Christmas Eve Open Thread
U.S. Officials See Waste in Billions Sent to Pakistan
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – After the United States has spent more than $5 billion in a largely failed effort to bolster the Pakistani military effort against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, some American officials now acknowledge that there were too few controls over the money. The strategy to improve the Pakistani military, they said, needs to be completely revamped.
In interviews in Islamabad and Washington, Bush administration and military officials said they believed that much of the American money was not making its way to frontline Pakistani units. Money has been diverted to help finance weapons systems designed to counter India, not Al Qaeda or the Taliban, the officials said, adding that the United States has paid tens of millions of dollars in inflated Pakistani reimbursement claims for fuel, ammunition and other costs.
Warnings Unheeded On Guards In Iraq
Despite Shootings, Security Companies Expanded Presence
The U.S. government disregarded numerous warnings over the past two years about the risks of using Blackwater Worldwide and other private security firms in Iraq, expanding their presence even after a series of shooting incidents showed that the firms were operating with little regulation or oversight, according to government officials, private security firms and documents.
The warnings were conveyed in letters and memorandums from defense and legal experts and in high-level discussions between U.S. and Iraqi officials. They reflected growing concern about the lack of control over the tens of thousands of private guards in Iraq, the largest private security force ever employed by the United States in wartime.
When Shielding Money Clashes With the Free Will of the Elderly
Eight years ago, when Robert J. Pyle was 73 years old, he had about $500,000 in the bank and owned a house in Northern California worth about $650,000. He was looking forward to a comfortable retirement.
Today, at 81, he has lost everything. Mr. Pyle, a retired aerospace engineer, now lives in his stepdaughter’s tiny, mountainside home in a room not much larger than his bed.
By his own admission, Mr. Pyle willingly made every decision that led to his financial problems. He gave away large sums to people he thought were friends, and then, in need of money, sold his house at a deep discount to the first person who offered to buy it.
Huckabee campaigning for 23% sales tax
Political suicide? Quite the opposite for the GOP White House hopeful — so far. But many call the plan for a national levy ‘crackpot’ (even if it would shut down the IRS).
WASHINGTON — Mike Huckabee, one of the most conservative Republicans in the 2008 presidential race, has embraced one of the most radical ideas on the campaign trail: a plan to abolish all federal income and payroll taxes and replace them with a single 23% national sales tax.
The idea — dubbed the “fair tax” by proponents — has been a political asset for Huckabee; its well-organized backers have helped catapult him from the back of the presidential pack to its top tier.
Sales tax proponents have tapped into seething voter hostility toward the Internal Revenue Service to become a below-the-radar political force, popping up at campaign events and candidate forums in Iowa and elsewhere.
Village wins £158m in El Gordo lottery
Paul Hamilos in Madrid
Monday December 24, 2007
When Spain’s Christmas lottery, El Gordo, paid out €219m (£158m) to the inhabitants of a tiny northern village and their friends at the weekend, locals popped champagne corks and swigged cider, the region’s traditional drink, as the prospects for the year ahead suddenly looked rosy.
For the 45 inhabitants of Molledo the prize could not be more welcome. A remote village in the depressed region of Asturias, Molledo has struggled, along with many parts of rural Spain, as young people move to the city, leaving behind an ageing population.
When the powerful can live beyond the law, corruption is never far away
In Russia, as elsewhere, a lack of transparency feeds a gangster culture that hamstrings social and economic progress
Monday December 24, 2007
Some of us speculate occasionally, albeit without real cupidity, about what we would do if we suddenly found ourselves in possession of a billion pounds. Even after funding a big house with lots of staff, car with chauffeur, yacht, helicopter and suchlike, there would be enough left to live on the interest, with a few hundred million to spare.
I suppose one could entrust the money to Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot to give to deserving causes, but not many billionaires are enlightened enough to do that. Instead, there are today so many doggedly materialistic possessors of surplus wealth that a huge luxury goods industry exists to succour their plight.
Uzbek president returned in election ‘farce’
· Law flouted as leader prolongs rule yet again
· Dissidents condemn EU inaction over regime
Uzbekistan’s autocratic ruler Islam Karimov yesterday tightened his grip on power, when he was re-elected president in an election condemned by opposition activists as illegal and a “farce”.
Karimov won an overwhelming victory despite being ineligible to stand as a candidate, having already served two consecutive presidential terms.
Election officials claimed that Karimov’s first term began in 2000 – despite the fact that he has ruled Uzbekistan for 18 years, first as a Communist party boss, and then, after independence, as president
China raises 13th-century ship and its porcelain treasures from seabed
By Clifford Coonan, China Correspondent
Published: 24 December 2007
Chinese archaeologists have successfully raised the wreck of the Nanhai No 1, an 800-year-old merchant ship, from the depths of the South China Sea and will begin the laborious process of sifting through its cargo of exquisite porcelain and other treasures.
The ship went down in storms as it left a southern Chinese port to sail the rich trade route known as the ancient Marine Silk Road and was quickly buried in silt, which has preserved the priceless haul of 80,000 relics on board. At 30 metres long and 10 metres wide, it is the largest cargo ship discovered from that golden age of Chinese merchant history.
Salvage experts used a specially designed sealed steel box containing tons of seawater and silt to lift the ship from the seabed while keeping it in the environment in which it has been preserved for hundreds of years.
Record numbers of child soldiers drafted into Congo war
By Jonathan Brown
Published: 24 December 2007
Record numbers of children are being recruited to fight on the front line of eastern Congo’s escalating and increasingly brutal conflict, it is claimed today.
Concern over the plight of child soldiers increased after aid workers for Save the Children reported seeing youngsters in militia close to some of the worst of the fighting near Goma, capital of the war-torn North Kivu district. The charity says that as well as acting as combatants, children are being recruited to work as porters, spies and sex slaves by the rampaging armies. There was also evidence, the charity said, that militias were targeting schools to boost their numbers as clashes between government soldiers and rebels forced 800,000 people to flee their homes in the region, contributing to a major humanitarian emergency as people were left without access to clean water or health care. Hussein Mursal, Save the Children’s country director, called on the international community to step in to prevent another generation of Congolese children from being brutalised by armed conflict. “The situation for children is eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is catastrophic. Fighters from all sides are using children as frontline fodder, raping young girls and attacking houses,” he said.
Zuma triumph scares South Africa elite
JACOB ZUMA scored a victory last week that was so stunning, so overwhelming, so momentous that for a brief moment his own supporters could barely take it in.
Then the singing, dancing and tears of joy that had erupted among his followers spread like bushfire from the conference at the University of Limpopo, Polokwane, to the Zulu heart-land in Zuma’s native KwaZulu-Natal at the news that he had trounced President Thabo Mbeki for the leadership of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
Elsewhere there was shock: no other African state has seen such a frontal rejection of authority. There was disgust among some voters, who will never trust Zuma after allegations against him of corruption and rape. Others, including wealthy whites and black middle-class supporters of Mbeki, felt a sense of panic.
In one Iraqi village, a taste of what might be
U.S. troops reach out with aid as part of an effort to secure an insurgent stronghold.
OWESAT, IRAQ — On a recent December morning, Spc. Daniel Jones, a member of the civil affairs team that falls under the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, helped to unwrap an array of goodies in a school classroom set up as a makeshift distribution center.
Scores of residents from Owesat, a village about 15 miles southwest of Baghdad on the west bank of the Euphrates River, showed up to collect the gifts. They included blue, black and red children’s rucksacks, packets of pencils, woolly hats, aloe vera lip seal, key chains with spotlights, and small bottles of shampoo.
“Our job is to try and have them like us a little more,” said Jones, 20, from Walter, S.C. “We ask them, ‘What do you need? How much water do you have? How good is the water?’ ”
Engaging villages like Owesat is a key part of the U.S. military’s strategy to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis. By helping to provide basic services, such as medical aid and humanitarian supplies, the military hopes Iraqis will become more tolerant of coalition forces based in their homeland, begin to provide intelligence on militants and cooperate with efforts to create a stable environment.
Israel rejects truce with Hamas
JERUSALEM – Israel’s prime minister pledged Sunday to continue attacking Gaza militants, ruling out truce negotiations with Hamas amid widespread skepticism about the Islamic group’s ability to halt rocket attacks.
An Israeli cabinet minister, meanwhile, angered moderate Palestinians with another plan for new Jewish housing in a disputed part of Jerusalem, complicating renewed peace talks.
There have been almost daily reports of truce feelers from the embattled Islamic Hamas regime in Gaza, and Israeli defense officials have said they are examining the proposals.