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2007 l'année - the year

Isolated, and a bit softer

With allies such as Britain and Denmark filing out of Iraq and a resurgent Taleban in Afghanistan bold enough to target the visiting American vice-president, it isn’t surprising perhaps that the U.S. is increasingly in a talking rather than fighting mood.

Forced by the rise in local attacks to send more troops both to Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. still has a hard time convincing some that it has no intention of targeting Iran, which it accuses of meddling in Iraq’s internal matters. But to show some good faith it will join Iran, and pariah partner Syria, in high-level talks this spring over the situation in Iraq. Add to that the groundbreaking first talks between U.S. and North Korean officials and Washington’s intention to start down the path of formal diplomatic recognition of Pyongyang for dropping its nuclear program, and you start to wonder who’s sitting in that little house on Pennsylvania avenue.

Administration officials refuse to consider what even Sec. of State Condi Rice called a “diplomatic initiative” a break from the past, but talk of holding discussions with Tehran at a time it insists its drive for nuclear weapons is irreversible, and just as the U.N. Security Council is pondering a new resolution condemning it, may strike more than a few observers as a tad out of place for an adminstration long run by hawks.

At roughly the same time Canada was bringing into effect sanctions against Tehran in accordance with a December U.N. Security council vote that gave Iran two months to suspend uranium enrichment and return to negotiations. The regulations impose an embargo on certain goods and services that could “contribute to Iran’s activities linked to enrichment, reprocessing, heavy water or the development of nuclear weapons delivery systems” as well as address an assets freeze and a travel notification requirement.

The sudden U.S. diplomatic moves come as Washington, which is sending 21,000 additional troops to secure the situation in Baghdad, is seeing its staunch British ally doing something it only wished it could do: set timetables for removing troops from the country. Practically in the same breath, London indicated it would increase troop levels in Afghanistan, apparently answering a call by other allies, such as Canada, for beefing up the ranks in that “other” unfinished war.

Canada lost a 45th soldier last week when 25 year-old Cpl. Kevin Megenev was killed in a non-combat related accident. Threats of a possibly bloody Taleban spring seemed to ring true during a recent visit by U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney, who was unhurt but near a daring suicide-bomb attack at the gates of the main American base of Bagram.

The attack was a further blow to Afghan and Pakistani leaders whom Cheney met during his tour. Criticized by some for jumping into Iraq without finishing the job in Afghanistan, the U.S. has been increasing its force to about 26,000 in the country as a feared Taleban spring offensive looms. And it isn’t just the Taleban.

The new director of U.S. national intelligence told members of Congress that senior al-Qaida leaders were in fact rebuilding their bases in Pakistan, a country long criticized by the U.S. for not being aggressive enough against the militants freely moving across its borders into Afghanistan. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told the Senate Armed Services Committee that while 75 percent of al-Qaida’s leadership has been killed or captured, a new generation of terrorists is training in Iraq, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and East Africa.

McConnell said both al-Qaida and the Taleban maintain ‘critical sanctuaries’ in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal regions, but Islamabad, which has been trying to bring border tribesmen into the fold, denied this, as well as claims Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri had found sanctuary in the region. According to ABC News however Cheney’s delegation to Pakistan included the deputy director of the CIA, Stephen Kappes, who reportedly brought along satellite photos and electronic intercepts of al-Qaida leaders operating in Pakistan.

The arrest of former Taleban defense minister Mullah Obaidullah, a senior leader of the Afghan insurgency, on the day of Cheney’s visit, the most important Taleban member to be captured since the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, seemed to confirm intelligence reports that Pakistan was being used as a base for the insurgency. Coming during a visit intended to press Pakistan to do more against the Taleban and al-Qaida, it also suggested Pakistan was both capable of more aggressive action, and knowledgeable of the whereabouts of some top-level insurgents.

The arrest certainly appeared to be more than a mere coincidence according to some U.S. diplomats who find that Pakistan has to be regularly pressured to yield results in the war on terror. Many were less than willing to consider the arrest a sign Pakistan would be more pro-active to capture both insurgents and al-Qaida members on its territory.

Arrested Taleban leaders have repeatedly spoken of the continuing assistance provided to its fighters by Pakistan’s ISI security service, which they claimed provided shelter and even weaponry. In Afghanistan as in Iraq, U.S. military action seems hampered by cross-border infiltration from camps located across international borders. Pakistan was supposed to be a staunch ally in the war on terror, but there as well as in Iran, the leadership fears possible U.S. military action to tackle the insurgency.

But the new diplomatic round initiated in Washington suggests the U.S. may not have the appetite for such action, at least not an administration which has been involved in military action for all but a few months of the more than six years it has been in power.

A new cautious approach to intelligence in addition to wariness for military action and depleted resources may also explain Washington’s unwillingness to launch a new campaign. In one of his last acts as intelligence chief, McConnell’s predecessor, John Negroponte, issued a new directive on analytical procedure in which “the analytic process must be as transparent as possible” and that “analysis must be objective and independent of political considerations” according to the New York Times. This is to avoid future humilitation in the likes of former Sec. of State Colin Powell’s presentation before the U.N. Security Council making the case for war.

This led to adjustments on key assessments such as North Korea’s uranium programme, once tought to be pursuing both uranium and plutonium enrichment programs, a version now being thrown into doubt. The intelligence community’s willingness to admit it may not be standing on solid ground on some key files has been producing far less conclusive reports. Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, McConnell said that it was possible Iran could produce a nuclear weapon by the beginning of the next decade, but that it was also possible this would not happen until 2015.

Doubts on the clandestine North Korean uranium enrichment program were also expressed. If claimed solid intelligence was the foundation for Washington’s 2003 war effort against Iraq, the current “transparent” state of uncertainty leaves it perhaps contemplating a more diplomatic route.

C'est parti pour le 26 mars

Le coup d’envoi officiel a été donné cette semaine, mais voilà déjà depuis plusieurs jours que les dirigeants des trois grands camps électoraux au Québec échangent des tirs bien nourris et parfois pourris. En somme quelques bons chiffres ont suffi afin que le gouvernement Charest décide de propulser le Québec en mode électoral un an avant la fin du mandat actuel, et possiblement à quelques semaines d’une élection fédérale.

C’est tout un risque à prendre selon un analyste de sondages bien connu, dont les formules mathématiques prenant en compte à la fois la dernière série de sondages et les différences régionales, projette un gouvernement péquiste minoritaire. Voilà qui ferait fi de la règle qui veut qu’un gouvernement au Québec soit d’habitude retourné au pouvoir au moins une fois, ainsi que des dernières tendances politiques. Puis le Québec n'a pas connu de gouvernment minoritaire depuis le XIXe siècle.

En effet selon les calculs de DemocraticSpace, les déboires récents du PQ, jumelés à l’inexpérience de son chef, ne suffiraient pas à assurer le retour de Jean Charest au pouvoir, lui qui semble pourtant avoir troqué les impasses avec les syndicats pour des sondages plus positifs. Mais cette avance n'est pas assez pour compenser la trop importante concentration des votes libéraux à Montréal, faut-il croire, laissant selon ces projections le PQ avec 62 sièges contre 51 pour les libéraux, et 12 pour l’ADQ, dont le chef est le plus populaire selon certains sondages, triplant ses sièges à l’Assemblée.

Pourtant selon d’autres chiffres, les Québécois ne semblent ni trop se préoccuper par la saga des accommodement raisonnables qui depuis l’automne remet en question l’ouverture des Québécois envers les immigrants - et qui a pourtant donné quelques points au chef de l’ADQ - ni par le séparatisme. En fait, malgré la plateforme du parti qui cherche à regagner le pouvoir, la question nationale semble au plus bas dans la liste des préoccupations qu’elle ne l’ait jamais été à la veille d’un scrutin depuis l’élection du PQ en 1976.

Pour Jean Charest cependant il n’est pas question de faire oublier la raison d’être du Parti Québécois: “L'alternative c'est un référendum le plus rapide possible, insiste-t-il. Cela veut dire un retour aux anciennes divisions, en bref, c’est un retour en arrière.” "Ce que nous voulons c'est un Québec maitre de toutes ses lois," n'a pas nié le chef péquiste, dont le passé cocaïnomane ne serait pas épargné par la campagne. Le ton est véritablement donné et ne promet rien de très propre pour les prochaines semaines.

Pourtant, comme par le passé, c’est la santé qui préoccupe le plus les habitants de la belle province, et voilà peut-être la raison d'un possible échec libéral, quatre ans plus tard. Charest en fait à présent sa priorité. Ses libéraux ont bien dû mettre de l’eau dans leur orthodoxie depuis les promesses de réforme, presque révolutionnaire, en 2003. Le Québec reste une province où le gouvernement joue un rôle aux premières loges, et donc où les taxes restent des plus élevées sur le continent.

Plus de la moitié des Québécois s’estiment insatisfaits du gouvernement actuel. Pourtant il y a eu une nette progression depuis l’écroulement en flèche de l’appui des libéraux après leur assermentation; eux qui ont, selon certains analystes, ont tenté de trop faire top vite. Malgré les ajustements, la pente reste plus abrupte pour Jean Charest et les siens que les sondages ne l’indiquent. Pourtant selon le rapport récent de trois politologues, et du principal intéressé lui-même, Charest s’en est quand même bien tiré, respectant 65 pourcent de ses promesses.

Puis le premier ministre peut compter sur ses alliés à Ottawa, conscients à la fois de l’importance de la question nationale, et du potentiel de votes bleus au niveau fédéral. Pour Harper, le pire des scénarios serait un retour des péquistes au pouvoir. Les conservateurs ont donc fait retirer des annonces critiquant les libéraux fédéraux des écrans du Québec, de peur qu'ils ne soient confondus avec ceux de Charest, et déposent un budget fédéral plutôt bénéfique au Québec à une semaine du scrutin provincial.

Les Québécois sont presque unanimes à propos d’une chose, tout va se jouer pendant la campagne. C’est bien l’expérience qu’on a retenu de l’aventure de 2003.

A dubious deal with North Korea

Text of agreement  Iranian report

Did the world blink when it reached an unexpected deal with a country listed among the Axis of evil which tested nuclear weapons just four months ago and has a track record of breaking promises? The questions rose with the number of compromises made to one of the world’s more reclusive regimes, including initial aid equal to 50,000 tonnes of heavy fuel in exchange for shutting down and sealing the main reactor at Yongbyon, heartland of the North Korea nuclear programme, within 60 days, then sweetening the deal for irreversibly disabling the reactor and ending all nuclear programmes.

This would not only pull Pyongyang off the pariah list, but put an end to its isolation to the point of paving the way for normalised relations with the U.S. and Japan, a sublime promise, much like the ones dashed in the past, before Pyongyang conducted tests and built enough plutonium reserves to build up to a dozen bombs. Along with the praises coming out of Seoul, the news was met with some alarm by critics pointing out that in term of nuclear development, the damage is already done in North Korea, a regime only too happy to share its wealth of sensitive technology with equally dubious regimes, such as Tehran.

The sentiment was fed by past failures to respect agreements. North Korea allegedly operated its uranium-based weapons program even as it froze a plutonium-based one, sparking the latest nuclear crisis in late 2002, and is believed to have countless mountainside tunnels in which to hide projects. This is sparking concerns Pyongyang is perhaps not truly ready to open its sites to IAEA inspectors, as the deal would require. Certainly no transparency was apparent from the state news agency, which simply reported that the country was receiving 1 million tons of oil for a “temporary suspension” of its nuclear facilities, failing to mention further details, let alone full disarmament.

This may only have been an attempt to save face to a domestic audience living under difficult conditions for which the nuclear programme is a rare opportunity for national pride, but past statements by North Korean officials also cast doubt on the durability of the deal. Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea’s vice-foreign minister, was quoted last December as saying: “Do you believe we developed and sustained our nuclear weapons programmes for so long just to give them up?” At least not the ones North Korea has already developed. “The word weapon or disarmament doesn’t seem to be anywhere in the agreement,” Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst and specialist on Korean security at the RAND Corporation, told the Herald Tribune. “So what we have agreed, at least in the letter of the law, is to stop their production but not necessarily to get rid of what they already have.”

Among the critics, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, said the agreement rewarded North Korea for bad behavior while encouraging other rogue regimes such as Iran to ignore international demands that it roll back its nuclear program and hold out for a better deal. “I will be the saddest man in Washington” if Bush goes along with the agreement, he said. “I think the agreement is fundamentally flawed.”

At roughly the same time, a European report was emphasizing that sanctions were not keeping Tehran from moving forward with its nuclear programme. “Attempts to engage the Iranian administration in a negotiating process have not so far succeeded ... the Iranians have pursued their programme at their own pace, the limiting factor being technical difficulties rather than resolutions by the UN or the International Atomic Energy Agency,” it said. “At some stage, we must expect that Iran will acquire the capacity to enrich uranium on the scale required for a weapons programme ... the problems with Iran will not be resolved through economic sanctions alone.”

The Korean agreement was certainly better received by President Bush, who in a statement called the talks “the best opportunity to use diplomacy to address North Korea’s nuclear programs,” adding “They reflect the common commitment of the participants to a Korean Peninsula that is free of nuclear weapons.” Criticism also came from the left however, as Senator Joseph Biden blamed Bush for accepting a deal he would never have accepted a year ago, before the test. But the nuclear test may have added pressure for a deal on Pyongyang as well as Washington by some accounts, the North Korean regime having come under heavy criticism by China for conducting a blast so close to its borders.

Most agreed however, that the drive for a deal, prompted by last Fall’s nuclear test, which culminated in the last five days of intense talks between the officials of six nations in Beijing, including the U.S. and China, was a beginning rather than an end. “We have a lot of work to do,” U.S. Asst Secretary of State Christopher Hill told reporters. “It’s certainly not the end of the process, it’s really just the end of the beginning of the process.”

Does global warming have benefits?

Especially in the cold of Winter, even if half-jokingly, Canadians can sometimes be caught singing the praises of global warming. But weeks after a U.N. report practically blaming humans for climate change around the planet, some are giving it a positive spin. And they aren’t alone. Even in a highly pessimistic report by Britain chief economist Nicholas Stern, released last year, one passage read “In higher latitude regions, such as Canada, Russia and Scandinavia, climate change may lead to net benefits for temperature increases of 2C or 3C, through higher agricultural yields, lower winter mortality, lower heating requirements and a possible boost to tourism.”

Yes, especially up here, some good may arise out of so much bad, which is noteworthy since even Canada’s greenest politicians admit the country will miss its Kyoto targets. The most popular assumption is that Canada stands to reap tremendous benefits from a potential year-long opening of sea lanes in the Northwest passage, even if it means opening a can of worms with some of our neighbors. “There is an important development potential linked to the extended shipping season through Hudson Bay and the port of Churchill,” says Tristan Pearce, a research associate at the Global environmental change group who has just returned from a tour in Canada’s vast north.

The passage he says provides “a short access route to the Asian market” but the weather does not yet permit year-long access, and ice conditions vary year after year. Access he says depends on which of the two major routes of the passage is taken, as well as the “changing ice dynamic”. Small Churchill, Manitoba, on the southwest corner of Hudson Bay, represents an ideal location for an Arctic port that can become a gateway to the world. “It has a direct rail line to Winnipeg. It provides easy access to distribute materials from Canada to ports around the world. This way raw material can easily be transported through traditional methods of rail providing a very direct access to the center of Canada,” Pearce says, which feeds rail lines into the U.S.

You needn’t remind Colorado-based OmniTrax, which purchased the small under-utilized port of Churchill ten years ago for a nominal amount plus guarantees to operate and bring improvements to it. Global warming wasn’t on the radar screen at the time but it’s already created extra business by lengthening the shipping season, says managing director Michael Ogborn. “When we purchased in 1997 it was not something taken into consideration but over the last ten years we saw a lengthening of the season which appears to be related to global warming,” he says. The few extra weeks of port business are “an extra bonus” for the company which moves half a million to 700,000 tonnes of grain every year through the port. “We see the trend continuing,” Ogborn says, creating opportunities to expand import and export activities. In fact the company is encouraging anything that can lengthen the shipping season, including ongoing discussions with the Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada to use its ice-breakers more liberally in 2007.

OmniTrax hopes that with a little help it could move a million tonnes of grain with the ten extra ships that a longer season, from June to late November, could provide. Ogborn says Russia is also interested in plowing through the ice with its ships to provide an Arctic bridge from Churchill to Murmansk, gateway to a market of 150 million. With scientists saying the Northwest passage could be open year-round, Ogborn says “the opportunities are endless” for the small Northern Manitoba port chosen for its easy access to world markets. To get ready, OmniTrax has poured some $75 million into various improvements on the port and rail tracks. “Churchill was chosen for its location. Products can very easily be moved to Europe, Mexico, Africa and the Middle-East.”

“They (the company) are the vanguard,” says Rob Huebert, an expert on the Arctic at the University of Calgary. “Churchill can be a tremendous port,” he says. “It can become very successful”. But it also needs improved rail links to the south, which leads to Winnipeg, Chicago and into the US heartland, and a continuing warming trend, to become a major international gateway. Of course mention the Northwest passage and most of our friends, including the U.S. and Europe, see international waters instead of Canadian sovereignty, brewing up quite a little storm north of 60.

“This can open up problems between Canada and the United States, but if Canada cannot monitor the passage, it can lead to a lot of problems, potential environmental problems,” Pearce stresses. “Canada requires double hull ships going through the passage but there is no way of monitoring that, and if a spill such as the Exxon Valdez occurs, it can be absolutely devastating for the environment.”

The Canadian government is increasing patrols in the Arctic and would under a new plan send part-time soldiers to play a greater role in defending its territory with as many as 1,000 troops a year training in the region. The government also plans to use satellites, aerial drones and Aurora patrol aircraft more intensely for surveillance missions in the Arctic. In 2005 Canada’s Department of National Defence announced the creation of Project Polar Epsilon, “a C$59.9 million Joint Space-Based wide area surveillance and support capability that will provide all-weather, day/night observation of Canada’s Arctic region and its ocean approaches.”

Changing ice conditions are prompting more patrols in the Arctic. “During the last few years, there has been an increase in tourism, exploration, maritime traffic, and overflights here in the North. This is combined with the opening of the ice pack and so there is a direct need for an increase in sovereignty operations,” says Colonel Chris Whitecross, commander of Joint Task Force (North). But anything short of a promised deep sea port and fleet of ice-breakers would come short of asserting Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic, critics say. “You got to have the tools to show you have control, any scaling back will show you are not able put in the necessary investment,” Huebert says.

This matters even for tiny uninhabited 1.3 sq kilometer territory such as Hans island, near Greenland, the subject of a well-reported dispute between Canada and Denmark. Observers say Canada’s ability to project control over small areas such as Hans Island is significantly symbolic as it sends a message to other nations on its ability to exercise sovereignty over its larger Arctic territory. Last Fall a Canadian geologist received a prospecting permit for the isolated rock which had been the subject of recent flag wars between Denmark and Canada. John Robins told CBC that mineral finds are exploding in this part of the Eastern Arctic. “We’re done a lot of diamond exploration in the Eastern Arctic in areas that experts previously identified as being unprospective, and now those are some of the hottest diamond explorations regions in the world,” he said, also hinting his work may help Canada’s claim on Hans island. After a year of flag-waving, claims and counter-claims that verged on the undiplomatic, both countries realized that to “lead by example” as peace-keepers, they had to resolve the issue through negotiation and launched, in the Fall of 2005, a process of discussion that would include keeping each other informed of any “activities related to Hans Island.”

Asserting one’s sovereignty means spending money on the country’s capabilities, stresses Huebert, who notes that with the opportunity for expanded fisheries in the north, where shrimp and turbot fish stocks have moved, have come challenges from foreign fishing vessels and the need to reinforce Canadian regulations, he says. “You have to make sure others are not coming in to take your stock,” Huebert says, pointing to boats coming in to fish from Greenland and as far away as the Faroe islands. Border disputes in the Western Arctic on the Alaska-Yukon border will affect the energy-rich region of the Beaufort Sea, he says, while disputes on the drawing of the continental shelf will also involve Denmark and Russia and become more heated as the ice recedes and access is made easier.

But the search for oil and gas, as the north becomes more accessible, will create the most disputes Huebert stresses. “It’s all about getting access to oil and gas as the ice thins,” Huebert says, noting Scandinavians have been surveying the North pole. Presently the five Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers “are often the only federal resource positioned in a particular area of the Arctic,” according to a 2006 report to the Canadian parliament obtained by the NPU. “The Canadian Navy does not currently have the capacity to operate within the Arctic ice.”

Long gone are previous plans to equip Canada with nuclear-powered submarines, which can easily travel under the ice cap and monitor the region. “It is important to note that the Arctic is a vast and remote territory that presents many difficulties in terms of surveillance, regulation, and infrastructure development.” According to the latest auditor report, that means relying on a Coast guard service poorly managed and badly in need of refurbishing its ageing fleet.The red and white boats would be especially necessary in an area specialists are saying holds a strong oil and gas potential, while being on the front-lines of a boundary war.

Opportunities abound in the Beaufort Sea for hydrocarbon development as the area of the Western Arctic, which is usually frozen for large parts of the year, is seeing a more pronounced warming than the rest of the Arctic basin, Pearce says, creating an important potential for offshore oil and gas. Key to development in the area is the proposed Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline from the Northwest territories down into Northern Alberta, where it would feed into the existing pipeline network and provide unprecedented access to markets in the south. “This would develop an enormous rush to offshore projects,” Pearce says. The Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Arctic Offshore hold an estimated 33% of Canada’s remaining conventionally recoverable resources of natural gas and 25% of recoverable light crude oil.

L'influence grandissante de l'Iran

La guerre en Irak n'aura pas seulement boulversé l'équilibre des peuples de Babylone, mais ceux d'une région entière à présent aux prises avec trois guerres civiles où s'entredéchirent les deux granges mouvances islamiques, soit chiite et sunnite.

Championne de la première, et à la fois nation redoutée en raison de ses ambitions nucléaires, l'Iran , qui cette semaine assemblait deux cascades de centrifugeuses en vue d'enrichir davantage d'uranium, est au centre des préoccupations des pays voisins, et éloignés. L'emprise de Téhéran dans la région, à la fois en raison des échecs militaires israéliens contre le Hezbollah au Liban, et la prise du pouvoir chiite à Bagdad, a fait redoubler les initiatives dans la région du golfe, domaine de royaumes sunnites regorgeant de pétro-dollars mais pas moins craintifs sur le plan militaire.

Depuis l'été dernier en effet les initiatives se multiplient à Riyad, qui doit également composer avec les déchirements inter-palestiniens qui laissent le Moyen-orient plus que jamais avec des apparences de poudrière. Cette semaine la capitale d'Arabie Saoudite accueillait des dirigeants du Hamas et du Fatah pour tenter d'enrayer la violence qui sévit dans la bande de Gaza. Les initiatives se font, note le New York Times, avec l'aval de Washington, débordé en Irak où l'arrivée de soldats additionnels n'a été que précédée par une des séries les plus meurtrières de l'après-Saddam, plusieurs incidents récents ayant fait plus de 100 victimes d'un coup.

Comme si les attaques des insurgés ne suffisaient plus, Washington ne doute plus que les forces irakiennes et américaines doivent également lutter contre l'étendue de l'influence iranienne sur le territoire, et les incursions d'agents qui ont fait l'objet de raids récents. La popularité de la thèse qui veut que Téhéran ait une forte responsabilité dans la situation irakienne fait craindre certains observateurs que les batailles d'escarmouche en Irak, impliquant des agents opérant sous convert diplomatique, le tout en marge de la crise nucléaire aux Nations unies, ne dégénèrent en un conflit militaire pur et simple entre les Etats-Unis et l'Iran, malgré les restreintes américaines en matière d'effectifs.

Le scénaro est improbable selon ceux qui soulignent la prise du commandement américain au sein des forces de l'Otan en Afghanistan, où on assistera également à une augmentation des GIs en présence après une pénible année de recrudescence des attaques talibanes, faisant entre autre une trentaine de victimes canadiennes. Mais le scénario n'est pas à exclure fait noter Fred Hill, anciennement du Département d'Etat, dans les pages du Herald Tribune, puisque les arguments en faveur d'une attaque contre l'Iran sont bien plus plus convaincants que ceux qui ont été avancés contre l'Irak.

Alimentant les tensions, dit-il, est ce refus catégorique de Washington d'engager quelque dialogue que ce soit avec Téhéran. Le seul discours pour l'instant est à sens unique, le président Bush s'engageant à riposer "de manière ferme" à toute interférence iranienne en Irak...


 

The greening agenda

 
It takes more than a few unusually warm months, such as December, to draw any conclusions about global warming, experts agree, the measurements need to be done over many years, but a growing consensus is being reached over the issue of global warming, and it is slowly altering the usually stubborn stance of the most recalcitrant administrations.
 
Last week’s UN report on global warming, following the broadest scientific study of the human effect on the climate, concluded there is at least a 90 percent chance that human activities, mainly burning fossil fuels, are to blame for most of the warming in the last 50 years. That’s up from 66 percent in 2001, or to those counting, a 36 percent increase. At that rate scientists may be unanimous by the end of next year. “This report closes the doors to those who were able to detract from the issue, and puts an end to the notion of uncertainty and doubt about man’s role in climate change," commented United Nations Environment Programme executive director Achim Steiner.
 
The earth’s surface temperature could rise by 4.5 C by the end of the century if carbon dioxide levels double over pre-industrial levels, but they could also rise higher, according to the much-anticipated report. The world will pay for this century’s carbon dioxide pollution “for more than a millennium” the UN experts warn, making it “very likely” that heatwaves and pounding rain will become more frequent, snow cover will retract and typhoons and hurricanes, while becoming less frequent, will also be more powerful.
 
Global temperatures have already risen by 0.74 C over the last century but it’s the accumulating records that are worrying scientists, forming a pattern, and influencing policy-makers. Eleven of the last 12 years rank among the warmest years and the average temperature of the global ocean has increased to depths of at least 3,000 metres, showing that it is absorbing the heat from the atmosphere.
 
Apocalyptic scenarios are predicting everything from hundreds of millions of people suffering from water shortages and hunger to millions of “ecological refugees” fleeing flooded coastal areas. The result has been to fine-tune the usually skeptical discourse of the most reluctant administrations, notably in North America.
 
In a season-opening question period dominated by the environment, an issue Canadians place at the top of the polls, Prime minister Stephen Harper tried to boost his green credentials by giving new life to his party’s climate-change platform after a cabinet shuffle and a flurry of funding announcements. Harper intends to introduce a vastly revamped version of his Clean Air Act in the coming months, a decision Canadians in a recent poll say is being driven by public opinion rather than conviction.
 
A once-highly skeptical Prime minister who in the past referred to Kyoto as a “money-sucking socialist plot” now says he believes in the urgency of combatting global warming and supports calls for a world conference on the issue. “We all recognize this is a serious environmental problem that needs immediate action," he told the House of Commons. Harper however refused to change his tune on Kyoto, which he considers unrealistic.
 
As polls show both Liberals and Tories neck and neck one year after the election of Harper’s minority government, the Grits are smelling blood on the environment, only too glad to point out the change of corresponding minister, an admission to some that the Tories had been on the wrong track on the issue which painted Canada as villain by environmentalists a year after having hosted a major conference on the subject.
 
South of the border the favorite targets of pro-Kyoto supporters seemed to be slightly changing their tune, notably after a State of the Union speech in which President Bush referred to “the serious challenge of global climate change" and called for cuts in gas consumption and other environmentally-friendly policies. The new Democrat-led House is planning a series of initiatives on climate change as advocacy groups complain that administration officials have been putting pressure on climate scientists for years to downplay any talk of threat. “Political interference in climate science is no longer a series of isolated incidents but a system-wide epidemic," said Dr. Francesca Grifo, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
 
While the consensus is growing the conversion isn’t absolute, and skeptics remain even within the scientific community according to two books referring to other theories on climate change. Physicists Fred Singer and Henrik Svensmark consider natural cyclical patterns rather than human activity responsible for current climate changes.
 
The first notes that most of the earth’s recent warming occurred before the last mid-century, when much of the human-emitted CO2 was created, adding that physical evidence shows 600 moderate warmings in the earth’s last million years, or each 1500 years. For the latter cosmic rays that amplify the sun’s cyclical radiation are responsible for the changes, a theory scoffed at first but “investigations around the world confirm his theory, altering much of what scientists believed they knew about the weather, the climate, and the long history of life on the Earth," claims one critic.
 
Canadian climatologist Tim Ball, chairman of the Natural Resources Stewardship Project in Victoria, goes further by calling man-made global warming theories "the greatest deception in the history of science," pointing out that thirty years ago global cooling seemed to be the biggest threat. "These climate changes are well within natural variability and explained quite easily by changes in the sun'" he writes in the Canada Free Press. "But there is nothing unusual going on."
 
Still the body of scientists separating current climate changes from human activity is steadily shrinking like the ice cap over the poles, and even the most reluctant policy-makers are taking notes. They better, warn some scientists, because even the latest alarming report may be out-dated already. “The melting of Greenland has been accelerating so incredibly rapidly that the I.P.C.C. report will already be out of date in predicting sea level rise, which will probably be much worse than is predicted,” says Drew Shindell, a climate expert at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
 

Old Empire deals with cultural integration

The sun never sets over the empire. Neither do questions and crises over identity in the Commonwealth lately. As polls on racism and multiculturalism raise questions about the integration model for immigrants chosen in Britain and Canada, Australia is engaged in a furious debate on how to balance the need for cultural diversity with national unity.
 
It is in fact so furious that the country’s Department of Immigration and Multicultural affairs was renamed Department of Immigration of Citizenship and Aussie flags have been banned from some public events by fear of whipping up anti-immigrant nationalism. In a country largely built by immigration (25% were born outside the country), the party of Prime minister John Howard is gearing up for this year’s elections appealing to the insecurities of a large portion of the population over immigration.
 
“There was a time in the 1990s when I feared that multiculturalism was heading to a stage where the concept of Australia would cease to exist," recently said Malcolm Turnbull, a rising star in Howard’s government. “So concerned were we about our ethnic and cultural backgrounds, we would forget what we were today and Australia would be seen less as a nation than as just a place where people lived." After years of British-style multiculturalism, the government is veering towards a more American style of integration. “It is up to people who come from other cultures to adjust their behavior accordingly," James Jupp of the Center for immigration and multicultural studies at the Australian National university tells the Herald Tribune.
 
Same concern half a world away after a series of polls indicated sagging support for multiculturalism and accommodating policies for people of other faiths. Nowhere has the debate been more public than Quebec where a controversial poll in January concluded that nearly 60 percent of citizens of La belle province considered themselves somewhat racist. Critics soon assailed the pollster, blaming the line of questioning for setting up such a controversial, hence news-worthy, result.
 
Ironic some would say, that a minority within Canada should struggle with its own minorities. The poll did however tap into the unpopularity of “accommodating” policies that made exceptions for cultural communities so as not to alienate them. Last fall a Montreal synagogue was at the center of a controversy after it was revealed its strictly orthodox Hasidic community had paid to have the windows of a nearby YMCA tainted to avoid offending Jewish students. Over the years subjects from the wearing of the religious scarf to that of the ceremonial Sikh dagger called kirpan, in school have led to criticism the province was bending over backwards to accommodate minorities.
 
This was too much for the small town of Herouxville which made international headlines by adopting a code of conduct that new immigrants would have to espouse which includes a ban on stoning and covering one’s face on days other than Halloween. Overall Canadians have questioned their official policy of multiculturalism and whether it helped ethnic communities integrate or prolonged their isolation in urban ghettos. While Canadians still largely embrace multiculturalism as a whole, support for the policy has slightly eroded according to a September poll by Leger Marketing which found that 69 percent of Canadians thought multiculturalism helped foster a Canadian identity, down from 80 percent in 2001.
 
Fears of terrorism after 9-11, a factor also mentioned in Australia, as well as the arrest of 18 alleged terror suspects in Toronto last year, may have weakened a strong current of political correctness, and fear of offending immigrant voters in this other country built by immigration. Canada has the highest per capita immigrant admission rate of any major nation, according to experts - admitting more than 262,000 in 2005, including about 35,000 refugees.
 
Tapping into this atmosphere is one of Canada’s most successful, and anti-PC, television comedy. Inspired by the vulgar, grotesque Bob Gratton character of the silver screen, the half-hour weekly show has already offended the province’s Muslims and Chinese community in its two first shows, all the while drawing over a million Quebec viewers.
 
Interestingly, a TV show is also fueling the debate on national identity and racism in Britain after racial slurs were directed at a Bollywood star taking part in Britain’s version of Big Brother, practically creating an international incident after sparking riots in India. While the insulting cast member was soon ejected from the show, it wasn’t before its ratings had soared from boring to smash hit, prompting speculation the incident had been manufactured by the producers. Indian actress Shilpa Shetty eventually won the reality TV show but not before Britain grappled with its own identity debate.
 
But the real racial issue in Britain would have more to do with India’s neighbor after a study by Research by Policy Exchange found that young British Muslims were turned off by government policies which have been seeking to integrate them after the July 2005 attacks of London’s transport network rammed home the need to deal with alienated Muslims. It criticized the “father knows best” attitude espoused by the government, especially after the highly publicized religious veil row, a garment which Tony Blair described as a “mark of separation”.
 
Academic Munira Mirza, lead author of the report, said:  “The emergence of a strong Muslim identity in Britain is, in part, a result of multi-cultural policies implemented since the 1980s which have emphasised difference at the expense of shared national identity and divided people along ethnic, religious and cultural lines."
 
Long-time policy critic, author Neil Bissoondath says he's not surprised the debate here was first fired up in Quebec, which faces a possible Spring election, because the province is more advanced at "defining common values". The Trinidad-born author eventually moved from Ontario to Quebec to leave the ethnic ghettos of cities where people were "afraid to set limits", forming an identity void which he says plagues the country still.
 
 
Concerns about Serbia

In the fractioned reality of Serb politics, perhaps a reflection of the disjointed state of the former federation, it's not who wins the most votes, but who forms government. This certainly rings true after ultranationalists won 29 percent of the ballots in what some have perceived as a signal to the international community, days before a much anticipated set of UN recommendations on Kosovo are made public.

As with the referendum of independence in Montenegro last year, also formerly part of Yugoslavia, everything in the Balkans will remain about Kosovo until the status of what has been a UN-run enclave since 1999 becomes clear.

Early signs however are that little will be very clear about the much-delayed first set of recommendations, which are expected to point to some sort of conditional independence for the province which has been UN-run since NATO troops, including Canadians, put an end to ethnic cleansing and drove Serb forces out of Kosovo.

In the West concerns are of a possible return to violence in the bosom of Europe, as countries cheer for the establishment of a government that would be more favorable to mediation on the delicate subject. Unlike Montenegro or other provinces formerly part of the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo is however particularly touchy because of the existence of a large Serb minority, which was not spared from the violence which made victims on both sides, in a historically and religiously significant province.

All the main parties in the Serb election in fact were opposed to the independence of Kosovo, which is regarded as a cradle of Serb history and culture and was once the seat of the medieval Serbian state and the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Those who feared the election of ultranationalists blamed for the worst excesses of Serbia in the past, and that they would further resist cooperating in the capture of remaining war crimes fugitives, had a reason for optimism this week as the nationalist Radical Party, which took 82 seats in the 250-member parliament, struggled to form a coalition, while leading democratic parties attempted to settle their differences to wrench power from the far right.

With its 65 seats the Democratic Party was hoping to form a broad ruling coalition with other pro-West parties and gather enough seats to form a majority. While being "open for talks with other parties," Prime Minister Vojisav Kostunica was quite sure he could keep his post despite coming in third in the polls.

For the third-place finisher to achieve this, while sending the party with the most seats on the political sidelines, would not sit well with nationalists. But analysts point out that despite the showing of the Radical Party, twice as many people in general voted for democratic parties than for the radicals and socialists of former leader Slobodan Milosevic.

As for Kosovo however, even mainstream parties such as Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia have turned to Russia, which refuses a UN solution that is not approved in Belgrade, for support. With its veto at the UN Security Council, Moscow could create a diplomatic impasse sure to delay the final reckoning for the largely ethnic-Albanian province. But Washington and Brussels meanwhile are rejecting any return of the province to Serb rule.

Nor would further delays in the UN's recommendations sit well in Kosovo, where nationalists practically consider independence a fait accompli. "The independence of Kosovo is a reality, so we demand recognition of Kosovo's international subjectivity without any delays," exclaimed Kosovo Prime minister Agim Ceku, reiterating a refrain used last year when asked about the implications of Montenegro's vote.

The reality is Kosovo has been so independent of Belgrade since the UN's takeover that few there view the Serb elections as having any impact on them, even if technically Serbia is still responsible for its sovereignty. Further complicating the geopolitical landscape is a possible recommendation that the UN role in Kosovo be transferred to a European Union body which would oversee a conditional independence that would, in part, have to respect the Serb minority which makes up 10 percent of the population, possibly granting it some measure of autonomy.

The EU's role would attempt to correct Brussels' initial slow response to the crisis, which required NATO intervention to end the bloodshed in the province nearly eight years ago. After a little hesitation, the EU finally said it would keep its doors open to Serbia, despite the voting in of ultranationalists, even praising it for holding a largely peaceful vote. But relations with Brussels are uneasy as Serbia remains on the sidelines of accession to the EU because of Kostunica's own reluctance in bringing in war crimes fugitives to justice.

Brussels isn't the only capital following developments in the Balkans with some agitation. The excesses of the previous century, marked by Balkan conflicts that eventually ignited the First World war, are just too difficult to ignore still.


De nouveaux choix aux présidentielles

Avec l'annonce des candidatures, c'est pratiquement confirmé: des électeurs aux présidentielles des deux côtés de l'Atlantique vont avoir l'occasion d'accomplir quelquechose d'historique et de porter au pouvoir une première femme chef d'Etat.

Aux Etats-Unis le lancement d'un comité exploratoire par Hillary Clinton confirme presque sa candidature tant attendue en vue des présidentielles de l'an prochain. Il faut dire que du côté démocrate plusieurs choix offrent cette occasion puisque les candidats en lisse de la nomination démo- crate comprennent le très charismatique afro-américain, Barack Obama et le latino Bill Richardson.

Cette richesse de choix complique d'ailleurs un peu les choses dans le camp démocrate puisque la candidature du très populaire Obama, que plusieurs adoubent d'ailleurs d'avenir du parti, a quelque peu forcé la main d'Hillary Clinton, dont la candidature n'était pas seulement attendue mais presque incontestée à l'origine.

Le jeune sénateur réussira à lui rendre la tâche passablement plus difficile même si l'expérience d'Hillary et sa popularité restent importantes. Sa visibilité au plan politique alimentera cependant aussi ceux de l'autre camp qui veulent sa perte. Un de ses anciens conseillers a d'ailleurs fait appel à la générosité du camp républicain afin de monter un documentaire plutôt critique sur Hillary. "Vous rappelez-vous de l'effet Swift boat?" leur vend-t-il, faisant référence à un court métrage controversé qui a plutôt gêné la dernière campagne démocrate.

A quelques mois du premier tour des présidentielles en France, les choses se corsent également dans le camp de Ségolène Royal, dont la campagne laisse de plus en plus à désirer depuis la confirmation de son rival, Nicolas Sarkozy.

A l'origine, tout semblait baigner pour la petite reine qui allait insuffler un vent de renouveau à la politique française, d'autant plus que Sarkozy n'était pas le candidat favori du président. A présent, nouveauté se traduit parfois par manque d'expérience et l'éloignement du chef d'Etat devient un véritable atout tandis que Royal essuie déception après déception.

D'abord certains sondages ne lui donnent plus la faveur populaire, un sondage du Parisien donnant Sarko en avance 52 points contre 48. Bon il y a quand même l'effet de la nouvelle candidature, mais Royal doit en plus conjuger avec la bisbille qui semble s'être installée dans son camp, son porte-parole Arnaud Montebourg lui ayant reproché son choix de compagnon, et la diffusion d'informations sur ses revenus pour contrer des accusations de fraude fiscale. Ceux-ci ont révélé qu'ils atteignaient un niveau fiscal relevant de l'impôt sur la fortune, l'éloignant quelque peu de la plebe ordinaire.

Pour certains il n'y a nul doute, elle traverse "une zone de turbulence". Des sondages ont depuis montré que François Hollande ne faisait pas figure de boulet au pied de la candidate, mais au sein de l'équipe socialiste, le mal est fait malgré la suspension de Montebourg. Le député de gauche européen Vincent Peillon accuse les membres de l'équipe de "trainer les pieds" tandis que d'autres demandent un resserrement des rangs au sein du PS. "Ségolène Royal nous propose quelquechose qui marche très bien sur le terrain, note le premier, la démocratie participative" a-t-il expliqué sur LCI.

Mais certains font remarquer de cette méthode constitue un style de politique "décentralisé" qui a de quoi désorienter l'organisation du parti socialiste. "Un grand nombre de personnes n'ont pas encore compris l'importance de changer en profondeur les pratiques politiques", a fait remarquer la candidate, parlant même de "phase de tension", plutôt troublante en pleine campagne.

Cette recherche du "changement" du côté Royal ne semble pas pour autant éliminer la possibilité d'un important vote protestataire contre les politiciens. Cette manière de faire campagne est d'abord et avant tout remise en cause au sein du PS, une révélation d'autant plus publique, malheureusement, qu'elle avait été dévoilée lors d'une réunion à huis clos au courant de laquelle on avait laissé un téléphone ouvert... après avoir contacté la rédaction du Monde.

Les sondages forcent évidemment cette remise en cause, mais la candidate tient bon, affirmant même avoir mis en place une "révolution démocratique qui rend à chaque citoyen ce qui lui est dû". La nouveauté des méthodes comme celle du genre de candidat n'offre à ce stade-ci pas de garantie.


Somalia not out of the woods

In the country which in all probability was behind the coining of the phrase "failed state" the sight of Somali policemen patrolling the streets of the capital Mogadishu would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago and gave citizens hope for the first time in years. But that didn't last very long as a number of incidents broke the calm.

Government troops backed by Ethiopian forces gradually took back control of this long misgoverned country over the holidays, but had to wonder whether the routing of Islamic militants which had acted as rulers since July would herald a rare period of peace or spark a new round of guerilla warfare.

The fleeing militants insisted they had not been defeated. "We are in Somalia and we are not afraid anymore," one spokesman warned a Somali radio station. The combined Somali-Ethiopian forces chased the militants of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an alliance of Muslim fundamentalists, down south, obtaining Kenya to close its borders to prevent their escape, while also looking at possible links to al-Qaida.

Despite denials they have any links to Osama bin Laden's organization, the Islamists are suspected of harboring suspects in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. Concerned by the possibility of fleeing terrorists, the U.S. sent ships to patrol the country's coastline. In the south, Kenya was expecting remaining militants to flee through its border, amid reports at least one bore a Canadian passport.

The Standard newspaper reported that the man was an Ethiopian national and a military commander of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a separatist group which had sided with the ICU against Ethiopia. Defeating such groups was Ethiopia's main interest in the conflict. According to the National Post, the ICU, which had last year defeated a U.S.-backed alliance of warlords, has a strong component of Somali Canadians from Ottawa and Toronto, notably Abdullahi Ali Afrah, second deputy chairman of the Islamic Courts advisory body, which had previously worked at the Canadian branch of Al-Barakaat in Toronto, a money-transfer outlet implicated in terrorist financing in 2002.

Somalia's transitional Prime minister, Ali Mohamed Gedi meanwhile toured Mogadishu in a heavily-armed convoy where he was enthusiastically greeted by crowds lining the streets. "We were fighting for our political survival but with the will and the support of the people we are the winners," he said, adding the country had its hands full getting back to work.

That's something few expected to hear just a few weeks ago but many tasks, starting by collecting weapons in a country flooded by arms for years, will not be easy. A government drive to disarm its citizens was dropped after protests fuelled by al-Qaida's call on Islamists to attack Ethiopian troops, which had been greeted by stone throwing in some areas.

The rout of Islamists does not mean the country is any safer, following a number of attacks across the country which had been stopped under the ICU, leading to urgent calls for a U.N. force to replace Ethiopia's troops. Another priority will be to get the country's many warlords on side, President Abdullahi Yusuf and Prime minister Gedi, both from the country's largest clans, hoping to avoid a return to warlord-led chaos. The latter have indeed wasted no time filling the vacuum created by the recent fighting, and have made no move to hand their weapons, knowing the foreign troops may soon be on their way out while any potential African peacekeepers may take weeks or months to arrive, if they do.

Another concern, one constantly in the wake of military intervention, is humanitarian, some NGOs fearing further famine in the horn of Africa. The U.S. was among some countries announcing emergency food aid ahead of a donor's conference to assess humanitarian needs in Somalia. EU officials met with the same concerns in mind, but viewed the situation as a window of opportunity in the war-ravaged country. "It is a window of opportunity to take the process of national reconciliation in Somalia forward," said Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Stoere. "From a humanitarian point of view, we have a real role to play."

The strongmen that remain

That December ended with the execution of the butcher of Baghdad was quite fitting, it was a bad month for tyrants altogether. It had started with Pinochet's untimely death in early December, as he was to be tried for his crimes, followed by Turkmenistan's Saparmurat Niyazov all the while Castro was struggling to stay alive in a hospital bed. Saddam Hussein's execution at 6 am on December 30th was certainly the most anticipated, and yet still came as a surprise considering his sentence had barely been handed to him last September.

Meanwhile he was defending himself in yet another trial for the gassing of Iraq's Kurds in 1988. The handling of his execution however raised questions about the future of democracy in the war-torn country which had just recorded its 3000th GI fatality, while serving to remind us of the despots and undemocratic regimes that remain in power at the dawn of a new year.

In 2006, Belarus president Aleksandr Lukashenko, Europe's last dictator, once more thumbed his nose at Western observers overlooking a presidential vote in which he garnered 83 percent of the vote. All the while his minions manhandled pro-democracy protesters and observers, including a young Canadian freelance journalist.

In Asia the military seized power in Thailand, promising eventual elections while clamping down on political freedoms while the elder despotic leader of Zimbabwe kept tightening his grip on his impoverished nation. Hardly a day into the new year, Robert Mugabe closed Zimbabwe's remaining independent press by stripping newspaper owner Trevor Ncube of his citizenship. This as Mugabe is trying to silence all opposition to his plans to extend his 26 years in office by another two.

A quick glance at the latest Freedom House map of the world reminds us of a major source of concern for the years ahead, casting an interpretative light on the events of last December. Russia's Vladimir Putin, who may very well seek to change the constitution to extend his own mandate beyond 2008, has for yet another year pursued dubious policies that are leaving the world's largest country among the non-free nations of the globe. That it is now a regular participant of G-7 summits is hardly reassuring. "Putin's antidemocratic policies became more pronounced" may yet again read Freedom House's latest report on Russia, a country which until 2005 had actually been counted among the organization's partly-free states.

That year's shift was largely explained by "the further concentration of executive power" Freedom House wrote, as well as "the virtual elimination of influential political opposition". In fact, little opposition, from the press or parties, is tolerated any more, and vocal opponents had an odd way of disappearing in 2006, from the assassination of critical journalist Anna Politkovskaya to the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of former spy Alexander Litvinenko in December.
While the case started an orgy of conspiracy theories, many pointed towards the Kremlin, a fact that "says much about the image created by Putin's capricious seven-year presidency" remarked The Economist.

The future of democracy in Baghdad meanwhile hardly seemed more encouraging, as some feared the circumstances surrounding the execution of Saddam Hussein, may have in fact deepened divisions between the country's Shia and Sunni Muslims, who regarded Saddam as their leader and protested the hanging of the dictator. At least it must be acknowledged that the event of Saddam's death were however rather unusual for a strongman: he was executed by his own people, joining a distinct group of a select few that include Nicolai Ceaucescu and Benito Mussolini, none of whom had to endure a trial before they were killed.

But particularly inflaming to some were the taunts of his hooded executioners captured on a cell phone video camera, a throwback to treatment of inmates during his own regime, under a government which however proudly considers itself democratic. More fear that the demise of the butcher of Baghdad may in fact lead to more butchery in the streets of Iraq as a hardly more promising year begins under yet more bombings and calls to arms by militants.

Reflecting this pessimism was Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who said he has no interest in a second term and wished in fact that he could leave his office before the end if his first term. That there seems to be little inclination to reach the highest office in the land is hardly an endorsement of Iraq's democratic development. Nor was the focus on arresting the guard who supposedly filmed the incident, to some an eerie reminder of Washington's own criticism of reporters in cases of intelligence leaks.

The Iraqi government claims the execution chamber was in fact infiltrated by militias seeking to inflame public opinion, hardly reassuring about the security of major institutions. The U.S. military and the White House distanced themselves from the execution as a result of the illegal video controversy, the former claiming they "would have done things differently". That may well be so.

Perhaps because they suffered the most, Iraqis were usually less tolerant with Saddam than the U.S. soldiers who handled him. From the moment of his capture the urge to hurt the former dictator was hard to resist for those who suffered under his regime. When Saddam Hussein was taken out of his infamous spider hole in December of 2003 the exchange between the troops and the bearded, bewildered-looking dictator were rather respectful according to accounts.

"I am Saddam Hussein. I am the president of Iraq and I am willing to negotiate," he told the special forces who captured him. "President Bush sends his regards," they responded. The Iraqi translator on the scene, as the journalists who immediately greeted the news of his arrest by shouting "Death to Saddam", were less forgiving. "I told him that if you're a real man, you should have killed yourself," the translator recalled in a US TV interview.

The former dictator then called him a traitor and a spy - words that enraged him. "He made me really upset and I had to punch him. I was so angry," he said, adding that the Special Forces made him stop after a couple of blows. Now some fear the last-minute aggression may brand Saddam a martyr. The fallen dictator may yet be responsible for more violence beyond the grave.



Le déchirement européen

Tandis que de nouveaux membres se joignent à l'Union européenne, les anciens membres ne sont pas moins rongés par les mouvements sécessionnistes qui depuis quelques décennies ont terrorisé les populations locales. Un coup d'éclat en Espagne pendant les fêtes a rappelé que les négociations n'en tiennent quelquefois qu'à un fil sur la question nationale. L'attentat perpétré par ETA dans le stationnement du terminal 4 de l'aéroport Barajas de Madrid aura en fait complètement chamboulé le paysage des deux côtés de la Manche sur ce plan.

Car si en mi-octobre le processus de paix en Irlande du Nord était remis sur les rails, préparant d'autres percées entre Noël et le jour de l'an, une saisie d'armes par un commando de l'ETA en France en automne préparait l'enlisement puis la fin des pourparlers avec Madrid. N'ayant pas obtenu la promesse d'une clause sur l'autodéter- mination recherchée, l'ETA durcit le ton lors des négociations, avant de briser une trêve malgré tout jusque là prometteuse de neuf mois, provocant les cris à l'abandon du processus de pacification.

Le gouvernement du premier ministre José Luis Zapatero, lui-même d'abord réticent, dut mettre un terme aux négociations, plutôt que de les suspendre, après la mort de deux individus qui dormaient dans un véhicule garés près du terminal. Voilà qui gâte les projets d'"Espagne plurielle" du président, qui devaient permettre plus d'autonomie dans trois régions, dont la Catalogne et la Galicie. En fin de compte Zapatero aura échoué, comme d'autres premiers ministres avant lui, en tentant de négocier avec l'ETA, tout comme lors des trêves précédentes en 1989 et 1999.

Les parlementaires espagnols devaient être consultés à propos de la nouvelle donne résultant de l'attentat du 31 décembre, eux qui avaient adopté une résolution en mai 2005 autorisant le gouvernement à entamer un dialogue avec ETA. L'Europe traversait alors une période pleine de promesses puisque quelques mois plus tard c'était, en juillet 2005, à l'IRA de renoncer à la violence après trente-cinq ans de conflit.

Pendant les fêtes, alors que le dernier éclat terrorisait l'Espagne qui en trois ans a été la proie à la fois des islamistes et des terroristes basques, le parti républicain Sinn Féin annonçait la tenue en janvier d'un congrès extraordinaire cherchant à réviser sa position sur la question de la police, un sujet important puisque le fait que Sinn Féin se refuse de reconnaitre l'autorité de la police d'Irlande du Nord reste un obstacle important à l'instauration d'un partage du pouvoir entre unionistes protestants et républicains catholiques.

A Londres, la décision a été jugée «gigantesque», et aussi importante que celle qui avait été prise par l'IRA deux étés plus tôt. Voilà qui remet d'aplomb la feuille de route pour rétablir les institutions biconfessionnelles gelées depuis 2002, qui doit passer par l'élection de représentants à l'Assemblée de Stormont en mars.

Sur la péninsule ibérique, ce genre d'optimisme est déjà révolu chez certains qui estiment "catastrophique" la décision d'ETA de reprendre la piste des attentats, accusant le gouvernement de piétiner lors des négociations, notamment sur la légalité du bras politique de l'ETA, Batasuna, toujours interdit. Mais d'autres, dont procureur général du royaume, Candido Conde-Pumpido, ne croient pas à un retour de la violence du passé.

"Je pense que pour l'ETA, le temps du terrorisme est révolu à jamais et que la situation est irréversible. Je crois que l'ETA est vaincu et que nous assistons à ses funérailles", a-t-il estimé. Il faut l'espérer, sinon il pourrait s'agir des funérailles du processus de pacification entamé l'an dernier. Pour d'autres encore, l'attentat aura plutôt servi de carte de négociation tranchante lors des pourparlers, au lieu de signaler un véritable retour à la lutte armée, si l'on en juge les appels de Batasuna au maintien des discussions. L'éclat n'est-il pas, après tout, sans rappeler la violation du cessez-le-feu de l'IRA en 1996 qui a précédé les plus récentes rondes de négociations?


Une pause dans le club européen

Cinquante ans après la création du Marché commun, l'entrée de la Roumanie et de la Bulgarie, qui avaient raté le rendez-vous d'il y a trois ans, se fait non sans reproches chez  d'autres membres du club européen.

Certains craignent avec l'ouverture de ces nouvelles frontières, et l'étendue de celle de l'Europe jusqu'à la mer noire, une hausse des problèmes liés à ces deux pays; de la main d'oeuvre à bon marché à la criminalité, même si leur entrée aura presque aucune incidence sur le taux de croissance général des vingt-sept, dont ils forment une partie infime des 450 millions d'habitants.

Si certains sont grognons c'est peut-être parce qu'après cette folie des grandeurs, soit l'entrée de douze nouveaux membres, soit le nombre de membres que comptait l'UE en 1995, en trois ans, un fort besoin d'approfondissement et de développement des institutions se fait ressentir. Puis parce que la prochaine étape, soit l'étude de l'entrée éventuelle de la Turquie, à laquelle sont opposés certains pays, ne sera pas moins éprouvante.

Pour le vice-président de l'Union, Franco Frattini, les deux derniers membres méritent leur place au sein de l'Union, soulignant les "progrès considérables" accomplis par la Roumanie et la Bulgarie au cours des dernières années. Et alors que certains redoutent les problèmes liés à la criminalité, comme les trafics de drogue et d'êtres humains, parfois associés à eux, Frattini y voit le germe d'une collaboration étendue avec les institutions de l'UE pour attaquer ces problèmes de plein fouet.

"Joindre la famille de l'UE les intègre aux organisations spécialisées comme Europol et Eurojust, rappelle-t-il. Ceci permettra à l'UE d'étendre ses politiques de coopération judiciaire et policière dans la lutte contre le crime organisé et la corruption." Une remarque non sans rappeler que si la Roumanie et la Bulgarie ont raté le rendez-vous de 2004 c'était notamment en raison du besoin d'accélérer les réformes dans la lutte contre la corruption afin d'obtenir leur carte d'entrée.

Mais si cette dernière adhésion n'est pas sans problème, et quelques regrets chez certains, c'est avant tout car ces pays encore bien pauvres devront faire face à des défis que parviennent mal à maitriser certains adhérents mieux nantis de 2004. Après tout la Pologne, la République tchèque et la Hongrie peinent encore à remplir les conditions pour adopter l'euro, qui en cinq ans et avec l'entrée de la Slovénie sur le plan monétaire, est utilisé par moins de la moitié (13) des membres de l'UE.

Trop grand trop vite? Après les revers au plan constitutionnel, pour le président de l'UE José Manuel Barroso, il n'y a aucun doute que le besoin "d'une pause" s'impose au niveau de l'élargissement. Puis les résultats obtenus dans les deux nouveaux pays sont loin d'être une fin en soi, car dans la lutte contre la corruption, la sécurité alimentaire, la surveillance des frontières com- me celle de la réduction des pollutions indu- strielles, la Commission européenne attend encore davantage de ses deux nouveaux membres, note le magazine Les Echos, et n'hésitera pas à suspendre ses aides au besoin.

"En vous accueillant, les anciennes déchirures qui blessaient notre continent ont enfin disparu. Sofia, Bucarest, sont à nouveau des capitales d'Europe !" estimait pour sa part le président français Jacques Chirac, dans un message diffusé par les télévisions des deux néo-adhérents. Pourtant, tout comme sur la question européenne en général, la version officielle diffère de la vision populaire sur la question, une majorité des Français ayant plutôt mal accueilli cette dernière ronde d'élargissement.

De manière générale, les signes de fatigue sont perceptibles chez l'ensemble des 'anciens' de l'UE. Afin de "gagner un soutien large et durable de l'opinion publique" il faudra prendre le temps de "digérer" ce nouvel élargissement en plus de prévoir "une plus grande transparence et une meilleure communication" estimaient les membres de l'UE au moment de leur dernier sommet, en décembre. Des résolutions de taille s'imposent par conséquent dans plusieurs pays d'Europe en ces premiers jours de 2007.
 
Mideast year ends on sour note
 
troubling note this week as rival Palestinian factions
failed to respect a day-old cease-fire agreement and a
Pentagon assessment of the situation in Iraq concluded that
attacks had surged to their highest level, threatening to
make the country a failed state, as president George W. Bush
was pondering an increase of troop levels in the war-torn
country. The more recent incidences of violence however also
highlighted the fact that violence was increasingly
internal, and involved less confrontation with outside
forces, Americans in Iraq and Israelis in
Palestinian areas. In fact the U.S. administration and
lawmakers are often making the point that Iraqis are
increasingly to blame for the country's woes because of
infighting between Shiites and Sunnis that many hope will be
quelled by efforts of forming a coalition of Sunni, Shiite
and Kurdish parties to isolate extremists. The notion was
given a boost after it received the stamp of approval of
Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani, who has been
increasingly disappointed by the performance of the
Shiite-led government. But Shiites fear any such move could
weaken the parliamentary bloc and strengthen Sunni Arabs.
The move would certainly be welcome by the U.S. at a time
president Bush is considering an increase of troop levels to
orchestrate a final push to establish peace in the
violence-wracked country, coming off its worst quarter
according to a new report. A Pentagon study which covers August to November
reported that an average 960 attacks against Americans and
Iraqis were taking place every week, the highest level since
the reports have been issued in 2005. The largest surge was
against U.S. forces but Iraqis bore the brunt of these
attacks, suffering more deaths and injuries. Just this week
another massive kidnapping attack resulted in the abduction
of tens of aid workers. Similarily clashes between
Palestine's feuding Fatah and Hamas factions have upstaged
Palestinian clashes with Israelis in recent weeks, street
battles leaving 5 dead on Tuesday after a shoot-out in Gaza
city. In fact diplomatic moves to revive peace talks with
Israel, following Prime minister Ehud Olmert's surprise
visit to Jordan, seemed more promising than recent internal
efforts to quell the inter-Palestinian violence. Palestinian
president Mahmoud Abbas recently called for new elections to
break the political deadlock between the groups, a call
rejected by Hamas, which controls the legislature following
a vote held earlier this year. The maneuvering in Iraq
meanwhile is trying to circumvent the need for new
elections, one year after a referendum and two elections
were held to boost democracy in the country. The reach for a
political compromise in the country is crucial to keep it
from becoming a "hollowed-out and fatally weakened... failed
and fragmented state," a threat it increasingly faces
according to a report by the Brussels-based International
Crisis Group. "Hollowed-out and fatally weakened, the Iraqi
state today is prey to armed militias, sectarian forces and
a political class that, by putting short-term personal
benefit ahead of long term national interests, is complicit
in Iraq's tragic destruction," the report writes, echoing
the Pentagon which stressed that the Mehdi Army militia of
radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr had replaced al-Qaida
as the "most dangerous accelerant of potentially
self-sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq". President Bush
meanwhile is pondering his response to a bipartisan
commission on Iraq, increasingly indicating he was
“inclined to believe that we do need to increase our
troops — the Army, the Marines,” he told The Washington
Post, not just to secure Iraq but the war against Islamic
extremists over-all. “It is an accurate reflection that
this ideological war we're in is going to last for a while
and that we're going to need a military that's capable of
being able to sustain our efforts and to help us achieve
peace,” he said.  

 

Mauvaise année pour les tyrans
 
Une bien mauvaise année pour les despotes s'achève avec
des rumeurs qui placent le Commandante sur son lit de mort.
Ce ne serait pas la première fois. Entre la guérilla
contre Batista et les opérations secrètes de la CIA
Fidel Castro a sans doute joué aux revevants à plusieurs
reprises, mais le doute a tout de même commencé à
s'installer lorsque le vieux révolutionnaire ne s'est pas
présenté au défilé militaire en l'honneur de son 80e
anniversaire le mois dernier. Depuis tout porte à croire que
son frère Raul va conserver en permanence son poste de  gardien déclaré
de la «continuité révolutionnaire». La semaine
dernière, le chef du renseignement américain John
Negroponte affirmait dans une entrevue que "Tout semble
indiquer que (l'inévitable) ne va pas plus tarder, (il serait question de
quelques mois, pas de quelques années." Castro n'était pas
paru en public depuis son intervention chirurgicale aux
intestins le 31 juillet, cédant son poste au bien plus
conservateur et dogmatique Raul après un règne continu
qui remonte à la révolution de 1959. Les nouvelles n'ont
pas été très bonnes pour les anciens dictateurs
depuis cette chaude journée d'été. Le 5 novembre
l'ancien homme fort de Bagdad à reçu une condamnation
à mort pour crimes contre l'humanité tandis que ce mois-ci le tyran
de Santiago, Augusto Pinochet, est mort à 91 ans, une
semaine après avoir subi une crise cardiaque aiguë. La
mort de Pinochet a déçu juristes et partisans, s'étant
éteint, comme Slobodan Milosevic plus tôt cette année,
sans avoir fait face à la justice pour les actes
perpétrés sous son régime de 1973 à 1990. En fait,
son décès a créé des confrontations dans les rues
entre partisans et victimes de ses violations des droits de
l'homme. Alors que Pinochet n'a pas reçu les
traditionnelles funérailles d'Etat, la décision de
placer un buste de l'ancien dictateur chilien au palais
présidentiel a provoqué la colère des sympathisants de
gauche qui ont souffert pendant ses années. Que le même
sort guette deux despotes aussi différents que Castro et
Pinochet est une ironie qui n'échappe pas à tout le
monde. Alors que Castro avait bousculé un despote soutenu
par les Etats-Unis et est demeuré le champion incontesté
du communisme dans les Amériques, Pinochet, qui selon
certains remporte la palme du dictateur le plus sanguinaire
du continent même si son règne n'a pas battu des records
de longévité, a avec l'appui de Washington mis un terme
à des décennies de tradition démocratique dans le pays
des Andes. Son coup d'état a sans doute empêché le
pays de plonger dans le marxisme de l'époque, note l'Economist,
mais il ne s'est pas fait pardonner ses excès malgré son
titre de champion de capitalisme en Amérique latine. Comme
les émeutes dans les rues de la capitale l'ont
démontré, Pinochet aura quand même conservé des
sympathisants jusque dans ses dernières heures, mais moins
que sur l'ile de Castro ou les éloges du Commandante
coulent à flot malgré la répression et les pénuries
du système qu'il a instauré. Alors que son frère
promet de perpétuer la tradition, il lui manque la
personnalité de celui qui a mis la petite ile des Caraibes
sur la mappemonde, notamment lors de la crise des
missiles. Une délégation américaine de 10 membres,
sans précédent depuis la  Révolution cubaine, tentait
récemment de forger de nouveaux liens en rencontrant des
représentant du gouvernement, en guise de "prélude d'une
nouvelle ère dans les relations entre les États-Unis et Cuba". Les élus
américains Jeff Flake, Républicain d'Arizona, et William Delahunt,
démocrate du Massachusetts se sont entretenus
avec le président de l'Assemblée nationale de Cuba
Ricardo Alarcon et quelques ministres en vue d'assouplir les
sanctions économiques que subit l'ile depuis l'imposition
de l'embargo. Ministre de la Défense, Raul Castro semblait
en effet tendre la main, dans un discours d'une demi-heure
au début du mois, aux États-Unis pour les inviter à
résoudre par la négociation le conflit vieux d'un
demi-siècle entre les deux pays séparés d'environ 100
kilomètres. Mais plusieurs Cubains estiment qu'il ne faut
pas vendre la peau de son prédécesseur, un orateur
recordman, avant de l'avoir tué. Dernier survivant de la
guerre froide, à la tête du dernier régime communiste
du monde occidental, Castro n'est pas à la veille de
rendre l'âme, insistaient les membres de la délégation
américaine, niant les dernière rumeurs voulant qu'il ait
le cancer, tandis que le gouvernement promettait qu'il
reviendrait au pouvoir. Niant à son tour que Castro ait
le cancer, celui que certains nomment le « porte-parole
médical » du président, le chef d'Etat
vénézuélien Hugo Chavez, admettait toutefois que le
dirigeant cubain livrait « une grande bataille » contre
la maladie. Le Commandante va peut-être s'en remettre en
fin de compte, estimait Delahunt, mais Castro ne sera sans
doute plus chef d'Etat: «Pour ce qui est du fonctionnement
du gouvernement, cette transition a déjà eu lieu » dit-il.
La semaine dernière le journal officiel Granma a
fait état des dernières activités du
chef, sans cependant reproduire ses propos. Le quotidien
rapportait qu'il y avait eu une conversation
téléphonique entre Castro et Chavez, le premier lui
demandant: « Félicite pour moi ton peuple pour cette
grande victoire » électorale, avant de parler de
production d’acier inoxydable, d’industrie forestière ou de
recherche pétrolière, selon le journal. Granma
annonçait également que Castro avait appelé au
téléphone une réunion des dirigeants de la province de
l’île de la Jeunesse, suscitant « la joie et les
applaudissements nourris des participants ». Mais son
absence de toute apparition médiatique depuis le 28
octobre suscite l'inquiétude du public, qui croit de moins
en moins en sa résurrection. Son départ boulverserait
sans doute ce pays ou 70 % de la population n'a connu que
lui comme chef de l'État. «C'est pas bon, c'est pas bon.
S'il était rétabli, il serait là, au premier rang!»,
s'exclamait Angelina, une doyenne de 65 ans, lorsque Fidel a
manqué le rendez-vous du 2 décembre
dernier. Malgré les appels à la «continuité
révolutionnaire», supporters comme opposants de Castro
estiment qu'un changement aura forcément lieu dans
l'après-Castro. Tout simplement parce qu'il n'y aura pas
d'autre Fidel. Au Departement d'Etat américain, on estime
que des pays comme le Canada auront un rôle à jouer au
moment de la tradition en raison des rares liens tissés
avec le régime au courant des ans: « Je crois que le
gouvernement (canadien) est dévoué à la
promotion d'un avenir démocratique pour Cuba, y
déclarait récemment le porte-parole Tom Shannon. Les
Canadiens ont su entretenir une relation avec le régime, avec des membres
de la société cubaine et avec les dissidents, ce qui est
très impressionnant. Il n'y a que quelques pays qui ont
été capables de faire la même chose.» Pour l'ancien
ministre des affaires étrangères Lloyd Axworthy
cependant, l'après-Castro sera une période délicate
sur l'ile. « Castro est de plus en plus un symbole dans
les Amériques, et toute tentative d'en tirer profit
pourrait se retourner contre nous, a-t-il dit. Il faut
favoriser l'éclosion de la démocratie à Cuba plutôt
que chercher à l'imposer.»

 

Sarkozy et Royal au second tour

Un taux de participation élevé et un résultat sans surprise ont fait du premier tour de la présidentielle un retour à la traditionnelle dualité gauche-droite alors que Nicolas Sarkozy et Ségolène Royal s'apprêtent à s'affronter le 6  mai.

La candidate socialiste a livré un discours plutôt terne à la fin de la soirée, trahissant sans doute les frousses qu'a pu ressentir son camp avec la montée de la popularité du centriste François Bayrou. C'est tout de même un retour pour la gauche, elle qui avait été exclue du second tour en 2002 lors d'un scrutin qui avait connu un très bas taux de participation et semé la consternation en invitant le candidat d'extrême droite au second tour.

Cette fois les électeurs étaient au rendez-vous avec un faible taux d'abstention de 15,5% mais avec environ 31% des suffrages, Sarkozy a réalisé le score le plus élevé pour un candidat de droite depuis Valéry Giscard d'Estaing en 1974.

"Ce premier tour est une victoire pour la démocratie", a déclaré Sarkozy dans l'heure qui a suivi les premiers résultats. En le plaçant en tête du premier tour et en plaçant Royal seconde (25,8%) la France voulait que se poursuive un débat entre deux idées de nation et deux projets de société, a-t-il dit. Les Français attendent au second tour un débat d'idées depuis "trop longtemps et avec trop de force pour qu'il soit dénaturé", a-t-il ajouté.

Après une campagne au courant de laquelle ses opposants ont décrit le candidat de l'UMP en tant que candidat de la peur contre lequel il fallait s'unir, Sarkozy s'est voulu rassembleur. "Je ne souhaite qu'une chose, rassembler le peuple français autour d'un nouveau rêve français, déclara le fils d'immigrés hongrois. Un rêve français qui est celui d'une république fraternelle, où chacun va trouver sa place, où personne n'aura plus peur de l'autre, où la diversité sera vécue non comme une menace mais comme une richesse."

Plus tard, sous des cris de "Ségolène présidente", la candidate socialiste a d'une voix plutôt monotone remercié ses partisans et lancé  un appel à ceux qui veulent "une république du respect".  Le 6 mai prochain la France doit faire "un choix clair entre deux voies très différentes, dit-elle. Il est non seulement possible mais urgent de quitter un système qui ne marche plus."

Disant regretter la précarité des dernières années, elle a voulu se distinguer d'un candidat conservateur et parfois dénommé "Sarkozy l'Américain" en prônant une "démocratie sociale rénovée" cherchant à "instaurer des règles justes dans la mondialisation" et "refuser la régression sociale qu'entrainerait l'abandon à un libéralisme effréné."

"Avec vous je vais rendre à la France la fierté de son histoire qui renoue avec ses valeurs universelles, dit-elle. Ensemble nous allons conjurer les démons de la déprime et du déclin."

Bayrou a obtenu environ 18% des voix, un score qui va lui permettre de jouer les arbitres du second tour. "Je récuse qu'il n'y ait que deux idées de l'avenir", a-t-il déclaré devant une foule en délire malgré le troisième rang. Bayrou soutient toujours vouloir réformer la vie politique française, qui a retrouvé sa traditionnelle dualité.

Avec entre 10 et 11% des suffrages, Jean-Marie Le Pen, qui avait causé la surprise en 2002, a réalisé son plus mauvais score depuis 20 ans.

"Un premier tour sans surprise.... alors la surprise c'est qu'il n'y ait pas eu de surprise", a commenté notre correspondant Benoit Levaillant. Un premier sondage sur le second tour donne Sarkozy favori avec 54% contre 46%.

Tandis que Bayrou prétend vouloir rester "le troisième candidat" du scrutin en refusant de donner son appui à un des deux candidats, l’ancien responsable socialiste Eric Besson, dont le départ fracassant du PS avait marqué la campagne de Royal, s'est rallié au candidat de l’UMP.

Quoiqu'il advienne, la France aura son premier président(e) né dans l'après-guerre le mois prochain. Autre chose certaine, en votant aussi massivement, les Français ont voulu mettre fin à l'indifférence politique qui avait été si coûteuse en 2002.

Evidemment ceci peut comporter quelques inconvénients, nous rappelle Karine Margouillat: "Quarante cinq minutes à attendre en ligne je n'avais jamais vu ça, ni même la vieille mémé derrière moi, et ça fait depuis 1944 qu'elle vote!"
 
 
Chilling messages, and lessons


Neighbors, acquaintances and “disturbing” writings attested to an angry, solitary young man, who railed against other kids and collected weapons. A portrait now painfully familiar, a template for school- related shootings is sadly emerging.

Last month Montreal police made public a search warrant report listing a simple note of apology, the address of various schools and five boxes containing 242 bullets from Kimveer Gill’s bedroom, originally written hours after he shot one student dead at Dawson College and injured 19 more last September. “Sorry Mom and rest of family,” read the brief message, dated Sept. 13 at 2:22 a.m.

A list of addresses included that of Villa Maria high school, Vanier College and Universite de Montreal. Police also found handwritten pages, gun holsters, manuals and some 174 horror films on DVD. Along with all that was a note in which Gill praises the two students who shot and killed 12 class mates and a teacher at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999 before killing themselves. The discovery of the document uncovered painful memories in a community where the latest school shooting incident remained too fresh to be simply filed away.

Weeks later a similar chilling post-mortem message and macabre inventory were being revealed in the bloody aftermath of America’s deadliest mass shooting. Cho Seung-Hui, a 23-year-old senior majoring in English had by then made the pristine and sleepy campus of Virginia Tech university and the community of Blacksburgh, Va synonymous with nightmare. Like Gill, Cho kept to himself, left behind disturbing notes and writings and took is own life when eventually cornered by police. In between shootings at two separate ends of the sprawling campus, Cho mailed a package of videos and photos revealing of his final, rambling and hateful state of mind. In it he brandished guns and delivered a profanity-laced tirade about rich “brats” and their “hedonistic needs” that perhaps made sense only to himself, leaving the survivors of the rampage all the more baffled.

“You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today,” Cho says in a harsh monotone. “Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off.” The package contained a 1,800-word video manifesto and 43 photos, 11 of them showing him aiming handguns at the camera. He repeatedly suggests he was picked on or otherwise hurt. “You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience,” he says, apparently reading from his manifesto. “You thought it was one pathetic boy’s life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people (...) Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats,” said Cho, a South Korean immigrant whose parents work at a dry cleaners in surburban Washington.

An inventory of his belongings made after he mowed down 32 students, sometimes execution style, listed weapons, ammunitions, explosives, materials and manuals to manufacture more of them. Letters reportedly left behind similar railings against “rich kids”, “debauchery” and “deceitful charlatans” on campus.

But professors and school mates had already been alarmed by the English major’s disturbing writings. “I remember one of them very well,” English major Stephanie Derry said of one of his plays. “It was about a son who hated his stepfather. In the play the boy threw a chainsaw around, and hammers at him. But the play ended with the boy violently suffocating the father with a Rice Krispy treat.” She cried when she found out who the shooter was. “I kept having to tell myself there was no way we could have known this was coming. I was so frustrated that we saw all the signs, but never thought this could happen.”

Cho’s obscenity- and violence-laced screenplays chilled the hearts of peers and university staff to the point he was referred to the university’s counseling service. Poetry teacher Nikki Giovanni told CNN she was so appalled that she threatened to quit unless Cho was removed from her class. “Sometimes, in creative writing, people reveal things and you never know if it’s creative or if they’re describing things, if they’re imagining things or just how real it might be,” said Professor Carolyn Rude. “But we’re all alert to not ignore things like this.” And yet.

Cho was known to police and even psychologists after having been previously accused of stalking women students and taken to a psychiatric hospital in 2005 because of worries he was suicidal, university police said. A worried roommate warned police he might be suicidal, prompting them to issue a “temporary detention order” and send him to a nearby mental health facility for evaluation. Baffling to some may be that despite encounters with the law and past psychiatric treatment, Cho was able to legally purchase the two handguns he used in the attack, something which did not fail to rekindle debate over America’s lenient gun laws.

A modern digital voice box of teen-age angst, the internet provided Gill, a college drop-out two years his senior, with his personal outlet to vent anger, in between pictures of him wielding one of three registered guns he used to shoot Dawson’s students, all published on the goth site vampirefreaks.com. “Work sucks ... school sucks ... life sucks ... what else can I say? ... Life is a video game you’ve got to die sometime,” he wrote in his profile. One of his favorite video games emulated the Columbine killers. Last week’s killings happened 8 years after Columbine.

In another posting he wrote: “His name is Trench. you will come to know him as the Angel of Death. He is not a people person. He has met a handful of people in his life who are decent. But he finds the vast majority to be worthless, no good, conniving, betraying, lying, deceptive.” Rude’s words certainly come to mind, but when should alarm bells go off?

In 2001 a 16-year-old Ottawa boy was expelled from school after he read a threatening story he wrote in class and became a symbol of free expression among Canada’s literary community. He spent a month in jail after telling his story about a bullied teen-ager who plans to blow up his school to his 11th grade classmates. Of four charges against the youth, only one involved the story he read in class, entitled “Twisted.” The other three concerned alleged threats he uttered to schoolmates.

Top authors Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje rallied around the youth, appearing at a forum called “Artists for Freedom of Speech,” in a show of support and called for vigilance in preventing repression of free speech. “One thing writers do feel they know how to do is ... they know how to read and they know how to read between the lines,” she said. “And reading between the lines of this story is quite another story. I think that is why we are here.”

What some had read had sparked alarm.The Ontario Secondary High School Teacher’s Federation criticized the event, saying the youth’s teacher recognized his story “might represent more than just the true creativity of a student, but might in fact be a hidden cry for help.” Eric Harris, the Columbine student who, along Dylan Klebold, formed the trench-coat mafia which so inspired both Gill and Cho, began his own private journal with “I hate the f—-ing world.” But isn’t this simply the rebellious cry of a litany of youngsters?

In many cases of multiple shootings, rejection was often a factor, experts agree, whether rejection by a lover, by a peer group, or a more general feeling of rejection by society. The killers often went on to vent these frustrations in writing, literature which betrayed anti-social feelings of hatred and rage. But if even counselors and police were unable to detect the intentions of the eventual butcher of Blacksburg, then focus on prevention better be backed by efforts to improve the response time of authorities.

The killers’ ensuing bloody acts  were driven by emotion, but were also nonetheless well planned and calculated for maximum effect. Tragically, this is where the similarities between Virginia and Montreal shootings end, as the very different death tolls attest.

When Gill entered Dawson and started shooting, police counted on new procedures and a bit of luck to neutralize the assailant quickly. As luck would have it police officers on the scene for an unrelated matter were rapid first responders able to spot the suspect in the black trench-coat of his idols. But in a city which had seen two college shootings in the 17 previous years, police had also gained experience from the previous incidents to keep the situation from getting out of control.

“Before our technique was to establish a perimeter around the place and wait for the SWAT team,” said Montreal police chief Yvan Delorme. “Now the first police officers go right inside. The way they acted saved lives.” Slow response and incorrect assumptions that prolonged the killing, made Virginia Tech everything but a textbook case of police work.

In the U.S. questions quickly began to emerge about the time allowed to elapse before authorities contained the shooting. Cho opened fire in a university dorm and then, no less than two hours later, shot up a classroom building across campus, while authorities were still investigating the first shooting. VT President Charles Steger said authorities believed that the shooting at the dorm was a domestic dispute and mistakenly thought the gunman had fled the campus. That was a tragic assumption, even if authorities defended their failure to put the campus in lockdown because of its sprawling size.

Aaron Cohen, a SWAT trainer based in California, said time is of the essence during such circumstances and criticized the Virginia intervention while praising the quick action in Montreal. “While they wait another innocent person is dead. There’s just no time to sit around,” Cohen said. “It has to be fast. Of course Dawson’s lessons had been painfully learnt from the Dec. 6, 1989 college shooting of 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique. Since then the modus operandi had changed.

There is no gloating in the shadow of such violence. Dawson students felt the chills of painful memories and rushed to send their condolences to the Virginia victims. After all they included a French teacher, a former Montrealer.
 
 
Exiting a troubled Iraq


As US lawmakers debate over America’s exit strategy in Iraq and allies discuss the terminology used to describe the conflict, the worsening death toll on the ground, sometimes in the most unlikely places, is painting a stark portrait of modern day Iraq.

The US president is pledging to veto House and Senate emergency Iraq spending bills introduced last month because of provisions to end the war, as Iraq slumps even deeper into crisis. The House passed a bill calling for troops to be withdrawn no later than April 2008, or possibly even earlier, but the White House rejects any withdrawal deadline.

The debate raged as suspected Sunni insurgents hit Shiite targets with four bomb attacks that killed 183 people in Baghdad in one day last week, the bloodiest this year, let alone since a major U.S. troop increase which began ten weeks ago.

In fact nationwide the number of people killed or found dead was 233, which was second only to a day total of 281 killed or found dead on Nov. 23, 2006 according to AP record-keeping which began in 2005, making some wonder whether the surge is truly having the intended effect despite US claims attacks have dropped sharply since February.

Military officials point out that two of the five brigades meant to increase man power on Iraqi streets have yet to hit the ground, but privately some officials are saying anything short of 100,000 additional troops would be ineffective.

The latest attacks came as the shaky Iraqi parliament the US is desperately trying to strengthen was rocked by both a suicide bomber and the defection of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite bloc, threatening a return of the Mahdi army in the devastated streets of the capital.

Al-Sadr had ordered his fighters to put away their weapons before the security crackdown began, leaving some regions highly vulnerable, but the latest Sunni attacks, which the US military says are al-Qaida backed, appeared intended to bring the fight to Shiite militiamen and force them back on the streets.

This would increase the workload of a growing US presence which, with repeat and extended tours of duty and the growing ranks of reservists, is showing signs of strain in the conflict.

An Iraqi military spokesman decried the fact that Ninety-five percent of the victims were civilians. “Our Iraqi people are being subjected to a brutal attack that does not differentiate between an old man, a child or a woman. This targeting of civilian populations brings back to our minds the mass crimes and genocide committed by the Saddamist dictatorial regime,” said a statement from Prime minister al-Maliki’s office.

The fact that many of the most devastating bomb attacks in the country have come in the past several months suggests insurgents have developed more sophisticated or powerful explosives, sometimes laden with chemicals to spread their effects beyond the immediate area in a crude form of dirty bomb. U.S. military officials announced that they found 3,000 gallons of nitric acid hidden in a warehouse in downtown Baghdad which also suggests insurgents may be experimenting on various formulas to spread terror through explosives. A rising number of attacks included the use of chlorine in truck bombings.

Meanwhile Britain, which announced the withdrawal of some of its troops, has been giving further signs of distancing itself from the US, which long considered it its most loyal ally in Iraq. A senior Labour Party politician aspiring to become deputy leader and tipped as a possible future British foreign secretary criticized the Bush administration’s commonly used phrase “war on terror”.

“In the U.K. we do not use the phrase ‘war on terror’ because we can’t win by military means alone,” Hilary Benn told the Center on International Cooperation of New York University. While many disagree with Bush that Iraq constitutes a chapter of the war on terror, the analogy here seemed fitting. Benn said the administration would be better off using a combination of “soft power” values and ideas as well as military prowess to defeat extremists, a departure from Britain’s usually more reserved language toward Washington.

Extremists wanted to “force their individual and narrow values on others, without dialogue, without debate, through violence… And by letting them feel part of something bigger,” he added, “we give them strength.”

Meanwhile the White House was steadfast that Bush would not sign any legislation that included a call for troop withdrawal, as Democrats have demanded since they took over Congress last year. But Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi who’s just returned from the Middle-East on a trip which included discussions with Syrian president Assad, say the current high level of sustained violence underscored the urgency of finding a new direction in Iraq, which by some accounts is already engaged in a full-fledged civil war.

Some seem to have thrown in the towel altogether, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid claiming the war in Iraq is “lost,” triggering an angry backlash by Republicans who said the top Democrat had turned his back on the troops.

While others may not have given up on the war altogether, they may have given up on the notion of creating a large federal state for all peoples of Iraq. One US military project, condemned by a Sunni parliamentarian, plans to build a concrete wall around a Sunni enclave in the Iraqi capital. US forces say the wall, which would separate Azamiyah from nearby Shia districts, aims to prevent sectarian violence between the two communities. Others fear it will only breed more strife.

The idea is being reconsidered. After all, more strife would only mean a longer stay for a US military "losing patience" and eager to leave.
 
Commémoration double à Vimy

Après un hiver presque sans histoire, les soldats canadiens en Afghanistan ont subi leur plus importante pertes le 8 avril quand six hommes sont morts lorsque leur véhicule blindé a percuté un engin explosif, portant le nombre de victimes canadiennes à 51 depuis 2002. Deux autres soldats ont été blessés lors de cette journée, la plus meurtrière depuis la guerre de Corée pour le Canada, alors que le pays se préparait à commémorer le 90ème anniversaire de la bataille de Vimy.

Les dépouilles des six soldats à peine rapatriées deux autres Canadiens ont fait les frais de la féroce recrudescence de la violence talibane lorsque leur convoi a été attaqué. Trois autres soldats ont également été blessés en ce jour ou les convois canadiens ont été ciblés non moins de trois fois.

Les cérémonies du souvenir de l'assaut de la crête de Vimy, une forteresse allemande conquise au coût de 3600 vies canadiennes lors de la Grande guerre, ont été empreintes d'une émotion d'autant plus profonde qu'elle était, en fait, d'actualité. D'ailleurs le ministre de la défense Peter Mackay n'a pas hésité à faire le rapprochement, estimant que les Canadiens ont toujours été disposés au sacrifice s'il doit mener à la libération d'autres peuples.

Ce sacrifice a surtout été ressenti dans les provinces plus pauvres de l'est, d'où provenaient les six victimes, et un quart de la totalité des victimes canadiennes de ce conflit. Les dirigeants politiques regrettent d'ailleurs que ces sacrifices ne soient pas toujours appréciés par l'ensemble de la population, 59% des gens recensés lors d'un sondage, n'étant pas en mesure de nommer cette bataille clé du front occidental en avril 1917. 30000 soldats canadiens avaient alors lutté pendant trois jours avant d'atteindre un objectif qui avait échappé aux troupes françaises et britanniques. 

Pour certains historiens, ce point tournant en était également un dans la jeunes histoire du Canada, qui se battait alors toujours sous un étendard facilement confondu avec l'Union Jack. Aux côtés du Premier ministre Stephen Harper et de la reine Elizabeth II, le Premier ministre français Dominique de Villepin a déclaré que "les héros de Vimy sont morts pour défendre les valeurs qui depuis n'ont cessé de nous unir et de nous rassembler: des valeurs de paix, de liberté, de tolérance et de respect de l'homme" devant une foule de plusieurs milliers de personnes. Il a également déploré la perte des soldats canadiens en Afghanistan.

Pour la gouverneure général Michaelle Jean, les soldats de cette mission sont les héritiés directs de ceux qui ont participé à la prise de Vimy, un sacrifice parfois éclipsé par celui de la plage de Dieppe lors de la seconde guerre mondiale. La reine Elizabeth II a à son tour rappelé "la vaillance, le courage et le sacrifice" des soldats "qui ont inspiré un jeune pays à devenir une magnifique nation."
 
 
The larger picture


Domestic reasons are often cited to explain why a country will face tough challenges to its security and various disruptions, but increasingly critics will point to systemic causes for these incidents, and try to project what the world will be like in the years to come. Currently concern over the environment has produced a series of studies forecasting serious changes around the world in the decades ahead.

Again last week a UN assessment on man's impact on global warming expressed "high confidence" that greenhouse gas emissions are to some degree responsible for a variety of changes currently happening that the world will quickly have to adapt to. Among them many involve this country directly, from a change in farming seasons to shrinking glaciers. The report notes that while some will be beneficial, most will be harmful in the long run. No matter what, the consensus is that global warming caused by humans will have large and lasting effects on human affairs and life on Earth this century.

Among the more negative elements "increased deaths, disease and injury due to heat waves, floods, storms, fires and droughts," are stressed, while "some benefits to health such as fewer deaths from cold" are particularly noteworthy for places like Canada. One irony raised by the report is that higher concentrations of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas, are contributing to a greener world, pollution somehow nourishing the environment. "Based on satellite observations since the early 1980s, there is high confidence that there has been a trend in many regions towards earlier greening of vegetation in the spring and increased net primary production linked to longer growing seasons and increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations," the report said.

What sounds good for cold-trapped Canada has its drawback because while temperate and higher latitudes could be friendlier to farming, they also bring weeds, insect pests and wildfires that are likely to imperil forests, alarming for fire-prone areas such as B.C. and Quebec. Overall however, the harmful will prevail over benefits brought about by global warming, the report says, pointing to forecasts of intensifying drought and downpours, as well as rising seas along crowded coasts, such as North America's, and around low-lying islands that can be found in the South Pacific, just swept by a deadly earquake-triggered tsunami.

"Coasts are very likely to be exposed to increasing risks due to climate change and sea-level rise, and the effect will be exacerbated by increasing human-induced pressures on coastal areas."Suffering Third world countries, the least to blame for the fossil-fuel pollution that drives global warming, will pay a heavy price, the report notes. "Poor communities can be especially vulnerable," it says, "because they tend to be concentrated in relatively high-risk areas, have more limited coping capacities, and can be more dependent on climate-sensitive resources such as local water and food supplies."

If the global impact of a changing environment is systemic data now being poured over by increasingly concerned specialists, demographic data has no smaller impact on the planet, another report notes. Very young populations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Congo may help explain why these countries and Africa's poorest regions have suffered from disastrous governance and violent conflict, a recent study by Population Action International says.

PAI says it's more than a coincidence that 80 percent of the civil conflicts that broke out in the 1970s, 80s and 90s occurred in countries where at least 60 percent of the population was under 30, and that almost 9 of 10 such youthful countries had autocratic rulers or weak democracies. In poor countries with rapidly growing populations, intense competition for education, jobs and land among the young contributes to discontent and makes it easier for rebel groups to recruit, Elizabeth Leahy, the primary author of the report tells the New York Times.

A large youth population mixed with poverty and bad governance are a recipe for trouble. With projections the world will hit 9 billion inhabitants this century, PAI says there's a need to reduce birthrates and the mortality rates of infants and younger children by improving contraception programs, education for girls and health services for children and pregnant women. PAI says Nigeria, with 132 million people Africa's most populous country and a major oil producer, is a prime example of the strategic risks posed by youthful, volatile nations plagued by corruption, instability and poverty.

Almost three quarters of the country's population is under thirty and birthrates top five children per woman. Lack of education and contraception also plague the country, as does the fact that 20 percent of children die before they turn 5, something specialists say encourages couples to have more children to ensure that some survive.

Almost a billion people live in countries where birthrates average at least four children per woman, among them, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan, countries that could use help to improve infant and child survival and educate women. Failure to do so could double their population in 35 years. Aggressively pursuing family planning has had some success, the groups notes, changing national age structures in a relatively brief span of 25 years. Among them PAI notes a country which has not failed to make international headlines recently, Iran, noting that since the 1990s, Tehran has made modern contraceptives available free at public clinics, bringing births down to two children per woman, from six and a half at the time of the 1979 revolution.

A combination of shifting weather patterns and demographics will play a large part in determining the world we live in in the decades ahead, but politics is never far behind as the latest UN report has shown after its release was delayed by furious debates between diplomats and environment scientists over its wording. In the end the diplomats won out, reducing some forecasts. Instead of "hundreds of millions" of potential flood victims, the world would face "many millions" of them according to the final version made public.

Mention that 120 million people faced starvation due to global warming was eliminated altogether, at least in the finished 23-page document. Scientists say the painful un-edited truth will be available for all to see in the "technical sumary" of the report, also due to be released. Tackling systemic issues require a concerted effort among nations, and time, something that the politics can make doubly challenging.
 
 

After brief interlude, Iran back to old self


This time at least Iran thought it could come out looking  magnanimous, a rather new image for this member of the "Axis of evil" perpetually on the wrong end of international public opinion. But it didn't last very long.Days after suddenly releasing British sailors captured in March, Iran was back to its old defiance, claiming it can now produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale and setting back any attempts to ease diplomatic tensions with the West.

The US quickly pounced on the new announcement, despite doubting it. "Iran continues to defy the international community and further isolate itself by expanding its nuclear programme," a US official said after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed his country had "joined the nuclear club of nations". Britain called it "a further breach of International Atomic Energy Agency and UN resolutions", putting to the dustbins of history any signs of the goodwill that marked the release of 15 sailors intercepted in waters disputed between Iran and Iraq.

Ahmadinejad's surprise announcement of the release came days after the release of an Iranian diplomat captured in Iraq by US forces, prompting speculation of a back-room deal denied by all sides. The Iranian president made the announcement during a conference before meeting with each sailor individually. "We are grateful for your forgiveness," one of them told the beaming leader, to which he responded "good luck".

For a short while Britain hoped this would herald better relations ahead. "We bear you no ill will," British PM Tony Blair later said, addressing the Iranian people. "The disagreements with have with your government we hope to resolve peacefully through dialogue." With images of foreign hostages on television, violent embassy protests and a backdrop of rocketing oil prices, one could easily have suspected the diplomatic crisis between Britain and Iran to degenerate after over the capture of 14 UK servicemen and a woman Tehran accused of trespassing into its territorial waters.

Even early during Ahmadinejad's bombshell conference signs of a turn-around were absent as Ahmadinejad initially praised the coast guards who seized the Britons, declaring they "courageously defended and captured those who violated their territorial waters." But hopes for a diplomatic resolution improved when London called for direct talks to calm the dispute, a sign both countries were ready to drop the firy rhetoric of the previous days.

All along Britain refused Iranian demands to apologize for what Tehran considered an illegal incursion, or review its patrols of waters between Iran and Iraq and was further infuriated by so-called taped "confessions" obtained from the captives that they were indeed in Iranian waters, played in heavy rotation on Iranian TV. Tehran maintained its main stance, First Vice President Parviz Davoodi reiterating that "Britain should accept that it has invaded Iranian waters and guarantee that it will not be repeated." Britain said the sailors were seized during a routine anti-smuggling patrol in Iraqi waters conducting U.N. business at the invitation of Baghdad.

But comments by top Iranian security official Ali Larijani stressing that "there is no need for a trial" and that "this issue should be resolved bilaterally," encouraged the diplomatic process. Similarily UK Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett ruled out a military solution to the impasse.

All this was taking place as Iran faced international condemnation for its uranium enrichment program which, on the day after the capture of the soldiers, produced a unanimous vote at the U.N. Security Council to impose new sanctions against Tehran, including a ban on all Iranian arms exports and freezing assets. The U.S. is also concerned Tehran is trying to influence internal Iraqi affairs and support the insurgency.

In January five Iranians suspected of being members of the Revolutionary Guards were seized by U.S. forces, followed by the arrest of the diplomat on Feb.4, sparking outcry in Tehran. His release prompted speculation of links to the case of the sailors that Iranian officials quickly sought to discount. "People are trying to link this to the British sailors' case," foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari said in an interview. "Really, it has no connection whatsoever."  London also denied any notion of a prisoner swap, Blair insisting the release was obtained "without any deal, without any negotiation, without any side agreement of any nature whatsoever."

The stance got the approval of Washington, which has been cautiously supporting its ally in Iraq, not wanting to inflame the situation. "I also strongly support the prime minister's declaration that there should be no quid pro quos when it comes to the hostages," U.S. President Bush said. Only after the crisis was resolved did Bush accuse Iran of engaging in "hostage diplomacy", one analysts say goes back to the 444 days 52 U.S. hostages were held in Iran before their release during a now famous Canadian-assisted caper.

Internally the crisis seems to have rallied support behind president Ahmadinejad at a time of growing criticism for further isolating Iran on the nuclear issue and not delivering on economic promises despite rising oil revenues. The crisis further increased oil prices in the West, particularly in North America, where the switch to Summer gas is never an entirely smooth transition, and boosted Tehran's revenues. But Tehran's stance was further complicated by divisions within its ranks which some say at times opposes the presidency to its foreign ministry, a situation not unlike what was seen in Washington during the Bush administration, and the rising influence of Iran's Revolutionary Guard under Ahmadinejad's conservative regime.

While the incident seemed to come to terms in a way that suggested a few lines in the annals of international diplomacy, few were, and for good reason, ready to predict sweeping changes to Iran's relationship with the West in the near future. This was perhaps obvious in Blair's abandon of careful diplomatic language after the sailors returned to Britain. The British PM said the killing of four UK servicemen that same day in Iraq was a reminder of possible links between Iran and Iraq's murderous militants. "The general picture, as I said before, is that there are elements, at least, of the Iranian regime that are backing, financing, arming, supporting terrorism in Iraq," Blair said.

In fact some observers say the incident may embolden Iran to conduct similar operations in the future. “Iran has emerged from this in a win-win situation,” said former U.S.ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton. “It won by snatching them, and it won by giving them up.”

But at the same time London and Washington gave signs of new openings with Tehran. The U.S. State Department said Condoleeza Rice did not rule out bilateral talks with the Iranians at a ministerial-level meeting on Iraq next month. Blair meanwhile admitted that "new channels of communication were opened" with Tehran that it "made sense" to improve during the crisis, but denied reports London had sent Tehran a formal letter of apology. Even Tehran seemed to reach out to bridge the distance between itself and the West, hoping Britain would initiate "any step that could defuse tensions in the region" as a "show of goodwill" following the release. But, practically in the same breath, Iran's latest nuclear announcement seemed to mark a quick return to the old environment of mefiance.

As for the sailors themselves, a warm and sometimes tearful welcome home by relatives did not put aside questions about their behavior during the ordeal, which some critics blasted as shameful and humiliating. U.K. Defense Secretary Des Browne on the other hand said the sailors had behaved appropriately and with dignity throughout, considering their young age. Critics however questioned British training techniques and support, saying their operation had been under-protected despite the presence of a nearby navy ship.

Initial plans to allow the sailors to sell their stories to details-hungry British media were however scrapped after a wave of criticism they could be viewed as benefiting from the ordeal, while other troops endured a less lucrative predicament in Iraq. By then however the woman of the group had sold her story for thousands of dollars.
 
 

Révolution perpétuelle


Après la révolution de velours, d'orange ou encore celle de cèdre, l'Ukraine élabore un concept unique: la révolution perpétuelle. En effet les foules, de retour en grand nombre dans les rues de la capitale, ne semblent jamais avoir pris leur congé trois ans après la révolution orange, le début d'un long téléroman politique qui a divisé des groupes pro-occidentaux, renforcé leur opposition pro-russe et vient de provoquer un quatrième appel aux urnes en deux ans et demi. Mais cette fois les 10,000 manifestants arboraient le bleu russophile plutôt que l'orange.
 
Devant dorénavant composer à la fois avec un parlement à majorité pro-russe et une rivale anciennement de son camp, celle-même dont le limogeage avait fait plonger ses cotes de popularité, le président Viktor Iouchtchenko a finalement décidé de dissoudre la Rada en vue d'un scrutin le 27 mai , mettant fin à la difficile cohabitation avec le Premier ministre pro-russe Viktor Ianoukovitch. Du moins c'est ce qu'il pensait, avant de se buter à l'opposition de ce dernier, qui l'accuse d'abus de pouvoir.
 
Une nouvelle élection? Voilà un pari plutôt osé pour cette figure emblématique, et partiellement défigurée, de la révolution de 2004 dont la fortune politique a rétréci comme une peau de chagrin dans les mois qui ont suivi son investiture. Les sondages placent son parti bien en-deçà de celle du Premier ministre, et même de sa rivale Ioulia Timochenko. La popularité du camp pro-russe (40%) dépasse de peu celui de la totalité du camp orange, lui-même sur la voie de la réconciliation; une représentation plutôt fidèle à la division géographique qui fait lorgner l'est vers Moscou alors que l'ouest est plus proche du camp occidental et européen.
 
Alors que Ianoukovitch a rejeté la dissolution, qu'il juge illégale, risquant de provoquer l'instabilité du pays en approfondissant la crise politique, celui-ci serait prêt à accepter un vote parlementaire s'il était accompagné d'un scrutin présidentiel. Pour certains observateurs, la fidélité de l'armée et des services de sécurité au chef d'Etat évite de rendre une situation tendue plus explosive.
 
La crise a été provoquée par les accusations contre le camp Ianoukovitch d'encourager des parlementaires orangistes à changer de camp, ce que près d'une douzaine de personnes a effectivement fait le mois dernier, allant à l'encontre de la constitution, qui permet uniquement la défection de factions, et non d'individus. Si le camp pro-russe rassemblait les deux-tiers des parlementaires il pourrait éviter tout véto présidentiel et modifier la constitution.
 
Iouchtchenko a fait savoir à Ianoukovitch que sa décision de dissoudre le parlement était définitive et l'a mis en garde contre tout recours à la force. Il menace son Premier ministre de poursuites pénales s'il ne se soumet pas au décret de dissolution, mais le parti de Ianoukovitch attend à la Cour constitutionnelle de se prononcer sur la validité du décret, ce qu'elle devrait faire d'ici un mois. Ianoukovitch a qualifié la dissolution d'"erreur fatale", et les réunions entre les deux hommes ne semblent pas avoir apporté quelque changement au dossier. Pourtant une élection risque de ne pas mettre un terme à l'impasse qui a suivi les législatives de l'an dernier en forçant une cohabitation plutôt explosive.
 
Bien plus démocratique que plusieurs autres anciennes républiques de l'URSS, l'Ukraine paraît pourtant à court d'institutions et de réglementations capables de mettre fin à la crise, en passant par la Cour constitutionnelle, peu imperméable aux influences politiques. L'heure est grave pour Ianoukovitch, qui était paru en héros après avoir survécu à une tentative d'empoisonnement digne des meilleurs polars de la guerre froide, avant d'être éventuellement déclaré vainqueur de la présidentielle de 2004, mettant un terme au règne de Leonid Koutchma. Mais les pouvoirs du chef de l'Etat ont depuis été réduits, ayant été accusé par les libéraux de tergiversations.
 
Les pays de la région suivent avec inquiétude la crise actuelle, Moscou exhortant la classe politique ukrainienne à faire preuve de retenue et l'Allemagne, présidente en exercice de l'Union européenne, adressant à Kiev un message similaire. 
 


Minorité libérale


La lutte à deux fut serrée, mais pas celle à laquelle on s'attendait. C'est après 10 heures du soir que les libéraux ont finalement pu souffler, ayant battu les surprenants adéquistes de Mario Dumont au photo finish. Charest lui, qui luttait pour son siège de Sherbrooke, a dû attendre une heure de plus avant de battre l'adéquiste dans ce microcosme de comté des Cantons de l'Est.

Les péquistes de l'impopulaire Denis Boisclair avaient depuis longtemps rendu l'âme, tout comme sa chefferie ou encore les rêves d'un nouveau référendum pour bientôt. Car c'est avant tout cette vision de dualité du paysage québécois qui a fait les frais de la campagne, mettant au placard, pour l'heure du moins, le duel fédéraliste-séparatiste qui depuis les années 70 empoisonne la belle province. Les chiffres le disaient haut et fort puisqu'avec moins de 30 pourcent des suffrages, le PQ n'avait pas connu un résultat aussi minable depuis René Lévesque. Le paysage provincial vient-il de changer à jamais? Pas aux yeux de Boisclair, sommant les "millions de Québécois" qui veulent l'indépendance de se préparer pour l'avenir, mais un avenir sans lui.

A l'autre extrémité à la fois du discours, des émotions et du St-Laurent, Dumont, l'incarnation du ras-le- bol des anciens partis, fêtait la grande soirée qui avait confirmé sa véritable arrivée en grande sur la scène politique. Avec 41 sièges, sept à peine de moins que les libéraux et 15 de plus que le PQ, le jeune chef avait fait bien plus qu'atteint le statut de parti officiel (12 sièges) mais celui d'opposition officielle, à présent fief de ces anciens libéraux dont la plupart sont inconnus. A son tour de convier les électeurs, à "la prochaine étape", non pas l'indépendance, pour faire changement, mais une majorité ADQ. A entendre les "Ma-rio! Ma-rio!" des partisans en liesse il y avait presque de quoi se croire dans l'ancien Forum.

Ces boulversements ont presque fait oublier un autre détail historique de la soirée: l'élection d'un gouvernement minoritaire au Québec pour la première fois depuis 1878, au temps des chapeaux haut-de-forme et des calèches. Il faudra dorénavant conjuguer avec les autres partis, du moins pendant les mois qu'un tel gouvernement survivra. Ce changement politique, sans entièrement se fier aux autres, c'est un peu ce que cherchaient les Québécois en prônant la minorité: «Ils ont constaté qu'au niveau fédéral ça a l'air de fonctionner» estime le politologue Pierre Martin de l'Université de Montréal.

Seule chose, note Antonia Maioni de McGill, c'est qu'on n'y a pas l'habitude des gouvernements de coalition, par conséquent les questions se règleront au cas par cas:  « Nous travaillerons avec tous les partis à l'Assemblée nationale. C'est un grand défi de cohésion , déclarait Charest le soir du vote. Les Québécois ont décidé d'écrire une page d'histoire ce soir. J'accepte ce défi. Nous serons dignes de cette confiance. » Le gouvernement sera d'ailleurs "sous surveillance" affirme le dirigeant "autonomiste" de Rivière-du-Loup qui venait de multiplier par huit son nombre de sièges. Car la leçon a été sévère pour les libéraux, sans pour autant refuser pour une première fois en 40 ans, de retourner un élu provincial au pouvoir. « Le gouvernement Charest a été impopulaire, c'est un votre protestataire » estime Maioni.

Impopulaire pour ne pas avoir gardé ses promesses de coupures fiscales importantes, ou d'éliminer les listes d'attente pour les interventions chirurgicales. Enfin la liste est longue. Mais plus populaire que les autres quand même.

Le résultat a plutôt bien été accueilli à Ottawa, qui avait traité le Québec aux petits oignons lors du dernier budget fédéral, à une semaine de l'élection, et où on avait ouvertement exprimé une préférence pour un parti fédéraliste. En guise de boni, les gains de l'ADQ ont peint une partie de la province d'un bleu conservateur encore mieux reçu à Ottawa, où les chiffres améliorés du parti de Stephen Harper laissent planer la possiblité d'une majorité conservatrice, et donc d'une nouvelle élection fédérale. Car le sort de Harper était quelque peu lié à la scène politique québécoise, où il espère pouvoir trouver les sièges d'une majorité dans la chambre des Communes.

Même s'il se réjouit du résultat, estimant que les deux tiers des Québécois ont voté pour autre chose que des souverainistes, Harper résiste encore à la tentation de lancer des élections: « Le public ne m'a pas élu pour que j'attende des occasions d'élections » a-t-il déclaré. Libéraux et bloquistes en sont rassurés, les premiers avec un chef impopulaire les seconds encore sonnés par le scrutin au Québec. Dans la belle province pendant ce temps, Boisclair a dû admettre que la souveraineté était "souhaitable, mais à court terme pas réalisable". Parlait-il de sa chefferie?
 
 
 
Zimbabwe faces even more isolation


A closed eye on a puffy and blackened face, a head scarred from lacerations and riding a wheelchair, Morgan Tsvangirai is the battered face of Zimbabwe's heroic opposition to a regime whichn ranks among the most ruthless in Africa. The latest arrest of the man charged with treason many times over was in the company of some 50 supporters following a peaceful demonstration now met with a ritualistic crackdown.
 
The latest has met particularly strong international condemnation at a time Robert Mugabe's dictatorship seems to be faltering. This Winter the 83-year-old's attempt to prolong his leadership indefinitely was rejected by members of his Zanu-PF party, some of whom he later accused of plotting against him with the help of Western countries. Mugabe said Western critics should "go hang" as they threatened to extend sanctions to his already isolated country.
 
Shunned by the West, Mugabe, the country's leader since independence in 1980, said that not only would he not bow to party pressure to step down but may run again next year, when his latest six-year term expires, if his party picks him as candidate.
 
Over the weekend his crackdown of the opposition continued when Nelson Chamisa, the spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change, was beaten with iron bars when he tried to head to the airport for a flight to Brussels to meet with EU officials. The government has served notice it would bar other government critics from foreign travel. His latest injuries added to his woes as he was among scores of opposition activists beaten and arrested and beat on March 11 as they tries to stage an antigovernment prayer meeting south of Harare.
 
Another government critic, Arthur Mutambara, was also arrested as he sought to leave Harare to fly to South Africa. Two others who had been seriously injured in the March 11 beatings, were stopped as they sought to fly to South Africa to seek medical treatment.
 
Police meanwhile say attacks such as the firebombing of a Harare police station which left two policewomen in hospital, which it blamed on the "armed wing" of the MDC, justified "necessary force to ensure peace and stability is maintained".
 
A man with few friends, the increasingly isolated Mugabe has been criticized for ruining the breadbasket of the region by seizing white-owned farms that fed much of its population. In addition inflation is running rampant, its annual rate running over 1,700 percent, adding to an already staggering poverty rate of 80 percent.
 
The crisis is reaching such epic proportions that it has united recently divided factions of the MDC, leading to a ban of political gatherings and a violent crackdown of those failing to comply.
Tsvangirai is accusing Mugabe of setting "hit squads" against opposition members. "Instead of random beatings at police stations, [Mugabe] is now using hit squads, unidentified men, unidentified vehicles," he told a British newspaper. "But we know there are units of state agents that have been given this assignment."
 
Amid the violence and the chaos however, the MDC leader sees the light at the end of Zimbabwe's long and dark tunnel. “Things are bad, but I think this crisis has reached a tipping point, and we could be seeing the beginning of the end of this dictatorship,” he told the BBC soon after his hospital release. "I think people are turning the corner, they're not afraid anymore," agreed U.S. ambassador Christopher Dell. The diplomat also said police were trying to distance themselves from the violence. “Police are trying to distance themselves from the repression,” Dell said. “Police officers feel insecure. We are told some are afraid to wear their uniforms back and forth to work.”
 
The Southern African Development Community meanwhile appointed Tanzania, traditionally a close ally of Mr Mugabe, along with Namibia and Lesotho to seek a solution to the political crisis in Zimbabwe. Tsvangirai called on the regional group's leaders to intervene in the violence. "I am frantically trying to link up with SADC ambassadors to ask them to restrain a fellow member state from the bloodletting, which goes against universal conflict resolution principles," he told reporters.
 

Confessing 9-11 Mastermind old-school by new standards

There wasn't a lot left out when Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the so-called mastermind of 9-11, started on a string of confessions during a military hearing held in the controversial prison of Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, last weekend, according to a transcript released by U.S. military. The long list of some 30 attacks around the world, some neither executed nor previously disclosed, were topped by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks against New York and Washington.

That wasn't all, Mohammed also claimed direct responsibility for the gruesome beheading of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002, in a tone which suggested neither remorse nor aversion for details. "I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan," he says in the transcript. "For those who like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head."

The high-profile case was but one of 31 cases of attack, some of which never occurred, including previously undisclosed plans to kill several former U.S. presidents including Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. His claim of responsibility for the 9-11 attacks was unequivocal. "I was responsible for the 9-11 operation from A to Z," the 26-page transcript reveals, a statement which, along with some other claims, are considered somewhat exaggerated.

For all its terrorist credentials, Mohammed's testimony was a look back into the past, representing an earlier generation of men determined to strike against America. The new one may lie in miserable refugee camps that dot Third world coutries, like the Nahr al Bared refugee camp in Northern Lebanon, where a threatening product of Palestinian refugee camps was uttering threats aimed no solely at the reviled U.S. military presence in the Muslim world, an argument also made by Osama bin Laden, but U.S. families living half a word away.

"We have every legitimate right to do such acts, for isn't it America that comes to our region and kills innocents and children?" asked Shakir al-Abssi, a former associated of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq who was killed last year and was himself sentenced to death in abstentia for the 2002 death of an American diplomat in Jordan. "It is our right to hit them in their homes the same way they hit us in our homes. We are not afraid of being named terrorists."

Palestinian camps in the region have always been a fertile ground for militants, including Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization, and local authorities tell the New York Times they are helpless to prevent either threats or the training of militants there, as an intervention in the camps would require the approval of other Arab countries, even if a number of them, such as Syria and Jordan, wants Abssi on terror charges.

Abssi, the leader of militant Islamic organization Fatah al-Islam, represents the new foot soldiers of the al-Qaida brand of Muslim militancy, which dictates the methods to be used, often in contradiction with traditional Muslim law, and occasionally the orders.

“Originally, the killing of innocents and children was forbidden,” Mr. Abssi says. “However, there are situations in which the killing of such is permissible. One of these exceptions is those that kill our women and children. Osama bin Laden does make the fatwas. Should his fatwas follow the Sunnah,” or Islamic law, he said, “we will carry them out.”

While Abssi says he refuses to plan attacks in his home base of Lebanon, he didn't hesitate to send some of his men to Jordan this January when police had a three-hour battle with two suspected terrorists in the northern city of Irbid, killing one of the men. Lebanon isn't out of bounds either. Last week four members of the group were arrested for the The Feb. 13 bombings of two buses on a mountain road northeast of Beirut that left three people dead and 20 wounded.

From Lebanon to Morocco, through Tunisia, the region is being rocked by attacks by militant organizations local governments have not hesitated to come down hard on. This week police in Morocco arrested 18 people in connection with a suicide bomb attack on an internet cafe in Casablanca, killing the bomber and injuring four, and were searching for half a dozen more.

The attack was reportedly the result of an argument with the owner of the cafe, for refusing to allow the bomber, identified as Abdelfettah Raydi, to access jihadist sites. He was reportedly doing so to send or receive information on where to detonate the explosives he was carrying. Some of those arrested have been linked to a series of suicide bombings which killed 33 people in 2003. The fact that the attack occurred in the slum of Sidi Moumen, where the attackers were reportedly from, supports arguments by some that misery can be a breeding ground for groups supporting terrorism.

The country has been on a terror watch for over a month after receiving tips of possible attacks from Western intelligence sources.  "Morocco in particularly targeted by terror organizations, that's why security measures have been reinforced in the last days," government spokesman Nabil Benabdellah told Liberation. The cyber cafe had seen evidence of this security crackdown of public places, especially transportation hubs and airport, since the government said it dismantled the Ansar El Mahdi militant group, which reportedly included member of the military. In the mean time authorities were arresting Moroccan national Saad Houssaini for link to the Casablanca attacks and those of Madrid a year later.

Sometimes it feels much of North Africa is under alert. In nearby Algeria the formation in January of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), formerly the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GPSC), seemed to point to a convergence of resources by North African militants under an al-Qaida-inspired umbrella. Further east Tunisian authorities were cracking down on militant groups weeks after a series of gunbattles in January killed a dozen militants targeting U.S. and British embassies.

Tunisia and Algeria are now joining forces to combat AQIM, composed of the last Algerian militants tied to the Armed Islamic Group which led the decade-long civil war, to refuse to drop their weapons. The view from both capitals and the U.S. is that militants want to spread extremism across North Africa and join the remnants of al-Qaida into a new international force for jihad. The group also claimed responsibility for seven nearly simultaneous bombings that destroyed police stations in towns east of Algiers, killing six.

Officials said that six of the extremists killed in the Tunisia attack had crossed into the country from neighboring Algeria. Their targets also reportedly included hotels and nightclubs in this prized destination for European tourists where tourist areas are well guarded and authorities have created resentment by cracking down hard on militant groups.

Such al-Qaida inspired groups however say their are operationally independent from Osama bin Laden's organization. "Al-Qaida has its strategy, we have ours," insist members of Fatah al-Islam. But the group's suspected ties of Salafist groups only reinforces the notion of a dangerous convergence of militant activity stretching all across Northern Africa into Lebanon. "We're in contact with other islamists with whom we share our project," the group tells Liberation. "We're not yet at the recruiting stage but those who want to join us to fight against the Jews are welcome." A message Khalid Shaikh Mohammed would have personally approved.
 
 
 
Bush on tour


The riots that greeted U.S. president George W. Bush in Brazil where he launched a "we care" tour of five Latin American countries were a reminder of America's general unpopularity since engaging in the war in Iraq in 2003. Coming days after a global BBC poll in which more than half of 28,000 respondents from 27 countries considered the U.S. unfavorably, the welcome also highlighted the ideological clash between the super-power and a continent which has progressively been swept by leftist parties in the last few years.

Leading the way was Brazil itself, with the election of president Lula da Silva in 2000, now father of a small revolution. While the recently re-elected leader welcomed Bush politely despite differences which prevent visits by each other’s citizens without visa, his leftist party was supporting the massive demonstrations in the streets where protesters clashed with police under clouds of tear gas.

The clashes underscored the difficulty of Bush's mission; showing a little heart towards his long neglected neighbors, even saluting the hero of South America’s independence struggle Simon Bolivar as someone who “belongs to all of us who love liberty.”

This elicited mockery from Caracas, where president Hugo Chavez, for whom Bolivar was an idol, said that all that Bush’s surprising conversion lacked was his trademark red beret, and invited him to enter into an alliance with Venezuela and Cuba. The personification of opposition to America’s policies in Latin America, Chavez held a counter-protest in Argentina while Bush was arriving in Uruguay, pointing out “our planes will almost cross paths.”

The last time both men crossed path Chavez had mocked that Bush had left behind an odour of sulfur, when he addressed the U.N.’s general assembly. Bush’s complicated schedule, also taking him to Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, conspicuously avoided Venezuela.

Local media reports weren’t any kinder to the visiting president, one Sao Paulo paper downplaying America’s aid increase to the region as a drop compared to the money Washington was willing to pour into the war in Iraq. Revered as a champion of the poor for policies like providing cheap gas to underprivileged communities, including some in the U.S., Chavez’s leftist machismo is meanwhile leaving some of his neighbors wary of his firebrand revolutionary rhetoric.

A recent poll of some 20,000 Latin Americans left him practically as unpopular as Bush, scoring 4.4 out of 10, barely higher than Fidel Castro. Domestically, Chavez’s decision to embrace all the markings of autocracy by seeking indefinite re-lection, nationalizing “strategic” companies and instituting rule by decree, has not won him many fans, even among sympathetic political supporters who have resisted calls to join political parties under his leadership.

While Chavez enjoys the support of the poor, winning 63% of the vote when he was re-elected, his performance ratings are down to 41% from 49% in November, as questions about his policies arise. Bush’s Latin American tour seemed to want to at least partly counter Chavez’s influence in the region, promoting the development of ethanol as an alternate source of fuel, a slap at Venezuela’s growing might as an oil-producing nation.

Car-infested Sao Paulo, a city surprisingly less polluted by exhaust fumes than many smaller ones, can consider itself lucky it’s in a country that draws 45% of its fuel from sugarcane-derived ethanol, which makes Brazil and the U.S., the two largest ethanol producers in the world.

In addition to alternative biofuels, Bush says he wants to bring alternative governance to leftist South America. “I strongly believe that government-run industry is inefficient and will lead to more poverty,” he said before leaving. “So the United States brings a message of open markets and open governments to the region.”

A message some countries have been averse to ever since the Chiapas revolt which ushered in the North American Free-Trade Area in the previous decade. Free-trade is one-way trade many Latin Americans claim, an argument the barriers to Brazil's ethanol exports to the U.S. do not undermine.
 
 

La France et les colonies


L’ “accord politique de Ouagadougou” sur la Côte d’Ivoire tiendra-t-il et fera-t-il à nouveau de ce pays d’Afrique occidentale un havre de paix et de prospérité exemplaire sur le continent? Il faut l’espérer car la France ne songe qu’à une chose depuis qu’elle s’est à nouveau embourbée dans cette ancienne colonie il y a quelques années: retirer les 3 500 troupes qui depuis 2002 assurent la protection de la zone de confiance mais non sans parfois se retrouver au milieu des crises intestines.

En fait s’il faut croire les propos sur la politique étrangère du candidat présidentiel Nicolas Sarkozy, prononcés le mois dernier, le retrait des troupes du pays serait un geste prémonitoire pour l’ancienne patrie hexagonale qui vise à réduire sa présence militaire de manière générale sur le contient noir. La première fonction de la légion sur le continent “c’est d’aider l’Union africaine à construire une architecture de paix et une sécurité régionale” en Afrique, a-t-il dit. “Mais aujourd’hui elles conduisent parfois la France à devoir s’impliquer dans une crise à titre humanitaire pour préserver la sécurité des populations civiles et des ressortissants étrangers.”

Il s’agit par conséquent de s’assurer à ce que cette présence soit “limitée au strict minimum, lorsque l’Union africaine se sera dotée d’une capacité stratégique et militaire de rétablir elle-même la légalité internationale sur le continent”, a-t-il estimé. “Je souhaite donc que l’armée française reste au service de la sécurité de l’Afrique mais de préférence sous mandat de l’ONU et de l’Union africaine.”

De plus le dernier sommet France-Afrique du président Chirac tenu sur la côte d’Azur devrait marquer la fin d’une époque. “Je pense aussi que nous ne pouvons pas nous contenter de la seule personnalisation de nos relations. Les relations entre des Etats modernes ne peuvent pas dépendre de la seule qualité des relations personnelles entre les chefs d’Etat”, a-t-il enchainé.

En fait c’est la fin d’une époque remontant de plusieurs siècles sur ce continent où intérêts américains et chinois se sont substitués à ceux des empires britanniques et français, sans évidemment chercher à en être la copie conforme: « Je ne suis pas de ceux qui s’effrayent de l’expansion économique chinoise ou américaine en Afrique (...). L’Afrique n’est pas notre pré-carré, même si nous y avons une histoire, une ambition, des partenaires», prétend Sarkozy.

Avant sa candidature, en tant que ministre de l’intérieur, Sarkozy avait déjà annoncé un certain changement en prônant une politique d’ “immigration choisie”, lors de déplacements en Afrique occidentale, qui n’avaient pas toujours été bien reçus.

Depuis la France n’est pas restée indifférente sur le vieux-continent, intervenant également au Togo et en république Centrafricaine, où des soldats français se sont heurtés aussi récemment que ces derniers jours aux rebelles après un raid de l’aviation française. Les troupes françaises sont campées en Centrafrique depuis le mois de décembre lorsqu’un commando spécial assisté de l’aviation se sont engagés à combattre les rebelles dans le nord. Selon certains diplomates les troupes gouvernementales ne contrôlent pas la très grande majorité de ce pays plus étendu que la France.

Comme en Côte d’Ivoire c’est une tentative de coup d’Etat qui a parti le bal en Centrafrique. Las de ces interventions à répétition, l’ancien pays colonisateur y voir tout de même une certaine obligation, en raison du manque d’alternative. « Soit la France n’intervient pas, et on l’accuse de manquer à ses engagements bilatéraux et d’abandonner des gouvernements souverains et des peuples en détresse ! Soit elle intervient, et on lui reproche de s’ingérer dans les affaires intérieures d’un Etat souverain!» notait Sarkozy, faisant remarquer par ailleurs que la jeunesse africaine est bien moins à l’aise avec la présence des bases françaises sur le continent.

Une Afrique laissée aux africains et apaisée par eux, c’est peut-être pour très bientôt. Le président du Burkina Faso Blaise Compaoré semble être de ceux qui incarnent ces espoirs, étant parvenu à faire signer des accords prometteurs au Togo, en août dernier, aboutissant à la formation d’un gouvernement d’union nationale et à l’organisation d’élections, puis plus récemment en Côte d’Ivoire, rapprochant le camp présidentiel de la rébellion, qui se divisent le pays.

Après l’échec du gouvernement d’union nationale suit un plan qui doit s’étirer sur dix mois en promettant d’abord la formation d’un nouveau gouvernement, et ultimement les élections sans cesse repoussées depuis 2005. Eventuellement les forces françaises seraient retirées pour préparer ce que le président ivoirien Laurent Gbagbo appelle “la paix en Afrique et par l’Afrique”. Reste à voir si la formule peut s'exporter, entre autre en Centrafrique, où elle est déjà en demande.
 
 

Impasse dans le sable


Autonomie oui, indépendance non, ce message du gouvernment marocain risque de prolonger l'impasse de plus de trente ans qui perdure au Sahara occidental, dernier vestige de la décolonisation du continent noir. Car le Front Polisario qui depuis les années 70 dame le pion à Rabat a déjà rejeté les propositions que le royaume doit présenter au Conseil de sécurité de L'ONU le mois prochain en vue d'une résolution du conflit.

En effet les Saharaouis n'ont pas oublié les promesses de référendum sous l'égide de l'ONU qui ont mis un terme aux hostilités en 1991 et sont loins d'abandonner leur rêver d'indépendance. Or celui-ci est exclu s'il faut croire l'ambassadeur itinérant du royaume, Hassan Abouyoub, pour qui "aucune raison valable" n'existe pour organiser un plebiscite. D'ailleurs, le Maroc a beau ne pas jouer dans la cour des grands, la séparation serait un geste "dramatique et grave" dans une région du monde "si géostratégique" dont le potentiel gaso-pétrolier est reconnu en Europe et aux Etats-Unis, dit-il. Ces derniers d'ailleurs, particulièrement alarmés par l'extrémiste fondamentaliste sur le continent, n'accepteraient jamais l'existence d'un Sahara occidental indépendant et incapable de proprement défendre ses frontières, prétend Abouyoub.

C'est un peu le message véhiculé par une délégation marocaine qui parcoure actuellement les grandes capitales pour faire la promotion du projet d'autonomie du Conseil royal consultatif pour les affaires sahariennes, qui propose la mise sur pied d'un gouvernement, d'un parlement et d'une autorité judiciaire autonome dans la région au sud du Maroc, mais pas d'indépendance, pas même de référendum.

Pourtant une quasi-indépendance voit presque le jour depuis l'abandon de la région par le colonisateur espagnol en 1975, marqué par plusieurs murs de séparation. En effet lors des années 80 le Maroc a érigé un mur de 2 720 kilomètres, bâti en six étapes, pour diviser les habitants de la région. Quelques 160 000 soldats, une importante part de l'armée, y sont affectés, appuyés par 240 batteries d'artillerie lourde et plus 20 000 Km de barbelés, plusieurs blindés et champs de mines antipersonnelles, qui lui valent chez ses détracteurs l'appellation de "mur de la honte". Achevé en 1987, le mur cherche à défendre le "Sahara utile" qui compte des richesses en mines et phosphates contrôlées par le Maroc. Selon certains observateurs, ces richesses, ainsi que le potentiel en pétrole de la côte, laissent le Maroc intraitable sur le statut de la région.

Conflit oublié par les crises plus pressantes en Iraq et en Afghanistan, même sur le continent africain, déjà aux prises avec les conflits du Darfour et de la Somalie, il est à l'origine d'une crise humanitaire dans les camps de réfugiés de l'ouest algérien, ou se sont rassemblés presque 100 000 Saharaouis fuyant les hostilités. Le mois dernier les agences humanitaires de l'ONU soulignaient un besoin d'intervention dans ces camps insalubres ou sévit la famine.

Visited by terror again

Everybody had a good laugh when an Australian TV show host dressed up as Osama bin Laden and got passed security at the APEC summit in Sydney in a mock Canadian motorcade. But the reality sunk in soon after when the world's, still, most sought-after man appeared in a video message calling for an intensification of the insurgency in Iraq and praised the 9-11 hijackers, calling on others to join the “caravan” of martyrs.

In the first video purportedly from bin Laden in three years, he called on Americans to embrace Islam and do away with their democratic system of government. While the message contained no over threat, U.S. intelligence officials reminded that al-Qaida has regained strength and its leadership continues to plot a “high-impact” attack on the United States.

The reminder bin Laden is still running free, arrests in Germany and Denmark days before the 6th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and two attacks in Algeria that left dozens dead, have kept the threat of terrorism more real than ever. The two bin Laden videos, aired days apart and coinciding with the anniversary,were the last showing bin Laden since a video statement aired to coincide with the November 2004 U.S. presidential election. Since then, he has issued several audio messages, the last one in July 2006 in which he vowed al-Qaida would fight the United States anywhere in the world.

That threat rang true in Germany last week where authorities arrested three people and were seeking ten more on suspicion of planning a “massive” terrorist attack on U.S. facilities in the country. German federal prosecutor Monika Harms said the three had trained at camps in Pakistan and procured some 700kg of chemicals for explosives and were seeking to target facilities visited by Americans, such as nightclubs, pubs or airports.

Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung said the men had posed “an imminent threat” after weeks of being monitored, and some media reports said they were planning attacks against the US military base in Ramstein and Frankfurt airport. That U.S. base is also used to treat Canadian and other NATO soldiers suffering from important casualties while Frankfurt airport is continental Europe’s busiest.

In a method more familiar to the streets of Baghdad than Berlin, officials said the men, aged 22, 28 and 29, planned to use vehicles loaded with explosives to kill or injure large numbers of people. The suspects are alleged to be members of the German cell of a group identified as Islamic Jihad Union, possibly linked to al-Qaida. Two of the men were German nationals who had converted to Islam, while the third was a Turkish man.

The country is home to a large Turkish minority of 2.7 million people which now faces intense scrutiny. Authorities moved in when it became clear, after six months of observation, that they were about to move their huge stores of hydrogen peroxide. Germany, which has some 3,500 soldiers in Afghanistan in a mostly non-combat role but did not send troops to Iraq, has been largely spared terrorist attacks hitting European countries, such as Britain and Spain. As in the U.K., the threat of home-grown terrorism has been a concern in Germany, where it emerged a cell had used it as a base for planning the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.

Facing a parliamentary debate on the war, German officials and other NATO allies have been asking Canada to "stay the course" in Afghanistan, a country where it could end its military mission in 2009. “Canada is a really important country as a role model for others. It would have consequences for the whole alliance and for the whole Western world if Canada would leave Afghanistan,” Eckart von Klaeden, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s foreign-policy spokesman told the Globe and Mail last week.

Canadian officials heard the same plea in Ottawa, which was hosting a gathering of NATO leaders, especially from the Netherlands, a country with which it once shared the same affinity for U.N. peacekeeping missions. While Canada and the Netherlands currently handle major combat roles in the south of the country, German officials said they had no desire to move their activities into this more troubled region.

While it has more troops in the mostly peaceful northern part of the country, Germany has suffered only 21 fatalities since the beginning of combat operations, compared to 70 for Canada. As in Canada there is strong domestic opposition to the war, 65 percent of people polled calling for an immediate withdrawal. There is growing concern in Germany that joining NATO's efforts in Afghanistan alone has been enough to make it become a target of terror groups. “I think we are only successful if we stand together, and if the terrorists would identify Germany as the weakest link in NATO’s chain," Mr. von Klaeden said. "I think this would increase the probability of such attacks. So standing together is really very, very important.” 

Meanwhile another long-lasting investigation ended, on the same day as the German arrests, when Danish authorities stepped in to arrest eight people in the Copenhagen area, also on suspicion of plotting a bomb attack and having links to Al-Qaida. Investigators described the threat as imminent and said the arrests were the result of an international investigation that had lasted several months.

Police arrested Danish citizens of Afghan, Pakistani, Somali or Turkish backgrounds, some of them accused of having connections to “high-ranking members of Al-Qaida,” according to Jakob Scharf, director of the Danish intelligence service. Some European intelligence officials told the New York Times that “members of the group started to get different chemicals, which you can use for the making of explosives,” and probably planned to use them in Denmark.

The country was the object of Muslim anger in 2005 when a Danish newspaper provoked an international fury by publishing cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. A member of NATO, Denmark has a small troop presence of 400 soldiers in Afghanistan but also participated in the war in Iraq.

Super, dites-vous?

Si c'était ça la grande série de '72, la génération actuelle ne peut pas très bien saisir pourquoi on en a fait tout un pâté. Les jeunes Canadiens sans pitié n'ont pas fini de blanchir les juniors russes chez eux, 4 matches à 0, qu'ils ont poursuivi le massacre à domicile.

On est loin de la série captivante, en plein coeur du duel des superpuissances nucléaires, qui a violemment foudroyé la conscience collective, plutôt présomptueuse, au Canada, et marqué le réveil d'un géant qui n'allait enregistrer là que les premiers d'une importantes série de grains sur l'aréna internationale et donner un sens sans égal à la formule de "guerre froide".

Un des architectes de ce revirement titanesque, Vladislav Tretiak, avait pourtant plaidé en faveur d'un événement sportif important pour marquer les 35 ans de la série du siècle. Sa proposition fut accueillie avec autant d'enthousiasme, il faut le souligner, que la série originelle, mais cette fois avec raison sans doute.

Les grands ayant déjà assez d'une saison de 82 matches parfois agrémentée d'une coupe du monde irrégulière et d'une participation olympique aux résultats, cette fois, irréguliers, les organisateurs se sont tournés vers les rangs juniors, à quelques semaines du coup d'envoi de leur saison, pour plaire au légendaire gardien. Ce dernier a dû être déçu du résultat. Ou de la relève.

Les premières parties disputées dans les mecques du hockey russe que son Ufa et Omsk se sont soldées par des décisions assez nettes et assez dépourvues de bras d'honneur ou de jets de chaises sur la glace. Certains ont beau dire que le régime actuel du président Vladimir Poutine n'a jamais autant ressemblé à celui de ces prédecesseurs au poste de secrétaire-général du Parti communiste, la rigueur soviétique n'était pas au rendez-vous.

L'inverse peut-être. D'une part l'équipe canadienne a aisément remporté la première manche du tournoi, organisée en Russie plutôt qu'au Canada cette fois, puis les magiciens de la rondelle, battant de leur jeu d'équipe supérieur une troupe d'individus jouant perso d'un bout à l'autre de la glace, arboraient la feuille d'érable.

Les plus âgés de cette foule venue assister aux déconfitures de 4-2, 3-0, 6-2 et 4-2 ne pouvaient que pousser un long soupir légèrement alcoolisé. A la maison, encore une fois dans ces temples du sport national que son Saskatoon et Red Deer, cette même bastonnade sans émotion: 6-1, 4-1.

Exception au septième match où les Canadiens ont dû revenir de l'arrière à deux reprises pour terminer le match à égalité 4-4. Au lieu de balayer la série, les Canadiens allaient devoir se contenter d'un tournoi sans défaite, remportant l'ultime rencontre 6-1 et portant les buts dans la série à 39-13 en faveur du Canada. Dur de se souvenir qu'il s'agissait de l'équipe rencontrée en finale des juniors plus tôt cette année, vers un 3e titre consécutif.

Il y avait de quoi faire soupirer le ministre des sports, l'ancienne étoile Slava Fetisov, qualifiant la prestation russe de "honteuse". Pas plus facile pour les autres? Après le balayage des premiers matches "on sentait que les gens n’étaient pas emballés par cette série, raconte le défenseur Karl Alzner, ça vous déprime un peu, mais on sait que les gens d’ici ne veulent pas nous voir perdre des parties non plus."

Sarko le vitaminé

On peine à suivre son rythme effréné, ce “super-vitaminé”, cet “hyperactif”, mais alors que les superlatifs collent plutôt à un jeune qu’on verrait vite regagner les bancs d'école en cette rentrée, celui-ci effectue sa rentrée à l’Elysée. En effet, les cent jours du président français Nicolas Sarkozy ont eu de quoi étourdir une troupe d’acrobates du Cirque du Soleil.

Le jeune chef d’Etat, vu il n’y a pas si longtemps passer quelques moments de relaxation aux Etats-Unis, torse nu, a lors de ses premières semaines à la présidence réaffirmé l’importance du projet européen, si indélicatement gifflé par l’électorat en 2005, encouragé une intervention humanitaire au Darfour, assisté à la libération des infirmières bulgares en Libye, tout en chantant les louanges d’une union de la Méditerranée, puis envoyé son ministre des affaires extérieures en Irak et au Liban, tout en proclamant la libération des otages prisonniers des rebelles en Colombie la priorité de son quinquennat.

Attendez up peu qu’il passe à l’Asie. Cet agenda essoufflant a été rappelé lors de son premier discours de politique extérieure à la fin du mois d’août lors de la 15e conférence des ambas- sadeurs de France à Paris. Cette fois Sarkozy affirmait que l’Afrique constituait « une priorité essentielle de notre politique étrangère et un axe central de la politique de coopération de l’Union européenne » en ajoutant que « pour mobiliser davantage encore la communauté internationale face aux défis de la paix et de la sécurité en Afrique, j’ai pris l’initiative d’une réunion de Conseil de sécurité qui se tiendra le 25 septembre à New York, au niveau de chefs d’Etat ou de gouvernement et que je présiderai ». Insatisfait de remplir l'agenda chez lui, il le fait à New York.

De manière générale, l’agenda est sur le continent noir plutôt surchargé. En plus du Darfour, à propos duquel Sarkozy a déjà organisé un sommet, le continent est rongé par les crises du Congo, responsables de milliers de déplacements hors des zones de combat presque éternelles du Kivu, celle qui sévit en Somalie, sans parler de celle que ne risque bientôt plus de pouvoir contenir Robert Mugabe au Zimbabwe.

Mais c'est contre l’Iran que Sarkozy dirigeait ses tirs les plus garnis, avertissant la république islamique des conséquences si elle poursuivait son programme nucléaire. “Un Iran doté de l’arme nucléaire est pour moi inacceptable, et je pèse mes mots”. Cette crise autour du programme nucléaire iranien est “sans doute la plus grave qui pèse aujourd’hui sur l’ordre international”, a-t-il ajouté. “La France n’épargnera aucun effort pour convaincre l’Iran qu’il aurait beaucoup à gagner en s’engageant dans une négociation sérieuse avec les Européens, les Chinois et les Russes, et bien sûr les Américains”.

Ces déclarations semblent plaire aux Français, qui, du moins sur ces sujets internationaux, lui accordent une note positive de l’ordre de 75%. C’est au niveau interne que la situation pourrait avant tout se corser, la croissance économique laissant plutôt à désirer alors que prend les commandes ce champion de la libre entreprise parfois accusé d'être entouré de « copains du CAC 40 ». La rentrée ne sera pas de tout repos dans les rues de la capitale, le président ayant pris l'engagement de sabrer 22,800 emplois dans la fonction publique. Aussi Eric Besson, chargé de la politique publique,  songe-t-il à une réfome "à la canadienne" pour faire du ménage dans les dépenses publiques, donc en ciblant les puissants syndicats nationaux.

Sarkozy est parfois aussi moqueusement baptisé d' «Américain», et sans surprendre il a affirmé qu’il était “de ceux qui pensent que l’amitié entre les Etats-Unis et la France est aussi importante aujourd’hui qu’elle l’a été au cours des deux siècles passés”. Mais en ajoutant: “Alliés ne veut pas dire alignés et je me sens parfaitement libre d’exprimer nos accords comme nos désaccords, sans complaisance ni tabou”.

Notamment sur l'épineuse question de l'Irak, où certains ont été plutôt surpris de voir Bernard Kouchner séjourner si tôt dans son mandat. Tout en appelant à définir “un horizon clair” concernant le retrait des troupes étrangères d’Irak, Sarkozy a laissé savoir que la France pourrait y avoir un rôle à jouer: “C’est alors, et alors seulement, que la communauté internationale, à commencer par les pays de la région, pourra agir le plus utilement. La France, pour sa part, y sera disposée.”

Bringing North Korea out of cold

It sounded too good to be true, and probably was, so some people had to check. The sudden possibility North Korea could completely and definitively surrender its nuclear programme, re-establish ties with much of the world and even end its state of war with its southern neighbor seemed almost unreal, so much so that some wanted to hear it said twice and clearly.

Following talks with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on the margins of an APEC summit in Australia last week, U.S. President George W. Bush spoke of progress on the issue of North Korea’s nuclear programme, adding when pressed by his counterpart, that a peace treaty was in the hands of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and whether he gave up his nuclear weapons.

For a second time Roh asked the president to be “a little bit clearer in your message” to which the president answered: ”I can’t make it any more clear, Mr President. We look forward to the day when we can end the Korean War. That will happen when Kim Jong-il verifiably gets rid of his weapons programmes and his weapons."

A rather odd unscripted exchange portraying an odd and unscripted turn of events on the Korean peninsula. The two countries remain technically at war, but commitments by the hermit kingdom to end its nuclear programme, talk of removing the country from America’s list of rogue nations and establishing diplomatic relations with both the U.S. and Japan, a country with which a number of incidents have left ties lukewarm at best, have opened a new era of hope to bring into the fold the world’s most isolated country.

Irritants remain to be worked out, Japan insisting it cannot normalize relations without resolving the abduction issue after North Korea admitted in 2002 to kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to help train its spies, and implementation of the deal is in its early stages. Experts from the US, China and Russia were traveling to North Korea this week to carry out a survey of nuclear facilities to be disabled in an agreement which has already opened the floodgates of international aid and thawed frozen foreign accounts.

The trip comes as a result of Pyongyang’s decision to shut down its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon in July. North Korea has to disable “all existing nuclear facilities,” though weapons are not specifically mentioned, an issue that remains to be resolved after the regime tested its first atomic bomb last October.

The agreement so far accomplishes much more than negotiators trying to get Iran to drop its nuclear programme could ever hope for. Then again Tehran has yet to successfully detonate a nuclear device. The ties between the two countries, as Kim Jong-il prepared to visit Tehran, was of some concern to observers nervous about any talks to "expand bilateral ties between two countries" still technically on America's black list.

In the mean time politics, talks and unusual circumstances have helped make Pyongyang a little bit less of a stranger over the summer. South Korea has continued to engage its impoverished and starving northern neighbour under the so-called “sunshine policy” and possible Japanese aid to victims of recent flooding in North Korea would be the first such friendly gesture since Shinzo Abe became prime minister a year ago.

A US official said Washington's envoy told North Korea a few issues still needed to be worked out before making North Korea the latest to be scratched off America's list of state sponsors of terrorism, adding: “He made it pretty clear to them that the remaining issues — at least on the terrorism list piece of this — are not that extensive.”

Le deuil du Québec

Un cortège triste et familier pour la dépouille du 67eme soldat canadien tué en Afghanistan à la base militaire de Trenton, puis une première: le passage du cortège dans les rues de Longueuil. Quelques semaines auparavant le jeune soldat de 23 ans défilait dans les rues de Québec lors du salut officiel des troupes de Valcartier à la veille de leur départ.

Le soldat Simon Longtin était en Afghanistan depuis à peine trois semaines quand le véhicule qui le transportait a frappé une bombe artisanale. Quelques jours plus tard deux autres soldats du Royal 22e Regiment tombaient dans des circonstances similaires, à 50 kilomètres à l’ouest de Kandahar. Un autre soldat et deux journalistes du Québec ont également été blessés.

Ces événements en série n’ont pas manqué de rappeler l’impopularité de la guerre dans la province francophone du pays, qu’elle soit en Irak ou en Afghanistan. Depuis la prise du commandement des troupes basées au Québec ces trois décès font grimper à 69 les victimes militaires canadiennes depuis 2002. Attristé par la nouvelle, le premier ministre de la province où 70 des gens disent ne pas appuyer la guerre en Afghanistan estime néanmoins que «Les Québécois ont le devoir d’appuyer ceux qui font le devoir en notre nom».

Ailleurs, les réactions ont été plus vives, le chef du Bloc Québécois Gilles Duceppe menaçant de faire tomber le gouvernement minoritaire de Stephen Harper si on ne promet pas, lors du prochain discours du Trône, de s’engager rapidement et de façon officielle à retirer les troupes canadiennes d’Afghanistan d’ici à février 2009. Le chef du plus important parti fédéral au Québec estime que l’armée canadienne doit se retirer complètement de l’Afghanistan d’ici là, et que le Canada devrait cesser de se concentrer sur le militaire et faire davantage pour les causes humanitaires.

Il est vrai que de ce côté presque tout reste à faire. Cette semaine encore, un rapport de l’Organisation des Nations unies indique que la production d’opium en Afghanistan devrait atteindre un niveau record. En 2006, l’Afghanistan produisait 92 % de l’opium de la planète, ce chiffre devrait passer à 95 % cette année. Alors que cette production semble stable dans le nord, dans le sud, région à priori contrôlée par les Canadiens, elle a fait un important bond. Dans la zone d’Helmand fortement imprégnée de talibans, la production a grimpé de 45 pourcent depuis l’an dernier, une récolte qui sert à alimenter l’insurrection.

Aujourd’hui, 70 % de l’opium produit en Afghanistan provient du sud du pays. « La situation est très mauvaise et le gouvernement a été incapable d’y faire face de la bonne manière, sinon la production se serait au moins stabilisée », déclare Christina Oguz, chef du bureau des Nations unies sur les drogues et la criminalite en Afghanistan. La production d’opium, et l’héroïne qui en résulte, injecterait directement quelque 3 milliards de dollars dans l’économie afghane, ce qui constitue le tiers du produit intérieur brut de l’Afghanistan. «Le problème est énorme, les progrès sont minuscules. À moins que la communauté internationale et le gouvernement affichent ensemble une grande détermination, nous ne verrons pas de grand changement avant très longtemps », affirme avec pessimisme Mme Oguz.

Mais l’expérience montre que ces missions humanitaires et d’aide à la reconstruction sont souvent ciblées par l’insurrection, ce qui rend la mission militaire essentielle en Afghanistan. Le premier ministre Harper a répété, en présence du président américain, que tout prolongement de la mission canadienne après 2009 devra se faire avec l'aval du parlement. Un changement de ton, au courant de l'année, non sans rapport avec l'importance du Québec dans la création d'un gouvernement majoritaire.

The three amigos throw a party

They were perhaps known as “the three amigos” within the confines of their luxury compound in Montebello, Quebec, but North America’s three leaders weren’t counting many friends in the crowd of some 2,000 protesters that greeted them outside Ottawa last week.

U.S. President George Bush, Mexican president Felipe Calderon and Stephen Harper talked about Arctic sovereignty, the war in Afghanistan and a plan to secure their borders in case of a terrorist strike or other emergency, just as an emergency promised to raise havoc on the two-day summit’s agenda.

Calderon shortened his stay to return home where emergency officials expected a major hurricane to make landfall. The Canadian government has offered up to $2 million in immediate relief to countries hit by the hurricane. The serene scene at Chateau Montebello, an aging luxury resort on the banks of the Ottawa River, appeared as far as can be from either gathering storms or angry clashes between protesters and police, resulting in volleys of tear gas and arrests.

If the leaders needed an idea of the turmoil outside they could have turned to live video scenes of the street action playing on two monitors inside the lobby of the chateau, but the shortened agenda meant few leaders would have time to do so.

Just over a day after Canada’s 67th casualty in Afghanistan was reported, the first from a recently dispatched group of Quebec troops, Harper restated his position that the Canadian military mission in the war-ravaged country would not be extended without parliamentary consensus.

Bush praised Canada's military effort in the country, and noted its contribution to the rebuilding effort, indicating the U.S. would respect Canada's decision not to extend its mission. Bush made a point of thanking the Canadian “mothers and fathers of young soldiers” who have died in Afghanistan.

In their private meeting, Harper and Bush also discussed Canada’s efforts to assert its sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, the summer’s unexpected hot topic after Russia sent two small submarines to plant a tiny national flag under the North Pole and Canada wrapped up a series of announcements intended to flex its muscles on northern sovereignty.

Harper recently announced Canada will build a new patrol fleet a new army training center and a deep-water port within contested Arctic waters just as Canadian soldiers, sailors and other forces wrapped up their largest-ever Arctic Circle exercise, both aimed at asserting sovereignty in the resource-rich area amid competing international claims.

The United States, Denmark and Norway also have competing claims in the vast Arctic region, where a U.S. study suggests as much as 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas could be hidden. Canada believes much of the North American side of the Arctic is Canada's, but the United States says the thawing Northwest Passage which could become a major sea-lane with global warming is part of international waters.

Harper entered the talks bolstered by the recent remarks of Paul Cellucci, Bush's previous U.S. ambassador to Canada, who argued that the U.S. should acknowledge the Northwest Passage as Canadian so that the Canadian navy could patrol the area, monitor shipping and guard against potential terrorism and weapons smuggling. "I think, in the age of terrorism, it's in our security interests that the Northwest Passage be considered part of Canada," Cellucci said a day before the summit.

While listening carefully to his counterpart, Bush made clear he was not persuaded so far by Canada’s claims of sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, saying both countries must agree to disagree on the its status. But he suggested the difference of opinion would not get in the way of the two countries’ relationship. “We’ll manage the differences, because there are differences on the Northwest Passage,” Bush said. “We believe it’s an international passage. Having said that, the United States does not question Canada’s sovereignty over its Arctic islands.”

Critics have spoken against the three leaders’ plan, conceived in 2005, to try to more closely integrate the security and commerce of the continent, because they say talks are secretive and lack any input from the public. "We’ve been following the Security and Prosperity Partnership since the 2005 when the leaders of all three countries signed it without public discussion or parliamentary debate," said Stewart Trew of the Council of Canadians. "So our position is basically that all talks leading to deeper integration between the three countries should cease until there has been a full public debate on this."

Protesters also decried that corporations and big business had easy access to the leaders. The three met with the North American Competitiveness Council, a collection of 30 CEOs and corporate chairmen, 10 from each country, on the second and final day of their meeting. It was created to advise leaders on integration.

Fearing the toy makers

This isn’t the sort of thing China wanted a year away from its big coming out party at the Olympic Games. Since the spring the manufacturing giant has been making North American consumers increasingly concerned about the “made in China” label after reports of tainted products, from pet food to toothpaste and now toys containing lead paint.

Last week New Zealand's government was investigating claims that clothes imported from China contained dangerous levels of formaldehyde after a TV programme claimed that fabrics in children's clothes contained 900 times the UN's safe level of the chemical.

Overseas, all of this has at least momentarily raised questions about the wisdom of outsourcing so many manufacturing jobs to countries with less stringent product checks and standards. In China, coupled with the recent collapse of a newly-constructed bridge on the verge of being inaugurated, the recalls have raised internal concerns about the mad rush to modernization, sometimes accomplished by cutting corners and enriching corrupt officials.

In Canada, the pet food scare which resulted in a number of dog and cat deaths, and the recall of some 19 million toys by major manufacturers such as Fisher Price, have touched a sensitive chord in households across the country. In the mad rush for alternatives North Americans have found how few choices really existed in today’s marketplace. Greater scrutiny by consumers and retailers on a number of products have revealed how few of them are not made in China.

"It's really difficult to find anything," said Keely Dennis, mother of a one-year-old boy in Vancouver. "It's really hard to find toys that aren't made in China that are age-appropriate, and are just cool, that your kid will play with."An estimated 80 per cent of the world's toys in fact are made in China, and even many European or North American companies that appear to offer safer alternatives produce many of their toys in China, retailers have been finding out.

It was only after the recent spate of toy recalls that Baby Naturopathics, a Hamilton, Ont.-based online retailer specializing in natural and organic baby products, realized it's also selling products made in China. "The manufacturers do not advertise this. They present themselves as being entirely made in Europe," said Cindy Cho, part-owner of the business. The company is now struggling to figure out what to do and is considering no longer buying products from any manufacturer that produces goods in China.

An indication of how much of the world’s manufacturing is now being done in China can be seen when considering that the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, which has built entire infrastructures in the middle kingdom to be able to fill American homes with bargain-price goods, has seen a growing percentage of its products originate from China in a single decade. While in 1995 over 90% of Wal-mart products were still being produced in U.S., as of 2004 over 70% were being assembled in China.

"Unfortunately, we found out that quite a few European toys are made in China as well," Cho said. "A few years ago that wasn't the case. Increasingly, more companies are making their products in China. We're going to have to re-evaluate." And this is spreading panic across the Pacific, where a few isolated cases of deficient products are giving way to a broader picture of low quality and standards some critics had been warning about for years, decrying the diminished North American manufacturing sector.

China’s safety watchdog deplored that ineffective controls have resulted in poor-quality products and are sapping competitiveness, more importantly, affecting the image of Chinese products. This image problem was immediately recognized by the boss of a major Chinese toy maker involved in the recall, who dramatically took his own life during what has become a major manufacturing scandal.

Zhang Shuhong, a Hong Kong businessman in his 50s and boss of the Lida Toy Company in the southern province of Guangdong, was found dead after hanging himself in his factory workshop shortly after the recall was made. About 1.5 million preschool toys made by Lida Toy, a contract manufacturer for Mattel Inc.'s Fisher-Price unit, were recalled across the globe by the U.S. The recalled toys included popular preschool characters such as Elmo and Big Bird and dozens of other items. China's quality watchdog had just banned Lida from exports, delivering a fatal blow to the company, and its president.

This week two companies were charged in this spring's laced pet food scandal. Concerned about losing major overseas business, China said it would send officials to the United States to assuage worries stemming from the tainted exports and prevent a backlash against their products. U.S. lawmakers had raised the issue, calling for more scrutiny of Chinese products.

Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who has stridently criticized Chinese trade practices, called on the State Department to exert pressure on China to open up toy manufacturing plants to U.S. inspections. Recommendations are also due on a new U.S. import safety panel. North America's three leaders meeting in Quebec addressed the issue, promising to try to block imports of unsafe food and products, especially those designed for children.

But critics at home point out that Chinese exports aren’t alone to blame in a crisis which has placed tainted products on store shelves and into North American homes. A growing chorus of experts critical of the Canadian government and industry's lax approach to product safety says Canada must stop blaming China for the flood of dangerous products and start taking responsibility for failing to keep risky goods off store shelves.

"Most of the people point the finger at the wrong party," said Shih-Fen Chen, associate professor of international business at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont. "The major party that should be responsible for this are the manufacturers in the United States who subcontract some part of their products in China without making sure of the quality."

The scandal also illustrates a failure on the part of product manufacturers, retailers and governments to take product safety seriously and to dedicate the resources necessary to detect potential safety problems before it's too late. "Obviously they don't have all the checks and balances in place," said Leigh Poirier, executive director of the Canadian Toy Testing Council, a non-profit group. "I really feel like parents and consumers have to strongly voice their concerns that they want a commitment for toy companies and the industry to have proper quality controls in place, no matter where they are made."

Besides an economy such as Canada’s, boosted by high energy prices produced by China’s unquenched thirst for resources and a purchasing power increased by the flood of cheap Chinese products, owes much of its current boom to the rising Asian power.

Canada has been benefitting from a so-called “China syndrome” that has sparked a revival of its resources sector, and which has spilled over into gains in employment, wages and spending, and growth in other sectors of the economy, including manufacturing, according to one recent report.

And this has on the balance meant good news for Canada, said Ryan Macdonald, the author of the report. “At first glance, the post-2002 boom in commodity prices and exchange-rate appreciation in Canada does seem to resemble the events that precipitated Dutch Disease, which refers to the combination of a booming resource sector, a rising currency and a resulting decline in output in manufacturing,” claims one analysis. “But the Dutch case involved the discovery of a new resource, while Canada’s recent trend stems from the integration of emerging nations, particularly China, into the global economy.” Perhaps more surprisingly, “overall manufacturing output in Canada expanded by 1.3 per cent between 2003 and 2006,” the study said.

The emergence of the giant low-wage Chinese economy has simultaneously lowered the prices for consumer goods while raising prices for resources, accelerating a widespread restructuring of the Canadian economy that has led to higher employment and wages in resource industries.

That, in turn, along with the appreciating Canadian dollar, meant that Canadians’ international purchasing power has increased. With Canada able to acquire more imports at these cheaper prices, Canadians will probably want to have a closer look at what they’re buying. Not that there’s always a choice about where it will be coming from.

Worries about the continent's infrastructure

Less than a year after Laval's fatal overpass collapse and days after the conclusion of the public commission investigating the incident, one has to wonder, with the collapse of a bridge on Minnesota's most-travelled highway, whether our infrastructures aren't trying to tell us something. That the revolution of the automobile has to be accompanied by a revolution in roadway maintenance that sometimes means starting from scratch instead of patching up previous wear and tear.

That seemed to be the thinking in Quebec, where the Johnson commission had just been completed and where Montreal's mayor had just announced that in addition to the other Laval overpass torn down because its design resembled that of the ill-fated Concorde structure, a 1938 overpass in that city would be demolished and rebuilt as soon as possible. Like the Laval overpass, the bridge in Minneapolis which collapsed, killing five and injuring around 100, was 40 years old.

The initial death toll, which rose to nine and was expected to rise some more because four others were still missing, was a miracle considering the spectacular collapse of the eight-lane structure during rush hour. There were other similarities with Laval, such as the snow-bound months that contributed to corrosion, and missed opportunities to bring improvements that may have saved lives.

The commission into the Laval tragedy, the city's second overpass collapse in a six-year span, blamed authorities for not intervening after earlier signs that the structure was failing. Similarity Minnesota officials were warned as early as 1990 that the ill-fated bridge that plummeted into the Mississippi River was "structurally deficient," yet they relied on a strategy of patchwork fixes and stepped-up inspections.

The designation means some portions of the bridge needed to be scheduled for repair or replacement. "It didn't mean that the bridge is unsafe," U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters explained soon after the incident. The designation has been used to describe a large amount of structures across the country, 1,160 in Minnesota alone and 77,000 bridges nationwide, including New York’s fabled and much older Brooklyn bridge.

As in the case of the Laval overpass, an immediate inspection of all bridges in the state with similar designs was quickly ordered and a full report on the accident shouldn’t be expected before a year or more. Nearly a year after the Laval collapse, the commission has yet to determine what happened in that tragedy, but did point fingers at corrosion to the internal metal structure producing critical shear cracks.

"I think everybody is looking at fatigue right now, fatigue due to heavy traffic," said of the U.S. incident Kent Harries, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the University of Pittsburgh's School of Engineering. "This is an interstate bridge that sees a lot of truck traffic." While the Laval commission was carrying on with its public hearings, oversized trucks allowed to circulate by special heavy load permits were restricted from 135 structures identified as Quebec’s weakest, including two in the Quebec City area.

But comparing the recent U.S. and Canadian incidents is like sizing apples and oranges according to two Laval inspectors who had been on the case of the two overpass collapses. "The extent of the disaster is so enormous you can't compare it to what we saw in Laval," said Inspector Andre Pyton, returning from a fact-finding mission to Minneapolis.

Responses to the crises were similar, but the Laval investigators said U.S. authorities responded in greater number due to the scale of the disaster, and could count on technology unavailable in Quebec such as computer software and high-resolution cameras that will help create three-dimensional models of the collapse. "We thought we had done all we could," state bridge engineer Dan Dorgan told reporters not far from the mangled remains of the span. "Obviously something went terribly wrong."

Infrastructure such as roads, sewers and bridges is something people pay little attention to until it fails, and according to Canadian statistics here people have every right to worry. Bridges in Canada have reached 49 per cent of their useful life, according to a 2006 Statistics Canada study, and experts warn the country’s roads, wastewater plants and other infrastructure isn’t in any better shape. The study examining the age of infrastructure in Canada cited wastewater treatment facilities as the oldest, with 63 per cent of their useful life behind them in 2003. Roads and highways had reached 59 per cent of their useful life, and sewer systems 52 per cent.

Zoubir Lounis, head of the concrete structure research group for the National Research Council in Ottawa, said Canada has a lot of bridges built between the 1950s and the ‘70s which are now nearing the end of their life. Bridges built during that period were constructed to last 50 years. “We cannot wait until a crisis comes,’’ Lounis said. “We have to invest. Infrastructure is critical to our well-being, our economy. It’s not some luxury thing.”

A Federation of Canadian Municipalities report said most municipalities are reaching an infrastructure “breaking point” and noted that between 1961 and 2002 the amount of infrastructure controlled by the federal government in relation to municipal governments had undergone a striking reversal. The crisis we already knew then is continent-wide.

The Laval commission heard in July that many of North America's bridges and overpasses probably do not meet modern building codes and may be unsafe. Dennis Mitchell of McGill University told the commission that the collapsed overpass did not meet modern code requirements but also could not even support truckload standards in 1969 when the overpass was built. Mitchell noted that two structures similar to the collapsed overpass had to be closed down after he examined them, adding that similar problems with bridges built in the 1960s and 1970s are evident throughout North America.

Ironically the Interstate 35W bridge, a major Minneapolis artery, was in the midst of repairs when it buckled during the evening rush hour. Road crews had been working on the bridge's joints, guardrails and lights, with lane closures overnight, when the structure collapsed. "There was a view that the bridge was ultimately and eventually going to need to be replaced," Minnesota's governor said. "But it appears from the information that we have available that a timeline for that was not immediate or imminent, but more in the future." Increasingly the investigation looked at a possible design flaw.

But how much time does the rest of the network here or in the U.S. have? In Montreal officials last week announced that a major bridge would be entirely stripped, reinforced and rebuilt to extend its lifespan by a few more decades. At roughly the same time a small community in the Laurentians learned the only bridge linking both its shores would be torn down to be entirely rebuilt, forcing commuters to make a 20-kilometre detour for four months.

Then this week a Laval bridge was temporarily shut down then partly reopened after a gaping hole was found in one of its reserved bus lanes, sparking more worries but also immediate public intervention.  Expect more announcements of the sort as public authorities, and the general public, show a greater attention to road networks and infrastructures that could be out of sight but are less likely to be out of mind.

Le grand procès namibien

La sentence était, comme on pouvait s’y attendre dans un tel cas de « haute trahison » plutôt sévère pour dix hommes trouvés coupables d'avoir dirigé la rébellion sécessionniste contre la Namibie. Sept des hommes ont écopé de 32 ans de prison, les autres de 30, lorsque le juge John Manyarara a rendu sa décision cette semaine.

Les accusés n’étaient alors déjà plus en cour, ayant été éjectés pour avoir prononcé ces terribles mots : « Viva Caprivi ! » Tout Windhoek tremble encore après l’exhibition d’autant d’audace. Ces sentences ne faisaient que poursuivre de bien lentes procédures puisqu’une bonne centaine de personnes en tout attendent toujours de passer devant les tribunaux afin de connaître leur châtiment pour avoir participé aux événements les plus sanglants qu’ait pu connaitre cette jeune nation coupée de l’Afrique du sud en 1990.

Moins d’une décennie après l’indépendance, les accusés, et ceux qui patientent en tôle derrière eux, ont mené une insurrection contre un poste de police, un poste de frontière, une chaine de télévision, une base militaire et une banque à Katima Mulilo, ville principale de cette mince bande de terre au nord du Botswana. Les rébelles se seraient armés en Angola, pays riche en armes de conflits passés, avant de s’attaquer à ce pays dont ils nient l’appartenance. Voilà qui rend toute possibilité d’appel de la sentence plutôt difficile.

Douze personnes sont mortes lors des affrontements, vite mis à terme par une répression sévère de l’armée. « La trahison est un des crimes les plus sérieux que l’on puisse commettre dans le monde actuel », a déclaré le juge Manyarara pour justifier sa sentence exemplaire. Mais la sévérité-même de la justice namibienne, lors de ces procédures tenues sous haute surveillance est en question, la sentence n’incluant pas les nombreuses années passées à attendre ce procès au fond d’une prison.

Alors que la population en général considère Caprivi part du territoire national et ne trouve rien de reprochable au dur jugement, cet excès de lenteur, 119 autres attendant toujours d’être jugés alors que le début des procédures remonte en 2003, exaspère les organisations humanitaires. En mai dernier, 140 habitants de la bande de Caprivi ont pu finalement rendre visite à leurs proches emprisonnés depuis le soulèvement sécessionniste huit ans plus tôt.

Cette journée faisait partie d’une série de visites organisées par le CICR. À la fin de ces trois semaines, l’institution avait donné la possibilité à 385 proches des 131 personnes soupçonnées de haute trahison de leur rendre visite. Le CICR organise et finance deux visites de ce type par an. Il a fallu en plus transporter les proches sur les 1300 km séparant Caprivi de la prison centrale de Windhoek, de les loger dans la capitale et de payer leurs dépenses sur place.

Une fois réunis, les détenus restaient encore séparés de leur famille par une vitre : « Le programme du CICR me permet de communiquer avec mon frère et mes quatre oncles pendant 30 minutes, racontait alors une des visiteuses, mais surtout, c’est la seule occasion où je peux redonner espoir à des personnes qui perdent rapidement patience et espérance ». Celle-ci connait une vie également difficile depuis 1999, devant s’occuper des six enfants de ses oncles en détention. Ce n’est pas un scénario unique, la bande de Caprivi étant la région la plus pauvre de Namibie.

Caprivi résulte d’un échange de territoires effectué entre la Grande-Bretagne et l’Allemagne en 1890. Cette queue de poêle longue de 450 kilomètres et large de 30 kilomètres fut nommée en l’honneur du chancelier allemand Leo von Caprivi. Pendant la guerre du bush rodhésien entre 1970-1979 et les opérations de l’ANC contre le gouvernement de l’apartheid en Afrique du sud, la bande fut utilisée comme lieu de transit pour différents groupes armés.

Depuis l’indépendance, plusieurs membres du parti au pouvoir en Namibie, gardant le souvenir de ce passé tumultueux, remettent en cause la loyauté des habitants de Caprivi. Ceux-ci ont alors l’impression de ne pas avoir grand-chose en commun avec le reste du pays et d’avoir été négligés par le gouvernement central. L’annexion par un pays voisin aurait été plus favorable que la séparation car les ressources y sont aussi maigres que  sa géographie.

Think summer's gone to the dogs?

These may be the dog days of summer, in this country the canines are also very much a part of the winter-swept scenery. Dogs can pull a sled that's gone through the ice to safety and may bring a young Jamaicans where they've never been before, we're being told these summer months.
 
Canadian natives struggling to keep their traditions alive are being told that the old ways can be life-saving for aboriginals who are on thin ice. A four-year study in six northern Quebec communities into climate change by the Kativik Regional Government is recommending that if people want to avoid falling through thinning ice being blamed on global warming, they should use dog teams instead of snowmobiles.

"The switch from dogsled to snowmobile has had an impact on the security of transport," the report notes. "To minimize the negative impact on travel security of thin and unstable ice due to global warming, the use of sleds pulled by dog teams could be favoured during some periods of winter, such as the beginning."

The report makes plain the impact global warming is having on the traditional trail network of the north. It stresses that dogs represent a "very efficient navigation device," able to sniff around for trails, signal when the ice is thin, and can help pull a sled out of the water should it fall through. The report quotes Inuit elders saying that the number of accidents increased in the north with the introduction of snowmobiles.

"No one is asking hunters to part with snowmobiles and use (just) dog teams," insists Julie Grenier, spokeswoman for the KRG. Besides "there aren't enough dogs for dog teaming in Nunavik," she added.

Martin Tremblay, who is researching infrastructure safety for the KRG in a project that looks at changes along the trail networks, says Inuit elders are pointing out the risks of a winter season starting later and its impact on transport.

"In some areas the ice will be more dangerous than in the past, more unstable," he said. Local experts providing key ice condition data are reporting more areas of risk, he adds.

Risky trails can potentially block access to resources such as hunting grounds.

During the 2005 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Montreal, Inuit elders, trappers and hunters said weather changes can have significant socio-economic impacts, forcing natives to import more expensive food from the south, which isn't always as suitable to northern diets.


While Tremblay said his study didn't look at the socio-economic ramifications of these changes to infrastructure access - sometimes preventing access to certain areas for weeks -- he conceded they could be far-reaching. "Access to resources depends on access to territory," he noted.

The report says further studies are necessary to determine the impact of global warming on hunted species, hinting their "diversity, distribution and density" may be affected.

Although ice on lakes hasn't been causing problems, coastal areas can remain a risk all winter long due to thin ice, the report notes. Ground trails should be favoured when possible to minimize risks, it adds.

"During the last 10 years we have observed that the ice breakup is earlier than before and this situation can have an impact on security when using snowmobiles to go fishing and hunting," Tremblay said.

Semi-retired Inuit leader Jose Kusugak acknowledged things are changing in the North but he has never heard of recommendations to avoid using snowmobiles. "It's not uncommon that things are changing rapidly," Kusugak said on the phone from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. "But as far as the trails, I've never heard someone say stop using snowmobiles.' They're just more careful now."

Ironically, snowmobile season was particularly long this year, ending just over a month ago in his part of the North, he pointed out. Kusugak said he has been contacting others by citizen's band to get an idea of trails to avoid late in the season. They would "give a general direction but add don't go by my word'," he said. "But in the end it was safe." 

Experts of the North said this year's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change working group reports only confirmed what had been obvious to people in the North: that human activities are the cause of climate change. The IPCC, northern observers say, expanded on the findings of an earlier report by the multi-national Arctic Council entitled "Arctic Climate Impact Assessment" reaching similar stark conclusions three years prior.

"The Arctic is a barometer of global environmental health," commented Mary Simon, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami -- Canada's national inuit organization as she congratulated former Circumpolar Conference president Sheila Watt-Clouthier for being nominated to this year's Nobel Peace Prize for her work on global warming.

Tremblay says his study issues a number of recommendations for the peoples of the North: making information on trail risk areas and shelter locations widely available, using various technology such as GPS for navigation, and spreading the knowledge of experienced hunters and trappers.

A sign snowmobiles aren't about to disappear from the trails of the North: Tremblay's group also recommends using multiple ski-doos on treks, in case of mechanical failure. Even in risk areas, snowmobiles can be used with caution, he said.

One area where snowmobiles aren't allowed is during the annual 1,500 km Yukon Quest race. But the event may be about to see something it's never seen before: a Jamaican musher.

In a project reminiscent of the Jamaican bobsled team’s participation in the 1988 Calgary Olympic Games, immortalized in the 1993 comedy Cool Runnings, the owner of the Jamaica Dogsled Team announced that his lead musher would be training with a former champion to take on one of the most demanding dogsled races in the world.


That’s dogsled, not bobsled. “Ninety percent of the time I have to correct people, it’s not bobsled, it’s dogsled, they always mix it,” explains head musher Devon Anderson in a phone interview from Jamaica.

Anderson will train with three-time race winner Hans Gatt for the 1,500-kilometre 2009 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race that connects Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon. To get there he’ll have to prepare for 300 and 450-kilometre qualifiers, starting this fall either in Canada or Alaska. “It’s in the making!” he said with a thick smiling Jamaican accent.

Relatively new to the sport, Anderson visited Canada last year to follow the Yukon Quest and even mushed on Lake Laberge. He’d seen snow before, but never this much. “It blew me away: the people, the snow, the landscape, it was like living in a storybook,” he said. Anderson said he’ll have to practise being around the dogs and staying extended periods of time in the cold to be ready to tackle the first qualifiers.

“We’re not talking about winning, but competing, it’s an endurance race,” said team owner Danny Melville, a tour adventure company owner on the island nation. “This is not just a promotional move, we take mushing seriously and Gatt agrees otherwise he would not be wasting his time with us.”

What started like a tour company gimmick turned into serious competitive training quite unexpectedly.
In spring 2005, Melville was shopping for dune buggies in Edmonton when he spotted a crazy-looking dog sled and had an “epiphany” about starting a dogsled team.

Initially created from mixed breed dogs found on the street or through the Jamaican Society for Prevention of Cruelty of Animals, The Ocho Rios-based team is now big business with sponsors that include singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett.
“We’re talking about a Jamaican entering the Yukon Quest and hopefully completing it,” Melville said. “That in itself is an achievement.”

There’ll be no need to wait for the movie, Palm Pictures’ documentary feature “Sun Dogs,” chronicling the struggle to make contenders out of Jamaica-bred street dogs in time for the 2006 Dogsled Championships in Scotland, already premiered at Toronto’s ReelWorld Film Festival in April.

Soars the mighty loon

Look out! The Canadians are coming! In the thick of the summer travel season the snowbirds are returning south early in record numbers to cash in on a loonie that’s hit a thirty-year high. That’s back to an era when the Trudeau in politics was Pierre E., Russia had yet to enter Afghanistan, the Shah had yet to be ousted and oil was at around $10 a barrel (versus $73 today). Which should be a reminder for the returning vacationers to fill their gas tank before crossing the border.

 

While skeptics were looking quizzically as the CIBC predicted the $100 barrel by the end of the year, few doubt the loonie is about to reach parity with the U.S. dollar, which has been slipping against other major currencies. While parity was short-lived the last time around, few can predict the impact of parity for an extended period if that’s what the future holds in store.

 

The dollar was pegged at 92.5 cents US from 1962 until 1970, when Trudeau decided to allow it to "float" among international currencies as dictated by supply and demand. The currency then climbed, but its rise was nothing like the meteoric one of the last few years. Just a few years ago, the loonie was dabbling in the lower 60s before starting its steady climb.

 

"In terms of what it was doing to the Canadian economy, the currency hadn't had a big 50 per cent run-up such as it's had in the last five years," said Doug Porter, senior economist with BMO Nesbitt Burns. "It was strong, but it hadn't had this enormous run-up, so it wasn't a shock to the economy like it potentially could be this time." F

 

ive years ago, the dollar bottomed at 61.79 cents US. Canadian travel to the U.S. has grown 23 percent since then, according to data published by the Commerce Department. "These are some of the best days for Canadian tourists who wish to travel south of the border for their summer vacation since bellbottom jeans and disco balls were all the rage," said Michael Woolfolk of the Bank of New York Mellon Corp.

 

In January, the number of overnight trips from Canada to the United States was the highest in more than 13 years. New York is the most popular destination for Canadian visitors, followed by Florida and Washington state; Maine is seventh after Michigan, California and Nevada.

 

But drawbacks have also been felt domestically. In June a majority of provinces presented a strong case for keeping the dollar from rising further, telling Bank of Canada governor David Dodge that this is not the time to raise interest rates. The issue of the high dollar was raised by Ontario Finance Minister Greg Sorbara, but Alberta and several other provinces joined in to support the Ontario minister.

 

"For every cent the dollar rises, it costs Alberta $123 million," in reduced revenues from oil and gas exports, said Alberta Finance Minister Lyle Oberg. "The Canadian economy cannot be described as truly healthy as long as we are seeing job losses in that important sector," Sorbara said.

 

He said Ontario alone had lost 140,000 manufacturing jobs in the past four years. Even Dodge appeared "confounded" by the rapid rise of the dollar. The loonie has kept rising since, adding nearly three more cents, and surged 0.85 cents Tuesday to close at 96.36 cents US, its highest point since February 1977, before dropping back somewhat.

 

Back then as today skyrocketing oil and commodity prices lead the way, combined with strong global economic growth. But Canada is now home to much of this commodity and oil production, making the high dollar more soundly anchored in strong economic fundamentals, rather than fleeting speculation. "We've gotten our trade act together, oil prices have gone up, gas prices, clearly we're exporting stuff that the world really wants and is valued highly," said Toronto economics professor Peter Duncan.

 

Of course the period was also best remembered domestically by a threat of separatism which, on this 40th anniversary of De Gaulle’s “Vive le Quebec libre” speech, could not more belong to the past. Not only is the Parti Quebecois not in power in La belle province as it then was, it’s at its lowest level since, not to mention the cause of sovereignty.

 

In addition to general fundamentals, noticeably resilient cyclical patterns are also influencing the mighty loon. Retail sales unexpectedly shot up 2.8% in May from April, the biggest monthly gain in almost a decade, thanks to robust vehicle and other sales, Statistics Canada said. "It certainly does play into the idea that there is an underlying strength in domestic demand in Canada, and it sort of puts the Bank of Canada on watch to raise interest rates again in September," said David Watt, senior currency strategist at RBC Capital Markets.

 

This as Canadians were fearing a slower U.S. economy would drag them down. It's all keeping another trend going: the further slipping of the greenback against major currencies, tripped by slipping U.S. economic data. The U.S. dollar fell Tuesday to its lowest level ever against the euro, and weakened to a 26-year low versus the pound, not to mention the Yen, on worries that trouble linked to mortgage lending was spreading and would threaten U.S. growth.

 

The decline in the dollar accelerated after Countrywide Financial, the biggest U.S. mortgage lender, reported its third consecutive drop in quarterly earnings as more consumers fell behind on payments for their home equity loans. A reminder recent U.S. growth, also apparently resilient, was notably doped by high levels of debt.

 

The strong Canadian numbers in contrast, well above expectations, boosted the likelihood of an interest rate hike in September, perhaps by then closing the remaining gap with the greenback. Perhaps Canada’s cash-rich visitors to the U.S. could consider a labour day visit as well.

Pas de justice pour le Karabakh

Alors que le Kosovo guettait avec beaucoup d'intérêt les ambitions indépendantistes du Monténégro ces dernières années, le Karabakh était tout aussi curieux du sort des Albanais de l'ancienne-Yougoslavie, et bien que le statut des Kosovars est loin d'être réglé, et même matière à controverse, les habitants de l'enclave arménienne d'Azerbaïjan ont été encouragés par l'élection facile d'un ancien chef de la sécurité, un séparatiste, la semaine dernière.

Bako Sahakyan aurait remporté 85% des suffrages dans le Nagorno-Karabakh, sujet d'une dispute sanglante entre l'Arménie et l'Azerbaïjan à la fin des années 1980, soit durant la séparation de l'empire soviétique. Mais Sahakyan a beau espérer que l'élection mette le Karabakh sur la voie de l'indépendance, personne ne reconnait politiquement la petite enclave d'à peine plus de 150,000 habitants.

Il s'agissait de la quatrième élection présidentielle depuis l'organisation des premières élections dans le territoire en 1995, et les deux candidats principaux ainsi que le président sortant, Arkady Gukasyan, prétendent que le Karabakh a autant droit à l'indépendance que l'ancienne province majoritairement albanaise de la Yougoslavie.

Coincée entre Arménie et Azerbaïdjan, dépendant d'Erevan pour sa survie, le Haut Karabakh fut, de 1988 à 1994, le théâtre d'une guerre ethnique qui a fait environ 30 000 morts. Deux millions d'Azerbaïdjanais ont été chassés de l'enclave et des sept régions d'Azerbaïdjan attenantes, prises par les séparatistes arméniens.

L'Azerbaïdjan a dénoncé le scrutin, l'estimant illégitime tout en indiquant que l'indépendance ne ferait que consolider le "nettoyage ethnique de la région".

A la veille du scrutin le ministre espagnol des affaires étrangères, Miguel Angel Moratinos, a estimé que le vote serait sans impact sur le règlement du conflit, qui perdure malgré les efforts du groupe de Minsk réunissant les Etats-Unis, la Russie et la France.

D'ailleurs le groupe venait de critiquer la tenue d'un plebiscite organisé pour le 15e anniversaire d'un autre référendum par lequel la région s'était proclamée indépendante. "Organiser ce référendum actuellement (...) est particulièrement contre- productif à un moment où des pourparlers de paix entre l'Arménie et l'Azerbaïdjan sous les auspices du Groupe de Minsk de l'OSCE semblent être dans une période constructive", a indiqué à ce sujet un responsable de l'organisation.

Le taux de participation était de  87,2% et a été considéré comme la marque de l'engagement de la population en faveur de l'indépendance de la région. Comme pour l'élection, l'Azerbaïdjan a jugé le référendum illégitime, restant résolue à rétablir son autorité sur le Haut-Karabakh.

De son côté l'Union européenne a souligné qu'"elle ne soutient ni le référendum, ni son résultat"  et a rappelé qu'elle ne reconnaissait pas non plus l'indépendance de cette enclave.  L'UE "invite toutes les parties au conflit à redoubler d'efforts pour trouver une solution négociée à celui-ci".

Mais en donnant au Kosovo son indépendance, ces mêmes Européens risquent d'ouvrir la boîte de Pandore du séparatisme ailleurs, de la Corse à la Catalogne ou encore à la Wallonie. Plus à l’Est, la Transnistrie, le Kurdistan, la Tchétchénie, l’Abkhazie, rêvent aussi d'indépendance.

En attendant l’Arménie a riposté à la critique internationale sur l’élection présidentielle et a considéré le vote comme une preuve sur l’engagement des Arméniens du Karabakh «au respect de la démocratie et des lois ». 

«Divers documents, de l’OSCE ou d'autres, indiquent clairement que non seulement le Haut-Karabakh fait partie des négociations de règlement, mais que des autorités élues devraient le représenter», a indiqué le ministère des affaires étrangères arménien.

«Écarter ces dernières ou toute élection n’est pas correct voire simplement contraire aux valeurs politiques modernes. De plus, le rejet ne peut pas être compris, étant donné que dans d’autres parties du monde, dans des endroits où des statuts et des lois sont également absents, de telles élections sont non seulement soutenues mais, favorisées, observées et encouragées ».

Turkey: the way of the veil

Facing accusations of threatening the country’s secular institutions, Turkey’s Islamic-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party organized and won elections by a margin unseen since the 1960s which frees its hands to run the country, and prepare deep reforms aimed at EU membership.

It was pure vindication for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who called the snap election after the secularist opposition blocked his party from electing one of its own as president. After his party collected 46.4 percent of the vote, more than double that of its nearest rival, Erdogan drove home the message that Islam and Turkish Kemalist tradition could co-exist peacefully by appearing at a victory rally next to his veil-wearing wife.

“Our democracy has successfully passed a test,” he told supporters. “Our unity, democracy and the republic have emerged stronger from the ballot box.” Erdogan promised to “pursue economic and democracy reforms with determination," in the aftermath of the victory which gave his AK party a share of the vote unseen for a single party since 1969, translating into roughly 340 seats in Turkey’s 550-member parliament.

The result, a dramatic 13-point rise from the 34% that got him to office in 2002, gives him a new mandate exceeding even the expectations of his party, even if it failed to secure the two-thirds majority needed to amend the country’s constitution. There must have been genuine fright among the military brass since the authoritarian nature of the constitution was drawn up by the armed forces when they last seized power in 1980.

Washington, which had previously signaled the military not to intervene in the country’s polity, welcomed the election with enthusiasm. “It is a victory for Turkish democracy” says Matt Bryza, a State Department official.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has vocally opposed Turkey joining the EU, was perhaps less enthused, but showed no indication of this as he telephoned Erdogan to welcome “his remarkable victory” expressing the wish “our relations of trust will continue despite the divergences France and Turkey may have.”

Internal divergences also remain, such as Erdogan’s lack of popularity among the generals who had warned about impending religious rule when Erdogan chose his foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, to succeed outgoing president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer. Gul says he's still interested.

Ironically, Erdogan and his party are now more powerful than ever, even if the Prime minister will still need a certain non-alarming consensus when nominating a candidate for the presidency.

Other internal matters include the Kurdish separatist violence in the south-eastern provinces bordering Iran and Iraq, threatening to spill over into neighbour countries, along with Turkey's military presence. Some 27 independents, most of them Kurds, were elected into parliament, but even Erdogan seemed momentarily swept by the idea of sending the campaign against the Kurds in full swing after terror attacks in Turkish cities earlier this year.

This could damage the country's foreign investment-fed economy and its close ties to the U.S. Both are important, Erdogan having extolled his party’s impressive economic achievements since he swept to power five years ago, such as slashing chronic inflation, sustaining high growth and attracting record investment.

“Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s planned visit to Turkey will be a visible sign in the direction of the government’s willingness to eradicate terrorism through dialogue and without harming bilateral ties with both the Iraqi government and its NATO ally, the United States,” Sedat Laçiner, an eminent Turkish expert on terrorism, told the Turkish Daily News.

The Armenian genocide will be another sore point for the Turkish government, an issue transcending borders considering the number of countries passing resolutions on the matter, souring relations with Ankara.    


 

Gv't less willing to extend Afghan mission

Canadians were mourning the loss of their latest fallen soldiers this week when six caskets returned to face a now painfully familiar ramp ceremony. The troops died when their armoured vehicle was demolished by an improvised explosive device planted in a gravel road, bringing Canada's death toll to 66 in Afghanistan.

The soldiers, who were returning to base and would have finished their deployment in Afghanistan at the end of the month, were travelling in an RG-31 Nyala armoured vehicle. “Clearly they have managed to kill six great young Canadians today and that is a tragedy. These are not the tactics of anything other than terrorists," said Brig. Gen. Tim Grant, describing the terrain as friendly territory.

“This part of Afghanistan, the Panjwai area, is one of the safer areas in the province. It is an area we are comfortable in travelling in. We have great relationships with the local elders and the leadership and with the people on the ground,”  he added.  The statement was hardly reassuring.

The incident followed the completion of a joint operation dubbed Operation Luger, a Defence statement said, one which “was completed without incident.” But questions were quickly raised about how so many young Canadian men driving in one of the Force's safest vehicles came to die in an area considered friendly territory.

The Taleban claimed responsibility for the attack, the deadliest since Easter Sunday when six Canadian soldiers were killed in a similar incident. The last three months have been particularly deadly for Canada's soldiers, with five explosions killing a total of 19 soldiers.

This particular rotation of soldiers suffered a third of Canada's total losses, with weeks to go before returning home and being replaced by Quebec's VanDoos.  Improvised explosive devices or homemade roadside bombs continue to inflict casualties on the NATO mission in Afghanistan. To date, IEDs have been responsible for 27 of the 66 Canadian military fatalities in Afghanistan since 2002, including 19 of the 22 who have died this year.

Reeling from the latest attack, Canada said it would pour millions into IED detection, while one of the inventors of the BlackBerry said he and U.S. colleagues developed a biological sensing device that could sniff out the IEDs. He claimed however the Canadian government has shown little interest in the novel system which uses tiny sensors affixed with mouse antibodies that can detect TNT and other explosives. The sensors then send out signals to approaching convoys or foot soldiers.

Peter Edmonson, former research director at Research in Motion, the BlackBerry inventor, said that he and scientists at Georgia Tech university were in talks with the U.S. Marines and about to manufacture the hardware in the U.S. A spokeswoman for Defence Research and Development Canada, one government branch working on the IED (improvised explosive device) problem, said the organization was “open to new ideas” and urged the engineer to submit a proposal.

Researchers are also studying radio-jamming devices that thwart remote-controlled bombs; a robot-mounted explosive sensor called FIDO; and a gadget that is supposed to detonate IEDs before the vehicle hits them. Much of the work is funded by the Joint IED Defeat Organization, a U.S. military agency that has a budget of $4.4-billion this year and includes some Canadian officers on its staff. At Defence Research and Development Canada in Ottawa, meanwhile, $72-million has been redirected over the past year to work on combatting IEDs.

The main problem with IEDs, which are deadly but also low-tech, is that they are difficult to detect once covered with dirt and rock and spotting them has been a difficult task for even the experienced Israeli military, notes a former Canadian member of Mossad, in a recent book. IEDs are thought to have been mostly developped through the Hezbollah with Iranian backing in the Arab-Israeli conflict, before its know-how was spread to other areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The explosives can be detonated by remote control using an infrared beam, much like the kind emitted by television remote controls," writes Michael Ross in his book "The volunteer". "But the explosive device itself is electronically passive: it does not send out any tell-tale radio wave, signal or heat signature. Couple that with sophisticated camouflage diguising the dug-up IED pit and detection is almost impossible."

"Israel tried everything to detect the explosives: sniffer dogs, increased road patrols, chemical detection equipment, thermal vision cameras, drone aircraft outfitted with high-tech imaging systems, but nothing worked with much success." Maybe Canada's wiz at RIM can score a few much-needed hi-tech points.

IEDs have been responsible for about 80 per cent of U.S. military deaths in Iraq and techniques are thought of being perfected there before being exported to Afghanistan. The Afghan countryside is littered with unexploded devices from former wars, making it an open-air supermarket for bomb-makers of the crude but effective devices.

In a violent cycle of death, again the last Canadian casualties came within days of laying to rest three Canadians previously killed in similar attacks. Funerals had just been held for Sgt. Christos Karigiannis, Cpl. Stephen Bouzane and Pte. Joel Wiebe, who died June 20 when their unarmoured Gator transport vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Kandahar.

A recent poll shows that whether they are for or against Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan, Canadians are highly skeptical about its chances for success. In a national survey conducted for Policy Options magazine, the company found that only about one in four Canadians believes that either the military mission or the efforts to promote the rule of law and human rights in the troubled Asian country have a strong probability of success.

This is reflected in the Conservatives' increasing reluctance to extend the current mission. Prime Minister Harper says he will put the matter to parliament, but added his government would not seek to extend the current mission beyond 2009.

La course au Grand Nord

Lorsque le brise-glace de la garde cotière Louis St-Laurent s'est lancé sur la piste du grand nord pour une mission de quatre mois et demie au début du mois, il quittait une ligne de départ dans la folle course afin de cartographier la souverainté de la région au coeur de nombreuses disputes territoriales.
 
Il y a quelques années, personne n'aurait autant été emballé, à part peut-être les touristes n'ayant pas peur du froid, par le blanc paysage de glace au nord du 60e parallèle. Mais le réchauffement terrestre a tout changé, et les Etats-Unis ont beau reconnaitre ses conséquences selon leur humeur, ils sont les premiers à ignorer les frontières canadiennes du grand nord, qui selon Ottawa incluent le précieux passage du nord-ouest, dont la saison des glaces se rétrécit comme une peau de chagrin.
 
Les premiers mais pas les seuls, Moscou en a fait le rappel récemment lorsqu'une expédition russe de six semaines, sur un brise-glace nucléaire, aurait supposémment démontré qu'une chaine de montagnes sous-marine relie l'ile très canadienne d'Ellesmere à la Sibérie, constituant aux yeux de Moscou un prolongement du territoire russe, déjà le plus important au monde. Les médias russes se sont vite emparés de cette découverte qui irait chercher un territoire de plus d'un million de kilomètres carrés dans les eaux canadiennes.
 
Ottawa n'a pas attendu longtemps avant de rappeler sa souveraineté du territoire et d'annoncer la construction de six à huit navires de patrouille qui seront bâtis au Canada pour  protéger le passage du nord-ouest. Ces navires, qui pourront recevoir des hélicoptères, seront en mesure de naviguer dans des glaces d’un mètre.
 
Les Etats-Unis, le Danemark et la Norvège gardent aussi un oeil intéressé sur cette masse glaciaire pourtant peu spectaculaire à l'oeil nu, en imaginant les richesses naturelles qu'elle pourrait recouvrir. La mission du Louis St-Laurent, battant le pavillon de la souverainté canadienne, est donc de contrer les arguments scientifiques russes, européens et américains dans la dernière région du monde dont la cartographie laisse à désirer.
 
C'est une course engageant plusieurs pays mais également une course contre la montre alors que l'échéancier approche à grand pas, soit 2013 pour le Canada, pour avancer les arguments géologiques pouvant aider certaines nations à contester les frontières actuelles, sur lesquelles ils sont nombreux à ne pas s'entendre.
 
Au coeur de ces nombreux plans cartographiques repose une importante spéculation sur les richesses que pourrait contenir le sous-sol marin dans l'Arctique. "Ca donne un élan supplémentaire aux efforts canadiens de poursuivre l'étude du plateau continental au-delà des iles de l'Arctique, prétend Michael Byers, spécialiste du grand nord, les enjeux sont trop importants, et le temps s'écoule."
 
Pour le Dr. Jacob Verhoef, chef de l'équipe de recherche du plateau continental canadien, le geste des voisins outre-pole n'est pas inattendu. "Ils prennent de l'avance, dit-il, on ignore le genre de renseignements qu'ils ont obtenu ou comment ils sont parvenus à de telles conclusions". D'autant plus qu'il faudrait s'attendre à ce que certains pays se disputent les mêmes bouts de territoire. "Il est encore trop tôt pour le savoir." Mais il est temps de se renseigner.
 
Le Canada ne nie pas déjà exploiter des ressources au-delà des 200 miles nautiques qui constituent ses eaux territoriales. Un abus qui risque d'être contesté dans l'avenir. Les missions de catrographie auront pour but d'étendre davantage les zones d'exclusion canadiennes dans le grand nord.
 
Pour ce qui est des estimations russes, comme toutes les autres, elles devront être publiées et soumises pour examen à l'ONU où les arguments pourront être analysés scientifiquement. Bien que les Etats-Unis constituent habituellement le pays avec le plus de malentendus frontaliers avec le Canada, ils sont encore loins de la ligne de départ, puisque certains acceptent déjà mal que l'ONU puisse trancher sur des questions de souveraineté nationale.
 
Mais les scientifiques russes ne sont pas à ignorer, selon David Hik de l'Université d'Alberta, qui note leur importante expérience en la matière, puisque près de la moitié de l'Arctique fait géographiquement partie du territoire russe. Enfin pour l'instant...
 
 
 

 

UK fears long terror war

Gordon Brown's prime ministership is being tested early as the man who took over Tony Blair's former role just as soon was confronted with a series of incidents tied to terrorism. The UK national terrorism threat level was raised to "critical" for a few days after planned attacks in two British cities.

Eight arrests were made after two individuals rammed a car filled with gas canisters in Glasgow airport on June 30, an attack linked to two London bomb scares 36 hours before. Six of the suspects were doctors, which would point to very different types of individuals than the disgruntled home-grown lot arrested after the 2005 transit bombings. The arrests later lowered the threat level to "severe" but Britons were only too aware of the bloodshed they came close to experiencing.

The Glasgow airport attack of a burning car set part of the structure ablaze and forced the evacuation of the terminal. Like the second plane crash in the 9-11 attacks, the event was quickly tied to bomb scares the day before in London, giving authorities a broader picture of planned attacks made to inflict large-scale casualties in the UK. A witness said a man who had fled from the SUV as it struck the building had been immediately wrestled to the ground by police. One of the two individuals arrested on site was wearing a "suspect device" some described as a suicide belt. "This is being treated as a terrorist incident," police later said.

The incident occurred as the country was already in a state of alert after the eve's dismantling of two car bombs in the capital. Two Mercedes loaded with explosive material and nails were discovered and police did not delay before establishing a link between the two vehicles and later the Scotland attack. Police examined the two cars and studied CCTV footage for clues about the identities of those behind the terrorist plots that could have killed hundreds.

Reports said officers obtained a "crystal clear" CCTV image of a man "staggering" from the first car after parking it outside a West End nightclub. The first car was discovered parked near Piccadilly Circus; the second was found about an hour later, less than a kilometer away near Trafalgar Square, two high-volume traffic areas. A "considerable" amount of fuel and gas canisters, along with a "substantial quantity of nails," was found in one car, said Peter Clarke, Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner. The cars were illegally parked, leading them to arouse suspicion.

Not unfamiliar with terror threats, this is the third consecutive summer London has had to deal with terrorism. Last year London and U.S. destinations were targeted by a complex scheme involving airliners crashing into buildings. The incidents also came days before the second anniversary of July 7, 2005, when four Islamic extremist suicide bombers killed 52 people on London's transport system in the deadliest strike on the city since World War II. This week four men were found guilty of plotting to carry out similar suicide bombings on 21 July 2005.

After the latest incidents security was beefed up at North American airports. Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day condemned the attacks while reminding that Canada could also be a target. According to a new U.S. security analysis made for the Department of Homeland Security, the risk of attacks in Canada and other countries had also been elevated in recent months. While the U.S. also beefed up airport security measures, Homeland Security did not raise the national terror threat level.

Also recently taking up her post, British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said: "We're currently facing the most serious and sustained threat to our security from international terrorism." The London bombs were found just two days after Brown took office, and one day after he appointed members of his Cabinet. Some have said Britain's foreign policy of taking part in the Iraq and Afghan campaigns have made it a prized target by Muslim extremists.

"Irrespective of Iraq, irrespective of Afghanistan, irrespective of what is happening in different parts of the world, we have an international organization trying to inflict the maximum damage on civilian life in pursuit of a terrorist cause that is totally unacceptable to most people," Brown told BBC television. "Terrorism can never be justified as an act of faith. It is an act of evil in all circumstances," he said.

Some suspect the attack may have been timed with the transition of power in Britain to force London's hand out of Iraq and Afghanistan the way Spain's 2004 election was influenced by the Madrid train attacks. This week Britain’s new security chief warned the country’s battle against terrorism was far from over and could take up to 15 years, while Brown said he wanted an expanded European system to share information on potential threats. “I want a system whereby we know who are potential terrorist suspects,” Brown said.  “It is very important that we tighten this up and it is something we are looking at as a matter of urgency.

Downing Street insisted terrorists would not alter Britain's way of life after Al-Qaida issued new threats this week following London's decision to grant knighthood to author Salman Rushdie, author of the Satanic Verses.

As the troops ready to rotate

As some 2,000 Quebec-based troops were preparing to replace those currently serving in Afghanistan, Canada was being reminded both of the dangers it faced abroad, and at home, in the war on terror. Last week three more Canadians, soldiers, all from the Edmonton-based Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, died when their unprotected all-terrain vehicle was hit by an  improvised explosive device on a re-supply mission, travelling between two checkpoints.

This brought to 60 the number of Canadian soldiers killed in the Afghan campaign. It occurred days after the deadliest suicide bombing so far in Kabul, less than 100 metres from a major police station downtown, adding to the growing signs of a resurgent insurgency fighting to restore terror wherever there was a danger of stability.

It also occurred as troops from Quebec's Valcartier-based Vandoos were to start preparing for their mission to rotate the Princess Patricias in the south of Afghanistan. The war is deeply unpopular in the province with 70% Quebecers expressing a disfavourable opinion of it.

Quebec has been notoriously less willing to support foreign wars either in Iraq or Afghanistan, and last week a controversy erupted in the National Assembly when a Quebec cabinet minister charged separatist Parti Quebecois members of assembly for not joining others saluting members of the Vandoos in the chamber during an ovation. The assembly did salute the soldiers by passing a motion praising their "courage".

The controversy erupted as Quebec City was to mark the departure of Quebec-based troops with a parade in the streets of the old town. Protest groups were also in attendance to remind them of the controversy surrounding the issue. Some of them had been appealing directly to the soldiers in the last weeks, sending an open letter to people living around Valcartier urging them to reconsider their mission overseas.

The soldiers in Quebec have been making appearances in various public arenas, including a Montreal-Toronto football game which saluted their upcoming mission. The latest Canadian casualties came on the day hundreds of people with Canadian flags and yellow ribbons pinned to their chests gathered in Bowmanville, Ont. to pay their respects to a previously fallen soldier, Trooper Darryl Caswell.

The mounting casualties are taking their toll in small communities such as Oromocto, New Brunswick, just south of Fredericton, home to the Gagetown military base, where the families of soldiers continued to show support, while civilians expressed concerns Canada was fighting an unwinnable war.

One that at least is increasingly unpopular. “It seems the people over there don’t want them and they’re killing them, and they’re our people” lamented Alice Mersereau. “I’d like to see them come home because they don’t want them.” Thirty-year military veteran Henry Burns said he fails to see the logic behind the war. “They are fighting a losing battle regardless of how they look at it. You can’t win.”

The message may be making its way to Ottawa. Once supporting the idea Canada should stay in Afghanistan "until the job is done" Prime Minister Stephen Harper now says Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan will not be extended beyond February 2009 unless there is a consensus in Parliament. At least two parties there, the NDP and Bloc Quebecois, are opposed to the war.

As Canada faced perils overseas, intelligence services were analyzing the latest indications Canada's role in Afghanistan could bring acts of terrorism back home. As the Canadian and U.S. governments publicly downplayed a threat related to new video purportedly showing hundreds of member of the Taleban celebrating trainees “graduating” for suicide bombing missions in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, intelligence agencies were trying to authenticate it.

If confirmed, the video would reinforce the notion that the Taleban have effectively merged propaganda and field operations with al-Qaida and are moving their war outside the boundaries of Afghanistan and onto a global scale. “That’s worrisome because we know they’re sharing tradecraft. We know they’re sharing networking,” said Martin Rudner, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University, stressing the video should, “be taken very seriously.”

Shot by an invited Pakistani journalist June 9 somewhere in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, the footage shows a large group of about 300 masked men — including some boys appearing as young as 12 — attending a “graduation ceremony” before apparently being dispatched by al-Qaida and Afghanistan’s Taliban movement on suicide missions overseas.

“These Americans, Canadians, British and Germans come here to Afghanistan from faraway places. Why shouldn’t we go after them?” is showed as saying Mansoor Dadullah, brother of the former Taleban commander Mullah Dadullah, who was killed last month. “Praise be to God that the enthusiasm of these people is so strong that the people are going by crowds to martyrdom and to sacrifice themselves.”

Canadian Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day characterized the video as a, “PR move on behalf of a terror organization." “While we’re not immune from threats and no system is 100 per cent perfect, we feel confident that people coming from a group like that would be detected,” he said. “Their capability, personally, is limited, because there is a lot of internal intelligence that points out who certain individuals are and they do have a limited ability to travel and get through our border systems.”

U.S. officials said there was no credible threat to the continent as this time. But security analysts were warning that without more overseas spying capabilities Canada will remain dangerously unaware and vulnerable to terrorist threats such as this Taleban video.  The video, after all, had been unknown to Canadian intelligence until it was broadcast by ABC, highlighting Canada’s failure to properly collect and analyze foreign information vital to Canadian national interests, says Thomas Quiggan, formerly of the RCMP.

Canada’s heavy reliance on intelligence gathered and shared by allied nations leaves the country in an extremely doubtful situation, he says, “especially when some of our current allies hold widely divergent views on major issues such as counterterrorism. This lack of a collection capability makes us less sovereign and more dependent.” Day previously discussed expanding the mandate of CSIS to included covert, foreign intelligence-gathering.

Canada's “state of denial,” leaves it increasingly blind to growing and globalized problems, from organized crime and transnational terrorism to pandemics, Quiggan says.

L'Iran dans la crise

Un régime qui n’obéit pas aux instances internationales en matière de non-prolifération nucléaire obéira-t-il à la voix d’un peuple déchaîné ?

Ironie de l’affaire: c’est en prévision de possibles sanctions internationales que l’Iran a élargi son plan de rationnement d’essence, révoltant les consommateurs que Téhéran aurait pu croire solidaires afin de mettre au défi la communauté internationale. Jusqu’à maintenant la menace de sanctions de l’Occident contre le régime d’Ahmedinejad avait eu l’effet de galvaniser le nationalisme et de souder l’appui d’un peuple derrière un président généralement jugé un brin trop conservateur dans ce pays déjà dirigé par les omnipuissants mollahs.

Mais celui qui a fait appel à l’annihilation de l’état d’Israel semble avoir mis le feu aux pétrolières en annonçant un rationnement qui limitera à 100 litres par mois la ration mensuelle des automobilistes. Sans parler du fait que le prix (fort subventionné) de l’essence avait fait un bond de 25 pourcent, soit de 8 à 10 cents le litre, dans un pays qui regorge d’or noir.

Pourtant, l’Iran, qui affirmait récemment pouvoir pomper 4,2 millions de barils par jour, n’a pas une bien grande capacité de raffinerie, les centrales iraniennes ne pouvant alimenter qu’un peu plus de la moitié des 79 millions de litres qu’exige la consommation quotidienne.

C’est en prévision de coûts d’importation d’essence pouvant aller au-delà des 10 milliards de dollars par an que Téhéran a imposé des mesures jusqu’ici seulement en vigueur sur les voitures des services gouvernementaux. Pourtant c'est une petite partie des $45 milliards de dollars que tire le second producteur de l'OPEP de l'exportation de son brut chaque année (le baril lui-même maintenant des niveaux élevés) soit finançant la moitié de son budget.

Téhéran justifie par ce manque de capacité de raffinage, lui-même attribuable à divers sanctions contre le régime, le besoin de poursuivre une politique énergétique axée sur le nucléaire, se défendant de vouloir en faire un programme militaire. Téhéran a d'ailleurs invité des inspecteurs de l'Agence de l'énergie atomique internationale pour tenter de débloquer l'impasse à ce niveau.

Mais entre temps le rationnement a eu l'effet d'une bombe au sein d'un peuple généralement étranger aux manifestations, des jeunes ayant brûlé voitures et pompes à essence dans un quartier au nord-ouest de la capitale, lançant des pierres et scandant des slogans contre le président iranien Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Des morts ont même été rapportés.

Il faut dire qu'étant donné l'état actuel de la répression, l'occasion était bonne de s'en prendre aux instances politiques. Autre ironie, une manifestation des travailleurs de l'industrie du pétrole avait donné de l'entrain aux manifestations qui avaient évincé le Shah en 1979.

Bien que les gestes des jeunes soient plutôt extrêmes, le mécontentement se fait sentir dans les énormes files d’attente qui se sont formées devant les stations-service à Téhéran et dans plusieurs autres villes du pays. Les jeunes, qui ont bloqué des autoroutes, ont fait intervenir des unités anti-émeute dans certains quartiers.

Le rationnement ne baissera en rien une inflation galopante et la hausse de prix n'est pas assez importante pour ralentir le passage clandestin de grandes quantités de pétrole vers des pays voisins où le pétrole se vend encore plus cher.

L'Occident suit la crise de près et se retient bien de penser qu'elle pourrait boulverser le régime actuel. Mais les Etats-Unis sont bien conscients que les sanctions visant l'industrie pétrolière iranienne constituent un atout important en leur faveur.

The Palestinian divide

The creation of a new Palestinian government without Hamas was praised by the U.S. and Israel but effectively deepened the divide between a people geographically separated. There was no stronger symbol of this than when a crowd looted the home of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the Gaza Strip, he who had led the struggle of the Palestinian people for four decades.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sacked the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniya, after factional fighting left more than 100 people dead in Gaza, bringing and end to a fragile coalition formed after Hamas won a landslide victory in elections in January 2006. Hamas had a majority in parliament, but the legislature stopped operating months ago, after Israel arrested most of the Hamas members.

Abbas signed a decree enabling him to by-pass parliamentary approval and appoint a new cabinet last week, with Finance Minister Salam Fayyad becoming the new prime minister. Hamas considered the emergency nomination illegal and resumed taking full control of Gaza, as its gunmen  ransacked Fatah offices and arrested or executed its fighters.

In turn Fatah supporters consolidated their control of the West Bank, just 45 km away, parading around Ramallah, firing weapons into the air and chanting "Hamas out". Almost all Hamas politicians and prominent supporters in Ramallah have either fled or gone into hiding. A future Palestinian state has long been envisioned as encompassing both the West Bank and Gaza, something both Abbas and his U.S. backers insist remains the goal.

But the divisions remained real a week later as Abbas condemned Hamas as "murderous terrorists" and "coup plotters", over the group's takeover of Gaza, which he charged was backed by foreign supporters. This week Haniya said his group was ready for talks with Fatah again. He was reacting to a call from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for a resumption of dialogue between the two Palestinian factions at a summit in Egypt of four Middle Eastern leaders.

At the summit aimed at boosting Abbas and isolating his rivals, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he would ask his cabinet to release 250 jailed member of the Fatah movement.

For its part the Bush administration lifted its economic and diplomatic embargo on the Palestinian government, moving to resume direct aid payments to the cash-strapped Palestinian government in the West Bank. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she will ask Congress to rework an existing $86 million aid request for the Abbas-led government and announced a separate $40 million contribution to United Nations relief for Palestinian refugees, a gesture to the 1.5 million Palestinians living in increasingly desperate conditions in Gaza.

Some of them suffered from temporary utility cuts when Israeli and other outside providers severed their feed of the tiny enclave on the Mediterranean.

News of the new government was also well-received in Israel, where Olmert said prospects for peace could be boosted by the creation of a new Palestinian government without the Hamas party. Israel would regard such a cabinet as a partner, he said, adding that Hamas' exclusion "creates opportunities".

Israel was to free millions in tax revenue it collects on behalf of the Palestinians. Israel has refused to release most of the money for fear it would benefit Hamas, which a number of countries including Canada call a terrorist organization. Israel soon allowed humanitarian aid to reach Gaza for the first time since the battle between Hamas and Fatah began June 10. UN trucks carrying sugar, cooking oil and medical supplies initially made the short journey as Israeli Defence Forces kept a close watch.

But Israel was soon reminded of the threats it continues to face when Katyusha rockets were sent into its territory from nearby Lebanon, breaking a ceasefire which had been implemented since last year's bloody clash between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah. Hezbollah denied responsibility and Israel intelligence considered Palestinian radicals based in Lebanon as the culprit. The rockets exploded near the northern Israeli border town of Kiryat Shmona and produced no casualties.

Washington craint un geste d'Ankara

Alliés militaires de la Turquie remontant à plusieurs décennies, les Etats-Unis ne peuvent pas s’empêcher de redouter le penchant militaire de ce grand partenaire stratégique de l’Otan.

Plus tôt ce printemps, Washington émettait des réserves quant aux déclarations des forces armées sur le scrutin présidentiel qui doit avoir lieu aux portes de l'Europe. Des généraux turcs venaient de court-circuiter le processus électoral après la nomination d'un candidat musulman, Abdullah Gul, par le parti qui contrôle la majorité au parlement d'Ankara.

Pays à majorité musulmane, la Turquie a préservé sa sécularité notamment en raison de l'armée, qui se considère gardienne des valeurs de Kemal Ataturk. L'armée était également intervenue il y a dix ans pour éviter l'élection d'un parti musulman.

En 2002 elle a permis à la présente majorité musulmane de se constituer en partie parce qu'elle a voulu bien paraître devant les instances européennes, mais surtout parce que le parti s'engageait à préserver les valeurs laïques vieilles de 70 ans. Le geste récent des généraux a alarmé l'Union Européenne.

Washington a gardé son sans froid mais son ambassadeur a rappelé que les mots moins durs du Département d'Etat ne signifiaient en rien une approbation de la ligne dure militaire sur le processus électoral.

Gul a depuis été remis au placard, mais les parlementaires font flotter l'idée de nouvelles élections parlementaires, où la majorité musulmane augmen- terait sans doute, et même celle d'un référendum ouvrant la voie à un scrutin présidentiel direct.

La crise politique, qui a créé des craintes de putsch militaire, à peine achevée, une polémique proprement militaire et territoriale n'a pas tardé à voir le jour concernant la minorité qu'Ankara a souvent été critiquée de malmener: les Kurdes.

L'attaque kurde qui a fait sept militaires morts au début du mois est venue mettre le feu aux poudres après l'attaque suicide d'un militant kurde qui a fait six morts à Ankara en mai.

Tanks et troupes turques n'ont pas tardé à se masser sur la frontière entre la Turquie et l'Irak, laissant supposer une offensive militaire de grande envergure pour combattre les militants du PKK qui y sont réfugiés.

Un tel événement serait catastrophique dans la seule zone irakienne qui semble connaitre une certaine stabilité depuis la chute de Saddam Hussein. Le nord kurde est en effet considéré un modèle de développement dans ce pays ravagé par la guerre depuis 2003.

Le premier ministre Recep Tayyip Erdogan retient à présent très mal son général, Yasar Buyukanit, qui a ouvertement fait appel à une "nécessaire" incursion trans-frontalière. Il peut compter sur le soutien du dirigeant de l'opposition principal Deniz Baykal sur la question.

Le Secrétaire de la défense américain, Robert Gates, s'est catégoriquement opposé à une telle offensive, et le survol "accidentel" de deux chasseurs américains au-dessus du territoire turc, qui comprend d'ailleurs l'imposante base d'Incirlik, n'a pas tardé à être interprété comme un avertissement américain.

Les Etats-Unis préféreraient qu'Ankara négocie une entente avec les Kurdes non militants d'Irak, plutôt que de s'en remettre à une intervention militaire, mais ces derniers sont soupçonnés par Ankara de camoufler des ambitions autonomistes. Le PKK, quant à lui, n'aimerait rien de mieux qu'attiquer des troupes turques en Irak pour mettre les deux alliés sur le chemin de la confrontation.

L'armée turque quant à elle a annoncé l'implantation de “zones de sécurité”, un geste qui rappelle l'état d'urgence qui avait été imposé dans le sud du pays jusqu'en 2002, lorsque l'armée tentait d'éliminer les séparatistes kurdes de la région. En lutte contre le PKK depuis 1980, la Turquie ne s'est pas retenue d'intervenir en Irak trois fois dans le passé. Washington redoute qu'elle ne prépare une nouvelle incursion.

Hamilton may have to wait, again

After three consecutive Stanley Cups of Canadian teams losing to southern-based US cities that care very little about hockey, one Canadian entrepreneur is anticipating the next round by taking a successful US franchise in the south and considering having it transferred to Hamilton, perhaps a future contender.
 
After all Canada's teams have all failed to secure the Cup except for the 1993 Habs in the last 20 years. Toronto didn't even get to the finals once in that time. But Basillie may have been anticipating a wee bit too much.
 
By the looks of things it may be a while before Canada gets that seventh NHL franchise.

On his second try since he was rebuffed by the league trying to get the Penguins and ultimately moving them to Copps coliseum, best known for hosting two of the three finals of the 1987 Canada Cup, Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie, the co-CEO of BlackBerry maker Research In Motion, had hoped to get an audience at the NHL's board of governors meeting next week in New York to clear the air on his tentative purchase of the Nashville Predators and possible relocation to Hamilton - but it's not going to happen.

Neither the relocation question or the actual vote on the ownership transfer will be on the board of governors' agenda and Balsillie won't be invited to the meeting according to reports.

The NHL considers the request to deal with relocation "premature" because there is a valid and binding lease in Nashville. But Balsillie's camp doesn't seem concerned.

"There's nothing to read into this other than the process gets delayed," Balsillie's lawyer Richard Rodier said Wednesday. "There's still a letter of intent, we're still working on a purchase agreement and working to close it."

Rodier said Balsillie is only looking into possible relocation to Hamilton in the event the arena lease in Nashville is terminated, which could happen as early as next summer.

"Our intentions are to buy the Predators and abide by the lease (in Nashville)," said Rodier. "We have to consider the possibility that the lease may disappear through no fault, through no act or omission of ours. It's not in our control."

While the NHL doesn't plan to meet with Balsillie next week, the league will update owners on the Predators situation, talk that guarantees to dominate the meeting.

The transfer of ownership vote is expected to be held later this summer. And it will be intriguing, to say the least.

While Balsillie has apparently drawn the ire of the league's head office and some NHL owners by making contingency plans with the city of Hamilton even though his purchase of the Predators from current owner Craig Leipold has yet to be completed, his purchase price for the NHL club has other owners dancing with glee.

Balsillie has promised to pay between US$220 million to $238 million for the Predators. It's a price some consider vastly inflated, especially since he bid $175 million for Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this season in his failed attempt to buy that club. Forbes magazine estimated the Predators' value at $134 million earlier this season and the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks were bought for $70 million in 2005.

Some NHL owners might be pleased with their own franchise values being inflated by the Preds sale but others have frowned upon his dealings with the City of Hamilton and feel Balsillie isn't being genuine in trying to keep the team in Nashville.

Meantime, the Hamilton plans move forward. Hamilton city council was expected to announce on Wednesday night an agreement which hands over control of Hamilton Entertainment and Convention Facilities Inc., a city corporation that runs more than just Copps Coliseum, the hockey arena.

"It contemplates taking over all the facilities, not just the arena," said Rodier. "We would be taking over the arena, the convention centre, the theatre, and the parking garage. And in doing so eliminating the deficit that the city currently runs."

It's believed the city of Hamilton runs an annual deficit of about $4 million a year. The agreement would also signal that Balsillie is choosing Hamilton as his relocation site, not his hometown of Waterloo, Ont., where Research In Motion's head office is located. Balsillie's wife is from Hamilton.

The lease of the Sommet Center with the city of Nashville is a whole other matter right now. City politicians and lawyers appear to be interpreting the lease differently than Leipold, whose offer of sale to Balsillie was under the premise that a loophole to get out of Nashville existed after the 2007-08 season if average attendance was less than 14,000, cumulatively, for two consecutive seasons. The Preds averaged 13,815 this past season - including the playoffs.

The "early termination" clause has to be invoked one year ahead of time, which Leipold planned to do soon. But one Nashville city lawyer said last month that the Predators couldn't invoke their escape clause until after the 2007-08 season, meaning they couldn't leave the city until 2009.

Further confusing matters was a report in Wednesday's "Tennessean" in which Nashville Metro finance director David Manning said the Predators can't exercise their escape clause in their lease until a dispute over the franchise's "tangible net worth" is resolved. The lease stipulates that the city is able to recoup part of its initial $35-million investment in the Predators if the franchise leaves town before the end of the lease in 2028. The city said last year that the Predators' net worth was too low to let taxpayers recover their investment. The dispute remains unresolved.

"They're not entitled to give notice while that issue is unresolved," Manning told the Tennessean.

If and when Balsillie can iron out his issues with the lease, then he can turn his attention to another hurdle in Hamilton - the NHL's bylaws regarding territorial rights, which extend to 80 kilometres of an NHL city's corporate city limits. That puts Hamilton in the crosshairs of both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres.

Richard Peddie, CEO and president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, said Wednesday all he knew was from what he read in media reports.

"I'm really waiting for an analysis and a recommendation from the NHL - which we will get on the 20th (at the board of governors)," Peddie said. "Until I've studied the material and heard what Mr. Bettman has to say, we're really making no statements on this whatsoever."

The Sabres declined comment Wednesday, referring the matter to the league.

Thank God school is out

Maybe it's about time school was out, because in the East, it seems to be out of control. A school year that opened with a mass shooting in Montreal, ended with extra police presence in a North York high-school prom, soon after the killing of 15-year-old Jordan Manners on May 23, and bomb threats cancelling year-end dances and proms in the Maritimes.

In between the two fatal city shooting incidents, the Atlantic provinces reported at least half a dozen investigations into bomb scares while a police gun went missing in a Kitchener school, leaving some to fear for the worst.

Down south events were hardly encouraging after the bloodliest mass shooting in American history and separate incidents which did not even spare the notoriously discrete and reclusive Amish community.Cho Seung-Hui, a 23-year- old senior majoring in English has since then made the pristine and sleepy campus of Virginia Tech university and the community of Blacksburgh, Va synonymous with nightmare after he mowed down 32 students.

The scenario was averted by a combination of luck and quick action in Montreal in September, when Kimveer Gill set out to cause carnage at Dawson college. A girl was killed and scores injured before he took his own life once cornered.

The May shooting in Toronto left a popular boy dead but led to the arrest of two 17-years-old boys, who are facing first-degree murder charges. Their identities are shielded by the Youth Criminal Justice Act. It is still undetermined if they will be tried as adults. Some critics say such protection may only be encouraging kids to be less accountable for their actions.

In the Maritimes the countless bomb threats, the most recent leading to investigations in other parts of the country, are leaving authorities in small communities scrambling, while principals ponder whether or not to cancel proms. Police arrested a second 14-year-old suspect related to an explosive device removed from a Fredericton school last month.

On May 14 the device, which was removed and detonated, forced the evacuation of Leo Hayes High School. No one was hurt. Both are due to appear in youth court in July. Copy cats are being blamed for a string of bomb threats made in the Maritimes, many in the Halifax area. Amherst high school in Nova Scotia was evacuated and searched when students were overheard saying they were going to set off a bomb there.

In what is becoming a sadly familiar scene, an RCMP canine unit searched the premises, revealing no explosives, but classes resumed under tightened security. It was just the latest Nova Scotia high school to be searched for explosives after two other Halifax-area schools were closed the previous week following similar threats.

A more recent "specific" threat on Cape Breton's Memorial high school caused the principal there to consider cancelling a June 23 prom, as police launched an investigation stretching to Halifax and even Toronto, after a threatening email was received by the principal.

Following the tragedies in the U.S. and Montreal, school officials and education boards are taking all such threats seriously. At the same time the popularity of day-to-day life reality shows and immediate access to portable recording tools giving the public unprecedented access behind the scenes in schools.

Some blame the popularity of internet sites such as Youtube which have made it easy to broadcast for all to see events captured on cellphone cameras that can put local schools on the map.

Acts of school ground bullying and spectacular cafeteria food fights can no longer only be seen by immediate witnesses but all who log on wherever they may be. One spectacular food fight in a Magog high school involving dozens of students and resulting in thousands of dollars in damages was all the rage on Youtube last week. Some 35 students were punished as a result.

Coupled with a greater concern for safety issues on campus, the two have put schools and the pranks that are played between their walls, increasingly in the news. Last week a Montreal-area school was evacuated after simple rumors of an attack at the school. But real school tragedies have made the entire country, not just internet surfers, stand still in shock.

Meanwhile the school that was the latest site of a school shooting in Canada carried on with its prom with a moment to pause and remember the victim. Senior students at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute remembered 15-year-old Manners after officials decided to go forward with the prom despite the fact it was so soon after the fatal shooting.

The incident was quickly followed by calls to Ottawa from Toronto Mayor David Miller and Premier Dalton McGuinty to ban handguns in Canada. The issue resurfaces every time there is a shooting in a Canadian school. Canada already places severe restrictions on handgun ownership, a legacy of the 1989 Polytechnique shooting. All gun owners are required to have a background check. All guns are registered and can be used only as part of a collection or for target shooting. Despite this, gun crime remains a concern.

At the prom there was a moment of silence and students wore arm bands in memory of Manners, all under increased security. Sadly there is a tragic familiarity to both the mourning and the security measures. The school held a formal memorial service to honour the boy after his funeral. Something that doesn't belong in the curriculum.

Russia & US spar over missiles

With a trip to the G8 meant to calm fears of a new Cold war with Russia and a hero’s welcome for Bush in Albania, where he called for the independence of Kosovo, it’s been anything but an uneventful trip to Europe for the US president.

The war of words that preceded the G8 meeting and culminated with Moscow’s threat it would retarget its missiles on Europe if the U.S. went ahead with a ballistic missile system there, cooled down when Russian president Vladimir Putin presented Bush with a rather odd counter- proposal.

Putin suggested the missile system be built around a Soviet-era radar system in Azerbaijan rather than new defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. Bush said he would consider the unexpected proposal in his plans for defending Europe against attack from hostile regimes such as Iran or North Korea.

Almost on queue the hermit kingdom fired short-range missiles off its western coast in an apparent test, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry. The U.S. immediately denounced the  launch, saying such activity was “not constructive” in the midst of a deadlock in international negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

It seemed to take the mini Russia-US summit out of mind at a time fierce rhetoric carried the echoes of a bygone era. Some are in fact referring to the sad state of relations between the two countries as a post-Cold War low, following tensions raised by Bush’s accusations that Putin was backsliding on democracy, and Putin’s charges that Bush was starting a new arms race with missile defenses.

At issue is a system with a radar screen in the Czech Republic to detect incoming rockets and 10 interceptors based in Poland to shoot them down. But the presence of such a system so close to the Russian border is also sparking divisions among former East bloc allies, now almost all sympathetically turned to Washington.

Bulgaria, a staunch US ally, is concerned it may be left out of the missile plan. Bush visited Sofia as part of a sweeping European tour that included Italy, Germany and Eastern European countries. Bush thanked Bulgaria for its support in Iraq and Afghanistan but got his greatest welcome in tiny Albania, which has renamed streets and even unveiled a national stamp in his honour.

Albania especially welcomed Bush’s support for an independent Kosovo, which was however decried in Serbia. Earlier the G8 had failed to reach a consensus on the Kosovo issue. America’s stance on Kosovo is another point of contention with Moscow, a staunch ally of the Serbs. The latter see Kosovo as the heart of its historic homeland while Russia contends independence would set a dangerous precedent for other breakaway regions.

Any way you sliced it tensions between the two former Cold war rivals seemed palpable, especially with so many questions remaining unclear in the Alexander Litvinenko spy file. But Bush and Putin did join other world leaders in a compromise on a plan to attack global warming and agreed to seek substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, however stopping short of committing themselves to specific targets.

The G8 said it would negotiate within a UN framework to seek a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol by the end of 2009 and while no mandatory target was set for the cuts, a preference for a 50% emissions cut by the year 2050 was included in the agreed statement. Both the US and Russia agreed to disagree on the figure, backed by the EU, Canada and Japan.

It's a start. Bush and Putin even plan to meet again in early July at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. That should leave the two as far figuratively as they will be geographically far from Cuba.

Ottawa en grande finale!

Bon sang elle n'était pas volée cette présence en finale de Coupe Stanley. Après des années de déception dans l'après-saison, la perte de son club de football et bientôt celui de son équipe de baseball AAA, Ottawa peut se féliciter d'avoir franchi une étape sportive  importante en disputant sa première finale de hockey professionnel depuis 1927! En effet 80 ans et une résurrection plus tard, les Sénateurs, version moderne, vont disputer la grande classique du sport d'hiver.

La finale commence le lundi 28 mai, et opposera Ottawa aux Ducks d'Anaheim, vainqueurs 4-3 lors du 6e match contre les Red Wings. (4-2)

Ottawa a défait Pittsburgh, l'équipe du joueur par excellence de la ligue, puis New Jersey, avec un des meilleurs gardiens, avant d'évincer les Sabres, équipe avec la meilleure fiche, en laissant filer un seul gain chaque fois. Le gardien Ray Emery, qui n'avait même pas le poste de partant en début de saison, a enregistré trois jeux blancs.

Mais la tâche ne fut pas toujours toute simple. Un seul but a séparé les gagnants des perdants lors de quatre des cinq parties de la dernière série. Celle-ci a d'ailleurs été décidée en surtemps. A 9:32 du quatrième engagement le capitaine Daniel Alfredsson, le héros des séries, a inscrit le but qui allait faire d'Ottawa des finalistes.

Il s'agit de la troisième finale consécutive qui compte un club canadien, mais la tâche est lourde pour les Sénateurs qui tenteront de devenir le premier club d'ici à remporter le prestigieux trophée depuis les Canadiens de Montréal en 1993.

Le gérant général du club, John Muckler, qui est à sa septième présence en finale, sait que la partie est loin d'être gagnée: "il reste du travail à faire" disait-il le lendemain de la victoire, gardant les yeux rivés sur l'objectif qui et celui d'Alfredsson et sa bande depuis presque une décennie.

Le numéro 11, qui a d'ailleurs saisi les rennes du club après la mésaventure des premières années et les fiascos Daigle et Yashin, a joué dans tous les matchs éliminatoires de la concession, pendant 10 ans de suite, sans avoir l'occasion de participer à la grande finale.

Le meneur des Sénateurs, avec 10 buts en série, a qualifié son dernier but de  "plus gros" de sa carrière: "J’ai regardé une période du match (Ducks-Red Wings) et savoir que nous étions déjà rendus là a rendu les choses vraiment intéressantes." En effet, une troisième série limitée à cinq rencontres sur un maximum de sept signifie qu'Ottawa sera l'équipe la plus reposée des deux qui s'affronteront en finale.

Etonnant qu'Ottawa se soit autant sorti d'affaire après un début de saison si désolant. En effet après l'élimination en seconde ronde des séries l'an dernier, après avoir remporté le trophée du président, les Sénateurs ne semblaient plus très inspirés en début de saison, leur capitaine recevant de plein fouet toutes les critiques.

Le club languissait sous la barre des 500 et on se demandait si on avait bien fait de remplacer l'entraîneur par Bryan Murray. Puis la ligne Alfredsson-Spezza-Heatley a commencé à faire ses ravages en devenant la plus redoutée de la ligue. Elle a poursuivi ses exploits dans l'après-saison, au courant de laquelle il devenait évident que le "vieux" capitaine et sa toute nouvelle coupe de cheveux était parti en véritable mission, comme ses ancètres vikings.

“C’était approprié que ce soit lui qui marque ce but”, a constaté Heatley deux jours après le sacre, une fois de retour à l’entraînement. “Alfie est notre meneur. Après toutes les critiques qu’il a essuyées par le passé, c’était beau à voir, a renchéri l’autre membre du trio, Jason Spezza. Espérons qu’il lui reste encore de la magie.”

Cette magie était descendue dans les rues de la capitale comme un premier juillet, les bars se vidant sur la rue Elgin, fermée pour laisser la place aux célébrations. Des centaines de partisans sont ensuite venus félicier les héros du samedi à leur descente d'avion en soirée. Certes il y avait de la joie, mais pour reprendre les dires de Chris Phillips, beaucoup de "soulagement" également.

"C'est excitant, et puis sa nous ôte tout un poids sur le dos," disait-il le lendemain de la victoire. Le flambeau semble avoir été passé aux successeurs des Cy Denneny, King Clancy et Frank Finnigan qui ont fait des Sénateurs un des clubs les plus couronnés du sport à l'époque. Et cette époque, c'est celle que nous vivons, enfin!

Le Liban dans la crise

Après la destruction apportée par les tirs nourris de l’aviation israélienne puis l’assassinat du président Hariri par des agents du régime syrien, le Liban doit composer avec sa toute dernière crise, qui l’oppose aux islamistes retranchés dans des camps de réfugiés, dont le compte des victimes dresse le plus sombre bilan depuis la guerre civile.

La crise qui oppose l’armée au Fatah al-Islam, un groupuscule dont on soupçonne les liens avec le réseau Al-Qaida et les services de renseignement syriens, principalement dans le nord du pays, a fait 46 morts dont 27 militaires la première journée des hostilités, avant de se répandre sur deux autres journées d’échanges de tirs à l’artillerie lourde et à l’arme légère.

Le Premier ministre Fouad Siniora avait donné dimanche soir le feu vert à l’armée afin qu’elle prenne les mesures nécessaires pour neutraliser les islamistes. Le tout se joue sur un fond de crise politique, incessante depuis la mort d’Hariri en 2005. Si le manque d’ordre parait parfois évident aux plus hauts niveaux du pays de cèdre, c’est sans parler des camps de réfugiés palestiniens du Liban, qui échappent purement et simplement à l’autorité de l’armée libanaise depuis des décennies.

Presque 350,000 Palestiniens vivent dans les camps à travers le pays depuis la création de l’Etat d’Israël en 1948. Selon une des têtes religieuses musulmanes du camp principal, Nahr el-Bared, les 30 000 habitants qui y sont regroupés se sont retrouvés à la croisée des tirs et font les frais de l’affrontement : « Vous pouvez dire qu’un massacre d’enfants et de femmes qui n’ont rien à voir avec Fatah Islam a lieu a sein du camp » estimait Ahmed Methqal.

Les autorités libanaises sont d’ailleurs interdites d’accès au camp selon une entente vieille de presque quatre décennies. Une descente policière sur plusieurs planques du groupe, en rapport avec un braquage de banque récent, serait à l’origine des éclats, qui se seraient aggravés lorsque les militants issus du camp s’en sont pris à des postes militaires.

Selon la police une des victimes serait un suspect dans une affaire d’attentat raté des chemins de fer allemands, confirmant des dires qui voudraient que le camp serait à l'origine d’opérations de terrorisme à l’étranger. Mais le commandant de la police nationale associe plutôt certains ressortissants du camp avec la Syrie qu’Al-Qaida. Selon la télévision libanaise, des hommes du Bengladesh, du Yémen et de plusieurs pays arabes étaient au compte des victimes, certains portant même des ceintures d’explosifs.

Environ 150 membres de Fatah Islam seraient installés dans le camp. Alors que le groupe nie une association directe avec Al-Qaida, il s’identifie beaucoup avec les objectifs de la mouvance terroriste internationale d’Oussama ben Laden. Le camp fait l’objet d’une attention particulière depuis deux attentats contre des bus dans la zone chrétienne de Beyrouth en février. Des milliers de réfugiés ont profité de la crise pour fuir le camp, sans trop savoir ce que l'avenir leur réserve. Il ne s'agit que du plus récent exode du pays de cèdre.

Musharraf's struggle

Every twenty years since independence, Pakistan's strongmen have been forced from office one way or another. For Ayub Khan it was in 1969, for Zia, an assassination in 1989. By this account present strongman Pervez Musharraf should be good for a few more months but you'd be fooled by looking at the outcry in Pakistani cities since the general suspended the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, dividing the country between supporters of the executive and the judiciary.

Judge Iftikhar Chowdhry, who had stayed put after the military coup that put Musharraf in place, had recently passed a number of judgments going against the government, a "worrying trend" that no doubt precipitated his ouster. A grassroots movement started among the country's 80,000 lawyers spread among other professionnal and popular ranks.

In a country where the "strongman" looked increasingly weakened by his inability to reign in the Taleban on the Western front, it suddenly seemed that chaos was running rampant in Pakistani towns. The situation suddenly seemed to careen out of control when Chowdhry was prevented from addressing a meeting in Karachi, leading to violent clashes that killed nearly fifty people.

Ensuing crackdowns on television stations showing footage of the events prompted nationwide strikes that seemed to bring the country down a now familiar and even cyclical path. Musharraf does have proven survival skills however, having dodged a number of assassination attempts during his highly contested eight year rule. But he would lose to the judge in a landslide if elections scheduled for later this year were held now, and Musharraf seems to dread the competition.

He has indicated former prime ministers, now in exile, such as Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, would not be allowed to return to compete for the polls. That would be a step back from previous indications Musharraf was willing to consider an alliance with Bhutto. Any change would be carefully monitored in Washington, which has been a  staunch supporter of the general because of his anti-terrorism efforts despite his limitations on the matter.

Areas of West Pakistan such as Baluchistan are notoriously overrun by Taleban supporters, with some religious schools openly supporting the war against Nato soldiers, including Canadians, across the border in southern Afghanistan, but mindful not to draw attention to their presence in Pakistan, by fear of drawing US troops there.

Musharraf accused opponents of using his ouster of Pakistan's chief justice to conspire against him and said it would be a sad day if "lies and deception" prevail in the crisis threatening his grip on power. In a defiant speech Monday, he defended his government's record and accused unidentified opponents of hijacking a purely legal issue -- allegations that Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry abused his office -- for political ends. "They are conspiring against me and want to incite the people," Musharraf told hundreds of supporters at a rally of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League.

He insisted the party could still win year-end parliamentary elections. But critics accuse him of cracking down on the judiciary ahead of a flurry of expected legal challenges to Musharraf's planned bid for a new five-year presidential term. The Supreme Court meanwhile resumed hearing a petition brought by Chaudhry challenging his suspension. This has halted investigations on Chaudhry's alleged abuse of position. Also Pakistan summoned a British diplomat following comments that indicated a preference for Musharraf to separate the offices of president and army chief by the end of this year, calling it interference in Pakistan's internal affairs.

Whither corporate Canada?

It was more than justifying traditional conservative policies, Stephen Harper was trying to reassure Canadians that their economy wasn't being gobbled up by international investors, and especially the behemoths down south. Recently the Prime minister had to convince critics, especially in the House of Commons, that his government wasn't encouraging the sell-off of corporate Canada, following a string of announcements of corporate take-overs.

The outcry became particularly loud when Alcoa announced it was launching a hostile bid for Montreal-based Alcan. The news came in the wake of a report which revealed that foreign direct investment in Canada, fuelled by takeovers of domestic firms, surged 10.1 per cent last year to reach $448.9 billion. The news was doubly surprising consider- ing a strong Canadian dollar, over 90 cents US, making these purchases a bit pricier. But the high dollar may only be a reflection of the growing interest in the Canadian economy and domestic companies, analysts say, especially with the boom taking hold out West.

Of course Canadian companies had deep enough pockets to reciprocate, with their own wave of take-overs. “Both Canadian direct investment abroad and foreign direct investment in Canada recorded the highest percentage increase in six years,” Statistics Canada said. In fact, according to KPMG, there were more Canadian takeovers of foreign firms than vice-versa, they just involved less money.

The take-overs of Falconbridge and Inco alone accounted for $38 billion US. Opposition parliamenarians blamed conservative tax policies for the rise in foreign mergers and acquisitions. But according to SEC filings, merger discussions between the aluminum giants began as far back as June 2005. Still the timing of it all had some concerned about a developing trend.

Just days before the formal bid announcement, Quebec-based Van Houtte was sold to U.S. private equity firm Littlejohn, signs for some of yet another Canadian company unable to expand into the U.S. Clothing retailer La Senza's similar failure had caused it to be gobbled up for $710 million last November. Other notables of the last few years include Molson's "merger of equals" which much larger Coors of Colorado, which had kicked things off well before the change in government, then the take-over of the venerable Hudson's Bay, followed by the more recent mergers and acquisitions of Algoma, Sleemans breweries and paper maker Domtar.

Recently even Montreal-based BCE, parent company of the telephone giant Bell Canada, was said to be contemplating take-over offers. All in all it seemed Quebec companies, at least those that hadn't moved to Ontario in the 1970s, looked particularly targeted, at a time of debate over the future of Quebec Inc.

Close ties between industry players and the government were a key point of contention on the Alcan bid. According to the fine print of the 10-page Alcan-Quebec pact, Alcan’s board could push back considering the bid until the requirements of all regulatory bodies and authorities examining an Alcan takeover or acquisition were met.That would include requirements made by antitrust authorities in Canada, the U.S., the European Union and elsewhere Alcan conducts business.

On the day of the initial announcement of intent, the Quebec government however quickly indicated it wasn't about to intervene on the markets and felt confident Alcoa would respect Alcan's arrangements with the province, and beyond, by making added investments. Once called Alcan's "poison pill" against takeovers, the Montreal company said that Quebec had "retained various rights that allow it to cancel some or all of the new entitlements and benefits relating to water and power, including financial support," should there be an acquisition or a change in its headquarters. Alcoa, which said Montreal would retain its headquarters, stressed that a successful bid would create the world's largest aluminum producer with dual head offices in Montreal and New York. More significantly, such a deal would represent the largest takeover in Canadian history.

As this was dragging on some Canadian corporate moves held their own and were not to be poo-poohed, notably the combined bid by car parts maker Magna International and Toronto-based Onex Corp. for 80 percent of America's third-largest auto maker, the Chrysler Group, eventually picked up by New York-based buyout-firm Cerberus. (Soon after the $7 billion auto deal, Cerberus set its sights on BCE, encouraging CanWest and Shaw Communications of entering a bid that could fetch over $30 billion, or about the same as Alcan) Canadian publisher Thomson Corp. however took no prisoners when it bought London-based Reuters, the business news leader, for $17.2 billion US, creating  the world’s leading provider of news and data for professional markets.

Just when you thought the days of the great Canadian barons, such as the legally-challenged Conrad Black, were over. Foreign investments made by Canadians reached over $523 billion, or $75 billion more than foreign investment made in Canada. And the Alcan saga may not yet be entirely over. In Mid-May the Montreal-based alumimum makers pondered a Pac-Man type attack that, like the video game, could see it turn around and swallow it's larger American rival.

The friendly merger of two aluminum giants suddenly became plainly hostile. Alcoa.'s hostile takeover bid for Alcan was "hugely inadequate" and should be refused, Alcan's chief executive officer Dick Evans said as he notified shareholders that the Montreal-based aluminum producer was talking with other potential suitors. "We are convinced that the proposed Alcoa-led acquisition of Alcan is not the right choice for our shareholders," he said. As the dog days of Summer approach, the markets are increasingly becoming a dog eat dog affair.

Boisclair annonce sa démission-choc

Ce n’était pas la drogue, ni son homosexualité. C’était sans doute l’échec cuisant du Parti Québécois aux dernières élections. Mais c’était surtout quarante ans de crucifixion des chefs dans la poursuite d’un idéal intéresse de moins en moins de Québécois.

Une journée déjà chargée historiquement, en raison du début de la première session législative d’un gouvernement minoritaire à Québec depuis 1878, a été presque totalement éclipsée par la démission-choc d’André Boisclair au poste de chef du PQ.

C’était en effet le seul titre qui lui revenait, n’ayant pas obtenu celui de premier ministre, ou de chef de l’opposition, le 26 mars dernier. Quarante ans après la création du Mouvement pour la souverainté-association de René Lévesque, Boisclair était le sixième chef depuis la création du PQ, et le cinquième à démissionner à cause de la question nationale.

Même le père du mouvement souverainiste, Lévesque, avait dû rompre en 1984 lorsque cinq ministres de son cabinet ont suivi le geste du député Pierre De Bellefeuille et ont démissionné du caucus des députés, en réaction au refus de leur chef de faire de la souveraineté l’enjeu de la prochaine élection.

Boisclair avait bien promis un référendum à la première chance, mais on le sentait bien hésitant sur la question. Puis avec 36 sièges, le pire score du PQ depuis 1970, son avenir semblait tout décidé. Comme Landry et même le populaire Bouchard lui, Boisclair s’est vu montrer la porte par les purs et durs d’un parti qui tient presque autant à s’entre-déchirer qu’à l’indépendance.

Le plus jeune chef aura été moins de deux ans au plus haut poste, surclassé il y a à peine plus d’un mois par un jeune chef adéquiste encore plus jeune, et de loin le plus populaire chef de parti au Québec. C’est ce qui ressortait d’un sondage un mois à peine après l’élection provinciale, qui avait placé Boisclair au plus bas des intentions de vote, plus de la moitié des répondants préférant qu’il soit remplacé.

Ont suivi en rapide succession des sorties, les unes les plus virulentes que les autres, de souverainistes pour qui la chefferie devait changer immédiatement. La semaine dernière c’était à l’ancien ministre Denis Lazure de faire appel à la démission du chef « pour le bien du parti et de la souveraineté » dans une lettre au Devoir.

Puis il y a eu cette sortie inattendue du chef, lors d’une entre-vue pour Radio-Canada, où il s’en prenait au chef du Bloc Gilles Duceppe, pourtant son allié, qu’il accusait de manigancer pour le renverser. « Il y a des gens qui ont des doubles agendas, malgré les déclarations publiques qu’ils font » avait déclaré Boisclair. A partir de ce moment, la chute devenait irréversible.

Le lendemain le président du Conseil de la souveraineté, Gérald Larose, déclarait que Boisclair devait parti s’il ne parvenait pas à démontrer rapidement qu’il avait le contrôle sur son parti. De toute évidence, c’est un combat que n’a pas tenté de mener Boisclair.

Le matin de la nouvelle session de l’Assemblée Nationale, l’agenda avait complètement été chamboulé. «L’intensité de la remise en question du leadership ne me permet pas de procéder à l’essentielle réflexion que doit faire le parti sur le fond des choses dans la sérénité nécessaire pour conduire un tel exercice, » dit-il après avoir rencontré son caucus parlementaire réduit.

Pour certains, comme l'ancien ministre Claude Charron, cette réflexion d'habitude évitée au sein de ce parti "aux soins intensifs" doit avoir lieu, sinon tout prochain chef risque de "vivre le même calvaire".

Cette tâche pourrait revenir au favori de l'heure, le populaire chef du Bloc Québécois, qui niait il y avait quelques jours à peine quelque projet de passer en politique provinciale, comme tant d'autres avant lui, comme Charest et Bouchard.

"C'est un homme qui a consacré toute sa vie au mouvement souverainiste. Partout où il est passé il a donné le meilleur de lui-même", a déclaré Duceppe, comme lors d'un enterrement, dans une journée pleines de louanges pour un chef si conspué la veille. Le chef du PQ le plus récent à voir son chemin de croix terminer sur la colline parlementaire.

Sarkozy vainqueur au second tour avec 53%

La droite conserve la présidence française, comme elle le fait depuis 1995, mais le chef d’Etat qui succède à Jacques Chirac promet d’incarner le changement “dont la France a besoin”. A première vue c'est presque de la démagogie, mais quand on connait la profondeur du malaise économique et social en France, cette déclaration prend tout son sens.

Car la droite qui prend le pouvoir apporte avec elle des valeurs d'après-guerre et des projets de réforme qui enchantent les partisans mais fait frémir les opposants. L'élection du candidat de l’UMP Nicolas Sarkozy avec 53% des intentions de vote, a mis un terme à une élection presque sans surprise. Favori des sondages depuis quelques temps, le fils de parents immigrés hongrois s'est voulu rassurant, mais sans hésiter à afficher ses couleurs.

“Par-delà le combat politique et des idées il n’y a là qu’une seule France. Je serais le président de tout les Français,” dit-il le soir de son triomphe. Il a enchaîné avec des promesses d’importantes réformes, l'obligation d'un mandat qui lui avait été confié par les Français.

“Le peuple français a décidé de rompre avec les  idées, les habitudes et les comportements du passé. Je vais donc réhabiliter le travail, l’autorité, la morale, le respect, le mérite, a-t-il lancé. Ce changement je le mettrai en oeuvre parce que la France en a besoin. Mais je le ferai dans un esprit d’union et de fraternité. J’appelle à tous les Français à s’unir à moi pour que la France se remette en mouvement.”

Son premier discours en tant que président-élu a vite pris une saveur très internationale. “Je crois profondément, sincèrement en la construction européenne, et ce soir la France est de retour en Europe. Mais je conjure aux partenaires européens d’entendre la voix de ceux qui veulent être protégés.” Voyant au-delà de l'Atlantique, celui que certains surnommaient moqueusement "l'Américain" s'est vite tourné vers l'autre rive.

“Nos amis Américains peuvent compter sur notre amitié”, dit-il, mais une amitié où les amis peuvent “penser différemment”. Les Etats-Unis ne devaient pas faire obstacle à la lutte contre le changement climatique, selon lui, un sujet qu'il veut faire son premier combat. “Ce qui est en jeu est le sort de l’humanité toute entière.”

Il fait appel à une union de la Méditerranée (où “tout va se jouer”) “pour surmonter toutes les haines” et lance vers l’Afrique un appel fraternel “pour lui dire que nous voulons l’aider.” Mais la mission internationale du nouveau président de la cinquième république ne s'arrête pas là: “La France sera du côté des opprimés du monde, c’est le message de la France, c’est l’identité de la France, c’est l’histoire de la France.”

Plus tôt au courant de la semaine il avait critiqué les commentaires de Royal qui laissaient croire que son élection serait suivie d’actes de violence. Des commentaires controversés de l’ancien ministre de l’intérieur avaient mal été reçus dans les quartiers défavorisés de France. Dans les jours qui ont suivi son élection, certains incidents entre forces de l’ordre et manifestants anti-Sarkozy ont désavoué les appels à l'unité de Sarkozy. Ses quartiers généraux avaient d'ailleurs été partiellement saccagés à Montréal quelques jours avant le second tour.

Pour Ségolène Royal, qui paraissait plus à l'aise, étrangement, après la défaite, que lors de son discours de premier tour, l'échec n'était pas total. “Quelquechose s’est levé qui ne s’arrêtera pas,” a-t-elle déclaré sous des cris de "merci!" “Vous pouvez compter sur moi pour approfondir la rénovation de la gauche.”

Mais déjà en coulisse, certains socialistes laissaient croire que la socialiste ne serait pas au centre des prochaines réformes internes. “C’est une très grave défaite, c’est la troisième consécutive, a pour sa part commenté le socialiste Dominique Strauss-Kahn, ancien candidat présidentiel du PS. Nous ne nous sommes pas renouvelés. La gauche doit apporter quelquechose.”

Selon les instituts de statistique 40% des partisans du candidat de troisième place au premier tour, François Bayrou, ont voté pour Sarkozy contre 38% pour Royal. Pourtant Bayrou avait indiqué qu’il ne voterait pas pour Sarkozy au second tour. De leur côté 63% des électeurs d’extrême-droite appuyant Jean-Marie Le Pen, celui qui avait causé la consternation cinq ans plus tôt, auraient voté pour Sarkozy.

Le taux de participation est resté élevé, avec près de 85% des électeurs éligibles. Les Français ont décidé qu'ils ne se feraient plus surprendre comme en 2002.

Scotland votes in nationalists

At first glance the comparison seemed obvious. While the Parti Quebecois’ worst showing since its inception, followed by the stepping down of its leader, has given the nationalist cause a breather in Canada, separatism seems alive and well in Scotland after voters ended Labour’s fifty-year reign by voting in nationalists, something that British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called “a decision which will define the future of Scotland”.

In the end however the nationalists of the SNP won 47 seats, just one more than Labour, forcing the next rulers of Edinburgh into a coalition government. Certainly this is a moment to rejoice for proud Scotsmen ambivalent about marking the 300th anniversary of their union with England that created Great Britain.

But amid the rolling green hills, as under the sea of multi-colour maple leaf trees, there remains the same ambivalence and hesitation about a clean break-up from the union. Only one-third, at best, are considered hard-core supporters of Scottish independence, a number comparable to Quebec’s. Especially in the context of the anti-Labour environment which made winners out of the conservatives as Blair was stepping down to make way for Treasury Chief Gordon Brown.

The Scottish elections were being held on the same day as local council ballots in England and Scotland, as well as voting for the Welsh Assembly. Like Paul Martin after Chretien, Brown must have thought the last years of waiting in the wings felt like an eternity, but also takes the helm of a party which is past its prime and perhaps due for a replacement. Unlike Canadian politics however, Britain’s rarely see the representative of a regional minority take the helm. The irony being that Brown is a proud Scotsman.

He will be the first prime minister from a Scottish constituency since 1964. After having watched Blair try to quell nationalist sentiment with a dose of devolution over the years, Brown takes the helm as his homeland may be slipping from his grasp. Truth be told, the St Andrews cross may not be about to be ripped from the purposely-named Union Jack.

First, a minority government, and the argument was made in Quebec, hardly gives a separatist party the mandate to poll its citizens about the breakup of a country. And Scotland, like Quebec, would rather like to get more from the union, than out of it. The Scottish Parliament could eventually gain more control over taxation, welfare benefits and cultural matters like as broadcasting, leaving foreign affairs and defense, rather expensive areas, for London to handle.

As the coalition-building gets under way, Scottish Liberal Democrats and Greens are considering whether or not to enter into discussions with the SNP. Combined they would hold some 65 seats, barely a majority but enough to rule Scotland’s eight-year young 129-member parliament. ”We’ve had conversations informally, but there’s been no formal negotiations as yet," said SNP leader Alex Salmond. “During the election we expressed a preference for a coalition and that’s certainly my preference.”

A coalition would mean give and take from all sides, especially on the issue of independence, something Labour MPs agreed, was an issue a large majority of Scotts were against. “Scottish Labour stands ready to work with others who want to make devolution work,” they said in a statement. “We recognise our responsibilities to the people of Scotland and to those who voted Labour. This election result demonstrates that the people of Scotland do not want separation to be Scotland’s national priority.”

The sentiment was shared by Liberal Democrat leader, Nicol Stephen, who said that there was no way his party would support a referendum on independence. “In terms of a potential coalition relationship with the Liberal Democrats, we’ve been very clear about this. We don’t support independence. We don’t support a referendum on independence. We support more powers for the Scottish parliament.”

Unionists have been using arguments federalists have traditionally brandished in Quebec, especially as Britain’s equivalent of finance minister is about to take 10 Downing Street. Brown stressed independence would cost every Scottish taxpayer an extra $11,000 each year. Independence or not, Scottish politicians are certainly looking for a bigger piece of the North Sea pie. Oil revenues from the region, 90 per cent of which move through Scotland, are expected to top some $18 billion this year. Not bad for start-up money for some nationalists.

Like Quebec nationalists, the SNP wants Scotland to have “a voice on the world stage and a say in international bodies like the UN and the EU” and the “freedom to decide what kind of society we want to live in - in other words, normality.” But political scientists draw a clear distinction between Quebec and Scottish nationalists. “A lot of the English simply don’t have much connection with Scotland - it’s that place up north that doesn’t impinge on their lives,” says John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. ”Scotland is on the periphery, while Quebec sits in the heart of Canada. And Scotland has only one-10th of the U.K.’s population, while Quebec has a full quarter of yours."

Like the PQ, the SNP had promised a quick referendum, by 2010, eyeing the success of Ireland, one of the most dynamic areas of the new EU, which it would have no trouble joining. The SNP promised to publish plans for a referendum on independence within 100 days of coming to power. But more immediate issues have given nationalists their greatest success in over half a century, especially dissent over the unpopular Iraq war, where a number of Scottish troops have been shipped.

But the dream of independence is not one a famous movie actor would easily have you forget. Actor Sean Connery, the Scottish National Party’s leading celebrity, claimed “there will never be a better opportunity than now,” to move toward independence, in his distinctly Scottish accent. Perhaps the dream of Scottish independence is still, after all, at best a Hollywood script.

Ni Hillary,ni Evita

Parfois comparée à Hillary Clinton, car elle fut comme elle épouse de chef d’Etat, sénatrice et avocate de formation, puis à Evita Peron, l’icône du péronisme dont elle parait être l’incarnation en quelque sorte, la première dame d’Argentine n’a plus à rectifier par ce qui est presque devenu un slogan de campagne: “Ni Evita ni Hillary: Cristina.”

Devenue la première femme élue à la présidence du pays, même si une autre femme du colonel Juan Peron a déjà assumé les fonctions de chef de l’Etat en 1974 à la mort de celui-ci, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner n’a plus de preuve à fournir. Ces autres « femmes présidentielles» devront être comparées à elle, qui a accédé à la présidence après avoir largement remporté l’élection du 28 octobre avec environ 45 % des voix, soit presque 20% de plus que sa plus proche rivale, Elisa Carrio, arrivée en seconde position, avec 23 % des voix, un écart sans précédent depuis le retour de la démocratie en 1983, même si le parti péroniste a rarement quitté le pouvoir dans l’après-guerre.

Ce duel au féminin, dans un pays plutôt connu pour son machisme politique, souvent médaillé, représente une autre percée sur ce continent balayé par un parfum de nouveauté. Après l’élection de Michelle Bachelet à la présidence chilienne en 2006, Kirchner est la deuxième femme élue au suffrage universel direct en Amérique du Sud.

Se disant “très amie” de Bachelet et accompagnée par la candidate socialiste française Ségolène Royal lors de son triomphe, «Cristina » revendique un leadership féminin après notamment avoir affronté des candidates coriaces lors de sa montée au sommet. Maintes fois élue députée et sénatrice, c’est dans la province de Buenos Aires qu’elle obtenait son dernier succès non-présidentiel, battant, cette fois, l’épouse de l’ancien président Eduardo Duhalde, Hilda “Chiche” Duhalde.

Ainsi lorsque le soir du sacre elle promet “un changement dans la continuité” on s’entend qu’il ne s’agit pas de remettre en cause le mandat de son mari Néstor Carlos Kirchner, qui prit les rênes du pouvoir alors que le pays était encore dans le creux des années noires où l’Argentine s’est enlisée dans une crise économique, financière et sociale.

Depuis quatre ans le pays affiche une croissance spectaculaire, accumulant une hausse de son PIB d'environ 45%, propulsé par la valeur d’exportations notamment agricoles. Le pays a remis de l’ordre dans ses finances publiques et a repris le paiement de sa dette extérieure de 81,8 milliards de dollars après avoir déclaré le plus important déficit de l’histoire.

Le chômage est passé cette année sous la barre des 10 % après avoir dépassé les 20 % au plus fort de la crise et la pauvreté il y a cinq ans.  Malgré tout cette économie frôle la surchauffe, l’inflation y faisant progressivement son retour depuis 2005. Elle pourrait atteindre entre 15 % et 20 % cette année. Des carences en énergie et des problèmes de criminalité guettent aussi cette fille de grands-parents espagnols.

Ainsi la grande dame de 54 ans, cette championne de la classe populaire avec un goût marqué pour le maquillage et les vêtements de luxe, aura du pain sur la planche, elle qui a sans doute bénéficié du vent de confiance dans la foulée de la croissance la plus forte qu’ait connue l’Argentine depuis soixante ans et des divisions au sein de l’opposition.

Kirchner parle déjà de “pacte social” avec les syndicats pour maîtriser l’inflation. Mais pour ces prises de décision elle ne sera jamais seule, estime le sociologue Torcuato Di Tella en entrevue au journal Le Monde, qui dit du couple Kirchner “Ils gouverneront ensemble comme c’est le cas actuellement”. Mais à l’opposé de cette autre candidate de « power couple », Hillary, plus concentrée sur les questions internes, Kirchner, qui  a passé de longs moments lors de la campagne à voyager en Europe, aux Etats-Unis et en Amérique latine pour attirer les investisseurs étrangers, semble accorder plus d’importance à la politique étrangère.

Il le faudra puisque rétablir la confiance des investisseurs, sérieusement malmenée par la politique de confrontation de son mari, sera indispensable. Pour y parvenir la conclusion rapide d’un accord avec le Club de Paris pour le remboursement de la dette argentine de 7 milliards de dollars à l’égard de cet organisme serait un bon début.

Certains observateurs estiment que « Cristina » n’était jamais très loin lorsque son mari s’en prenait au FMI et aux politiques de privatisation des années 90, restant près des slogans propres au quartiers défavorisés de gauche qui l’ont majori- tairement élue, allant même jusqu’à maintenir des liens étroits avec la bête noire de Washington, Hugo Chavez.

Dans une entrevue au magazine Time, Kirchner retrouvait parfois ces propos de gauche peu plaisants aux investisseurs, critiquant les politiques « néocapitalistes » de Washington et parlant du FMI comme du « démon », mais celle-ci insiste : « Nous ne sommes pas contre le capitalisme, mais s’ils disaient à l’époque `travaileurs du monde unissez-vous` alors on peut aussi dire de nos jours `Capitalistes du monde assumez vos responsabilités sociales!"

Alors que ces précieux liens financiers doivent encore être tissés, dans les quartiers défavorisés, les attentes sont de taille : “Cristina va nous sortir de la pauvreté!” s’écriait Maria Isabel Francia, le soir de l’élection. Ainsi les prochaines semaines ne seront pas de tout repos, même s’il reste encore un mois de transition avant sa prise du pourvoir formelle. “Nous avons amplement gagné, a-t-elle proclamé, mais loin de nous placer dans une position de privilège, cela nous place au contraire dans une position de plus grandes responsabilités et obligations”.

Des mots plutôt ordinaires qui ouvrent un tout nouveau chapitre de l’histoire du pays. Une femme dans la Casa Rosada. Qui l'aurait cru?

Part neighbours, part friends

Geography perhaps describes it best. There’s so little that separates them, and yet what does is enough to at times appear to be a deep canyon indeed. One minute they are planning undersea tunnels to link the two continents under the strait that separates them. The next they are sparring over small islets in the waters above, or enclaves that one of them considers historic injustice.

Spain and Morocco are at it again this month after a rare visit by Spain’s king and queen to a Spanish enclave in North Africa sparked a diplomatic spat between the two countries. Thousands waving Spain’s flag welcomed King Juan Carlos’ during his two-day visit to Ceuta and Melilla, his first in his 32 years as head of state. The two cities on Morocco’s northern coast are remnants of Spain’s colonial empire but Rabat vehemently protested the visit by calling back its ambassador and stressing, as the royals were completing their visit, it would get the enclaves back.

Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi said will work “to recover the two occupied cities and the neighboring islands,” the official MAP news agency said. The kingdom has “inalienable, legitimate” rights to the land, the prime minister told the House of Representatives, and the royals’ visit was “inopportune.” But for the Spanish king, it was a matter of correcting what he said had been something missing from his many travels.

Moroccans meanwhile were protesting inside the enclave of Melilla, where they make up a sizeable share of the population, and in the Moroccan capital. Among those in Mellila was a Moroccan senator who was briefly held by Spanish police before he was released.

These aren’t the only territorial disputes between the two countries separated by the strait of Gibraltar, the rock itself being a matter of dispute between Spain and the U.K. Spain in Morocco clashed fire years ago on the small symbolic Parsley island, where Spanish marines forcibly removed Moroccan soldiers and their flag. In a secret sea operation considered the first military invasion of western European soil since the Second World War, the Moroccan soldiers had seized the island in 2002.

The two countries also disagree on Western Sahara, where Morocco is suspecting Spain of favouring the separatist Polisario Front. Oddly enough, the year following the clash over Parsley, the two countries agreed to build a 39-kilometre rail tunnel beneath the Mediterranean sea, linking Europe with Africa, a project which had been striking the imagination for two decades.

Again as Spain and Morocco clash over territory, Spain defends its sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla by noting that the cities have been Spanish for more than 400 years, longer than Morocco has been a sovereign state, the two countries have pushed further plans to create their own version of the Channel tunnel. Works could start as early as next year on the project which consists of a railway carrying freight, passengers and cars.

The tunnel would not only symbolically unite Europe and Africa, but would undo a geological split which millions of years ago separated the two continents. Swiss engineer Giovanni Lombardi, the man entrusted with the complex project, says nothing in the world is quite like it. “There are a lot of challenges. First of all the sea at this point is 300m (1,000ft) deep - about five to six times deeper than the Channel Tunnel," he told the BBC. “Then there is the geological conditions. There are quite a lot of tectonic movements between the African and the European plates. So there would be quite a lot of movements in the earth, of stresses and so on.”

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero visited Morocco earlier this year and said that Spain was fully committed to the project. “It will change the face of Europe and Africa. With support from members of the European Union, we can build this historic connection between the two continents,” he said. His visit last year was the first by a Spanish head of government since 1981. But the more recent visits have served as a reminder of the differences that persist.

Turkey peers over the border

Iraq’s Kurdish North is what U.S. military planners wanted the rest of the country to look like, relatively peaceful and untarnished by the car bombs and bloodshed of the capital, or the Sunni triangle. But what is seen as the only part of the country that actually works to most of the world is in Turkey’s eyes the home base of some 3,000 rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who use northern Iraq to prepare deadly attacks.

 

On Oct. 17 Turkey’s legislators gave the military authorization to intervene in Iraq to bring to a halt a series of attacks targeting soldiers in Turkey. Concerned allies, as well as the Iraqi government have urged Turkey not to invade, but pressure is increasing on Ankara to crack down on the renewed Kurdish offensives since Oct. 21 when 12 Turkish soldiers died during a PKK attack, bringing to about twice as many the number of soldiers who have died in clashes with the rebels in the last weeks. The group ended in 2004 a ceasefire which had been holding since leader Abdullah Ocalan was arrested in 1999.

 

In the last weeks Turkish troops have been massing against the Iraqi border, occasionally shelling areas of northern Iraq but still holding back from a major incursion to give diplomacy a chance through talks with Iraqi officials already overwhelmed by the security situation in other parts of their country. On Wednesday an Iraqi official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said a Kurdish village in mountainous country near Shiranish Islam, 25 km northeast of the northern town of Dahuk, had been heavily bombed at midday but gave no details of damage.

 

Turkey’s semi-official news agency said the country’s military had been busy targeting the border area with Iraq and routes often used by the PKK to enter Turkey, but Turkish security sources also said earlier that Turkish warplanes had flown a series of sorties 20 km into Iraq in previous days, while some 300 troops would have advanced about 10 km into northern Iraq, in what could be the first salvo of a much larger ground war. Causing great concern amid the allied U.S. command trying to contain the violence in Iraq, a Turkish military official said further “hot pursuit raids” could be expected if problems with the separatist Kurdish guerilla persisted, as they stepped up attacks on Turkish soldiers this year.

 

Ankara is pressuring Baghdad to honour promises to crack down on the rebels. Getting perhaps ahead of himself, a Turkish official quoted Iraqi President Jalal Talabani as saying Iraq might hand over PKK militants to Turkey, but Talabani denied this. “We have said many times that the PKK leadership does not exist in Kurdish cities but are living with thousands of their fighters in the Qandil mountains, so it is not possible for us to arrest and hand them over to Turkey,” he said in a statement.

 

Turkish officials were describing a visit by an Iraqi delegation to Ankara this week as a “final chance” for diplomacy, perhaps before a massive influx of Turkish forces into Northern Iraq. They made it clear their patience was reaching its limits and gave their guests a list of Kurdish rebels, demanding their extradition. Previously Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said he would work to limit the PKK’s activities, adding that the group’s offices in Iraq would be closed. But Ankara is having a hard time believing that a country which still cannot control its rampant insurgency will be able to act sufficiently in Kurdish areas.

 

Baghdad’s clout in the North, a semi-autonomous area, is particularly weak. The real authority in the region, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, infuriated Turkey by refusing to act directly against the PKK, saying his peshmerga fighters would resist any Turkish incursion. He did however urge the rebels to abandon their campaign of violence. “We do not accept in any way... the use of Iraqi territories, including the territories of the Kurdistan region, as a base to threaten the security of neighbouring countries,” Barzani said.

 

Concerned NATO allies meanwhile say they realize the tough situation the Turkish government is facing. “If I look at the Turkish government as it has acted up till now I think the Turkish government is showing restraint — remarkable restraint under present circumstances,” NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters at a meeting of the alliance’s defence ministers.

 

The U.S. said it was taking the situation “extremely seriously.” “Iraq should not be a place where terrorism can hurt Turkey,” said Sec. of State Condoleeza Rice. “We have a list of things that we believe, if they are undertaken, will help to deal with this situation,” she added, citing Iraq’s pledge to close PKK offices there. The U.S. president made it clear he thought a move into Iraq "wasn't in Turkey's best interests.” Ankara has served notice little the U.S. can say will stop it from acting if it must.

 

But there is a feeling in Turkey that the U.S. presence in Iraq, which allowed the Kurds to develop their autonomy, has emboldened the PKK. Washington’s reluctance to send its own troops to the area to tackle the rebel problem has done nothing to smoothen relations already chilled by the passing of a bill by the U.S. Foreign Affairs Committee stating that “the Armenian genocide was conceived and carried out by the Ottoman empire from 1915 to 1923.”

 

Turkey is a key ally in a region where America has too few. Three-quarters of the air cargo heading into Iraq passes through a Turkish air base and U.S. planes fly freely through Turkish air space en route to Iraq and Afghanistan while the U.S. navy relies on Turkish ports. So nobody, least of all the U.S., is taking Turkey’s threat to launch a full-scale invasion lightly as the country with NATO’s second biggest army has deployed as many as 100,000 troops, backed by tanks, heavy artillery, F-16 fighter jets and helicopter gunships, along the mountainous border with Iraq in preparation for a possible large-scale strike.

 

Turkey was in the mean time looking to squeeze any groups aiding the PKK, which Ankara blames for the deaths of more than 30,000 people since the group launched its armed campaign for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984. Northern Iraq, where the U.S. is noticeably absent, depends heavily on Turkey for power, water and food supplies. Turkey could eventually launch a full-scale attack, but as it own prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself acknowledged in a recent TV interview: “We staged 24 such operations in the past and can we say we achieved anything? Not really.” 

 

Une Europe divisée sur la carte bleue

Comme tout débat sur l'immigration, qui peut parfois devenir houleux en Europe comme au Québec, où il fait l'objet d'une analyse ambulante prenant la forme de la commission sur les accommodements raisonnables, celui qui s'empare de Bruxelles, en quête de main d'oeuvre qualifiée, ne manque pas de provoquer de vives réactions de toutes parts.

Les réalités démographiques et les déséquilibres au niveau de l'offre et de la demande d'emploi sont à l'origine de la poussée communautaire en faveur d'une immigration et d'une "main-d’oeuvre très qualifiée" selon la Commission européenne, qui présentait récemment son projet de "carte bleue", inspirée du modèle américain.

Car alors que le monde ne manque pas de personnes cherchant à immigrer vers des pays occidentaux, les qualifications de ceux qui arrivent en Europe sont différentes de celles des personnes qui débarquent en Amérique du nord ou en Australie. Selon Bruxelles, siège de la Commission, la moitié des immigrés d’Afrique du Nord qui détiennent un diplôme universitaire résident au Canada et aux É-Us, alors que l’U.E. accueille 85% de ceux qui n’ont pas fait d’études supérieures.

Pour remédier à ce déséquilibre apparent, Bruxelles prévoit un projet de "carte bleue" cherchant à attirer vers le vieux continent ces hordes parfois si déterminées à aller plus loin pour dénicher un emploi. Ce projet, qui doit être adopté à l’unanimité par les 27 pays membres de l’UE, permettrait à un immigrant d’avoir un permis de travail de deux ans renouvelable, et il pourrait faire venir sa famille plus rapidement. Il aurait aussi les mêmes droits que les citoyens de l’UE, au niveau de la sécurité sociale ou des conditions de travail.

Le projet cherche à favoriser l’accueil en Europe d’ingénieurs, d’informaticiens, de médecins... et autres jouissant d’une haute qualification professionnelle. Pour obtenir ce laisser-passer accélérée dans un état membre de l’UE, les conditions seront plutôt strictes: un diplôme reconnu, au moins trois ans d’expérience professionnelle et une offre d’emploi qui n’a pu être pourvue par un travailleur européen. Puis la Commission propose que le salaire soit supérieur à trois fois celui du salaire minimum du pays où il travaillera.

Mais cette solution visant à cibler des carences de main-d'oeuvre dont les projections sont de 20 millions d’immigrés au cours des vingt prochaines années, est bien loin de faire, comme lors de la plupart des discussions en Europe, l'unanimité. Un des commissaires, notamment le Belge Louis Michel, en charge du Développement, craint que cette procédure ne parvienne à siphonner les élites des pays du tiers-monde. Pour d'autres une telle carte aurait pour effet d’engendrer l’exclusion des personnes non qualifiées du droit à l’immigration légale.

La France, dont la stratégie n'est pas sans rappeler celle proposée à Bruxelles, et dont les représentants doivent assurer la présidence tournante de l’UE au cours du second semestre 2008, est prête à s’employer à convaincre ses partenaires de son bien fondé. “Nous sommes favorables au concept d’immigration choisie et, au niveau national, le Parlement a déjà adopté en juin 2006 une carte similaire, baptisée compétences et talents”, selon un diplomate.

Dans l'Hexagone le moment n'était pas mal choisi de parler d'immigration puisque le Parlement français adoptait en même temps un autre projet de loi que tenait à coeur le président: celui qui prévoyait, entre autres, le recours aux tests ADN dans le cadre du regroupement familial - une mesure contestée par l’opposition. Mais outre-Rhin, la proposition de carte bleue est moins bien reçue puisqu'on préfère y privilégier le réservoir national de l’emploi. Puis certains pays comme l'Autriche ont une politique migratoire plutôt restrictive, et certains n'ont pas tardé à faire connaitre leur désaccord: “Nous n’avons pas besoin de cette carte bleue. Je ne veux pas que notre politique du marché du travail soit sapée par des réglementations euro- péennes”, a déclaré le chancelier autrichien Alfred Gusenbauer.

Ceci dit ces immigrés très qualifiés ne retrouvent pas toujours au Canada la carrière rêvée qu'ils espéraient. La Nouvelle-Ecosse tente en effet de réparer les dommages d'un programme de candidat-investisseur où plusieurs n’avaient pas reçu les services, ou emplois, qu’on leur avait promis, souvent à fort prix

 

And at the other Pole...

News Britain was looking to claim sovereignty over a large area of the remote seabed off Antarctica this month was a reminder that while a number of countries are positioning themselves to claim resource-rich areas of the Arctic ahead of a claims application deadline, a similar rush is under way at the opposite end of the Earth involving even more countries.

 

The claim for an area around British Antarctica is one of a number being prepared by the Foreign Office which seeks to extend its territory by thousands of square miles, and Britain is but one of more than half a dozen countries making claims in what is considered one of the last big carve-ups of maritime territory in history. The rush is being made ahead of a May 13, 2009, deadline for countries which include Australia, Argentina, Chile, France, Norway and New Zealand to stake their claims.

 

Five countries are similarly engaged in furious charting of the North Pole, ahead of what for Canada is a 2013 deadline to lay claims. Russia, the U.S., Denmark and Norway are also looking for a piece of the Arctic pie that is becoming more and more interesting and accessible with global warming and is in some cases leading to plans of a militarization of the area. As in the North, mineral are also of great interest in the South, though even if granted what it is seeking, Britain would not be allowed to contravene the treaty that prohibits oil and gas tapping under the seabed.

 

The rush for the deadline may however not be giving the full picture since countries not necessarily taking part in the claims process, such as the U.S., nevertheless recognize the area as being of significant interest to their foreign policy. “The United States, along with Russia and others active in Antarctica, reject claims and assert the right of access to all areas of Antarctica for peaceful purposes. At the same time, the United States has a solid basis of claim in Antarctica, resulting from its activities there prior to 1959,” stated a 1996 National Security Council memorandum pleading for more funding to preserve the U.S. Antarctic Program, a program of scientific research in the South Pole.

 

As in the North where Canada’s claims to the Northwest Passage aren’t recognized by a number of other countries, especially the U.S., the claims process in the South has a potential for territorial dispute. The claims of Argentina, Chile and the U.K. overlap and Australia’s claims are not supported by most of the other Antarctic Treaty countries, to name but a few examples of disagreement. The reasons for the claims vary, from cases of geographical proximity (Australia and New Zealand) and geographical extension of the countries (Argentina and Chile) to having had a significant role in Antarctic exploration (Australia, France, New Zealand, Norway, United Kingdom).

 

But countries may yet, as Canada and Denmark have shown in the North, be able to avoid an overt clash on the claims issue, if past bilateral disputes are any indication. The regular meetings of the Antarctica Treaty Parties, which have grown to 46 from the original 12 and include all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council as well as Canada, Japan, India and Brazil, have after all provided a forum for peaceful cooperation even when bilateral relations were strained or hostile. For example, Argentina and the U.K. continued to interact peacefully within this forum during the Falklands War and the United States and Soviet Union were able to cooperate on Antarctic matters even when relations were at their worst.

 

In some cases one wonders what the rush is all about as the claims seem more symbolic than anything else. “It would be a claim in name only, we wouldn’t act because doing any mineral exploitation contravenes the treaty,” a Foreign Office spokeswoman told the BBC. But the move does signal Britain’s willingness to join the current rush by countries to try to secure their potential oil and gas rights to seabeds should circumstances change, and Russia’s claims over parts of the Arctic over the summer have in this respect struck a chord at the other end of the planet. “It is essentially to safeguard for the future and if (the treaty) is abolished in the future we will have safeguarded our claim to that area," the FO spokeswoman said, while adding that any change to the ban on mineral exploitation in the Antarctic is “highly improbable.”

 

Environmentalists called the move “colossally irresponsible” and accused Britain of putting more effort into securing future oil rights than battling climate change. Climate change of course, is what is fueling renewed interests on both poles.

Daring to use to the "G" word

Scholars and United Nations officials assembled at a New York conference this week sounded quite optimistic that any future genocide could be averted as it became more and more acceptable to intervene on behalf of vulnerable populations, even internally.

But thousands of kilometers away, these words could have seemed almost cruel to the inhabitants of the Sudanese village of Muhajiriya, in Darfur, the latest scene of mass-bombing in the conflict, which African Union troops blamed on government planes. The evidence wasn’t difficult to gather according to General Martin Luther Agwai in an interview with the BBC. “The town was bombed,” he said, “and only the Sudanese government forces have aircraft”.

Perhaps more surprisingly the town is controlled by a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army run by the only rebel leader to back the failed Darfur peace agreement in Abuja last year. Minni Minnawi is now part of the government as special assistant to the president. The attack,which killed 45 people, will not encourage other rebel groups to sign on, most preferring to wait for the deployment of a promised U.N. peacekeeping force. Khartoum's red tape has largely been blamed for postponing their arrival.

Better-equipped blue-helmets would also be welcome by the wary A.U. peacekeepers, ten of whom were killed a few weeks ago in an attack on their base in Haskanita in a raid by armed men, presumed at the time to be rebels. But if a solution is to end the four-year conflict which killed over 200,000 people, it will have to be political, something not likely to happen if most rebel factions refuse to attend peace talks due to start in Libya on 27 October.

This week Britain warned the rebel groups that they could be excluded from the peace process if they didn’t attend the talks. But the rebels say Darfur needs the international community to live up to its responsibilities to stop the killing.

Back in New York, the touchy issue of internal interventions is becoming less and less taboo, and tipping scales once in favour of the sacrosanct notion of national sovereignty. The idea that internal affairs were outside the scope of international involvement had been a “crucial inhibitor to effective responses over a generation,” Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group, told the U.N. conference.

This started to change in Darfur where some 2.5 million people have been driven from their homes since 2003, sometimes to neighboring countries such as Chad, effectively bringing the conflict beyond borders. “There now really is a feeling that the international community as a whole has the responsibility to help states meet their responsibility, and that’s a very big change historically,” said Edward Luck, a U.S. academic who has been named as the U.N. Secretary General’s adviser on the responsibility to protect.

Ban Ki-moon, who was in Sudan just weeks ago to bolster the peace talks, has steadily increased the mandate of his Special Representative for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities and all the while the U.N. is preparing to establish a Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect. Would U.N. forces be up to the challenge to serve and protect in the future?

Not if one has been closely following the landmark genocide trial of Desire Munyaneza in Montreal. Last week after months of hearing from victims of the genocide, police and other witnesses, Quebec Superior Court heard retired General Romeo Dallaire, commander of the ill-equipped United Nations peacekeeping force at the time, say that he was ill-equipped to prevent the attack of Hutus on Tutsis in 1994 because his poorly-trained troops were from poor countries and sometimes more concerned about their next meal than preventing slaughter.

This week the Crown wrapped up its evidence in the first trial under Canada’s war crimes and crimes against humanity act, passed in 2000, with a witness explaining why Rwandans massacred hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens, some 800,000 is all in a 100-day bloodbath. “Rwandans weren’t robots, they didn’t just pick up their machetes and head out of the house,” said Alison Des Forges, an expert on Rwanda with Human Rights Watch. “This was a process of continuous mobilization and a system of reward and punishment.” “There was a general pattern of rewarding those who killed and removing and punishing those who didn’t,” she added.

But all the goodwill in the world won’t mean an overnight change to how the international community deals which such crises, U.N. undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations Jean-Marie Guehenno said, sounding a note of caution. “We’ve been haunted in the last 15 years by what happened in Yugoslavia and what happened in Rwanda. And none of us can avoid the question, would that happen again?” he said. “And I think we have to be honest. There has been some progress in the international discussion. But does that mean that it will be fundamentally different tomorrow? Not necessarily.”

Especially when the failure to intervene is tied to the words used to describe the nature of the conflict. The U.S. and other countries have openly described the conflict in Darfur as “genocide,” but the use of the term is enough to cause diplomatic tensions even decades after the events it relates to, causing some to hesitate.

Only this week, nearly a century after the tragedy they are describing, did U.S. lawmakers defy strident warnings by their president and Turkey and voted to label the Ottoman Empire’s World War I massacre of Armenians as “genocide.” The U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee voted for the non-binding resolution 27 votes to 21 on Wednesday to cheers and applause from emotional Armenians, including elderly wheelchair-bound survivors.

This prompted a blunt reaction from President George W. Bush, warning that it could trigger Turkish reprisals and undermine U.S. efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East. The vote “may do grave harm to U.S.-Turkish relations and to U.S. interests in Europe and the Middle East,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. “Nor will it improve Turkish-Armenian relations or advance reconciliation among Turks and Armenians over the terrible events of 1915,” he said.

The timing was particularly delicate as Turkey was giving increasingly strong signs of wanting to intervene in northern Iraq to stop incursions by Kurdish rebels sheltered there who recently killed 10 Turkish troops over the border. Turkey is a key NATO ally whose territory is a crucial transit point for U.S. supplies bound for Iraq and Afghanistan and its ambassador to Washington described the vote as “very disappointing,” adding that “those who said it won’t do any harm, we will have to wait and see.” He was promptly recalled after the Turkish leadership strongly denounced the vote.

Turkey denies Armenian assertions that 1.5 million of their kinsmen were killed from 1915 to 1923 under an Ottoman Empire campaign of deportation and murder, arguing that 250,000 to 500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife when Armenians took up arms for independence in eastern Anatolia during the war. As the wrangling continues on a still delicate 92-year-old topic, there is no denying the very word “genocide” is enough to foster much more debate over the next years.

Une gigue à trois

Une chose commençait à devenir plutôt évidente après le troisième scrutin national en autant d'années en Ukraine: seul l'unité du camp pro-occidental ou "orange" pouvait empêcher l'ancienne république du bloc de l'Est de tomber dans les mains des communistes à nouveau.

Les deux chefs du camp orange, architectes de la révolution inachevée, le président Viktor Iouchtchenko et  Ioulia Timochenko, devaient de toute évidence se réconcilier et enterrer la hache de guerre s'ils espéraient former une coalition qui pourrait tenir face au Premier ministre pro-russe Viktor Ianoukovitch, qui avec 34,24% des voix finissait premier dans les intentions de vote.

Le bloc Timochenko et le parti présidentiel Notre Ukraine- Autodéfense populaire ont obtenu 45,03% des voix. En comptant sur l'appui d'autres groupes, le bloc pro-russe se rapprochait nettement du groupe occidental, mais sans le dépasser. Puis alors que ce dernier semblait assuré de former une majorité, un nouvel élément et venu compliquer le calcul post-électoral. Le président ukrainien a soudainement demandé aux deux formations-clé du bloc orange de lancer les pourparlers avec le Parti des régions, la formation de son rival Ianoukovitch avec lequel il cohabite depuis août 2006.

La raison de son changement d'orientation semblait à première vue plutôt noble, soit former une "grande coalition" pour réunir les camps polarisés, soit les régions occidentales, nationalistes, et orientales, russophones. "Nous proposons une large coalition pour stabiliser la situation et éviter que le pays ne se divise en deux", a déclaré Iouchtchenko.

Les véritables enjeux étaient peut-être à la fois internes et transfrontaliers. A nouveau l'élection a eu lieu à l'ombre du puissant voisin russe, dont le géant énergétique Gazprom a menacé de réduire ses livraisons de gaz naturel à l'Ukraine si Kiev n'honorait pas avant fin octobre une dette de 1,3 milliard de dollars.

La réaction de la Commission européenne n'a pas tardé, appelant à la recherche d'"un règlement rapide" à la nouvelle crise gazière. Les intérêts gaziers vont au-delà du bloc Est en fait puique quelque 80% du gaz russe exporté en direction de l'Union européenne transite par l'Ukraine. Un conflit gazier russo-ukrainien en janvier 2006 avait déjà perturbé l'approvisionnement de plusieurs pays de l'UE.

La menace, d'autant plus prise au sérieux que Moscou a déjà serré la vis à son voisin géorgien dans le passé (notamment pour ses propres convictions occidentales), a aussitôt été interprétée à titre d'"avertissement envers Timochenko", qui peut très bien remplacer Ianoukovitch au poste de Premier ministre.

Un tel dénouement aurait l'effet d'inverser, en fait, le classement de la troika politique ukrainienne, laissant à la présidence celui qui n'a obtenu que 13.5% des voix, et évinçant celui qui aura dominé les sondages. De quoi faire sursauter Moscou, sans parler de l'opposition russophone. Peu surprenant que le dirigeant communiste Petro Simonenko estime que ces élections étaient les "plus sales de l'histoire" et exige que l'on recompte les voix.

Alors que Moscou ne cache pas sa préférence envers le Premier ministre, qui devait y être accueilli cette semaine, nul ne doute non plus son rejet des politiques de Timochenko, qui avait entre autre fait campagne en promettant d'annuler le contrat actuel avec Gazprom. Aussi, en tendant une main vers son rival, le président a-t-il tenté de garder à l'oeil celle dont les progrès électoraux ont été les plus importants ces dernières années.

Il faut dire que Timochenko peut, des trois candidats principaux, sans doute le mieux dialoguer avec les deux antipodes électoraux et idéologiques, ayant enregistré des gains des deux côtés de la Dniepr. Après quelques moments d'hésitation, Timo- chenko a accepté d'élargir les pourparlers qui doivent former le prochain gouvenement au camp Ianoukovitch en leur proposant une représentation dans chaque ministère ainsi que le poste de vice-premier ministre.

"A notre façon, Ianoukovitch et son parti doivent trouver la force de passer dans le camp de l'opposition sans menacer l'image et la stabilité du pays", a lancé Timochenko. Peut-être a-t-on trouvé le compromis qui éviterait de forcer un nouveau scrutin l'an prochain.  

Just a while longer...

They rose to power at the turn of the millennia and intend to stay there in some form or another well into a second decade. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter as much if these autocrats didn’t head a country with nuclear weapons. Over the next months Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf, one a former spy who’s crackdown on civil liberties and free expression has often been a reminder of the old ways behind the Iron curtain and the other who rose to power following a 1999 coup, know they have to let go some of the powers they have accumulated in time, but only some.

And even then they are doing what they can to ensure that whatever power they lose, remains in the hands of loyal friends. The only risks they run are if these loyalties are at one stage rather unexpectedly violated, as they have often been in their country’s history.

Still this would seem unlikely for Putin, whose second presidential term runs out next March and is prevented from running right away by Russia’s constitution. At least until he’s taken a break from the Kremlin. In the mean time he has raised the possibility of becoming a future prime minister, one no doubt with a rather hands-on approach, by agreeing to enter the December parliamentary polls.

The Constitution does enable him to return (if elected) to the presidency following someone else’s mandate, say that of a rather older fiercely loyal technocrat. Putin’s appointment of Viktor Zubkov as prime minister, his deputy from his days as mayor of St Petersburg, no doubt intended to place someone who would keep the seat warm for the 54-year-old whose popularity ratings consistently stay above 70 per cent. Of course nothing guarantees such loyalty, and a presidential term can prove to be a long stretch of time.

Similarly, as Musharraf waits for Pakistan’s Supreme Court to rule whether his recent re-election was legitimate, he may be concerned that the loyalist he unofficially designated to succeed him at the head of the military, after promoting the head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), General Ashfaq Kayani, as deputy as army chief, could one day topple him in what has become a common way to seize power in the country: through a coup.

Again the Constitution, which normally forbids the election of a general as president, has forced the strongman to skip around the law, hence upsetting the legions of lawyers who have taken to the streets, often burning his effigy. Musharraf would not be able to hold both jobs as he is doing now without a constitutional amendment passed in 2003 with the help of an alliance of religious parties, which has since turned against him for backing the war on terror.

Musharraf then thought he could dispense of the judiciary altogether by sacking its chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, but this failed after triggering massive protests across the country. As a last resort, he turned to an old foe, exiled party leader Benazir Bhutto, looking to forgive the rather doubtful corruption charges laid against her to win her support for a constitutional amendment that would enable him to keep both jobs.

But it's all in the court’s corner now. Musharraf promised to step down from his post as general only if he won the election, which he did hands down, while the Supreme Court will only decide now that the ballots have been cast whether his candidacy was indeed legitimate.

This semblance of democratic process is taking place as the country seems to be further embroiled in its fight against Islamic extremists in the border areas with Afghanistan. While Musharraf awaited the high court’s verdict and the military faced a possible change of command, over 200 people on both sides were killed in fierce battles between militants and soldiers in a suspected al-Qaida stronghold of the northwest, Pakistan’s North Waziristan region.

Perhaps there is merit in that the election wasn’t called off for reasons of national security, but Musharraf’s reluctance to run the risk of competing in elections as a civilian has turned the situation into a catch-22 of the oddest nature. There’s a reason why he refused this: if he lost he could always declare martial law and keep power the way he earned it in the first place, a risk that remains very real.

Belgique à deux?

Avec un futur premier ministre qui estime que les Belges ont peu en commun sinon «le roi, l’équipe de football et quelques bières » et qui a déjà désigné le pays à titre d’«accident de l’histoire », quel avenir pour ce petit pays de dix millions d’habitants ?

C’est à se le demander depuis les législatives du 10 juin qui ont de toute évidence tellement inspiré électeurs comme élus que ces derniers n’ont pas encore daigné se pointer le bout du nez. Pire encore, alors que la Belgique est privée de gouvernement depuis 100 jours, il y a peu de personnes que ceci semble gêner.

Pourtant des analystes surveillent avec attention cette «crise institutionnelle» de manière même à parler d’y voir les prémices d’une dislocation «de praline», termes de l’Economist qui compare la situation actuelle à celle de la dislocation « de velours » qui a mis un terme à la Tchécoslovaquie.

En est-on réellement là ? Certes les «solitudes», pour employer un terme de chez nous, se parlent peu. Le vote de juin a confirmé cette tendance de voter sur une base linguistique. Si bien que dans certains sondages, les Belges sont majoritaires à penser que la séparation est devenue probable tout en disant ne pas la souhaiter: «Quand je vais en Flandre, je me sens beaucoup plus étranger que quand je me promène à Lille ou à Metz... », confiait au Figaro Manuel, Wallon de 39 ans, cuisinier à Namur. Sentimentalement attaché à la monarchie, Manuel est pourtant très pessimiste quant à l’avenir de son pays : «Honnêtement, je pense que la Belgique n’existera plus dans vingt ans. S’il n’y avait pas eu Bruxelles, qui rend tout partage très difficile, le divorce aurait déjà été consommé ! »

Pourtant Bruxelles se veut l’exemple à suivre: majoritairement francophone, elle constitue à la fois le siège de Flandre, du pays et de l’Union européenne; en fait la capitale est la seule région véritablement bilingue. Pour certains la problématique réside d’ailleurs là, ou du moins dans la petite région de Rhode-Saint-Genèse à une quizaine de kilomètres au sud.

Cette autre région majoritairement francophone mais partie de la Flandre est une de six communes « à facilités » où les citoyens ont le droit d’utiliser le français dans leurs courriers administratifs. Or le désir de la part de certains hommes politiques flammands de réduire ces «facilités », estimant que toute personne installée en Flandre devrait faire l’effort d’apprendre le néerlandais, ont soulevé un tollé important au sein de la communauté francophone.

Ce genre de tension est au cœur même de la problématique de gouvernance actuelle et l'échec dans les tentatives de créer une coalition. Bien que des fois elle puisse prendre une apparence plutôt hilarante. Lorsqu’en décembre dernier une émission de télévision francophone a été interrompue par un canular annonçant que le parlement flammand avait déclaré l’indépendance, que le roi avait fui et le pays s’était disloqué, plusieurs y ont cru!

Plus drôle encore, le pays de Tintin et du chocolat constituait aux yeux du premier ministre Harper, il n’y a pourtant pas si longtemps, un exemple de «fédéralisme d’ouverture» à suivre. Il avait peut-être raison de s'y retrouver un peu: autre pays avec une dualité linguistique et une présence séparatiste, la Belgique doit aussi composer avec un problème de redistribution des richesses qui fait des malheureux dans la partie prospère, soit le nord flammand. Encore une fois les francophones se retrouvaient dans le camp des moins bien nantis.

Mais à l’époque où Harper chantait les louanges du fédéralisme flexible à la belge, déjà le bras droit du premier ministre belge, Johan Vande Lanotte, trouvait plutôt curieux tant d’éloges, alors qu’il estimait que les chances de dislocation du pays étaient plus probables que jamais.

Trois ans plus tard y est-on ? Le gouvernement a-t-il pris des vacances permanentes à Bruxelles ? Pourtant les Belges eux-mêmes hésitent de penser que la problématique actuelle dépasse l’arène politique. On ne sait plus trop si on inventerait la Belgique si elle n’existait pas, mais tant qu’on y est, les plus sérieux penseront peut-être à préserver ce pays envahi par deux fois mais à présent au cœur de l’institution politique la plus importante au monde.

On ne s'y est, en fin de compte, pas si mal débrouillé depuis 1830. Et puis les diables rouges finiront bien par gagner quelquechose.

Crimson tide in Burma

History has a way of repeating itself in Burma, incidents that usually end in blood. For days the crimson colours running through the cities of the land home to one of the world's most criticized regimes were the robes of protesting monks who once more joined students demonstrating against the military junta.

On Wednesday however, after days of warnings by the military, soldiers fired on protesters which they say had illegally assembled. Three people were reportedly killed but others vowed to keep protesting against the violent military regime. The next day soldiers raided monasteries and another nine were killed in the streets.

The use of force ended weeks of military restraint as countries around the world, including leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York, warned the regime against using force. In front of the UN General Assembly US President George W. Bush said Americans were “outraged” by the military junta’s “19 year reign of fear” and added that the US would tighten economic sanctions on leaders of Burma’s military junta and its financial backers.

Nations lead by China however vetoed a formal condemnation of the country.The assembly urged Burma to use utmost restraint and allow in a special envoy. Unfazed, Burma continued its crackdown, entering monasteries and arresting dozens of monks.

For weeks the country had been the scene of unprecedented protest as thousands of demontrators had gathered in the main city of Rangoon, joined by others in some 25 cities across Burma. As observers wondered whether they would witness the toppling of a regime or another crackdown, signs became threateningly clear as trucks carrying soldiers in riot gear positioned themselves across Rangoon and a curfew was ordered.

Previous protests triggered when fuel prices went up last month, and which were promptly quelled with the usual repression and arrests, started involving the highly respected Buddhist clergy when monks were threatened, beaten and arrested in the streets of Pakkoku.

It wasn't long before the crimson robes took to the streets in large numbers. Thousands soon staged days of protests throughout the country. The Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks branded Burma's military rulers "the enemy of the people" and pledged to continue their peaceful demonstrations until they had "wiped the military dictatorship from the land".

The events were nothing short of the most serious challenge to the military regime since the 1988 uprising which toppled the Ne Win government lead to martial law. These other bloody events, also triggered by protest of economic nature, resulted in the death of some 3,000 people, including students and monks.

Unfazed by the possibility of further violence, the monks have not only been denying soldiers or members of their family religious services, sometimes a key element of advancement, but issued a clear statement in favour of toppling the regime and made their way to the house of Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, where she has been under house arrest since 2003. More remarkably, the military allowed them to pass in the usually blockaded street on one occasion.

Witnesses said Suu Kyi walked out with two other women and cried as she watched the monks and prayed with them but did not speak. Suu Kyi, whose party won national elections in 1990 which were later annulled by the army, has spent 11 of the last 18 years in detention. In a move which had also previously been off-limits, the monks then converged on Burma's most revered temple, the Shwedagon Pagoda, watched by plain clothes security officials.

The remaining leaders of the demonstrations meanwhile have vowed to continue until the collapse of the military government and, clearly marrying the concept of democratic protest with religious ceremony, asked the Burmese people to pray in their doorways for 15 minutes at 8 pm this week.

Developments in Burma had "raised serious concerns in the international community and once again underscore the urgency to step up our efforts to find solutions to the challenges facing the country", UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari, now urged to return to Burma,  told the Security Council.

This week some of the protesters on the run from the secret police, including veterans of the "1988 generation," told the London Telegraph they had been secretly liaising with the Buddhist monks who took to the streets. They expressed their hopes that this time the country's generals might lose their nerve rather than respond with force.

Hundreds died in the crackdown of the 1988 uprising, but protesters said the country was in such dire state that many of its 53 million people felt they had little left to lose. "There was a time when Burma was known as Asia's rice bowl, yet today nearly a third of Burmese are malnourished or physically underdeveloped," protesters told the paper. "People might be encouraged to shed their fears if the monks take to the streets," protesters hoped."

The senior clergy close to the regime were reluctant to take part, but the younger monks are showing a keen interest." But ordinary Burmese still feared brutal punishment, and the prospect of another failed mass protest: "This time, people are watching cautiously. There's a lot of risk involved. There's fear: they're thinking, 'Will our sacrifices go to waste this time as well?'"

This seemed to be a concern for Soe Soe, in Mandalay, who posted the following on the BBC's web site: "We are very insecure because we don't know what the government is planning to do. There are some news in the government - controlled newspapers that the monks are trying to agitate the public. This can be a big excuse for them to start attacking the monks. I really want some changes in Burma but I am not sure where the change is going to lead us to. I hope there won't be any blood-bath this time like there was in 1988."

But Kyaw in Rangoon said it wasn't the time to let these unique events pass by: "If we are just bystanders, today's rare and momentous events might not lead to the fall of the regime." The military, which has ruled the country now more formally known as Myanmar in some form since 1962, faced a quandary, analysts say. "If they crack down seriously on the monks it means it would also seriously inflame the rest of the population," said Debbie Stothard, of Thailand-based democracy pressure group Altsean Burma. "So the military regime is really in a lose-lose situation."

In the end they chose to gamble upsetting the entire world, to keep their grips on their impoverished people.

Loonie second to none

On one of the last days of summer and with cooler climes on the horizon, it was doubly easy for snowbirds looking down a few months ahead to be enticed by the siren song of sandy beaches. That's the day, Sept. 20, when the Canadian dollar broke a 31-year-old mark and slipped past the greenback. The loony reached  $1.0001 cents US just before 11 a.m., something unseen for a generation, since Nov. 25, 1976.

The colourful currency that was the butt-end of many yankee jokes over the years was no longer a laughingstock, especially with the dip of the American dollar being responsible for its spectacular rise over the last years. The dollar closed the day slightly lower, at 99.87 cents US, but for many the outlook is for a loon that will gain in strength for some time ahead before it starts moving back down again.

Investor Frank Mersch, co-owner of hedge fund firm Front Street Capital, told the Financial Post he saw the dollar rising to US$1.05 in the following weeks, creating a reversal of fortune unseen since the 1970s. He says if the loon keeps rising, everything will depend how oil prices are faring. "Really the Canadian economy is still strong. We have a lot of engines here," he said.

But don't just credit the rise to a weak greenback falling against most world currencies, he insists. "As Canadians we don't recognize the fact that fiscally we're responsible. We're running budget surpluses. If you look at the deficit position in this country it's ten times better than the United States," he says. "Fundamentally this country is head and shoulders above the United States on an economic basis." Jeff Rubin of CIBC World Markets agreed something fundamental has happened: The dollar's strong gains prove "Canada snipped its ombilical cord with the U.S.," he said.

Think they're over-reacting? If so then it's in season like fall colours. Sherry Cooper, chief economist of BMO Financial Group, says  a common Canadian-American currency makes more sense now than ever. "Now that the Canadian dollar is near par, a buck for a buck makes sense to me," Cooper said, adding that politically doing so would be much more difficult.

Politically unfeasible perhaps, but a common currency would certainly reduce currency risks for companies that operate across the Canadian-American border, and some of them on this side of the border are paying dearly for the rising loon. From the tiny Laurentide town of St-Lin, forced to close its Entreprises Michel Corbeil school-bus assembly business, the town's only major industry, to nationwide cuts in the forestry, pulp and paper industry, due to a combination of high dollar and plummeting construction market south of the border, the might of the Canadian dollar has been anything but a blessing for a large segment of business, with over 90 per cent of Canada's exports going south of the border, where its goods are now more expensive.

For the first time in decades, Canada has to compete with the U.S. on a level field, something it hasn't done since a time when most U.S. goods were produced in the country and not overseas and outsourcing was yet to enter the vocabulary. With a multitude of choices now possible from around the world, especially China, it's no surprise the Asian giant has replaced Canada as the largest exporter to the U.S.

While taking the Canadian dollar's rise to parity as a sign of this country's fiscal strength, Jim Flaherty, the Minister of Finance, warned he remains worried about U.S. economic weakness -- a key factor in pushing the currency to a one-for-one basis with the U.S. greenback. He said continued weakness in the U.S. housing sector, as well as soft demand for cars, remains a "significant concern" for the Canadian economy, and he is watching the U.S. economy closely.

"Our forestry industry and many of our manufacturers supply the [housing] market in the United States, and [they are] going through a difficult time," a subdued Flaherty told reporters, adding most of the cars built in Canada are sold in the United States.

On the flip side, the combination of a U.S. in a housing slump and strong Canadian dollar has meant golden opportunities for snowbirds looking for their plot by the beach. "The Canadian dollar's strength seems to have really created a buying frenzy down here in Arizona," says Brian Culhane, a Scottsdale realtor who specializes in out-of-state and international buyers. "My team is actively working with around 45 to 50 Canadian clients right now. Since it is still a buyers market, we are finding deals for our clients sometimes as much as 20 per cent under asking price."

For all the excitement the soaring loonie, which gained 62 per cent in five years, is generating, it isn't expected to reach its historic record any time soon. So historic in fact, that the nation wasn't even born then. Canada's dollar peaked at $2.78 US. The date was July 11, 1864 and it appeared Union forces were losing the U.S. Civil War.

A fixed exchange rate kept the loonie relatively stable until it underwent a big shakeup in 1950 when they were abandoned. The government announced that the Canadian dollar would "float" according to the laws of supply and demand and the Canadian dollar quickly appreciated from its level at the time, rising five cents to roughly 95 cents US. It continued to rise less rapidly until the end of 1960, trading in a relatively narrow range between $1.02 US and $1.06 US. The peak for the Canadian dollar during this period was $1.0614 US, reached on August 20, 1957.

The government returned to a fixed rate system from 1962 to 1970. Canada went back to a floating rate in the 1970s, and it has stayed that way ever since. It remained close to the US dollar until April 25, 1974 when it reached a high of $1.0443 US against a weakening US currency.

But the nouveau dollar doesn't mean Canadians are close to being as rich as their southern neighbours. "We're miles away from them," TD bank chief economist Don Drummond tells the Globe & Mail. "A Canadian can go into a U.S. store and buy goods with the same power as an American, but the fact is their counterparts in the U.S. still earns about 20 per cent more." Not to mention pay less taxes.

In additions Canadian consumers aren't seeing much of a difference in domestic prices, which for similar items are usually still higher here than in the U.S. because retailers, who are used to higher profit margins in this smaller market, are slower to react. The loonie's rise has however boosted online sales as Canadians pursued their bargains hunt over the internet. But some economists wonder whether current levels aren't, for once, over-estimating the loonie's value.

Some say the loonie's fundamentals lie somewhere in the mid-90s range. But as long as the U.S. dollar falls like leaves in autumn, Canadians are likely to see their loon claim the skies.

 

Les attentats en Algérie

Ni la date, le 11 décembre, ni le lieu, le boulevard du 11 décembre 1960, n'avaient été laissés au hasard. Les circonstances du double attentat suicide dans la capitale algérienne cette semaine, faisant plus de 60 morts, se voulaient un rappel de cette date charnière dans l'histoire du pays, qui vivait alors sa guerre d'indépendance. Les manifestations contre la visite du président Charles de Gaulle avaient donné lieu à l'époque à une sévère répression.

Le président algérien Abdelaziz Bouteflika a récemment désavoué le “noyau dur” des vétérans de la guerre d’indépendance  hostile à la France, qui avait tenté de forcer Paris à reconnaître les “crimes” du colonialisme, juste avant la visite de Sarkozy en Algérie. L'attaque de cette semaine suivait de peu la visite du président français, mais sait-on assurément si on a affaire avec les mêmes vieux démons?

En fait une nouvelle mouvance islamiste régionale est soupçonnée dans cette attaque, qui en plus de faire des victimes civiles a enlevé la vie d'une douzaine de travailleurs humanitaires de l'ONU. L'attaque a aussitôt été revendiquée sur un site internet islamiste par Al Qaida au Maghreb islamique, l’ex-Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat, dont les tentacules, et les victimes, s'étendent à travers le Maghreb. Ce même groupe aurait été derrière des attaques à Alger en avril, puis ailleurs en Afrique du nord ces derniers temps. La Tunisie et l'Algérie unissent leurs efforts pour poursuivre le groupe.

Les deux capitales partagent l'avis de Washington selon lequel les militants veulent répandre leur règne de terreur à travers la région, et former une alliance avec d'autres groupes similaires, sans épargner la veuve et l'orphelin:"nous sommes en contact avec d'autres islamistes avec lesquels nous partageons nos projets", expliquait un porte-parole du groupe plus tôt cette année, après les attentats algériens précédents. Pourtant il laissait entendre une certaine indépendance opérationelle: "Al Qaida a sa stratégie, nous avons la nôtre".

Depuis avril, le pays a été la proie aux bombes en juillet, faisant 10 victimes militaires, un attentat également revendiqué par le groupe, puis en septembre, à Batana, au sein d'une foule assistant à un discours présidentiel, à Dellys, prenant à nouveau pour cible des militaires, puis près du village de Maala, lors de l'attaque d'un convoi de travailleurs européens. Voilà déjà quelques temps que l'Algérie et les ressortissants européens sont ciblés par ce groupe, qui a chaque fois revendiqué les attentats.

Une des attaques de cette semaine s'est produite à proximité des bureaux algérois du Programme des Nations unies pour le développement et du Haut Commissariat des Nations unies pour les Réfugiés. “Je n’ai aucun doute que l’Onu était visée”, a déclaré à la BBC le haut commissaire Antonio Guterres. Cet attentat ravive le souvenir de celui qui a détruit les locaux des Nations unies à Bagdad en août 2003, faisant 22 morts dont le chef de la mission onusienne, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

A part le ciblage des organisations internationales, toujours ce terrible chiffre que l'on retrouve, le 11; plusieurs attentats ou tentatives d’attentats étant survenus en cette date du mois, ce qui représente, selon certains, une forme d’hommage  aux attentats du 11 septembre 2001 aux Etats-Unis. Le 11 avril 2002, un attentat suicide avait été commis devant une synagogue de Djerba en Tunisie. En 2004 des trains madrilènes ont été ensanglantés le 11 mars, puis le 11 avril dernier des bombes ont fait 33 morts à Alger, un mois jour pour jour après un attentat suicide dans un café internet de Casablanca. Puis le 11 juillet dernier, un kamikaze a fait exploser un véhicule en Kabylie, près d’une caserne, tuant huit personnes.

Mais l'impact de ces attaques dépasse la région immédiate, peu surprenant donc que les condoléances soient venues avant tout de Madrid et de Paris. Des attentats en France lors des années 1990 avaient une connection algérienne alors qu'un Algérien avait fait parti de la bande responsable des attentats meurtriers de Madrid. Cette traversée des frontières, c'est ce de quoi se nourrit Al Qaida.

Iran's spat with Canada

To a nascent regime it was the ultimate affront. After the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy and the taking of American hostages in Tehran, Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor opened his home to six Americans and helped them escape to the United States. Nearly three decades later an Iranian president cleared as not having been part of the hostage-takers, but very much on the forefront of that revolutionary movement, has sent relations with Canada to their lowest point in many years.

To be fair Canada’s rejection of Iran’s choice of ambassador, and its regular censure condemning the regime’s human rights record, have played their part in bringing Iranian-Canadian relations down the current path. Some of the tensions even precede Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election, dating back to the in-custody death of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi four years ago. Kazemi, 54, died in Tehran in July 2003 after having received head injuries during more than three days of interrogation.

She was arrested the previous month while taking photographs outside Evin prison, but was never formally charged with any offence. An Iranian presidential inquiry initially conducted into the journalist's death found that Kazemi had been killed by a "physical attack" while being held in custody. The judiciary charged an intelligence ministry agent with "semi-intentional murder" but he was eventually acquitted in July 2004 "due to lack of sufficient evidence", a ruling that prompted the judiciary to conclude that Kazemi's head injuries could only have been the result of a fall caused by a drop in blood pressure brought on by a hunger strike.

Relations have been strained ever since but seemed to show signs of improving recently when Iran's Supreme Court ordered a new investigation into her death. Still the news got a cool reaction from the victim's family after repeated disappointments in the past. Another Montreal-based woman, Mehrnoushe Solouki, a doctoral student who went to Tehran to shoot a documentary, is in limbo after a run-in with authorities. The permanent resident cannot leave her native Iran because her French passport is being withheld by police and is between court dates, facing a charge of intending to commit anti-government propaganda for filming a video documentary about the 1988 ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war.

She said Iran's justice system is erratic and that judges seem to follow the will of the country's political leaders. She didn’t seem to believe reopening the case of Kazemi would amount to much, adding the probe into Kazemi's death in Evin prison, the same prison where she was incarcerated for a month last winter, will probably be jerked around like her own case, with an uncertain outcome.

The effect of the downgrade in relations has been felt in trade between Canada and Iran, which has been halved from around $600 million annually before Kazemi's death to $300 million, according to Iranian embassy officials.Relations with Tehran took a more public tumble after Canada sponsored its latest motion of censure of Iran's human rights record. However, in November, Iran came within just two votes of winning enough backing at the UN to throw out the censure. Previously it gave world diplomats at the UN a 70-page booklet on Canada's alleged human rights violations.

Canada has also backed imposing a new set of UN sanctions against Iran for continuing to develop its nuclear program. Ahmadinejad felt vindicated when a U.S. intelligence report recently said that Iran had halted a nuclear weapons programme in 2003. U.S. officials tried to downplay the report but it seemed to have indefinitely shelved much of the speculation surrounding an imminent U.S. attack on the Middle-Eastern country, which had just recently been the subject of a cover of a newsmagazine. Israel also downplayed the report, saying it believes Iran will have the resources to create a nuclear weapon by 2010.

Intelligence assessment or not, the diplomatic spat between Tehran and Ottawa has brought relations to a new low, resulting in the expulsion of the only diplomat maintaining some sort of dialogue between the two countries. Iran expelled Canada's ambassador to Tehran last week, a move Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier called "entirely unjustifiable," adding John Mundy was probably ordered home because Ottawa refused Iran's proposed envoys to Canada. “Unfortunately we have as yet been unable to accept the candidates Tehran has submitted. We believe that the expulsion of our ambassador is an unfortunate and unjustified consequence of this situation," Bernier said.

Ottawa said the move effectively amounted to a decision to "downgrade" the relationship from having an ambassador to a charge d'affaires. Certainly Iran would not mind averting the sort of embarrassment it faced at the hands of a Canadian diplomat at the dawn of its revolution.

Le départ de Howard

A presque un an de la fin du mandat présidentiel, la perte d'un autre ancien allié à l'étranger, après celle de tant de personnes dans l'entourage immédiat de Bush, doit faire paraître le temps bien long à la maison blanche. La défaite du premier ministre australien aux mains de son rival travailliste, Kevin Rudd, élimine, après Aznar, Berlusconi et Blair, un autre précieux allié dans la coalition américaine en Irak.

John Howard, qui avait gagné quatre législatives de suite depuis 1996, est le Premier ministre resté le plus longtemps au pouvoir en Australie après le fondateur du Parti libéral, Robert Menzies, et ce départ laissera tant Ottawa que Washington plutôt seuls en matière d'environnement. Ceux-ci prônaient une approche différente de celle de Kyoto, dont les signataires doivent, à partir de janvier, commencer à baisser leurs émission de manière à enregistrer une réduction de 5 pourcent des chiffres de 1990 d'ici 2012.

Le Canada a plutôt enregistré des chiffres allant dans le sens inverse. Rudd a fait de la lutte aux changements climatiques son cheval de bataille et s'est engagé à faire ratifier le Protocole de Kyoto; à l'opposé du Canada, l'Australie, n’a jamais ratifié l'entente, tout comme les Etats-Unis. Rudd s’est d'ailleurs aussi engagé à représenter son pays lors de la réunion internationale de Bali, qui a lieu une semaine à peine après son élection, afin de discuter du nouveau plan de réduction des gaz à effet de serre post-Kyoto.

Le Canada et l'Australie ont lors de la réunion des pays du Commonwealth en Ouganda refusé de signer une déclaration finale qui comporterait un engagement ferme à réduire les émissions de gaz à effet de serre (GES). Le gouvernement de Harper rejette de telles cibles à moins qu'elles n'engagent les pays en voie de développement, responsables d'une part de plus en plus importante des GES.

En mettant fin au long règne des libéraux cette fin de semaine, les Australiens, que la loi oblige à voter, ont aussi indiqué qu'ils rejettaient la politiq ue extérieure en Irak, Rudd s’étant engagé à retirer les troupes de combat australiennes du pays. Rudd ne rejette pas pour autant l'alliance privilégiée entre son pays et les Etats-Unis, mais il s'entendrait mieux, de toute évidence, avec une administration démocrate si les républicains étaient remplacés l'an prochain. Le président Bush s'est tout de même empressé de féliciter Rudd, tout en estimant que Howard avait été un allié politique important.

Rudd a également l'avantage de pouvoir discuter avec le dirigeant d'un autre grand partenaire, la Chine, en Mandarin, souvenir d'un poste diplomatique à Pékin. “Aujourd’ hui, l’Australie s’est tournée vers l’avenir”, a lancé l'ancien diplomate après une soirée électorale où son parti a obtenu 53% des suffrages contre 47% au Parti libéral de Howard.

L'élection s'est aussi jouée sur des questions internes, surprenant si l'on pense que la fiche de Howard n'était pas mauvaise, affichant une croissance continue (remontant à 17 ans) et un taux de chômage historiquement bas. Rudd a promis un mandat de prudence budgétaire tout en augmentant les fonds en éducation et en santé. La défaite pourrait être totale pour Howard, qui était en quête d'un cinquième mandat, historique, mais qui risque plutôt de perdre son siège dans Sydney. Un premier ministre n'a pas été évincé dans sa circonscription depuis 1929.

La chute a été brutale pour Howard, indélogeable il y a un an à peine, mais son statut de favori a commencé à s'effriter à partir de l'élection de Rudd en tant que chef de parti. Howard a résisté à plusieurs appels à la démission au sein de son propre parti avant de se présenter à nouveau comme candidat.

Time to tame the loon?

Now that the Canadian dollar is back down from its pedestal it suddenly seems difficult to find someone with something good to say about the soaring loon. Comments by the Bank of Canada’s governor caused the dollar to slip by more than a cent to just above $1.01 US after reaching as high as $1.10 over the last weeks, but the settling currency still has economists, businessmen and politicians rattled despite the fact that trade with China has reduced Canada’s reliance on its southern neighbour to levels unseen in years.

This week Canadian Auto Workers economist Jim Stanford predicted even worse days ahead, not only for his much tormented industry, but manufacturing jobs in general, seeing one in seven of these jobs disappearing in the next two to four years. "The rising Canadian dollar has taken a bad situation and made it far, far worse," Stanford told the House of Commons finance committee, which is investigating the effects of the currency's rise.

The stage where he was making this claim showed that the highest levels of government are increasingly concerned about the soaring loon, even if it has headed a bit further south as the first snowflakes have hit parts of the country. Quebec Premier Jean Charest called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the other premiers to hold a summit to deal with the sharp rise in value of the Canadian dollar. Harper concedes the high dollar constitutes “a challenge”, but for now a summit of finance ministers is in the works.

Charest said he has been in touch with most of his provincial counterparts and they agree with the idea of a summit. He said the Canadian dollar, relative to the U.S. currency, has risen by over 20 per cent this year. "There are consequences attached to that," the premier said, explaining the rapid rise is "very difficult for our exporters." "Our economy is very concentrated on the American market," Charest explained.

But as he did so an unexpected report by Statistics Canada showed Canada has reduced its dependence on the U.S. economy by boosting its exports to other countries, particularly China, which is hungry for Canadian oil and other commodities. Statscan pointed out that in fact the country’s reliance on its southern neighbour isn’t what it used to be, precisely due to factors which are in part making its currency such a hot item.

Canada's exports to the United States as a portion of total exports fell to 76 percent in the first seven months of this year from a peak of 84 percent in 2002, with China explaining much of the shift, the report said. "The recent shift to increased trade with the rest of the world was well-timed, given the onset of the housing-induced slowdown south of the border," Statscan said in its report.

Generally speaking Canada's economy has so far showed little pinch from the U.S. subprime mortgage meltdown and many economists say that cross-border contagion is no longer a given. Canadian exports to China in the January-July period jumped 43 percent from a year earlier, while imports climbed only 17 percent. Exports to countries other than the United States grew 68 percent between 2002 and 2007, while those to the United States were up just 5 percent, Statscan said. "All regions of Canada have benefited from this shift in exports toward non-U.S. countries," it said.

The rate of export growth this year surpasses that of any other Group of Seven nation and puts China neck-and-neck with Japan as Canada's third-largest export market after the United States and the European Union. China, the emerging trade power, is of course appearing on everybody’s radar screens as it surpassed Canada as the largest exporter to the U.S.

While Canada hasn’t been too affected by the turmoil down south which has dragged the greenback down with it, Canada is still sensitive to growing threats to the global economy and volatility in financial markets. This statement by the governor of the Bank of Canada sent the dollar dipping to a six-week low all the while a government report showed inflation unexpectedly fell last month, fueling speculation the central bank's  next move will be to cut interest rates. 

The country’s weak inflation report “may take the overall inflation level below the Bank of Canada's target of 2 percent,'' said one Toronto currency trader. Feeding the strong loon is the weakness of the U.S. dollar but the slowing U.S. economy and the rising loon combined are very hurtful to the Canadian economy, warned deputy governor of the Bank of Canada Pierre Duguay.

Evidence the strong dollar is starting to choke the Canadian economy mounted this month with worse-than-expected news that the country's trade surplus has shrunk to its lowest level in nearly a decade, and that personal and business bankruptcies are beginning to rise. Statistics Canada says falling exports and rising imports cut Canada's surplus in the trade of goods to just $2.6 billion in September, the same month that the loonie reached and passed parity with the U.S. dollar.

Some forecasters are even cutting the country’s outlook for overall economic growth, usually quite ahead of the G-7 pack, to less than two per cent next year. While the country’s economy is still very much on a roll, with a jobless rate near record lows, oil prices soaring near $100 a barrel, and the federal government awash in surplus cash, there are signs of a slowdown in the housing sector, and the country is far from erasing a hunger problem it probably forgot it even had.

A new national study, titled HungerCount 2007, says 720,231 people, a number just shy of the population of New Brunswick, were forced to turn to one of the country’s 673 food banks in March to feed themselves or their families. The tally was down slightly from last year. But it was up almost nine per cent from a decade ago, and no province or territory can boast that food banks have outlived their usefulness, says the Canadian Association of Food Banks, which has conducted the annual survey since 1989.

Le procès des Khmer

La séance était plutôt symbolique, près de trois décennies après le règne de terreur des Khmers Rouges elle signifiait la fin d’une longue période d’impunité. Mais les anciens dirigeants du régime communiste responsable de près de deux millions de morts sous les ordres de Pol Pot peuvent encore échapper à la justice.

L’an dernier l’un d’eux, Ta Mok, « frère numéro cinq » a rendu l’âme dans un hopital militaire après avoir passé une période dans le coma. Khieu Samphan, autre tête dirigeante, se remet à peine d’une violente attaque cardiaque. Avec deux ans de plus que Ta Mok, Leng Sary échappe toujours au sort qui le guette depuis sa condamnation à mort en 1979, en même temps que Pol Pot, par un tribunal révolutionnaire, mais au moins aura-t-il connu le banc des accusés.

Alors que « numéro un » est mort en 1998 le soir de la diffusion d’une nouvelle annonçant son transfert vers un tribunal international, dans des circonstances encore peu claires, Leng, joint par sa femme, participait à une première audience publique qui doit préparer le procès du régime de la terreur. La semaine précédente, le 12 novembre, le couple maudit que constituait le ministre des affaires extérieures et la ministre des affaires sociales, des proches de Pol Pot, a été arraché à son amnistie de plus d’une décennie et de sa villa.

Il s’agit de deux des cinq têtes dirigeantes des Khmers encore en vie jugées les plus responsables des atrocités qui ont ensanglanté le Cambodge entre 1975 et 1979. Ce tribunal tardif composé de juges cambodgiens appliquant une loi locale modifiée par les instances internationales représente l’application d’une rare justice dans un pays où celle-ci penche en faveur des beaux payeurs.

Déjà certains avocats internationaux participant au procès ont-ils dû se faire à l’idée que seuls les plus haut placés du régime de la terreur feraient face à la justice. Parmi eux Kaing Guek Eav, le “camarade Doutch”, commandant du centre de détention Tuol Sleng. Celui-ci a déjà passé plus de huit ans en prison, même s’il n’a été transféré au tribunal spécial qu’en juillet.

Quelques mois vont encore se succéder avant que ne commence le véritable procès du régime, début 2008; la première fois, que quelqu’un est appelé à répondre des crimes commis lors du passage au pouvoir des Khmers. Mieux tard que jamais diront certains, car le tribunal a été mis sur pied l’an dernier après sept années de difficiles négociations entre l’ONU et le gouvernement cambodgien.

Comparaissait également l’idéologue et numéro deux du régime, Nuon Chea, ainsi que l’ancien chef d’État, Samphan. La comparution de “Doutch” avait lieu au lendemain seulement de l’arrestation de Samphan, inculpé pour crimes contre l’humanité et crimes de guerre, tout comme Chea, en septembre dans son cas.

Ces premières arrestations, après 10 années d’hésitations et de discussions, avaient essentiellement pour but de prouver à la communauté internationale que la justice cambodgienne est en mesure de se pencher sur son passé, même si elle laisse souvent à désirer de manière générale, et que régime après régime craignait de rouvrir les plaies du passé. Ces comparutions récentes servaient principalement d’essai pour la cour parrainée par les Nations unies qui tiendra ses premiers procès formels dans quelques mois.

Le tribunal a ouvert ses travaux avec la présentation de l’ancien chef de la prison S-21 de Phnom Penh, centre de torture le plus tristement célèbre du régime Khmer. Jusqu’à 16 000 hommes, femmes et enfants y ont été torturés en quatre ans seulement, avant d’être ensuite exécutés. Seulement 14 personnes y auraient survécu.

Le porte-parole du tribunal Peter Foster a qualifié cette pré-audience, qui faisait presque figure de séance photo, de “jalon” dans l’histoire de la justice cambodgienne. “C’est un grand jour”, a-t-il déclaré. “Les projecteurs vont maintenant être braqués sur le Cambodge”. Et voilà qui risque d’être peu flatteur envers le régime.

Selon le dernier rapport d’Amnistie, la justice y reste douteuse, le régime continuant « de recourir aux tribunaux pour faire taire ceux qui les critiquaient de façon pourtant non violente ». Quant au recrutement des juges pour l’exercice extraordinaire qui s’impose, il a fait preuve de «manque de transparence ».

Trouble at the border

Displaying a rare sign of flexibility on border security, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said this month that Canadians crossing into the U.S. by land or sea could carry enhanced driver's licences as passport alternatives. While this may have come as a relief to the thousands on both sides of the border, especially tourism operators, who worried about an administrative layer impeding border transfers, at about the same time two incidents raised worries about heightened security policies at the border. They were serious enough to press Public Security Minister Stockwell Day to request explanations from Chertoff’s office.

On Remembrance Day two crews of Quebec firefighters rushing to assist their American colleagues were held up for lengthy inspections at the U.S.-Canada border as a fire raged out of control at a landmark restaurant in northern New York state. "It's embarrassing on our side," admitted Chris Trombley, chief of the Champlain, New York, fire department. “We're the ones that called for help."

Trombley said four Quebec fire departments are part of a mutual assistance program that has been in place "since the 1950s." "They're part of our family, a part of our system -- we probably go to Canada 30 to 40 times a year and they come here 25 to 30 times. We've never had any problems until Sunday. But they (U.S. border agents) are starting to be stringent on their instructions," he said.

Later in the day, Quebec's firefighters said they were given assurances that they will no longer be delayed at the U.S.-Canada border when racing to help their American colleagues. "They said the situation was deplorable and said we can cross the border without papers or identification," said Jean-Pierre Hebert, director of the Lacolle fire department.

The very next day however, another incident involving Canadian emergency workers en route to the U.S. in life-threatening situations was marked by delays by American customs officials, at the Ontario-Michigan border this time. Windsor health authorities asked for a "complete review" of the incident after an ambulance carrying a 49-year-old heart-attack victim, who had already twice been revived, was asked to head to a secondary inspection at the U.S. border en route to a Detroit hospital.

Such delays have occurred 10 times in the last two years alone, according to a Windsor paramedic operations manager. While this would account for just over 3 per cent of the 150 or so yearly ambulance transfers to Detroit, and Canadian officials say they share U.S. security concerns and believed the incidents were isolated ones, Ottawa wants to ensure that it is Washington's "policy to do all they can to make sure that incidents like this are avoided."

Day sent Chertoff’s department a letter outlining Canada’s concerns over the incidents. "Canada and the U.S. have a great tradition and a history... We want to maintain this proud history we have of helping one another's citizens in times of need," Day said this week.
Day says he has discussions with Chertoff ”regularly on a broad range of issues” and ”brought to his attention, these particular incidents, because they are of some concern." Day was more forceful in the House of Commons where he said. “We do not want to see this continue. It has to come to an end,” he said.

Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security said her office had received a letter by the minister of public security and was formulating a reponse, but stressed the incident was an isolated one. "We maintain that the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, once fully implemented, will ease legitimate cross-border trade and eventually increase efficiency and possibly decrease wait times,” she said. “We remind individuals that a few isolated cases of delays in emergency personnel crossing the border should not overshadow the hundreds if not thousands of times that they cross without delays and incident.”

Emergency vehicles are usually facilitated if there is advance notice they are coming to the border, one U.S. border official said. “CBP works to expedite emergency response crews requesting entry into the U.S.,” said Lynn Hollinger from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “We recognize the necessity to process these crews as expeditiously as possible.”

That still means showing ID at the border, she says, something the heart-attack patient, now recovering in hospital, says nearly cost him his life. Rick Laporte said his initial reaction about the border stop was "I kind of blew it off." Only after speaking to staff at Henry Ford hospital in Detroit, where he underwent an emergency angioplasty procedure, did the truth about the potentially deadly border delay begin to sink in, he said. "When I told the nurse in Detroit, they were stunned. They said every second counts."

Even if they are not required at the border, the best way to minimize delays would be for emergency responders to carry passports, Hollinger noted. But bringing ID wasn't the first thing that crossed the minds of the firefighters rushing to the N.Y. fire, and even their U.S. counterparts say such red tape, can be costly. "We realize the world is changing and they have a job to do. But I don't want to see firefighters having to bring their passports on a call," Trombley said. 

The naked general

While they often seize power by force, they are also frequently driven away by mass popular rallies. As Pakistani Presidents go, perhaps Gen. Pervez Musharraf is little different. Why else would a sitting president still combining the roles of head of state and head of the military find it necessary to declare emergency rule, suspend the constitution, sack most of the country’s judges and round up the majority of the opposition leadership if not because he felt a popular storm was coming. In other words how often does a sitting strongman stage a second coup d’Etat?

Musharraf’s November 3 decision to do just that provoked both outrage at home and disappointment overseas, where a chorus of international leaders urged the president to promptly end emergency rule and call elections delayed by martial law. Late in the week, it seemed Musharraf had heard loud and clear the cries of foreign capitals, including that of a U.S. president who pressed him to “have elections soon” and “take off your uniform.”

While Musharraf justified emergency rule with the need to reign in Islamic forces making a mockery of the rule of law in northwestern areas of the country bordering Afghanistan, few doubted that he wanted to pre-empt a possible court ruling declaring his latest electoral win illegitimate, as the leader of the armed forces. Some leaders, such as Prime Minister Stephen Harper, even thought the argument to combat terrorism was a weak one, fearing that in fact the worsening situation in Pakistan could give birth to more extremist organizations.

“I can tell you I really am very concerned, very troubled by this. I see the government of Pakistan using excuses like threat of terrorism or the Taliban to effectively clamp down on legitimate opposition in the country,” he said. “This is a very serious, very wrong and very dangerous development for that part of the world.” The markets made no secret of their concern, driving the Karachi stock market down sharply, a 4.6 percent drop following the emergency announcement, placing the benchmark index about 10 percent off its historic high on October 22.

By the end of the week the president vowed national elections would take place before February 15, reassuring Washington somewhat. “We think it is a good thing that President Musharraf has clarified the election date for the Pakistani people,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. But many Pakistanis remained skeptical. “I don’t trust him. Military rulers in Pakistan never fulfilled their promise,” said Nighat Anis, a retired teacher in Islamabad. “It’s our history. We have always been cheated.”

Agreeing with her was opposition leader and former PM Benazir Bhutto, who returned to the country in the hopes of forming a power- sharing agreement only to be greeted upon her return from exile by a blast which killed 139 people at her welcome rally and was later held under house arrest after vowing to hold mass protests to demonstrate against Musharraf's emergency measures and wage a campaign aimed at forcing him to stand down as army chief. Still defiant she said the general should free detained judges and let “the real Supreme Court” decide on challenges to his re-election.

The politics of partition

If any place could allow for some semblance of hope for the Mideast peace process and more cordial relations between peoples in general, the old town of Jerusalem would on the surface surely be it. Areas representing the world’s major monotheist religions are protected within its walls and its narrow intermingling cobblestone streets are used every day by people of all faiths as Orthodox Jews on their  way to the Western Wall cross legions tourists, whether they are Japanese shutterbugs or Latino pilgrims, following the stations on the Via Dolorosa which largely runs through the sprawling and chaotic market of the Muslim sector.

One of Christianity’s holiest sites, the church of the Sepulchre, marking the stations where  Jesus was stripped of his clothes, crucified, died and was entombed, comprises a Greek Orthodox chapel, is watched over by young Israeli guards and sits in the shadow of a mosque dedicated to the second caliph who conquered Palestine and to whom the city surrendered. But whether people of such dizzying array of religions and backgrounds who rub shoulders every day actually mingle and fraternize is another matter.

For such a monument to the world’s faiths the area is quite heavily armed, and the Jews who elect to live in the Jewish quarter rebuilt after Israel’s military victory in 1967 are among the most conservative and least likely to mingle with the Arab vendors, who carry crosses as well as kippas on display in the medina. Perhaps it isn’t surprising the recent U.S. push for peace, coinciding with the final stretch in president Bush’s mandate, is met with such skepticism in an area suffocating under so many layers of religions, crises and history.

The peace process itself is lengthy and complicated in its own way, and according to polls, while 53 per cent of Israelis supported the recent Annapolis conference's goals, only 17% thought the meeting a "success," while 42% called it a "failure." Its final statement agreed to at the 11th hour last month, the conference brought together president Bush, Israel’s Ehud Olmert and Palestine’s Mahmoud Abbas, to kick-start a peace process dealt a blow after Hamas’ victory in the Gaza Strip, with the intention of “ushering a new era of peace” and launching bilateral negotiations which will include “all core issues without exception.”

”No historic questions will be  avoided,” Bush stressed in Annapolis, that means the most contentious ones that could shatter the Holy City’s apparent calm: the status of Jerusalem. Israel captured mainly Arab east Jerusalem in 1967 and annexed it without international approval. It considers all of Jerusalem to be the "eternal and undivided" capital of the Jewish state.Meetings starting this week will try to reach an agreement before the end of Bush’s term, and the U.S. president has suddenly put so much on the line he is planning a visit to the area next month to promote an effort previously sideswiped by the war on terror and in Iraq.

Jewish and Arab citizens of Jerusalem would like to think the latest round will achieve something, but know better than to let their hopes up. “Everybody has doubts about this but would like to hope for the best,” said Rebih, a cab driver hanging around the Damascus gate outside the old city. “Things right now are bad, they are worse that I can say,” he says. “Christmas should be a happy time, but everybody is sad. It’s bad for us, it’s bad for everyone, it’s bad for business.” More embittered by the peace process, a youth hostel owner in east Jerusalem whose establishment displays a poster on the “wall of shame” being erected in the West Bank between check points, is more blunt about any hopes stemming from Bush’s visit. “Better you come here than him,” he snickered.

The wall, parts of which are hard to miss in the outskirts of Jerusalem, stands over 25 feet tall, nearly twice that of Berlin, has been shown to encroach Palestinian lands and has been widely condemned by a number of religious and political leaders. Also visible on the fringes of Jerusalem are growing Jewish settlements, such as Har Homa, which will see its controversial plans of expansion press ahead. “Har Homa is within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem and under Israeli law, so nothing forbids us from building houses to answer the needs of the population," according to the Israeli housing minister. But the decision was quickly criticized by  U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, architect of the latest push in Mideast peace, who echoed Palestinian complaints that it undermined the Middle East peace process relaunched in Annapolis.

In fact it didn’t take very long for the spirit of the recent U.S. meeting to be threatened by business as usual on the ground. Tensions have been flaring in the Gaza strip as Israeli air strikes respond to rocket attacks from the Palestinian enclave and the army even threatened a full-scale military incursion. This itself has produced something unheard of in recent months: talk of bringing together Hamas and Fatah forces, usually fiercely divided, to counter any Israeli offensive.

This week Israel launched its largest assault on Gaza in recent memory right on the eve of the first formal post-Annapolis talks, causing concerns it could cut short the nascent peace drive. The talks themselves were hardly cordial. The Gaza strip meanwhile is suffering from gas shortages that some attribute not to cutbacks from Israeli suppliers but unpaid bills by the Palestinian authority.

The inevitability the West Bank will become independent of Israel, and perhaps just as turbulent, in the future is one Israeli officials are bracing for. All the while they embrace the politics of separation. Marking the 60th anniversary of the UN partition plan, Olmert said last week Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion was "right" to accept partition of the British mandate into Arab and Israeli states. “The choice, both 60 years ago and today, is between a Jewish state on part of the Land of Israel, and a binational state on all of the Land of Israel,” he continued. “That is the choice we are faced with today - the existence of two nation-states, Israel and Palestine, in the Land of Israel.”

But for now nowhere perhaps are the politics of partition more a blemish to the image of Israel as in Hebron, a city considered holy to Muslims and Jews alike, and the scene of some of the nastiest confrontations between Jewish settlers and the Arab majority in the West Bank. One of the reasons being that while settlements are usually situated on the outskirts, those of Hebron are in the center of the city, in elevated areas right over the muslim market.

There tensions in recent years have led Israeli forces to weld shut a vast majority of shops leading to the tomb of the Patriarch, better known across the world as the site of the 1994 shooting during which Jewish zealot Barukh Goldstein killed 29 worshippers. Since the building was divided between a synagogue and mosque. "90 per cent of businesses were shut" a local shopkeeper said, pointing to empty streets and electric fencing acting as roof over the streets of the market shielded from the sun by the trash thrown by settlers to the street below. "Look at what they're doing to us," he says.

Yet for all the tragedy of partition there are a few signs peaceful coexistence isn't that impossible. The guide of the Hebron Haram, who was there when Goldstein killed fellow worshippers and knows where to find every bullet lodged in the wall where the imam was standing on that day, says people have to move on from all this violence, and even suggests that visitors, rare in these parts, pose with Israeli soldiers, in great numbers everywhere, at the entrance of the tomb. Similarily a walk back out through the empty streets of the market is interrupted by a cheerful yell from above, a young settler girl screaming "Hey, you! hello!" from the other side of the electrified fencing and razor wire. A greeting that cuts right through metal and could make a Muslim fundamentalist weak at the knees. One would hope.