Thursday, May 31, 2007

US slaps more sanctions on Sudan over Darfur

The US has unilaterally imposed new sanctions on Sudan, despite resistance from the United Nations. The sanctions are aimed at pressuring Sudan into carrying out the UN peace plan in Darfur. President Bush ordered the sanctions in a brief speech on Tuesday. The economic sanctions target three high-ranking Sudanese individuals and 31 Sudanese companies including state-run oil companies. They have all been banned from the US financial system.

However the UN has so far declined to endorse the stronger US measures. The UN Security Council has already imposed an arms ban on rebels and government-aided militias alike and has a no-fly zone in the region. There are also travel sanctions on Sudanese officials. However Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon remains cool about the latest developments. "This is a decision of the US government," he said. "And I hope the international community can work in a mutually reinforcing way to bring resolution to this matter as soon as possible."

The three individuals targeted in the American sanctions are a) Ahmad Muhammed Harun, the state minister for humanitarian affairs who planned military operations in Darfur between 2003 and 2005 b) Awad Ibn Auf, Sudan's head of military intelligence and security who acted as a liaison between the Sudanese army and the Janjaweed militia and c) Khalil Ibrahim, leader of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) a rebel group that has refused to sign the Darfur Peace Agreement.

Human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and the Save Darfur Coalition have welcomed the US announcement. David Rubenstein, executive director of the Save Darfur Coalition praised President Bush’s decision to finally impose stronger targeted sanctions on the al-Bashir regime but stated these measures are “too late and too little”. David Rubenstein, the Coalition’s executive director, said the US should now act quickly to implement the measures. “President Bush must not give further months to determine whether these outlined measures work, “ he said, “the Darfuri people don’t have that much time”.

However Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is unlikely to change his position despite the new sanctions. Al-Bashir, who has led Sudan since 1989, has consistently opposed a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur. Sudanese Presidential advisor, Ahmed Bilal Osman has said Sudan will consider any army entering Sudan as an invading army, even if it happens on the orders of the UN.

IN 2006, then UN boss Kofi Annan described Darfur as the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The crisis began in 2002 when ethnic African rebels rose against the Arab central government in Khartoum. In response, the Sudanese Government unleashed militia groups to quell the rebellion. A flimsy peace accord has been in place since 2006. The UN say at least 200,000 people have been killed and another two million displaced in Sudan’s westernmost region. Sudan rejects these figures and say only there have been only 9,000 deaths. The Sudanese government supported and armed the Janjaweed militia group who have done most of the killing.

In addition to the new sanctions, the US will also press the UN Security Council to agree to new international penalties against Sudan. Although the EU is open to the idea, it is likely the other two permanent Security Council members will veto the idea. China buys two-thirds of Sudan's multi-billion dollar oil exports and both China and Russia also sell arms to Sudan. Earlier this week Liu Guijin, China's special envoy on Darfur, said Chinese investment helps stop the bloodshed while sanctions were counter-productive. "The Darfur issue and issues in eastern Sudan and southern Sudan are caused by poverty and underdevelopment,” he said. “"Only when poverty and underdevelopment are addressed will peace be there in Sudan”.

But US Special Envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios remains optimistic the Chinese will back the sanctions plan. “(China has) done a number of things in the last few months that go far beyond what they're typically disposed to do on a diplomatic issue of this sort, “ he said. “So I think the Chinese position is actually more forthcoming that it may be apparently publicly”.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Bush selects World Bank replacement for Wolfowitz

US President Bush has selected Robert Zoellick as the new president for the World Bank to replace Paul Wolfowitz, according to an unnamed White House “senior official”. The leak is deliberate as Bush is set to formally make the announcement today. The nomination is subject to a rubber stamp approval from the bank’s board of directors.

The 53 year old Zoellick is a former US Deputy Secretary of State and trade representative who helped launch the Doha round of world trade talks. He began his political career in the presidency of George Bush snr where he was Under Secretary of State for Economic and Agricultural Affairs. He was promoted to assistant chief of staff in the dying months of the administration. When Clinton took power he left government and was appointed executive vice president of the privately owned Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA). After four years he moved on to the US naval academy where he was appointed professor of National Security. He also held roles at the Kennedy School of Government and the global investment bank Goldman Sachs.

Zoellick was coerced back into politics in 2000 when he joined a foreign policy advisory team to help overcome Republican presidential candidate George W Bush’s lack of foreign policy experience. Led by Condoleezza Rice and containing luminaries such as Paul Wolfowitz, Stephen Hadley, Richard Perle and Richard Armitage, this elite team became known as the Vulcans. The name alludes to a huge statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and metalworking, in Rice’s home town of Birmingham, Alabama. All the Vulcans got key positions in the new administration after the election.

Zoellick was appointed a US trade representative where helped conclude negotiations to bring China and Taiwan into the WTO. He was instrumental in leading the American position in the Doha Round and also promoted the controversial Central American Free Trade Agreement. That FTA required that state-run monopolies on electricity, telecommunications and insurance in poor Central American nations be gradually phased out to allow for private competition and attracted the objections of environmentalists, labour unions and human rights activists alike.

At the start of Bush’s second term, Zoellick was appointed Deputy Secretary of State, once again serving under the leadership of Condoleezza Rice. Here he became the administration’s focal point on China issues and also played a key role in the Darfur talks. He was instrumental in securing the peace agreement between Sudan and the western rebels in May 2006. A month later he quit to rejoin Goldman Sachs.

Zoellick now replaces his former fellow Vulcan Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank. Wolfowitz was forced resigned amid a high-profile scandal over his role in winning a new pay and promotion package for his girlfriend, a Libyan born British citizen named Shaha Riza. Riza was a former Senior Communications Officer for the Middle East and North Africa Regional Office at the bank and had been romantically linked to Wolfowitz since his White House days.

Once Wolfowitz was appointed president of the bank, their relationship threatened to violate a World Bank ethics rule forbidding personal relationships between bank employees and their supervisors. To get around this, Wolfowitz negotiated a promotion and a move to the US State Department for Riza in 2005 although her increased salary was still paid by the World Bank. The Washington Post broke the story in March this year. Wolfowitz went on the defensive and his spokesman claimed that all Riza’s arrangements were made at the direction of the bank's board of directors.

On 17 May, the World Bank’s board accepted his decision to resign effective end of the fiscal year (30 June). The bank accepted Wolfowitz’s assurance that he had “acted ethically and in good faith in what he believed were the best interests of the institution”.

While the World Bank has 185 member countries, only the US has the power to nominate its president. And Bush has insisted on another American to succeed Wolfowitz, despite increasing calls from World Bank members to appoint someone from another country. But the White House has stated Zoellick's experience and long career in international trade, finance and diplomacy makes him the best man for the job. The spokesperson added "He has the trust and respect of many officials around the world and believes deeply in the World Bank's mission of tackling poverty."

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Pine Gap Four trial starts today

A group of protesters demonstrated outside the Queensland Supreme Court today as four people face serious court charges in the Northern Territory. The Brisbane protesters held a vigil beside the scales of justice statue and handed out leaflets on behalf of the four defendants charged for allegedly trespassing at the Pine Gap military facility. The four are Jim Dowling, 50 and Adele Goldie, 29 from Brisbane, Donna Mulhearn, 37 from Sydney, and Bryan Law, 51 from Adelaide. They were due to appear today in the NT Supreme Court in Alice Springs, charged with breaking into the Pine Gap base on 9 December 2005.

The four are Christian activists who belong to a group called Christians Against All Terrorism (CAAT). They say they went to the base to carry out a Citizen’s Inspection in an effort to highlight its role in the Iraq War. The group believes it was the members' duty as citizens to protest against the US-Australian base, which is a key satellite intelligence facility for the Iraq war, because their Government was involved in "crimes against humanity". There, they cut through a fence, climbed onto the roof of a building, unfurled banners and took photographs of the facility.

The four now face a possible seven years in prison after breaking into the top-secret satellite tracking base. They are being charged with an obscure 1952 law after the Attorney General, Philip Ruddock, consented to charges under the Cold War era Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952 to be used for the first time. Under this law, the Attorney-General can declare any area a prohibited zone. The law was designed to keep people out of the then-nuclear test sites in remote Australia but has never been tested in the courts. High profile Melbourne lawyer Ron Merkel will lead the defence team.

Meanwhile his opposite number has made the extraordinary request to place the four defendants under house arrest for the duration of the trial. Crown prosecutor Hilton Dembo applied for a change in the bail conditions of the defendants so that they: “remain in the court 45 minutes after the court adjourns, and then go to their residences by the shortest available route and remain there”. He has also requested that they be prohibited from being within two kilometres of Pine Gap. Dembo made the application after receiving ‘intelligence’ about events the defendants had planned during the trial such as a daily procession to court with supporters and a demonstration at Pine Gap.

Pine Gap is the common name for a satellite tracking station located 20kms south-west of Alice Springs in central Australia. The station employs nearly 1,000 American service personnel, mainly from two intelligence agencies; the CIA and the National Reconnaissance Office. It is a sophisticated ground station for a satellite network that intercepts telephone, radio, data links, and other communications around the world. The station contains a 5,600 square meter computer room, and about 20 service and support buildings. Two of the station’s ground antennas are part of the U.S. Defence Satellite Communications System.

The chief distinguishing architectural component of the facility are its dozen radomes. Radomes are oversized golf-ball shaped weatherproof enclosures used to protect antennas. The word itself is a portmanteau of radar and dome. Radomes protect the surface of antenna from the elements and allow a relatively unattenuated electromagnetic signal between the antenna inside the radome and outside equipment.

Pine Gap’s origins date back to 1966. In October that year Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt invited President Lyndon Johnson to Australia for a three-day state visit. It was the first ever visit to Australia by a US President. Within two months, Holt increased Australia's military force in Vietnam and signed a secret agreement that would eventually become known as the Pine Gap treaty. According to federal ALP minister Clyde Cameron, it wasn’t until the Whitlam administration of the early 1970s that it was revealed that Pine Gap was a American installation led by CIA agent Richard Stallings.

The base started with two antennas and by the time the eighth radome was built in the late 70s, the base was one of the largest satellite ground facilities in the world. Despite the end of the Cold War in 1989, the facility expanded further. In 2001, John Howard offered Washington the renewal of the Pine Gap lease agreement in exchange for a bilateral free trade agreement which was eventually signed in 2004. Pine Gap remains an extremely sensitive military resource and is planned to be the nerve centre for the US’s “Son of Star Wars” National Missile Defence capability. It is also integral to American military intelligence and weapons delivery systems within the Asia, Pacific and Middle East regions.

Today’s court case is not the first time the Pine Gap activists have faced the law for their actions. In October last year the four had a Darwin court suppression order placed on them during the pre-trial hearings in relation to ASIO’s involvement in the arrest. Donna Mulhearn, one of the accused, said the charges are political and reflect the Government's persecution of citizens who oppose their war agenda. "We put an alternative view to the Australian people...secret American spy bases do not hold the key to Australia's security,” she said. "Our security lies in building better relationships."

Monday, May 28, 2007

No end in sight for Lebanon refugee camp siege

The siege in Northern Lebanon at the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp has now moved into its second week with no signs of a settlement. The Lebanese government have demanded the surrender of Islamic militants inside the camp but are reluctant to rush into an all-out assault. Inside the camp the leader of the Fatah Islam militants, Shaker Youssef al-Absi, vowed his fighters would not surrender. "We wish to die for the sake of God," he said in a video released to Al-Jazeera on the weekend. "Sunni people are the spearhead against the Zionist Americans."

Palestinian negotiators have put together a four point plan to end the crisis. The plan calls for a permanent cease-fire, the creation of a Palestinian security force to maintain law and order in the camp, the barring of other armed groups in the camp and the creation of "a mechanism for the departure" of Fatah Islam from the camp. But this mechanism for the departure refuses to countenance the arrest of Fatah Islam leaders and that remains the biggest stumbling block to the Government agreeing to end the siege. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Saniora described the assault on the army as a crime against national stability and the Lebanese military has demanded al-Absi’s fighters be handed over for prosecution for attacking government troops last week.

The trouble started last weekend after Lebanese soldiers conducted raids in the city of Tripoli. The trouble then spilled over to the nearby Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. The Lebanese Army then laid siege to the camp trapping Fatah al-Islam militants in the process. At least 22 soldiers and 17 fighters were killed in the battle in the city and the camp. The army has threatened to storm the camp if the group fails to surrender. Al Jazeera reported that the army shelled the camp for the first three days of the siege. Walid Abdullah, a nurse inside the camp, said bodies were piling up in the streets and that there was a threat of disease. "Many dead bodies are lying on the streets," he said. "They are bloated and smelling and there is a threat of epidemics."

The Lebanese Opposition group Hezbollah has warned the government of dire consequences if they launch an assault on the camp. The camp leader, Shaker Youssef al-Absi is a Palestinian who has said he is inspired by Osama bin Laden. He has also has been linked to Al Qaeda factions in Iraq. Al-Absi was born in the West Bank town of Jericho in 1955 and fled with his family to Jordan after the 1967 Six Day War. He lived in a refugee camp for five years before joining Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. He fled to Tunisia in 1970 due to tensions between the PLO and Jordan. From there he went to Libya where he trained in Gaddafy’s air force.

In more recent times Al-Absi fought in the campaign of Afghanistan and Iraq. He was sentenced to death in absentia in 2004 by a Jordanian military court for his involvement in an assassination plot of US American diplomat Laurence Foley in Jordan. At the time Al-Absi was in prison in Syria on terrorist charges. He was released last year and made his way to Lebanon. Al-Absi now leads several thousand Palestinian refugees at Nahr al-Bared. The camp initially held 31,000 displaced Palestinians but 25,000 of them manage to flee the camp after the army shelling. Most of the escapees are now crowded at Hoda al-Turk camp in nearby Beddawi, about 5km north of Tripoli.

Al-Absi’s organisation Fatah al-Islam is a new addition to the covoluted political landscape in Lebanon. Lebanese security officials said the organisation began in the camp and has 100 members who come from various Arab countries including Saudi Arabia and Syria. They have been joined by local sympathizers. The group has quickly expanded to the nearby city of Tripoli. Tripoli is a predominantly Sunni city but does have a contingent of Islamic fundamentalists. A Fatah spokesman told Lebanese TV it belongs to the conservative Salafi branch of Islam and its aim was to liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. "We are a Jihadi movement, and we have hoisted the banner of Islam,” he said.

Journalists have been prevented from entering the camp since last Monday. The army barred photographs of troops, artillery and military targets. Journalists were also forced out of a nearby high-rise building that had been used as a location for reporting the crisis. The Lebanese Army has not publicly explained the restriction, although some officials initially said it was imposed for safety reasons. Some journalists suspect the more likely reason was the army was attempting to hinder coverage of the humanitarian crisis inside the camp. On Thursday three journalists from Agence France-Presse, Al-Akhbar and Al-Alam were beaten by Lebanese army members after straying too close to the camp.

With 12 camps in Lebanon containing 400,000 mostly desperate Palestinian refugees, they remain a hotbed for political agitation and a time bomb ready to explode. Abu Imad Rifai, a representative of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, told AP on the weekend, "The repercussions of a military solution are much more serious than a political solution," It was a blunt warning that a military assault on Nahr el-Bared would trigger further violence in the other 11 camps.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Franklin Foer: How Football explains the world

Franklin Foer is an American journalist and editor of The New Republic. He is also that rarest of American conceits; a lifelong football (soccer) fan. In 2001 he took a year off to research a book about the impact of football on the world. The results of his research were published in 2004 as “How Football Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization”. Actually he called it “soccer” in the US edition but in the UK Arrow Books version Woolly Days read, it is helpfully re-translated to football. However, the American spelling of globalisation remains.

Both Foer’s title and subtitle are misnomers. The book doesn’t explain the world and it isn’t a theory of globalisation. Nevertheless it does take the reader on an entertaining and colourful tour around the world to see if football explains such diverse concepts as ethnic cleansing, sectarianism, anti-Semitism, hooliganism, political corruption, racism, oligarchy, nationalism, Islam’s attitude to women and American cultural wars.

The most compelling chapter of the book is the first. Here Foer examines the role played by fans of top Serbian club Red Star Belgrade in the Balkans Wars of the 1990s. Across the road from Red Star’s home ground lies the castle home of Željko Ražnatović. Ražnatović was better known to the world as Arkan. Arkan was a notorious gangster and the leader of a hooligan paramilitary force of Red Star supporters. Arkan was a hero to his people and served his time as a petty criminal in Northern Europe. He escaped from prisons in Belgium and Netherlands. He busted his partner from a Swedish court and escaped a third time from a German prison hospital. To escape the heat he came home to Belgrade to work for the secret service.

When Yugoslavia dissolved, Arkan used his Red Star connections to build a paramilitary force which he called the Tigers. They fought in Bosnia in 1991-92 and again in 1995 when Croatia remobilised. By the end of the war, the US State department estimated Arkan’s Tigers had executed over 2,000 civilians. The war made Arkan famous and rich. When Red Star refused to sell the club to him, he created his own Red Star. In 1996 he bought a Belgrade lower division team called Obilic. Under Arkan’s stewardship, Obilic won promotion to the top flight and won the Serbian league at first time of asking. Their methods were simple: Arkan threatened to shoot opponents if they didn’t let Obilic win. But their glory lasted just one season. The year after, all the other clubs banded together to thwart Arkan’s intimidation. Eventually Arkan met the fate he threatened to dish out to others. He was gunned down by unknown assassins in Belgrade in 2000.

The book’s second tale is about the deep sectarian rivalry between Protestant Rangers and Catholic Celtic in Glasgow. The two clubs are called the Old Firm because of their profitable collusion of mutual loathing. Foer describes it as unfinished business over the Reformation. Glasgow today is a multi-cultural city with a globalist focus that would appear to make old hatreds redundant. The clubs see themselves as entertainment conglomerates and international capitalist entities. But their fans remain rooted in the bigotry of history. They crave an ethnic identity in their football tribalism or as Foer calls it “pornographic pleasure”.

In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation took root strongly in Scotland with the work of John Knox. Catholics remained in the Scottish shadows for centuries until the Irish potato famine saw a new influx of Catholics seeking a better life. They were shunned by the Glasgow Protestants and excluded from their society. In 1888 a Marist monk named Father Walfrid started the Catholic community’s own football club, Celtic. After Celtic’s early success, Rangers became the Protestant team of choice because they were the only team capable of beating them. Until the 1990s Rangers practiced a policy of hiring only Protestant players and staff. The hatred is fanned to this day by supporters who make the politicised trip across from Northern Ireland. Celtic remain the Nationalist lynchpin, as Rangers are the ultimate symbol of Loyalism to the Crown.

The book’s third tale is an unusual sidestep in history. Foer examines why Jews don’t generally do well in sport. He tells the story of Hakoah Vienna who won the Austrian league in 1925. Today there are only 7,000 Jews in Vienna but before the war there were 200,000. In the 1920s, muscular Judaism and Jewish teams were commonplace in the cities of Eastern Europe. They deliberately cloaked themselves in Jewish nationalism and played with the King David star as their logo. The Austrian Hakoah club was founded in 1909. Hakoah means strength in Hebrew. They did well and regularly filled their 18,000 seater stadium with cheering unabashed Jews. Having won the league they travelled to the US where they promoted Zionism. But for most of the players, US was the real Zion and they never went home. The club went into decline before being totally killed off by the Nazi Anschluss of 1938.

The fourth story is one of the weakest of the collection. Foer takes a closer look at the scourge of modern football: hooliganism. He met a middle aged hooligan named “Alan Garrison”. Garrison is mostly retired these days and talks more about violence than actually doing any of it. Since the Taylor report in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster of 1988, English football grounds have become all seater and rid themselves completely hooliganism. It still exists today as a social problem but happens well away from the stadia and the glare of police camera. Alan Garrison is a tedious interviewee who doesn’t add much to the book’s premise.

The fifth story is about corruption in Brazilian football. Here football is run by the cartolas, wealthy and politically well-connected men who manipulate the game for personal gain. Eurico Miranda is a Brazilian politician and owner of top Rio football club Vasco de Gama. He began as a car salesman and rose through the ranks through personal charm and corruption. In 1988 Vasco received $34 million from a Brazilian bank in sponsorship. Most of the money was spirited away into accounts in the Bahamas. Miranda remains free and popular. He is a populist federal congressman who claims affinity with the poor. According to locals, he steals but also steal for his constituents, pushing money into ostentatious public works. As a cynical Brazilian aphorism puts it, “he steals but he makes”.

The sixth chapter tells the story of Nigerian footballer Edward Anyamkyegh. Between 2001 and 2005, Anyamkyegh played for the Ukraine team Karpaty Lviv. He was brought there by Lviv’s oligarch Petro Dyminskyy. Dyminskyy had made his fortune in Western Ukraine’s gas, oil and coal reserves. Anyamkyegh’s signing was a huge gamble in an area renowned for passionate localism. Racism was rife. Neo-Nazi behaviour is also on the rise. His Ukrainian team-mates shunned him and wouldn’t pass the ball to him on the field. Opposition fans made monkey noises and threw bananas at him. The Ukrainian winter was also a shock for Anyamkyegh. His goals came in the warmer weather of autumn and spring. But he went on to do well and he and his Nigerian girlfriend assimilated. He told Foer, “I have satellite and cable” and a home full of African American rap music videos.

Chapter Seven is on the two biggest clubs in Italy: Juventus and Milan. Juve are owned by the old money of the Agnelli family who made their fortune from Fiat. Milan are owned by the brash superstar of Italian media and politics, Silvio Berlusconi. The Agnellis are worth $60 billion and own most of the wealth of the Milan bourse. But they are a quiet retiring family who do not flaunt their wealth. Behind the scenes they quietly controlled the politicians. Juventus dominated Italian football until Milan broke through in the 1980s. The flamboyant Berlusconi started from nothing in real estate moving making millions in media. He bought Milan in 1986 and imported a trio of Dutchmen, Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. Under their influence, the club was transformed into the best in Europe. Berlusconi took a football chant “Forza Italia” and turned it into a political party. Milan was the springboard for success at the ballot box. Berlusconi became Prime Minister twice, in 1994 and again in 2001.

Chapter Eight is on Foer’s favourite club FC Barcelona. The club reflects the city’s plebeian roots. In the Republican era of the 1930s, Barca became a workers’ collective, a legacy that continues today. The team adopted the Catalan colours of red and blue and the cross of St Jordi, Catalonia’s patron saint. When Franco came to power, he banned the speaking of Catalan. Only at Barca’s home ground the Camp Nou, could locals yell and swear at the regime in their native language. Franco was a passionate supporter of Barca’s bitterest rivals Real Madrid and he gave them decisive aid in the 1950s to allow them to win the first five European cups. Yet he allowed Barca to survive, if only as a harmless way for Catalans to subsume their identity within the larger Spain.

In Chapter Nine, Foer takes the reader to Tehran and the 120,000 Azadi stadium, possibly the largest football venue in the world. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, the venue was closed to women. In 1987 Ayatollah Khomeini revised the fatwa on women viewing football, allowing them to watch the game on television. The grounds remain closed to them. When Iran qualified for the 1998 World Cup in a dramatic game against Australia, the government held the celebration in the Azadi. Thousands of women defied the state and gathered outside the ground shouting “aren’t we part of this nation?” Fearing a riot, police allowed three thousand women into a segregated area. The rest outside stormed the gates. The British brought the game to Iran in the 1920s. Locals learned the game from watching Anglo-Persian oil company staff in action. The Shah seized lands from mosques and turned them into football fields. His British educated son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was an even bigger fan. Britain gave him the peacock throne after his father made the mistake of backing the Nazis in 1941. His kowtowing to the West earned him hardline enemies and the ayatollahs overthrew him in 1979. The new rulers clamped down on pop culture but couldn’t root out football. They insisted on broadcast delays to root out foul language and political messages. In the 1998 World Cup, Iranian TV refused to show the crowds for fear of giving exiled opponents a platform. Instead of a crowd, they edited in unconvincing stock images. As with its directives against women, the government’s biggest worry was Iran’s football revolution threatened turn nationalist fervour against the state.

Foer returns to his homeland for the final chapter. Youth football in the US underwent a renaissance in the 1980s. Football was a sport where parents, concerned by the violence of American football, could project their values on their children. It could alleviate shyness, foster self-esteem, minimise the pain of competition while still providing life lessons. While in the rest of the world, football was the game of the working classes, in the US the sport was for elites. This differentiation was to become a factor in the 1980s culture wars. A strong anti-soccer lobby grew who believe the game represents a threat to the American way of life. What this is is a fear of globalisation.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Bertie Ahern’s miracle Irish election win

Bertie Ahern has been returned for a third term of government after Thursday’s general election in Ireland. His Fianna Fail party will fall just short of an outright majority in the 164 seat Dáil (parliament) but will most likely form a coalition as the largest single party. The result confirms Ahern as the pre-eminent force in Irish politics continuing his ten year reign in power. The victory comes just a week after opinion polls predicted his defeat. Counting in several close seats will be completed today but it likely that Fianna Fail will finish with 41 per cent of the vote and 77 or 78 seats, short of the crucial 83 figure it needs to govern by itself.

Ireland’s second party Fine Gael made a huge improvement with 26 per cent and winning back possibly all of the 23 seats it lost in the 2002. It was Enda Kenny’s first election tilt as leader and the man from Castlebar, County Mayo made a good showing. Kenny has only been in the Dáil for one term. He squeezed into the final Mayo seat last time round but this time won the ballot comfortably. Following on from his victory in the Local and European Elections of 2004, Kenny now looks set to lead the party for the foreseeable future.

But the result represents a remarkable personal achievement for Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. The Irish media have labelled him a Lazarus for a spectacular comeback after several scandals in which intimate details of his personal life and finances were aired in the last eight months. The party spent the first two weeks of the election campaign explaining themselves to the electorate. But Ahern gathered momentum with a historic speech to Westminster’s joint Houses of Parliament and a strong showing in the leaders’ debate with Kenny. He called in favours from Bill Clinton and Tony Blair who both endorsed him. Finally the party strategists managed the vote well on election day to ensure that lesser candidates were dragged over the line by stronger ones.

But Fianna Fail will have to find a new coalition partner. Former partner the Progressive Democrats (PDs) were decimated in the election. Michael McDowell, party leader and Tanaiste (deputy prime minister) will quit politics after he lost his seat. The PDs had eight members coming into this election but may now end up with only two. The electorate took out its frustrations on the PDs tax-cutting, pro-business agenda. McDowell, who is also the Justice minister in the current administration, said last night "I love my country. I am deeply ambitious for it, but ... my period in public life as a public representative is over.”

Meanwhile Bertie Ahern said he wanted was to form "a stable government" for the next five years though he had not really turned his mind to how that would be done just yet. The 55 year old Ahern is already the second-longest-serving prime minister in Irish history behind Fianna Fail’s founder, Eamon de Valera, who won seven elections from 1932 to 1957. Ahern has three possibilities for the shape of the new Irish government. Firstly Fianna Fail could rule with the rump of the PDs with the aid of a number of Independent members. Secondly, it could rule outright with the Greens and thirdly it could rule outright with Labour. All three options have their difficulties.

Dealing with single issue independents will prove unpredictable and problematic and is probably the least favoured option. The Greens, although slightly down on 2002 are likely to pick up six seats which would take Fianna Fail over the line. This would be a questionable alliance for Fianna Fail who would baulk at some of the Greens' environmental policies. The two would also form a very narrow majority. However the Greens may be prepared to compromise on policies to gain a seat in government. Prior to the election, party leader Trevor Sergeant refused to rule out the use of Shannon airport as a stopover by US military personnel.

The third option with Labour is the strongest and yet least palatable. Labour fought the election in a coalition with Fine Gael and have become over the years intricately associated as their junior coalition party. However it did serve in government with Fianna Fail between 1992 and 1994. Labour are likely to gain 16 seats so a government with Fianna Fail would be a secure one. And on Thursday party leader Pat Rabbitte opened the door to the possibility having denied it all through the election campaign. While he said he didn’t look forward to putting Fianna Fail back in office, one of his priorities was to ensure Sinn Fein was unable to influence the next government

But that is the least likely option. Fianna Fail has formally ruled out any coalition with Sinn Fein political ally of the IRA. Gerry Adams’ all-Ireland party failed to make the predicted breakthrough gaining 7 per cent of the vote. Sinn Fein had hoped to capitalise on their high profile success in becoming junior government partners in Northern Ireland’s restored assembly but it did not translate into votes in the South. Nevertheless the Irish people are not as categorically certain as Ahern when it comes to power sharing with Sinn Fein. Opinion polls show voters believe he would do some kind of deal if it was the only way for him to extend his 10 years in power.

Whoever Fianna Fail forms government with has a massive task ahead. Ireland’s crumbling infrastructure has failed to keep pace with the sustained boom of the Celtic Tiger economy. Rapid population growth and new housing have placed severe strains on roads, schools, water supplies and hospitals. For decades a net benefactor of EU monies, the Republic is expected to become a net contributor this year. The strains of continued economic success allied with an increasing birth-rate and mass immigration is rapidly changing the social fabric of the country. Bertie Ahern will need to keep a steady hand at the tiller.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Bancroft blocks Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal ambition

A key member of the family that that owns the Wall Street Journal has announced his opposition to Rupert Murdoch’s $5 billion takeover bid of the newspaper. Christopher Bancroft is one of three siblings who have the controlling stake of the Dow Jones company. Bancroft told his own paper he thought a sale would endanger the Journal’s independence. “I’m open to any situation that benefits The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones and its shareholders. At the moment, I don’t see anything that would do that,” he said.

The Bancroft family own a 64% share of Dow Jones voting stock. On 1 May, News Corporation put in an unsolicited proposal to acquire all of the outstanding shares of Dow Jones common stock and Class B common stock for $60 per share. The Bancrofts immediately indicated they were opposed to the approach from Murdoch's News Corporation. But that hasn’t put off Murdoch. He has appealed directly to the family and proposed a meeting between them and his own family to thrash out a deal.

Wall Street itself is also confident that the parties can agree a deal as the Dow Jones share price has increased since news of Murdoch’s bid first emerged a month ago. The Wall Street Journal would represent a vital strategic asset to his news empire. It is widely regarded as the business bible and is the second largest circulation newspaper in the US after USA Today. It had a worldwide daily circulation of more than 2 million in 2006, with 931,000 paying online subscribers. It has international editions, the Dow Jones news wire, Dow Jones Indexes, Barron's, The Far Eastern Economic Review and MarketWatch.

Murdoch’s problem is that the Bancroft family represent very old wealth and they don’t see eye to eye with the brash newcomer and his corporate raider ways. One family member William Cox Jr said last week "If you give it to Rupert Murdoch, it'll be ruined”. The family is split into three branches all descended from the grandchildren of Clarence Barron. Clarence bought Dow Jones in 1902. The Ottaway family controls a further 6% of the crucial super-voting shares, has also indicated its opposition to Murdoch's "Australian-British journalism" and its "personal and political biases". Murdoch meanwhile has maintained he would not interfere with the paper’s editorial operations. "Your record of journalistic independence and integrity is second to none," Murdoch said. "Any interference [is] something I am unwilling to countenance. Apart from breaching the public's trust, it would simply be bad business”.

The Wall Street Journal has represented good business for the Bancrofts over the years. Its beginnings date to 1882 when Dow Jones and company was founded by three reporters Charles Dow, Edward Jones and Charles Bergstresser in a small basement office at 15 Wall Street in New York. The Company began by producing daily hand-written news bulletins called "flimsies" delivered by hand to subscribers in the Wall Street area. A year later they produced the "Customers' Afternoon Letter” in which Charles Dow first published the Dow Jones averages. They hired Clarence Barron as its Boston correspondent and in 1889 changed the name of the afternoon letter to the Wall Street Journal. It contained four pages and sold for two cents with advertising 20 cents a line. At that time, the Company had 50 employees.

The company launched many innovations including the Dow Jones Industrial Average, a “review and outlook column” and the “ticker” service. The Wall Street Journal added a morning edition in 1898. When Charles Dow died in 1902, Clarence Barron bought control of over the company and the newspaper. Barron made a down payment of $2,500 to buy Dow Jones from its founders. Barron was highly driven with a strong ethical purpose. On the wall of his office he posted his credo which read: "The Wall Street Journal must stand for the best that is in Wall Street and reflect that which is best in United States finance. Its motto is: The Truth in its proper use."

One of Barron’s adopted daughters married Hugh Bancroft from one of Boston’s Brahmin families. When Barron died in 1928, Hugh Bancroft became president of Dow Jones. Although Casey Hogate succeeded Bancroft in the 1930s as president, voting power stayed with the Bancroft family. Hogate did however make substantial changes to the newspaper including ending the afternoon edition. The paper’s reputation soared after the war as it won a string of Pulitzer Prizes. Dow Jones expanded by buying the Ottaway newspaper chain and creating the Asian Wall Street Journal. It produced its first online edition in 1995 and formed the business television station CNBC in alliance with NBC two years later.

Through all this time the Bancroft family have maintained their tight control of the board of Dow Jones. The company is structured to give voting control to a family trust, even though they only own 25 per cent of shares. The family owns 82 per cent of class B, or "super-voting" non-transferable shares, which count for 10 votes a share. Murdoch's reputation as a meddling proprietor remains the biggest stumbling block. Newspaper analyst John Morton said he judged Murdoch’s chances of success to be nine-to-one against. "The Bancrofts have always taken the position that any outside owner would threaten the independence of the newspaper," said Morton. "I could be wrong - he could raise the price which could stir up sentiment in his favour”.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Malawi and Mugabe

Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika has come under fire from opposition leaders for a $120m maize export deal with Zimbabwe. Malawian opposition leaders accused Mutharika at weekend rallies of exporting the country's maize stocks to Zimbabwe "virtually for free" to prop up the embattled Mugabe regime. Malawi Democratic Party (MDP) president Kamlepo Kalua suggested the reason why: He said Mutharika's wife was Zimbabwean and her family had a farm in Zimbabwe. He said the deal jeopardised poverty-stricken Malawi's own food security.

Kalua also said the President was violating international trade rules by paying for the maize it was exporting to Zimbabwe. "The government has taken $300m from the Reserve Bank of Malawi to pay the National Food Reserve Authority for the maize it is exporting to Zimbabwe," Kalua said. Kalua was addressing a rally alongside former president Bakili Muluzi. Muluzi handpicked Mutharika as his successor following the end of his official two five-year terms in 2004 but is now touring the country drumming up support for third tilt when the presidential elections occur in 2009.

Malawi was settled by Bantu tribes in the 16th century. Malawi is probably a corruption of Maravi. Maravi was a Bantu state established the state of around Lake Malawi whose culture flourished for 300 years. It extended into stretches now belonging to Zambia and Mozambique. Through the coast of Mozambique, the Maravi traded ivory, iron, and slaves with the Portuguese and Arabs. In the middle of the 19th century, they were destroyed by two invasions: from the south came the Ngoni, who fled from the Zulu Kingdom in South Africa, and from the north came Muslim slave traders, who decimated and depopulated the region.

The first significant Western contact was the arrival of David Livingstone along the north shore of the lake in 1859. Livingston witnessed the slavery at first hand and estimated that 19,000 Malawian slaves were exported from Zanzibar each year. Several Scottish Presbyterian churches established missions in his wake. They were followed by a British consul in 1993 who was accredited to the "Kings and Chiefs of Central Africa”. This fiction didn’t last long. By 1891, the British established direct rule with the British Central Africa Protectorate. In 1907 the name was changed to Nyasaland (Nyasa is the Chiyao word for "lake").

The history of Nyasaland was marked with many resistance struggles. A growing European and American educated African elite became politically active. They set up the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) in 1944. In 1958, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda returned to Malawi after a long exile in the US. He assumed leadership of the NAC, which later became the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). Banda was imprisoned for political activities but was released in 1960 to participate in a constitutional conference in London. A year later the MCP won an overwhelming electoral victory. Banda became Prime Minister in 1963 and the British link was dissolved a year later. The new country was renamed Malawi.

Banda turned the new nation into a one party state and declared himself president for life in 1971. Hastings Kamuzu Banda would rule for over 30 years. Externally he was mostly viewed as a benign but eccentric leader. He dressed in his English-style three-piece suits, matching handkerchiefs and carried a fly-whisk. In Malawi itself views on him ranged from a cult-like devotion to fear. Banda outlawed long hair and beards for men and banned kissing in public. Towards the end of his reign, political unrest spread under pressure from Malawi church groups and the international community.

His reign was brought to an end by a 1993 referendum where the people voted overwhelmingly for multi-party democracy. Bandu and his MCP were soundly defeated in elections a year later. Bakili Muluzi was installed President as head of a coalition government. Muluzi won two terms of office but was unable to change the constitution to run a third time. And so in 2004, Muluzi reluctantly endorsed former party ally Bingu wa Mutharika for president which he won in a disputed election with just 36 per cent of the vote.

But when Mutharika resigned from the party a year later, Muluzi “apologised” to the country for picking him. The power struggle has continued since then. Mutharika sacked Coalition partners who threatened to impeach him. Last year the vice-president was arrested on charges of plotting to assassinate the president. In October 2006, the 72 year old Mutharika announced he would seek re-election in 2009 after the Malawi Constitutional Court cleared him of any imminent impeachment threat in parliament.

Malawi remains one of the poorest countries in Africa. The EU funds most Malawi government activities including food imports and anti-retroviral drugs to treat HIV. But Mutharika earned the wrath of the EU after he named a multi-million dollar EU-funded highway after Mugabe. The Robert Mugabe Highway links landlocked Malawi with Mozambique’s Indian ocean ports.

At the highway’s lavish opening ceremony surrounded by tight security to deter protests, Mutharika hailed Mugabe as a "true democrat” and “son of Africa". The Malawi government says the naming was in gratitude for Zimbabwe's job opportunities for Malawian workers. Kamlepo Kalua also said it would be inappropriate to honour the Zimbabwean leader personally "It would be a serious oversight to decorate and honour a leader who is classified as an outright dictator," he said.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Pakistan cracks down on Waziristan

Pakistan killed four foreign nationals when it raided a military camp in North Waziristan. Army troops backed up by helicopter gunships stormed a suspected Al-Qaeda training camp. Pakistan ordered the raid on the compound at Zargarkhel village after militants holed up at the camp opened fire on a peace delegation flown in by helicopter. Locals saw US-built Cobra gunships flying repeated sorties toward the village over a number of hours until the compound was destroyed. The four dead are believed to be Uzbek nationals.

North Waziristan is a troubled tribal area bordering Afghanistan. Hundreds of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters fled across the border after the US-led invasion ended the Taliban regime in 2001. Military operations by Pakistani forces in the rugged tribal belt have left 700 soldiers and more than 1,000 insurgents dead since 2003, according to Pakistani officials. Pakistan has been taking tougher action since the February visit of Dick Cheney to General Musharraf. US commanders say radical fighters are training in the Waziristan area. There has been conflict in the area since 2004 when local tribesmen objected to Pakistani forces searching for al-Qaeda operatives in the area.

In September 2006 Pakistan agreed to withdraw its forces from North Waziristan tribal areas in return for a pledge from tribal leaders to stop attacks by Pakistani Taliban across the border. The agreement ensured Pakistan would not arrest members of banned militant organizations connected with al-Qaeda. This included the two Pakistanis on the US’s most wanted list, Saud Memon and Ibrahim Choto. Memon was the owner of the property where US journalist Daniel Pearl was killed. The list of untouchables also includes Ghulam Mustafa, believed to be Al Qaeda chief in Pakistan.

The Pakistan army was roundly defeated in Waziristan. The terms of the truce were humiliating to Islamabad. It saw the Pakistani army abandon its garrisons in North and South Waziristan, cease all monitoring in the area and turn over weapons seized during Army operations to what is called “the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan”. Pakistan also paid an unknown amount of money in ‘tribute’ or ransom to end the fighting.

The deal with North Waziristan follows the controversial peace deal with pro-Taliban tribes in South Waziristan in 2005. Both pacts have alarmed NATO and US forces in Afghanistan, who said that rebels based in the region were launching cross-border attacks on their troops and on Afghan forces and civilian targets. A report in the New York Times earlier this week described Northern Waziristan as a Taliban mini-state. The story quoted an arrested attempted suicide bomber in Afghanistan as saying that the former head of Pakistani intelligence, General Hamid Gul, “was financing and supporting the project (of producing suicide bombers)”.

Both areas of Waziristan have becoming a magnet for foreign fighters, who challenge government authority and in some cases wrest control from local tribes. Pakistani intelligence officials said there may be up to 2,000 foreigners including Afghans, Uzbeks and other Central Asians. Among them may be al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri who are believed to be hiding in South Waziristan. Sympathetic Pashtun tribesmen in the area are providing fugitives with shelter and support.

While Waziristan is one geographical unit with a common spoken Waziri language, it has been broken up in the two agencies of North and South Waziristan. Britain created South Waziristan in 1895 and the North Waziri agency was set up in 1910 with its headquarters at Miran Shah. But British rule was nominal. Neither North nor South Waziri tribesmen were loyal subjects and they killed over 10,000 British or Indian troops from 1849 to 1947. After independence the tribesmen acceded to newly created Pakistan out of their free will. Prime Minister Mohammed Jinnah made a solemn promise to the tribespeople that their customs and their Pathan way of life would not be interfered with.

They remain an independent thorn in the side of Jinnah’s successors.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Richard Dawkins: Fundamentalism

In previous posts, Woolly Days has looked at Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and followed his arguments on the phenomenon of Lourdes and the arguments around creationism and evolution. Dawkins then goes on to meet some American evolutionists who live in Haggart’s shadow.

Dawkins describes them as browbeaten rationalists who have organised themselves into what they called a “freethinkers group” who meet furtively. One of their number, biology teacher John Spangler, said he has received letters from parents who say he is Satan’s incarnation. Another, Gary Betchan admitted atheists are likely to suffer career damage or lose their jobs. A third man Rick Baker likened the current oppressive atmosphere to the McCarthy era.

Dawkins argues that fundamentalist Christianity is attacking science and offers in its stead a mirror image of Islamic extremism, an American Taliban state. The religious terrorism inspired by Osama is the logical outcome of deeply held faith. Even moderate believers encourage ‘unreason’. Religious warriors think what they are doing is the ultimate good. Dawkins describes the religious struggle between good and evil merely as a battle between two evils.

Dawkins goes to Jerusalem, which he describes as a microcosm of the religious conflict that threatens rational values. Politics and extreme faith have combined to cause the deaths of four thousand people in attacks and reprisals over the last five years. Tourists still flock to Jerusalem to revere their particular brand of religion. Christians come to Calvary, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion; Muslims come to the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque, Jews to the Western Wall, Judaism’s most holy ruin. On the surface it looks like a place of harmless myth. But it is a source of barely repressed religious hatred.

Different religions live cheek by jowl in the Old City, all under strict security. But one area above all is under heavy guard: the Temple Mount. Here lies the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque; together Islam’s third holiest shrine after Mecca and Medina. They believe the prophet Mohammed flew up to heaven from here. But next door is the site of the long destroyed first and second temple and the Western Wall. Jews are not allowed to worship inside the compound. Their prayers are confined to the Wall. The Dome of the Rock was situated on the site of the altar of the old temple.

Neither religion is inclined to share the Temple Mount with the other. Dawkins goes to meet someone whom he says “in my naiveté, would see both sides of the story”. Yusuf Al-Kattah was brought up as a secular New York Jew, came to Gaza as a Jewish settler where he was converted to Islam. Dawkins admits to Al-Kattah he is an atheist who hears nothing but hate from all sides in this religious conflict. Al-Kattah immediately goes on the attack “I hate atheists,” he says. “They don’t care if someone fornicates on the middle of the street….They don’t believe in a set of rules, they can amend the rules as they go along. They don’t believe in God’s rules. ..That’s all you have, man-made laws”.

Dawkins asks Al-Kattah what he thinks about 9/11. Al-Kattah ignores the question and continues the attack on Dawkins “you like to talk about evolution. I’d like to start by saying what do you think of the Jews that have destroyed over 417 Arab villages…what are you saying we should sit back…let us sit down and drink tea and talk about what to do”. Al-Kattah says that if there were no state of Israel there would be no 9/11. Dawkins worries that there is someone out there with faith as strong as Al-Kattah but with an opposite view. Al–Kattah counters “the problem with you, Richard, is that you have fear”. Al-Kattah advises Dawkins to “take your soldiers off our lands and fix your women”.

Historic injustice to the Palestinians breeds hatred and anger. In creating a suicide bomber culture, a level of conviction in your own righteous faith is the key. If preachers then tell the faithful that paradise awaits them if they make the ultimate sacrifice, it is hardly surprising that some crazed followers will act out the deed; leading to a vendetta, war and suffering. This will continue as long as people are brought up from the cradle to believe that there is something good in faith, about believing because you’ve been told to believe. Dawkins says killing for God is not only hideous murder but also utterly ridiculous. Unlike religion, science doesn’t pretend to know everything. But just because science cannot answer those questions right now doesn’t mean faith can. Science cannot disprove the existence of God; but that does not mean God exists.

Dawkins says we cannot disprove the existence of fairies, unicorns and hobgoblins. But we don’t believe in any of them nor do we believe in Thor, Amon-Ra or Aphrodite. We are all atheists about most of the Gods that society has ever believed in. But some of us go one God further.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Richard Dawkins: Evolution and Creationism

In the first part of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins looked at the phenomenon of Lourdes. Dawkins describes religion as turning untested belief into unshakable truth through the power of institutions and the passage of time. According to Dawkins, this was testament to the power of tradition in religion.

Dawkins examined the Assumption of Mary to hammer home his point. According to Catholic theology, Jesus’ mother Mary did not die, she ascended directly into heaven at the end of her life. There is no evidence for this; it is not mentioned in the bible. The belief she ascended into Heaven emerged in the 6th century AD. The story spread by word of mouth and became established tradition. The longer it kept going, the more it was taken seriously. In 1950 it became authority. The Vatican decreed Catholics must believe in the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin. This doctrine was ‘revealed’ to Pope Pius XII by God.

While Catholic doctrine over the assumption of Mary is not in itself harmful, the Pope’s personal convictions about discouraging the use of condoms in Aids-ridden Africa is another story. Here there is an appalling human cost. The Church uses its authority to issue edicts to the faithful without a shred of evidence to back their claims. But Dawkins is at pains not just to blame the Catholics. Fatwas by Muslim imams follow the same trajectory.

Religion thrives on unsolved mysteries. For early humanity what was mysterious and unexplained was so vast, it needed a higher being an ‘alpha male in the sky’ to explain it all. Scientific investigation has rolled back many mysteries. Where once were Sun Gods, science now tells us the Sun is middle-sized star halfway through its 10 billion year life. Revolving round it is the 4.5 billion year old Earth. Science has used evidence, comparing and corroborating evidence, to update old theories about how things work.

Humanity used to resort to supernatural hypotheses for creation myths. Genesis is one of many such myths. God fashioned the world in six days. In the 19th century Charles Darwin hit on what really happened, without any need to invoke the supernatural or the divine. Evolution is a gentle slope; Darwin’s great insight was that life evolved steadily and slowly over four billion years. Natural selection not a divine designer was the sculptor of life. The design hypothesis raises an even bigger problem than it solves: who designed the designer?

Dawkins thought that in his lifetime evolution would be accepted as fact everywhere, backed up as it is by overwhelming evidence. But this evidence cuts no ice with many. Evolution today is under threat. In the bible belt of Middle America, evangelicals are fighting back against science. In the new world, religion is free enterprise. Rival groups set up shop competing against each other to save souls. Fundamentalist Christianity is on the rise in the world’s only superpower. Its power spreads up to and including the president. 135,000 million Americans believe the universe is less than 10 thousand years old.

Dawkins goes to the New Life Church in Colorado Springs where conservative Christians have built an $18 million Church. New Life isn’t just a church but a social network. A 12,000 congregation attend 1,300 organised programs which guide them on everything from marriage to dog walking. It is a New Jerusalem in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. While it lacks the tradition of Lourdes, it makes up for it in swaggering authority.

Evangelical churches like this have become enormously powerful in the US influencing everything from the teaching of science in schools to foreign policy. New Life Church Pastor Ted Haggard was a powerful man, chairman of the National Association of Evangelicals. Haggard had a hot line not only to God but also to President Bush. He is a staunch Republican. He had also rubbed shoulders with Tony Blair and Ariel Sharon. Dawkins was not to know that Haggart was forced to resign in November 2006 after paying for sex with a gay prostitute and admitting he bought drugs.

When Dawkins and Haggart met, they clashed on the Bible. Dawkins wanted to understand what he called ‘irrational faith’ is spreading and attacking science. In their interview Dawkins began by complimenting Haggart and suggested a lot of money was spent here. Haggard said “I wanted people to be able to worship and enjoy it and be in a setting where the speaker is close to them…so I can look at them”. Dawkins said this was effective and said the sermon reminded him of the Nazi Nuremburg rallies. Haggard laughed and said lots of Americans think of it more as a rock concert.

Dawkins acknowledged that every person needs at the centre some sense of meaning about existence. But most accept that life is complex not the childish certainties of God. Dawkins biggest concern is that evangelicals like Haggart are foisting falsehoods on their flock. They deny scientific evidence just to support a Bronze Age myth. Haggart hit back by accusing “people like Dawkins” of intellectual arrogance and air of superiority because “they know so much more”.

Haggart’s approach is to lets teach evolution as just another theory alongside creationism and intelligent design, which sounds reasonable on first impression. But whereas evolution by natural selection is supported by mountains of evidence, creationism exists on a flimsy base; self-contradictory and supported only by what Dawkins contempuously calls "ancient scribblings".

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Richard Dawkins' Lourdes evil

ABC has broadcast part 1 of “The Root of All Evil?” by Richard Dawkins. Produced in 2006, in it Dawkins argues the world would be better off without religion. Part 1 is called ‘The God Delusion”. it was presented in ABC’s Compass brand devoted to faith, values, ethics, and religion with a warning it might cause offence. Dawkins is a British ethologist, evolutionary biologist, and popular science writer who has not only split the evolutionary scientists but has also gained the wrath of religions worldwide by stridently proclaiming his orthodox atheism.

He began by looking at the cult of Lourdes. Lourdes is in Catalan country called Lorda in Occitan. Now a town in the Hautes-Pyrenees department, Lourdes is the largest Catholic religion pilgrimage location in France. In 1858 the Virgin Mary appeared to 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous in a cave on the banks of the Gave River at Massabielle.

Massabielle is natural karst cave. It is called a grotto which means it is not a deep cave. For a period of about five months, Soubirous claimed the Virgin Mary appeared 18 times. Marie-Bernarde Soubirous was a sickly child; she had cholera in infancy and suffered most of her life from asthma. Her father was a miller, her mother a laundress. Post Napoleonic France was undergoing hard times and Bernadette grew up in extreme poverty. She survived by doing farm work and waiting at tables in the nearby town of Bartrès. Aged 14, she returned to Lourdes to attend schooling. But the classes in French were difficult for children who spoke Gascon, a dialect of Occitan, which now survives in the form of its cousin Catalan.

Her teachers thought Soubirous was simple minded. On 11 February 1848, she was out collecting firewood with her sister and a friend at Massabielle. Bernadette claimed to see "a small young lady" standing in a niche in the rock. This lady wore a white veil, a blue girdle and had a golden rose on each foot and in her hands she held a string of Rosary beads. Neither of the other two girls saw anything. The Small Young Lady asked her to return every day for the next fortnight.

When Bernadette told her story, the town divided into two camps. While some dismissed her story as nonsense, others were desperate to believe. She soon had a large number of people following her on her daily journey, some out of curiosity and others who firmly believed that they were witnessing a miracle. Bernadette alone would see the young lady for the next seventeen nights. She called her 'Aquerò' ("the lady").

But the townspeople were quick to judge that Aquerò was really the Virgin Mary. Bernadette seemed to confirm this, when on the 17th apparition the Aquerò spoke to the young girl. Speaking in fluent Gascon, the lady said “Que soy era Immaculada Conceptiou”. This translates in English as I am the Immaculate Conception.

Four years earlier the Pope Pius IX had promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; that, alone of all human beings who have ever lived, the Virgin Mary was born without the stain of original sin. This doctrine was not yet well known outside the Catholic intelligentsia and certainly unknown to a semi-illiterate farmherd teenage girl. Here was proof that some higher authority was at work. Matters soon took another turn. After this appearance Soubirous began to dig at the site and discovered a spring in the grotto. The first known cure occurred that same year.

Catherine Latapie lived at Loubajac, a few kilometres from Lourdes. She had injured her right hand after a fall from a tree eighteen months before and was now nearing the end of a pregnancy. One night Latapie got a sudden inspiration, rose at three in the morning and went to Lourdes. Arriving at dawn, she met Soubirous at the grotto and put her hand in the spring. Her hand was immediately cured and went home that evening where she gave birth. A doctor pronounced the Latapie case as “presenting a supernatural character”. Soubirous was now famous.

Some of the people who interviewed her following her revelation of the visions thought her simple-minded. But she stuck to her story. The civil authorities tried to frighten Bernadette into recanting her accounts, but she always remained faithful to the vision Aged 22 Bernadette entered the Monastery of Nevers. She died aged 35 and was canonized a saint in 1933.

Lourdes is now big business. 5.5 million people take the pilgrimage each year. There are 40,000 beds to receive them. 70,000 of these are sick or handicapped and looking for a cure. Out of its millions of visitors, there have been 66 documented cures that have been given "miracle" status by the Catholic Church, including Latapie's case. In statistical evidence, Dawkins pointes out, that is nothing at all. He finds it more likely that patients seeking a cure at Lourdes are more likely to catch another disease from a sick person. Yet the pilgrims desperately lean on the faith like a crutch and their belief remains profound. That is the real miracle.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Wembley beckons at last for the FA Cup Final

After six years in exile in Cardiff, the FA Cup Final comes home to Wembley today. The new Wembley Stadium has its official opening for its first major competitive game with today’s FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Manchester United. A capacity 90,000 crowd will be at the game to see the first cup final at the North London venue since 2000. The stadium has been completely revamped at the cost of $US1.5 billion after a long, complex and controversial re-building project.

It is fitting, albeit unromantic, that the showpiece game features England’s two top sides. Manchester United go in as slight favourites having won the league at Chelsea’s expense two weeks ago. English online betting agency Bet365 offers United at 11/4 to win in 90 minutes with Chelsea and the draw both at 3/1. If United win, it will be their fourth league and cup double under manager Alex Ferguson matching the achievements of 1994, 1996 and 1999 (the latter when they also won the European Champions League). Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho will be keen to claim a double of sorts having won the League Cup earlier this season. The FA Cup remains the only English domestic trophy Chelsea have yet to win under Mourinho’s stewardship.

The cup final promises to be an expensive day out for the team’s fans. The cheapest tickets at $US70 and go up to $US185 (black market values will be considerably higher). Meanwhile match programmes cost almost $US20, a burger with chips and coke $US16 and a bottle of water $US3.20. Fan groups of both clubs have urged supporters attending the game to boycott official merchandise and catering stalls in protest at the cost of tickets and the 25,000 ticket allocation to both sides. A batch of 20,000 leaflets distributed to fans of both clubs read "It appears to us the FA is making the ordinary supporter pay in hard cash for what was the farce that took place over the budgeting, planning and completion of the new Wembley Stadium."

The old Wembley stadium with its iconic Twin Towers was demolished in 2000 after a 77 year life. As well as hosting 77 cup finals (including 5 replays), the ground hosted the 1948 Olympics and the 1966 World Cup final. But by the end of the century the famous old ground was a crumbling wreck and an embarrassment to officials. In the final game at the old stadium old rivals Germany spoiled the party. In pouring rain, they beat England 1-0 in a World Cup qualifying game that saw Kevin Keegan replaced as England manager.

After they closed the gates for the final time, the Football Association said the new stadium would open in three years in time for the 2003 FA Cup Final. That date quickly proved hopelessly optimistic. The contract to build the new stadium was awarded to Australian company Multiplex. They were able to point out they successfully built the Sydney Olympic stadium under budget and ahead of schedule for the 2000 Olympic Games. But New Wembley proved a greater challenge. The project was dogged by delays and cost blowouts. Multiplex blamed the FA and the stadium owners for constantly changing the design. The 2003 deadline was rapidly changed to 2005. That became early 2006. Then the 2006 cup final was the new target; that was missed too. Multiplex was sued by its own shareholders for not disclosing the true state of their finances. The companies total losses from the Wembley project have now totalled $Aus 364.3 million.

Now that the keys have finally been handed over, those involved will be hoping that today’s final will not be marred by the problems that plagued the first final at the original Wembley. That game took place on 28 April 1923 between Bolton and West Ham. The first stadium was built in just 300 working days at a cost of £750,000. The workmen had made use of 25,000 tons of concrete, 1500 tons of steel and half a million rivets. Officials grossly underestimated the interest in the occasion. The ground capacity at the time was 127,000 and it was full to capacity. But there were another 100,000 crushed outside the stadium desperate to get in. They rushed the gates, burst the barriers and swarmed onto the field of play. The eventual crowd at the games has been estimated as somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 – an unofficial world record.

With the playing field almost swamped by spectators, some of them injured, the FA considered calling the game off. But the prospect of 200,000 angry people in front of King George V in the Royal Box caused a change of heart. Police cleared the field of fans and the game started after a delay of 45 minutes. A few mounted policeman led by an 'inspector on a white horse' pushed their way to the centre and helped other policemen to force the crowd back to the touchlines. The 'inspector' was in fact a constable - PC. G. A. Storey riding his horse 'Billie' - and they became a legend of the Cup Final's history. Though they didn’t fully clear the pitch the match was allowed to start. Playing remained difficult and Police had to clear a path for players to take a corner. Neither side could leave the field at half-time. West Ham were a man down after a player fell into the crowd and took several minutes to extricate himself. Bolton took advantage of his absence to score a goal. They went on to win 2-0.

With today’s game an all-ticket affair, it is unlikely to generate the same level of chaos as in 1923. But the level of excitement surrounding the game is unchanged, despite the recent downgrading of the tournament compared to the Premier League and the Champions League. As well as admiring what they hope to be an exciting game of football, patrons can marvel at the architectural wonder that is New Wembley’s arch. At 140 meters high, it is already a distinctive part of the London skyline and can be seen from Canary Wharf, 20kms away. The arch weighs 1,750 tonnes and has a span of 315 metres. It supports all the weight of the north roof and most of the weight of the retractable south roof, thereby eliminating the need for view-restricting columns at the venue.

As well as the imposing arch, Fans arriving at the ground will see a new statue of England World Cup winning captain Bobby Moore. Last week a group including Tony Blair and Moore’s fellow world cup winners Geoff Hurst and Bobby Charlton unveiled the bronze statue which overlooks Wembley Way. Two years before winning the World Cup, Moore lifted the FA Cup trophy for West Ham at Wembley in 1964. He died of bowel cancer aged 51 in 1993.

For what little it's worth, the neutral Woolly Days tips Manchester United to win 2-1 after extra time.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Getting to grips with Sarbanes-Oxley

A new survey has shown US public companies are finally getting to grips with Sarbanes-Oxley. Public companies spent a quarter less in compliance in 2006 than they did the year before. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act (commonly called SOX) is a controversial federal law passed in 2002 in response to the Enron, WorldCom and other financial scandals. Compliance with the law in 2006 cost companies $2.92 million on average compared with $3.8 million in 2005.

The drop is 35 percent compared to 2004, the first year companies were required to adhere to the law's strict accounting requirements. The survey was carried out by Financial Executives International who surveyed 200 companies, most of which had a market value of more than $75 million. While business groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce have criticized SOX for stifling innovation by subjecting companies to burdensome regulations, the act has done much to restore confidence in the integrity of the American business community.

The act was named after its sponsors Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Representative Michael G. Oxley (R-Oh.). The legislation establishes standards for all U.S. public company boards, management, and public accounting firms. It contains 11 titles which range from additional Corporate Board responsibilities to criminal penalties, and requires the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to implement rulings on requirements to comply with the new law.

SOX established a new agency called the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) which was charged with regulating accounting firms in their roles as auditors of public companies. The PCAOB is a private sector non-profit corporation based in New York which oversees the auditors of public companies to protect investors’ interests and ensure that audit reports are informative, fair and independent.

George W Bush signed the Sarbanes-Oxley bill into law in July 2002. In his signing speech Bush linked terrorism and fraud as undermining the US economy. Bush described SOX as “the most far-reaching reforms of American business practices since the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt”. Bush said that under the new law CEOs and chief financial officers would have to personally vouch for the truth and fairness of their companies' disclosures. The act gave the SEC the administrative authority to bar directors and stiffened penalties for obstructing justice and shredding documents. It also increased the maximum prison term for fraud from five to 20 years. However Bush wasn’t always so eager to pass this legislation.

The aim of the law was to improve accountability of managers in the wake of the Enron scandal in 2001. But initially Congress was slow to react. Enron were big contributors to both sides of politics, but its largesse was mostly to the Republicans including a donation of $114,000 to the president. There were several committee hearings and a number of bills were introduced to address corporate misconduct. But with the Senate under Democratic control and the House of Representatives and White House under Republican control there was little agreement on how to address the problems.

In the Summer of 2002 came a second wave of corporate scandals, led by WorldCom and Adelphia. The stock market plummeted in advance of the midterm elections. Congress and the White House could no longer ignore the stench. Congress rushed to pass the complicated Sarbanes-Oxley Act before the August recess. The previously controversial proposal suddenly became very popular, passing 99-0 in the Senate and 423-3 in the House.

It was to be the broadest-sweeping legislation to affect corporations and public accounting since the 1933 and 1934 securities acts. SOX developed the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, a private, non-profit corporation, to ensure that financial statements are audited according to independent standards. Top company officers are held directly responsible for financial accuracy with penalties for non-compliance up to $5 million in fines, a 20-year jail term or both. The law seeks to ensure securities analysts are objective and gives board audit committees (not the CEOs or chief financial officer) full control of auditors.

But critics of the law complain that the cost of compliance is too high; especially for smaller companies. Early studies showed companies were paying bills far in excess of what regulators had predicted. In response the SEC initially delayed implementation of a key section of SOX for companies with less than $75 million in market capitalization until this year; the internal-controls assessment requirements (called Rule 404). That deadline has now been extended further to 2009. Much remains to be done. Today’s survey result is showing that the SOX process is maturing but another 78 percent still believe the cost of compliance exceeds the benefits.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Talisman Sabre Rattling at Shoalwater Bay

A public meeting in Brisbane was told today about the largest military exercise in Australia this year: Operation Talisman-Sabre 2007 (TS07) at north Queensland’s Shoalwater Bay. Kim Stewart from Peace Convergence told the meeting TS07 will involve nearly 14,000 US troops and over 12,000 Australian personnel, according to a Public Environment Report released last year.

The exercise is designed to improve combat readiness and interoperability. The field training portion of TS07 will be conducted from 19 June to 2 July, with force preparation and deployment of forces during the week of 12 to 18 June. Current planning shows Australian forces likely to participate are 20 ships and 25 aircraft while US forces likely to take part are 10 ships (including a carrier Battle Group) and 100 aircraft. Shoalwater is the major location with some events taking place at Townsville and Bradshaw (NT) bases.

This is the second major war games exercise in two years at Shoalwater. The purpose of Talisman Sabre 2005 (TS05) was to train American and Australian military in “crisis action planning for execution of contingency operations. TS05 brought together 11,000 US and 6,000 Australian under the command of Vice Admiral Jonathan W Greenert, Commander of the US Seventh Fleet. They practiced joint operations, test interoperability and also what was called “refined procedures and doctrines”.

Local residents are worried by the scale of these exercises and have complained about ongoing abuse of the Shoalwater Bay marine environment by military personnel. Local fishermen claim Army engineers used heavy explosives to blast a hole in the dunes on Freshwater Beach, lowered the local water table by 3 metres and drained a swamp into the sea. They also complain of heavy artillery firing in the water catchment, decimation of mangroves, deaths of dugongs due to bombings, and blasting of the Great Barrier Reef.

A local action group the Shoalwater Wilderness Awareness Group (SWAG) prepared a response (pdf) to the Department of Defence’s Public Environment Report for TS07. SWAG has five major concerns with the exercise. It claimed there was little public consultation, has serious omissions related to environmental impact, water catchment damage and lack of clean-up, identified risks in the document related to road damage and accidents, pointed out the dangers of nuclear weapons and depleted uranium to be used in the exercise, and lastly the failure to produce an Environmental Impact statement.

Shoalwater Bay
is a wetlands of international importance. Vast mangrove forests, mudflats, sandflats and seagrass beds have formed on the sheltered western side of Shoalwater Bay. Half the wetland types found in Queensland exist in the Shoalwater and Corio Bays area. Threatened species which live in or visit these waters include dugong, saltwater crocodiles and various types of turtles including green, loggerhead, hawksbill and flatback. Almost half of Australia's recorded mangrove species are found in this area. They provide a nursery for fish and sheltered roosts for birds.

Australia is a signatory of The Ramsar convention on wetlands (signed in Ramsar, Iran in 1971). The convention is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national and international action for the use of wetlands. Shoalwater Bay is one of 64 Australian sites (pdf)registered with Ramsar and the fourth largest protected wetland after Coongie Lakes (South Australia), the Coral Sea islands territory and Kakadu.

Situated between Mackay and Rockhampton, the Shoalwater Bay area is a relatively undisturbed habitat area with significant flora and fauna. The mangrove, tidal mudflats and saltflats are internationally important habitats for resident and migratory waterbirds. The site regularly hosts over 20,000 birds. The entire 240,000 hectare area is within the Mackay-Capricorn Marine Park. The Shoalwater Bay Training Area has been listed on the Register of the National Estate since 1980 but is managed by the Department of Defence.

Dr Zohl dé Ishtar addressed the public meeting on the wider context of the Shoalwater Bay military exercise. dé Ishtar is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Australian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland. She has wide-ranging experience in dealing with cross-cultural research and project collaboration with Indigenous Pacific and Australian women/communities. dé Ishtar recently returned from Guam where she observed first hand the US military influence on the island.

dé Ishtar explained how the US military now sees the North West Pacific region as its highest risk area with the ongoing tensions between China and Taiwan and to a lesser extent between the Koreas. The US intent to increase their military presence in the North Pacific but preferably in US controlled territory not in allied territory. The favoured locations are Alaska, Hawaii and Guam. As the commander of Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base said Guam is “big lily pad for leap frogging people, supplies, aircraft -- anything we need to sustain a conflict -- into the [Southwest Asia] region."

Not everyone in Guam is happy about the US presence. Guam is the southernmost of the Mariana Island and is four hours flight north of Cairns. It is a small island and an “unincorporated territory” of the US which means Guam residents don't vote for the US President and have no voting representation in the US Congress. Guahan (Guam) was settled by the Chamorros people at least 4,000 years ago and colonised by Spain in the 17th century. The US took control of the island after the Spanish-American war of 1898. It was captured by Japan for three years in World War II. Since that war, Guam has been vital in securing American military and economic interests throughout the Pacific and Asia.

The US Department of Defence occupies 30% of the island with the potential to expand. It is rapidly increasing the offensive capability of both the Air Force and Navy on the island. There are plans to establish a Global Strike Force on Guam, involving rotating 48 F-22 and F-15E fighter jets, six B-1, B-2, and B-52 bombers, adding another three nuclear submarines to the three Guam already houses and plans to become the home port of 60 per cent of the Navy's Pacific Fleet in the region. It will become the "largest, most forward US military installation in the Pacific theatre," which will inevitably make Guam a first-strike target in any Pacific war.

Ishtar pointed how Guam is becoming known as the tip of the spear of US Pacific forces. Guam's new priority is a result of the "unknowns" in East Asia - code language for Pentagon concerns about the rise of China - with its claims on Taiwan and rivalry with Japan - and a region with friction over oil rights, North Korea. Logistically it is far easier to support Guam from Australia than the US.

In 2005, the Australian Government entered agreements (under the auspices of Ausmin) with the US to provide long-term access and joint use of Shoalwater Bay Training Area. This agreement ties Australia to the rapid military build up in Guam. Talisman Sabre 2007 is a result. dé Ishtar pointed out how if Guam is the tip of the spear, then Australia prepares the hand that holds the spear.