White House Quietly Courts Muslims in U.S.

April 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Andrea Elliott, NY Times

When President Obama took the stage in Cairo last June, promising a new relationship with the Islamic world, Muslims in America wondered only half-jokingly whether the overture included them. After all, Mr. Obama had kept his distance during the campaign, never visiting an American mosque and describing the false claim that he was Muslim as a “smear” on his Web site.

Nearly a year later, Mr. Obama has yet to set foot in an American mosque. And he still has not met with Muslim and Arab-American leaders. But less publicly, his administration has reached out to this politically isolated constituency in a sustained and widening effort that has left even skeptics surprised.

Muslim and Arab-American advocates have participated in policy discussions and received briefings from top White House aides and other officials on health care legislation, foreign policy, the economy, immigration and national security. They have met privately with a senior White House adviser, Valerie Jarrett, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to discuss civil liberties concerns and counterterrorism strategy.

The impact of this continuing dialogue is difficult to measure, but White House officials cited several recent government actions that were influenced, in part, by the discussions. The meeting with Ms. Napolitano was among many factors that contributed to the government’s decision this month to end a policy subjecting passengers from 14 countries, most of them Muslim, to additional scrutiny at airports, the officials said.

That emergency directive, enacted after a failed Dec. 25 bombing plot, has been replaced with a new set of intelligence-based protocols that law enforcement officials consider more effective.

Also this month, Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Muslim academic, visited the United States for the first time in six years after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reversed a decision by the Bush administration, which had barred Mr. Ramadan from entering the country, initially citing the U.S.A. Patriot Act. Mrs. Clinton also cleared the way for another well-known Muslim professor, Adam Habib, who had been denied entry under similar circumstances.

Arab-American and Muslim leaders said they had yet to see substantive changes on a variety of issues, including what they describe as excessive airport screening, policies that have chilled Muslim charitable giving and invasive F.B.I. surveillance guidelines. But they are encouraged by the extent of their consultation by the White House and governmental agencies.

“For the first time in eight years, we have the opportunity to meet, engage, discuss, disagree, but have an impact on policy,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. “We’re being made to feel a part of that process and that there is somebody listening.”

In the post-9/11 era, Muslims and Arab-Americans have posed something of a conundrum for the government: they are seen as a political liability but also, increasingly, as an important partner in countering the threat of homegrown terrorism. Under President George W. Bush, leaders of these groups met with government representatives from time to time, but said they had limited interaction with senior officials. While Mr. Obama has yet to hold the kind of high-profile meeting that Muslims and Arab-Americans seek, there is a consensus among his policymakers that engagement is no longer optional.

The administration’s approach has been understated. Many meetings have been private; others were publicized only after the fact. A visit to New York University in February by John O. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, drew little news coverage, but caused a stir among Muslims around the country. Speaking to Muslim students, activists and others, Mr. Brennan acknowledged many of their grievances, including “surveillance that has been excessive,” “overinclusive no-fly lists” and “an unhelpful atmosphere around many Muslim charities.”

“These are challenges we face together as Americans,” said Mr. Brennan, who momentarily showed off his Arabic to hearty applause. He and other officials have made a point of disassociating Islam from terrorism in public comments, using the phrase “violent extremism” in place of words like “jihad” and “Islamic terrorism.”

While the administration’s solicitation of Muslims and Arab-Americans has drawn little fanfare, it has not escaped criticism. A small but vocal group of research analysts, bloggers and others complain that the government is reaching out to Muslim leaders and organizations with an Islamist agenda or ties to extremist groups abroad.

They point out that Ms. Jarrett gave the keynote address at the annual convention for the Islamic Society of North America. The group was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal case against the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a Texas-based charity whose leaders were convicted in 2008 of funneling money to Hamas. The society denies any links to terrorism.

“I think dialogue is good, but it has to be with genuine moderates,” said Steven Emerson, a terrorism analyst who advises government officials. “These are the wrong groups to legitimize.” Mr. Emerson and others have also objected to the political appointments of several American Muslims, including Rashad Hussain.

In February, the president chose Mr. Hussain, a 31-year-old White House lawyer, to become the United States’ special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The position, a kind of ambassador at large to Muslim countries, was created by Mr. Bush. In a video address, Mr. Obama highlighted Mr. Hussain’s status as a “close and trusted member of my White House staff” and “a hafiz,” a person who has memorized the Koran.

Within days of the announcement, news reports surfaced about comments Mr. Hussain had made on a panel in 2004, while he was a student at Yale Law School, in which he referred to several domestic terrorism prosecutions as “politically motivated.” Among the cases he criticized was that of Sami Al-Arian, a former computer-science professor in Florida who pleaded guilty to aiding members of a Palestinian terrorist group.

At first, the White House said Mr. Hussain did not recall making the comments, which had been removed from the Web version of a 2004 article published by a small Washington magazine. When Politico obtained a recording of the panel, Mr. Hussain acknowledged criticizing the prosecutions but said he believed the magazine quoted him inaccurately, prompting him to ask its editor to remove the comments. On Feb. 22, The Washington Examiner ran an editorial with the headline “Obama Selects a Voice of Radical Islam.”

Muslim leaders watched carefully as the story migrated to Fox News. They had grown accustomed to close scrutiny, many said in interviews, but were nonetheless surprised. In 2008, Mr. Hussain had co-authored a paper for the Brookings Institution arguing that the government should use the peaceful teachings of Islam to fight terrorism.

“Rashad Hussain is about as squeaky clean as you get,” said Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who is Muslim. Mr. Ellison and others wondered whether the administration would buckle under the pressure and were relieved when the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, defended Mr. Hussain.

“The fact that the president and the administration have appointed Muslims to positions and have stood by them when they’ve been attacked is the best we can hope for,” said Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America.

It was notably different during Mr. Obama’s run for office. In June 2008, volunteers of his campaign barred two Muslim women in headscarves from appearing behind Mr. Obama at a rally in Detroit, eliciting widespread criticism. The campaign promptly recruited Mazen Asbahi, a 36-year-old corporate lawyer and popular Muslim activist from Chicago, to become its liaison to Muslims and Arab-Americans.

Bloggers began researching Mr. Asbahi’s background. For a brief time in 2000, he had sat on the board of an Islamic investment fund, along with Sheikh Jamal Said, a Chicago imam who was later named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land case. Mr. Asbahi said in an interview that he had left the board after three weeks because he wanted no association with the imam.

Shortly after his appointment to the Obama campaign, Mr. Asbahi said, a Wall Street Journal reporter began asking questions about his connection to the imam. Campaign officials became concerned that news coverage would give critics ammunition to link the imam to Mr. Obama, Mr. Asbahi recalled. On their recommendation, Mr. Asbahi agreed to resign from the campaign, he said.

He is still unsettled by the power of his detractors. “To be in the midst of this campaign of change and hope and to have it stripped away over nothing,” he said. “It hurts.”

From the moment Mr. Obama took office, he seemed eager to change the tenor of America’s relationship with Muslims worldwide. He gave his first interview to Al Arabiya, the Arabic-language television station based in Dubai. Muslims cautiously welcomed his ban on torture and his pledge to close Guantánamo within a year.

In his Cairo address, he laid out his vision for “a new beginning” with Muslims: while America would continue to fight terrorism, he said, terrorism would no longer define America’s approach to Muslims.

Back at home, Muslim and Arab-American leaders remained skeptical. But they took note when, a few weeks later, Mohamed Magid, a prominent imam from Sterling, Va., and Rami Nashashibi, a Muslim activist from Chicago, joined the president at a White-House meeting about fatherhood. Also that month, Dr. Faisal Qazi, a board member of American Muslim Health Professionals, began meeting with administration officials to discuss health care reform.

The invitations were aimed at expanding the government’s relationship with Muslims and Arab-Americans to areas beyond security, said Mr. Hussain, the White House’s special envoy. Mr. Hussain began advising the president on issues related to Islam after joining the White House counsel’s office in January 2009. He helped draft Mr. Obama’s Cairo speech and accompanied him on the trip. “The president realizes that you cannot engage one-fourth of the world’s population based on the erroneous beliefs of a fringe few,” Mr. Hussain said.

Other government offices followed the lead of the White House. In October, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke met with Arab-Americans and Muslims in Dearborn, Mich., to discuss challenges facing small-business owners. Also last fall, Farah Pandith was sworn in as the State Department’s first special representative to Muslim communities. While Ms. Pandith works mostly with Muslims abroad, she said she had also consulted with American Muslims because Mrs. Clinton believes “they can add value overseas.”

Despite this, American actions abroad — including civilian deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan and the failure to close Guantánamo — have drawn the anger of Muslims and Arab-Americans.

Even though their involvement with the administration has broadened, they remain most concerned about security-related policies. In January, when the Department of Homeland Security hosted a two-day meeting with Muslim, Arab-American, South Asian and Sikh leaders, the group expressed concern about the emergency directive subjecting passengers from a group of Muslim countries to additional screening.

Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, pointed out that the policy would never have caught the attempted shoe bomber Richard Reid, who is British. “It almost sends the signal that the government is going to treat nationals of powerless countries differently from countries that are powerful,” Ms. Khera recalled saying as community leaders around the table nodded their heads.

Ms. Napolitano, who sat with the group for more than an hour, committed to meeting with them more frequently. Ms. Khera said she left feeling somewhat hopeful.

“I think our message is finally starting to get through,” she said.

12-17

Islam Siddiqui Appointed

April 1, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

President Obama on Saturday announced the recess appointment of 15 political appointees whose nominations had been stalled by Republicans.

DrIslamSiddiqui “The United States Senate has the responsibility to approve or disapprove of my nominees. But if, in the interest of scoring political points, Republicans in the Senate refuse to exercise that responsibility, I must act in the interest of the American people and exercise my authority to fill these positions on an interim basis,” Obama said in a statement.

“Most of the men and women whose appointments I am announcing today were approved by Senate committees months ago, yet still await a vote of the Senate. At a time of economic emergency, two top appointees to the Department of Treasury have been held up for nearly six months. I simply cannot allow partisan politics to stand in the way of the basic functioning of government.”

The 15 newly appointed nominees are:

* Jeffrey Goldstein: Nominee for Under Secretary for Domestic Finance, Department of the Treasury
* Michael F. Mundaca: Nominee for Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy, Department of the Treasury
* Eric L. Hirschhorn: Nominee for Under Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration and head of the Bureau of Industry and Security, Department of Commerce
* Michael Punke: Nominee for Deputy Trade Representative – Geneva, Office of the United States Trade Representative
* Francisco “Frank” J. Sánchez: Nominee for Under Secretary for International Trade, Department of Commerce
* Islam A. Siddiqui: Nominee for Chief Agricultural Negotiator, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
* Alan D. Bersin: Nominee for Commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security
* Jill Long Thompson: Nominee for Member, Farm Credit Administration Board
* Rafael Borras: Nominee for Under Secretary for Management , Department of Homeland Security
* Craig Becker: Nominee for Board Member, National Labor Relations Board
* Mark Pearce: Nominee for Board Member, National Labor Relations Board
* Jacqueline A. Berrien: Nominee for Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
* Chai R. Feldblum: Nominee for Commissioner, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
* Victoria A. Lipnic: Nominee for Commissioner, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
* P. David Lopez: Nominee for General Counsel, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

In a post to the White House blog that accompanied Obama’s announcement, spokeswoman Jen Psaki wrote that the president “was no longer willing to let another month go by with key economic positions unfilled, especially at a time when our country is recovering from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.”

Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution gives the president the right to unilaterally fill any vacancy that would normally require Senate confirmation when the Senate is in recess.

Unlike appointments that are confirmed by the Senate, recess appointments only last until the end of the next session of Congress, which right now would mean until the end of 2011.

Obama had been widely expected to recess appoint Becker and Pearce to the labor relations board. As Jason Linkins wrote in the Huffington Post on Friday, GOP opposition to Obama’s nominees had left the board with only two of its five members, which has led to a lot of one-to-one ties.

Some of the other appointments are to critical positions, such as the two Treasury candidates whose nominations had been stalled.

And some were being obstructed for particularly outrageous reasons. As Ryan Grim recently reported for the Huffington Post, the two trade nominees — Bunke and Siddiqui — were being blocked by Kentucky Republican Sen. Jim Bunning because he is opposed to a tobacco-related law passed by the Canadian Parliament.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), was particularly eloquent on that matter on the Senate floor two weeks ago: “The Senator from Kentucky has said he doesn’t have any objection to these nominees. He’s only blocking the nominations as leverage against the President and [U.S. Trade Representative Ron] Kirk. That is pure obstructionism.”

Obama nevertheless shied away from what would have been some more controversial recess appointments. He did not unilaterally install any of his blocked nominees to the Justice Department, including Dawn Johnsen, his nominee to run the Office of Legal Counsel, and Chris Schroeder, his nominee to be assistant attorney general for legal policy — both of whom are beloved by progressives but reviled by Republicans. He also chose not to recess appoint one of his senior Treasury nominees, Lael Brainard, nominated for undersecretary of international affairs, who has run into some tax issues.

That Obama would use his recess appointment powers isn’t a surprise. According to the Congressional Research Service, President George W. Bush made 171 recess appointments; President Clinton made 139.

Until Saturday, Obama hadn’t made any — despite Republican obstruction so intense that even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in early February essentially begged Obama to do an end run.

“Frankly, I think the President should recess all of them — all of them,” Reid said of Obama’s stalled nominees. “There are scores of them being held up for reasons that have nothing to do with anything dealing with these people or how they will function once in office.”

There are still about 200 judicial and civilian nominees being held up, some of them for some pretty amazing reasons. And the Senate is in recess until April 12.

12-14

Obama Appoints Former Microsoft Security Chief New Cybersecurity Czar

December 22, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Kim Zetter, Wired Magazine Email Author

howard-schmidt-with-president-obama

It took seven months but President Obama has finally found someone to take the cybersecurity czar job no one wanted.

Howard Schmidt,  a former Microsoft security executive and a one-time cybersecurity adviser to President George W. Bush, has been appointed to the position of cybersecurity coordinator, according to a White House announcement Tuesday.

Schmidt served as vice chair, and then chair, of the President’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Board and as Special Adviser for Cyberspace Security for the White House from December 2001 until May 2003, when he reportedly left the position out of frustration that the government wasn’t making cybersecurity a priority. After leaving the White House, he became chief information security officer at eBay.

In his new position, he will be responsible for coordinating the federal government’s cybersecurity initiatives to secure government networks and critical U.S. infrastructures. This will include working with the Office of Management and Budget to ensure that agencies have money allocated for cybersecurity priorities, and coordinating the government’s response to a major cyber incident or attack.

According to the Associated Press, Obama was directly involved in the selection of Schmidt, who was chosen after an extensive search.

But the announcement of Schmidt came with little fanfare on Tuesday and followed months of reports from other candidates that they either turned down the job or otherwise discouraged the White House from courting them.

Obama announced last May that he was creating a new office to be led by a cybersecurity czar. For nearly a year, however, he could find no one to take the job, because of what many viewed as its undesirable placement in the federal hierarchy.

The czar, Obama stated, would report to the National Security Council and the National Economic Council, putting the position one rung lower in the executive branch hierarchy than many security experts had wanted. Observers had hoped the czar would report directly to the president, which would have helped insulate the office from agency turf battles and ensure quick access to top decision makers.

The White House was quick to dispel concerns on Tuesday that Schmidt’s office would be exiled from the West Wing. An unidentified White House official told the Associated Press that Schmidt would have regular and direct access to the President for cybersecurity issues.

Schmidt, Microsoft’s chief security officer until 2001, is the second former Microsoft executive to take a top federal cybersecurity position. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appointed Philip Reitinger in March to the position of deputy undersecretary of the department’s National Protections Program Directorate.

Reitinger was Microsoft’s chief trustworthy-infrastructure strategist, a job that required him in part to help develop and implement strategies for enhancing the security of critical infrastructures. In his new position, he oversees the protection of the government’s computer networks and works with the private sector to help secure critical infrastructures.

There have been concerns about how the White House intends to address cybersecurity issues, particularly in the private sector, and protect civil liberties at the same time.

Obama asserted in his speech in May that the new White House cybersecurity office would include an official whose job is to ensure that the government’s cyberpolicies don’t violate the privacy and civil liberties of Americans.

“Our pursuit of cybersecurity will not include — I repeat, will not include — monitoring private-sector networks or internet traffic,” he said. “We will preserve and protect the personal privacy and civil liberties that we cherish as Americans.”

Photo by Lawrence Jackson, courtesy of White House

Major Donor to Israel Causes Pleads Guilty…

December 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Philanthropist pleads guilty to bribes

JTA

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Elliott Broidy, a leading investor in the Israeli economy and major donor and activist in the Los Angeles Jewish community, pleaded guilty Thursday to the felony charge of rewarding official misconduct.

According to New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Broidy admitted that he made nearly $1 million in payoffs to four senior New York state officials as he pursued an investment from the state public pension fund. He has agreed to forfeit $18 million in management fees and a judge may impose a sentence of up to four years in prison following Broidy’s guilty plea, the Wall Street Journal reported. The development is part of Cuomo’s wide-ranging pay-to-play probe on whether decisions about how to invest retirees’ money in the giant pension fund were wrongly influenced by money and politics.

Cuomo said that Broidy has acknowledged paying at least $75,000 for high-price luxury trips to Italy and Israel for a top official in the New York State Comptroller and his relatives. Several media sources quoted unnamed sources identifying the official as the former comptroller Alan Hevesi; his lawyer reportedly declined to comment.

By raising $800 million, Broidy turned his Markstone Capital Group into the largest private equity fund in Israel, at a time when the intifada was at its height and most investors were shunning the Jewish state. In Los Angeles, Broidy has been a major donor to the United Jewish Fund and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, a trustee of the University of Southern California and USC Hillel, and has served on the Hebrew Union College board of governors and as a trustee of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

He is credited with revitalizing the dormant California-Israel Chamber of Commerce in the mid-1990s, together with Stanley Gold and Stanley Chais. Gold is president and CEO of Shamrock Holdings and outgoing president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Chais, a large contributor to Israeli and Jewish causes, faces three legal actions as an alleged middleman for Bernard Madoff.

Broidy has also been a GOP heavy hitter, serving as finance chairman of the Republican National Committee and a top fund raiser for the presidential campaigns of President George W. Bush in 2004 Sen. John McCain in 2008.

Gold said that he has known Broidy for some 20 years and worked with him on behalf of the local Jewish federation and Wilshire Boulevard Temple, as well as the California-Israel Chamber of Commerce. “Elliott has given freely of his time and energy to the community, of which he has been an outstanding member,” Gold said. “Our hearts go out to him and his family at this difficult time.”

Gold added, “Elliott is a decent and good man. It is not my style to desert a friend in his hour of need.”

Broidy’s New York attorney Christopher Clark issued a statement saying that his client “regrets the actions that brought about this course of events, but is pleased to have resolved this matter with the New York Attorney General and will be cooperating in the ongoing investigation.”

Clark also said that Broidy has “resigned from all operational, supervisory, and other roles at the firm of Markstone Partners in order to focus his attention on legal matters.”

11-51

The Shoe Thrown ‘Round the World

September 24, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) Middle East Correspondent

shoes1 In one single gesture, Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi summed up the sentiments that had been swelling in the hearts of Iraqi’s and Muslims from all over the world ever since former President George W. Bush indulged in his own ‘Axis of Evil’ and went to war with Iraq. With the throw of a pair of size 10 loafers, al-Zaidi unleashed a wave of discontent that Iraqi’s had grappled with ever since their country was unlawfully invaded.

Many Muslims from all over the world cheered, as scenes of adults and children alike rejoicing in the streets of Baghdad waving their own shoes in the air played out on TV. Copycat shoe throwers also emerged in the days following the incident, most notably in India and China where at least two diplomats found themselves also dodging footwear.

However, news about the man behind the shoes was hard to come by. Following the incident, he was rushed away by Iraqi security personnel and imprisoned. Family members later revealed that al-Zaidi was severely beaten and tortured in prison. He was originally sentenced to spend three years in prison, but served only nine months of that sentence as he was recently released.

Finally, al-Zaidi is able to speak for himself and tell the world the reasons behind his actions. In a column recently appearing in the British-based ‘The Guardian’ newspaper, al-Zaidi writes, “When I threw the shoe in the face of the criminal, George Bush, I wanted to express my rejection of his lies, his occupation of my country, my rejection of his killing my people. My rejection of his plundering the wealth of my country, and destroying its infrastructure. And casting out its sons into a diasporas.”

Further al-Zaidi denies that he is a hero and writes, “It humiliated me to see my country humiliated; and to see my Baghdad burned, my people killed. Thousands of tragic pictures remained in my head, pushing me towards the path of confrontation. The scandal of Abu Ghraib, the massacres of Falluja, Najaf, Haditha, Sadr City, Basra, Diyala, Mosul, Tal Afar, and every inch of our wounded land. I traveled through my burning land and saw with my own eyes the pain of the victims, and heard with my own ears the screams of the orphans and the bereaved. And a feeling of shame haunted me like an ugly name because I was powerless.”

After his release, al-Zaidi was reunited with his family in a tearful and long-awaited reunion. According to his employer Al-Baghdadia TV, al-Zaidi has left Iraq and will travel to Syria and later Greece to receive medical care. Al-Zaidi suffered greatly at the hands of Iraqi security personnel who beat him with melt bars, electrocuted him with live wires and engaged in ‘water boarding’ to make him feel like he was drowning. The state of al-Zaidi’s health is unknown at the present time.

In a recent development, al-Zaidi also revealed his future plans in a TV interview conducted by TSR television. He hopes to rally Iraqis together to lodge a complaint against former President Bush and put him on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity. “I really want to go to Switzerland because it is a neutral country and because it is a country that did not support the occupation of Iraq,” al-Zaidi said, “Switzerland hosts many international organizations, including some that fight for children, and Switzerland is a country that has a great democratic tradition. It is an example for the world,”

While the man himself may resist being touted as a hero for his actions. At least one artist has forever immortalized the shoes that were ‘thrown’ around the world. Based in London, artist P Waniewski has created a pair of size 10 shoes identical to the ones al-Zaidi threw, since U.S. security personnel purportedly destroyed the original pair following the incident. So named, ‘Proud Shoes’ the tribute is made of 21 kilograms of bronze and dipped in 24 KT. gold. The artist recently revealed in an interview his reasons for creating the tribute to al-Zaidi, “When I heard this story I was moved by the passion and fearlessness of Mr al-Zaidi’s actions. The shoe that he threw was destroyed by the US authorities, so I felt it was a fitting way of marking this emotive event.”

11-40

US-AFGHANISTAN: Group Seeks Probe of Mass Graves

July 23, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By William Fisher

2009-07-22T115607Z_01_SZH08_RTRMDNP_3_AFGHANISTAN

A U.S. soldier secures the area around a school, which will host a local election committee on the upcoming presidential election, in the village of Dadu-Khel in Logar Province in Afghanistan 7/22/09.  

REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

NEW YORK, Jul 17 (IPS) – A prominent human rights group is calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate why the administration of former President George W. Bush blocked three different probes into war crimes in Afghanistan where as many as 2,000 surrendered Taliban fighters were reportedly suffocated in container trucks and then buried in a mass grave by Afghan forces operating jointly with U.S. forces.

The Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), which discovered the mass gravesite in 2002, has issued the call for the criminal probe. The organisation says U.S. government documents it has obtained show that the bodies were reportedly buried in mass graves in the Dasht-e-Leili desert near Sheberghan, Afghanistan.

It charges that Afghan warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who it says was on the payroll of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was responsible for the 2001 massacre at a prison run by the general’s forces near the town of Shibarghan.

“Physicians for Human Rights went to investigate inhumane conditions at a prison in northern Afghanistan, but what we found was much worse,” stated Susannah Sirkin, PHR’s deputy director.

“Our researchers documented an apparent mass grave site with reportedly thousands of bodies of captured prisoners who were suffocated to death in trucks. That was 2002; seven years later, we still seek answers about what exactly happened and who was involved,” she said.

PHR says senior Bush administration officials impeded investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the State and Defence departments, and apparently never conducted a full inquiry. The New York Times made the disclosure earlier this month in a story by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter James Risen.

Subsequently, President Barack Obama told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he has directed his national security team to look into the alleged massacre. Obama said the government needs to find out whether actions by the U.S. contributed to possible war crimes.

“The Bush administration’s disregard for the rule of law and the Geneva Conventions led to torture of prisoners in Guantánamo and many other secret places,” noted Nathaniel Raymond, PHR’s lead researcher on Dasht-e-Leili.

“Contrary to the legal opinions of the previous Department of Justice, the principles of the Geneva Conventions are non-negotiable, as is their enforcement. President Obama must open a full and transparent criminal probe and prosecute any U.S. officials found to have broken the law,” he said.

“The State Department’s statement to the New York Times that suspected war crimes should be thoroughly investigated indicates a move towards full accountability,” added Raymond. “We stand ready to aid the U.S. government in investigating this massacre. It is time for the cover-up to end.”

PHR reiterated its call to the government of Afghanistan, which has jurisdiction over the alleged mass grave site, to secure the area with the assistance of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force-Afghanistan), protect witnesses to the initial incident and the ensuing tampering, and ensure a full investigation of remaining evidence at the site, including the tracing of the substantial amount of soil that appears to have been removed in 2006.

“Gravesites have been tampered with, evidence has been destroyed, and witnesses have been tortured and killed,” PHR said. “The Dasht-e-Leili mass gravesite must finally be secured, all surviving witnesses must be protected, and the government of Afghanistan, in coordination with the U.N. and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), must at last allow a full investigation to go forward.”

PHR charged that U.S. officials have been reluctant to pursue an investigation – sought by officials from the FBI, the State Department, the Red Cross and human rights groups – because the warlord, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, was on the payroll of the CIA and his militia worked closely with U.S. Special Forces in 2001.

The group said the United States also worried about undermining the U.S.-supported government of President Hamid Karzai, in which General Dostum had served as a defence official.

“At the White House, nobody said no to an investigation, but nobody ever said yes, either,” said Pierre Prosper, the former U.S. ambassador for war crimes issues. “The first reaction of everybody there was, ‘Oh, this is a sensitive issue; this is a touchy issue politically’.”

PHR’s Raymond, who is head of the organisation’s Campaign Against Torture, told IPS that President Obama’s statement was welcome.

But, he added, “The president’s rhetoric must be matched by urgent action. He needs to pressure President Karzai to secure the mass graves site, protect witnesses and make sure that U.S.-led military forces and the United Nations in Afghanistan protect all evidence of the crimes.”

The New York Times reported that the U.S. has put pressure on Afghan officials not to reappoint General Dostum reappointment as military chief of staff to the Afghan president.

General Dostum has previously claimed that any deaths of the Taliban prisoners were unintentional. He has said that only 200 prisoners died and blamed combat wounds and disease for most of the fatalities.

The first calls for an investigation came from PHR and the International Committee of the Red Cross. A military commander in the United States-led coalition rejected a request by a Red Cross official for an inquiry in late 2001, according to the official, who, in keeping with his organisation’s policy, would speak only on condition of anonymity and declined to identify the commander.

Subsequently, PHR asked the Defence Department to investigate the alleged massacre, but no action was taken. PHR says the prisoner deaths came up in a conversation with Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defence at the time, in early 2003.

“Somebody mentioned Dostum and the story about the containers and the possibility that this was a war crime. And Wolfowitz said we are not going to be going after him for that,” according to the group.

11-31

Obama Administration Renews Sanctions on Syria

May 14, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sue Pleming

2009-05-07T125052Z_01_SYR06_RTRMDNP_3_SYRIA-US

Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem (R) meets Jeffrey Feltman, U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, in Damascus May 7, 2009. The portrait on the wall shows Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama said on Friday he had renewed sanctions against Syria because it posed a continuing threat to U.S. interests, despite sending two envoys to Damascus this week to try to improve ties.

In a letter notifying Congress of his decision, Obama accused Damascus of supporting terrorism, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining U.S. and international efforts in trying to stabilize Iraq.

“For these reasons I have determined that it is necessary to continue in effect the national emergency declared with respect to this threat and to maintain in force the sanctions,” Obama said in the letter to Congress.

The sanctions, imposed by former President George W. Bush and which are up for renewal annually, prohibit arms exports to Syria, block Syrian airlines from operating in the United States and deny Syrians suspected of being associated with terrorist groups access to the U.S. financial system.

While the United States has made clear it wants better ties with Syria, which appears on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, the renewal of the sanctions shows it is not yet ready for a dramatic improvement.

“We need to see concrete steps from the Syrian government to move in another direction,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters.

Obama signed the executive order extending the sanctions on Thursday, shortly after two U.S. envoys met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Damascus.
The visit by senior State Department official Jeffrey Feltman and White House National Security Council official Daniel Shapiro was their second since Obama took office in January and started talking to Damascus.

Tough Words

The two officials discussed Syria’s role in Iraq, where Washington has accused Damascus of allowing fighters to cross into its neighbor, and Lebanon, where the United States says Syria plays a destabilizing role.

“Part of Feltman’s trip to the region was trying to get the Syrians to take some steps that will move us toward a better relationship,” Wood said. “But there is a lot that Syria needs to do.”

The United States wants a commitment from Syria that it will not interfere with a June election in neighboring Lebanon, which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited last month to show U.S. support.

The administration hopes direct talks with Syria, which will continue despite the sanctions, will weaken its ties to Iran.

Syria and Iran are the main backers of Hizbollah, a Shi’ite Muslim political and guerrilla group that fought a war against Israel in 2006 and has representatives in the Lebanese government and parliament.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad indicated this week he did not plan to change course. After meeting Iran’s president in Damascus, he said their strategic relationship contributed to Middle East stability.

The administration is reviewing whether to send back an ambassador to Damascus but a senior U.S. official said this week a decision had not yet been taken.

The U.S. ambassador was pulled out of Syria after the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Syria denies any involvement in the killing but the United States pointed fingers at Damascus.

11-21

Thousands March in Baghdad Against U.S. Pact

October 23, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Waleed Ibrahim

2008-10-18T100826Z_01_BAG301_RTRMDNP_3_IRAQ

Demonstrators wave Iraqi national flags during a protest march in Baghdad’s Sadr City October 18, 2008. Thousands of followers of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr took to the streets on Saturday in a demonstration against a pact that would allow U.S. forces to stay in Iraq for three more years.  

REUTERS/Kareem Raheem

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Thousands of followers of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr took to the streets on Saturday in a demonstration against a pact that would allow U.S. forces to stay in Iraq for three more years.

Iraq’s foreign minister said a draft of the agreement hammered out after months of negotiations was now final and being reviewed by political leaders. Parliament would be given a chance to vote for or against it, but not to make changes.

The agreement “has been presented as a final text by the two negotiating teams. The time now is time for a decision,” Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told a news conference. “I believe the next few days will be crucial for the Iraqi leaders to make a political decision and a judgment on this agreement.”

At the demonstration across town, marchers waved Iraqi flags and chanted “Yes, yes Iraq! No, no to the occupation!”

A white-turbaned cleric read out what he described as a letter from Sadr calling on parliament to vote down the pact.

“I reject and condemn the continuation of the presence of the occupation force, and its bases on our beloved land,” the letter said, calling the pact “shameful for Iraq.” Marchers set fire to a U.S. flag, but the atmosphere appeared mostly calm.

“It is a peaceful demonstration, demanding that the occupier leave and the government not sign the pact,” Ahmed al-Masoudi, a Sadrist member of parliament, told Reuters.

Iraqi authorities said the demonstration was authorized and security had been increased to protect the protesters, who were marching from Sadr’s stronghold of Sadr City in the east of the capital to a nearby public square at a university.

“They have permission from the prime minister and the interior minister to hold a peaceful demonstration,” the government’s Baghdad security spokesman Qassim Moussawi said. “It is a part of democracy that people can protest freely.”

The show of strength was a reminder of public hostility to the pact, which would give the U.S. troops a mandate directly from Iraq’s elected leaders for the first time, replacing a U.N. Security Council resolution enacted after the invasion in 2003.

Support Not Assured

Support for the accord in Iraq’s fractious parliament is far from assured, even though Iraq won important concessions from Washington over the course of months of negotiations.

U.S. officials have yet to explain the pact in public, but Iraqi leaders disclosed its contents this week.

The pact commits the United States to end patrols of Iraqi streets by mid-2009 and withdraw fully from the country by the end of 2011 unless Iraq asks them to stay, an apparent reversal for a U.S. administration long opposed to deadlines.

“This is a temporary agreement. It is not binding. It doesn’t establish permanent bases for the U.S. military here in the country,” Zebari said. “We are talking about three years, and it is subject to annual review also.”

The pact describes certain conditions under which Iraq would have the right to try U.S. service members in its courts for serious crimes committed while off duty, an element that was crucial to winning Iraqi political support.

In Washington, officials in the administration of President George W. Bush briefed members of Congress about the pact on Friday and sought to reassure them that it protects U.S. troops.

“I think there is not reason to be concerned,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters, adding that top military brass were happy with the legal protections in the accord.

The administration says it does not need congressional approval for the pact, but has nonetheless sought political support. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice briefed the two U.S. presidential candidates on the pact on Friday.

Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Dominic Evans

http://www.reuters.com/article/topNews/idUSTRE49E6BY20081018?feedType=RSS&feedName=topNews&sp=true