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Nobel Winner Says Yemen Could Face Civil War December 16, 2011

Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman of Yemen says her country could be pushed into a civil war unless the West stops supporting the current transition and takes strong legal and financial action against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Karman met with Britain’s foreign secretary and other senior officials on Thursday.

Karman says she told Foreign Secretary William Hague that the current 90-day waiting period, between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s resignation and his departure from office, is a very dangerous time. She told reporters she and her fellow-activists reject the deal negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council, and she told the foreign secretary that Britain and the West should stop supporting it.

“Three months is a long time. It means, enter Yemen to civil war. And I warn you because you are silent, you encourage him by your silence to do that,” she said.

Karman, who received the Nobel Peace Prize on Saturday in Oslo, came to London to meet with officials and members of the Yemeni exile community, and to promote her cause through a series of public events.  

At a news conference at the Council for Arab-British Understanding, she called on Britain and other western governments to freeze the assets of Saleh and his supporters, to prosecute Saleh through the International Criminal Court and to launch an investigation of the Saleh regime, as called for in a UN Security Council resolution passed in October.

“Britain’s government, they have to take their responsibility. And they have to be clever, not stupid. Please don’t play with Ali Saleh. Don’t give him a chance to cheat you more and more and more,” said Karman.

Karman says Foreign Secretary Hague told her Britain wants to wait and see how Saleh behaves during the 90-day transition period. But Karman told him Saleh is already not doing what he is supposed to do. And she called on Britain to “re-examine” its position.

She also criticized the Gulf plan, saying it gives Saleh immunity he doesn’t deserve, calls on the demonstrators to leave their encampment in Sana’a, and will create a paralyzed transitional government and an undemocratic election with only one candidate. That candidate is to be Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who Karman calls a puppet of Saleh.

“Is this the democracy that we are struggling for, that we paid thousands of blood, killed people and injured in the street for this? Where is the accountability? For giving him the immunity, where is the democracy? One candidate, which is Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, where is the press freedom and the human rights? Taking the demonstrations out, what is that? So, yes we are against that and we are not part of this initiative,” she said.

Karman said the demonstrations will continue to protest the transition plan.

She is the first Arab woman and, at age 32, the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She received it along with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee.

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Panetta in Afghanistan, Calls 2011 a ‘Turning Point’ December 14, 2011

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is on a surprise visit to Afghanistan, where he says 2011 will mark a turning point in the 10-year-old war.  

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Kabul for a visit with troops and a first-hand assessment from the man who commands them, General John Allen.

Speaking on his way to the region, Panetta said he wants to see what troops have been able to accomplish in Afghanistan. “[The year] 2011 will mark a turning point with regards to the effort in Afghanistan. Our troops have been able to obviously reduce the levels of violence there. We’ve seen the lowest levels of violence in almost five years now. They are successful in securing some of the key areas in Afghanistan,” he said.

The United States expects to complete a drawdown of troops in the country by 2014.  The defense chief said the U.S.-led coalition has made gains against Taliban insurgents in most of the country.

Despite continuing insurgent attacks, he said U.S. forces are on their way to being able to hand over military and police control of the whole country to the Afghans on schedule. “Clearly I think Afghanistan is on a much better track in terms of our ability to eventually transition to an Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself,” he said.

Prospects for a smooth transition are being complicated by deteriorating relations with Pakistan, especially after a NATO-led attack on a border area last month killed 24 Pakistanis troops.  Pakistan responded by closing off a key supply routes for U.S. forces and moving air defense systems to its border with Afghanistan.

General Allen told reporters Tuesday in Kabul he has been reaching out to the Pakistanis in an effort to repair ties and restore cooperation along the Afghan border.  Allen said he spoke with his Pakistani counterpart, General Ashfaq Kayani, by telephone this week. “The outcome of the conversation was that we stated our mutual commitment to address any shortfalls that may have caused this event, and also to ensure that we work closely together because the border is always going to be there,” he said.

Panetta said a good relationship with Pakistan is crucial to winning the war in Afghanistan.

After Kabul, the U.S. Defense Secretary heads to Baghdad for a ceremony marking the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

During a stop in Djibouti earlier, Panetta said Washington’s attention is turning to the Horn of Africa and Yemen, where he said al-Qaida and other terrorist networks are moving in.  He said the U.S. relationship with Djibouti has developed into a very important partnership in this new phase of the counter-terrorism effort.   

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the process of drawing down, Panetta is touring the region to take stock of both conflicts.  He also plans a visit to Libya where U.S.-led NATO forces this year helped a popular revolution overthrow the government of the late leader Muammar Qadafi.

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Syria’s Assad Disclaims Responsibility for Protest Deaths December 7, 2011

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied responsibility for the killing of thousands of anti-government protesters, telling a U.S. journalist he does not control the forces implementing his country’s brutal crackdown.

In a rare interview to air Wednesday, President Assad tells ABC News that although he is president he does not “own the country, so they’re not my forces.”

The Syrian leader is quoted as saying there is “a big difference” between having “a policy to crack down and having mistakes committed by some officials.”

Prior to the broadcast of the interview, an ABC news reporter brought up Assad’s comments at the U.S. State Department briefing.  Spokesman Mark Toner responded by saying there is no indication Assad “is doing anything other than cracking down in the most brutal fashion on a peaceful opposition movement.”

Toner said he finds it “ludicrous” that the Syrian president is “attempting to hide behind a sort of shell game (charade) and claim he does not exercise authority in his own country.”

Also Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a rare meeting with seven Syrian opposition leaders in Geneva as the U.S. and French ambassadors returned to Damascus after an extended absence.

Clinton told senior members of the Syrian National Council – all exiles in Europe – that a democratic transition is more than removing Assad’s regime. She said “it means setting the country on the path of the rule of law and protecting the universal rights of all citizens, regardless of sect or ethnicity or gender.”

The top U.S. diplomat said the opposition understood Syrian minorities needed to be reassured they would be better off “under a regime of tolerance and freedom.” The SNC also outlined a transition plan involving the handover of power to a provisional government and the departure of Assad, his family and close aides.

The Syrian leader is a member of the minority Shi’ite Alawite sect, while most Syrians are Sunni Muslims. The country is also home to a number of other religious and ethnic minorities, including Christians and Kurds.

Meanwhile, Syria’s sectarian violence escalated sharply Monday, with activists reporting more than 50 deaths as the central city of Homs was convulsed by a series of kidnappings, random shootings and revenge killings. Thirty-four of the dead were shot execution style, their bodies dumped in the streets.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called it “one of the deadliest days since the start of the Syrian Revolution.”

Assad’s government received words of support from Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Tuesday.

During a speech in Beirut marking the Shi’ite ritual of Ashura, Nasrallah lashed out against the United States, accusing it of seeking to destroy Syria. He said he is in favor of Assad’s plans for reform.   

The United States and its allies have been trying to isolate the Assad government in response to its nine-month crackdown on protests.

The United Nations estimates that unrest-related violence in Syria has killed more than 4,000 people since the uprising began in March.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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US condemns Egypt’s military rulers amid exasperation among protesters November 23, 2011

The US has sharply stepped up criticism of Egypt‘s military rulers as Washington grapples once again with how to deal with an authoritarian ally in Cairo responsible for a bloody crackdown against people demanding democratic rights.

After days of refusing to directly blame the Egyptian security forces for the deaths of at least 36 people protesting against the ruling army council’s attempts to draw out the transition to civilian rule, and even after that to retain political powers for the military, the US state department finally pointed the finger on Tuesday.

“We condemn the excessive force used by the police,” said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “We strongly urge the Egyptian government to exercise maximum restraint, to discipline its forces and to protect the universal rights of all Egyptians to peacefully express themselves.”

The US condemnation came amid growing exasperation among protesters in Cairo at equivocal statements from the state department and the White House – which is deciding policy on Egypt – that avoided direct criticism of the military. Many were further angered by the discovery that the tear gas canisters fired against them were manufactured in the US.

Washington’s ambiguous approach echoes its indecision during the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in February, and reflects an array of competing interests that have once again left the administration hesitant and grappling for direction in dealing with an authoritarian ally.

The Obama administration has regarded the Egyptian military as the cornerstone of a controlled transition to civilian rule since Mubarak was forced out after 30 years in power. The US was not unsympathetic to the Egyptian military’s attempts to ensure it maintains a degree of control long after the transition to civilian rule, not least because the army’s manoeuvres were principally at the expense of the Islamist political parties. Analysts say the US regards stability in Egypt as particularly important, in part because of the necessity of maintaining Cairo’s cold peace with Israel.

But the army’s evident attempts to delay the political transition, and to put itself above civilian accountability afterwards, is generating the very unrest the US was trying to avoid. It also undermines Washington’s claims to support democratic transitions in the Arab world.

Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said the US administration now faces the same dilemma it faced in January when the protests began against Mubarak’s rule.

“There is a government in power that the US largely supports. The US was rather pleased with the role of the military originally in the sense that it saw it as a guarantee of stability in a situation in which it did not have any contacts with all the new political forces,” she said. “The role of the military was welcomed by the US government the same as previously the US always accepted the role of Mubarak as a source of stability. Now they’re facing the same dilemma that the government that they have supported is being challenged and they have to decide at which point they are going to start issuing different messages to it. I don’t think they have quite decided.”

Nuland welcomed the Egyptian military’s announcement on Tuesday that next week’s parliamentary elections would be held on time, and that the transition to a fully elected government and a new president would be completed by July. Comments by state department officials suggest the US still strongly favours the military overseeing the transition to democracy, rather than an immediate shift to an appointed civilian administration that Washington fears will be less stable.

But at least some administration officials are wary of the military council, which has at times proved to be as repressive as when it was serving Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Earlier this month, Hillary Clinton made reference to Egypt in a warning against the US backing what are perceived to be stable sympathetic regimes at the cost of democratic reform.

“We do work with many different governments to pursue our interests and to keep Americans safe – and certainly not all of them are democracies,” she told the National Democratic Institute.

“But as the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt made clear, the enduring cooperation we seek will be difficult to sustain without democratic legitimacy and public consent. We cannot have one set of policies to advance security in the here-and-now and another to promote democracy in a long run that never quite arrives.”.

The administration has come under pressure from the Working Group on Egypt, a group of Middle East analysts offering advice to the administration, which has repeatedly warned that the military rulers in Cairo are stalling on democratic change. It called for Congress to set firm conditions to the US’s $1.3bn annual aid to Egypt, including requiring that the Obama administration certify that Egypt has held free and fair elections. The White House has resisted any such pressure.

Ottaway said the problem for the US administration is that if it attempts to pull the rug from under the regime it does not have a fallback option as it did in February.

“What you have had between the United States and Egypt is a convergence so that essentially the US accepted the Mubarak regime the way it was, the same way it accepted the military regime as it was, as long as Egypt kept its side of the deal with Israel and Egypt remained relatively stable,” she said.

“When Mubarak became incapable of maintaining stability, the US government abandoned him. But they had the military to fall back on. This time I don’t think there’s much to fall back on. I think the options for the US are pretty bad.”

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