Go to Iraq or face dismissal, US diplomats told
The US administration has asked its diplomats to serve in Iraq or face disciplinary action, including dismissal from service.
In a cable sent to the US diplomatic corps on Friday, Harry Thomas, director-general of the US Foreign Service, informed American diplomats that if chosen to serve in Iraq, they would not have the option to say no. This Monday, about 250 diplomats will receive notices that they had been chosen as ‘prime candidates’ to fill 40 to 50 vacancies that would open next year at the embassy.
Those finally selected for a one-year posting will start getting posting orders from Nov 12. They will have 10 days to accept or reject the position. Some will be ordered to go to Iraq and face dismissal if they refuse.
“We have all taken oaths to serve our country. We have all signed (up for) worldwide availability,” said Mr Thomas while talking to reporters in Washington.
“If someone decides ... they do not want to go, we will then consider appropriate action,” he said. “We have many options, including dismissal from the Foreign Service.”
The US administration is forced to take this step because not enough officers are willing to work at the US Embassy in Baghdad or with the State Department’s provincial reconstruction teams.
This is the first such large-scale call-up since the Vietnam war.
Only those with compelling reasons, such as medical problems, will be exempted.
Iraq is the most dangerous posting for US diplomats. The Green Zone, which also houses the US Embassy, faces almost daily attacks, often deadly. The scandal involving a private firm that protects State Department officials has further weakened security arrangements.
Guards of the Blackwater USA are accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians, which has increased public hostility against American nationals in Iraq and also brought new restrictions on the guards.
Incentives, such as generous financial benefits and promotions, encouraged some diplomats to come forward. So far about 1,200 out of a total of 11,500 Foreign Service officers have served in Iraq since 2003. But many ignored the incentives.
Provincial Reconstruction Teams, set up to oversee development works in the far-flung areas, are particularly in trouble. US military officials who run the teams complain that other government agencies such as the departments of State, Commerce and Agriculture, are not moving quickly or forcefully enough to take the positions marked for them.
Diplomats who are forced into service in Iraq will receive the same extra hardship pay, vacation time and choice of future assignments as those who have volunteered since early this year when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ordered Baghdad positions to be filled before all others around the world.
Currently about 200 Foreign Service officers work in Iraq, enough to meet the current staffing requirements, but about 50 more will be needed by the summer of 2008.
Forced postings are rare but not unheard of in the US State Department. In 1969, an entire class of entry-level diplomats was sent to Vietnam, and on a smaller scale, diplomats were required to work at various embassies in West Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.
Volcano erupts, earthquake rocks in Indonesia
Jakarta – Shawwal 14, 1428/ October 25, 2007– A volcano erupted in central Indonesia today, shooting plumes of white smoke and sand nearly 5,000 feet into the air, an official said. There were no immediate reports of injuries following the blast at Mount Soputan, located on Sulawesi island, said Sandy Manengke, a local monitoring official, noting that residents living near the crater had been evacuated beforehand. Meanwhile, a strong earthquake has hit the Indian Ocean off Indonesia's Sumatra Island but there were no immediate reports of damage or casualties. Authorities briefly issued a tsunami warning, but the feared wave never came and the tsunami alert was lifted.
Volcanic ash covered villages along the slopes of the 5,800-foot Mount Soputan. People living as far as 12 miles from the crater said they felt the heat after the eruption. Some were wearing face masks to protect themselves against the heavy smoke and dust.
Indonesia has more active volcanoes than any other nation because of its location on the Pacific ''Ring of Fire'' -- a series of fault lines stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia. Mount Soputan is 1,350 miles northeast of the capital, Jakarta.
The US Geological Survey said the quake that hit the Indian Ocean had a preliminary magnitude of 7.1 and struck 135 km west of the city of Bengkulu, jolting people from their sleep and sending them fleeing by car and foot early today. The quake's epicenter was 30 km beneath the ocean floor. Local radio reported residents in Bengkulu fleeing their homes with their families and belongings after the quake hit at about 0400 local time. An official from the Honolulu-based US Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) said that his agency had told the Indonesian government of a possible small and localised tsunami but did not yet know if the quake had triggered a tsunami. Indonesia, the world's largest archipelago, with a population of 235 million people, is prone to seismic upheaval due to its location on the "Ring of Fire. Last month a magnitude 8.4 earthquake hit the same region killing 23 people and destroying thousands of building.
Mumbai Muslims demand justice for 1992-93 riots
Mumbai, Oct 25: Over 10,000 Muslims representing 35 organisations came together Thursday to demand full implementation of the recommendations of an inquiry report on the communal violence here in 1992-93 following the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
The Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission, appointed by the Maharashtra government, had conducted a statutory inquiry into the communal carnage that engulfed the country's commercial capital in December 1992-January 1993, following the demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya on Dec 6, 1992.
Abu Asim Azmi, a Rajya Sabha MP and the Maharashtra unit president of the Samajwadi Party, along with over 40 senior Muslim clerics addressed the Justice Rally in the Azad Maidan, south Mumbai.
Azmi said their quest for justice would not end till "the Commission report is 100 percent implemented".
Giving a deadline of Dec 5 to the Democratic Front government in the state, he warned that from Dec 6, the 15th anniversary of the Babri Masjid razing, Muslims would court arrest at all police stations in Mumbai.
Azmi pointed out that the long-winded trial in the March 12, 1993 bomb explosions here - after the mosque demolition and the subsequent carnage - had already been completed and the judgement too had been pronounced.
"However, the state government has not yet initiated action against those persons indicted by the Commission who continue to roam free," Azmi said.
He demanded immediate arrest and legal proceedings against 31 police officials including former Mumbai police commissioner R.D. Tyagi, former Shiv Sena MP from Mumbai North-West constituency Madhukar Sarpotdar and others.
Azmi exhorted Muslims to "throw out" the state government if their demands were not met by Dec 5.
Meanwhile, the Bombay High Court, responding to the government's appeal, last Tuesday set up four special courts to conduct fast trial of the cases pertaining to the communal violence.
An announcement to this effect was also made by Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh in Aurangabad Thursday.
The judges appointed by the high court are: P.N. Deshmukh, M.L. Tahiliani, Sanjeev Kumar Sharma and R.C. Bapat.
The police had made elaborate security arrangements for the rally which took place even as the state cabinet was away for two days in Aurangabad.
Over 1,000 uniformed personnel drawn from the local police, the Rapid Action Force, the Riots Police and others stood guard along with surveillance through closed circuit TV cameras - an unprecedented measure for a rally.
The organizations which took part included the Ulema Council, Jamiat-ul-Ulema, Jamat-e-Islami, Ulema Associations, Majlis-e-Shoura, and Mumbai Aman Committee. (IANS)
U.S. self-inflicted wounds in Iraq
The ever-growing loss of life in the Iraq war is hard for many Americans to accept with equanimity. But what is also unacceptable in that war is the siphoning of billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayers' funds in outright fraud or administrative incompetence. That's outrageous and must not continue.
The latest evidence of such fiscal abuse and unaccountability surfaced this week in two separate reports ripping apart the State Department's oversight of a $1.2 billion contract for training Iraqi police. The program, run by a private American company, DynCorp, was so badly managed that a government audit could not figure out how the money was spent. And the State Department's own review found that it would take up to five years to sort out missing invoices and demand repayment from DynCorp for unjustified expenses.
Such expenses include the purchase of a $1.8 million X-ray scanner that was never used, and $4 million for 20 luxury trailers and an Olympic-sized swimming pool for company representatives - funds that were intended to build an Iraqi police compound. That's just the start. DynCorp, the State Department's largest contractor, claims no intentional fraud was involved. But then what borders on criminality is the department's own ineptness.
Training Iraqi police to take up security tasks now shouldered by U.S. troops is a key part of our strategy in Iraq. The waste and possible fraud uncovered by these reports undermine that goal. They are self-inflicted wounds.
South African Haj pilgrims arrive
Makkah – The first batch of pilgrims for the forthcoming annual pilgrimage of Haj arrived in the holy city. A plane carrying pilgrims from South Africa landed at the Haj terminal of King Abdul Aziz International Airport, Jeddah on Sunday. Pilgrims from all over the world will be arriving in Jeddah and Madinah over the coming 55 days until Dhul Hijjah 5 for the next Haj, which is due after December 20 , according to a source at the Ministry of Haj. It was the South African pilgrims, who were the first to come from among the foreign pilgrims to perform Haj during the past few years.
About 1.5 million foreign pilgrims are expected to perform Haj this year, the Ministry source said. Minister of Haj Dr. Fuad Al Farsi has directed all the departments and agencies concerned with Haj operation to exert maximum efforts to complete all the preparations for enabling the pilgrims to perform their rituals in ease and comfort.
Meanwhile, construction works of the expansion of the Haj Terminal at Jeddah airport are in full swing. It is expected that the first phase of the project, which will increase the capacity of the terminal to accommodate as many as 28,000 pilgrims in an hour, would be completed before this year's Haj season. The first phase includes two lounges at the Haj Terminal in addition to the expansion of the northern and southern terminals of the airport.
Old Qur'an sells for $2.33m
LONDON - A 13th-century Qur'an was sold for 1.14 million pounds ($2.33 million) today, setting two world auction records, auctioneers Christie's said.
The Qur'an fetched more than four times its pre-sale estimate of 250,000 pounds.
"The earliest complete, dated Qur'an written in gold, written in 1203 AD, set a new world auction record for a Qur'an and also a world auction record for any Islamic manuscript," Christie's director of Islamic art, William Robinson, said in a statement.
"Today's extraordinary sale total is one of the highest ever for Islamic art at Christie's, reflecting the depth of demand and very strong prices realised throughout the field of classical Islamic art," he said.
US acts to rein in Iraq security firms
The US government Tuesday vowed to clamp down on Blackwater and other private security firms in Iraq, which stand accused of killing innocent civilians through gung-ho tactics.
Officials said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was adopting "immediately" the recommendations of a review panel that exposed a worrying legal impunity for security guards working in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The panel was led by Patrick Kennedy, the State Department's director of management policy, who denied that the new guidelines could compromise the safety of US government staffers in the hostile environment of Iraq.
"The issue is to do the job in such a way that you minimize the risk to protectees and to any innocent Iraqis who happen to be in the area that a convoy is moving through," he said on a media conference call.
In an implicit admonishment, the Kennedy panel stressed that private contractors should open fire only with "due regard for the safety of innocent bystanders."
On September 16, Blackwater guards protecting a State Department convoy unleashed a hail of bullets in a crowded Baghdad square and killed as many as 17 civilians.
Blackwater boss Erik Prince has rejected an official Iraqi report that said the killings were unprovoked, insisting that his men were fired upon.
The shootings laid bare a lack of accountability for US contractors working for the State Department rather than the Pentagon, whose private employees are covered by US military law.
The panel said the State Department should "urgently engage" with the Department of Justice and Congress "to establish a legal basis for holding contractors accountable under US law."
Kennedy said that his four-member panel, which included retired NATO commander George Joulwan, had considered if it was feasible to do away with the services of the controversial contractors entirely.
But he noted that the State Department had less than 1,500 of its own security agents around the world, compared to 700 private security employees in Iraq alone.
"There's simply not enough trained (government) personnel," he said, adding that the US military was itself too stretched to take on the job of diplomatic protection.
The September incident prompted Rice to promise a "serious, probing and comprehensive" review of all operations involving security companies contracted to the State Department in war zones.
The panel also called for better coordination between State Department staff and the Pentagon. Kennedy said radios compatible with US military frequencies were being shipped out to State security officers.
The US embassy in Baghdad will establish a "joint incident review board" to examine all past incidents involving deadly force against Iraqi civilians, the official said.
Each of the contractors' vehicles will have an identification number painted clearly on its rear, and the companies are now expected to hire more Arabic speakers.
And after any incident involving a killing or property damage, a State Department team will work with local US commanders to visit the affected Iraqi family "to express condolences and offer appropriate compensation."
The New York Times said that another audit by the US government's Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction had focused on 1.2 billion dollars in contracts given by the State Department to DynCorp International.
Financial records were in such disarray that the department cannot say "specifically what it received" for most of the money it has paid the company since 2004 to train Iraqi police officers, the report said.
Spokesman Sean McCormack insisted that the State Department had already seized the initiative in the DynCorp case.
He said the department had already recouped "well over 100 million dollars in the costs of the contract, and we are on a pathway to attain 100 percent reconciliation of all these accounts."
"This is an example of the State Department policing itself," McCormack said, while declining to say how much of the money recouped might have been due to DynCorp overcharging or defrauding the US taxpayer.
Canadian Sociologist Dons Muslim Attire to Teach Her Students a Lesson
A sociologist at Canada’s Carleton University taught her students a memorable lesson this fall, but it’s unclear what exactly they learned. The instructor, Sian Reid, began teaching her classes in September dressed in a traditional Muslim outfit, including a face veil, to make the students think about cultural assumptions.
Ms. Reid, who has red hair and is not Muslim, told the CBC that she had worn a black abaya, a long robe, and a niqab, a veil that covered all of her face but her eyes, for the first three weeks of class. In the fourth week, she removed the traditional Muslim dress and appeared in her regular Canadian garb.
She said the students had thought she was a teaching assistant waiting for the real professor to show up, and recognized her only after she started to speak. She said it was a valuable lesson for her 1,200 freshman students, and now she is explaining her motive to them.
“What people thought they saw was an orthodox Muslim female professor,” she said. “What they actually saw was a female professor wearing a niqab. They had made an interpretation kind of automatically — and in sociology you can’t afford to do that. Observations and interpretations have to be two different things.”
Some students said they felt deceived. Others said they thought she was being disrespectful to Muslim women, and that notion sparked a discussion. She told The Ottawa Citizen, a local newspaper, that she continued her role playing by driving to and from the campus and running errands with the niqab, encountering a variety of telling reactions, especially from rude people.
King Abdullah launches world-class university project
Jeddah - Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz laid the foundation stone for the King Abdullah University for Sciences and Technology (KAUST) project at a colorful ceremony held at Thuwal, a village on the Red Sea coast, 100 km north of Jeddah yesterday.
FACTBOX-Facts and figures on world's worst food crises
Indonesians on maximum alert for volcanic eruption
Jakarta – Fears of an imminent eruption prompted the evacuation of thousands of residents near Indonesia's Mount Kelud today, but many flouted the order stayed at their homes around the rumbling Javanese volcano.
Turkey OKs Iraq Strike
TURKEY'S parliament on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a possible cross-border offensive against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, although the government appears willing to give more time to diplomatic pressure on the US-backed Iraqi administration.