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Afghanistan on Edge

Afghan President Blocks Visit by Outspoken U.S. Congressman

April 23rd 2012

Dana Rohrbacher (R) Calif
Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-Calif)

U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher's office has confirmed that Afghan President Hamid Karzai forced him to cancel a visit to Kabul, saying he was not welcome in the country. A statement from Rohrabacher’s office said he was to be a late addition to a U.S. delegation that met on April 22 with the ethnic Uzbek former Northern Alliance commander Abdul Rashid Dostum and other Afghan opposition leaders. Rohrabacher, a Republican from California and 23-year veteran of Congress, is an outspoken critic of Karzai. The lawmaker’s office said Karzai threatened to block entrance to the entire U.S. delegation if Rohrabacher was aboard the military plane that was transporting the group from Dubai to Kabul on April 20.

The statement said Karzai's demand was forwarded by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who "personally petitioned Dana not to continue on with the delegation." Rohrabacher stayed behind in Dubai. Earlier media reports said Rohrabacher had been refused an Afghan visa. Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai stated that on April 23 that the Foreign Ministry can grant or deny a visa to any foreign national, but he did not comment specifically on Rohrabacher's case. Rohrabacher, who chairs the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, has previously called for investigations into alleged Afghan government corruption. He also angered Kabul in January when he led a small delegation of mainly Republican U.S. lawmakers to Berlin for meetings with Afghan opposition politicians. Read more ..

Islam's War Against Christians

Muslim Mob Destroys Christian Church in Khartoum as Sudan Bombards breakaway South Sudan

April 23rd 2012

South Sudan soldier

A Muslim mob destroyed a Catholic church complex in Khartoum, the capital of the Arab Muslim-dominated country of Sudan on the night of April 21. The church was torched and utterly destroyed by a mob of several hundred Muslims in Khartoum’s Al-Jiraif neighborhood, which had served southerners primarily. Firefigthers were unable to quell the flames, according to bystanders. The Al-Sahafah newspaper reported that Ethiopian refugees living in Khartoum also used the church complex. S

South Sudan, which is inhabited mainly by Christians and animists, broke away from mostly Sunni-Muslim Sudan in 2011 after decades of fratricidal warfare. After a short period of relative calm, fears are growing that open warfare will commence between the two countries. Over the April 21-22 weekend, Sudanese military aircraft flew sorties over the border region dividing the two countries. The Heglig oil fields, which are contestedby the two, received heavy bombardment, and oil wells in the area receieved significant damage. The two countries have differences over the sharing of natural resources (including petroleum), the demarcation of borders, and citizenship. Read more ..

Edge of Geopolitics

Russia and China to Commence Joint Naval Exercises

April 22nd 2012

Chinese cruiser Harbin
Chinese destroyer Harbin, framed by two US seamen.  (DoD)

China and Russia are preparing to launch joint naval exercises on April 22 in the Yellow Sea between the east coast of mainland China and the Korean peninsula. Chinese state media report that 16 Chinese surface vessels and two submarines, as well as four Russian warships, are taking part in the six days of drills scheduled from April 22 through 27.

The Chinese and Russian vessels gathered at the eastern Chinese port city of Qingdao, the home of China’s northern fleet, on the previous day. The exercises include maritime air defense, anti-submarine tactics, search-and-rescue and the simulated rescue of hijacked ships, and anti-terrorism drills. Formerly Cold War rivals for leadership of the communist world, China and Russia have conducted four bilateral and multilateral military exercises since 2005.

The two countries are also participants in six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program that also include the two Koreas, Japan and the U.S. Four Russian warships have docked at a Chinese naval base near Qingdao. They are taking a break from guarding vessels in pirate-infested waters near Somalia for joint military drills. Read more ..

Election Edge

France Veers Left as Francois Hollande Takes Lead in First Round Election

April 22nd 2012

Francois Hollande
Francois Hollande

Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande emerged the frontrunner in the first round of presidential voting in France, with initial results giving him 29.3 percent of the vote compared to 26 percent for conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy. The two men face a runoff vote on May 6.

There were no major surprises in the first round of presidential elections in France. Polls have consistently placed French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande, as the top vote-getters.

In a speech after the initial results were announced, Hollande said his win reflected the failed policy of France's conservative president.

Mr. Hollande said he was now a candidate of union, who wanted to assemble voters supporting a hodgepodge of leftist parties during the first round. Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Israel Ready to Attack This Critical Year--Israel's Army Chief of Staff

April 22nd 2012

Israeli Jet Diving

If Israel is forced to strike Iran's nuclear facilities, the military will be ready, said the army's chief of staff Sunday. "In principle, we are ready to act," Chief of Staff Benny Gantz told Ynet in a special interview ahead of Israel’s upcoming Independence Day. This is a critical year, added Gantz, and Israel is determined to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. However, Gantz said he believes Israel does not face an existential threat at this time. Gantz also hinted that the IDF has been operating far beyond Israel's borders. "I don’t think you will find a point in time where something isn’t happening somewhere in the world," he said. "The level of risk has increased as well. This is not something invented by Benny Gantz. I’m not taking the credit here. I’m simply accelerating all those special operations."

Gantz warned that a regional war will certainly mean rocket strikes on Israel's territory but said that the Jewish state is capable of dealing with any eventuality. "I can’t promise no missiles will be landing here. They will be falling; many of them. It won’t be a simple war, neither on the frontlines nor ion the home front,” he said. “However, I don’t advice anyone to test us on this front." Read more ..

Sudan on Edge

Dispute Over Oil Fields Continues to Fuel Sudan's Volatility

April 22nd 2012

Sudanese militia

The border region between the two Sudans remains volatile after the south's withdrawal from the flashpoint town of Heglig, an oil-producing area claimed by both countries along their shared border.

There are reports that Sudan's armed forces continued air raids inside South Sudan on April 22, despite the south's withdrawal from Heglig on April 20.

The showdown over Heglig and its lucrative oil fields had raised fears the two countries could be on the verge of a full-scale war, less than ten months after South Sudan formally split from the north.

Residents in South Sudan's town of Bentiu told VOA News they live in fear because of continued air attacks by Sudan. Meanwhile, convoys of the south's Sudan Peoples Liberation Army were seen traveling toward the northern border late on April 21. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Democrats Jab Romney With Dream Act

April 22nd 2012

Ask Mitt

House Democrats highlighted the Dream Act this week largely in hopes it will haunt Mitt Romney on the campaign trail. Leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus say Romney's opposition to the proposal – which would forge a pathway to citizenship for high achievers brought to the U.S. illegally as kids – exposes a candidate out of touch with Latinos, a fast-growing group that's sure to figure prominently in this year's elections.

The issue is proving a tough one for Romney, who tacked far to the right on immigration in the heat of the GOP primary and is now searching for ways to soften his position. The dilemma has left the former Massachusetts governor straddling efforts to cater to Latino voters – seen as vital in a number of swing states – without alienating the conservative hard-liners of his base who consider anything shy of deportation to be amnesty.
Appearing at a press event at the Capitol Thursday, Democrats seemed well aware of Romney's quandary and its potential influence on November's elections – and they came out swinging. Read more ..

The Obama Edge

Nuke Agency Chief Declares Allegations He Targets Women Are 'Categorically Untrue'

April 21st 2012

Gregory Jaczko
Gregory Jaczko

The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission strongly denied allegations that he verbally abused female employees of the agency.

“There’s been a little bit of talk recently about my treatment of women,” NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said at a Friday press conference. "And I want to begin by saying that any of these allegations that I specifically target women are categorically untrue. And beyond that I don’t really have anything else to say about that issue.” Jaczko made similar comments during a series of congressional hearings in recent months. But Republicans revived the allegations this week, drawing Jaczko into the political battle over which party is friendlier to female voters.

Friday’s press conference, a rarity for the nuclear power official, came amid a partisan fight over renominating Republican NRC Commissioner Kristine Svinicki to a second term at the agency. Jaczko declined to weigh in on Svinicki’s nomination. “I will be comfortable working with any member of the commission that makes it through the confirmation process,” he said. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Obama Faces Tough Choices In Syria

April 21st 2012

Bombing in Syria Mar 2012
Syrian Bombing

As the international peace plan in Syria faltered this week amid continued violence, the Obama administration faces difficult choices as it plots a path forward there.

The administration does not want to get into a military conflict in Syria or spark a larger civil war, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has shown little intention of abiding by the peace plan put forward by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

Administration officials called for tougher action in Syria this week, including hints at the use of force if Assad does not stop and steeper sanctions to further isolate Assad. But the White House says it still is opposed to any military action or arming the Syrian opposition as it weighs its options. Defense hawks are clamoring for military action in Syria, and others in the Senate are also suggesting the United States must consider establishing safe havens and arming the opposition. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Violence Shatters Fragile Syrian Cease-Fire

April 20th 2012

Syria burning

Syrian activists report government forces are pounding a rebel-held section of the central city of Homs, the latest violence to grip a nation already losing its hold on an ever shakier cease-fire. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Syrian forces are bombarding the Khaldiyeh neighborhood in Homs with mortar rounds, reporting explosions every five minutes.  The group also says gunfire is echoing through the streets of Qusair, near the border with Lebanon and that government reinforcements are on their way to help. Friday's violence is the latest in a series of clashes that have erupted since the United Nations-brokered truce went into effect last week.  And in Geneva Friday, a spokesman for international envoy Kofi Annan warned the situation was becoming more dire. Ahmad Fawzi called the cease-fire "very fragile," describing the situation as "not good." Fawzi also expressed hope that the remaining members of a U.N. team of monitors would soon be in place.  Meanwhile, concerns that diplomatic efforts and more peacekeepers will fall short are growing. Read more ..

The Battle for Bahrain

Formula 1 Racers get the Jitters in the Face of Violence in Bahrain

April 19th 2012

F 1 racer bahrain

Zaineb Al-Assam, who studies the Mideast for Exclusive Analysis Ltd, provided an analysis of the risk of violence for Bahrain. She said, "Protests are likely in Bani Jamra, Juffair, Karzakan, al-Ma'amir, entailing roadblocks and petrol and pipe bombs targeting security forces. In response, security forces are likely to use tear gas, stun grenades and shotguns to disperse protesters, although this is likely to incite further unrest.

Protesters have additionally planned to block the main road leading to the Bahrain International Circuit on April 20 and have threatened attacks on US and UK assets. In both instances, security forces are likely to prevent these actions from succeeding. Overall, despite threats made by the protestors, security precautions at embassies, hotels and the F1 racing circuit mitigate violent risks to these assets. Read more ..

The Koreas on Edge

South Korea Says New Missile Can Hit Any Target in North

April 19th 2012

North Korean Missile

South Korea is deploying a new cruise missile capable of hitting targets anywhere in North Korea. South Korea, simultaneous to releasing a video showing its new cruise missile destroying a target, is vowing to “firmly and thoroughly retaliate” if North Korea conducts further provocations. South Korean army Major General Shin Won-sik, briefing domestic defense reporters at the ministry, took a tough posture in view of North Korea's recent activities. The general says the new missile has a range of more than 1,000 kilometers and can immediately strike anywhere in North Korea.

The deployment announcement comes less than a week after North Korea tried to launch what Seoul and Washington characterize as a Taepodong-2 long-range missile. Pyongyang says its failed launch was a peaceful attempt to place an earth observation satellite into orbit. General Shin did not name the newly deployed missile. Analysts say it is the surface-to-surface Hyunmu 3C (also referred to as the Chollyong), reputed to be able to strike a target with two meters accuracy while carrying a 450-kilogram warhead. The general also announced the South Korean military has deployed a new tactical ballistic missile with a range of 300 kilometers. Read more ..

Eugenics on Edge

Dutch Parliament Reviews Alleged Castrations Ordered by Catholic Church Officials

April 19th 2012

Catholic altar servers Netherlands wiki

The Roman Catholic church actively encouraged the castration of homosexual boys and men in the 1950s and 1960s, according to scholars who testified this week before the Dutch parliament. Medical historian Mart van Lieburg told parliament that a Dutch bishop ordered surgeons to perform castrations. Professor Van Lieburg was speaking at a hearing called to clarify reports of castrations in Roman Catholic psychiatric care. He declined to name the bishop or the surgeons who had made the allegations. Another historian, Marnix Koolhaas, told parliament that several pastors sent boys to a doctor with orders to have them castrated.

Further research needed

Dutch Christian Democrat parliamentarian Madeleine van Toorenburg is now calling for new scholarly research into castrations. She told Dutch broadcaster NOS she wants to know whether they were performed on minors, or on anyone without consent. She stopped short of demanding a parliamentary inquiry.

Afghanistan on Edge

Russia is Concerned About U.S. Pull-Out from Afghanistan

April 19th 2012

I wanna go home

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed concerns on April 19 over U.S. plans to keep its military in Afghanistan after the pullout of allied in 2014. Even so, Lavrov said Moscow is concerned about the drug and terrorism situation in Afghanistan after the pullout. “We … do not understand such [U.S.] plans to maintain a presence …, we have questions and we would like to get answers,” Lavrov told a news conference following the foreign ministerial meeting of the Russia-NATO Council in Brussels.

Lavrov noted that the international contingent stayed in Afghanistan under a UN Security Council mandate. “So long as the Afghan side is unable to provide security in the country, any artificial deadlines for troops’ withdrawal do not seem quite correct,” he said. “But when the UN Security Council mandate expires, there will be no reason for a foreign presence in Afghanistan and the region.”

The minister also expressed concerns about the persisting threat of terrorism and drug trafficking from Afghanistan. Russia is criticizing NATO's plans to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Read more ..

The War on Terror

Talibani Flex their Muscles and Poison Hapless Schoolgirls in Afghanistan

April 18th 2012

afghan school girl poisoned

Officials in Afghanistan's northeastern province of Takhar believe the Taliban was responsible for the suspected poisoning this week of more than 140 schoolgirls and their female teachers.

The incident on April 17 has rekindled concerns about the safety of girls trying to receive an education in Afghanistan, with foreign forces preparing to leave the country by the end of 2014.

Human-rights advocates say the international community must ensure that access to education for girls in Afghanistan is not sacrificed as security is handed over to Afghan forces or as a result of any political settlement between Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government and insurgents. Hafizullah Safi, the head of Takhar province's public health department, says investigators "strongly suspect" a water-supply tank at the Rostaq district's school for girls was poisoned by Taliban militants. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Assad's Army Continues Attacks in Homs Despite Brokered Cease-Fire

April 18th 2012

Syria burning

Government forces continue to attack rebel-held neighborhoods in the flashpoint Syrian city of Homs, despite a near week-old cease-fire brokered by the international community. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in the UK, said troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad on April 18 resumed heavy shelling in the central city that has been battered by artillery for weeks.

The Observatory, an opposition group that aggregates casualty reports from activists inside Syria, said pro-Assad troops killed at least nine civilians on April 17 as attacks appeared to be expanding to other areas.

The Syrian government insists it has the right to attack what it calls "terrorists." The attacks come as a U.N. mission is attempting to monitor cease-fire conditions. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Obama to Launch ‘Crackdown’ on Manipulation, Rigging of Oil Markets

April 17th 2012

Oil Prices

President Obama will offer a plan Tuesday to boost oversight of oil markets and “crack down” on potential manipulation, the White House said.

Obama is slated to deliver a Rose Garden statement in the late morning, the latest in a slew of recent energy-related speeches and remarks as the White House seeks to limit political damage from high gasoline prices.

Gasoline prices have risen sharply this year but recently leveled off and eased slightly. The average nationwide cost for regular gasoline is $3.90 per gallon, according to AAA. Obama will push Congress to boost penalties for market manipulation, toughen federal supervision and allow regulators to increase the collateral that traders in futures markets must post, according to an administration official. The president will also seek to boost funding for enforcement. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Romney Camp Signals Shift on Illegal Immigration

April 17th 2012

Ed Gillespie
Ed Gillespie

Mitt Romney’s hiring of Republican strategist Ed Gillespie is being seen as a sign the campaign will heavily court Hispanic voters — perhaps at the expense of immigration hard-liners in the party.

Gillespie, a former head of the Republican National Committee, has long advocated an aggressive outreach to the Hispanic community. He helped found the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group that recruits and trains GOP candidates for office and has emphasized finding female and minority candidates. He also heads up Resurgent Republic, an organization focused on messaging to independents, including Hispanic swing voters.

When asked for an interview, Gillespie directed reporter to Romney’s presidential campaign, which said he’d be a senior adviser that will help them with messaging, overall strategy and the August convention in Tampa, Fla. They declined to give any further details on his role. Gillespie has been seen as having a more centrist approach on illegal immigration, even when many in the party wanted to take a hard-line stance on the issue, driving away Hispanic voters in the process. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Michelle Obama Comes out Fighting for Barack

April 17th 2012

michelle obama

Michelle Obama has become a more comfortable and willing surrogate for her husband this election cycle, using appearances on television programs to target voters who might not normally be engaged in the political process.

Leveraging her popularity on behalf of President Obama will be important in November, especially with Ann Romney having shown herself to be a powerful campaigner able to make headlines for her husband, Mitt Romney.

The first lady is everywhere lately, revealing old prom photos to talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, trading complimentary tweets with pop star Beyonce and sack-racing through the halls of the White House with comedian Jimmy Fallon.

And while her efforts are ostensibly in support of her initiatives to reduce childhood obesity and help unemployed military veterans, there’s little doubt the first lady is using the series of unconventional appearances to pave inroads to independent voters. It is a huge shift for Obama, who, four years ago, was visibly reluctant to engage in the rough-and-tumble world of presidential politics. But leveraging the first lady’s popularity is essential for the president’s efforts in November, especially with women representing a key swing demographic. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

DoD Admits that Terrorist Attacks in Afghanistan Came as an Intelligence Failure

April 16th 2012

Taliban soldiers

Pentagon spokesperson contend that the  militant Haqqani network, based in Pakistan, is likely behind the coordinated attacks carried out throughout neighboring Afghanistan.

Nearly 18 hours of fighting in the capital and parts of three provinces ended early Apri 16, when Afghan troops backed by NATO helicopters attacked a building in Kabul where the last militants were hiding. Witnesses said they watched rocket-propelled grenades crash into the building repeatedly before dawn.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks, but both Afghanistan's Interior Minister Besmillah Mohammadi and the Pentagon blamed the al-Qaida-linked Haqqani network, which is said to operate out of sanctuaries in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region. In Washington, Pentagon spokesman George Little told a press conference that the assault was not unexpected because this is the start of the Taliban's spring offensive. He said the Pentagon will look into possible intelligence gaps. Read more ..

Broken Government

Rep. Issa: Alleged Secret Service Hanky-Panky Reveals 'Pattern of Behavior'

April 16th 2012

Obama's SS

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said onApril 16 that the recent scandal involving Secret Service agents and prostitutes in Colombia was part of a disturbing “pattern of behavior” and that the agency had to regain the "confidence" of lawmakers.

“What we see is that this story is larger than eleven individuals,” said Issa on “CBS This Morning” on April 16. “It’s part of what has been, told to us, as a pattern of behavior that’s built up, so called ‘wheels up’ parties and the like and clearly you have an elite unite that we count on to have the greatest of security not just for the president but for the cabinet for other officials and we need to know that they’re living up to on a broad basis. … We clearly have lost confidence and we need to get that confidence back by knowing that the system will be changed,” he warned.

Issa said he had heard many reports that Secret Service agents often celebrate once the president has completed a visit with a ‘wheels up’ party, but said this incident was not comparable. Read more ..

Business Edge

U.S./Colombia Free-Trade Agreement to be Implemented in May

April 16th 2012

Juan 'El Hombre' Valdez

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said on April 15 that the United States and Colombia will enter into their trade agreement on May 15, an announcement which comes as President Obama concludes his visit to Colombia for the Summit of the Americas.

The free trade agreement, which had taken several years to complete before Congress passed it last year, is now set to take effect after the Obama administration determined that Colombia had taken sufficient steps to address union worker concerns in a Labor Action Plan. "We believe this is a very historic step," Kirk said on April 15, according to Reuters.

But AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said that the Obama administration's announcement was "deeply disappointing and troubling" because Colombia had not made enough progress on protecting workers' rights. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

McCain Rules out Boots on the Ground in Syria

April 15th 2012

Nakba Protests

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) ruled out the U.S. committing “boots on the ground” in Syria as he continued his calls for the Obama administration to get more involved militarily in the Syrian conflict. On CBS's “Face the Nation,” McCain said Sunday that he has not advocated for troops or unilateral action in Syria, but wants the United States to lead a coalition to arm Syrian opponents of President Bashar al-Assad's regime and launch air strikes to give rebels a safe haven. “For the United States to sit by and watch this massacre is a betrayal of everything we stand for and believe in,” McCain said. McCain stated that the communications and humanitarian aid the Obama administration has pledged to the Syrian opposition is not enough with Assad’s forces continuing their assault.

Assad’s forces stopped fighting on Thursday in a cease-fire that’s part of a peace plan from UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. But there were widespread reports of renewed violence on Saturday, as the UN Security Council approved sending observers to Syria. The Obama administration has said it remains opposed to providing arms or taking military action in Syria, because it does not want to add to the violence there. Read more ..

Sudan on Edge

Sudan's Army Moves on Oil Town Seized by South Sudan

April 14th 2012

Sudan oil

Sudan says it has launched a counterattack toward a key town in a major oil-producing region, occupied earlier this week by South Sudanese forces. Army spokesman Sawarmi Khaled Saad Friday said Sudanese forces were getting close to Heglig. The office of South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, has said the south will pull back from Heglig if a "clear mechanism and guarantee" are provided so Sudan cannot use the area to attack the south. It says neutral forces could be deployed until Sudan and South Sudan reach a settlement on the oil-producing area. The Secretary-General of the South Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), Pagan Amum, wants the U.N. to deploy peacekeepers in the region and set up a system to monitor if both sides are following a peace agreement. Amum complained that Sudan is waging indiscriminate air attacks on civilians, but is not capable of fighting. 

Southern forces took control of Heglig on Tuesday, prompting accusations of aggression from the north. South Sudan's defense minister said Friday that both countries are sending more troops to the frontline after a week of clashes and escalating tension. The United Nations Security Council has called for a halt to the clashes, which have raised concerns the two Sudans could slip into a full-scale war. On Wednesday, Sudan announced it was pulling out of talks with South Sudan because of the takeover of Heglig. The south is rejecting calls from the African Union and United Nations to leave the town. Read more ..

Broken Government

GSA's Jeffrey Neeley Plans to Remain Silent During Hearing--May Face Criminal Charges

April 14th 2012

GSA Video
GSA Video

A General Services Administration executive will assert his right to remain silent at a hearing on Monday to investigate the lavish Las Vegas conference that led to the resignation of Administrator Martha Johnson and other top officials. Jeffrey Neeley, the commissioner for the Public Buildings Service in the Pacific Rim region, was placed on leave and may face criminal charges for his role in planning the October 2010 conference. Neeley was subpoenaed to testify before the House Oversight Committee on Monday, but committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told Bloomberg BusinessWeek that Neeley’s lawyer, Preston Burton, said that his client would invoke his privilege to not testify against himself.

An anonymous Oversight committee official also told Bloomberg that Neeley has been referred to the Department of Justice. The hearing — titled "Addressing GSA’s Culture of Wasteful Spending" — is scheduled for Monday. GSA officials are expected to testify on the $823,000 conference, which included spending for a clown, a mind reader and the manufacture of commemorative coins awarded to employees. Issa’s office has also unearthed two videos, made at taxpayer expense, filmed by GSA employees for the conference. Read more ..

Islam's War on Christianity

Turkey: Muslim Activists Attack and Threaten to Kill Christian Pastor

April 13th 2012

Christian cross in Turkey

The Barnabas Fund, a charitable and activist organization based in the UK, reported that an Evangelical Christian pastor was beaten by a group of Muslims who forced their way into his church in Turkey and threatened to kill him unless he recited the Islamic confession of faith.

Pastor Semih Sertek (58) was attacked in his Protestant church in Istanbul's Bahçelievler district immediately after an Easter service on the night of April 7. Istanbul is considered to be one of the most liberal of the country's cities.

He reported, "Someone knocked forcefully on the door of the church. They were aggravated. When we opened the door, they forced their way in, mocking us. I was troubled. I asked them to come back at the next day but they kept insulting. 'This is a Muslim neighbourhood, there's no place for a church', they said. They threatened to kill me if I refuse to accept Islam. One of them cited the Islamic testimony of faith and asked me to recite it. He kicked me on my chest and then they ran." Read more ..

Islam's War on Christianity

Islamist Bombings in Nigeria cause Christians to Flee

April 13th 2012

Kaduna Nigeria bomb results

At least 38 people were killed in a suicide bombing outside two Christian churches during Easter services in Northern Nigeria.  Explosives were detonated in the city of Kaduna, the capital of Kaduna state, on Sunday April 8 at around 8.40am local time. The All Nations Christian Assembly Church and the ECWA Good News Church were damaged in the blast. Nearby hotels and homes had their windows blown out and roofs torn away. Most of the victims were motorcycle taxi drivers who were caught unwares by the blast.

 The bomber appeared to have been targeting the churches but was stopped at a checkpoint as he attempted to drive his vehicle into the compound. A police officer said that the man turned back and drove to a nearby area, where he detonated the bomb. Another vehicle packed with explosives also detonated. Read more ..

The North Korean Threat

North Korean Rocket Explodes After Lift-off

April 13th 2012

North Korean Rocket

North Korea has acknowledged a multi-stage rocket it launched early Friday failed to reach orbit. An announcer on North Korean television—interrupting programming four hours after the launch, which was not broadcast—says the Kwangmyongsong-3 earth observation satellite did not succeed in reaching orbit and scientific experts are investigating the cause of the failure. Officials in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington say North Korea's rocket indeed blasted off from the launch pad but failed to get very far. U.S. military officials called it a Taepo Dong-2 missile. They say it was tracked by satellite on a southern trajectory where the first stage fell into the Yellow Sea. The North American Aerospace Defense Command says the other two stages failed to continue in flight and never posed a threat.

South Korean army major general Shin Won-sik, speaking to reporters at the defense ministry, says the missile began tumbling back to Earth at an altitude of 151 kilometers, separating into about 20 pieces and harmlessly falling into the Yellow Sea 100 to 150 kilometers offshore. The general says the launch clearly violates UN resolutions 1718 and 1874 and was a test-firing of a long-rang missile disguised as a satellite launch. He adds this is a grave provocation and a serious military threat to international society and the Republic of Korea.

Japan's defense forces, along with the South Korean and U.S. militaries in the region, had deployed anti-missile batteries on land and at sea to possibly shoot down the object if it flew over Japanese or South Korean territories. Authorities in Japan's southern Okinawan islands, which are close to the intended flight path, activated public address loudspeakers soon after the launch. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Syrian Deadline Passes; Violence Continues

April 12th 2012

Bombing in Syria Mar 2012

U.N. and Arab League envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, said Tuesday the next 48 hours must “bring visible signs of immediate and indisputable change in the military posture of the government forces” in Syria. In a letter to the U.N. Security Council, Mr. Annan disputed Damascus’s assertion that it is withdrawing its military from several cities, saying the Syrian army is pulling back from some areas but moving to others not previously targeted. The letter also urged the opposition to keep its commitment to stop fighting under the six-point peace plan, which demands an end to all hostilities by 6 a.m., Damascus time, on Thursday.

But despite continued violence, Mr. Annan said the peace plan is “still on the table.” He said, “So let me again appeal to the Syrian government and the Syrian parties to cease violence in accordance with the plan. And I believe there should be no preconditions for stopping violence. There is something we need to do for the people and for the country concerned.”

Members of the Security Council, meanwhile, expressed deep concern about the level of commitment to a cease-fire the Syrian government has demonstrated so far. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, who holds the council presidency this month, said that if Syria fails to fulfill its obligations, then the international community and the Security Council will have to decide whether to remain unified and take the next step. She said that would be to increase pressure on the Assad regime through collective action. On the ground, however, violence continued. Syrian rights groups said at least 31 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the government shelling Tuesday - mainly in the central Hama region and the northwestern town of Mareh. Read more ..

Indonesia on Edge

Indian Ocean Quake and Tsunami Warning Test Preparedness

April 12th 2012

Sumatra village after tsunami
Sumatran village after 2004 earthquake and tsunami
(credit: PM2 Philip A. McDaniel, US Navy)

Experts say the earthquake and subsequent tsunami warning off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, was a successful test of disaster preparedness in the region. Tsunami warning sirens on Thai beaches blared and people quickly headed to high ground shortly after Wednesday’s 8.6 magnitude quake struck the Indian Ocean about 430-kilometers southwest of Banda Aceh.

Evacuation orders were also issued in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and Burma through TV, radio, and mobile phone text messaging. In the end, the quake did not create a dangerous tsunami, there was little damage, and there were few casualties.

“From our perspective the fact that the warning went out five minutes, no more than five minutes after the earthquake erupted, went out in Indonesia and was followed shortly after that by other warnings within the system at 8:45, 8:46, 8:48, I think went extremely well,” said Wendy Watson Wright, a spokeswoman for the U.N. cultural agency’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission based in Paris. “I also believe that, in Indonesia at least, that the population showed that they have learned and that self-evacuation was taking place in Aceh.” Read more ..

Edge of Archaeology

Eggs of Enigmatic Dinosaur Discovered

April 12th 2012

dinosaur reconstruktion
Reconstruction of Bonapartenykus ultimus. Illustrator: Gabriel Lio

An Argentine-Swedish research team has reported a 70 million years old pocket of fossilized bones and unique eggs of an enigmatic birdlike dinosaur in Patagonia.

- What makes the discovery unique are the two eggs preserved near articulated bones of its hindlimb. This is the first time the eggs are found in a close proximity to skeletal remains of an alvarezsaurid dinosaur, says Dr. Martin Kundrát, dinosaur expert from the group of Professor Per Erik Ahlberg at Uppsala University. The first Argentine-Swedish Dinosaur expedition and collaboration; Fernando Novas, F. Agnolin and J. Powell from Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales and Martin Kundrát was performed in December 2010.

The dinosaur represents the latest survivor of its kind from Gondwana, the southern landmass in the Mesozoic Era. The creature belongs to one of the most mysterious groups of dinosaurs, the Alvarezsauridae, and it is one of the largest members, 2.6 m, of the family. It was first discovered by Dr. Powell, but has now been described and named Bonapartenykus ultimus in honor of Dr. José Bonaparte who 1991 discovered the first alvarezsaurid in Patagonia. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Online Tool Estimates Youth Exposure to Alcohol Ads on Radio

April 11th 2012

Teenager texting

A new online tool from the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health determines the extent of exposure to radio alcohol advertisements among young people ages 12 to 20 in 75 different media markets. This free and user-friendly tool is the first service to provide parents, health departments and other key audiences with access to customizable information on youth exposure to radio alcohol advertising.

"Despite the proliferation of things like smart phones and tablets, radio continues to be a popular source of media among youth," said David Jernigan, PhD, CAMY director. "This tool gives users in dozens of cities across the U.S. the ability to determine the scope to which young people in their community are exposed to alcohol marketing." Read more ..

Indonesia on Edge

Indonesia Issues Tsunami Warning After 8.6 Quake

April 11th 2012

Sumatra quake Apr 2012
Indian Ocean quake near Sumatra (credit: NOAA)

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) says an 8.6-magnitude earthquake has struck off the northwestern coast of Indonesia, raising tsunami alerts throughout the Indian Ocean region. The quake hit about 430 kilometers southwest of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital and largest city in the province of Aceh, at an estimated depth of 22 kilometers. An 8.2-magnitude aftershock was reported by the USGS about two hours after the initial earthquake.

In 2004, a giant 9.1-magnitude quake in roughly the same area off Indonesia’s Sumatra island triggered an Indian Ocean tsunami that killed an estimated 230,000 people, about half of them in Aceh province. Wednesday’s quake was at approximately the same depth as the 2004 Indian Ocean quake. It reportedly rattled buildings as far away as Singapore, Thailand, and India.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami watch for 28 countries and territories bordering the Indian Ocean. It warned that earthquakes this size “have the potential to generate a widespread destructive tsunami.” But it also said it had not confirmed that a tsunami has been generated. Read more ..

Earth on Edge

International Scientific Community Issues First “State-Of-The-Planet Declaration”

April 10th 2012

Arid Desert

Scientists issued the first "State of the Planet" declaration at a major gathering of experts on global environmental and social issues in advance of the major UN Summit Rio+20 in June.

The declaration opens: "Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk." It states that consensus is growing that we have driven the planet into a new epoch, the Anthropocene, where many planetary-scale processes are dominated by human activities. It concludes society must not delay taking urgent and large-scale action.

"This is a declaration to our globally interconnected society," said Dr Lidia Brito, director of science policy, natural sciences, UNESCO, and conference co-chair.

"Time is the natural resource in shortest supply. We need to change course in some fundamental way this decade," she added. Over 3,000 experts in climate change, environmental geo-engineering, international governance, the future of the oceans and biodiversity, global trade, development, poverty alleviation, food security and more discussed the intricate connections between all the different systems and cycles governing our ocean, air, land and the human and animal life dependent on those environments.

Dr Mark Stafford Smith, Planet Under Pressure conference co-chair, said, "In the last decade we have become a highly interconnected society. We are beginning to realise this new state of humanity can be harnessed for rapid innovation." "But we need to provide more open access to knowledge, we need to move away from GDP as the only measure of progress, and we need a new way of working internationally that is fit for the 21st century," he added. "This conference has provided new ideas and practical solutions for the way forward." Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Cancer Patients Prefer Risky Treatments With Larger Rewards To 'Safe Bets'

April 10th 2012

blood test

A new analysis provides a closer look at how much cancer patients value hope — with important implications for how insurers value treatment, particularly in end-of-life care. The analysis led by Darius Lakdawalla, director of research at the Schaeffer Center at USC and associate professor in the USC Price School of Public Policy, surveyed 150 cancer patients currently undergoing treatment, and is part of a special issue on cancer spending from the journal Health Affairs.

Lakdawalla and his co-authors found the overwhelming majority of cancer patients prefer riskier treatments that offer the possibility of longer survival over safer treatments: 77 percent of cancer patients said they would rather take a "hopeful gamble" — treatments that offer a 50/50 chance of either adding three years or no additional survival — to "safe bet" treatments that would keep them alive for 18 months, but no longer.

"Consumers tend to dislike risk, and researchers and policy makers have generally assumed that patients care about the average gain in survival," Lakdawalla said. "But patients facing a fatal disease with relatively short remaining life expectancy may have less to lose and be more willing to swing for the fences. This analysis points to the larger ideal — that value should be defined from the viewpoint of the patient." Read more ..

Israel on Edge

Agitators Attempt Fly-in to Israel

April 10th 2012

Israel Airport

Israeli security forces are gearing up for yet another pro-Palestinian protest, expecting hundreds of anti-Jewish activists to fly into Ben-Gurion airport on Sunday, Haaretz reports. The effort, part of the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign, is the follow up to last summer’s failed attempt to flood the Jewish state with international pro-Palestine groups, in which over 300 activists arrived in Israel, more than 100 of which were detained. Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch commented on the situation: “Israel will prevent this provocation, as every country prohibits hostile elements from entering their borders. “The provocateurs will be dealt with firmly and quickly, there will be no chases in the halls of the airport,” he added. “Israel police and relevant organizations are prepared to preserve the normal airport routine while preventing any extreme provocations.”

Israel is working with governments around the world who intend on preventing black-listed activists from boarding flights in their home countries. Read more ..

Myanmar on Edge

In Burma, Cease-fire, Talks with Karens, but Kachin Conflict Still Hot

April 9th 2012

Myanmar girl and Aung son

The leaders of Burma’s longest-running insurgent movement met Sunday with democracy leader and newly elected parliament member Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Rangoon. The Karen National Union delegation, led by General Secretary Zipporah Sein, said in a statement that they discussed in detail a cease-fire that was negotiated last week with the government.

Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters that a cease-fire is just the first step on the road to peace. “As we all know, a cease-fire is just the first step,” she said. “We can’t have peace without cease-fire. So we are on the first step now, we all need to wait for this step to be concrete, after that we will go for the next step.”

Zipporah Sein said the two sides also discussed the needs of other ethnic groups. “Today we, the Karen National Union, discussed our plan for progressing the development of peace in the country,” she said. “We discussed what we need, how we can achieve a real cease-fire process, not just for the Karen but for the other ethnic groups.” Read more ..

The Obama Edge

White House Has Diverted $500M To IRS To Implement Healthcare Law

April 9th 2012

medicine and money

The Obama administration is quietly diverting roughly $500 million to the IRS to help implement the president’s healthcare law. The money is only part of the IRS’s total implementation spending, and it is being provided outside the normal appropriations process. The tax agency is responsible for several key provisions of the new law, including the unpopular individual mandate. Republican lawmakers have tried to cut off funding to implement the healthcare law, at least until after the Supreme Court decides whether to strike it down. That ruling is expected by June, and oral arguments last week indicated the justices might well overturn at least the individual mandate, if not the whole law.

“While President Obama and his Senate allies continue to spend more tax dollars implementing an unpopular and unworkable law that may very well be struck down as unconstitutional in a matter of months, I’ll continue to stand with the American people who want to repeal this law and replace it with something that will actually address the cost of healthcare,” said Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee for healthcare and is in a closely contested Senate race this year. The Obama administration has plowed ahead despite the legal and political challenges.

It has moved aggressively to get important policies in place. And, according to a review of budget documents and figures provided by congressional staff, the administration is also burning through implementation funding provided in the healthcare law. The law contains dozens of targeted appropriations to implement specific provisions. It also gave the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) a $1 billion implementation fund, to use as it sees fit. Republicans have called it a “slush fund.”

HHS plans to drain the entire fund by September — before the presidential election, and more than a year before most of the healthcare law takes effect. Roughly half of that money will ultimately go to the IRS. HHS has transferred almost $200 million to the IRS over the past two years and plans to transfer more than $300 million this year, according to figures provided by a congressional aide. Read more ..

Campus Hate

College Newspaper Prompts Investigation for Fake Hitler Story

April 9th 2012

Click to select Image

While Governor Chris Christie was touring the Holy Land, a New Jersey state university published a satire on Hitler in a school newspaper, Fox News reports.

The Daily Medium, a student-funded, satirical publication from Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus not only published the piece entitled, “What About the Good Things Hitler Did?” but the paper falsely attributed the article to a Jewish student – using his name and his picture.

“To say anything praiseworthy of someone like Hitler, and to have people actually believe it was coming from me even in a satirical manner is just really painful for me and my family," said Aaron Marcus, the victimized student.

Marcus, whose relatives survived the Holocaust, has spoken publicly about the increasing level on anti-Semitism on campus.

The University’s President Richard McCormick issued a strongly worded statement in which he remarked, "federal courts extend broad protection to student media. However, a recent article in the Medium, purporting to be written by student Aaron Marcus and using Mr. Marcus's photograph, is extremely offensive and repugnant. No individual student should be subject to such a vicious, provocative, and hurtful piece, regardless of whether First Amendment protections apply to such expression." Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Google Unveils Project Glass, Augmented Reality Specs

April 8th 2012

Google Glasses

Google Goggles may have only been a figurative name for the firm’s image recognition app, but the unveiling of Project Glass, could make real Google glasses a reality someday.

The search engine giant announced Project Glass on its social network, Google Plus, showing off pictures and even a concept video of the augmented reality eye-wear that could eventually create a digital overlay on top of people’s visual reality.

The concept is for the glasses to give wearers a smart-phone like experience without a smartphone.

The concept pictures posted by the team show glasses frames with a small display screen fitted in front of one eye, which would be able to overlay information and be activated by voice control. Read more ..

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