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Friday, January 27, 2012

Russia not to back any U.N. resolution calling for Syria’s Assad’s resignation

Russia said Friday it would not support any draft U.N. Security Council resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation, warning that an early vote on a new Western-backed text was doomed to failure.

“We cannot support any U.N. resolution calling for the support of Assad’s resignation,” Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told Interfax, adding that a quick vote on the Western-Arab draft was “destined for failure”.

Earlier in the day, Russia said that a Western-Arab draft U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria is unacceptable as United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon urged the Security Council to speak with one voice.

A senior Russian diplomat was quoted by the Itar-Tass news agency as saying that draft resolution did not take Moscow’s position into account.

Gatilov’s remarks were the latest sign that Russia will push hard for changes in the draft, which supports the Arab League’s call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to transfer his powers to his deputy.

The U.N. draft, which was expected to be distributed to the Security Council later on Friday, contains “no fundamental consideration for our position” and is missing “key aspects that are fundamental to us,” Itar-Tass quoted Gatilov as saying.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged the U.N. Security Council to speak with one voice on Syria, and called on Damascus to listen to the aspirations of its people.

“I hope that the Security Council will be able to act,” said Ban, referring to a meeting later Friday at the United Nations on the crisis in Syria, where President -Assad’s regime is cracking down on a popular uprising.

The 15-nation Security Council has been unable to agree on a resolution on Syria’s repression of the anti-government protests that erupted last March.

Russia and China used their veto powers as permanent members of the council to block a European resolution in October.

Russia has since proposed its own resolution, but Western countries have said it is unbalanced.

Friday’s meeting will examine a new resolution condemning the crackdown.

Ban, who was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, urged the council to act.

“We have to seize this moment, we have to help these people. They have been oppressed for so long.

“Now they have come out, women and young people, they are yearning for these aspirations. That’s why I have been urging leaders to listen very sincerely and carefully to their aspirations,” he added.

“I’m going to continue to do that. I’m encouraging that when it comes to the Syrian situation.”

The Arab League has called on Assad to hand over powers to a deputy so that elections can be held in Syria, where the United Nations says more than 5,400 people have been killed since the protests erupted.


China blasts EU sanctions on Iran; Tehran aims to ban oil sales to Europe

China said Thursday EU sanctions on Iran announced earlier this week in response to Tehran’s suspected nuclear drive were “not constructive,” state media reported.

“To blindly pressure and impose sanctions on Iran are not constructive approaches,” the foreign ministry was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency, in response to a question on the EU measures announced Monday.

China ̶ a key ally of Iran and its top trading partner ̶ has consistently opposed the use of sanctions, and advocates resolving disputes through “dialogue and consultation” instead.

Beijing’s economic ties with Tehran have expanded in recent years, partly thanks to the withdrawal of Western companies in line with sanctions against the Islamic republic over its nuclear drive.

The Asian powerhouse also depends a lot on Iranian oil, and has strengthened its presence in the country’s oil and gas sector by signing a series of contracts worth up to $40 billion in the past few years.

Beijing’s reaction to the crippling EU sanctions ̶ which involve an immediate ban on oil imports and a gradual phase-out of existing contracts between now and July 1 ̶ come after Russia said they were counterproductive.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, a prominent lawmaker said that Iran’s parliament will begin debating a draft bill requiring the government to immediately halt oil exports to Europe, as Tehran weighs its options following the European Union’s decision to stop importing oil from the country.

The EU embargo, announced on Monday, was the latest attempt to try to pressure Iran over a nuclear program the United States and its allies argue is aimed at developing nuclear weapons but which Iran says is for purely peaceful purposes. It came just weeks after the U.S. approved, but has yet to enact, new sanctions targeting Iran’s Central Bank and, by extension, its ability to sell its oil.

Calls to ban oil exports

Many Iranian lawmakers and officials have called for an immediate ban on oil exports to the European bloc before its ban fully goes into effect in July, arguing that the 27 EU nations account for only about 18 percent of Iran’s overall oil sales and would be hurt more by the decision than Iran. China, a key buyer of Iranian crude, has blasted the embargo.

“The bill requires the government to stop selling oil to Europe before the start of European Union oil embargo against Iran,” lawmaker Hasan Ghafourifard told the parliament’s website, Debate on the bill is to begin on Sunday, he said.

The U.S. sanctions had outraged Iranian officials, prompting repeated threats from various officials that the country could shutter the vital Strait of Hormuz if measures are enacted that affect its oil exports. Roughly a fifth of the world oil passes through the narrow waterway, and the U.S. and others have warned Iran they will not allow it to impede the free flow of traffic in the area.

Iran is OPEC’s fourth largest producer and most of its crude goes to Europe and Asia.

Iranian officials have said the sanctions will have no effect on the economy and they will find other willing buyers. Analysts and diplomats also have played down the likelihood that Iran will actually move to close the strait - a step that could bring it into direct conflict with U.S. and other Western naval and ground forces stationed in and around the Persian Gulf.

“The door to dialogue remains open for Iran,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin Wednesday. “But it also is clear that we in the world cannot accept Iran’s government reaching for nuclear weapons. So the sanctions are necessary.”

“If they are applied comprehensively and supported by as many as possible in the world, that makes the probability of success all the greater,” Westerwelle said after meeting his Australian counterpart, Kevin Rudd.

Rial under pressure

The sanctions debate comes at a time when the country’s economy and currency are under increasing pressure following a series of other economic sanctions that already have been imposed.

The rial has shed about 50 percent of its value relative to the dollar over the past month, a decline that the central bank governor, in a moment of rare candor, attributed at least partially to the “psychological effects” of the U.S. sanctions. The currency, which was trading at 15,000 rials to the dollar on the black market at the start of the year, hit a record low of 22,000 rials to the U.S. currency by the weekend.

After weeks of criticism over his inaction, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad approved a decision by monetary authorities that would raise the interest rates on bank deposits to roughly 21 percent, the official IRNA news agency reported, quoting Economic Minister Shamseddin Hosseini.

The move was a reversal of his earlier opposition to the decision by Iran’s Money and Credit Council that would have boosted the interest rates to a level above the inflation rate. Economists said such a step was crucial to absorbing market liquidity and buoying the rial.

Banks would be instructed to enact the new rates starting Thursday, Hosseini said.

The market reacted to the announcement immediately, with the rial trading at 19,000 rials to the dollar within hours of Hosseini’s remarks.

Analysts say that the main reason behind the currency’s depreciation was a decision to lower interest rates on one-year deposits to 14 percent from 17.5 percent. The rate cut prompted Iranians to pull their money out of banks and buy gold and foreign currency, instead.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Obama pledges economic revival for all

U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday used his annual State of the Union policy address to denounce America’s economic inequality, drawing a battle line with Republicans ahead of what is expected to be a tough fight for re-election.

The speech before a joint session of Congress, one of America’s grandest political events, put Mr. Obama back in the spotlight after months of being overshadowed by the fierce race among Republicans vying to be his opponent in the November election. Tens of millions of people were expected to watch the speech on television.

Mr. Obama said the state of the union “is getting stronger.” But with the weak economic recovery threatening his re-election prospects, Mr. Obama pledged a revival, but one that will work for everyone and not just the rich.

Restoring a fair shot for all, is “the defining issue of our time,” Mr. Obama said.

“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules,” he said.

Even before he spoke, Republicans denounced the speech as “pro-poverty” and his tactics as divisive.

“No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favour with some Americans by castigating others,” said Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who presented the formal Republican response. Excerpts were released in advance.

Views on economy

The remarks by both sides reflect the unmistakably different views of the economy and the role of government that will likely define the election.

Republican front-runners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich blame Mr. Obama for what they see as reckless spending, high taxes and out-of-control government regulations that hurt businesses, prevent hiring and stifle growth.

Mr. Obama casts government as a force that can help people get a shot at a better life. He has accused Republicans of defending the interests of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

His timing could not have been better for a message about income inequality. Earlier Tuesday, Mr. Romney released his tax returns under political pressure, revealing that he earned nearly $22 million in 2010 and paid an effective tax rate of about 14 per cent. That is a lesser rate than many Americans pay because of how investment income is taxed in the United States.

In his speech, Mr. Obama proposed making millionaires pay more in taxes. He also proposed more relief for homeowners and a crackdown on sending U.S. jobs overseas.

Mr. Obama faces considerable challenges three years into his term. Polling shows Americans are divided about Mr. Obama’s overall job performance but unsatisfied with his handling of the economy.

The economy is improving, but unemployment still stands at the high rate of 8.5 per cent. Government debt stands at $15.2 trillion, a record, and up from $10.6 trillion when he took office.

Given Obama’s poor relations with congressional Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, it is unlikely that he will get any major initiatives approved this year. Mr. Obama has tried to take the offensive with a slew of executive actions that didn’t require congressional votes.

Last year was marked by partisan breakdowns in Washington. The government neared both a shutdown and, even worse, a default on its obligations for the first time in history.

A rare wave of unity splashed over the House chamber shortly before the speech. Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, survivor of an assassination attempt in her Arizona district one year ago, received sustained applause from her peers and hugs from many. Mr. Obama, too, warmly embraced her as he made his way to the front of the chamber.


Libyan leader warns of possible ‘civil war’ if NTC quits as protests rage in Benghazi

Libyan leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil said on Sunday the nation would fall into a “civil war” if the ruling National Transitional Council resigned, as it faced its first major challenge with protests raging in Benghazi.

Angry protests in the eastern city of Benghazi -- the city which first rebelled against Muammar Qaddafi last year -- have dealt a severe blow to the NTC’s functioning. It led its deputy head Abdel Hafiz Ghoga to resign on Sunday, three days after furious students had manhandled him.

“We are not going to resign because it would lead to civil war,” NTC head Abdul Jalil said in an interview on the Libya al-Hurra television station late Sunday.

Abdul Jalil said some “hidden hands” were “pushing the demonstrators.”

“Who is pushing these sit-ins prompting protesters to invade the headquarters of the council with such savagery?” the new Libya’s leader said, referring to the attack on NTC offices in Benghazi Saturday, according to AFP.

Crowds of protesters threw several home-made grenades at and stormed the NTC offices with iron rods and stones before setting the building’s front ablaze, witnesses and council members said.

They even threw plastic bottles at Abdul Jalil, who is respected across Libya for his active role in the anti-Qaddafi rebellion. He had to be escorted out of the premises.

Benghazi protesters rampaged through the NTC’s offices, denouncing what they said is a “non-transparent” body. The protesters also accused the NTC of having marginalized some wounded veterans of the uprising that toppled Qaddafi in favor of people who were previously loyal to the slain dictator.

Defending the NTC and its work, Abdul Jalil paid tribute to Ghoga, despite the fury of the protesters.

“We must praise the role played by Abdel Hafiz Ghoga. He chose his country before himself,” Abdul Jalil said. His onetime deputy had supported the anti-Qaddafi revolution when others “were in Egypt or hidden elsewhere.”

Ghoga stepped down Sunday after about 4,000 students protested against him in Benghazi’s University of Ghar Yunis where he was manhandled on Thursday and had to flee from the campus to escape the angry mob.

Ghoga, who served as official spokesman for the NTC, had come under increasing opposition from Benghazi residents who accuse him of opportunism because of what they said was his belated defection from the Qaddafi regime.

“My resignation shows that the NTC is a tribune for fighting for a cause and not a governing body,” Ghoga told AFP.

“We are not looking for posts,” he said, adding that his decision was in the “best interests of Libya.”

He said “since the end of the war of liberation an air of hatred had begun to dominate which does not serve national interest.”

“To prove that we are with the interest (of Libya) and that we are a movement of struggle, we decided to give way to other patriots... the important thing is to preserve the NTC... we do not want our country sliding into chaos.”

The NTC had staunchly backed Ghoga after the Ghar Yunis incident, saying an attack on him represented “an attack on the sovereignty of the Libyan people and its glorious revolution.”

Protesters say the NTC has failed to live up to the aspirations of the revolt against Gaddafi, the most violent of the “Arab Spring” uprisings.

“We hoped for security, peace and transparency. We have seen the opposite,” said Miftah al-Rabia, 28, who was standing outside the NTC’s Benghazi headquarters on Sunday with a group of protesters, according to Reuters.

The violent protests against the NTC and Ghoga in particular even forced the council to meet at an undisclosed location on Sunday to discuss the nation’s new electoral law.

NTC member Abdul Razzak al-Arabi told AFP that the meeting had postponed the adoption of the law to Jan. 28. It was expected to scrap an article reserving 10 percent of the seats of the proposed 200-member constituent assembly for women, he added.

Several women’s bodies and rights groups had criticized the article, saying it does not go far enough in giving women a say in post-Qaddafi politics.

Arabi said the NTC had set up an election commission comprising 17 members, including lawyers, judges and human rights activists, to oversee future polls.

Abdul Jalil, meanwhile, said despite the protests he was “optimistic” about the future of Libya.

“Libya will see prosperity as she has not seen before. But we need help and support” from the people, he said.

The protests add to the list of challenges facing the NTC.

It is struggling to bring to heel dozens of armed militias who have carved the country into rival fiefdoms and are so far refusing to join a newly created national army.

Foreign states are worried about the NTC’s capacity to secure its borders against arms traffickers, al-Qaeda insurgents and migrants trying to reach Europe illegally.

The NTC was formed in the early days of the revolt against Qaddafi from a hastily-assembled group of lawyers, government officials who defected, Muslim clerics, tribal leaders and civil society activists.

At the time, Qaddafi’s troops were using automatic weapons to fire on protests in Benghazi and elsewhere, and there was little time to vet the members.

But nearly six months on from the moment the rebellion took control of the capital Tripoli, Libyans are started to question the counci’s legitimacy.

In particular, some people have cast doubt over the loyalties of former Qaddafi lieutenants who are now in the NTC. These include Abdul Jalil himself, who was justice minister under Qaddafi before defecting early in the uprising.

The council says it will dissolve itself once elections are held for a transitional national assembly. That vote is scheduled to take place in about six months.

“We still don't know who exactly is in the NTC. There is no transparency,” said Al-Rabia, a protester standing outside the building with a group of about 30 other men.

Another protester, 24-year-old Mohammed Mahmoud, said he fought against Qaddafi during the revolt and wounded his shoulder and hand.

“We fought on the front line and received injuries but we did not see the NTC with us,” he said. “I have one single question: Why has the NTC failed at everything except selling oil? We want to correct the path of the revolution.”