April 30, 2007

Taliban relief

Hundreds of British troops swept into the lush poppy fields of southern Afghanistan Monday, drawing hostile fire at the start of a NATO operation to expel the Taliban from a valley stronghold.

More than 3,000 NATO and Afghan troops are participating in the operation, the latest effort to bring Helmand province under the control of President Hamid Karzai.

A long column of armored vehicles brought several hundred British soldiers to the Sangin Valley, near the town of Gereshk and Afghanistan's strategic ring road that links the cities of Kandahar and Herat.

The British soldiers came under attack from mortar rounds and machine-gun fire after they fanned out to patrol on foot.

The operation will not touch Helmand's poppy fields, which supply much of the world's opium and its more potent derivative, heroin. That could antagonize the 2 million farmers whose livelihoods depend on growing poppy, something the alliance wishes to avoid.

In western Afghanistan, U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces battled with Taliban insurgents over three days, leaving at least 136 suspected militants dead, a coalition statement said Monday.

Recent weeks have seen an surge in violence in Afghanistan after a winter lull, with Taliban-led militants stepping up attacks, and coalition and NATO forces launching a series of offensives against around the country.

The clashes in Herat appear to be the deadliest in the once-stable west of the country since the ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Most of the fighting has been concentrated in the volatile south and east.

The fighting is also the deadliest reported nationwide since January, when NATO said that about 150 suspected Taliban crossing from Pakistan were killed by an airstrike and ground fire in eastern Paktika province.

April 28, 2007

New Trade Pacts

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel and the White House are close to agreement on reworking labor measures in trade pacts with Panama and Peru and hope to reach a deal next week.

Rangel has been negotiating with Representative Jim McCrery of Louisiana, the top Republican on his committee, and U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab. He is predicting that a deal based on changes he outlined last month might persuade a majority of Democrats to vote for the two pending trade agreements.

The agreement, which is still being worked out and might be announced as early as May 1, is likely to leave unsettled the fate of pending free-trade deals with Colombia and South Korea or the possibility of renewing the president's trade promotion authority, which expires at the end of June.

A breakthrough in talks on labor rights is at the heart of the accord. In a proposal released last month, Democrats said new trade agreements must require countries to "adopt, maintain and enforce basic international labor standards.''

Those standards, including prohibitions on child labor and protection of the right to organize, will benefit workers in developing countries by eliminating the worst forms of worker abuse, help create a middle class to buy U.S. exports and ensure that the benefits of global integration are widely shared, Democrats say.

Business groups say that those standards may rebound against the U.S., leading to challenges of U.S. law, including restrictions on strikes by government workers or the use of prison labor.

April 27, 2007

Another Saudi plot

Police arrested 172 Islamic militants, some of whom had trained abroad as pilots so they could fly aircraft in attacks on Saudi Arabia's oil fields, the Interior Ministry said Friday.

The ministry issued a statement saying the detainees were planning to carry out suicide atttacks against "public figures, oil facilities, refineries ... and military zones" — some of which were outside the kingdom.

The ministry did not say the militants would fly aircraft into oil refineries, as the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackers flew planes into buildings in New York and Washington, but it said in a statement that some detainees had been "sent to other countries to study flying in preparation for using them to carry out terrorist attacks inside the kingdom."

The militants also planned to storm Saudi prisons to free the inmates, the statement said. More than $32.4 million was seized in the operation, one of the largest sweeps against terror cells in the kingdoms.

The militants plotted to carry out suicide attacks against "public figures, oil facilities, refineries ... and military zones." The statement said some of the military targets were outside the kingdom, but it did not elaborate.

The Saudi state TV channel Al-Ekhbariah broadcast footage of large weapons cache discovered buried in the desert. The arms included bricks of plastic explosives, ammunition cartridges, handguns and rifles wrapped in plastic sheeting.

The ministry referred to the militants only as a "deviant group" — the Saudi term for Islamic terrorist.

The al-Qaida terror group, whose leader Osama bin Laden is a Saudi, has called for attacks on the kingdom's oil facilities as a means of crippling both the kingdom's economy and the hurting the West, which he accuses of paying too little for Arab oil.

April 26, 2007

Secret database

The Pentagon's new intelligence undersecretary is recommending the Defense Department shut down a controversial classified database that has been criticized for improperly collecting information on anti-war groups and citizens.

The database has been under critical review since it was publicly disclosed in December 2005.

Anti-war groups and other organizations, including a Quaker group — the American Friends Service Committee — protested after it was revealed that the military had monitored anti-war activities, organizations and individuals who attended peace rallies.

Pentagon officials last year said the program was productive and had detected international terrorist interests in specific military bases. But they also acknowledged that some workers may not have been using the system properly.

Known as TALON — or the Threat and Local Observation Notice — the system was developed by the Air Force in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a way to collect information about possible terrorist threats.

The TALON reports — collected by an array of Defense Department agencies including law enforcement, intelligence, counterintelligence and security — are compiled in a large database and analyzed by an obscure Pentagon agency, the Counterintelligence Field Activity. CIFA is a three-year-old outfit whose size and budget are secret.

Last year, a Pentagon review found that as many as 260 reports in the database were improperly collected or kept there. At the time, the Pentagon said there were about 13,000 entries in the database, and that less than 2 percent either were wrongly added or were not purged later when they were determined not to involve real threats.

April 25, 2007

Calls for resignation

Calls for the resignation of World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz grew Wednesday as the European Parliament voiced its displeasure over allegations that he showed favoritism in arranging a promotion and pay package for his girlfriend.

The demand by the European Union's legislature that the development chief step down comes as a special bank panel is probing whether Wolfowitz violated bank rules in his handling of the 2005 promotion of bank employee Shaha Riza to a high-paying State Department job.

The World Bank's 24-member board, which was meeting Wednesday, will ultimately decide what action, if any, to take.

Many of the bank's staff, former World Bank executives, aid groups and some Democratic politicians have pressed for Wolfowitz to resign. They fear the matter has tarnished the reputation of the institution, which is focused on fighting global poverty, and could hobble efforts to raise billions of dollars for a World Bank program to help poor countries.

Wolfowitz has acknowledged making a mistake and apologized, but he has said he won't quit. He was asked to appear before the special bank panel on Wednesday but didn't because he needed time to prepare, a person close to the investigation said.

At the White House on Wednesday, President Bush took care to offer a positive mention of Wolfowitz at an event to mark Malaria Awareness Day. Wolfowitz was seen there, chatting enthusiastically with other attendees.

Hoping to repair relations with staff and boost morale, Wolfowitz said Tuesday he'll make "major changes" in the way his office and the senior management team work to address the concerns.

Wolfowitz has been running the bank for nearly two years. Riza, who was working at the bank before Wolfowitz took over, was detailed to duties outside the bank in an effort to avoid any conflict of interest.

April 21, 2007

Nuclear codes to Iran

A former engineer at the nation's largest nuclear power plant has been charged with taking computer access codes and software to Iran and using it to download details of plant control rooms and reactors.

The FBI said there's no indication the plant employee training software had any terrorist connections.

Mohammad Alavi, who worked at the triple-reactor Palo Verde power plant west of Phoenix, was arrested April 9 at Los Angeles International Airport when he arrived on a flight from Iran.

Alavi, 49, is a U.S. citizen and denies any wrongdoing, said his attorney, Milagros Cisneros of the Federal Defender's Office in Phoenix.

He is charged with a single count of violating a trade embargo that prohibits Americans from exporting goods and services to Iran. If convicted, he would face up to 21 months in prison.

According to court records, the software is used only for training plant employees, but allowed users access to details on the Palo Verde control rooms and the plant layout. In October, authorities alleged, the software was used to download training materials from Tehran, using a Palo Verde user identification.

The FBI said there was no evidence to suggest the software access was linked to the Iranian government, which has clashed with the West over attempts to develop its own nuclear program.

Officials of Arizona Public Service Co., the Phoenix-based utility company that operates the Palo Verde Nuclear Generation Station, said the software does not pose a security risk because it doesn't control any of the nuclear plant's operating systems.

April 16, 2007

Iraq Cabinet Crisis

Cabinet ministers loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr quit the government Monday, severing the powerful Shiite religious leader from the U.S.-backed prime minister and raising fears al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia might again confront American troops.

The U.S. military reported the deaths of seven more American service members: three soldiers and two Marines on Monday and two soldiers on Saturday.

In the northern city of Mosul, a university dean, a professor, a policeman's son and 13 soldiers died in attacks bearing the signs of al-Qaida in Iraq. Nationwide, at least 51 people were killed or found dead.

The political drama in Baghdad was not likely to bring down Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, but it highlighted growing demands among Iraqi politicians and voters that a timetable be set for a U.S. troop withdrawal — the reason al-Sadr gave for the resignations.

The departure of the six ministers also was likely to feed the public perception that al-Maliki is dependent on U.S. support, a position he spent months trying to avoid. Late last year he went so far as to openly defy directives from Washington about legislative and political deadlines.

White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said al-Sadr's decision to pull his allies from the 37-member Cabinet did not mean al-Maliki would lose his majority in Iraq's parliament.

The Mahdi Army, the military wing of al-Sadr's political organization, put down its weapons and went underground before the U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown began in Baghdad on Feb. 14 seeking to end sectarian killings and other violence.

Although dozens of the militia's commanders were rounded in the clampdown, al-Sadr kept his militia from fighting back, apparently out of loyalty to al-Maliki, who was elected prime minister with al-Sadr's help.

With the political link severed, there are signs al-Sadr's pledge to control the militia might be broken as well. Forty-two victims of sectarian murders were found in Baghdad the past two days, after a dramatic fall in such killings in recent weeks. U.S. and Iraqi officials have blamed much sectarian bloodshed on Shiite deaths squads associated with the Mahdi Army.

A week ago, on the fourth anniversary of Baghdad's fall to U.S. troops, al-Sadr sent tens of thousands of Iraqis into the streets in a peaceful demonstration in two Shiite holy cities. Protesters burned and ripped U.S. flags and demanded the Americans fix a date for leaving.

April 14, 2007

Researchers are racing ethanol against time

The ethanol craze is putting the squeeze on corn supplies and causing food prices to rise.

Mexicans took to the streets last year to protest increased tortilla prices. The cost of chicken and beef in the United States ticked up because feed is more expensive.

That's where biotechnology comes in.

Scientists are engineering microscopic bugs to extract fuel from a variety of non-corn sources, including the human urinary tract, a Russian fungus and the plant responsible for tequila.

The quest for alternative energy is more complicated than just finding a replacement for petroleum. Scientists and a growing number of biotechnology companies are attempting to remove corn from the ethanol equation because it has created huge demand for the global food staple.

Researchers are racing against time. Already, 114 U.S. ethanol biorefineries are in operation and 80 more are under construction. Producers made nearly 5 billion gallons of ethanol last year, a 25 percent increase from the previous year.

And nearly all of it was made from edible corn kernels.

That's good news for U.S. farmers, but consumers are suffering at the checkout stand because corn prices have nearly doubled over the last two years and will continue to climb.

And with farmers planting corn at unprecedented rates, often instead of other crops, prices for other products may soon rise as well.

Corn is a fundamental U.S. food ingredient, found in everything from soft drinks to cough syrup. It's also a staple throughout Latin America, where residents may feel the sting of rising corn prices the most.

Backers of alternative production methods argue that a technological change is needed soon, before corn-based ethanol grows so large that other manufacturing methods will be squeezed out of the market.

That's why genetic engineers from Berkeley to Florida are racing to produce ethanol without corn. They're looking into termite guts, the human urinary tract and sap from palm trees for exotic microbes that can produce alternative fuel sources.

Scientists at DuPont Co., for instance, have been tinkering with the DNA of an agave-loving bug in a bid to make ethanol from corn waste rather than the kernel itself. Working with $19 million of its own money and the same amount from a Department of Energy grant, the chemical company hopes to have a pilot plant in operation by 2010.

The idea is to genetically engineer microscopic bugs such as bacteria and fungus to spit out enzymes that will break down just about every imaginable crop into ethanol. This would theoretically fulfill President Bush's initiative to support flexible-fuel vehicles, which are capable of using gasoline and ethanol blends, and to cut gas consumption by 20 percent in 10 years.

April 13, 2007

NASA Mars craft failure

Human error caused NASA's Mars Global Surveyor to fail in November after the spacecraft spent nearly a decade mapping the Martian surface from orbit, the U.S. space agency said on Friday.
Faulty changes made last June to its computer memory and a November 2 command helped cause battery failure in the craft, which had far exceeded its original two-year mission
November 2 was the last date when the Mars Global Surveyor communicated with Earth. Within 11 hours, depleted batteries probably rendered it unable to control its orientation in orbit.

On that day, ground personnel had ordered the craft to carry out a routine adjustment of its solar panels. The review board said the craft repositioned itself in a way that exposed one of its two batteries to direct sunlight, causing that battery to overheat and leading both batteries to deplete.

The team responsible for the spacecraft followed procedures but these were not sufficient to detect errors that had taken place.

April 11, 2007

Inspectors to North Korea

North Korea said it would welcome back U.N. nuclear inspectors within a day of receiving frozen funds that have been an obstacle in negotiations seeking the North's disarmament.

North Korea ejected inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency in late 2002 at the start of the latest nuclear standoff. Following years of international negotiations beset by boycotts and delays, it conducted its first nuclear weapons test in October.

The North later agreed to return to negotiations and in February pledged to shut down its main nuclear reactor by a Saturday deadline in exchange for a U.S. promise to resolve a standoff over $25 million in North Korean funds frozen in a Macau bank. North Korea would also receive energy aid and political concessions for eventually dismantling its atomic programs.

If North Korea follows through with its promises, they would be the first moves the country has made to scale back its nuclear development since the start of the nuclear standoff.

Authorities in Macau said Wednesday that North Korea can withdraw the frozen money, and Pyongyang was expected to be notified of the decision later Wednesday or Thursday that the regime can access its funds.

The financial issue has brought the nuclear negotiations to a standstill as North Korea insisted it would not talk about disarmament measures until it gets its money back. Pyongyang has claimed that the freeze on its funds shows the United States' hostile intentions toward the isolated communist regime.

April 4, 2007

Pelosi in Syria

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in defiance of President George W. Bush, who had called the visit ``counterproductive.''
The talks were ``very productive,'' Pelosi said in a televised news conference in the Syrian capital today, adding she was ``determined that the road to Damascus would be the path to peace.''
Assad gave assurances of his willingness to restart talks with Israel on the Middle East peace process, Pelosi said. She said she was able to convey a message from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that his country is also ready to engage in peace talks.
Some congressional Republicans support Pelosi's diplomatic overture. Republican Representative David Hobson (news, bio, voting record) of Ohio is one of six members of Congress traveling with her. Three other Republican representatives made a separate visit to Syria this week, over the objections of the White House.
Republican Representatives Frank Wolf (news, bio, voting record) of Virginia, Joseph Pitts of Pennsylvania and Robert Aderholt (news, bio, voting record) of Alabama said in a statement that while they support Bush's Iraq policy, they also believe that ``there should be an aggressive diplomatic effort.''
The trip is Pelosi's second to the Middle East since Democrats took control of the House in January.
Bush said Pelosi's meeting with Assad lets Syrian officials believe they're part of the mainstream. He said Assad's government has done ``little to nothing'' to rein in the militant groups and has aided the movement of foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq.
Pelosi's Middle East trip included an address to the Israeli Knesset April 1. Olmert has told reporters he asked Pelosi to carry a message to Assad that his nation will engage in talks with Syria if Syria backs away from its support of terrorist groups.
The Bush administration has accused Syria of fomenting sectarian violence in Iraq and aiding attacks on U.S. troops there. The U.S. also blamed Syria for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
Congressional leaders have previously bucked a president on overseas trips, in some cases even presidents in their own party, said Don Ritchie, associate historian for the U.S. Senate.

April 2, 2007

Al-Qaeda emerged in Pakistan

Following the death or capture of many top Al-Qaeda operatives in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, a new generation of the group's leaders has emerged in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Citing unnamed US intelligence and counterterrorism officials, the newspaper said the phenomenon was causing surprise and dismay within United States intelligence agencies.
US, European and Pakistani authorities have for months been piecing together a picture of the new leadership as they gathered evidence during terrorism investigations.
New information about Al-Qaeda's structure came through intercepted communications between operatives in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Also important have been interrogations of suspects and material evidence collected after a plot British and US investigators said they averted last summer to destroy multiple commercial airliners after takeoff from London.
The investigation into the airline plot has led officials to conclude that an Egyptian paramilitary commander called Abu Ubaidah al-Masri was the Al-Qaeda operative in Pakistan orchestrating the attack, the report said.
Masri, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan, is believed to travel frequently over the rugged border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
He was long thought to be in charge of militia operations in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan, but he emerged as one of Al-Qaeda's senior operatives after the death of Abu Hamza Rabia, another Egyptian who was killed by a missile strike in Pakistan in 2005.
The evidence about Masri and a handful of other Qaeda figures has led to a reassessment within the US intelligence community about the strength of the group's core in Pakistan's tribal areas, and its role in some of the most significant terrorism plots of the past two years.
US intelligence officials now believe that although the core Al-Qaeda leadership was weakened as a result of a counterterrorism campaign launched after the September 11 attacks, the blow was not as crippling as once thought.
The reassessment has brought new urgency to joint Pakistani and US intelligence operations in Pakistan.