Monday, March 29, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon won the weekend box-office battle

How to Train Your Dragon won the weekend box-office battle, but with a purr, not a roar. DreamWorks' latest effort in CGI animation earned $43.3 million in its opening three days, according to early studio estimates. That was more than enough for it to dethrone Disney's Alice in Wonderland, which had reigned for the last three weeks and from which it had filched many of the venues that show movies in the zazzier 3-D format, where a $3 or $4 price hike on each ticket is the norm. Still, Dragon's firepower was more tepid than scalding when compared with recent DreamWorks cartoons. (See TIME's review of How to Train Your Dragon.)

Unlike Pixar, its chief rival in CGI animation, DreamWorks usually casts big names to supply the voices for its lead roles and promotes the stars as if they were to be seen, not just heard, on screen; that's one key to its movies' financial success. No question that the names of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Seth Rogen and Jackie Chan helped 2008's Kung Fu Panda reach its $60.2 million opening weekend, or that Reese Witherspoon, Rogen, Paul Rudd, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Colbert lent heft to last spring's Monsters vs Aliens ($59.3 million). Dragon's lead, Jay Baruchel, isn't yet at that level of star wattage. Audiences had to be sold on the movie by its teen-trains-a-dragon premise and, even more, by the DreamWorks brand name; the studio's hope was that people would see the movie, enjoy it, then tell or text their friends.

That could yet happen: Dragon pulled a gold-star A rating in CinemaScore's poll of exiting moviegoers, and the film has a two-week commitment from its 3-D theaters, where the big money is. DreamWorks wouldn't mind if Dragon ended up near Alice, which is closing in on $300 million in domestic gross (and another $350 million abroad), and just behind Avatar, which finally fell out of the top 10 after 14 weeks, as one of 2010's three biggest winners — all in 3-D. (See the top 10 movie performances of 2009.)

This was the third consecutive week boasting a movie with a nerdish hero, as Dragon followed She's Out of My League (which finished sixth this weekend, with a total gross of $25.6 million), and Diary of a Wimpy Kid (in fifth place, with $35.8 million). Indeed, several of the guys in the other new wide release, Hot Tub Time Machine, fit the underachieving mold. The lurid, inspired title aside, fans of late-night soft-core woo-pitching will be disappointed to learn that the four people in the hot tub at the beginning of the film are all guys, three of them middle-aged. The movie has plenty of gross-out gags, mandatory for an R-rated comedy, but with John Cusack as its star, it may have skewed too old (late-30s, early-40s) to drag the young into its make-fun-of-the-'80s time frame. The picture pulled in a modest $13.5 million. (Comment on this story.)

What is so-so for Hollywood pictures would be wowee for independent films. Chloe, the weekend's sole medium-size release, earned $1 million in 350 theaters. A sexual melodrama offering the glory of hot-sheets action between Amanda Seyfried and Julianne Moore, Chloe will never get near the numbers of a well-promoted movie from a major studio. Nor will Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, a potential-breakout romance that won a sheaf of favorable reviews and has an actual movie star, Ben Stiller, in the title role; it took in $1.1 million on 181 screens. The Runaways, starring Dakota Fanning and Twilight's Kristen Stewart, is already DOA after two weeks. About as close as a non-Hollywood film can get to hit status is the $9.2 million cadged so far by Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, which has had great word of mouth from most of those who've seen it — but not nearly enough have seen it. (See the top 10 Pixar voices.)

The sad fact is that the revenue discrepancy between the mainstream Hollywood product and indie or foreign films has never been so chasmic. In domestic box-office terms, How to Train Your Dragon is the Statue of Liberty, while the new Swedish release The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of those Willard Wigan microsculptures that fit inside the eye of a needle.

Based on the first of Stieg Larsson's internationally best-selling trilogy of crime novels, Dragon Tattoo has earned nearly $85 million abroad. The movie might be expected to lure fans of the books, and the enthusiastic reviews (a robust 83% score on Rotten Tomatoes) should attract other curious moviegoers. So far, the movie has earned $840,000 in 10 days — a decent start for a movie with subtitles. The film will expand its theater base in the coming weeks, and we'll see if there's room in the 3-D blockbuster marketplace for a smart thriller that has nothing going for it but quality.


Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan makes case against sanctions on Iran

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday he did not favor imposing economic sanctions to pressure Iran into showing that it has no covert nuclear weapons program.

Erdogan discussed different approaches with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel to international efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions, but made clear Turkey's reluctance to back the use of sanctions.We are of the view that sanctions is not a healthy path and... that the best route is diplomacy," he said at a joint news conference with Merkel.

Turkey is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and Erdogan said it had not yet reached a firm decision on how it would vote on a US-backed sanctions resolution.

Merkel urged NATO ally Ankara to be ready to support the imposition of sanctions through the United Nations unless Iran shows transparency to assure the international community that it has no ambitions for nuclear weapons.

"We would happy if Turkey votes in April on the Iran issue together with the United States and the European Union," she said.

Turkey, frustrated by the slow progress of its EU membership negotiations, doubts the effectiveness of sanctions and its trade would inevitably suffer if sanctions were imposed on its fellow Muslim neighbor.

"Turkey shares a 380 km (240 mile) border with Iran and it is an important partner, especially in energy. When appraising our relations we shouldn't ignore this," Erdogan said.

He also raised doubts about the results of three earlier rounds of milder sanctions against Iran.

In an apparently veiled reference to Israel, the Turkish leader referred to another country in the region that possessed nuclear weapons. The Jewish state is widely assumed to have the bomb but has not declared itself a nuclear-weapons state.

"We are against nuclear weapons in our region. But is there another country in our region that has nuclear weapons? Yes, there is. And have they been subjected to sanctions? No," Erdogan said.

Turkey is worried about the potential for a nuclear arms race in the region between Iran and Israel, though it does not feel directly threatened by either country.

"If the world trusts us, we would fine a middle path with Iran. I hope that we will reach a result if we continue to work," Erdogan said.

Despite good relations with Tehran, Erdogan's own attempts to persuade the Iranian leadership to make moves needed to allay international concerns have so far come to naught.


Monday, March 22, 2010

Hillary Clinton told the country’s largest pro-Israel lobby..(Israel's security strengthens US)

WASHINGTON – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the country’s largest pro-Israel lobby that the Israeli-Palestinian status quo was “unsustainable” and defended her recent criticism of east Jerusalem housing as in Israel’s interest to bring about peace.

“It is our devotion to this outcome – two states for two peoples, secure and at peace – that led us to condemn the announcement of plans for new construction in East Jerusalem,” she told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference Monday, which came on the heels of some of the worst tension between the two countries in years after the new housing was announced during US Vice President Joe Biden’s recent trip to Jerusalem.

“This was not about wounded pride. Nor is it a judgment on the final status of Jerusalem, which is an issue to be settled at the negotiating table,” Clinton said of the US’s strong condemnation of the housing, which she delivered to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in a scathing phone call upon Biden’s return. “This is about getting to the table, creating and protecting an atmosphere of trust around it – and staying there until the job is finally done.”

She argued those talks are urgently needed because demography, technology and ideology help make maintaining the status quo impossible.

Clinton pointed to the violence Israel finds itself under, criticizing Hamas and Hizbullah for launching rockets at Israel.

“Behind these terrorist organizations and their rockets, we see the destabilizing influence of Iran,” she said. “Reaching a two-state solution will not end all these threats, you and I know that, but failure to do so gives our extremist foes a pretext to spread violence, instability, and hatred.”

While calling for Palestinians to end incitement, and praising Prime Minister Netanyahu – who has apologized for the timing of the east Jerusalem announcement – for embracing a two-state solution and easing movement in the West Bank, she also said the US wants Israel to build trust “by demonstrating respect for the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians, stopping settlement activity, and addressing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”

Clinton’s message on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was received politely if not enthusiastically by most of the 7,500 or so AIPAC activists at her Monday morning speech. Despite the recent tensions, there was no obvious booing or other voicing of disapproval, and several of her comments on the subject received some applause.

Her statements on Iran, however, garnered much more enthusiastic backing.

“The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” she said to one of a handful of standing ovations. “Our aim is not incremental sanctions, but sanctions that will bite.”

Clinton began by stressing the strength and importance of the US-Israel relationship, despite the recent disagreements.

“For President Obama and for me, and for this entire administration, our commitment to Israel’s security and Israel’s future is rock solid, unwavering, enduring, and forever,” she declared, receiving sustained applause. “A strong and secure Israel is vital to our own strategic interests. We know that the forces that threaten Israel also threaten the United States.”

Clinton was preceded by AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr, who received a standing ovation himself when he declared, “Jerusalem is not a settlement.” He also pushed back against what he called “the reductionist view that the relationship between the United States and Israel rests on resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”

He called the notion “specious and insidious,” as well as dangerous, and continued, “we must refute it.” Kohr also called for the US and Israel to move past their recent row.

“It is time to reduce the tension, time to set aside the past week and pledge to work to solve problems together,” he said.

His remarks were more measured than those of Lee Rosenberg, the new AIPAC president, who received an enthusiastic standing ovation Sunday evening when stressed to the crowd, “Allies should work out differences privately.” He said that “in any relations mistakes are going to happen,” adding, “how friends disagree can determine the course of our relationship.”

Several members of the Jewish community expressed concern about the nature of the American response, even as many acknowledged Israel had made a mistake with the timing of the east Jerusalem announcement. Critics particularly objected to Clinton’s call to Netanyahu after the matter seemed settled and her later telling the media that the move was an “insult” to America and seemingly questioning Israel’s commitment to peace and relationship with the US.

Alan Solow, whose organization the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations took a measured tone in asking both sides to overcome their differences, said it was fitting that Clinton delivered the message of reassurance on the US-Israel relationship Monday given her role in the recent dispute.

“It gave her the opportunity to speak personally with the community to make clear her position,” he said.

He also indicated that the speech conveyed a welcome message, but that the US-Israel relations didn’t rest on a single address or event.

“This was an important speech and she sent an important message on the heels of what’s occurred in the last 10 days,” he said, “but the real strength of relations and the continuity of that relationship will be demonstrated in the day and months ahead.”

In her speech, she explained to the audience that “as Israel’s friend, it is our responsibility to give credit when it is due and to tell the truth when it is needed.”

As such, she called new construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank action that “undermines that mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks that are the first step toward the full negotiations that both sides say want and need.”

And, just as crucially, she said, “It exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region hope to exploit,” which in turn “undermines America’s unique ability to play a role – an essential role – in the peace process.”

She underscored, “Our credibility in this process depends in part on our willingness to praise both sides when they are courageous, and when we don’t agree, to say so, and say so unequivocally.”

To that end, she said, she took the Palestinians to task for incitement, including the recent naming of a city square in the West Bank in honor of a Palestinian woman who killed Israeli civilians in a terror attack.

She also told Israel, though, that “we cannot escape the impact of mass communications. We cannot control the images and the messages that are conveyed. We can only change the facts on the ground that refute the claims of the rejectionists and extremists, and in so doing create the circumstances for a safe, secure future for Israel.”

Clinton acknowledged that “we cannot force a solution; we cannot ordain or command the outcome” in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Still, she said, “The United States stands ready to play an active and sustained role in these talks.”

Throughout, she pledged, “The United States and the American people will stand with you. We will share the risks and we will shoulder the burdens, as we face the future together.”


Saturday, March 20, 2010

The muscle injury risk was found particularly high in patients....

On March 19, the Food and Drug Administration notified health care professionals as well as patients that data from a large clinical trial and other sources indicated that use of Zocor, a statin made by Merck and commonly used to lower cholesterol by consumers to lower cholesterol, raises risk of muscle injury when used in large doses and in some patients on other medications.

The muscle injury risk was found particularly high in patients who took the highest approved dose of 80 milligrams per day of the cholesterol-lowering medication, Zocor which is based on simvastatin, an active ingredient that is also used in other products.

In the Drug Safety Communication titled Ongoing Safety Review of High-dose Zocor (simvastatin and Increased Risk of Muscle Injury, the FDA says the risk of muscle injury in patients taking the highest approved dose of the cholesterol-lowering medication, Zocor was higher than that in patients taking lower doses of Zocor and possibly other statins.

The muscle injury of concern is also called myopathy. It is actually a side effect with all statin medications, according to the FDA. The common symptoms include muscle pain, tenderness or weakness, elevated level of a muscle enzyme in the blood called creatine kinase. High doses of Zocor lead to high risk of muscle injury. The risk is elevated particularly when Zocor is used together with certain other drugs.

For the safety reason, the FDA suggests patients should not use Zocor if they use itraconazole, ketoconazole, erythromycin, clarithromycin,telithromycin, HIV protease inhibitors, and nefazodone. Patients on diltiazem may use no more than 40 milligrams of Zocor per day. Those on Amiodarone and verapamil may use no more than 20 milligrams of Zocor per day. Those on Gemfibrozil, cyclosporine and danazol may use no more than 10 milligrams of Zocor per day.

The most serious form of muscle injury is rhabdomyolysis which occurs when a protein called myoglobin is released as muscle fibers break down. This protein can damage the kidneys as they filter blood out of the body. Symptoms of this condition include dark or red urine and fatigue in addition to other common muscle injury symptoms. In rare cases, rhabdomyolysis can lead to fatal kidney failure.

The FDA says healthcare professionals should know that rhabdomyolysis is rare, but reported with all statins and they should be aware of the potential risk of muscle injury from the 80 milligrams of Zocor per day.

The drug regulator advises that patients should not stop taking Zocor unless told so by their healthcare professionals. In cases patients experience symptoms of muscle injury including muscle pain, tenderness or weakness, dark red urine or unexplained tiredness, they should contact their healthcare professionals.

The SEARCH trial of 6031 patients who had experienced a heart attack prompted the FDA to issue the warning. The trial results showed that among those who took 80 milligrams a day of Zocor, 0.9 percent experienced muscle injury compared to 0.02 percent among those who took only 20 milligrams of Zocor per day. Eleven patients who used 80 milligrams of Zocor per day developed rhabdomyolysis compared to none among those who used only 20 milligrams.

The risk is not news. In 2008, the FDA alerted the public to an increased risk of rhabdomyolysis in patients using higher than 20 milligrams of simvastatin in the drug called amiodarone.

One ongoing trial called the Heart Protection Study 2 resulted in some interim outcomes suggesting that patients of Chinese descent should not use 80 milligrams of simvastatin with cholesterol modifying doses of niacin-containing products.

Accordingly, in March 2010, the health agency approved a labeling revision for simvastatin. The revised label also recommends that patients receiving cholesterol-modifying products should take no more than 40 milligrams of Zocor per day.

The ongoing trial found 0.43 percent of patients of Chinese descent suffered myopathy compared to 0.03 percent of their counterparts not taking 40 milligrams plus cholesterol modifying products.

Statins are a class of cholesterol-lowering medications, which are controversial because studies have found these drugs are not worth the money or at least not effective as desired in preventing heart disease. In some cases they do more harm than good.

Statins may disappoint some patients. Luckily some modified lifestyle including healthy diet can lower cholesterol, most importantly risk of heart disease. Those who are interested should contact Dr. Dean Ornish, a Harvard educated medical doctor who is a professor at the University of California - San Francisco.

Some doctors say medical research has provided evidence suggesting that cholesterol is not the cause for the risk of heart disease. In addition to muscle injury, taking Zocor and other statins may also raise risk of diabetes, heart failure and eye disorder, as reported early on

In any event, following a healthy diet is the fundamental way to reduce the risk of heart disease. Dr. Ornish uses his diet and lifestyle program based on a modified diet to help patients prevent progression of artery clogging and reverse atherosclerosis. The efficacy is said to be 99 percent, according to Dr. Colin T Campbell, a distinguished Cornell University nutrition professor.


Thrashers have won three straight to move back into contention for the final playoff spot...

ATLANTA (AP) — Colby Armstrong (FSY) scored two goals and the Atlanta Thrashers beat the Philadelphia Flyers 5-2 on Saturday night to continue their late postseason push.

The Thrashers have won three straight to move back into contention for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta trails eighth-place Boston by one point.

GAME REPORT: Thrashers 5, Flyers 2

Atlanta had not won as many as three in a row since a four-game streak from Nov. 25-30.

Armstrong had his second straight two-goal game. Nik Antropov (FSY), Niclas Bergfors and Bryan Little (FSY) also scored against Brian Boucher (FSY), who had 23 stops. Johan Hedberg (FSY) made 25 saves for Atlanta.

Dan Carcillo and Blair Betts (FSY) had goals for the Flyers.

Antropov, a 10-year veteran in his first season with the Thrashers, has emerged as Atlanta's scoring leader after the team traded Ilya Kovalchuk (FSY) to New Jersey on Feb. 4 for four players, including Bergfors. Antropov has set a career high with 63 points, including 25 points in his last 21 games.

Antropov's leadership showed late in the game when he put Philadelphia's Scott Hartnell (FSY) in a headlock after Hartnell took a swipe at Hedberg. Antropov drew a 2-minute penalty for roughing and Hartnell was called for slashing.

Goals by Bergfors and Armstrong in the first six minutes gave Atlanta a 2-0 lead. Carcillo answered for the Flyers 8:16 into the first period. Antropov and Betts traded goals in the second period, leaving the Thrashers with a 3-2 lead.

Little pushed the lead to 4-2 with his follow shot in front of the net midway through the third period. Armstrong added his second goal late in the period.

Philadelphia, which has been good on 23% of its power-play chances to rank third in the league, was 0 for 3 with a man advantage.

Boucher, who fell to 5-13-2, is the Flyers' third No. 1 goalie of the season, following injuries which ended the regular seasons of Ray Emery (FSY) (hip) and Michael Leighton (FSY) (left ankle sprain). Leighton was injured Tuesday night in a loss at Nashville.

The Thrashers are 3-0 in the season series. The teams play again Sunday in Philadelphia.

NOTES: Atlanta's Jim Slater (FSY) and Philadelphia's Carcillo drew 5-minute penalties for fighting only 39 seconds into the game. About 3 minutes later, Atlanta's Eric Boulton (FSY) and the Flyers' Ian Laperriere (FSY) followed them into the penalty box after a fight. ... Slater also drew 2-minute roughing and tripping minors for a total of three penalties. ... The Flyers had only three shots on goal in the second period.


German industrial city of Essen was accused of sexually abusing three boys in 1979....

NOT long after a portly, jovial priest in the German industrial city of Essen was accused of sexually abusing three boys in 1979, he was offered a new home in Munich by Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.

Ratzinger, who was Archbishop of Munich and Freising at the time, wanted Father Peter Hullermann — known to friends in the church as “Hulli” — to undergo psychotherapy.

A psychiatrist quickly concluded that Hullermann was untreatable, however.

“I told the church officials that Hullermann must never be allowed to work with children again,” said Werner Huth, the psychiatrist, in an interview with The Sunday Times this weekend.
“He did not seem to want or be able to co-operate fully during the therapy. He had an alcohol problem and the assaults on the children mostly happened when he had been under the influence of alcohol.”

Huth’s warning was ignored. The priest was allowed to return to pastoral work and then to teach religion in a local state school.

Soon, he was in trouble again. He drank, showed pornographic videos to boys and abused them. He was convicted of the sexual abuse of minors and fined.

Even that was not the end of his time in the church. After a period of probation he continued working — with altar boys, among others.

He was still working as a priest right up until last Monday when, at the age of 62, he was suspended from his duties at a Bavarian tourist resort for breaching a church order in 2008 to avoid any involvement with children.

This unholy saga, reflecting both the severity of clerical abuse and the failure to stop it, goes to the heart of the gravest crisis the Roman Catholic church has faced since the wartime Pope Pius XII was accused of responding inadequately to the Holocaust.

It also raises questions about Pope Benedict’s responses to mounting allegations of paedophilia in the church. According to a report in Der Spiegel, the German magazine, Benedict knew about the allegations against Hullermann in 1980 but chose not to report them to the police.

DECADES of abuse allegations — first in private, then, increasingly, in public — culminated this weekend in a letter of apology from the Pope to the Irish faithful that was also taken as a message to the broader church.

The letter, to be read at mass throughout Ireland today, recognises years of “sinful and criminal” sexual abuse by the clergy.

“You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry ... It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel,” Benedict writes in the seven-page letter, the first public apology of its kind.

“I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity violated ... We are all scandalised by the sins and failures of some of the church’s members.”

The Pope reprimands Irish bishops for “grave errors of judgment and failures of leadership” in handling cases of abuse. He does not announce any sackings, however.

Cardinal Sean Brady, the head of the church in Ireland — who, as this newspaper revealed last week, attended a secret tribunal in 1975 at which two children abused by a priest were made to take a vow of silence — remains in his job.

Nor has the Pope ordered bishops or priests to report sexual abuse to the police when they learn of it, as Irish victims’ groups demanded.

Much of the anger in Ireland appeared unassuaged last night. Andrew Madden, the first victim to go public after reaching a settlement with the church, said he was deeply disappointed. The Pope’s letter had failed to acknowledge any active role taken by leading figures in covering up sexual abuse by priests, he said.

“There is no owning up by the Pope to his part in the cover-up,” Madden said. “He says he is deeply sorry about what other people did, not what he did.”

Madden is not the only one to claim that questions about the Pope’s role remain unanswered.

IN the case of Hullermann, the priest from Essen, the Pope — then Archbishop Ratzinger — presided over a meeting of church officials in Munich on January 15, 1980.

The minutes show that far from being reported to the police, Hullermann had his request for a “flat and temporary lodging” in a Munich parish granted. “Chaplain Hullermann will engage in psychotherapy treatment,” the minutes read.

Huth, the psychiatrist, said there were problems from the start. Hullermann agreed only to group therapy and refused to recognise that he was a threat to boys. He portrayed himself as a victim, forced to undergo treatment by his superiors.

“His personality problems couldn’t be overcome,” said Huth.

The psychiatrist prescribed drugs to treat Hullermann’s alcoholism and recommended not only that he be kept away from children, but that he be monitored by another priest at all times.

A church official asked Huth why he had made such a recommendation, protesting Hullermann was “well liked among the altar boys and the staff”.

Gerhard Gruber, then Ratzinger’s deputy, has now accepted blame for “serious mistakes” that followed, including restoring the priest to pastoral duties. Officials have not disclosed whether Ratzinger was kept informed before he moved to the Vatican in 1982.

Giancarlo Zizola, a writer on the Vatican, said Ratzinger “very probably” was updated about Hullermann. “The archbishop is responsible for the diocese, people answer to him, so theoretically he is aware of what’s happening,” Zizola said.

The suggestion that the Pope may have known more than has been admitted in a case where inaction allowed sexual abuse to continue was echoed by Hans Kung, a dissident Catholic theologian who once taught with Benedict at Tübingen University in Germany.

In an article published by several European newspapers last week, Kung charged that Benedict knew about the sexual abuse of members of the Domspatzen (cathedral sparrows) choir in Regensburg. The choirmaster from 1964 to 1994 was Benedict’s brother, Georg, and the future Pope had also taught theology there.

Former choirboys at Regensburg have testified about ordeals stretching into the early 1990s.

“Joseph Ratzinger was perfectly well aware of the situation of the Domspatzen,” Kung wrote. “And it is not a case of slaps, which unfortunately were the order of the day at the time, but of sex crimes.”

Kung demanded that Benedict issue a mea culpa for his part in “covering up decades of clerical sex abuse”.

Bishops including the Pope should not just seek forgiveness, but “should finally acknowledge their own coresponsibility” in covering up “systematic abuses”, said Kung.

“Should not Pope Benedict XVI also assume his own responsibility, instead of complaining that there is a campaign against him?”

Kung was stripped of his licence to teach Catholic theology after he rejected the doctrine of papal infallibility. Benedict invited him to dinner shortly after his election as Pope five years ago, prompting speculation that they had reconciled.

Benedict has now let it be known that he is “disappointed and saddened” by Kung’s attack. His brother Georg, 86, acknowledged earlier this month that he had slapped young members of the choir. He said he had never heard anything about sexual abuse there.

IN the eyes of his critics, Benedict’s failure to demand more openness with the police is reminiscent of a 2001 directive he issued as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body in charge of prosecuting sex crimes. They accuse him of fostering a culture of secrecy by insisting on keeping cases confidential while the church investigated them.

Andrea Tornielli, a papal biographer, dismissed this. “Benedict simply applied sub judice rules to the church’s investigation. And he insisted on all cases being reported immediately to his congregation to stop bishops covering them up. He has long been pushing for zero tolerance and for cases to be reported to judicial authorities,” Tornielli said.

Outrage over secrecy in the church is becoming more acute, however. For many, the scandal lies not only in the scale of the abuse but also in the way the church kept it quiet.

In Austria, a poll last week indicated that almost 1m Catholics were considering leaving the church because of its handling of the allegations. The crisis is also spreading to Italy, where the Vatican’s influence has until now stifled any revelations. Cases have come to light in Rome and Florence.

The Vatican has signalled that it will launch reforms including a more rigorous selection of candidates for the priesthood and closer co-operation with civilian authorities.

Such reforms will come too late for Hullermann and his victims. His flock in the spa town of Bad Tölz knew nothing about his record until last Sunday, when they were told in church.

The congregation sat in shocked silence, save for a 30-year-old who stood up and interrupted the service.


Mr. Obama’s dream of overhauling the nation’s health care system...

WASHINGTON — Speaker Nancy Pelosi was at her wits’ end, and she let President Obama know it.

Scott Brown, the upstart Republican, had just won his Senate race in Massachusetts, a victory that seemed to doom Mr. Obama’s dream of overhauling the nation’s health care system. The White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, once Ms. Pelosi’s right hand man on Capitol Hill, was pushing Mr. Obama to scale back his ambitions and pursue a pared-down bill.

Mr. Obama seemed open to the idea, though it was clearly not his first choice. Ms. Pelosi scoffed.

“Kiddie care,” she called the scaled-down plan, derisively, in private.

In a series of impassioned conversations, over the telephone and in the Oval Office, she conveyed her frustration to the president, according to four people familiar with the talks. If she and Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, were going to stick out their necks for Mr. Obama’s top legislative priority, Ms. Pelosi wanted assurances that the president would too. At the White House, aides to Mr. Obama say, he also wanted assurances; he needed to hear that the leaders could pass his far-reaching plan.

“We’re in the majority,” Ms. Pelosi told the president. “We’ll never have a better majority in your presidency in numbers than we’ve got right now. We can make this work.”

Now, in what could become a legislative Lazarus tale — or at least the most riveting cliffhanger of the Obama presidency so far— the House is set to take up the health bill for what Democrats hope will be the last time.

For Mr. Obama, who vowed earlier this month to do “everything in my power” to see the bill to fruition, the measure’s passage would be an extraordinary triumph. Its defeat could weaken him for the rest of his days in office.

That Mr. Obama has come this far — within a whisper of passing historic social legislation — is remarkable in itself. But the story of how he did it is not his alone. It is the story of how a struggling president partnered with a pair of experienced legislators — Ms. Pelosi and, to a lesser extent, Mr. Reid — to reach for a goal that Mr. Obama has often said had eluded his predecessors going back to Theodore Roosevelt.

Their journey over the last two months, interviews with White House aides, lawmakers, outside advisers, lobbyists and political strategists show, involved tensions, resolve, political spadework — and a little bit of luck.

When Anthem, a California insurer, notified policyholders of an increase in premiums of up to 39 percent, the move played right into the hands of a White House that had spent months demonizing the insurance industry.

A cross-Capitol feud erupted when Ms. Pelosi demanded that Mr. Reid provide a letter with the signatures of 51 senators willing to pass a package of legislative changes under the complex parliamentary procedure known as reconciliation. (On Saturday, the leader announced that he had a “significant majority.”)

And Mr. Obama’s decision to hold a bipartisan health care summit meeting proved a strategic success. The move privately mystified some Democrats. But it created an important cooling off period and helped shift attention to Mr. Obama and away from Capitol Hill, freeing the speaker to work on convincing recalcitrant members of her caucus that it would be politically disastrous for them simply to walk away.

Mr. Obama did not need any prodding from Ms. Pelosi, his aides say. The Scott Brown election came on the eve of his first anniversary in office, and he told aides he was irritated that his presidency appeared to be stalled. He was eager to do what he had done so often in the presidential campaign: cast caution aside in favor of bold action.

“We are this close to the summit of the mountain,” Mr. Obama told his close advisers in a meeting in late January, said one participant. “We need to try one more time.”

Responding to a Setback

The polls were still open in Massachusetts on Jan. 19 when Mr. Obama met in the Oval Office with David Plouffe, his top outside confidant and former campaign manager. Mr. Brown’s victory — he would take Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s old seat — was all but certain, and Mr. Obama’s 60-vote supermajority in the Senate had suddenly vanished.

Mr. Brown had made clear his objections to the health care legislation. “One thing is clear,” he proclaimed on election night, “voters do not want the trillion-dollar health care bill that is being forced on the American people.”

At that moment, the president did not know whether, or how, to proceed. The House and Senate had passed different versions of the bill and could not come to terms. Republicans were unified in their resistance. He considered his options, including Mr. Emanuel’s “skinny bill.” Whatever the course, aides said, Mr. Obama was insistent that health care not be put into a “time capsule,” never to be opened again in his tenure.

Tom Daschle, a close outside adviser, said Mr. Obama believed that health care would be his legacy. “This is what his presidency is about,” he said.

On Jan. 21, Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat and a powerful committee chairman, headed to the White House for a banking industry announcement. He had been openly skeptical about the prospects for the health measure


Salman wants to do a movie with Deepika more than ever before...

Salman Khan apparently checked out Deepika Padukone when she was first signed to do Shah Rukh Khan’s Om Shanti Om. He was mighty impressed with her beauty and talent. But at that time, he was doing Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya. And with a proxy war going on between OSO and Saawariya, the lead actors of the two movies didn’t really interact much with each other. Now it’s being said that Salman wants to do a movie with Deepika more than ever before. Deepika too had once told “Salman is one actor I’m looking forward to doing a film with.”

Trade sources say that director Anees Bazmee will cast these two goodlooking people together. Deepika said she’s unaware of these reports but sources close to Salman say that this is a definite and immediate possibility because “Bhai wants to do a movie with Deepika.” If this casting coup happens, it could be one up on the current sensations, Ranbir Kapoor and Katrina Kaif who are also looked upon as a hot screen jodi.

Of course, don’t read between the lines and try and see any ulterior motive in Salman’s desire to do a movie with the gorgeous Bangalore beauty. It’s a plain and simple case of good casting. MI


The Super Kings would be starting out firm favourites against the Punjab...(Live updates I.P.L)

The fans are awe-struck with Matthew Hayden and his Mongoose bat following his 43-ball blitz Friday night at the Feozeshah Kotla and they look forward to another exhilarating experience from the opening batsman when Chennai Super Kings plays host to cellar-dwellers Kings XI Punjab here Sunday.

The ongoing Indian Premier League has not witnessed anything quite like Hayden's onslaught against the Delhi Daredevils who could not defend a total of 185 with the former Aussie opener belting 93, aided by seven sixes and nine boundaries. The five-wicket victory, their second in succession, gave the Super Kings campaign more momentum after the loss to Deccan Chargers in their opening fixture at home.

The Super Kings would be starting out firm favourites against the Punjab outfit that is in a bit of a mess after three consecutive defeats with no light to be seen at the end of the tunnel. Thus, the pressure is more on the visitors to get their act together and pick up their first points of the season.

In contrast, the Super Kings are flying high following their twin successes in Kolkata and Delhi. More importantly, the host team would be determined to put up a show to satiate their fans who were disappointed last Sunday after the defeat to the Chargers.

At the Kotla Friday night, the Super Kings would have felt the absence of skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni who is nursing an elbow injury, when Virender Sehwag was at full throttle. Dhoni's cover, Suresh Raina, just about survived the initial half of the game that exposed the Achilles heel of the Super Kings side, its bowling. It was left to Hayden and later Raina to see the team through the tricky chase.

The Super Kings would be yet again banking on their batting to see them past the Kings XI whose bowling has not really measured up to expectations. Punjab nearly pulled off a win against the Daredevils in their opening game at home, but lost in the last over. Later, they failed to defend a total of 203 against the Royal Challengers in Bangalore earlier this week before flying off to Cuttack where they lost to Chargers and now winging to Chennai.

Thus, a travel-weary Kings XI, carrying several out-of-form players and without Brett Lee, have their task cut out against the Super Kings.


Friday, March 19, 2010

10,000 U.S., NATO and Afghan forces wrested control of Marjah

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (AP) — In the capital of Afghanistan's Helmand province, Taliban roam the streets freely. Barely a mile (a kilometer) outside Lashkar Gah, they wield more control than the government, according to residents.

Last month 10,000 U.S., NATO and Afghan forces wrested control of Marjah, a Helmand farming community about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Lashkar Gah, after years of Taliban rule. The Marjah offensive was the first test of NATO's new counterinsurgency strategy to turn ordinary Afghans away from the Taliban with good governance and development.

But the battle for Helmand is far from over. Even in Marjah, Taliban fighters still plant bombs under cover of darkness. NATO efforts to win over the population with public services and aid have barely begun.

On Wednesday, would-be suicide attackers targeted the offices of a charity in Lashkar Gah but were killed by security guards before they could detonate their explosives-laden vests. One foreign employee was wounded in the attack on the office of International Relief and Development.

According to residents, the Taliban presence in Helmand province remains formidable, even with the loss of their base in Marjah.

"Look over there at that TV tower," said Abdul Latif, an English teacher in Lashkar Gah who wore a scarf over his face because he didn't want to be identified in the company of foreigners. "After that tower, the rest is all Taliban. The Taliban are all over the city. They leave their guns at home and come into the city."

Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal acknowledges that the Taliban have outright control of three of the province's 13 districts. In most other districts, the only areas where the government has control are the district capitals, according to residents and some government officials.

Mangal's appointee as chief of Baghran district, Abdul Razik, hasn't been able to take up the job because the Taliban won't let him enter the area. Instead, he works out of an office in Lashkar Gah, telephoning elders in Baghran to try to persuade them to switch sides.

"How can I go there by myself if they are in control?" Razik asked. "We don't have enough soldiers or police to go with me. I can't go alone."

In Musa Qala district, the government controls the main town but the Taliban hold weekly court sessions in the rest of the district to settle property and other disputes.

The new counterinsurgency strategy pushed by U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal requires NATO to not just take an area but to hold it. Yet the Taliban's strength in Helmand underscores how fragile NATO's hold is not only on Marjah — an 80-square mile (200-square kilometer) district composed of farming villages — but also on other communities.

Michael Scheuer, the former CIA point man in the hunt for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, cautioned against overstating Marjah's success, which he called "transitory."

"As long as we have 10,000 folks on the ground and open the spigot of greenbacks the success will continue," he said. "The U.S.-NATO-Karzai team will also get a boost from the large part of the media ... who will take a transitory local success and extrapolate it into a nationwide, permanent turning of the tide. How many times did we see that in Vietnam and in Iraq? How many times did the Soviets trumpet the same kind of victory in Afghanistan?"

In an interview on the banks of the Helmand River, Mangal, the governor, likened Marjah to a pilot project in good governance. If it succeeds, the expectation is that it will turn ordinary Afghans against the Taliban, and win over Taliban fighters with a promise of development and good governance.

But people are skeptical, some pointing to the appointment of Abdul Zahir as Marjah's new district leader. Zahir was convicted and jailed in Germany on attempted manslaughter charges, according to German court documents. Zahir has denied ever spending time in a German jail. Afghan officials have not rushed to oust him, but are reviewing the case.

Former Helmand Gov. Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, who supported the assault on Marjah, warned that widespread corruption will turn the Marjah victory into defeat.

"The Taliban are not gone. They have only gone to the other districts of Grishk and Sangin," said Akhundzada, whose family has ruled the province for much of the past two decades.

"The administration of Helmand is generally corrupt and nothing is changing in Marjah, no signs of reform with the latest appointment," Akhundzada said. "It doesn't matter if you have thousands and thousands of NATO troops, you will still have Taliban in Helmand."

Scheuer said it was dangerous to suggest that Marjah was a big setback for the Taliban or a major win for the Afghan government and international forces.

"Is it crippling or even hurtful (to the Taliban) over the long term? No," Scheuer said, citing multiple attacks in Kabul on Feb. 28, a day after the provincial government hoisted its flag in Marjah's town center, that underscored the Taliban's ability to strike throughout the country.

"I think the U.S. and NATO can make inroads and win tactical victories with conventional forces in Kandahar or most any other place they want to go in Afghanistan with big forces, but so what?" Scheuer said. "We do not have a tenth of the forces necessary to be everywhere at once and apply a nationwide strategy — even if we had one."


Putin "gave his appraisal of the situation in Iran and underlined...

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday that Russia may accede to a sanctions resolution on Iran, RIA state news agency reported, adding Putin went on to caution Clinton that sanctions "do not always help to resolve such an issue and that sometimes they can have a counterproductive impact"

Putin "gave his appraisal of the situation in Iran and underlined that such a situation (involving Russian support of a sanctions resolution) was possible," RIA quoted Putin's deputy chief of staff Yuri Ushakov as saying.

In their first meeting since Clinton became secretary of state, Putin – considered by many to be the real power in Russia – greeted the Secretary of State with a volley of complaints about trade and Russia's difficulties in joining the World Trade Organization.

Also on Friday, Clinton stated in an interview with Bloomberg TV in Moscow, the US and Russia were close to signing a new nuclear arms-control agreement. "We hope to have a signing ceremony between President Medvedev and President Obama in early April," she said.

Clinton's meetings, at the end of a two-day trip, reflected continuing tensions in the US-Russia relationship a year after the Obama administration launched a "reset." Although the two sides have moved closer on issues ranging from arms control to Afghanistan, cooperation remains difficult.

At what was supposed to be a ceremonial photo op, Putin launched into a list of complaints about the drop in US trade during the economic crisis, Russia's difficulties in joining the World Trade Organization and US sanctions that have affected Russian companies. The latter subject appeared to be a reference to penalties on firms doing business with Iran, Syria and North Korea.

Clinton looked unfazed by the blunt lecture, which her aides attributed to the desire of a politician to perform for the Russian TV cameras on a domestically important issue. She highlighted how the two sides were coming close to a nuclear arms-control agreement and mentioned a recent visit by high-tech executives to Russia organized by the State Department and White House.

Clinton's agenda in Moscow was dominated by the near-complete agreement to reduce each side's deployed long-range nuclear weapons, and the US-led drive for tough sanctions on Iran. She also met with international mediators to discuss Middle East peace.

In a news conference earlier Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed caution about sanctions on Iran, saying the Kremlin was not alarmed by the Islamic republic's nuclear program and wanted to avoid "aggressive" penalties.

The remarks highlighted the limits the Obama administration could face in getting new sanctions approved by the UN Security Council. One of Clinton's top aides, Undersecretary of State William Burns, told reporters on her plane Wednesday that the US government felt "a sense of urgency" about Iran's nuclear program and that "it's time to demonstrate that there are consequences."

Lavrov acknowledged that the Kremlin was unhappy with Iran's latest actions — which include rejecting a Russian-backed plan aimed at quickly reducing the Islamic republic's stockpile of enriched uranium. And sanctions were sometimes "impossible to avoid," he said through a translator, quoting a previous comment by President Dmitry Medvedev.

Despite Lavrov's reluctant tone on sanctions, Clinton aides took heart at his comments. They noted he had until recently been one of the harshest critics of such penalties among senior Russian officials. His list of conditions for sanctions indicated he was ready to agree to work on a new resolution, they said.

Clinton told the news conference that US efforts to get a sanctions resolution "are making progress" and that "we expect to reach consensus around an appropriate response." She expressed support for what she called Medvedev's idea of "smart sanctions" that did not harm the general public.

The US government is focusing on sanctions that would target members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and the businesses they operate.

Russia had sought to water down three previous sets of UN sanctions, and its support will be crucial in getting a resolution passed.

Putin said on Thursday that Iran's new Russian-built nuclear power plant will begin operating this summer, even as the United States called for Russia to delay the startup.

In apparent response, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton – in Moscow on an official trip – urged Russia not to start up the plant until Teheran proves that it's not developing atomic weapons.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, at a joint news conference with Clinton, immediately stepped in to say that Russia would put the reactor online.


No. 14-seeded Ohio stuns No. 3 Georgetown, 97-83.....

Ohio, which had a losing record in conference play but won the Mid-American Conference, upset third-seeded Georgetown with a convincing 97-83 victory in the Midwest Regional at Providence, R.I.

Armon Bassett scored 32 points as the 14th-seeded Bobcats won in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 27 years. Ohio Coach John Groce wouldn't call it the biggest win in team history.

"I certainly think it's one of them," he said. "What it does more than anything is it gives belief in our guys in what we're doing."

Ohio seized the lead early on its three-point shooting and never had a serious letdown. The Hoyas made a small run in the second half that cut a 19-point lead to seven, but D.J. Cooper made a three-pointer and the Bobcats cruised from there.

Kansas 90, Lehigh 74: The top-seeded Jayhawks hung in and survived a scare before pulling away for a win over the scrappy 16th-seeded Mountain Hawks at Oklahoma City.

Marcus Morris scored 26 points and Sherron Collins had 18 as Kansas fell into its season-long pattern of playing in spurts.

Northern Iowa 69, Nevada Las Vegas 66: Ali Farokhmanesh hit a three-pointer from the wing with 4.9 seconds left to lift the ninth-seeded Panthers past the eighth-seeded Runnin' Rebels at Oklahoma City.

Northern Iowa hadn't won a game in the NCAAs since upsetting third-seeded Missouri in 1990.

Tennessee 62, San Diego State 59: Melvin Goins made his fourth three-pointer with 19 seconds left after the Aztecs cut the deficit to one point, and the sixth-seeded Volunteers held off 11th-seeded San Diego State at Providence.

The Aztecs' Kawhi Leonard scored 12 with 10 rebounds, but he missed a well-guarded three-pointer at the buzzer that would have tied it.


President Barack Obama's health care overhaul bill

HOW MANY COVERED: 32 million uninsured. Major coverage expansion begins in 2014. When fully phased in, 95 percent of eligible Americans would have coverage, compared with 83 percent today.

INSURANCE MANDATE: Almost everyone is required to be insured or else pay a fine. There is an exemption for low-income people. Mandate takes effect in 2014.

INSURANCE MARKET REFORMS: Major consumer safeguards take effect in 2014. Insurers prohibited from denying coverage to people with medical problems or charging them more. Higher premiums for women would be banned. Starting this year, insurers would be forbidden from placing lifetime dollar limits on policies and from denying coverage to children because of pre-existing medical problems. Parents would be able to keep older kids on their policies up to age 26. A new high-risk pool would offer coverage to uninsured people with medical problems until 2014, when the coverage expansion goes into high gear.
MEDICAID: Expands the federal-state Medicaid insurance program for the poor to cover people with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, $29,327 a year for a family of four. Childless adults would be covered for the first time, starting in 2014. The federal government would pay 100 percent of the tab for covering newly eligible individuals through 2016. A special deal that would have given Nebraska 100 percent federal financing for newly eligible Medicaid recipients in perpetuity is eliminated. A different, one-time deal negotiated by Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu for her state, Louisiana, worth as much as $300 million, remains.

TAXES: Dramatically scales back a Senate-passed tax on high-cost insurance plans that was opposed by House Democrats and labor unions. The tax would be delayed until 2018, and the thresholds at which it is imposed would be $10,200 for individuals and $27,500 for families. To make up for the lost revenue, the bill applies an increased Medicare payroll tax to investment income as well as wages for individuals making more than $200,000, or married couples above $250,000. The tax on investment income would be 3.8 percent.

PRESCRIPTION DRUGS: Gradually closes the "doughnut hole" coverage gap in the Medicare prescription drug benefit that seniors fall into once they have spent $2,830. Seniors who hit the gap this year will receive a $250 rebate. Beginning in 2011, seniors in the gap receive a discount on brand name drugs, initially 50 percent off. When the gap is completely eliminated in 2020, seniors will still be responsible for 25 percent of the cost of their medications until Medicare's catastrophic coverage kicks in.

EMPLOYER RESPONSIBILITY: As in the Senate bill, businesses are not required to offer coverage. Instead, employers are hit with a fee if the government subsidizes their workers' coverage. The $2,000-per-employee fee would be assessed on the company's entire work force, minus an allowance. Companies with 50 or fewer workers are exempt from the requirement. Part-time workers are included in the calculations, counting two part-timers as one full-time worker.

SUBSIDIES: The proposal provides more generous tax credits for purchasing insurance than the original Senate bill did. The aid is available on a sliding scale for households making up to four times the federal poverty level, $88,200 for a family of four. Premiums for a family of four making $44,000 would be capped at around 6 percent of income.

HOW YOU CHOOSE YOUR HEALTH INSURANCE: Small businesses, the self-employed and the uninsured could pick a plan offered through new state-based purchasing pools called exchanges, opening for business in 2014. The exchanges would offer the same kind of purchasing power that employees of big companies benefit from. People working for medium-to-large firms would not see major changes. But if they lose their jobs or strike out on their own, they may be eligible for subsidized coverage through the exchange.

GOVERNMENT-RUN PLAN: No government-run insurance plan. People purchasing coverage through the new insurance exchanges would have the option of signing up for national plans overseen by the federal office that manages the health plans available to members of Congress. Those plans would be private, but one would have to be nonprofit.

ABORTION: The proposal keeps the abortion provision in the Senate bill. Abortion opponents disagree on whether restrictions on taxpayer funding go far enough. The bill tries to maintain a strict separation between taxpayer dollars and private premiums that would pay for abortion coverage. No health plan would be required to offer coverage for abortion. In plans that do cover abortion, policyholders would have to pay for it separately, and that money would have to be kept in a separate account from taxpayer money. States could ban abortion coverage in plans offered through the exchange. Exceptions would be made for cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother.

GOP HEALTH CARE SUMMIT IDEAS: Following a bipartisan health care summit last month, Obama announced he was open to incorporating several Republican ideas into his legislation. But two of the principle ones - hiring investigators to pose as patients and search for fraud at hospitals and increasing spending for medical malpractice reform initiatives - did not make it into the legislation released Thursday. The legislation incorporates only one, an increase in payments to primary care physicians under Medicaid, an idea mentioned by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.


United States on Middle East peace process...( * News * World news * Israel US stares down Israel to revive Palestinian talks)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had collapsed in to the demands of the United States on Middle East peace process, opening the way for the resumption of talks with the Palestinians.

And the humiliating retreat, which came after a week of pressure from the Obama administration, has declared in the Middle East is still four-party talks this morning in Moscow.

The group met for dinner last night. It consists of a Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, the representative of the international Quartet of Middle East affairs, and the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, the European Union Javier Solana, the new foreign policy, Lady Ashton; Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Lavrov called last night talks "very useful" and said the quartet was part of the way towards a "shared some of the results that may be useful to raise the beginning of the negotiations (between the Israelis and the Palestinians)."

In a telephone call with Clinton last night, Netanyahu agreed to many demands and that it had set last Friday.

A statement issued by his office, he suggested, and Clinton had called, "confidence-building measures" that would make it easier for the Palestinians to join the talks. He did not specify what those steps, but they could include easing Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from parts of the West Bank and release Palestinian prisoners.

He did not announce, and the United States had demanded, and freeze the construction of a new Jewish settlement in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in East Jerusalem, and the main sticking point.

But diplomats in Washington and Moscow and Jerusalem, "Netanyahu promised to build a temporary freeze on new housing. Work, while not abolished, is to be postponed for several years.

Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, The Washington Post: "The goal of both sides at this stage is to put this behind us and move forward at the proximity talks as soon as possible."

Concessions in order to put an end to a rare clash between the United States and Israel, which began early last week when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden paid a visit to Israel to coincide with what was to be hoped that the resumption of peace talks. During his visit, Israel announced a plan to build 1,600 Jewish homes in East Jerusalem. Palestinians immediately withdrew from the proposed talks and the United States and described the Israeli announcement as a contempt and insult.

Clinton was a tense 41-minute phone call with Netanyahu last Friday, expressing anger the United States which sets her demands: confidence-building measures, a moratorium on new construction in East Jerusalem and promised that the resumption of negotiations would be on the substantive issues, not just talks about talks.

There was no indication whether Netanyahu agreed to the last point, but not likely, given the events of last week, that the United States will have to settle for anything less.

Diplomats said some of the concessions made by Netanyahu and other public sector holding to enable him to save face.

The decline is a politically awkward situation for Netanyahu in the next few days after he said publicly that no Israeli government in the past 42 years made a promise not to build in East Jerusalem. He will face criticism, especially from his partners in the right-wing coalition government.

Netanyahu held a lengthy meeting with his colleagues in the government on Wednesday evening to discuss the concessions that would have to make.

Obama and Clinton win the Israeli withdrawal, which will help its reputation among Palestinians and the Arab world. Left seems weak after a similar stance with Israel off last September when peace talks failed to get in full swing.

And U.S. envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, canceled a trip to Israel this week in protest, but is to resume his visit on Sunday. Clinton is to see Netanyahu in Washington next week.

A spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Crowley said Clinton and Netanyahu discussed "concrete steps" to improve the prospects for peace talks in the Middle East. A spokesman for Netanyahu, the yoke Chefetz, the prime minister had proposed a "mutual confidence-building steps" that both Israel and the Palestinians could take.

Israel responded last night to a Palestinian rocket attack killed a Thai farm worker. Israeli planes hit at least two targets in the Gaza Strip, officials and witnesses said.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Iran's nuclear programme

SHANNON, Ireland — US State Department official William Burns has insisted the United States feels a "sense of urgency" towards Iran's nuclear programme, as he headed to Russia for a two-day visit.

"We feel a sense of urgency, it's time to demonstrate that there are consequences" to Tehran's behaviour, said the under secretary for political affairs Wednesday who is accompanying US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The US and Russia "steadily expand the common ground between us on Iran, and we work effectively together," said a senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, ahead of the Moscow visit which starts Thursday.

Washington is working towards sanctions which "minimize the impact on the Iranian people and maximize the chances of the Iranian leadership to make the right choices," said the official.

Trying to push through new international sanctions against Tehran was a complex process, said the official, but added that "we do share an interest with the Russians."

Russia, the United States, France, Britain, China and Germany have been putting pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme, amid fears that Tehran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.

Of the six, China continues to resist imposing fresh sanctions while Moscow slowly appears to be coming over to the other countries' tougher stance on the issue.

Burns also insisted again that the US and Russia were "getting closer" to an agreement on a nuclear disarmament treaty to succeed the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expired in December.

The accord led to huge reductions in the US and Russian nuclear arsenals and imposed verification measures to build trust between the two former Cold War foes.

"The leadership the US and Russia show on this sends an important message about other questions, like non-proliferation," said a second senior US official, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

One year after President Barack Obama urged a "reset" of strained relations between the US and Russia, the official said "over a hundred flights" from the US military had already passed through Russia towards Afghanistan.

This was a result of a decision taken by Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, said the diplomat.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The latest results from Iraq's election..........

The latest results from Iraq's election show a tight race emerging between PM Nouri Maliki and his main rival, Iyad Allawi.

With 80% of votes counted, the secular Shia-Sunni Iraqiya coalition led by Mr Allawi, a former prime minister, has a narrow overall lead for the first time.

But Mr Maliki's State of Law alliance remains ahead in Baghdad and Basra.

Andrew North reports


flames of the third intifada at their height

The day before yesterday, with the flames of the third intifada at their height, the anxious organizer called and asked if I had a suggestion for a substitute.

You don't want me? I asked, offended. Of course we do, he replied, but the media is making it seem like Jerusalem and the territories are burning and it's not worth it to risk your life just for a lecture.

I shuddered. Only yesterday, when the police announced that even the Temple Mount was open to visitors, did I venture out of my home. I can imagine the surprise and dismay of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's admirers in the White House, the Tel Aviv newsrooms and the TV studios in Givatayim and Neveh Ilan that the third(!) intifada, for which they had so yearned, played itself out like thatHowever, never fear: In these places reality doesn't jolt the conception that intifadas break out only because of Israel's rejection of peace and its provocations (the accuracy of which was proven beyond a doubt back in the days of Yasser Arafat).

That conception will only grow stronger. In the next few days, the countdown will begin for the fourth intifada.

For months there have been whisperings that we are on the brink of an explosion, always couched in the menacing Palestinian terminology, "intifada," and always with the admonition: The ball is in Israel's court.

Of course it can be averted, but only if Israel "does (or doesn't do) something" - freezes, restricts, prevents, restrains itself, doesn't surprise, doesn't move, doesn't act, doesn't pave, doesn't build, doesn't inaugurate.

Doesn't breathe.

There's no doubt those "drunk drivers" at the head of our state are the ones who initiated the conflagration that has spread from Jerusalem throughout the Middle East. The flames are reaching Pakistan as well, and are set to engulf American troops.

Here it is again, the flat, detached, linear world outlook of the American administration and the people who have Obama's ear in his golfing coterie.

The upshot: an anti-Israel agenda that is firm, but lacking understanding and depth. One of its principles is that Netanyahu understands only force. It seems the Obama administration does not want to hold a true dialogue with Israel but to dictate where its borders will be and where it can build in its capital city.

It was not peace, but rather opposition for its own sake that motivated Joe Biden's irrational conduct and Hillary Clinton's statements, which were presumably okayed by the White House.

For long months George Mitchell has been working the lines that lead to the resumption of talks. That whole time the Americans and the Palestinians knew Israel would not stop building in Jerusalem. And had there not been a row, proximity talks would have begun as the prelude to comprehensive negotiations.

Along came Biden, Clinton, David Axelrod and others who, aided by Israelis yearning to see Netanyahu brought down, destroyed all the preparations made in the preceding months.

If their chief aim was the continuation of the talks, they would have held back, certainly in public, in the face of the clumsiness of the District Planning and Building Committee. Because now, after they have proclaimed that it is forbidden to build in Jerusalem, what Palestinian leader would dare to talk to Israel, even if only a school was being built in Gilo, and not a neighborhood in Ramat Shlomo?

At a time like this, especially with Jerusalem in the mix, it would be natural for Israelis, or at least the Jewish majority, to rally around Netanyahu if only because of the Americans' brutality or the affront to the prime minister's honor behind the kind of snafu that can and does happen in any bureaucracy.

But it's not like that in Israel. Here, a great many people, including some who don't oppose building in the capital, joined with the Americans to assist them in humiliating their country and throwing their prime minister off balance.

There is one important lesson that Israel never learns: If there is a master plan to build tens of thousands of apartments in Jerusalem and thereby assure that the absolute Jewish majority in the city be preserved for generations, it is the entire plan that should be approved, all at the same time. Whether 1,600 or 50,000 apartments are slated to be built, the condemnation and threats from within and the self-righteousness, panic and criticism from within, will be exactly the same. Instead of drawing such intense fire every year or two, it can all be concentrated into one anticipated blast, and the building of Jerusalem will continue after the condemnatory dust settles, as it always does.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

New York 87: Manu Ginobili scored 28 points in.....

Memphis 111, at Boston 91: Rudy Gay scored 28 points as the Grizzlies picked up their franchise-record seventh straight road win.

at San Antonio 97, New York 87: Manu Ginobili scored 28 points in the Spurs' win over the Knicks, who are assured of a team-record ninth straight losing season.

at Oklahoma City 98, New Orleans 83: Kevin Durant scored 29 points and Russell Westbrook added 17 points and came up just shy of a triple-double for the Thunder.

Utah 115, at Detroit 104: Deron Williams had 18 points and 12 assists for the Jazz, which posted its 10th straight victory over the Pistons.

at Sacramento 113, Toronto 90: The Kings' Tyreke Evans recorded his first career triple-double with 19 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.

Charlotte 102, at Philadelphia 87: The Bobcats' Gerald Wallace had 28 points on nine-for-10 shooting.

Denver 110, at Minnesota 102: Chauncey Billups scored 25 points in the Nuggets' victory.


Thailand Braces for Political Rallies in Capital

BANGKOK — Thailand’s seemingly unending political crisis is likely to reach another moment of tension this weekend with huge opposition rallies that organizers say they hope will paralyze the city and bring down the government.

While pledging nonviolence, protest leaders say they will gather hundreds of thousands of mostly rural supporters for mass rallies and blockades of government offices, starting on Friday and building over the following days.

Thousands of buses, trucks and farm vehicles are expected to converge from neighboring provinces in what one organizer called Maoist tactics of “the forest surrounding the town.”

The government, warning of violence, has invoked the Internal Security Act, which effectively hands control over to the military, with the right to impose curfews, set up checkpoints and restrict the movements of demonstrators.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva warned last week of unspecified acts of “sabotage.” This week he canceled a planned visit to Australia because of the urgency of the situation.

The weekend plans are the latest pressure points that have wearied many Thais over the past four years. Thailand has become “a nation cursed to live in a constant state of anxiety,” said the daily newspaper The Nation.

The image of a rural invasion of the capital emphasizes the complex and deepening divisions in the country, which in their simplest terms pit the rural poor against an urban establishment whose primacy is under threat.

Thailand’s rural underclass found an electoral voice under former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and has rallied to his defense since he was ousted in a coup in 2006. He now lives abroad, evading a two-year prison term on a conviction for corruption.

“Our aim is to topple the government, force them to make a choice between suppressing us and stepping down,” a protest leader, Jaran Ditsatapichai, said last week.

It is not the first time that one side or another in alternating street campaigns — known by their clothing as the red shirts and the yellow shirts — has announced that goal as governing power changes hands. This time it is the turn of the red shirts.

“We’ve heard that many times before,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an expert on Thailand at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “Every time, they say it’s going to be the final showdown. Do they really believe that a final showdown will put Abhisit out of power?”

More unsettling, he said, is the possibility that other groups with other agendas might instigate violence.

“If it turns nasty it might not be because of the reds,” he said. “Right now there are so many factions all over the place. Even within the reds and the yellows, so many factions. We don’t know who is allied to who. The whole situation creates a context in which a third, fourth, fifth hand can take advantage.”

The red shirts have been violent in the past, but some analysts say violence at this point would discredit them and strengthen the position of the government.

The planned demonstration is a continuation of tensions since early 2006 that have included blockades of government buildings, the occupation of Bangkok’s two airports, the disruption of a meeting of regional heads of state, two particularly violent rallies and a military coup.

A year ago, a demonstration by tens of thousands of red shirts touched off some of the worst violence in years, leaving two people dead and more than 120 injured.

The most recent moment of anxiety was just two weeks ago when the government warned of a violent reaction when the Supreme Court found Mr. Thaksin guilty of concealing his wealth and of abusing his office.

It confiscated $1.4 billion in frozen assets but allowed him to keep nearly $1 billion that he had earned as a telecommunications tycoon before taking office in 2001.

There was no violence, and this weekend’s rally is in part a deferred reaction to that verdict.

Analysts say that the ruling has opened the door to a new round of legal cases against Mr. Thaksin and that he is unlikely to see any of that money soon.

Using other money available to him outside Thailand, he is believed to be funding much of the red shirt activity and has rallied supporters from his refuge abroad, mostly in Dubai.

In a Twitter message earlier this week, in an increasingly familiar plaintive tone, he said, “I would like to urge those who love democracy, justice, equality, and those who think that I have been bullied without mercy and humanity, to join the rally.”

As his physical absence has lengthened, the red shirt movement has fragmented into sometimes hostile factions, and many insist that their movement is in support of democracy more than of Mr. Thaksin.

But the divisions often seem to have less to do with ideology than with a struggle for wealth and power.

Mr. Thaksin’s supporters among the rural and urban poor are in the majority, and their vote has helped win the last three general elections for parties that back him. Mr. Abhisit’s government took office through a parliamentary vote in December 2008 when a court disbanded the governing pro-Thaksin party for electoral fraud. If the red shirts can bring down the current government and force a new election, they reason, Mr. Thaksin’s side could step back into power.

Their opponents argue that Mr. Thaksin was corrupt, that he was destroying democratic institutions and that he has manipulated the poor majority with populist measures like cheap medical care and various forms of financial assistance.

The yellow shirts, who demonstrated against previous pro-Thaksin governments, have proposed a constitutional amendment that would put more electoral power into the hands of an educated elite while limiting the influence of the rural vote.

It was the yellow shirts who blockaded the prime minister’s office for months in 2008 and closed down Bangkok’s two airports for a week. Tourists fled the country, and in an effort to reassure them, the government announced a $10,000 insurance package for any who might be harmed by political violence.

Last week, with the new moment of uncertainty approaching, the government spokesman, Panitan Wattanayagorn, said the insurance offer was still good.


64 people in that bracket in mainland China

There are a total of 64 people in that bracket in mainland China, the magazine says in its annual list of the world's richest people.

The figure is perhaps not surprising considering that China's economy has seen rapid growth over recent years.

China is set to overtake Japan as the world's second-biggest economy sometime this year.

According to Forbes, the world now has 1,011 billionaires.

The country with the biggest concentration is the US, with 403. But China comes second with 64 living in the mainland.

That figure jumps to 89 if Hong Kong is included. The former British colony was returned to China in 1997, but largely governs its own affairs.

On Forbes' list of billionaires there are a total of 97 new additions - and 27 of those are from mainland China.

They include people such as Li Shufu, who is chairman of Geely, a car-maker that is currently poised to buy Sweden's Volvo.

The richest man in China, Zong Qinghou, runs a multi-billion-dollar firm, the Wahaha Group, that makes soft drinks.

In an interview with Forbes, he hinted at why his firm has become so successful.

"We're not afraid of competition. To meet competition, however, you have to continuously innovate," he said.

Wealth gap

China's increasing prominence on this rich list reflects its growing economic muscle, confirmed on Wednesday with a report that exports rose in February by nearly 50% compared to a year earlier.

But the news that there are now more billionaires in China might not be welcomed by everyone in the country.

Many people, including some officials, say that the gap between rich and poor is already too large.

Just a few days ago in a speech at the start of China's on-going parliamentary session, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said the government must reverse the widening income gap.

"We will not only make the 'pie' of social wealth bigger by developing the economy, but also distribute it well," he said.

Mr Wen added: "[We will] make our society fairer and more harmonious."


Amr Moussa, the Arab League Secretary-General, told reporters in Cairo.

The Palestinian move came only days after they succumbed to heavy American pressure to conduct indirect talks with Israel in an attempt to kick-start the logjammed Middle East peace process.

However, Israel today said the announcement of the settlement was a mistake and Mr Netanyahu has reprimanded Eli Yishai, the Interior Minister, over the timing.

The resumption of talks should have crowned the first visit to the region by Joe Biden, the US Vice President, this week, but the trip turned into a fiasco after the surprise Israeli announcement on Tuesday of building plans for Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-orthodox suburb of Jerusalem situated across the pre-1967 border in the West Bank.

Palestinians see East Jerusalem as capital of their future state, while Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, considers it part of “the eternal, undivided capital of Israel and the Jewish people.”

Mr Biden and world leaders including David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, and Baroness Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, led wall-to-wall criticism of the Israeli move that Mr Abbas said was “the ruining of trust.”

The Arab League, which endorsed Palestinian participation in the US-brokered indirect talks last week, said on Wednesday that unless the Israeli building plans were cancelled, the talks would have “no meaning.”

Mr Biden, a long-time supporter of Israel in the US Senate, began the week praising the close ties and friendship between America and the Jewish state, but the Israeli move so wrong-footed his carefully choreographed trip that he issued one of the harshest condemnations of Israel ever uttered by the White House.

He was due to deliver a keynote address to the Israeli people at Tel Aviv University on Thursday morning that was being hastily rewritten in light of the week’s humiliating events.