Cruise missile strikes Gadhafi compound

Burma tries to strangle Skype

Internet voice calls are a precious lifeline in Burma. Naturally, the government wants to ban it.

Patrick Winn | If you think U.S. cell phone bills are extortionate, consider this: until recently, acquiring a mobile phone number in Burma meant forking over nearly $1,700 to a state-run telecom.

That's just for the SIM card, the chip inside your phone that stores your number. It's an absurd charge in a country with a $1,100 per capita GDP, one of the world's lowest.

This picture taken on August 23, 2010 shows a Myanmar (Burmese) man chatting online at an Internet cafe in Yangon. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
That would be like requiring someone in the U.S., where per capita GDP is $47,400, to spend more than $72,000 on a mobile phone number. (Now, for added effect, count how many cell phones you've lost.)

It's little wonder that Burmese fortunate enough to live near Internet cafes have discovered Skype and software like it such as Google Chat and Pfingo. Depending where you call, chatting through the Internet is somewhere between free (computer-to-computer) to about 25 cents a minute.

This is revolutionary in Burma, where a bleak economy and oppressive military have forced millions to live abroad. Though Burma's Internet infrastructure is pathetic, and its connection speeds sluggish, the Web is a crucial conduit linking Burmese on the inside to their friends and loved ones abroad. Even pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi uses Skype.

But Burma's military-controlled government wants to forbid Internet voice calls, according to this excellent report in Burma's exile media outlet, The Irrawaddy. At least one Web cafe owner inside Burma, reached by the Irrawaddy, says the ban will slash his revenue by up to 40 percent. Their report states that the junta has threatened cafes that offer Internet voice calls with "legal action" because it's "illegal under existing telecommunication laws."

Why does the junta want to snuff out service like Skype?

Money, for starters. These services deliver profit to foreign companies instead of the military government's telecom monopoly. Similar reasoning has triggered restrictions in countries from Belize to Oman.

Skype is also far more difficult to monitor than dedicated mobile numbers or land lines. That's a threat to the paranoid junta, which actively seeks out and crushes dissent.

According to the Irrawaddy, Burma's telecom agency has recently reduced the cost of a single SIM card to $560. Progress? Barely. In neighboring Thailand, competing telecoms recruit customers by handing out SIM cards for free. (I bought the SIM card and number I've used for years from a 7-11 for about $1.50.)

Hopefully the Skype ban won't stick in Burma's Internet cafes. Perhaps it will, snuffing out a smart, cheap and simple link between Burmese people and the outside world.

source by : globalpost.com

Myanmar's Suu Kyi says she won't vote in elections

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | YANGON, Myanmar — Detained Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has decided not to vote in upcoming elections, even though authorities have told her she is on the electoral roll, her lawyer said Tuesday.

Khin Maung Win / AP
A member of the Wun Tha Nu National League for Democracy party hands out pamphlets to a local resident on a street during the party's election campaign on Monday in Yangon, Myanmar. The general elections scheduled for Nov. 7 are the first in 20 years.
Suu Kyi's lawyer, Nyan Win, said she informed him that she does not intend to vote in the Nov. 7 general elections in which her now-disbanded party has decided not to participate.

The military government dissolved her National League for Democracy party because it declined to reregister for an election it considers unfair and undemocratic. Nyan Win told reporters her position after meeting her for 2 1/2 hours at her home Tuesday.

She has previously advised followers that they have the right not to vote. The state-controlled press has criticized that position.

Suu Kyi told her lawyers that authorities informed her Sept. 24 that her name is on the electoral list and that she will be able to cast a ballot. She said that violated an election law that prohibited convicted people from voting.

According to the law, convicted people include those serving prison terms imposed by a court and those who are undergoing an appeal process, Nyan Win said.

Suu Kyi was convicted in August 2009 of violating the terms of her previous detention by briefly sheltering an American man who swam uninvited to her lakeside home. She is currently serving an 18-month term of house arrest that will expire Nov. 13, six days after the elections.

Suu Kyi "said the decision to put her on the electoral roll is against the law and this is lawlessness. She has instructed us to tell authorities that the decision was against the law," Nyan Win said.

Suu Kyi's name was not on an initial voting list, but was added to a supplementary list posted a few days later. It is not clear why it was added.

The elections will be Myanmar's first since 1990, when Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory. The junta ignored the results and has kept Suu Kyi jailed or under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years.

Critics call the upcoming polls a sham designed to cement military rule. Myanmar has been under military control since 1962.

Despite criticism, Myanmar has rejected offers of help in carrying out the elections, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said Tuesday.

Abhisit said he offered his country's assistance during a visit to Myanmar on Monday. He met Prime Minister Thein Sein and junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe.

Abhisit told reporters in Bangkok he conveyed the international community's concerns. Myanmar's leaders replied they were "aware of the concerns, but did not want any outside help," he said.

Myanmar lays down tough rules for upcoming polls

MSNBC | YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar published Thursday stringent rules for November's general election that demand candidates seek permission a week in advance to campaign, do not make speeches that "tarnish" the ruling military or shout slogans at processions.

The disbanded party of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, dissolved for declining to register with the authorities, meanwhile officially declared its boycott of the upcoming polls.

The 13-point list of campaigning regulations decreed by the state Election Commission would guarantee a "free and fair" vote, according to the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper which published the rules a week after the Nov. 7 election date was set.

The vote will be the first in impoverished Myanmar in two decades. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, which won the last election in 1990 but was barred from taking power, say the junta unfairly imposed rules for this year's vote that restrict campaigning and bar the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and other political prisoners from participating.

The junta has billed the election is as the key transitional step from five decades of military rule to civilian government. Critics say a military-initiated constitution, along with repression of the opposition, ensures the army will continue to hold commanding influence even after the polls.

Many Western governments and human right groups agree that the process is unfair and seek changes to ensure free and fair polls, including the release of Suu Kyi — who has been detained for 15 of the past 21 years — and other prisoners.

According to the regulations, candidates must seek permission to campaign a week in advance from the local Election Commission, providing details such as place of assembly, date, time and duration. Holding flags and shouting slogans in processions is forbidden, as is making speeches or distributing publications that "tarnish the image" of the military and any "activities that can harm security."

Candidates found in violation of the regulations face a fine and a jail term of one year.

It was still unclear when the official campaign period begins. The Election Commission will finish its scrutiny of candidates by Sept. 10.

The NLD was officially disbanded earlier this year after it declined to register for the vote, though its leaders made clear they are keeping the organization together to continue its struggle for democracy. Party vice chairman Tin Oo on Thursday spelled out why the party was boycotting the election.

"We decided to officially boycott the election because we believe that the 2008 constitution and the electoral laws do not guarantee democracy and human rights in the country," said Tin Oo, contacted by phone after an emergency meeting of party leaders at his house.

"We have no interest in the election and we want to give a clear message to the voters that they have the right not to vote in the upcoming elections," he said.

There are no penalties for not voting.

Taken together, the NLD positions constitute a strong but apparently legal challenge to the legitimacy of the polls, especially in the absence of any unified opposition to the junta.

Separately, the New Light of Myanmar reported an ethnic Karen group allied to the government — the Democratic Karen Buddhist Association — agreed to transform its guerrilla fighters into the Border Guard Forces.

Integrating ethnic rebel groups into government-supervised border forces is a key part of the government's plans to pacify border areas, which are dominated by minority groups that have long striven for autonomy, sometimes though armed struggle.

The junta in the 1990s reached cease-fire agreements with many, but compromised by allowing them to keep their arms. Five of the groups have now agreed to integrate themselves into the national border force, but others, such as the Kachin Independence Army and the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army, are still resisting the transformation of their militias.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Burmese Army Captain Killed in Extortion Gunfight

By LAWI WENG | A Burmese army captain was killed on Saturday when a gunfight broke out between two factions of soldiers that were trying to extort money from Thai fishermen in waters near Kawthaung Township in southern Burma.

Fishing Vessels at port of Kawthaung.
(Source: www.thailandmagic.com)
The exchange of gunfire happened when two separate groups of Burmese soldiers from Light Infantry Battalion 267, based in Tavoy in Tenasserim Division, clashed while tackling Thai fishermen who were operating illegally in Burmese territorial waters.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Thursday, a Burmese fisherman in Kawthaung said that the captain was killed at 1 a.m. On Aug. 14 after an altercation between the two factions, which were from the same battalion. Apparently, the captain and his men attempted to prevent the other faction from extorting money from the fishermen who had been caught fishing illegally.

“They [the first faction] arrested the Thai fishermen and started demanding money,” the fisherman said. “They confiscated all manner of fishing equipment and threatened to detain the fishermen.”

“Then the other army faction arrived on the scene,” he said. “The captain and his soldiers ordered the other group to release the fishermen and their boat and equipment.” The first group refused and gunfire broke out, he said.

The source also said that the captain's group had previously extorted money from the fishermen and regularly patrolled the waters seeking to take bribes from Thai fishermen.

The source said that there are two or three groups of Burmese soldiers that routinely extort money from Thai fishing boats in the area. In general, he said, each fishing boat has to pay a bribe of 20,000 baht [US $633] and two tanks of gasoline every month if they are caught fishing in Burmese waters.

Many of the fishing boats can only afford to pay one faction of the Burmese army but not all, which means they can be arrested and harassed by the other factions at any time.

Kawthaung, located at Burma's far southern border, is one of the major border points where Burmese migrants cross over to Ranong to look for work in Thailand or to travel to Malaysia.

source by : Irrawaddy

UN set to appoint a war crimes commission against Myanmar

The Times Of India | WASHINGTON: The United Nations is to set up a Commission of Inquiry into war crimes by the Myanmar's military rulers, a move which is being strongly backed by the Obama administration.

The move to set up Commission of Inquiry is part of an effort to force the military junta to open its authoritarian political system and free thousands of political prisoners, The Washington Post reported.

Quoting top US officials, the paper said this indicated a toughening of stance against the military junta led by Senior General Than Shwe, who has been ruling Myanmar uninterrupted since 1992.

The Obama administration is also considering tightening financial sanctions against the regime, and these developments come just months before the November 7 general elections announced by the Myanmar government, which has been rejected by US and other western nations as flawed.

The paper said the 77-year-old dictator has been accused of leading brutal campaigns against ethnic insurgencies and Burmese dissidents, such as the 2007 crackdown on the "Saffron Revolution", during which scores of protesters, including Buddhist monks, were killed and thousands jailed.

Than Shwe's State Peace and Development Council also overturned election results in 1990 that favoured the political party of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest.

"What's important here is that this is not aimed at the people of Burma but at its leadership, particularly at Than Shwe," said a senior administration official.

The Obama administration entered office with a desire to shift course on Burma -- both as part of a strategy to improve relations with all the nations of Southeast Asia and as part of a belief that Burma, also known as Myanmar, should not be allowed to become a client state of China, the Post said.

The administration decided last fall to begin to engage with the Burmese regime. It dispatched high-ranking diplomats and held out the prospect of the resumption of some aid.

It opened discussions about Burma's upcoming elections in the hope that the regime would allow some measure of democracy.

Asia Pacific Food Situation Update - July 2010

RelifeWeb | Mekong region drought to affect 2010 Asian paddy harvest

Drought conditions in the greater Mekong region at the start of the planting season are expected to affect Asia's 2010 paddy harvest according to the latest FAO assessment which lowered earlier projections for the region by 6.1 million tonnes. Reductions are expected in Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand as well as in the Philippines and China. However, Asia's 2010 paddy production, projected at 637.3 million tonnes (425.2 million tonnes on milled basis), would be some 23 million tonnes over that in the preceding year, led by gains in India, following the 2009 severe drought there, along with Bangladesh and Indonesia, among other countries. The 2010 global paddy harvest is projected at a record 704.4 million tonnes (470 milion tonnes on milled basis), driven by a 3 percent increase in plantings.

Full_Report (pdf* format - 800.5 Kbytes)

Tensions easing near China-Myanmar border

BEIJING, China (CNN) | Some of the tens of thousands of refugees who fled to China to escape fighting in Myanmar are beginning to return home as tensions have eased, police said.

Refugees from Myanmar sit with their possessions at a camp in Zhenkang, in southwest China, on Sunday.
An estimated 37,000 people were displaced by the fighting, Meng Sutie, police chief in southern China's Yunnan Province, told China's state-run Xinhua news agency Sunday.

The exodus of residents along the border grew to a flood last week as Myanmar government troops battled ethnic minority groups and their armies in the country's northeast. The region has an estimated population of 150,000.

There were casualties on both sides of the border, according to Meng. Shells fired into Chinese territory killed one person and injured two others, while fighting in Myanmar killed a Chinese and wounded 13 more.

In a rare criticism of Myanmar's ruling military junta, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Friday that China hoped Myanmar could properly solve its domestic issues and safeguard the stability of its border with China, Xinhua reported.

China has been providing emergency shelter, food and medical care for the refugees.

Obama offers no firm signals on troop increases

Amid rising deaths in Afghanistan, president’s advisers are split on strategy

Afghan recruits take part in a training session.
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Tuesday ruled out shrinking the Afghanistan war to a counterterrorism campaign. Yet he did not signal whether he is prepared to send any more troops to the war zone — either the 40,000 his top commander wants or a smaller buildup, according to several officials.

House and Senate leaders of both parties emerged from a nearly 90-minute conversation with Obama with praise for his candor and interest in listening. But politically speaking, all sides appeared to exit where they entered, with Republicans pushing Obama to follow his military commanders and Democrats saying he should not be rushed.

Obama is examining how to proceed with a worsening war that has claimed nearly 800 U.S. lives and sapped American patience. Launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to defeat Taliban insurgents and rid al-Qaida terrorists of a home base, the war has lasted longer than ever envisioned — eight years on Wednesday.

Obama said the war would not be reduced to a narrowly defined counterterrorism effort, with the withdrawal of many U.S. forces and an emphasis on special operations forces that target terrorists in the dangerous border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Two senior administration officials aides say such a scenario has been inaccurately characterized and linked to Vice President Joe Biden, and that Obama wanted to make clear he is considering no such plan.

No hints on troops increases
The president did not show his hand on troop increases. His top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has bluntly warned that more troops are needed to right the war, perhaps up to 40,000 more. Obama has already added 21,000 troops this year, raising the total to 68,000.

Obama may be considering a more modest building of troops — closer to 10,000 than 40,000 — according to Republican and Democratic congressional aides. But White House aides said no such decision has been made.

The president insisted that he will make a decision on troops after settling on the strategy ahead. He told lawmakers he will be deliberate yet show urgency.

"We do recognize that he has a tough decision, and he wants ample time to make a good decision," said House Republican leader John Boehner. "Frankly, I support that, but we need to remember that every day that goes by, the troops that we do have there are in greater danger."

What's clear is that the mission in Afghanistan is not changing. Obama said his focus is to keep al-Qaida terrorists from having a base from which to launch attacks on the U.S or it allies. He heard from 18 lawmakers and said he would keep seeking such input even knowing his final decision would not please them all.

While several lawmakers described the exchanges as helpful and open, a different view emerged about just how much backing the president will get.

"The one thing that I think was interesting is that everyone, Democrats and Republicans, said, 'Whatever decision you make, we'll support it,' basically," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "So we'll see."

The Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said later: "I think Republicans will be able to make the decisions for themselves." But he added that Obama is likely to get significant Republican support if he follows the advice of his military commanders. Boehner agreed, saying "my colleagues on the House side will be there to support" Obama if he stays true to the mission of denying a haven for al-Qaida terrorists or Taliban militants who are fiercely fighting coalition forces.

Won't ‘double down’ in Afghanistan
Obama's emphasis on working off a strong strategy did not mean he shed much light on what it would be. He did, though, seek to "dispense with the more extreme options on either side of the debate," as one administration official put it. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the closed-door meeting.

The president made clear he would not "double down" in Afghanistan and build up U.S forces into the hundreds of thousands, just as he ruled out withdrawing forces and focusing on a narrow counterterrorism strategy.

"Half measures is what I worry about," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama's opponent in last year's election. He said Obama should follow the recommendations from those in uniform and dispatch thousands of more troops to the country — similar to what President George W. Bush did during the 2008 troop "surge" in Iraq. He also prodded Obama to act.

"It's pretty clear that time is not on our side," said McCain, one of the many lawmakers who met with the president.

Public support for the war in Afghanistan is dropping. It stands at 40 percent, down from 44 percent in July, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll. A total of 69 percent of self-described Republicans in the poll favor sending more troops, while 57 percent of self-described Democrats oppose it.

The White House said Obama won't base his decisions on the mood on Capitol Hill or eroding public support for the war.

"The president is going to make a decision — popular or unpopular — based on what he thinks is in the best interests of the country," press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.

Australia's Jetstar defends Myanmar flights

SYDNEY (AFP) – Australian budget airline Jetstar defended its flights into Myanmar on Monday after rights campaigners said the service was helping prop up the country's military regime.

AFP/File – A plane from Qantas airline budget carrier Jetstar at Sydney Airport. The Australian budget airline has …
Jetstar defended its four weekly flights from Singapore to Yangon as a "positive for the people of Myanmar" and denied making payments to officials in the Southeast Asian country.

Singapore-registered Jetstar Asia, a Jetstar affiliate, was one of eight companies named by Burma Campaign Australia -- which uses Myanmar's old name -- as directly or indirectly backing the junta to the tune of up to 2.8 billion US dollars in revenue.

"Jetstar believes the provision of viable air links for the people of Myanmar and the carrier's humanitarian contributions, including the assistance with flights for charitable organisations... have been a positive for the people of Myanmar," it said in a statement.

"While Jetstar Asia is obliged to meet normal aviation and airport charges in every country it operates in, it does not make payments to officials of the government of Myanmar, and has not," it added.

Zetty Brake, a spokeswoman for the Burma Campaign Australia, said every time the airline landed in the country it would be paying taxes which make their way back to the military regime.

Brake said most Myanmar residents would be unable to afford the flights.

"The people that are using these services from Burma are people with links to the regime," she told AFP.

Trade unions chief Sharan Burrow said all eight companies named by the campaign were contributing to the junta.

"The people there are subjected to the worst abuses of human rights and of course lack democracy," Burrow, president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), told reporters.

"We say to those companies, cancel your operations. It will have a real impact."

Iran successfully test fires short-range missiles

State TV reports test a day after short-range missile launch

Iran's Revolutionary Guards carry a missile test out during military manoeuvres at an undisclosed location.
msnbc | TEHRAN - Iran said it successfully test-fired short-range missiles during military drills Sunday by the elite Revolutionary Guard, a show of force days after the U.S. warned Tehran over a newly revealed underground nuclear facility it was secretly constructing.

Gen. Hossein Salami, head of the Revolutionary Guard Air Force, said Iran also tested a multiple missile launcher for the first time. The official English-language Press TV showed pictures of at least two missiles being fired simultaneously and said they were from Sunday's drill in a central Iran desert. In the clip, men could be heard shouting "Allahu Akbar" as the missiles were launched.

"We are going to respond to any military action in a crushing manner and it doesn't make any difference which country or regime has launched the aggression," state media quoted Salami as saying. He said the missiles successfully hit their targets.

The powerful Revolutionary Guard defends Iran's clerical rulers. It has its own ground, naval and air units and its air force controls the country's missile program.

The tests came two days after the U.S. and its allies disclosed that Iran had been secretly developing a previously unknown underground uranium enrichment facility and warned the country it must open the nuclear site to international inspection or face harsher international sanctions. The drill was planned before that disclosure.

The newly revealed nuclear site in the arid mountains near the holy city of Qom is believed to be inside a heavily guarded, underground facility belonging to the Revolutionary Guard, according to a document sent by President Barack Obama's administration to lawmakers.

After the strong condemnations from the U.S. and its allies, Iran said Saturday it will allow U.N. nuclear inspectors to examine the site.

Nuclear experts said the details that have emerged about the site and the fact it was being developed secretly are strong indications that Iran's nuclear program is not only for peaceful purposes, as the country has long maintained.

By U.S. estimates, Iran is one to five years away from having a nuclear weapons capability, although U.S. intelligence also believes that Iranian leaders have not yet made the decision to build a weapon.

Iran also is developing a longer-range ballistic missile that could carry a nuclear warhead, but the administration said last week that it believes that effort has been slowed. That assessment paved the way for Obama's decision to shelve the Bush administration's plan for a missile shield in Europe, which was aimed at defending against Iranian ballistic missiles.

Salami said Iran would test medium-range Shahab-1 and Shahab-2 missiles on Sunday night and a longer-range Shahab-3 missiles on Monday, during drills set to last several days.

Salami said Fateh, Tondar and Zelzal missiles were test fired on Sunday, but did not give specifics on range or other details. All are short-range, surface-to-surface missiles.

He told reporters Iran had reduced the missiles and their ranges and enhanced their speed and precision so they could be used in quick, short-range engagements. He also said they are now able to be launched from positions that are not as easy to hit.

He said the Revolutionary Guards' current missile tests and military drills are indications of Iran's resolve to defend its national values and part of a strategy of deterrence and containment of missile threats.

Salami claimed Iran has started "running into difficulties storing so many missiles" with its recent progress on its missile program.

Iran has had the solid-fuel Fateh missile, with a range of 120 miles, for several years. Fateh means conqueror in Farsi and Arabic. It also has the solid-fueled, Chinese-made CSS 8, also called the Tondar 69, according to the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a private group that seeks to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The Tondar, which means thunder, has a range of about 93 miles.

State media said the Revolutionary Guard tested a multiple launcher for the first time, designed for the Zelzal missile. Tehran has previously tested the Zelzal — versions of which have ranges of 130-185 miles — but only single launch.

In July 2006, Israeli military officials said their jets had destroyed a missile in Lebanon named Zelzal, which they said Hezbollah had received from Iran and could reach Tel Aviv. Zelzal means earthquake.

Iran's last known missile tests were in May when it fired its longest-range solid-fuel missile, Sajjil-2. Tehran said the two-stage surface-to-surface missile has a range of about 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) — capable of striking Israel, U.S. Mideast bases and southeastern Europe.

The revelation of Iran's secret site has given greater urgency to a key meeting on Thursday in Geneva between Iran and six major powers trying to stop its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The U.S. and its partners plan to tell Tehran at the meeting that it must provide "unfettered access" for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, within weeks.

The facility is Iran's second uranium-enrichment site working to produce the fuel to power a nuclear reactor, or potentially the material for a weapon.

A close aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Saturday the site will be operational soon and would pose a threat to those who oppose Iran.

"This new facility, God willing, will become operational soon and will blind the eyes of the enemies," Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani told the semiofficial Fars news agency.

Evidence of the clandestine facility was presented Friday by Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the G-20 economic summit in Pittsburgh. On Saturday, Obama offered Iran "a serious, meaningful dialogue" over its disputed nuclear program, while warning Tehran of grave consequences from a united global front.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Saturday the revelation was firm proof Iran was seeking nuclear weapons.

Israel considers Iran a strategic threat with its nuclear program, missile development and repeated calls by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for Israel's destruction. It has not ruled out a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear sites.

In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reaction and in 2007, Israel bombed a site in Syria that the U.S. said was a nearly finished nuclear reactor built with North Korean help that was configured to produce plutonium — one of the substances used in nuclear warheads.

Israel's Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment on the missile tests.

Iranian Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, who heads the country's nuclear program, said Saturday that U.N. nuclear inspectors could visit the nuclear site. On Sunday, he told Press TV Iran and the IAEA would work out the timing of the inspection.

The small-scale site is meant to house no more than 3,000 centrifuges — much less than the 8,000 machines at Natanz, Iran's known industrial-scale enrichment facility, but they could still potentially help create bomb-making material.

Experts have estimated that Iran's current number of centrifuges could enrich enough uranium for a bomb in as little as a year. Washington has been pushing for heavier sanctions if Iran does not agree to end enrichment.

Poll: Public pessimistic about Afghanistan

NBC/WSJ survey: Nearly six in 10 less confident about fate of war

By Mark Murray / NBC | WASHINGTON - As President Barack Obama weighs sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that Americans are concerned about the progress of the conflict there.

Nearly six in 10 say they’re less confident the war will come to a successful conclusion, and a narrow majority of respondents (51 percent) oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan.

However, a majority of Americans (55 percent) also oppose an immediate and orderly withdrawal from that war zone, and the public is split over whether the conflict there has been worth the costs and casualties.

“We are witnessing a divided country, but one that is less optimistic,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted this survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart.

The poll of 1,005 adults was conducted Sept. 17-20, and has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points. It comes after the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Stanley A. McChrystal, wrote a confidential report arguing that the war will result in failure unless more troops are sent there.

Yet it also comes as news reports suggest that the Obama administration has begun considering whether to bolster counterterrorism efforts in neighboring Pakistan instead of launching a large-scale counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan.

Strikingly, the poll shows that there’s a generational split over whether to send more U.S. troops into Afghanistan. While slightly more than half of Americans oppose an expansion of the war, 52 percent of those who are 50 years old or older support it.

By comparison, just 35 percent of those under the age of 50 back a troop increase there, while 62 percent oppose it.

Measuring Obama’s health blitz
The NBC/Journal survey also comes as Obama has launched a media blitz to sell his push to overhaul the nation’s health care system, delivering a prime-time speech to Congress, holding rallies in Minnesota and Maryland, appearing on five Sunday-morning news programs and even sitting down with talk-show host David Letterman.

According to the poll, the president’s health care numbers have slightly increased since this blitz, although that increase remains within the margin of error. Thirty-nine percent believe Obama’s health care plan is a good idea, which is up three points since August. Forty-one percent say it’s a bad idea.

'Deadlock' after Obama Middle East meeting

(Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Obama watches on as Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel (left) and Mahmoud Abbas shake hands ahead of their meeting, at which there was little reported progress
Catherine Philp in New York | President Obama increased the pressure on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to restart talks as he gambled on a landmark meeting to jolt the stalled peace process back to life.

Speaking before bringing the Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, together for talks, a stern Mr Obama warned that a sense of urgency was required to lay the foundations for peace.

“Success depends on all sides acting with a sense of urgency,” Mr Obama told reporters before sitting down for the three-way meeting. “Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon. It is past time to talk about starting negotiations. It is time to move forward.”

After the talks Mr Abbas and George Mitchell, the US envoy to the Middle East, indicated that little progress had been made.

Yasser Abed Raddo, a Palestinian official, said that Mr Abbas had restated his demand for a complete Israeli settlement freeze. Mr Netanyahu, in turn, had demanded that the Palestinians recognise the state of Israel.

Mr Netanyahu confirmed the account, calling on Mr Abbas to recognise the Jewish state but denying that it amounted to a precondition. He blamed the Palestinians for the impasse, insisting that Israel was impatient for talks.

“The issue of settlements has to be discussed within these talks, not before,” he told CNN. “Let’s just get on with it, start the peace process.”

Expectations of a breakthrough had been described before the meeting as “lower than the Dead Sea”, a reflection of US fears that no progress would be made at all.

Before the cameras, Mr Obama coaxed the two leaders into a handshake and stood back as they gripped hands, smiling wanly but studiously avoiding each other’s eyes. Mr Obama stood between the two, clearly feeling the frost.

Palestinians have said that they will not return to talks with Israel until there is a complete freeze on settlement building in the West Bank — a stance that Washington has largely backed. Mr Netanyahu has remained intransigent, offering partial freezes unacceptable to the Palestinians.

Washington is reluctant to drop its demand for a freeze, fearing that negotiations will get nowhere if “painful concessions” are not made to create the right environment for talks. “The launching of negotiations is not a end in itself,” Mr Mitchell said after the meetings. “We need more peace and less process.”

Mr Obama made clear that the American diplomatic offensive would continue, saying that Mr Mitchell would meet Israeli and Palestinian negotiators again next week and that the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, would report back to him next month on the status of talks.

Nepal beset by chaos and conjecture

(photo: AP / )
By Dhruba Adhikary | KATHMANDU - If the absence of war alone can be considered a sign of peace, then Nepal could provide a basis for optimism. But ground realities here suggest otherwise.

A recently released index from Foreign Policy depicted Nepal as 25th most likely nation to become a failed state, out of the 60 most vulnerable countries. The group found that conditions in Nepal are not as bad as Somalia, Afghanistan and Uganda, but more disturbing than in Lebanon, Burkina Faso and Colombia.

But Nepal's beleaguered Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal does not like to present himself as the leader of a trouble-torn

country, with a work style that more suggests "business-as-usual". He departed the country on Sunday evening for New York, where he is scheduled to address the United Nations on Saturday.

Maoists are at the forefront of Nepal's upheaval. Unlike during the April uprising of 2006, when they abandoned a decade-long armed insurgency and entered the world of "competitive politics", the Maoist cadres are now carrying out attacks - both verbal and physical - on their rivals, leaving innocent people vulnerable and helpless.

The cadres are obviously executing orders from the Maoist leaders, who have publicly spoken about the need for another round of Jana-aandolan or popular movement. The chairman (and former prime minister) Prachanda and his deputy Baburam Bhattarai have begun arguing that a final push is needed to wipe out the remnants of feudalism associated with the monarchy, which was abolished in May 2008.

A manifestation of the Maoist resolve and determination to topple the "puppet regime" led by Nepal since May this year has surfaced on the streets of capital, Kathmandu and other parts of the country in recent weeks.

Much wrath is focused on President Ram Baran Yadav as well as Prime Minister Nepal and the ministers in his cabinet. They are greeted with black flags whenever they appear at public functions.
Maoists often try first to prevent such functions by placing roadblocks and engaging security personnel in fist-fights. If this does not work, they sneak into the program venue and create chaos, pelting stones at the dais, shouting slogans and waving black scarves at the guests.

Last Wednesday, Maoist youths displayed insulting behavior towards Yadav when he was on tour at Lumbini, the birthplace of the Lord Buddha, as comrades in Kathmandu made the prime minister their target while he was conducting a university convocation. There, some dressed as gown-wearing graduates and threw stones on the stage as they jeered the prime minister. (The premier has faced the criticism that he is an "unelected leader" as he was twice defeated in April 2008 polls, but was made a nominated member of the assembly from where he was selected to the present post.)

The police briefly detained the protestors, including the daughter of Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai. Although no serious injuries were reported, it was a serious enough incident to challenge the state authority under the present dispensation.

Guns have not been used in any noticeable way thus far, but credible threats to use them abound. "Guns will be used to confront guns," said Bhattarai in a recent public meeting in his home district of Gorakha, in the western hills.

In the meantime, there was highly charged atmosphere as a war of words ensued between the prime minister and Maoist leader Prachanda. In Prachanda's view, the prime minister is like "a hangman". The prime minister countered by describing Prachanda as a "bloodthirsty tyrant".

The prime minister has tried to look confident as well as tough, despite the fact that some of his senior colleagues in his party, the Unified Marxist Leninist (UML), are not supportive of his belligerent approach towards the Maoists.

Earlier, the Maoists said they would boycott public functions, beginning on September 6, to be attended by the president, the prime minister and ministers. They have said the boycott is in protest against a nominated member being prime minister. They say the elected members - the Maoist former rebels emerged as the largest political party in a 2008 election for a special constituent assembly after their 2006 ceasefire - are being denied the opportunity to lead the transitional government entrusted with supervising Nepal's constitution-writing process.

Maoists have also made the boycott "active" by using disruptive measures. Suddenly, the state security apparatus looks overstretched in protecting the politicians in power. The Maoist leaders are trying to convince the public that whatever is being done is for the establishment of civilian supremacy, as opposed to military supremacy.

Yadav and the premier are being controversially dragged into this. The contention is that the president took an unconstitutional step by issuing an order to rescue the Nepal Army chief, who was sacked by the prime minister for having defied legitimate government orders.

Prachanda resigned immediately, in early May, from the prime minister's post in protest. No efforts, the Maoists argue, were made to address the issue they raised. On the contrary, they say, someone rejected by voters was made the leader of an artificial coalition of 22 parties and subsequently appointed prime minister. Opinions are divided and a court case is pending over the constitutionality of the presidential action.

Meanwhile, the Maoists have taken the case to the National Assembly, disrupting its proceedings for several weeks. They have registered a resolution there seeking a debate on the validity of the president's action. The speaker rejected the demand on technical grounds, providing them a constitutional option to initiate impeachment proceedings against the president.

The Maoists are not taking this course because they know they don't have the numerical strength, of two-thirds, in the 601-strong Constituent Assembly (which also acts as the interim parliament). Instead, they resorted to the controversial, although not unprecedented, method of stalling house business. Maoist members of the house, however, have not stopped collecting their allowances, even when they are not working.

The main task of the Constituent Assembly is to draw up a republican constitution to replace the present one, by the end of May 2010. Progress is visibly slow, and not only due to Maoist activities.

Inside the house, members are squabbling over the basis for creating federal units, official languages of the republic - and a move for legislative control of the judiciary, something unacceptable to all except the Maoists.

Last week, a question was raised about the national flag, which, some said, does not represent inclusiveness. "Are the sun and the moon, depicted on the flag, giving light and shine to all ethnic communities without discrimination?" said Ganesh Pandit, who once worked as a member of parliament after the democratic restoration of 1990. Time, energy and resources are being wasted recklessly, accentuating the concerns of Nepal's friends and donors.

The issue of how to find an amicable solution before dismantling the United Nations-supervised cantonments where nearly 20,000 former Maoist combatants are sheltered is far from resolved. Whether a democratic statute can be drawn up and whether the election to be held afterwards would remain free and fair is a matter of serious concern to all stakeholders. The Maoists want their fighters integrated into the national army, but the army is hesitant to accept what is sees as a politically indoctrinated force into its midst.

Contemporary events and trends indicate that Nepal is unlikely to have a new constitution by the agreed deadline. All that the leaders of the main political parties appear to be doing now is to look for a convenient pretext so that blame for inaction can be placed on their rivals.

No one is serious about their original pledge to take the peace process to a logical conclusion. The pledge requires them to work together and not engage in a game played in peacetime politics, at least until the country has a new constitution.

The interim constitution has a provision to extend the life of the assembly up to six months in the event the country is placed under a state of emergency. There could be an attempt to invoke this provision as some of the members may be tempted to retain the perks and privileges they enjoy.

There is also a premonition of a "political accident" which could nullify the democratic gains made since 2006. The feared "accident" may result in presidential rule with the help of the army. Another possible option is direct rule by the army. Kamal Thapa, head of a pro-monarchist party, appears hopeful of even the restoration of the kingship. His party, Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, has four seats in the 601-member assembly.

The reaction of Nepal's immediate - as well as more distant - neighbors might be interesting should it be placed under another form of transition. Those placing importance on stability and order might not object. And those who are averse to seeing the Maoist phenomenon spreading in South Asia also may look at the development favorably.