Monday, March 29, 2010

Arundhati Roy: Becoming Internal Security Threats (Video)

Arundhati Roy: Becoming Internal Security Threats

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Novelist, activist, journalist, internal security threat? Arundhati Roy joins us for a special conversation about her journey into the forest in the heart of India to talk to Maoist revolutionaries.

Roy talks with Laura about resistance and struggle, war and colonialism, how you can't fire bullets at an ideology, and why we should all become internal security threats.

DC public schools lead in reactionary education "reforms"

DC public schools lead in reactionary education “reforms”

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The public schools system in Washington, DC, is forging ahead with the reactionary education policies, based on privatization and attacks on teachers, associated with the Obama administration’s Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative.

The Democratic mayor of the city, Adrian Fenty, and Chancellor of Public Education Michelle Rhee have committed to a market-based reform of the District’s public education system. Large swathes of education funding have been handed over to privately run charter schools, while public schools have been shut down and hundreds of teachers and support staff have been sacked.

The public school system in the nation’s capital is one of the worst performing in the United States, largely due to decades of inadequate funding, crumbling classrooms, and the poverty afflicting many of the students’ families.

The city is one of huge social inequality. Despite having one of highest concentrations of millionaires in the United States, annual household income for Washington’s majority African American population stands at just $39,000, while one-in-five households live on or below the federal poverty rate, which stands at the abysmally low level of $21,800 for a family of four. The number of families in the city living in poverty rose by 19 percent in 2009, following a 17 percent rise in 2008.

The District has an official unemployment rate of 12 percent, though many more are underemployed or have given up looking for work. Homelessness in the city has rocketed in the past two years, with one local shelter reporting that it was housing 200 families in units designed to accommodate just 35.

The Democratic Party in the city, which has presided for decades over this deepening social and educational crisis, is now holding them up as proof of the failure of public education.

On winning office three years ago Fenty took direct control of the public school system, which had previously been under the authority of a board of education that included elected members and two school students.

Having rid school governance of these vestiges of democratic control, the mayor then appointed Rhee, a former adviser to the Bush administration, to the new post of chancellor in order to push through a “reform” agenda that has included closing 25 public schools and laying-off hundreds of instructors and clerical staff. In 2008 Rhee fired 250 teachers and 500 other support staff, followed by the dismissal of another 230 teachers last year. This month, 18 staff in the department of special educational were fired as part of a “cost control” review.

Due to budget cuts, the city’s education department has a shortfall of $44 million this year, and more cuts are expected. As usual, the union bureaucracy has done everything to cooperate with these attacks on its members and the children they educate.

The president of the Washington Teachers Union, George Parker, has stated that the organization is close to agreeing to a five-year deal with the local government over pay and conditions. According to Parker, teachers will receive a 20 percent pay increase phased over five years—a rate that barely keeps pace with inflation—in exchange for the introduction of performance-related pay and handing greater powers to the chancellor of public schools to fire or relocate teachers.

Dozens of charter schools have been opened across the city, run either by charities or for-profit businesses, diverting funds from the public school system. Plans are under way for the District to hand over part of its preschool provision to Educare, a charity run by the daughter of billionaire investor and Obama adviser Warren Buffett. The move is expected to lead to other private entities running the city’s early-childhood education centers.

These measures will further deepen inequalities in education, with schools and teachers forced to compete for dwindling resources. This can only lead to further attacks on teachers’ pay and conditions, and the dumping of the majority of pupils into even more under-resourced schools.

As a reward for these efforts, the city is in line to receive funds from the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative, through which states are forced to compete for federal stimulus funds. In order to qualify for a small portion of this relatively meager sum, public schools systems must show that they have introduced merit pay for teachers based on standardized test results and expanded the number of privately run charter schools.

Acknowledging the right-wing character of the RTTT program, Chancellor Rhee states on her official website:

“For the first time I can remember, a Democratic administration is fully embracing ideas like competition, merit pay for teachers and principals, choices for parents through charter schools, and accountability for charter performance. The president not only added $4 billion to the education budget, but he also factored competition into the allocation.”

But the city’s government may go even further in pushing this reactionary agenda. A March 23 editorial in the Washington Post urged Mayor Fenty to maintain and expand the use of school vouchers in the District through a scheme introduced in 2005 that provides funds from the general education budget to send a small number of children to private schools. Using its legislative authority in the District, the US Congress voted this month to close the voucher system to new students.

Long a demand of the Republican right, the voucher system is a boon for private education, often run for profit or by religious groups, at the direct expense of public schools. Denouncing the move by the Democratic-controlled Congress as a sop to teachers unions, the Post admitted that the system meant that public schools “would lose out.” The editors demanded that Fenty and Rhee promote “school change”—i.e., privatization—at an even faster pace than the Obama administration.

The crisis in public education exacerbated by the recession is also increasingly evident in the wealthier suburbs of Washington. Nearby public school districts in Maryland and Virginia, which have until recently recorded some of the best test score results in the country, have reported massive budget shortfalls and have started to implement large-scale layoffs.

Schools in the northern Washington suburb of Prince William County, Maryland, slashed 200 jobs last Wednesday, following a $48 million cut in school board funding. Class sizes in many schools will increase to close to the maximum permitted under Maryland law. In the run-up to the announcement, parents were warned that as many as 700 posts would be eliminated and that charges would be introduced for children participating in school sports.

The Maryland Senate passed a budget the same day that will require all teachers, as well as librarians and community college educators, to pay 1 percent of their pay towards the state’s pension fund.

Further cuts in jobs and extracurricular programs are expected in the city and the suburban public school boards when federal stimulus monies enacted last year expire in 2011.

Former CIA asset Allawi touted as next Iraqi prime minister

Former CIA asset Allawi touted as next Iraqi prime minister

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The result of the March 7 Iraq election has given the largest bloc of seats in the 325-member parliament to the Sunni-based and ostensibly secular Iraqiya coalition headed by Iyad Allawi, a former CIA asset and one-time US-installed prime minister. With just 91 legislators, however, Allawi needs to strike agreements with other factions to obtain the necessary 163-seat majority.

Frantic negotiations and deal-making are underway. Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister, and his largely Shiite-based State of Law coalition, which won 89 seats and is the second-largest bloc in the parliament, have declared the result illegitimate and are demanding a manual vote recount. Over the weekend, State of Law representatives nevertheless took part in talks in Iran with leaders of the Shiite fundamentalist Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which won 70 seats. The INA is dominated by the Sadrist movement loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the Iranian-linked Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). With the support of a handful of other parliamentarians, the two Shiite factions would have a majority and could prevent Allawi coming to power.

The Obama administration has rejected Maliki’s accusations, sending a clear signal that it welcomes Allawi’s success and wants him as prime minister. A joint statement by US ambassador Christopher Hill and military commander General Raymond Odierno declared there was “no evidence of widespread or serious fraud”. The UN envoy Ad Melkert declared the result was “credible” and that a recount was “difficult because of time”. The governments of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia publicly congratulated Allawi.

Under conditions in which a US war with Iran is being openly discussed, Washington does not want the next government in Baghdad to once again be dominated by Iraqi Shiite parties that have longstanding relations with the Iranian regime. Allawi, by contrast, is thoroughly steeped in the hostility of the region’s pro-US Arab ruling elites to Iranian influence in the Middle East.

To assemble a parliamentary majority without either of the Shiite factions, Allawi would have to do deals with virtually every other faction. Small Sunni, ethnic Turkmen and Christian-based parties have 18 seats and are likely to support him. He would need to make a deal, however, with the Kurdish parties from the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in the north. The Kurdish Alliance of the ruling parties in the KRG won 43 seats. Two Kurdish oppositional movements, Gorran and the Kurdish Islamic Party, gained 14 seats.

Any agreement between Iraqiya and the Kurdish factions is fraught with difficulties. During the election, Allawi opposed Kurdish ambitions for greater control over areas of northern Iraq. Some of his supporters virulently reject the Kurdish demand that the oil-rich province of Kirkuk be incorporated into the KRG. Iraqiya won half the seats in Kirkuk, overwhelmingly from the votes of the province’s ethnic Arab and Turkmen population.

The international media has speculated on the possibility that the Sadrist movement, which won 38 of the INA’s 70 seats, could split from ISCI and support Allawi. Leading Sadrists made statements during the election that their priority was to ensure that Maliki did not become prime minister again. Talks have reportedly taken place between Allawi and representatives of Moqtada al-Sadr.

While no US figure has openly said so, Washington’s preferred outcome would most likely be an agreement between Allawi and Maliki to form a government based on their two coalitions. Maliki is a Shiite fundamentalist and sympathetic to Iran but as prime minister he loyally served US interests during the bloodiest fighting of the Iraq war from 2006 to 2008. He presided over the destruction of Shiite militias in Basra, Amara and Baghdad that continued to resist the US military.

In 2009, Maliki’s Da’wa Party broke with ISCI and formed State of Law as a Shiite rival to the INA. He derives his main support from the US-created and trained army, police apparatus and government bureaucracy, which are dependent on the continued US control over Iraq. His coalition won most of its vote in Baghdad and the Shiite-populated south.

Allawi’s base is among the Sunni population and secular Shiites. Iraqiya won the bulk of its seats in Baghdad and the Sunni-majority provinces of central and western Iraq. The Sunni elite rallied behind him, despite the fact that as interim prime minister in 2004, Allawi presided over the US destruction of the Sunni city of Fallujah and the general repression of resistance throughout Sunni-populated areas.

Under the US occupation, the Sunni political establishment that had power under the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein has been sidelined. They view Allawi as their instrument to restore their privileges. A leading Sunni cleric, Sheik Mahmoud al-Sumaidi, bluntly told the British Guardian: “This is politics and politics is a dirty art. The Sunni scholars have forgiven him for Fallujah and we support him being prime minister.”

At this stage, Maliki’s coalition is publicly stating that it will not make a deal with Allawi. Behind-the-scenes, however, every effort will be made by the US embassy and military command to pressure the Iraqi factions into making some form of agreement as soon as possible—unlike after the December 2005 election when it took close to six months to form a government.

From the standpoint of US imperialism, the next Iraqi government, whether Allawi, Maliki or some other figure heads it, has three primary responsibilities apart from aligning with Washington against Iran.

* It will have to sign a new agreement with the United States by the end of 2011—the date the current Status of Forces Agreement expires—to allow the US military indefinite use of air bases that have been constructed at places like Balad, Al Asad and Tallil.

* It must implement laws that sanction the privatisation of Iraq’s oil industry and give foreign corporations greater access and control over the country’s vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas. The current legislation is widely regarded by the energy transnationals as inadequate as it does not allow for the production-sharing agreement model that delivers them the greater profits.

* As the bulk of American troops withdraw over the next 18 months, the Iraqi government will be required to suppress the ongoing opposition among the Iraqi working class and rural poor to poverty, lack of services, the plunder of the country’s resources and an ongoing US military presence.

At the same time, the puppet government in Baghdad will have to try and hold the country together. In the north, the Kurdish elite is growing increasingly bitter over its inability to get control of Kirkuk and the northern oil fields, which was its main motive for supporting the US invasion in 2003. Sections of the Shiite establishment linked with the religious parties are deeply hostile to any substantial Sunni influence over the government. If the Sunni elites are sidelined again, however, they could resume their sponsorship of widespread armed resistance.

Incidents over the past several days underscore the ever-present political, ethnic and sectarian rivalries created by the US occupation. A bombing on Friday at a market in Baquaba, the main city in the province of Diyala, killed 59 people and wounded 73. The home of an Iraqiya-linked leader was bombed on Sunday in the town of Qaim, in Anbar province, leaving five dead and 18 injured. In Baghdad, a sniper shot dead an Iraqiya supporter.

Even more provocatively, security forces loyal to Maliki arrested four Iraqiya candidates in Diyala province on charges of involvement in “terrorism”, while the Shiite-dominated Justice and Accountability Commission announced that it will attempt to prevent some elected candidates taking their seats because of past links to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. The candidates who were banned as “Baathists” before the election were overwhelmingly aligned with Iraqiya or other parties based among Sunnis or secular Shiites.

Washington ratchets up war threats against Iran

Washington ratchets up war threats against Iran

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The Obama administration is ratcheting up its war threats against Iran in a calculated effort to provoke a crisis with Tehran that could produce a general war in the Middle East. In multiple venues—planted articles in the press, the release of a think tank study on military options, speeches at the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, and congressional declarations—Washington is building a case for a new eruption of US military aggression.

The appearance of two articles in the Sunday edition of the New York Times underscored this campaign. The paper published a front-page lead reporting CIA and State Department allegations that Iran is accelerating its nuclear development; as well as the summary of a war game based on an Israeli air strike against Iran, published in the Week in Review section.

The lead story, written by David Sanger and William Broad, contains no evidence about Iranian nuclear development, but instead takes as its point of departure that “international inspectors and Western intelligence agencies say they suspect that Tehran is preparing to build more sites in defiance of United Nations demands.”

The article thus makes no pretense of objective reporting, but puts the Times in its favorite role, as the mouthpiece for the US military-intelligence apparatus, publishing their “disclosures”—i.e., official Washington propaganda—even while admitting that US officials have “no solid clues” and were simply speculating in the absence of actual knowledge.

The Times reports that US intelligence agencies are revising their 2007 finding that Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program—which upset the Bush White House at the time—and are now “joining European and Israeli assessments that research and development work, if halted seven years ago, has probably resumed.”

In its Week in Review section, the Times publishes in diagram form the findings of a war game conducted by the Saban Institute in Washington, a think tank on the Middle East founded by a major Democratic Party fundraiser. The actual course of events outlined in the scenario is far less apocalyptic than many such exercises: an Israeli air strike on Iran leads to retaliatory attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah, and some disruption of Persian Gulf shipping, but no general war.

The likelihood of such a limited outcome can be doubted. What is certain is that for its senior Washington correspondent, Sanger, to participate in such an exercise, even as an observer, makes the Times a direct accomplice of those who are seeking to incite a US-Israeli attack on Iran, an action that would, under international law, constitute a war crime of the same dimensions as the unprovoked US invasion of Iraq.

The two Times articles come at the end of a week of anti-Iran agitation in Washington, focused on the annual conference of the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC), the principal pro-Zionist lobby, which was addressed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a slew of Democratic and Republican congressmen and senators.

Bipartisan groups from both houses of Congress are circulating letters calling on the Obama administration to impose “crippling” sanctions on Iran, language that endorses what amounts to an economic declaration of war, such as the cutoff of gasoline shipments.

The letter on the House side was originated by liberal Democrat Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois and conservative Republican Mike Pence of Indiana, and has already been co-signed by 214 House members, 76 Democrats and 138 Republicans. The letter effectively condemns China and Russia, declaring, “We cannot allow those who would oppose or delay sanctions to govern either the timing or content of our efforts.” It calls on Obama to “fulfill your June 2008 pledge that you would do ‘everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.’”

A similar letter was drafted in the Senate by Democrat Charles Schumer of New York and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Both addressed the AIPAC gala dinner on Monday, with Graham making a particularly bellicose statement.

“My belief is a military strike stopping the Iranian government from having a nuclear weapon is more effective than trying to deal with the Iranian government after they have one,” he told AIPAC members. “And if military force is ever employed, it should be done in a decisive fashion. The Iranian government’s ability to wage conventional warfare against its neighbors and our troops in the region should not exist.”

Given that Iran is a country of 75 million people with bitter experience in protracted military conflict in the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War, eliminating its “ability to wage conventional warfare” would require either a full-scale invasion and conquest of the country or its nuclear annihilation. Graham did not explain himself, but there have been ominous suggestions in the last few days that a nuclear first-strike against Iran is being contemplated by the Israeli government.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a well-connected Washington think tank, released a major study Friday by Anthony Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan, titled “Options in Dealing with Iran’s Nuclear Program.” The 208-page report examines the military alternatives in chilling detail, considering such factors as the blast radius of various nuclear weapons believed to be in the Israeli arsenal.

After considering the scenario of a conventional air assault by Israel on Iran, the report goes on to discuss the use of tactical nuclear warheads, noting: “Another scenario is using these warheads as a substitute for conventional weapons to attack deeply buried nuclear facilities in Iran. Some believe that nuclear weapons are the only weapons that can destroy targets deep underground or in tunnels.”

Such weapons could be delivered against Iranian targets by an Israeli Sea Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM), with a range of 1,500 km, launched from the German-built Dolphin-class submarines that Israel acquired in the 1990s. These vessels are already on station in the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas, and could be moved into the Persian Gulf with US naval protection.

These threats of war and open discussions of nuclear genocide are no doubt intended to browbeat the Iranian regime into complying with the demands made on it by the P5+1 group, consisting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. But they also serve to prepare public opinion for impending Israeli or US military aggression.

On the diplomatic front, the G8 foreign ministers begin a two-day meeting Monday outside Ottawa, the Canadian capital, with discussion of both Iran and North Korea expected to top the agenda. Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, the meeting’s host, told Reuters, “I will discuss with my G8 colleagues what we can do to put additional pressure on Iran to persuade it to stop its nuclear enrichment activities. Unfortunately I believe we are left with little choice but to pursue additional sanctions against Iran, ideally through the United Nations Security Council.”

The Obama administration has already declared its intention to seek a fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran in the next few months, if it succeeds in overcoming the opposition of China, the biggest customer for Iranian oil exports. Since the beginning of the year, Royal Dutch Shell, the Russia-based Lukoil and three other European oil companies announced they would stop selling gasoline to Iran, leaving Iran dependent on only four sources: China, Kuwait, Malaysia and the French company Total.

In a further escalation of tensions, the US State Department last week issued a warning against travel by US citizens to Iran, particularly those of Iranian origin.

The Pentagon is using Haiti as a Training Ground for Afghanistan

The Pentagon is using Haiti as a Training Ground for Afghanistan

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A recent report in Stars and Stripes reveals the nature of the US military operation in Haiti. Combat units from Iraq and Afghanistan have been deployed in Haiti under the banner of a humanitarian operation. Conversely, Haiti is also being used as a military training ground for forces without in-theater combat experience.

According to the
Stars and Stripes report (March 14, 2010): "Marines deployed to Haiti to render emergency aid following January’s devastating earthquake are already training for the fight in Afghanistan."

Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit who were dispatched to Haiti in the immediate wake of the earthquake are now being deployed in Afghanistan. In fact, the decision to send them to Afghanistan was taken prior to their deployment in Haiti:

"A small group of Marines stormed several small concrete buildings inside the wire at their seashore camp while their comrades played the roles of Afghan insurgents, shouting “bang” as they engaged their opponents in a mock attack. The day before, when Lt Gen Dennis J. Hejlik, commanding general of the II Marine Expeditionary Force visited the Marines on shore, he praised their good work in Haiti and asked them, “What’s next for you when you get home?”


“Afghanistan,” came the reply.
As Huey helicopters buzzed overhead, Hejlik talked about the recent Marjah offensive, adding that there would be 20,000 Marines in Afghanistan by summer. “You will join them next spring,” he told the Marines at Carrefour. One of them, Sgt. Timothy Kelly, 23, of Johnston City, Ill., said members of his unit learned about the Afghan mission just before they got orders to head for Haiti."

The training in Haiti "is geared towards close-quarters battle tactics":

“Only a couple [of Marines in Kelly’s squad] have experience in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said. ...

We have a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here for that Afghan deployment. The ones who are, we might as well get them in the mind-set.

Another Marine at Carrefour, Lance Cpl. Keith Cobb, 23, of Soso, Miss., said the Afghan deployment will be his first time in a war zone.
“I want to kill the terrorists and get rid of the bad people, but I would rather be here because I know I’m going home after this,” he said

Close Quarters Battle (CQB) is fighting involving small combat units "which engage the enemy with personal weapons at very short range". The training imparted in Haiti is to be used in both urban warfare and counterinsurgency operations.

On March 25th, the US military reported that some 2,200 Marines, involved in humanitarian relief in Haiti had been withdrawn from the country.

The Role of The Canadian Military

The Canadian military has adopted a similar pattern. Haiti is used as a launchpad for redeploying combat troops to the Middle East war theater.

Canadian troops initially dispatched to Haiti under a humanitarian mandate are being sent to Afghanistan: "Soldiers of the Royal 22nd Regiment will have only two weeks before they have to switch their focus from providing emergency relief in Haiti to intensive combat training for a tour in Afghanistan, the commander of all Canadian troops overseas says." ( National Post, February 23, 2010). The training of Canadian forces in Haiti, however, is to be imparted in Canada, prior to their redeployment.

AIPAC: Telling a Whopper

AIPAC: Telling a Whopper

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The theme of this year's annual policy conference for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was 'Israel: Tell the Story.' And it was quite a story that AIPAC wanted to tell.

The conference aimed at imparting to the over 7000 attendees 'an intimate understanding of the many ways that Israel is making the world a better place,' with a focus on peacemaking and innovation. According to the AIPAC web site, conference goers will also 'meet Israelis who rush to the scene of natural disasters in far away lands because they believe that to save one life is to save the whole world.' No mention was made of the 1400 people killed during the Israeli assault on Gaza.

Against a backdrop of creative blends of US and Israeli flags and icons, the three-day conference in Washington DC included plenary speeches by former Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom, according to journalist MJ Rosenberg, delegates were warned in advance not to boo or hiss. Workshops varied from self-serving questions such as 'Are Settlements An Obstacle to Peace?' and 'Is Israel Treated Unfairly in the Press?' to 'The Gaza Dilemma' and 'Inside Iran.'

Large numbers of young people attended the conference. With more than 900 university students from 370 campuses as well as 397 high school students, many benefiting from scholarships, students made up nearly 17% of the total number of participants.


Standing outside the conference it was clear that AIPAC is reaching out well beyond the Jewish community for support.

The constant flow of buses, with taxpayer-funded police escort, dropped off conference attendees including many African-American delegations. In fact, workshop sessions centered on the emerging alliance with the African American community and how this alliance can be 'ignited around the pro-Israel cause.'

The conference also included fear-mongering workshops in Spanish, presumably as an attempt to reach the Latino community, on Iran's influence in Latin America via its strong ties with Venezuela, Cuba and Brazil, and concerns that this might lead to terrorism, Islamic extremism and anti-American sentiments.
Additional workshops focused on capitalizing on pro-Israel support from the Christian evangelical community as well as a 'new era of military and intelligence cooperation' with India.

However, the scope of most of the workshops was to prepare participants for the lobbying day on Capitol Hill, with the three main requests for Congress. First and foremost, AIPAC was calling for 'crippling sanctions on Iran.' Noting that it was unlikely for the UN Security Council to pass such a resolution, AIPAC called on the United States 'to lead the international community,' a euphemism for unilateral action.

The second request dealt with the current tensions between the US and Israel following the continued announcements of new illegal settlements in East Jerusalem. An AIPAC drafted letter initiated by House majority and minority leaders Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Eric Cantor (R-VA) called on Secretary Clinton to 'reaffirm our commitment to the unbreakable bond that exists between our country and the State of Israel' and to solve any disputes 'quietly, in trust and confidence, as befits longstanding strategic allies.' Over 50% of the US House of Representatives have signed onto the letter. A similar letter is circulating in the Senate.

Last but certainly not least, AIPAC urged support for continuing US military aid for Israel, which AIPAC refers to as 'security assistance,' by approving President Obama's request for $3 billion for fiscal year 2011 as part of the 10-year $30 billion package. Time Magazine was unusually candid in its coverage of this request, reporting 'the Israeli government has announced plans to replace its aging fleet of F-16 fighter jets with new, American-made F-35 fighters, a major cost that Israel hopes will be substantially borne by American taxpayers.'

That's the same F-35 that Secretary of Defense Gates was referring to in his testimony before Congress on March 25 when he spoke of "unacceptable delays and cost overruns." The price tag for the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program has nearly doubled since 2001, recently leading Secretary Gates to replace the program manager and withhold more than $600 million from the lead contractor, Lockheed Martin. It's no wonder Israel would prefer US taxpayers foot the bill!

Inside the Washington Convention Center, AIPAC was simultaneously calling for the US public to be kept in the dark regarding any disputes with Israel while asking taxpayers to fund 20% of Israel's defense budget. Outside it was a different story. Activists from CodePink, Veterans for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, Avaaz, Jewish Voice for Peace and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation kept up a presence during the conference with signs and banners calling for respect for international law and human rights, an end to the siege of Gaza, Israeli apartheid and US taxpayer funding of war crimes.

Using street theatre, we set up a checkpoint to greet the participants, and I, in the role of a Palestinian woman, tried in vain to get through. I pleaded with the sometimes startled conference-goers to help me get to a hospital, but Tighe Barry, playing an IDF soldier at the checkpoint, pushed me away telling the AIPAC supporters, "You can pass. This is a Jewish only road."

During our presence outside the conference, I got an earful of everything from thoughtful debate to the most vulgar of insults to outright ignorance on the issues: "There is already a settlement freeze!" "Gaza isn't under siege, Israel is!" "AIPAC has nothing to do with policy!" This last remark was made while standing under the enormous sign reading 'AIPAC Policy Conference.'

We were outnumbered roughly 100 to 1, yet the very site of us literally sent some people over the edge. A few people even resorted to violence, shoving and hitting the activists. During a press conference held outside the Convention Center, we were constantly interrupted, with people shouting and walking in front of the cameras. Josh Ruebner of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation rightly judged this as a classic example of the AIPAC crowd trying to completely control the debate so that no other voices can be heard.

But there was at least some debate going on inside the conference. Hadar Susskind of the new self-proclaimed pro-Peace pro-Israel lobby J Street was being interviewed by the BBC when Alan Dershowitz, one of the conference's principal speakers, approached and the two got into a heated debate. As the press gathered around, Dershowitz asked "How can you not agree that Goldstone is a despicable human being?" referring to the well-respect South African judge who lead the UN fact-finding mission investigating the Israeli assault on Gaza. AIPAC security quickly moved in to usher the argument outside the building. A French documentary crew had their credentials revoked after refusing to leave.

The second day of protests outside the conference made use of satire to try to get the message through. CodePink issued a fake press release announcing AIPAC's support for a settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The phony release was picked up by several news outlets prompting AIPAC to issue a statement refuting the claim, and thereby confirming that they are not in line with US policy on the issue or the majority of US citizens. Some conference participants were then questioning why AIPAC was not supporting a settlement freeze.

Later that morning, 'Netanyahu and the Settlements' arrived at the conference. Activists with the global online advocacy group Avaaz.org showed up wearing cardboard boxes shaped like settlement housing along with someone in a Netanyahu mask wearing a Caterpillar hardhat chanting, "Build settlements, not peace." Later that afternoon, nicely dressed activists escorted the conference participants: "Right this way to the Apartheid Conference."

The main attraction of the three-day event was, of course, the gala dinner where Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke. Rae Abileah of CodePink, who had purchased a ticket to the conference but then received a certified letter saying that her registration had been cancelled, was nonetheless inside the dinner waiting for her moment. After the traditional Roll Call, the interminable reading of the names of the Congress members present – some 59 senators and 269 members of the House of Representatives – Netanyahu finally took the stage. "When the prime minister announced Israel’s commitment to defense, I could no longer remain silent." Rae jumped up on AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr’s private table right next to the stage and opened a banner reading 'Build Peace Not Settlements' while shouting, “Lift the siege of Gaza! No illegal settlements!”

Shortly after Rae was forcibly removed from the dinner, Joan Stallard, also of CodePink, unfurled a banner and shouted, "Stop the settlements!" Joan, who was seated a little to close to security, was quickly thrown to the floor and promptly removed from the dinner.

Following Tony Blair's speech the morning of the third and last day of the conference, the AIPAC lobbyists made their way to Capitol Hill, where a reported 500 meetings with Congress had been set. We arrived early to beat the crowd and delivered thank you letters to the 36 members of the House who had voted NO on the resolution condemning the Goldstone Report.

'Netanyahu and the Settlements' had arrived by the time we finished and were there to greet the AIPAC lobbyists as they lined up to enter the Rayburn building. Holding a gigantic check made out for 'Endless Illegal Settlements' signed by Barack Obama, we called out on the megaphone, "Bank of Israel, otherwise known as the United States Congress. Nothing is too much for Israel." There were a number of groups of young people on the Hill the same day lobbying for education and jobs programs. As we passed, I told them, "Sorry, no money left for your school or jobs. Congress wants to give it to Israel."

We then walked over to the Senate side of the Hill. Two senators, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, had spoken the previous day at the AIPAC conference. Senator Graham quickly dismissed the pesky problem of East Jerusalem: "Jerusalem is not a settlement. No government in Israel will ever look at Jerusalem as a settlement! No government in the United States should ever look at Jerusalem as a settlement! It is the undivided capital of the State of Israel. It is the eternal home of the Jewish faith. And it is now time to move onto other issues."

We paid visits to the offices of both Senators Graham and Schumer, as well as those of Senators Lieberman and Kyl. Donning tunics that said 'Settler' and waving a flag that read 'Mine,' we moved in, occupied the office, set up a rode block and began moving the furniture around to our pleasing. Again playing the part of a Palestinian woman, I pleaded with the staff, who were, not surprisingly, alarmed at what was happening, for their help in removing the settlers from my family's land. In three out of four cases we managed to secure a meeting with a member of the staff; at Sen. Graham's office Capitol Police arrived and promptly removed us!

This year's AIPAC conference couldn't have been scheduled during a more interesting period, with unusually high tensions between the US and Israel. Holding signs saying 'Israel Endangers Peace' during the Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing on March 16, we heard General Petraeus state clearly that "the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict foments anti-American sentiment due to a perception of US favoritism toward Israel." On CNN recently, there has been unprecedented talk of an Apartheid state in Israel and calls for cutting off US military aid. And just one day before the AIPAC conference began, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon stated during a tour of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, "Let us be clear. All settlement activity is illegal anywhere in occupied territory and must be stopped."

As much as AIPAC appears to be living in a bubble, it also seems unlikely that the US government, or the international community for that matter, will take a courageous stance and do what many Israelis have been asking, save Israel from itself. That's why so many activists are now taking it upon themselves to lead the way by supporting the Palestinian call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Right outside the AIPAC conference the newly formed BDS group of the greater Washington area called on local residents to not buy Israeli products as a way to make a meaningful contribution to ending the Israeli occupation. And on March 30th, the second Global BDS Day, actions will take place around the world. (http://bdsdayofaction.wordpress.com).

Invest in peace. Boycott Israel!

Obama Packs Debt Commission with Social Security Looters

Obama Packs Debt Commission with Social Security Looters

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A decade of wars, tax cuts for the wealthy, and the fallout from Wall Street's housing bubble have almost tripled U.S. public debt since 2001, from $5 trillion to $14 trillion. Big, scary numbers like this, along with carefully timed downgrade warnings from Wall Street's obedient rating agencies and continuing worries about the financial collapse of Greece, Portugal and other nations have changed the political climate in Washington, breathing new life into decades-old schemes to slash Social Security and Medicare entitlements.

And defending Social Security does indeed sound like yesterday's issue — a fight the people won when they defeated Bush's attempt to privatize the system in 2005. Our Social Security program is currently solvent through 2037, while millions of Americans are unemployed, millions more are losing their homes, and still millions more are struggling to meet soaring health insurance costs after watching their retirement accounts dwindle in the financial collapse. Would the entitlement wolves -- primarily Wall Street executives who stand to reap billions from Social Security privatization -- really have the gall to go after Social Security now? In a word, yes.

Global deficit jitters and U.S. political uncertainties associated with Scott Brown's surprise Senate victory in Massachusetts have helped fuel the fire at propaganda campaigns like IOUSA and the Wall Street tycoon-funded Fiscal Times. The White House is now either on the budgetary defensive, or exploiting the moment to exact unpopular entitlement cuts it was already preparing to make. Regardless, this week's New York Times' front page confirms that "reforming" Social Security could very well be a top priority for Obama in 2010. According to anonymous White House officials and budget analysts, because the Medicare cut under the health care reform bill "effectively takes those fast-growing entitlement programs off the table for deficit reduction … [Social Security] now stands as the likeliest source of the sort of large savings needed to bring projected annual deficits to sustainable levels."

In other words, because rapidly rising Medicare costs were not effectively contained by health care reform -- it would have hurt the health care industry -- slowly rising Social Security costs will instead have to get the axe. Instead of weaning corporations—banks, insurance companies, war contractors—off the federal teat, the administration is seriously considering punishing seniors.

The Debt Commission

In January, pressure from a broad spectrum of activist groups killed an amendment by senators Kent Conrad, D-North Dakota, and Judd Gregg, D-New Hampshire, to create a special bipartisan commission that would submit a broad deficit-reducing plan to Congress for an up or down vote by year-end. The commission's bipartisan makeup, its procedural restrictions in Congress, and the timing of its recommendations – arriving just after the midterm elections – were all designed to insulate the decision-makers from popular pressures that might take entitlement "reform" off the table. Moreover, because the 18-member commission (10 Democrats, eight Republicans) would require 14 votes for in order to report its recommendations, giving both parties veto power, cuts to Social Security and Medicare were widely assumed to be a necessary component of any consensus. In order for the commission to accomplish anything, Democrats would have to concede such cuts to Republicans in return for tax increases.

After the defeat of the Conrad-Gregg commission, groups defending Social Security had little time to rejoice before Obama resuscitated the plan, creating the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform by executive order. While the Commission's proposals will not be limited to an up or down vote in Congress, it's otherwise exactly as Conrad-Gregg envisioned, and Pelosi and Reid have promised to put them to a vote before the end of the current session of Congress.

Obama's deficit commission is actually much older than Conrad-Gregg. Its history as a vehicle for reforming Social Security goes back to 1981, when it was given life under President Ronald Reagan as the Greenspan Commission (guess who chaired it). The commission's first act was to raise Social Security payroll taxes across the board and lower benefits via changes to cost of living adjustments. Bill Clinton revived the commission many times during the '90s, each time with a slightly new name and slightly new members, always stacked to recommend partial privatization, which critics on the left mocked as "a solution in search of a problem." But Clinton thought it politically risky to proceed with its recommendations on his own, and in a little-known chapter to that story, his chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, helped negotiate a secret pact with Newt Gingrich in late 1997 to unite behind the commission's proposals to raise the Social Security retirement age and begin privatization.

The pact collapsed when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke just days before Clinton was set to announce it. George W. Bush quickly reconstituted the commission in 2001 and adopted its core proposal – Social Security privatization – as the centerpiece to his second-term agenda in 2005. The developing quagmire in Iraq and Bush’s consequent unpopularity gave Democrats, with public outcry behind them, the confidence to unite against it, even though Democratic leaders had supported similar measures in the '90s, and the plan was soon declared dead.

Obama Stacks the Deck

The seasoned networks of money and influence behind the commission's apparent immortality, including "Washington's leading think tanks, the prestige media, tax-exempt foundations, skillful propagandists posing as economic experts and a self-righteous billionaire spending his fortune to save the nation from the elderly," have been outlined by noted economic journalist William Greider, among others. What's received comparatively little attention so far, however, is the composition of Obama's picks for the commission, what interests they represent, and what that reveals about the White House’s own strategy.

While some optimists have predicted that the 14-vote requirement guarantees gridlock, Obama may have already given Republicans the votes needed to put Social Security under the knife.

Starting at the top, the commission's two co-chairs are both veteran Social Security hawks. The Democrat is Erskine Bowles. Described by Business Week in 1998 as "Corporate America’s Friend in the White House," Bowles is president of the University of North Carolina and a venture capitalist with close ties to Wall Street. He sits on the board of Morgan Stanley and General Motors, both of which have received multi-billion dollar government bailouts since the start of the financial crisis. The finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sector was by far the largest donor to Bowles in his unsuccessful Senate campaigns in 2002 and 2004, donating over $3 million. His wife, Crandall Bowles, is on the board of JPMorgan Chase, making the couple two of the biggest beneficiaries of the government's financial welfare over the past two years. Crandall Bowles also gave over $14,000 to Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. Both are members of the Business Council, a prestigious association of major CEOs.

Bowles' Republican co-chair, Alan Simpson, is a former Republican senator who pushed (unsuccessfully) for a back-door benefit cut to Social Security benefits in the '90s by tampering with its cost-of-living adjustment and attacked AARP for its defense of Medicare. Simpson's former Senate aide, Chuck Blahous, is a prolific crusader against Social Security and was executive director of Bush's commission in 2001. In a warning sign for Social Security advocates, Blahous and Robert Reischauer, another policy insider who penned a memo in 2009 with fellow Brookings Institution elites calling for Obama to take "action to stem the growth of Social Security and Medicare," were recently nominated by Obama to be Social Security Trustees. (The Blahous pick he apparently owed to Senator Mitch McConnell.)

Reischauer has close ties to economic wrecking ball Robert Rubin—the Goldman Sachs chairman who became Clinton Treasury Secretary and pushed through radical deregulatory banking laws, then went to Citigroup to score $120 million for driving his company into the ground. Rubin and Reischauer knew each other at both the Harvard Corporation and the Clinton White House, where Reischauer was director of CBO. Reischauer is on the advisory board of Rubin’s Hamilton Project, and the two most recent CBO directors have come straight from Hamilton.

One of Reischauer's co-signers of the Brookings memo, Alice Rivlin, is another fox Obama has put in charge of the Social Security henhouse. Former Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve under Greenspan at the peak of the tech bubble, and also a Hamilton Project board member, Rivlin will likely make another great Wall Street ally on the commission. In 2004 Rivlin co-authored (with Obama's current Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, among others) a 138-page Brookings report titled "Restoring Fiscal Sanity" advocating $47 billion in entitlement cuts, including an "increase in the retirement age under Social Security" and "more accurate inflation adjustments to Social Security benefits."

Keep in mind that she supported this plan before most of Bush's military expenditures, before the Great Recession, and before the financial bailouts. If that's not enough, Rivlin, who gave roughly $10,000 to Obama's 2008 campaign, was also on the board of Public Agenda Foundation with Peter Peterson, the private equity kingpin who has devoted literally billions to destroying Social Security during his lifetime. Public Agenda has organized research and events to refine elite strategies for pushing deficit reduction, including entitlement reform. From a recent Public Agenda forum titled Trillions of Reasons to Get Serious About Our Fiscal Future:

"Panelists agreed that the key word when talking about reducing the deficit should be 'sacrifice' and not just for the wealthy, a message to which most Americans might respond negatively."

That's three out of three votes for "sacrifice," and we haven't even gotten to Obama's other Republican pick, David Cote, who is CEO of Honeywell, a major defense contractor with millions in profits at stake in maintaining our out-of-control military budget. Cote is also a former executive at GE, another big military contractor, and director of JPMorgan Chase. Obama has named Cote, who supported the stimulus bill, as one of his favorite CEOs. He is additionally a senior adviser to KKR, the infamous leveraged buyout firm, and a member of the Business Roundtable, a powerful association of CEOs that has spent millions fighting for Social Security.

Obama's fifth pick is Ann Fudge, a major campaign bundler who already spends a bit of time around tables with the American banking elite. Fudge was chairman of the board of advertising firm Young & Rubicam Brands, which includes former Bear Stearns CEO Alan Schwartz, until 2006. She's now on the boards of Brookings and Rockefeller Foundation, both teeming with top Wall Street elites (including Prince, Parsons, Gupta, Hutchins, Johnson, Rubenstein and Wolstencroft, to name a few), as well as GE and Novartis Pharmaceuticals. With her extensive marketing experience, perhaps she'll be the one who figures out how to sell the commission's "sacrifices" to the public.

Bruce Reed, whom Bowles and Simpson recently named as the commission’s executive director, can help Fudge brainstorm slogans. Reed is CEO of the corporatist Democratic Leadership Council (previously chaired by Joe Lieberman for six years, and now by Hamilton Project advisory board member and Blue Dog Harold Ford, Jr), is very tight with Rahm Emmanuel (they wrote a book together), and coined the phrase “end welfare as we know it.” Any other social program Reed would like to end as we know it?

A foregone conclusion?

Andy Stern, president of SEIU, is Obama's only pick out of six who is sure to oppose Social Security cuts. Everyone else is likely open to slashing.

For the commission to reach an agreement, its Democrats will have to win the support of at least two Republicans, which will be nearly impossible unless spending cuts are among its proposals. That Obama’s picks are so amenable to, if not gunning for, some form of benefits cuts suggests the White House is indeed seeking such a "grand bargain" from the commission, not a stalemate. The odds are slim, especially given the commission’s history, that five of the 10 Democrats would defy the White House to kill such a bargain.

As the New York Times confirms, in establishing the group Obama has once again adopted a course favorable to his economic advisers and their Wall Street friends over the objections of his political team. How much of the usual looting this will involve remains to be seen. They seem to be proceeding carefully. Earlier, following Obama's recent spending freeze announcement, an anonymous official told the Times that spending cuts would start with earmarks in order to earn goodwill with the public, and then move on to more "popular entitlement programs."

"By helping to create a new atmosphere of fiscal discipline, it can actually also feed into debates over other components of the budget," the official said, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity.

Which administration official might this be? Sadly, it could be just about anyone, as Obama’s economics team is dominated by Wall Street-friendly advisers, most of whom are close friends and proteges of Robert Rubin, and have been calling (pdf) for Social Security reductions for years. The March 23 Gray Lady front-pager mentions two of them, Orszag and Jason Furman, along with associate budget director Jeffrey Liebman, as likely masterminds. Both Orszag and Furman followed Rubin into Obama's inner circle from the Hamilton Project. Liebman too has a history of Social Security mischief – he was on the commission under Clinton.

If President Obama wants to get heavy handed about the deficit, he could start by putting an end to the disastrous and unpopular schemes that created it – the Bush tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the trillions of dollars funneled to Wall Street. Unfortunately, it looks like Obama has taken the bankers' bait: the only people disciplined by his fiscal retreat will be millions of senior citizens with the gall to believe that society should guarantee them a decent standard of living.

Desert Hills Bank shut down by federal regulators

Desert Hills Bank shut down by federal regulators

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Desert Hills Bank, one of the largest banks headquartered in Arizona, was shut down by banking regulators Friday. New York Community Bank assumed all Desert Hills' deposits, which remain federally insured.

Desert Hills' six branches will reopen on Monday as branches of New York Community Bank, which last year took over the Arizona branches of Ohio-based Amtrust Bank when it went under.

Desert Hills was closed by the Arizona Department of Financial Institutions. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was named receiver.

Desert Hills, with $426 million of Arizona deposits at the end of 2009, lost $8.8 million and had a "tier-1" capital ratio of just 4 percent, one of the lowest in the state.

It was among the 20 largest banks in Arizona in terms of deposits and among the three or four biggest bank firms based here.

Customers can access their money over the weekend by writing checks or using ATM or debit cards. Loan customers should continue making payments as usual.

New York Community Bank didn't pay a premium to assume Desert Hills' deposits and agreed to buy virtually all assets. The FDIC and New York Community will share losses on some loans.

Desert Hills is the 41st bank to fail so far in 2010 and the first in Arizona.

The FDIC estimates the failure will cost its insurance fund $107 million.

Israel imposes nine-day blockade on West Bank

Israel imposes nine-day blockade on West Bank

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Israel imposes a 9-day full blockade of the occupied West Bank starting Sunday night, ostensibly as a security measure for the Jewish Passover festival.

The lockdown, on the orders of the Israeli War Minister Ehud Barak, will prevent thousands of Palestinian workers based in the West Bank from reaching their places of work.

The closure will be lifted only after another security assessment following the Passover holiday, the Israeli army said in a statement on Sunday.

The Passover festival will last from sunset of March 29 until April 6.

The only persons allowed in (from the West Bank) will be Christians to celebrate Easter in Israel, the statement said.

It further stated that some 1,000 church workers, 550 teachers and students, 150 Waqf employees and 100 religious workers will also be allowed to enter East Jerusalem al-Quds.

Meanwhile, demonstrators, including Muslims, Christians, as well as international activists, protesting against the Easter blockade on the West Bank occupied territories, were driven back in attacks by Israeli forces at a checkpoint on the route from Beit Lahm (Bethlehem) to Jerusalem al-Quds.

Iraq unable to deal with numerous post-Saddam mass graves

Iraq unable to deal with numerous mass graves

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A senior Iraqi official says Baghdad does not have the means and expertise to deal with the high numbers of mass graves being discovered.

Ayam Sharif, the head of the Department of Terror and Victims at the Ministry of Human Rights, said that 84 mass graves were discovered in the country last year, all of which held victims of the post-Saddam violence that has rent the fabric of the country.

According to Ms. Sharif, those 84 graves were found in only two Iraqi provinces, Baghdad and Diyala which leads one to speculate as to how many mass burials might still be lying undiscovered in other provinces.

"Last year we discovered 45 graves in the capital Baghdad and 39 in the Province of Diyala," Iraq's Azzaman newspaper quoted her as saying.

This is the largest number of mass graves reported to have been unearthed in the country in one year.

The ministry has set up a new section called the Department of Mass Graves to deal with the issue.

It includes specialists in archaeology, forensic medicine, chemistry and the media.

Russia blasts US over Afghan drug scheme

Russia blasts US over Afghan drug scheme

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Russia accuses the United States of conspiring with Afghanistan's drug producers by refusing to eradicate opium plantations in the country.

US marines, stationed in the opium-growing Helmand province since February, told the villagers that they do not intend to cut the production, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Sunday.

"We believe such statements are contrary to the decisions taken on Afghan narco-problems within the UN and other international forums," the ministry added in a statement released by the Russian Embassy in Kabul.

If NATO troops would not carry out eradication themselves, they should provide force protection for Afghans to do it, it said.

Not eradicating poppy plantations "ignores the fact that thousands of people die from heroin ... including in Afghanistan," the statement added.

This is the second time in a week that Moscow slams the West over its drug policy.

Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium. Moscow says narcotics from neighboring Afghanistan kill 30,000 Russians every year.