Kamis, 15 Desember 2011

U.S. formally ends 9-year war in Iraq

BEIJING,Dec. 16 – The war in Iraq is now officially over. The US Forces-Iraq flag has been lowered in a ceremony in Baghdad attended by US Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta. He told troops they leave Iraq with lasting pride.

After the death of 4,500 Americans, the injury of 32-thousand others, and at a cost of at least 800 billion US dollar, the flag of the US Forces-Iraq in Baghdad is lowered and put away for good.

US Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta said the nearly 9-year war in Iraq was worth the price in blood and money, as it set the country on a path to democracy.

The last 4-thousand American troops will withdraw by the end of the year, leaving Iraq still tackling a weakened but stubborn insurgency, sectarian tensions and political uncertainty.

Only around 150 US soldiers will remain in Iraq after the withdrawal, attached to the US Embassy. Civilian contractors will take on the task of training Iraqi forces on US military hardware.

Iraq’s leadership presents the withdrawal as a new start for the country’s sovereignty, but many still question its ability to protect its own people.

Congress Getting Failing Marks on Economy in Year of Gridlock

Congress is ending what may be its least productive year on record after government shutdown threats, the collapse of debt-reduction talks and little action to fix the worst U.S. economy since the Great Depression.

Just 62 bills were signed into law through November this year, meaning that 2011 may fall short of the 88 laws enacted in 1995, the lowest number since the Congressional Record began keeping an annual tally in 1947. In 1995, as in this year, a new House Republican majority fought a Democratic president’s agenda.

This year’s partisan battles have brought the U.S. to the brink of a government shutdown four times, caused a two-week furlough of Federal Aviation Administration workers and led Standard & Poor’s to lower the nation’s credit rating after it said lawmakers didn’t do enough to reduce the federal deficit.

“It’s been one of the worst Congresses in modern history,” said Representative Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat. “We have failed to meet our minimum standards of competency and endangered America’s credit rating. We have failed to pass key legislation on time. And there is very little hope for improved behavior.”

Voter approval ratings for Congress are at record lows. Republicans, ranked lower than Democrats, insist both parties are to blame.

“People have a right to be frustrated and disappointed, so next year may be a good year for challengers,” said Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Senate Republican leader.

Risks to Economy

The inaction by Congress poses risks to the economy, said Ed Yardeni, president of Yardeni Research Inc. in New York. While the unemployment rate hovered around 9 percent most of the year, he said Congress did little to stimulate job growth. Lawmakers also were unwilling to make deep budget cuts or raise taxes to rein in the deficit.

“Usually gridlock is seen as a good thing from the stock market’s perspective, but clearly the out-of-control federal deficit needs to be addressed and there is no political will to do it,” Yardeni said.

S&P, in its ratings downgrade, said the government is becoming “less stable, less effective and less predictable.” Even so, the government’s borrowing costs fell to record lows as Treasuries rallied.

The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell from 2.56 percent on Aug. 5 to below 1.72 percent on Sept. 22. The yield on the 10-year note was 1.91 percent at 4:59 p.m. New York time yesterday.

Voters Critical

The public is less sanguine. Seventy-six percent of registered voters in a Nov. 28-Dec. 1 Gallup Poll said most members of Congress don’t deserve to be re-elected, the highest percentage in the 19 years Gallup has asked that question.

A Dec. 7-11 Pew Research Center poll found 40 percent of adults blame Republican leaders for a “do-nothing” Congress, while 23 percent blame Democrats.

“It’s more likely that Republicans will be hit harder than Democrats,” said David Rohde, a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

In a year dominated by budget clashes, Congress passed a few significant measures.

Congress approved free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. The South Korea deal was the biggest since 1993’s North American Free-Trade Agreement.

Patent Overhaul

Congress overhauled the patent system, long sought by companies such as International Business Machines Corp. and Microsoft Corp, and extended the USA Patriot Act until 2015, providing law enforcement continued power to track suspected terrorists.

Such output pales compared with 2010, when Congress approved a health-care overhaul, the biggest rewrite of Wall Street rules since the Great Depression, a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia and ended a ban against openly gay men and women serving in the military.

This year’s trade and patent bills, while important, are sideshows in the broader economic context, said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

“Those are not insignificant things, but none of them get to the meat of the economic crisis,” Baker said.

Most of President Barack Obama’s $447 billion job-creation agenda was opposed by Republicans and some Democrats who rejected his proposed new spending and tax increases on the wealthy to help pay for it.

Tax Credits

Congress approved tax credits for companies that hire unemployed veterans and canceled a requirement that federal, state and local governments begin withholding 3 percent of payments to contractors in 2013. This week, lawmakers are working to extend a payroll-tax cut for workers through 2012.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said a “fundamental divide” with Obama and a Democrat- controlled Senate stymied House Republicans, who sought to repeal the president’s health-care overhaul and create a Medicare voucher system.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio heralded a shift toward cutting the size of government after Republicans forced $38.5 billion in budget cuts this year and Congress agreed in August to reduce deficits by $2.4 trillion over a decade.

Social Security ‘Conversation’

“For the first time in my 21 years here there has been a serious conversation about dealing with the entitlement programs” such as Social Security and Medicare, Boehner said at a Dec. 14 breakfast sponsored by Politico.com, a political news web site. “We are talking about real change,” he said, adding that he wasn’t surprised the public has a low opinion of Congress.

Others say the effect on deficits is murky.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the $38.5 billion in spending cuts in this year’s budget, agreed in April to avert a government shutdown, cuts the deficit by just $352 million this year, with most savings coming later. Some money cut from programs wouldn’t have been spent anyway, so it wouldn’t do as much to curb a $1.3 trillion deficit, the CBO said.

The debt-reduction measure adopted in August relies on automatic spending cuts for about half of its $2.4 trillion in savings over a decade. A congressional supercommittee’s inability to agree on at least $1.2 trillion in cuts kicks the debate over specifics into next year. To achieve the rest of the deficit reduction, lawmakers must stick with annual caps on spending for a decade.

Based on experience, Congress won’t stick with the deficit- reduction deal for more than a few years, said Stan Collender, managing director of Qorvis Communications in Washington and a former House and Senate budget committee aide.

“Budget deals are always modified, seemingly in seconds after they’re enacted,” he said.

Candidates Stake Iowa Debate on Electability, Leadership

It isn't quite fourth and one with seconds on the clock, but for political conservatives, Thursday night's final Republican presidential primary debate had all the markings of a close competition in a tight second half.

With less than three weeks to go before Iowa Republicans caucus to pick their nominee in the 2012 presidential election season, the GOP hopefuls presented their late-game playbook at Fox News' debate in Sioux City, Iowa.

Having largely mapped out their policies and philosophies in more than a dozen pre-season debates, the candidates on Thursday night set out to prove that not only are they the best pick for primary-goers, but they are ready to be recruited for the first-string -- a general election contest to defeat the current occupant of the White House.

"I'm ready for the next level. Let me tell you, I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucus," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said of the underestimated Denver Broncos quarterback.

"I don't want to run the world. I don't want to police individual activities or people's lifestyle, and I don't want to run the economy," said Texas Rep. Ron Paul, in what might be described as a lateral approach to the nomination.

But if electability had been the question for primary candidates in 1979, Ronald Reagan would have never become president, Newt Gingrich argued Thursday, saying that his debating skills against President Obama will outshine any earlier fouls he has made.

Reagan beat Jimmy Carter by a larger margin than Franklin Delano Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover in 1932, Gingrich, a longtime history professor, said, completing his comparison.

Gingrich's performance is being closely watched as he surges to the top of the field -- and faces questions about whether he is conservative enough for the GOP base.

He says yes -- and points to a 90 percent conservative voting record while a member of Congress, including four years as speaker of the House. But Rick Santorum, who was elected to the Senate in the 1994 Republican Revolution, said Gingrich faced a "conservative revolution" from within his own ranks while he was speaker.

The former speaker was also challenged on his taking $1.6 million from mortgage giant Freddie Mac after he left office. Gingrich insisted he did no lobbying but Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said that at that salary, there's little difference between the technical definition of lobbying and "influence peddling."

While Gingrich was put on the defensive early in the game, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and venture capitalist, ran with his record, saying he'll rely on his time as a businessman to build credibility on the economy where Obama cannot.

Romney said it's merely a question of comparing his own record as a CEO to that of Obama's as president.

"How did you do when you were running General Motors," Romney said he would ask the president, referring to Obama's decision to offer billions in government loans and close dealerships and factories in order to keep the automaker from going into bankruptcy.

"We have a president who, again, doesn't understand how the economy works," said Romney, adding that Obama has tried to pick winners in the energy sector.

"Not every business succeeds. ... In the real world, some things don't make it," he said.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, insisting that he, in fact, was a steadier conservative than any of the others on stage, though not one who would "contort himself into a pretzel," tried a direct appeal for trying a new and different direction.

"We're getting screwed as Americans," he said.

In the free-wheeling and rapid debate, the candidates talked debt, leadership style and what they described as the president's shortcomings.

They also hit on foreign and energy policy as well as the judiciary.

Gingrich -- asked to respond to former George W. Bush Attorneys General Michael Mukasey and Alberto Gonzales, who criticized a 28-page plan by Gingrich to reform the judiciary -- said the Bush officials were "behaving exactly like law schools."

But Americans can't let them "over-dictate to the rest of us."

Gingrich has called for a new policy toward the judiciary -- one that requires judges to explain themselves to Congress after a controversial ruling as well as possibly get the boot for bad decisions.

Called "dangerous," "ridiculous," and "outrageous" by the attorneys general, Gingrich asked whether the two lawyers questioned Thomas Jefferson's decision to abolish 18 of 35 federal judges. He defended his proposal by quoting Jefferson: "Is the Supreme Court supreme? That is absurd, that would be an oligarchy."

Gingrich found sportsmanlike support for that argument

"Where it needs to end is under the Constitution of the United States," Bachmann said of judicial interpretation and the courts' predilection toward making activist decisions.

Bachmann also blamed Congress and the president for having "failed to take their authority." She said that Iowans in particular have demonstrated how to make judicial oversight work since they recalled three judges who ruled to allow same-sex marriage in the state against voter will.

"If we give to the courts the right to make law, then the people will have lost their representation. They need hold to their representation, That's why I commend Iowans, because they chose not to retain three judges," she said.

On foreign policy, Bachmann sparred with Paul's laissez-faire approach to Iran, saying that she has "never heard a more dangerous answer" than that from Paul, who rejected a U.N. agency's report that Iran had returned to pursuing nuclear weapons after the program was declared dead in 2007.

Rather than focus on his primary foes, Romney once slammed Obama, who recently requested the return an unmanned spy drone that went astray and was captured by the Iranians.

"Timidity and weakness invite aggression on the part of other people," Romney said. "This is a president, the spy drone being brought down, he says 'pretty please'? A foreign policy based on pretty please? You got to be kidding."

The options are to destroy or go in and get the drone, added Perry. Instead, Obama "took a third route, which is the worst and the weakest, and that is to do nothing."

As for foreign policy closer to home, Perry and Santorum agreed they'd ask their own attorney general to resign if he didn't know about an operation like Fast and Furious, the botched gun-running program under the Obama administration that resulted in guns reaching Mexican drug cartels.

Gingrich, Bachmann and others also criticized Obama for the decision to hold off the Keystone XL pipeline, a transnational project from Canada to Texas that supporters say will create 20,000 jobs and opponents say is a risk to a massive aquifer that supplies water throughout Nebraska. Republicans lawmakers had tied the pipeline to the president's proposal to extend the payroll tax cut for another year, but Obama said he'd veto it.

"I'm not going to veto middle class tax cuts to protect left-wing environmental extremists in San Francisco so that we're going to kill American jobs, weaken American energy, make us more vulnerable to the Iranians and do so in a way that makes no sense to any normal rational American," Gingrich said.

While the debate was full of attacks and counterattacks among the candidates, they said they were not violating Reagan's 11th Commandment -- to not target fellow Republicans. Most of the candidates said they can take it, and dish it out. Romney said he'd reserve his biggest criticism for Obama. Paul said it was the job of the candidates to point out nuances and mistakes from their opponents that the media miss.

Illegal Alcohol Kills 88 People in India’s West Bengal, 89 Others Treated

At least 102 people died after drinking illegally distilled liquor in India, where alcohol tainted with industrial chemicals every year kills poor villagers unable to afford licensed brands.

A further 75 people were being treated for alcohol poisoning in hospitals near the West Bengal village of Sangrampur, M. Das, a police spokesman in the state capital Kolkata, said in an interview. The death toll is expected to rise as many people are a serious condition. Four people have been arrested for selling the poisonous brew, he said.

In 2009, at least 107 people died in western Gujarat state and another 30 in northern Uttar Pradesh after drinking toxic alcohol, according to a report by the British Broadcasting Corp. today.

South 24 Parganas, the West Bengal district where the alcohol was consumed, is about a three-hour drive from the state capital Kolkata. The local government has announced compensation of 200,000 rupees ($3,692) for each victim.

The deaths come a week after India’s deadliest fire in seven years killed 91 people at a hospital in Kolkata.

Activists: Syrian defectors kill 27 soldiers

BEIRUT — Syrian army defectors killed at least 27 soldiers and security forces Thursday in clashes in the southern province of Daraa, activists said, as the unrest in Syria grows more violent and spirals toward civil war.

If confirmed, the clashes would be among the deadliest attacks by rebel troops since the uprising began nine months ago. Citing witnesses on the ground, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said three separate clashes erupted at dawn.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But the Free Syrian Army, a Turkish-based defector group, has in the past claimed similar attacks across the country.

The U.N. says more than 5,000 people have been killed since the revolt erupted in March. President Bashar Assad's regime has come under broad international isolation and sanctions because of the violent crackdown on dissent.

The Obama administration is predicting Assad's downfall, with a senior official likening his authoritarian regime to a "dead man walking."

The State Department official, Frederic Hof, told Congress on Wednesday that Assad's repression may allow him to hang on to power but only for a short time.

"Our view is that this regime is the equivalent of dead man walking," said Hof, the State Department's pointman on Syria, which he said was turning into "Pyongyang in the Levant," a reference to the North Korean capital. He said it was difficult to determine how much time Assad has left in power but stressed "I do not see this regime surviving."

In an apparent bid to promote defections, Hof warned Syrian troops and Assad's top aides that Assad may be setting them up for possible war crimes or criminal charges by claiming in an interview with ABC News last week that the army was not his to command.

"It's difficult to imagine a more craven disclaimer of responsibility," Hof told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "Perhaps it is a rehearsal for the time when accountability will come."

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch issued a report alleging that dozens of Syrian military commanders and officials authorized or gave direct orders for widespread killings, torture, and illegal arrests during the wave of anti-government protests.

The 88-page report by the New York-based group, entitled, "'By All Means Necessary!': Individual and Command Responsibility for Crimes against Humanity in Syria," is based on more than 60 interviews with defectors from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies.

The report identifies 74 commanders and officials behind the alleged abuse.

"Defectors gave us names, ranks, and positions of those who gave the orders to shoot and kill, and each and every official named in this report, up to the very highest levels of the Syrian government, should answer for their crimes against the Syrian people," said Anna Neistat, associate director for emergencies at Human Rights Watch.

The report said the abuses constitute crimes against humanity and that the U.N. Security Council should refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.

Syria claims armed gangs and terrorists are behind the uprising, not protesters seeking more freedoms and reform in one of the most totalitarian regimes in the Middle East.

In the ABC interview, Assad told ABC's Barbara Walters that he never ordered the brutal suppression of the uprising in his country.

Assad, who commands Syria's armed forces, has sealed off the country to most outsiders while clinging to the allegation that the uprising is the work of foreign extremists, not true reform-seekers aiming to open the authoritarian political system.

The United Nations and others dismiss that entirely, blaming the regime for widespread killings, rape and torture. Witnesses and activists inside Syria describe brutal repression, with government forces firing on unarmed protesters and conducting terrifying, house-to-house raids in which families are dragged from their homes in the night.

"Try as he may to distance himself from responsibility for his government's relentless brutality, President Assad's claim that he did not actually order the crackdown does not absolve him of criminal responsibility," Neistat said. "As the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he must have known about the abuses — if not from his subordinates, then from UN reports and the reports Human Rights Watch sent him."

All of the defectors interviewed by Human Rights Watch said their commanders gave standing orders to stop the overwhelmingly peaceful protests throughout the country "by all means necessary" — a phrase they understood to be an authorization to use lethal force, especially since they had been given live ammunition instead of other means of crowd control.

About half the defectors interviewed by HRW said the commanders of their units or other officers also gave them direct orders to fire at protesters or bystanders, and reassured them that they would not be held accountable.

The report quotes defectors as saying that in some cases, officers themselves participated in the killings.

Democrats Drop Millionaires Tax in Year-End Spending Bill

WASHINGTON – Democrats backed away from their demand for higher taxes on millionaires as part of legislation to extend Social Security tax cuts for most Americans on Wednesday as Congress struggled to clear critical year-end bills without triggering a partial government shutdown.

But Republicans, frustrated that a bipartisan $1 trillion funding bill was being blocked by Senate Democrats, floated the possibility of repackaging the measure and passing it Friday in defiance of President Barack Obama and his allies in control of the Senate. Stopgap funding runs out Friday at midnight.

In a written statement late Wednesday, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said the administration objected to several environmental, financial and other provisions in the mammoth spending bill and said Congress should approve a short-term spending measure to avoid a federal shutdown and give lawmakers time to iron out their final disputes.

With time beginning to run short, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., met with Obama at the White House, then returned to the Capitol and sat down with the two top Republicans in Congress, Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Taken together, the developments signaled the end game for a year of divided government — with a tea party-flavored majority in the House and Obama's allies in the Senate — that has veered from near-catastrophe to last-minute compromise repeatedly since last January.

The rhetoric was biting at times.

"We have fiddled all year long, all year," McConnell complained in a less-than-harmonious exchange on the Senate floor with Reid. He accused Democrats of "routinely setting up votes designed to divide us ... to give the president a talking point out on the campaign trail."

Reid shot back that McConnell had long ago declared Obama's defeat to be his top priority. And he warned that unless Republicans show a willingness to bend, the country faces a government shutdown "that will be just as unpopular" as the two that occurred when Newt Gingrich was House speaker more than a decade ago.

It was a reminder — as if McConnell and current Speaker John Boehner of Ohio needed one — of the political debacle that ensued for Republicans when Gingrich was outmaneuvered in a showdown with former President Bill Clinton.

At issue now are three year-end bills that Obama and leaders in both parties in Congress say they want. One would extend expiring Social Security payroll tax cuts and benefits for the long-term unemployed, provisions at the heart of Obama's jobs program. Another is the $1 trillion spending measure that would lock in cuts that Republicans won earlier in the year. The third measure is a $662 billion defense bill setting policy for military personnel, weapons systems and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus national security programs in the Energy Department.

After a two-day silence, the White House said Obama would sign the measure despite initial concern over a provision requiring military custody of certain terror suspects linked to Al Qaeda or its affiliates. U.S. citizens would be exempt.

The measure cleared the House, 283-136, with a final vote expected Thursday in the Senate.

Officials said Democrats were drafting a new proposal to extend the payroll tax that likely would not include the millionaires' surtax that Republicans opposed almost unanimously.

Republicans minimized the significance of the move. "They're not giving up a whole lot. The tax they wanted to implement on business owners was something that couldn't pass the House and couldn't pass the Senate," McConnell said in a CNBC interview.

Jettisoning the tax could also require Democrats to agree to politically painful savings elsewhere in the budget to replace the estimated $140 billion the tax would have raised over a decade.

In its most recent form, the surtax would have slapped a 1.9 percent tax on income in excess of $1 million, with the proceeds helping pay for the extension of tax cuts for 160 million workers. Senate Democrats have twice forced votes on the proposal in what officials have described as a political maneuver designed to force GOP lawmakers to choose between protecting the wealthy on the one hand and extending tax cuts for millions on the other.

The spending bill was hung up — and there was no agreement why.

Republicans and at least one Democrat said agreement had been reached earlier in the week, but Reid disputed that and pointed to provisions relating to travel to Cuba and funding for the Commodities Future Trading Commission as examples.

"It's pretty clear to all of us that President Obama and Sen. Reid want to threaten a government shutdown so they can get leverage" on the payroll tax bill, said Boehner, noting that so far, the Senate has failed to pass legislation on the issue.

Wednesday's maneuvering occurred the day after the House passed a payroll tax extension that contained no higher taxes. That House measure drew a veto threat from Obama that cited spending cuts the White House said would harm the middle class without requiring a sacrifice from the wealthy.

The bill would extract nearly $43 billion from the year-old health care bill; extend a pay freeze on federal employees while also increasing their pension contributions and raise Medicare premiums on seniors with incomes over $80,000 beginning in 2017. It also would raise a fee that is charged to banks whose mortgages are guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Obama's veto message also alluded to a requirement for the construction of an oil pipeline from Canada to Texas that Republicans said would create 20,000 jobs. The provision is designed to force the administration's hand, since Obama announced recently that despite three years of review under two administrations, he was putting off a decision until after the election.

The measure would permit Obama to block the Keystone XL project if he deemed its construction to be not in the national interest.

The House-passed bill also includes an extension of unemployment benefits that would scale back what is currently in place. The White House said 3.3 million people would be cut off under its terms. Another part of the bill, to block proposed regulations limiting toxic emissions from industrial incinerators, drew objections from the White House.

The legislation would avert a threatened 27 percent cut in payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients, and Obama and Democrats are willing to accept that.