Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Belgium revisits the scene of its colonial shame

King Leopold II terrorised Congo. Now his descendant is there to help celebrate 50 years of independence

By Vanessa Mock 

It must have been with at least some trepidation that Albert II, King of the Belgians, stepped off the plane in the Congolese capital Kinshasa this week to take part in celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the country's independence from Belgium on June 30 1960.

Albert is the great-grandnephew of Leopold II, the Belgian king who wrought colonial terror of the worst kind in the vast central African territory which he called the Congo Free State and ruled brutally as his private property from 1884 until 1908.

If that was not bad enough, Albert's late brother, King Baudouin was accused of indirectly inciting the post-independence assassination of Congo's independence hero and first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961. Lumumba's sons announced this month that they want to bring murder charges against 12 living Belgians for involvement in their father's assassination.

Little wonder then that before the King was allowed to travel to the still troubled Democratic Republic of Congo, the matter triggered a heated debate in the Belgian Parliament. The mood was not helped by the declaration earlier this month by the former Belgian foreign minister, Louis Michel, who called Leopold II "a true visionary" and "a hero".

Yet, during this anniversary summer, scores of Congo-related concerts and exhibitions are taking place across Belgium, a sign that the country is slowly shaking off decades of guilt and silence over its shameful colonial entanglement.

But the guilt has not all gone, says David Van Reybrouck author of Congo: A History, a new book that involved five years of travel and research. "The word Congo used to have very dark connotations but today some of that darkness has lifted. There's even a kind of Congo mania in Belgium," he explains.
"There's an entire generation that wasn't brought up with the Congo, it wasn't mentioned in our history classes and that explains the strong urge to rediscover this country. So things are changing slowly but still there's been an unwillingness to open the lid on our colonial past. Some of the archives are still very difficult to access, something which I find indefensible."

Just to the back of the royal palace in Brussels stands a large copper statue of Leopold II on horseback. At the base of this triumphant, pompous effigy of the bearded monarch there is a tiny plaque announcing that the statue was made entirely from Congolese copper. In Kinshasa, a copy of this statue lies face down in a back-garden among weeds, an unwanted relic of the past.

Copper and ivory were among a wealth of natural resources that first lured Leopold after the territory's "discovery" by the British-born American explorer Henry Morton Stanley, but it was rubber that turned this hitherto lush but little-known swath of Africa into a personal goldmine for the monarch. Large scale rubber cultivation, whose use for tyres had just been discovered by the Scot John Boyd Dunlop, contributed to human rights abuses and cruel punishments like hand chopping, shocking even by the standards of other unenlightened colonial rulers.

Erik Nobels, who leads Congo-themed tours of Brussels, points to the grand trio of arches at the Cinquantenaire Park at one end of one of the main boulevards in the Belgian capital. "Leopold wanted a colony that would allow him to decorate his city. He believed immortality could either be gained by fighting wars or leaving your stamp on a city. And the huge wealth that Congo brought him allowed him to do so."

Leopold's acquisition of the Congo is a remarkable one of personal greed, cunning and brutality, with a starring role for the British explorer Stanley. The Belgian monarch enlisted Stanley, who was the first man to cross the entire African continent from east to west, to map out the territory and then buy up large swathes of land from local chieftains to create a gigantic area which was to become the King's personal plaything in 1885, when European powers met at the Berlin Conference to set out the rules of the colonial game.

"This wasn't to be compared with France, Germany or Britain because Belgium at that time simply wasn't interested in acquiring a colony. It was the King who dreamt of having an overseas territory and who then through his incredible diplomatic manoeuvres acquired an enormous part of the African pie," says Van Reybrouck. Leopold ignored the conditions set out in Berlin and installed a huge army of officials and African mercenaries to execute his wishes.

Villages were assigned a quota for the amount of rubber they had to collect and process and terror ensued if they failed to meet that quota. Military personnel, mostly made up of west Africans, ran the show and carried out the infamous practice of cutting off the hands and feet of villagers who failed to meet the quota.

"The violence was triggered by a bureaucratic system that meant these mercenaries had to justify the use of every one of their bullets by bringing back severed and smoked hands and feet," says Van Reybrouck, who was the first to gain access to rare testimonies of the time. "I read accounts of villagers who had pretended to be dead hoping to escape the terror but who then felt their limbs being cut off.

"But there is an obsession with these hands and people also forget that most of those limbs were cut off from people who were already dead."
Women would also be taken into custody until their husbands came up with the required amount of rubber. "It was a relentless policy of squeezing out local populations. Apart from the manslaughter, there was huge migration as people fled into the forest as they didn't want to work in the service of the King anymore."

Historians have struggled to come up with an estimate of the scale of the slaughter, though they are revising downwards the former figure of 10 million victims, as many deaths were also caused by disease.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Leopold ordered his archives to be burned just before control of Congo was wrested from him and transferred to the Belgian state after an international outcry in 1908 over his abuses. At one side of the royal palace, buildings that now house administrative offices which were once Leopold's Congolese control centre, one propaganda bureau is still etched with the Congolese star symbol. "There are many reports from the time of great heat emanating from all these buildings as the archives were stuffed into fireplaces and lit up to cover Leopold's tracks," says Mr Nobels.

"Belgian colonialism was at best highly paternalistic and when independence came, there was not one engineer or doctor. They began de-colonisation way too late and cleared out overnight, allowing for huge instability to follow," says Van Reybrouck.

Mr Lumumba became Congo's first prime minister but war erupted when Katanga tried to secede from the new republic. In September 1960, colonel Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko took power in a coup and Lumumba was arrested, tortured and killed and both the CIA and Belgian secret services were blamed. It was some 40 years before the Belgian government apologised for its involvement in his death. Belgian historian Ludo de Witte supports the new investigation brought by Lumumba's sons. "We as Belgians" he says, "should know that we participated in war crimes against the Congolese."

Nato's grand experiment leaves Marjah scrabbling for a future

Attempts to install a 'government in a box' in Helmand's deserts have stalled in the face of tribal jealousies

By Julius Cavendish

The white sedans came from nowhere, sliding to a stop amid a plume of dust. Out stepped Haji Zahir - the figurehead for Nato efforts to bolster governance in Marjah, a sleepy Afghan backwater that has seen precious little of it over the past two years. Marjah is the Taliban stronghold which General Stanley McChrystal, until recently the Nato commander in Afhganistan, famously called a "bleeding ulcer".

The coalition showcased the district and made it the focus of its campaigning earlier this year, pouring in thousands of US and Afghan troops in one of the most heavily advertised attacks in history. They also installed what officials called "government in a box" and made Mr Zahir Marjah's new district governor. US and British experts work with him, struggling to build a local administration from scratch. This approach and its subsequent success, the thinking went, would show the war could yet be won.

On this particular evening Mr Zahir was the model of a local politician. He had come to encourage young men to join the fledgling police force. "We will pay their wages," he assured families gathered at one of the intersections that criss-cross Marjah. They heckled him; he stroked his beard; they jabbed their fingers; he grinned broadly and settled everything with a firm word and a friendly hug. Then, sunglasses set rakishly on his nose, off he went in search of more constituents.

In Mr Zahir, the district has a leader who "possesses a number of strengths that any politician would like to have, specifically, excellent oratory skills and solid rapport with his constituents", according to the US State Department representative Edward Messmer. "Where governor Zahir hits headwinds are [in] his administrative abilities and managerial experience."

In a country fractured by mountain ranges and ethnic splits, local government can assume an importance unseen in more benign environments. Turning it into a functioning branch of the state is integral to Western hopes for a stable Afghanistan. Yet months after Nato and the Afghan government first rolled in, Marjah appears to some to be stagnating.

"Everyone involved, of course, would like the process to move faster," explains Mr Messmer. But to ensure that schools, clinics and refurbished irrigation canals - crucial to a community that has reclaimed its farmland from the Helmand desert - stay open long after the coalition has left, "we all want to do it right the first time".

It is the slow rate of progress here and across Afghanistan that has helped undermine the relationship between military and political leaders in the West, culminating in General McChrystal's astonishing resignation last week. There is little sign so far that his mentor David Petraeus, who has taken over direct responsibility for the Nato campaign in Afghanistan, will abandon his protégé's strategy - and he has notably failed to endorse timelines set by President Barack Obama to start bringing US troops home.

It is what happens in the shadows, though, that will, perhaps, have the largest impact. Night and day, bearded men wearing Afghan robes walk into the Helmand countryside and try to persuade people here to stand up against the insurgents and criminals. They are US Special Operations Forces. And worryingly for politicians still hoping for an imminent exit, they say there is nothing to suggest change will come quickly.

Captain Matt, a Green Beret operating in southern Marjah, describes what his 12-man detachment does as "weeks and weeks of going out and talking, talking, talking". Because Marjah was a patch of uninhabited desert until a 1950s development programme brought water to the area, it lacks the social cohesion of more traditional Afghan settlements.

"It's a tough thing to put your finger on," he says. "People are scared of each other as much as of the Taliban. When a single tribe is in an area they're more comfortable but here it's very small enclaves. [There's lots of] mistrust. People are worried about sparking jealousies." With "300 major tribes" present, this splintered demographic - "like New York City"- is hindering efforts to create anti-Taliban unity among Marjah's residents, Capt Matt says. Poverty and a lack of understanding of what the counter-insurgency is trying to offer compound the problem.

"Most insurgencies over the past 40 or 50 years are pre- or post-colonial failure," Capt Matt says.
"You had a common language. When you talk governance here you may as well try to describe a mermaid in a land-locked country... The coalition is a liked force. They are in no doubt we are here to reconstruct... [But] we're dealing with guys who don't really understand what we're trying to sell."
The intimidation campaign waged by the Taliban is not as potent as some in the coalition feared, but it is much in evidence in southern Marjah. According to US forces, out-of-work men regularly let off rounds of gunfire into the air to make cash by fanning perceptions of insecurity. Yet anyone who accepts support from Nato is questioned by the Taliban within 24 hours.

And when the provincial government issued a curious edict, banning the use of motorcycles for 10 days, shopkeepers in the bazaars - symbols of government control, Nato largesse and Marjah's future prosperity - were ordered by the insurgents to stay at home under pain of death.

Crouching down in a lush green field, an informant told one US patrol that the Taliban wanted to create the impression of a local strike against the edict, which was hampering their operations: motorbikes are the militants' preferred getaway vehicle.

Several villagers saw fit to discuss the intimidation campaign with the US Marines they see daily. But no one wanted to cross the insurgents, and their shutters stayed down, day after day.

Pakistan key to Afghan reconciliation: Petraeus

By Anwar Iqbal
WASHINGTON: Pakistan's involvement in a reconciliation agreement in Afghanistan is essential and the United States needs to further this developing partnership between the two neighbouring countries, Gen David Petraeus told his confirmation hearing on Tuesday.

But the new US commander for Afghanistan also told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had denied reports that he recently met a top leader of anti-Kabul network, Sirajuddin Haqqani.

"Pakistani involvement in some form of reconciliation agreement, I think that that is essential," Gen Petraeus told the committee's chairman Senator Carl Levin.

Senator Levin wanted the general to comment on recent media reports that Pakistani officials had approached the Karzai government with a proposal that includes delivering the Haqqani network, which US believes runs a major part of the insurgency in Afghanistan and is an ally of Al Qaeda, into a power-sharing arrangement.

"Clearly, we want to forge a partnership or further the partnership that has been developing between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those countries are always going to be neighbours. And helping them develop a constructive relationship would be an important contribution," the general said.

But he also warned not to expect these recent contacts between Pakistan and Afghanistan to lead to an immediate reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgents.

"Now, whether that is possible, such an agreement, I think is going to depend on a number of factors that will play out over the course of the summer, including creating a sense among the Taliban that they are going to get hammered in the field and perhaps should look at some options," said the general.

On Sunday, both President Barack Obama and CIA Director Leon Panetta also expressed scepticism about the likelihood that Taliban leaders would accept a proposal for reconciliation.

But President Obama also noted that the attempt to draw Afghanistan and Pakistan into a closer partnership was a useful step.

When the senator asked Gen Petraeus if he knew about a reported meeting between President Karzai and Sirajuddin Haqqani, Gen Petraeus said Mr Karzai denied meeting any leader of the Haqqani Network.

"In talking to President Karzai in the vehicle on the way over here, he assured me that he has not met a Haqqani group leader, by the way in recent days or, I think, at any time," the general said.

On Saturday, Al Jazeera reported that President Karzai recently met Mr Haqqani to discuss a power-sharing agreement. The meeting was reportedly orchestrated by Pakistani intelligence and army officials, who want the Haqqani Network to be included in a new set-up in Afghanistan.

Dawn, however, reported on June 15 that Pakistani officials were indeed trying to broker a deal between the Afghan government and the Haqqanis, although the sources who spoke to Dawn did not confirm a meeting between President Karzai and Mr Haqqani.

US intelligence officials who spoke to the media noted that President Karzai would have little incentive to admit that such a meeting took place, if in fact it did. But they also cast doubt on the Al Jazeera report.

These officials, however, do not dispute press reports and say that the Pakistanis are attempting to broker a deal between the Haqqanis and the Afghan government. Instead, they disputed the notion that Mr Karzai could have had a face-to-face meeting with Mr Haqqani. One senior intelligence official pointed to Mr Karzai's heavy American security detail as an obstacle to such a meeting.

Gen Petraeus noted that in recent past lower and mid-level Taliban leaders had indeed sought to reintegrate with the Afghan government and there had been "more in recent days, small numbers here and there".

The general said that the reintegration decree that President Karzai approved on Tuesday would help codify this process.

"But whether or not very senior leaders can meet the very clear conditions that the Afghan government has laid down for reconciliation, I think, is somewhat in question. So in that regard, I agree with Director Panetta," he said.

When Senator John McCain, the ranking Republican on the committee, asked Mr Petraeus if he was concerned that the ISI continued to work with the Haqqani and other Taliban groups, the general said it was difficult to give a categorical answer to this question.

"What we have to always figure out with Pakistan is: are they working with the Taliban to support the Taliban or to recruit sources in the Taliban? And that's the difficulty, frankly, in trying to assess what the ISI is doing in some of their activities in Fata, in contacts with the Haqqani network, or the Afghan Taliban," he said.

"There are no questions about the longstanding lengths. Let's remember that we funded the ISI to build these organisations when they were the Mujahideen and helping to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan," he added.

"And so certainly, residual links would not be a surprise. The question is what the character of those links is and what the activities are behind them."

Kashmir police investigate Indian soldiers accused of murdering civilians

Troops allegedly killed civilians falsely claiming they were Islamic militants in order to secure combat bonuses

Jason Burke in Nadihal

Police in Kashmir are investigating a series of incidents in which Indian soldiers are accused of killing civilians who they subsequently claimed were Islamic militants.

In one case, exposed this month, three labourers were allegedly murdered in an attempt to boost the combat record of an Indian army unit whose members were then able to claim bonuses. According to police investigators, the three men were lured to their deaths by local intermediaries paid cash by an army officer. They were executed and buried, and a report was filed claiming they were violent extremists.

In April a 70-year-old beggar was shot dead. Relatives denied army claims that he was a member of a local militant group.

Last week a case was registered with police involving two porters who the Indian military said had been shot by Pakistani forces across the Line of Control, the de facto border that separates Indian and Pakistani-controlled parts of the disputed state.

But doctors who carried out a postmortem said the men had been shot from close range. Army spokesmen refused to comment on the details of the cases, saying that investigations were underway.

Ayesha Khan, the mother of Shahzad Ahmad Khan, one of the three labourers killed in April, said: "Those who are responsible should be hanged and we are hopeful of justice."

Local human rights activist Parvez Imroz said he was aware of at least 50 other cases in which non-combatants had disappeared. "This is the tip of the iceberg," he said.

Imroz said that soldiers tackling Islamist militants received bonuses for each kill. "There are vested interests that have developed in the conflict. The army have been given these incentives and so they kill non-combatants," he said.

Khan's uncle, Riaz Ahmed, said: "I want to know how many other boys they have killed like this. They get their promotions to generals or colonels or whatever and we are left with coffins. They make their careers over the bodies of our sons."

The soldiers accused of the three cases have now left Kashmir and a court martial has been ordered while an internal army inquiry continues.

Imroz said he doubted that any of the soldiers would be disciplined. "We have had no instances where the perpetrators [in previous cases] were punished. Whether institutionally or individually there is no accountability," he said.

Sheikh Shauqat, professor of international law at Kashmir University in Srinagar, said the police investigation was unprecedented. "People believed all along that this sort of thing was happening. But for the first time the state police investigated and exposed it. This at last authenticated the people's belief," he said.

The killings have fuelled unrest in Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state, which is caught in a cycle of violent demonstrations and police shootings.

Three teenage protesters were killed today in the southern Kashmiri town of Anantnag, bringing the total to 11 killed by police in the last two weeks. As demonstrators took to the streets, authorities declared a curfew and mobile phone services were suspended in north Kashmir.

Most of the casualties among the protesters were a result of shooting by the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force rather than local officers.

CRPF commanders said their men had been left with no choice but to defend themselves with live ammunition after protesters tried to set fire to their vehicles and bunkers.

The upsurge in public disorder coincides with a series of visits of senior Indian officials to Pakistan. External affairs minister SM Krishna is due to travel to Islamabad next month in an effort to restart peace talks frozen since the attacks by Pakistan-based terrorists in Mumbai in November 2008.

The Indian army today said it had killed five militants who were trying to cross from Pakistan, which considers the Indian portion of Kashmir illegally occupied and has long supported violent separatist extremists in the state. Three soldiers have also been killed in firefights in recent days, an army spokesman added. More than 30 members of the security forces have died this year.

Bangladesh police arrest top Islamist leaders


DHAKA - Bangladeshi police Tuesday arrested three of the top leaders of Bangladesh's largest Islamic party on the rarely-used charge of "offending religious sentiment" in the Muslim-majority nation.

Motiur Rahman Nizami, the head of Jamaat-e-Islami party, his deputy Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid and top preacher Delwar Hossain Saydee were arrested in the capital Dhaka, city police chief A.K.M. Shahidul Haque said.

"They were detained after the court issued arrest warrants against them for hurting the religious sentiment of the people," Haque told AFP.

The Jamaat leaders have been charged after they claimed Nizami's alleged persecution at the hands of the ruling Awami League was akin to the suffering of the Prophet Mohammed, he said.

The three leaders had been summoned to appear at a Dhaka court on Tuesday but ignored the order, which lead to an arrest warrant being issued, he said.

Jamaat-e-Islami has been the country's largest Islamic party since it was allowed to operate and contest in elections in late 1970s. It was a part of the Islamist-allied government led by Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in 2001-6.

Since winning a landslide in December 2008, the government has cracked down on Islamist groups, with the head of banned Islamic outfit Hizb-ut Tahrir being arrested April on charges of instigating militancy and running a banned group.

Police say Hizb-ut Tahrir is still actively trying to destabilise the government and plot attacks.
Jamaat's top leaders have also been accused of war crimes by private groups investigating Bangladesh's liberation war of 1971, including the killing of dozens of intellectuals during the nine-month war against Pakistan.

Jamaat leaders deny the allegations.

UK: Government rebuffs Islamic group


By Simon Rocker

The Department of Education has rejected objections from an Islamic campaign group to the teaching of Zionism in state-aided Jewish schools.

Ghulam Abbas, of the department's community cohesion unit, replied to the group, Engage: "We have no evidence to suggest the schools you highlight in your letter are teaching inappropriately or indoctrinating pupils."

Mohammed Asif, chief executive of Engage (not to be confused with the website of the same name which monitors antisemitism), complained to Education Secretary Michael Gove that Zionism was a "political ideology" and "not part of the Jewish faith".

Mr Asif cited several Jewish schools which he said taught Zionism as part of their ethos, including North Cheshire Jewish Primary School and King Solomon High School in Redbridge.

In a letter to Engage, Diana Lazarus, the chair of King Solomon's High School responded: "The importance of the Land of Israel and the spiritual connection of Jews to Jerusalem or Zion, hence Zionism, is a principle that is shared by the vast majority of the Jewish community.

"There are numerous references to the importance of Zion in the Old Testament, in ancient Jewish texts and in our prayer books, all of which predate modern Zionism. This love of Zion and its manifestation in what we refer to as Zionism is thousands of years old."

Mr Abbas told Mr Asif that the schools were inspected by the national inspection service Ofsted. "If an inspector came across political indoctrination of any type, they would regard it as a serious matter," he said.

No Palestinian state before 2012: Israeli FM


No Palestinian state will be founded in the next two years, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Tuesday, citing difficulties in U.S.-mediated peace negotiations as well as divisions among the Palestinians.

"I'm an optimistic person, and I don't see any chance of a Palestinian state arising before 2012," Lieberman, a far-rightist in Netanyahu's conservative coalition government, told reporters after meeting Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

" One can dream, and imagine, but the reality on the ground is that we are still a long way from reaching understandings and agreements on the creation of a Palestinian state by 2012 "

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman "One can dream, and imagine, but the reality on the ground is that we are still a long way from reaching understandings and agreements on the creation of a Palestinian state by 2012," Lieberman said.

Lieberman appeared to be referring to a call by the "Quartet" of Middle East peace brokers -- Russia, the United States, European Union and United Nations -- for an accord to be in place by 2012.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who launched indirect talks with the Palestinians in May, has accepted their demand for statehood while insisting any state be shorn of some powers and sovereignty over all of the occupied West Bank.

The U.S.-backed administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also faces opposition from Hamas Islamists who spurn the Jewish state and control the Gaza Strip.

Abbas, speaking in the West Bank town of Ramallah, said he hoped to achieve a peace deal "as soon as possible," adding that Palestinians would do "whatever we can in order to reach the (two-state) solution because time is on no one's side."

Abbas's prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has said Palestinians could declare statehood unilaterally if the diplomatic deadlock continues, though Abbas has played down this possibility.

Lavrov defended Russia's policy of openly engaging with Hamas, unlike other Quartet partners.
"In all our talks with Hamas, we have tried to convince them to switch to the political track and support the Arab peace initiative," Lavrov said.

Lavrov said that the lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks was liable to encourage radicalization among Palestinians and said he hoped the indirect talks would soon lead to direct negotiations.

US Muslim jurists forbid aid to troops

WASHINGTON (Ahmed al-Shiti)

The Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA) issued a fatwa prohibiting offering aid to foreign troops in Muslim countries whether on the personal or the business levels.

The assembly, made up of jurists and scholars in charge of issuing fatwas for Muslims in the United States and headed by Sheikh Salah al-Sawy, received several inquiries about the stance of Islam on business deals with coalition troops in Iraq or NATO forces in Afghanistan, especially companies that transfer foodstuffs and other supplies to military bases.

The question was posted on AMJA fatwa bank, reads: "Is it permissible to participate in taking food to the American and foreign soldiers working in Muslim lands?" and the answer is, "That would not be permissible, for that would be helping others in sin and transgression."

The fatwa, number 3062 to be issued by the assembly, stipulated that Muslims are not to help foreigners on personal or business basis as long as their presence in Muslim countries is linked to occupation.

The statement was based on a verse from the Quran that said Muslims should only offer help in noble causes and should not take part in any kind of action that involves violence or damage.

"Muslims should help anyone involved in benevolent acts regardless of their nationality, religion, or political affiliation and whether they are civilians or soldiers."

This, the fatwa added, is not the case with foreign troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and which are occupying those countries against the will of their people and, therefore, engaging in any type of interaction with them endows their presence with legitimacy and makes those who deal with them accomplices in the crime.

The assembly, which is considered one of the most respected Islamic authorities in the United States, added that the fatwa also applied to Muslims who are U.S. citizens.

The fatwa stirred controversy in the American media. Several critics warned that such religious edicts usually translate into violence against the troops in Muslim countries while others expressed their indignation that scholars who incite Muslims against American troops are, in fact, American citizens.

Another fatwa that sparked anger was issued by Muslim-American cleric Anwar Awlaki who warned Muslim Americans of serving in the U.S. military or supporting the trooping occupying Muslim countries in any way and declared American troops and military bases an open target for Jihad.
(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid).

Syria suspends fully veiled school teachers

DUBAI (Al Arabiya)
Hundreds of Syrian teachers wearing the face veil were dismissed from their schools as the Ministry of Education said they undermine the secularism of the state, according to press reports Tuesday.

Syrian Minister of Education Ali Saad said in a meeting with heads of Teachers Syndicate offices that the dismissal of 1,200 teachers who wear the face veil, also called the ‘niqab,' was necessary, the Lebanese daily As-Safir reported Tuesday.

"Other ministers are going to do the same thing shortly," he said.

" Education in Syrian schools follows an objective, secular methodology and this is undermined by wearing the face veil "

Syrian Education Minister Ali SaadSaad justified his decision by arguing that the face veil is not in line with the secular policies followed by the state as far as education is concerned.

"Education in Syrian schools follows an objective, secular methodology and this is undermined by wearing the face veil."

He also pointed out that the face veil disrupts the teaching process as it hinders eye contact, which is extremely important for the relationship between teacher and student. Therefore, information is not delivered properly to the students.

The ministry's decision affected teachers in various parts of Syria, especially the governorates Rif Dimashq in the south west and Aleppo in the north where teachers in nearly 300 schools in each were dismissed.

The number dwindled remarkably in the capital Damascus, while some governorates were not affected at all like Quneitra in the south.

The dismissed teachers, half of which have contracts with the ministry, were transferred to the Ministry of Local Administration, especially in the municipalities.

Several of the dismissed teachers submitted complaints which the minister promised will be thoroughly studies.

"We will look into their complaints and all they won't lose their rights," he said.

" Eliminating women's identity through covering their faces has nothing to do with religion, whether Islam or Christianity or any other faith "

Syrian Women Observatory
The ministry's decision was treated with enthusiasm by both the public and the intelligentsia and especially by feminists as concerns about the spread of extremism has been lately on the rise.
The feminist website Syrian Women Observatory said that the face veil is a sign of going back to the dark ages and constitutes a call for extremism and warned of its negative impact on students, especially children.

The niqab, the website added, also erases women's identity under the name of religion and that is why the ban should not only be confined to schools.

"Eliminating women's identity through covering their faces has nothing to do with religion, whether Islam or Christianity or any other faith."

The website compared the face veil to other edicts that are issued under the name of Islam like the controversial fatwa about adult breastfeeding and which stirred the indignation of Islamic scholars and secular intellectuals alike.

(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid).

US attack kills three Afghan civilians

At least three civilians have been killed in an ongoing US military operation in eastern Afghanistan as discontent grows over the civilian casualties in the country.

The civilians were killed in a US attack in the northeastern Afghan province of Kunar on Tuesday.

The media office of the US forces in the region has confirmed the fatalities, adding that two more civilians have also been wounded in the incident.

The attack comes a day after foreign troops killed eight civilians inside their houses during an operation in Kandahar Province.

In a separate incident in the country, Afghan police forces clashed with angry protesters near Kabul after US forces attacked a religious school on the southern outskirts of the capital.

Some 600 Afghan and foreign troops are taking part in the operation against militants in Kunar Province.

The fresh wave of violence comes amid rising casualties of foreign troops in the country, which has made June the deadliest month for foreign forces stationed in Afghanistan with the death toll surpassing the 100 mark.

In addition to the foreign troops' casualties, thousands of civilians have also lost their lives either in US-led raids or in the Taliban-led militancy across the violence-wracked country.

According to official figures, more than 2,500 civilians were killed in NATO operations last year, undermining support for the presence of US-led forces in the country.

King Abdallah to press Obama on Israel


WASHINGTON: Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah will press US President Barack Obama in Washington this week to take a stronger stance with Israel over stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, analysts and diplomats said.

The king will meet Obama on Tuesday after attending a G20 summit in Canada in the latest summit in the seven decades-old relationship between Washington and the world's top oil exporter and a key regional ally.

The Saudis say Obama has not put enough pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to impose a total freeze on Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land, an obstacle to the resumption of peace talks. Netanyahu meets Obama on July 6.

"The king wants to have from Obama the assurance that he is going to solve the (Middle East peace) issue," said Khaled Almaeena, editor in chief of Arab News.

In a landmark speech in Cairo last year, Obama promised to turn a new page with the Islamic world after the United States' image took a battering due to the previous administration's invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and solid backing for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.

"I think it's time for the Saudis and all Arabs to tell the Americans that the situation cannot go on forever with the so-called peace process," said Khaled Al-Dakhil, a Saudi political analyst.

Last year Obama revived a long-standing US request for Saudi Arabia to make gestures toward normalizing relations with Israel as an incentive to the Jewish state to take up serious negotiations over establishing a Palestinian state.

But Saudi Arabia said it would not make concessions beyond the 2002 Arab peace plan initiated by King Abdullah, which offers Israel recognition in return for vacating occupied territories and allowing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

"There remains a Saudi view that if the US really pushed the Israelis, that is what would be necessary to get a peace deal," said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Diplomats and analysts say Iran will be high on the agenda of the talks in Washington, which will be King Abdullah's third meeting with Obama. Riyadh has said it does not want to see a regional conflict over Iran's nuclear program, which this year led to a new round of United Nations sanctions. The United States and Israel have not ruled out military action to stop Iran, which says it only wants nuclear power to generate electricity.

"They do not favor military action because they realize how devastating it will be," said Al-Dakhil.

The Kingdom's ties with Washington date back to King Abdul Aziz's grant of an oil concession to a US firm in 1933. The king's first trip abroad was to meet with President Franklin Roosevelt on a US destroyer in the Suez Canal in 1945.

CIA defends Blackwater contract worth $100m


The head of CIA has defended awarding a large contract to the controversial security company formerly known as Blackwater.

The director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, said the company's bid was US $26m less than its nearest rival.

The contract, worth $100m, is to provide security at US consulates in the cities of Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif.

Blackwater guards allegedly opened fire on unarmed civilians in Baghdad in 2007 killing 17 people.

In the wake of the killings, the company rebranded itself Xe Services.

The company ended its operations in Iraq in 2009, in line with a ban by the government.

The US government said in January 2009 that it would not renew the company's task orders.

An Iraqi inquiry found Blackwater quards killed 17 civilians in 2007 The new contract with the company initialy runs for a year but could be extended to 18 months.

In a rare television interview with ABC News on Sunday, Leon Panetta said the CIA had come to rely on such companies to provide security for forward bases.

"[Xe] provided a bid that… underbid everyone else by about US $26m. And a panel that we had said that they can do the job, that they have shaped up their act. So there really was not much choice but to accept that contract," Mr Panetta explained.

As Blackwater the company provided the US government with bodyguards both in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It hit the headlines when four of its bodyguards were ambushed in the Iraqi city of Fallujah and their bodies left hanging from a bridge over the Euphrates River.

Earlier this month the company was put up for sale

Let Jordan Enrich Its Own Uranium


QUIETLY and with barely any public confrontation, Israel is creating a new enemy for itself: the Kingdom of Jordan. In the situation that we justifiably or unjustifiably find ourselves now — boycotted and isolated — we do not need to lose the only Arab state with which we have peace-like relations.

This is the story: Jordan is a poor country, lacking almost any natural resources, that spends billions of dollars each year to import 95 percent of its electricity. But in 2007, at least 65,000 tons of uranium ore was found in the Jordanian desert — the 11th-largest deposit of uranium in the world. Jordan is now taking international bids to build a 1,100-megawatt reactor, the first in a planned series of plants that would allow the country to produce a substantial part of the electricity it needs and, by 2030, to export power to its neighbors in the Middle East.

The Obama administration, however, is trying to dissuade Middle Eastern countries from producing their own atomic fuel; the fear is that any low-level uranium enrichment would inevitably lead to high-level enrichment of bomb-grade materials — and then to a regional arms race. As a result, American diplomats are trying to prevent Jordan from getting the necessary technology unless it agrees to purchase its nuclear fuel on the open markets rather than use its own uranium.

Jordan’s king, Abdullah II, is furious and, to make matters worse, he is convinced that the demands of the United States are the result of Israeli pressure. The last thing Israel needs today is a confrontation with Jordan on this subject.

Jordan is a stable, pro-Western Arab country, which signed a peace agreement with Israel — a peace that has survived grave challenges in recent years. What’s more, Jordan is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which explicitly allows participants to enrich uranium for peaceful power production. And the king has continuously affirmed his willingness for transparency on all matters relating to the production of nuclear power plants.

Why should his country be denied the right to use its own uranium to produce energy? Why suspect his country of doing exactly what it has said it won’t do? Why deny Jordan nuclear technology out of fear of some “worst-case scenario” whereby his regime collapses and is replaced by one that attempts to develop a bomb? This could occur in many other places.

Indeed, the United Arab Emirates recently agreed to a deal with the United States like the one Washington wants Amman to sign — the emirates, having agreed to purchase uranium on the international market, are planning to build a $20 billion nuclear reactor. Similar deals are being worked out with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. But none of those states have uranium deposits, and Jordan does.

King Abdullah is a great believer in peace in our region. For example, a few years ago, he expressed his unreserved support for the peace plan presented by the Geneva Initiative, of which I am the head, in a public appearance before a joint session of Congress. Other Arab leaders merely expressed their support behind closed doors.

There is a certain risk in allowing Jordan to enrich uranium so close to Israel’s border, but the risk in denying the king’s request is far greater. Indeed, there is much more at stake here than Jordan’s desire to establish power plants for electricity. This is about how Israel treats its pragmatic neighbors, like President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and King Abdullah. Do we strengthen those who want peace and stability in the region or, with the help of the American government, do we turn our backs on them?

We must remember that extremists are always there, lurking behind the shoulders of pragmatists in anticipation of their downfall.

Yossi Beilin

Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli minister of justice, is the head of the Geneva Initiative, an independent peace organization.

Spain's Senate Votes to Ban Burqa


MADRID — In a significant escalation of Spain’s debate over how to handle radical Islam, the Senate on Wednesday narrowly and unexpectedly approved a motion to ban Muslim women from wearing in public the burqa or other garments that cover the whole body. The vote, 131 to 129, was another setback for the Socialist government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which had favored more-limited restrictions on Islamic clothing and has instead been pushing to curtail religious fundamentalism through better education.

The Spanish vote comes amid several national initiatives across Europe to restrict the spread of radical Islam and defend liberal values.

In Belgium, the lower house of Parliament has already approved a measure that, if unamended by the upper house, would make it a crime to wear in public “clothing that hides the face.”

France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe, has also been inching toward such a ban on the burqa. The measure has the backing of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who recently condemned the garment as “a sign of subservience” rather than one of religion.

In Switzerland last year, a referendum banned the construction of minarets.

While national politicians may be urging a clampdown on the burqa, such moves are still expected to run into legal obstacles. In March, France’s top administrative body, the Council of State, warned the government that a full ban would be unconstitutional. A commission of the Council of Europe, the European institution dealing with human rights issues, also recently warned governments against imposing a complete ban that would violate women’s individual rights.

Before the Spanish Senate’s vote, some of the country’s local authorities had already moved to introduce restrictions on the burqa. The issue was especially heated in the region of Catalonia, where the debate over Islam and immigration has become entangled in early campaigning ahead of regional elections later this year. The pending elections may have proved crucial in the Wednesday vote, as senators from the CiU, a Catalan party, surprisingly switched their earlier stance to vote in favor of a burqa ban.

The motion adopted by the senators calls on Spain to outlaw “any usage, custom or discriminatory practice that limits the freedom of women.” It was drafted and led by politicians from the main center-right opposition People's Party.

Justifying the vote, one of the senators from the CiU, Montserrat Candini, said that “we cannot tolerate that nobody understands that we are not in favor of banning the burqa.”

The Senate’s position also came as a surprise because although Spain has become a major European entry point for Muslim migrants from North Africa, few of those immigrants wear either the burqa or the niqab, which does not cover the eyes. A similar argument has also been made by opponents of a burqa ban in countries like France, where only an estimated 2,000 women wear the burqa out of a Muslim population of about 5 million. France, however, already passed a law in 2004 to ban head scarves or any other “conspicuous” religious symbol from state schools in order to preserve their secularism.

The Spanish government is supposed to follow the Senate’s motion. However, given that Socialist senators opposed the ban, the governing party is likely to seek ways to circumvent the vote.

Anna Terrón, the secretary of state for immigration, said the Senate vote had “more to do with the election campaign in which the CiU is involved than with a real discussion” on the burqa.

Mullen to Karzai: New general won't alter war plan


KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. military's top officer assured Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday that the new NATO commander will pursue the same war strategy crafted by Gen. Stanley McChrystal — the ousted general whom Karzai warmly praised for training Afghan security forces and reducing civilian casualties. Adm. Mike Mullen visited Afghanistan three days after President Barack Obama accepted the resignation of McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces. Afghan leaders and U.S. allies in the war worried his firing could disrupt the counterinsurgency strategy at a critical juncture in the war, but were relieved to learn that his replacement would be Gen. David Petraeus, McChrystal's boss who help author the plan.

During their meeting, Karzai lauded McChrystal, saying he was able to "reduce civilian casualties, create good cooperation between the Afghan and international forces and strengthen and develop the Afghan forces," according to a statement from the Afghan presidential palace.

Karzai welcomed Obama's decision to appoint Petraeus, a man he said had a wealth of experience and knowledge about the situation in Afghanistan, the statement said. Mullen, who later traveled to neighboring Pakistan, assured Karzai that Petraeus would also do his best to reduce civilian casualties, bolster cooperation among the forces and train Afghan police and soldiers.

On the battlefield, three international service members, including at least one American, were killed Saturday in two separate roadside bombings in southern Afghanistan, NATO said. That brought to 87 the number of international troops killed so far in June — already the deadliest month of the nearly 9-year-old war. The figure includes at least 51 Americans.

In a speech earlier in the day marking International Narcotics Day, Karzai acknowledged that curbing Afghanistan's huge drug trade remains a major challenge, despite success in reducing or eradicating opium poppy cultivation in 22 of the country's 34 provinces.

"We will work strongly against poppies and other narcotics for our national interest, honor, the welfare of Afghan people and development," he said. But he said the problem will not be solved until other countries crack down on smugglers within their own borders who profit from the traffic in Afghan poppies and heroin.

He said Afghanistan is a "poor and weak country that cannot control its borders" and asked its neighbors "why can't you control your borders?"

Karzai did not cite countries by name but U.N. experts have pointed to Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan as major transit points for Afghan drugs smuggled into Russia and Western Europe.

The drug trade also fuels corruption, which the U.S. and its international partners believe has helped contribute to the return of the Taliban after it was ousted from power in a 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Critics have faulted Karzai for not doing enough to combat corruption.

In his remarks, Karzai said there was nothing wrong with relatives of politicians and government officials investing in the Afghan economy, as long as the businesses operate legally.

"I would ask the anti-corruption department to monitor their incomes, starting with the president's family, then the vice presidents, ministers, governors and lawmakers," he said. "There will be accountability in the country."

Karzai also complained that international missions in Afghanistan were spending too much money on private security companies, describing them as little more than armed militias.

"I request of the U.S., Britain and other countries and their militaries not to support private security guards," he said. "Those companies that are blocking the road, they are creating problems for the people and even support terrorists. They should not waste their money on these private security companies."

Use of private security companies to guard convoys transporting food, water, ammunition and fuel frees up soldiers for the battlefield.

However, U.S. lawmakers criticized the military during a congressional hearing in Washington on Tuesday for failing to heed warnings that those companies were paying warlords millions of dollars to ensure safe passage through dangerous areas. Some of the money may go to the Taliban, lawmakers said.

Afghan authorities have also complained that security guards protecting such convoys fire on civilians without provocation in high-risk areas.

Also Saturday, NATO said a senior Taliban commander disguised as a woman was killed the night before after opening fire with a pistol at Afghan and international troops who had come to arrest him.

Intelligence sources tracked Ghulam Sakhi to a compound in Logar province, south of the capital. Afghan forces used a loudspeaker to call for women and children to leave the building.

"As they were exiting, Sakhi came out with the group disguised in women's attire and pulled out a pistol and a grenade and shot at the security force," the coalition said in a statement. "When Afghan and coalition forces shot him, he dropped the grenade and it detonated, wounding a woman and two children."

NATO said Sakhi, who is known by several aliases, was involved in roadside bombings and ambushes throughout the province, and had kidnapped and killed an Afghan government intelligence chief there.

In Kabul, a small explosion occurred in an area that houses foreign embassies and government offices but caused no casualties.

Abdul Ghafar Sayedzada, head of the criminal investigation unit of the Kabul police, said the blast was caused by a small bomb placed on the engine of a government vehicle.

The driver of the car, used by the Afghan National Army, was arrested. The front of the vehicle was damaged, but no one was wounded, he said.