally order attacks into alleged ‘terrorist havens’ without Presidential approval - or even knowledge.

However, Petraeus reportedly requires the approval of at least the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to attack targets inside Iran, presumably because Iran can strike back in the Western hemisphere.

"If this is correct, the Bush directive has far-reaching implications. It means that Petraeus has the power to order unprovoked acts of war against nations throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, without even the knowledge of the incoming president, let alone a debate and vote in the US Congress," commented James Cogan in the World Socialialist Web Site (‘US carries out more airstrikes in Pakistan’, Nov. 3, 2008).

The attacks on Pakistan contrast with Washington’s pursuance of a "new strategy" in Afghanistan, as evidenced by Washington’s consultations with Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation, who recently published a report analysing 648 terrorist groups between 1968 and 2006.

The report concludes that most terrorist groups ended not through military force but by joining the political process (Seth Jones and Martin C. Libicki, ‘How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa'ida’, Rand Corp, 2008). Such a political compromise was most dramatically seen in the South Asian region recently when the Maoists in Nepal laid down their weapons and contested elections. Nepal is still on a rocky road, but surely it is better than the earlier civil war, say observers.

Pentagon and White House officials have acknowledged over the past month that the ‘war on terror’ cannot be won by military means alone.

US commander in Afghanistan Gen. David McKiernan endorsed Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s overtures towards the Taliban, after Karzai revealed on Sep. 30 that he had been asking Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to intercede with the Taliban to begin dialogue.

Talking to journalists the following day, McKiernan said that starting such negotiations is a "political decision that will ultimately be made by the political leadership. Ultimately, the solution in Afghanistan is going to be a political solution, not a military one’’.

A few days later, his British counterpart in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, was reported saying: "If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this" (Christina Lamb, ‘War on Taliban cannot be won, says army chief’, The Sunday Times, London, Oct. 5).

The following day, UN special envoy to Afghanistan Kai Eide told a news conference in Kabul, "We all know that we cannot win it militarily. It has to be won through political means. That means political engagement... If you want to have relevant results, you must speak to those who are relevant. If you want to have results that matter, you must speak to those who matter".

The ground was thus well-prepared for US defence secretary Robert Gates’ statement on Oct. 9, commenting that the US would be prepared to pursue reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan - the first such public declaration from Washington.

But this talk about dialogue and reconciliation in Afghanistan has not been extended to neighbouring Pakistan, where unmanned and armed US spy planes have been striking with alarming regularity over the past few months, killing and maiming dozens and forcing thousands of villagers to flee their homes.

Such deaths and displacement will only strengthen militancy in the area, by fuelling the tribal code of revenge, warn analysts.

This, combined with the region’s lack of development and economic desperation, makes it imperative for the incoming US President to re-evaluate the situation - and Washington’s policy on Pakistan.

PAKISTAN: Time Running Out to Restore Stability - U.S. Report

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The 27-page report, "Needed: A Comprehensive U.S. Policy Towards Pakistan," called for at least four to five billion dollars in new aid for Islamabad of which one billion dollars should be earmarked for the military and the police, to help ward off the growing threat posed to the central government by Islamic militants based in the frontier regions with Afghanistan and linked to al-Qaeda.

"Simply put, time is running out for stabilising Pakistan's economy and security," the task force warned. "We cannot stress the magnitude of the dangerous enough nor the need for greater action now," it stressed, adding that failure to provide needed assistance could well result in "state failure."

"If we fail, we face a truly frightening prospect: terrorist sanctuary, economic meltdown, and spiraling radicalism, all in a nation with 170 million inhabitants and a full arsenal of nuclear weapons," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry at a Capitol Hill briefing on Wednesday, at which the report was released.

"The stakes could not be higher, and (this) report could not be more timely,''Kerry said.

Kerry, who served as the working group's honorary co-chair along with former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, used the report to push for swift Congressional passage of a bill that would authorise 7.5 billion dollars in non-military aid for Pakistan over the next five years.

Co-sponsored with the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, the bill enjoys strong backing from President Barack Obama, as well as Vice President Joseph Biden, who introduced a similar bill in the Senate last year.

The new report comes amid a comprehensive review by the administration over future U.S. policy towards both Afghanistan and Pakistan - or what is increasingly referred to as "AfPak" - headed by former senior CIA South Asia analyst Bruce Riedel.

The recommendations produced by that review, which is supposed to be completed within 60 days, are to be implemented by former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who was appointed by Obama to serve as a special representative for "AfPak" just three days after the new president took office.

Holbrooke traveled to the region one week later, highlighting how serious the administration considers the situation in South-west Asia to be.

Indeed, the administration is hosting a meeting this week of top Pakistani and Afghan officials, including Pakistan's powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, in order both to gain their input for the review.

The meeting is also aimed at encouraging the two governments to work much more closely together, and with Washington, in combating the growing Taliban insurgency on both sides of their common border.

That meeting follows last week's announcement by Obama that he will send 17,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan in the coming months to join the NATO-led force of some 65,000 already deployed there in hopes of beating back recent gains by the Taliban.

But Holbrooke himself has warned that "there is no way that the international effort in Afghanistan can succeed unless Pakistan can get its western tribal areas under control’’.

Since Holbrooke made that statement, militants linked to the Taliban and al-Qaeda appear to have consolidated their control of the Swat valley in the North-West Frontier Province in what most analysts here consider a major setback to Pakistan's counter-insurgency struggle.

The new report about the situation in Pakistan, and the measures needed to redress it, is likely to gain considerable attention here, if only because it was a similar Atlantic Council working group chaired by retired general James Jones that warned one year ago that Washington and NATO were losing the war in Afghanistan.

Jones currently serves as Obama's national security adviser.

The new report, however, focuses less on the military situation in Pakistan than on the non-military challenges faced by the democratically elected civilian government headed by President Asif Ali Zardari.

It argues that Islamabad, which has been hit especially hard by the global financial crisis, needs considerably more assistance than what would be provided under by the Kerry-Lugar bill.

In addition to the 1.5 billion dollars a year offered by the bill, Pakistan requires another five billion dollars a year "to cover critical budget shortfalls," according to the working group which included, among others, two former assistant secretaries of state for South Asian Affairs.

One of these is Karl Inderfurth, who served under former president Bill Clinton and is rumoured to be nominated as the next U.S. ambassador to India.

Under a loan approved by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) late last year, Islamabad could receive as much as 7.6 billion dollars over three years.

The administration of former president George W. Bush provided more than ten billion dollars in U.S. aid to Pakistan over its eight-year term, but almost all of it was devoted to military assistance, and most of that was used for the purchase of weapons systems and equipment better suited to war with India than to counter-insurgency.

In addition to the proposed non-military aid, the U.S. should provide another one billion dollars "to better equip the Pakistan Army for counterinsurgency" and another 200 million dollars to recruit, train and equip 15,000 more police and paramilitary forces.

A major aim should be "the elimination of al-Qaeda bases and operations in Pakistan's border region," the report said.

"Despite its current economic hardships, the United States has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into Iraq and many billions into Afghanistan in the past," according to the report. "However, it has had been relatively miserly in its assistance for Pakistan where the stakes are far larger and more important to long-term American interests."

The report also called on Washington to "reinforce Pakistan's efforts to strengthen democracy" and democratic institutions, among other things by supporting efforts to update its census in ways that will ensure more equitable distribution of federal resources.

It also stressed that U.S. policy toward Pakistan must be considered in a much larger regional context and called for Holbrooke to consider convening a regional conference.

Such a conference would include India, Turkey, China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, and the European Union to discuss "how stability and peace can be achieved; how terror can be contained; and how states in the region can cooperate with each other more effectively."

It described the situation as so critical that action must be taken in "months, not years."

(*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.)

POLITICS-PAKISTAN: Long March - A Long View

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KARACHI, Mar 12 (IPS) - Barely a year after being elected, the Pakistan government faces a political storm involving a street agitation spearheaded by lawyers and opposition political parties allied with religious parties.

Lurking on the sidelines is an army unused to civilian command even as religious militants create havoc around the country.

None of this is new to Pakistan but many find it all the more painful given the hopes built up by last year’s general elections. On Feb 18, 2008, Pakistani voters overwhelmingly supported non-religious parties and rejected those that had been propped up by the army.

The electorate’s rejection of the religious parties and the joining hands of the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and her former rival Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) raised expectations of an end to political confrontation and religion-based politics - and the army moving away from politics.

These expectations followed decades of misrule and exploitation of religion for political purposes. The Pakistani establishment, at Washington’s behest, strengthened armed militancy, exploiting religious sentiments to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan during the 1980s. In the process they created ‘Jihad International’, as the late scholar Dr Eqbal Ahmad termed it.

This may now be the biggest threat facing Pakistan - and the world - since the attack on the World Trade Center on Sep. 11 2001. Since then Washington has pushed Islamabad to fight the very forces of militant Islam that both together had fostered and strengthened.

Resultantly, this country has, as Pakistanis point out, suffered the most from militant attacks.

In this situation, political instability is distracting at best and dangerous at worst. The ‘long march’ demanding the reinstatement of chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Choudhry, spearheaded by the legal fraternity and sections of civil society, has ready allies among the right-wing political opposition.

This includes Sharif’s PML-N and the Jamaat-e-Islami, a mainstream religious party sympathetic to militant Islam, as well as others sympathetic to the Taliban, like ex-chief Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and anti-India hawk Gen. (retd.) Hamid Gul, retired bureaucrat Roedad Khan who brutally quashed political opposition during the Zia years, and cricket hero-turned politician Imran Khan, chief of the Tehrik-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice).

All these forces boycotted the 2008 polls, except Sharif who rescinded his boycott decision after Bhutto convinced him that elections were the only way forward.

Long-festering tensions between the PPP and PML-N came to a head with a Supreme Court ruling of Feb 25 barring Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif from holding elected office. Bhutto’s widower, President Asif Ali Zardari is widely believed to be behind this controversial ruling.

The disgruntled Sharifs, already pushing for the reinstatement of Choudhry, have flung themselves wholeheartedly into the long march - a move that observers do not see as entirely altruistic since their stated aims include effecting regime change.

"Sharif's attempts to paint himself as a radical, grassroots activist are at odds with his political origins," commented former lawyer and Australia-based analyst Mustafa Qadri, writing about the opportunity Pakistan's politicians of all hues have wasted in their "refusal to look beyond personal power games and provincialism to develop the nation's still embryonic democracy".

The Sharifs gained prominence as businessmen patronised by Gen. Zia -ul-Haq who was behind Pakistan’s "transformation from majority-Muslim nation to Islamic state with more conservative religious seminaries per capita than any other country in the world," as Qadri put it (‘Long march to nowhere’, The Guardian, Mar 10, 2009).

The current imbroglio comes on the heels of loaded statements by Gen.(retd) Pervez Musharraf who during a visit to India last week, gave several talks and interviews in which he hinted at a possible political comeback.

Curiously Musharraf, who stepped down as president in August 2008, urged New Delhi to stop ‘bashing’ the Pakistan army and the shadowy ISI since, according to him, they were the best defence against the growth of the Taliban and militancy in Pakistan.

President Zardari has invited comparisons to Musharraf because of his government’s use of police force and mass arrests to prevent the long march, as Musharraf did after suspending Choudhry in March 2007 and imposing Emergency rule in Nov 2007.

The irony is illustrated by the recent three-hour detention of the firebrand women’s rights and political activist, Tahira Abdullah, who has been mobilising the lawyers’ movement from her home in Islamabad.

She faced police batons and tear gas in the Zia and Musharraf eras. A day before the long march began, a police contingent arrived at her house and virtually broke down her kitchen door.

However, her arrest attracted media attention, embarrassing the government into quickly ordering her release. An undeterred Abdullah immediately resumed mobilising for the agitation.

"It is sad and ironic that the PPP government has come to this," she told IPS. "They said it was preventive detention. They can’t catch people like (Taliban leaders) Baitullah Mehsud and Maulvi Fazlullah but they send police after me, a very ordinary person."

There is also irony in progressive, secular activists like Abdullah joining hands with the emerging right-wing coalition to achieve a shared goal, the restoration of Choudhry.

Civil society activists privately admit that otherwise their numbers are too small to reach the critical mass needed to effect political change.

"There are only a handful of us," one of them told IPS. "And there are no more than 100,000 lawyers in the country. So we have to join hands with political forces who agree with us on this matter even if we don’t agree on other matters. We know they are using us, but we are also using them."

Observers like the political economist and former student activist S.M. Naseem fear that this kind of mutual ‘using’ could push Pakistan further towards right-wing forces.

Disappointed by the performance of the government as well as the opposition, he holds that the lawyers’ movement has missed the opportunity of creating a new polity in the country. "They should have broadened the agenda to create a new political system," he told IPS. "Two years for the restoration of one person (Choudhry), however, honest and bold, is a bit too much."

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani has said that he cannot, in all conscience, oppose the long march. "We have also participated in street agitations and long marches," he said. "How can we stop anyone else from exercising their democratic right to do so?"

This stand appears to pit him against President Zardari, holding an office strengthened by past military dictators. The President’s powers include being able to dismiss the prime minister and dissolve government - as several presidents before him have done. This is unlikely to happen now. For Zardari to take such a step would mean dismissing his own government.

Having recently obtained a majority in the Senate, the PPP can conceivably push through the constitutional amendments it proposed in May 2008 for which a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly and the Senate is required. These amendments include the removal of the 17th amendment that allows the President to dismiss government.

Moves towards reconciliation between the PPP and the PML-N continue behind the scenes, even as the long march kicks off with lawyers and political activists from various cities heading towards Islamabad to converge by Mar. 16 for a dharna (or sit-in) ‘until the Chief Justice is restored’.

Observers fear a breakout of violence even though the long march leaders have promised to keep matters peaceful.

http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=46083

 
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