Friday, 26 February 2016

Amid Iraqi Chaos, Moktada al-Sadr, an Old Provocateur, Returns

 BAGHDAD — They came from the slums of this city’s underclass, the alleyways and the simple halls of the seminary in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, and the outer reaches of the rural south.

They waved Iraqi flags and demanded change. The crowd packed Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Friday morning, chanting by the tens of thousands against corruption and for decisive reforms in how politics is conducted here, as they waited for their man to appear.

“No, no to thieves! Yes, yes to reforms!”

Then Moktada al-Sadr, the cleric and political provocateur whose command of the Iraqi Shiite street is unmatched, stepped up to the rail of a makeshift stage on the rooftop of an old girls school and appealed to the people’s grievances in terms at once revolutionary and patriotic.

“After today, the prime minister has to act!” he said. Referring to the barricaded heart of the central government, he said, “Today we are at the door of the Green Zone, and tomorrow the people will be inside!”

The time is ripe for demagogues again in Iraq, where the public is seething with anger over corruption, a grinding war and a collapse in oil prices that has shaken the economy. With an ineffective political class unable to rise above internal scheming, Iraq is struggling to face its most pressing concerns, the primary one being winning the war with the Islamic State and reuniting the country.

 Mr. Sadr and his fearsome militia were once a primary enemy of the United States, and he played many roles in shaping Iraq after the American invasion: populist cleric, Iranian proxy, Iraqi patriot, political kingmaker. In seizing a chance on Friday to return to the political spotlight, he positioned himself as a nationalist in the face of Iran’s growing role in Iraqi affairs, and as a source of aid for a weak prime minister.

“Today I am among you to say to you, frankly and bravely, that the government has left its people struggling against death, fear, hunger, unemployment, occupation, a struggling economy, a security crisis, bad services and a big political crisis,” Mr. Sadr told the crowd.

Above all, it was a reminder of the confused state of internal Shiite politics that even as he was seeking to harness public rage against the political elites, he had actually called the street rally to support the reform policies of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Mr. Abadi’s proposal to tackle corruption and install technocrats in the country’s ministries has stalled over the opposition of powerful militia leaders and some pro-Iran politicians. For his part, Mr. Sadr has offered to have his ministers resign in protest to lend Mr. Abadi’s agenda some steam. Despite that, and the support of the most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, it remains unclear whether Mr. Abadi’s agenda will be able to win the help of any other political blocs.

If nothing else, Mr. Sadr’s appearance in Baghdad on Friday was a chance to “get himself back in the center of things,” said Kirk Sowell, an analyst based in Amman, Jordan, who publishes the newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics.

Mr. Sadr was once at the very heart of things in Iraq, but in recent years had receded somewhat from the public eye.

 When the United States invaded in 2003, Mr. Sadr was just shy of 30. But he drew on the political inheritance of his father, a pivotal and immensely popular Shiite cleric assassinated on Saddam Hussein’s orders in 1999, to emerge as a powerful voice for the Shiite underclass.

He forged a movement that melded martial, political and social elements. His militia, the Mahdi Army, once fought the Americans and the Iraqi state, and it was blamed for atrocities during the sectarian civil war of 2006 and 2007.

Nowadays his militiamen are largely under the control of the government, and his anti-Americanism, once a defining issue for him, is less ardent. Recently, through his contacts among Shiite militia leaders, he helped secure the release of three Americans kidnapped in Baghdad. At the rally there was some bashing of the United States, but it felt more perfunctory than strident.

Once an open client of Iran, Mr. Sadr has in recent years gone his own way, and is widely seen these days as an Iraq-first advocate of cross-sectarian unity. His militia, reconstituted after the extremists of the Islamic State captured Mosul in the summer of 2014, was renamed the Peace Brigades.

Today, as he seeks to redefine himself once again, Mr. Sadr, now 42, has positioned himself as a backer of Mr. Abadi, who is seen as increasingly weak in the face of the growing influence of Iran. Tehran supports Mr. Abadi’s political rivals, who command militias.

“Abadi, as a person, is kindhearted,” said Saad Thamer, 37, a supporter of Mr. Sadr’s who attended the rally. “But he is very weak

The militias have become exceedingly popular among the Shiite public, challenging Mr. Abadi’s authority, because they are seen as the protectors of the Shiite majority against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State.

It has also been a challenge to Mr. Sadr, who has lost of some of his support at the grass-roots level as young men flock to other militias seen as more powerful. His embrace of the Iraqi state has also sometimes worked against him by contradicting his image as a populist figure.

“From an anti-establishment young leader, he compromised his stance by working more with the Iraqi political establishment, which cost him a loss of some popularity among his followers,” said Maria Fantappie, the Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Iraq is a place where everyone has his enemies, and Mr. Sadr has his share. One of his chief critics is the former prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who once counted on Mr. Sadr’s support to secure a second term after national elections in 2010.

Mr. Sadr later broke from Mr. Maliki, and tried to oust him from the premiership. In a recent interview, Mr. Maliki said Mr. Sadr was seeking to exploit Mr. Abadi’s weakness to re-establish his own influence. “He’s supporting Abadi, but in his own way,” Mr. Maliki said. “He wants to control Abadi.”

During his time in office, especially in 2011 when the Arab Spring uprisings set off a protest movement in Iraq, Mr. Maliki feared what would happen if Mr. Sadr commanded his followers to take to the streets. He did not, and the protests died out.

But Mr. Maliki said Mr. Sadr’s re-emergence presented dangers for Iraq, and warned, “He has power and weapons.
Saturday, 26 February 2016

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Prince Ali seeks postponement of FIFA presidential election

ZURICH — FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali is asking for Friday's election to be suspended after his request for the use of transparent voting booths was rejected.

     In this Dec. 4, 2015 file photo FIFA presidential candidate Jordanian Prince Ali Al Hussein speaks at the National Press Club in Washington. Prince Ali is one of the five candidates to succeed Sepp Blatter as FIFA President on Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. Prince Ali is asking for Friday's election to be suspended in a dispute over voting procedures.

The Jordanian prince's lawyers said Tuesday they are seeking "provisional measures" from the Court of Arbitration for Sport to postpone the vote to select Sepp Blatter's successor.

CAS said it received a request from Prince Ali, asking the court to direct FIFA's election monitoring panel to use transparent voting booths and independent scrutineers "in order to safeguard the integrity of the voting process and to ensure the vote is conducted in secret."

The prince's campaign team has offered to provide the transparent booths to help prevent voters photographing their ballot paper.

In previous soccer elections, voters have reportedly been pressured to take a mobile phone into the booth and provide visual proof of who they supported.

CAS said FIFA has been asked to submit written answers to the prince's request. CAS said it would issue a ruling no later than Thursday morning, a day ahead of the scheduled election.

Prince Ali's lawyers said in a statement that the FIFA's rejection of his request for transparent voting booths would deny "any right to a fair and transparent voting process."

The lawyers, Francis Szpiner and Renaud Semerdjian, said FIFA was only requesting that voters leave their mobile phones behind when they go to the voting booths.

"This request is not sufficient," the statement said. "FIFA remains silent upon the measures to enforce it and sanctions associated with it."

FIFA turned down a demand for a fast-track hearing on Prince Ali's request, the lawyers said.

"As a consequence, we are now seeking provisional measures before CAS to suspend the coming election," the statement said.

Ali is one of five candidates in the race, along with Sheikh Salman of Bahrain, UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino, South Africa's Tokyo Sexwale and former FIFA executive Jerome Champagne of France.

Sheikh Salman, who replaced Prince Ali as the FIFA vice president for Asia last year, dismissed the complaint.

"We had the election last May and nobody complained about the voting booths," the sheikh told The Associated Press in an interview. "Some people will always bring some excuses as well. I think he's just preparing for Friday's result."

Champagne also had a complaint rejected Tuesday against a decision by the three-member FIFA election panel.

On Monday, he objected after FIFA approved election hall passes for 20 additional UEFA staff and seven from the AFC. Champagne said that gave the confederations an unfair advantage with greater lobbying power.

In a written reply to Champagne seen by The Associated Press, election panel chairman Domenico Scala said the extra accreditations were "perfectly in line with the relevant and consistent FIFA practice" for continental bodies.

China's Zheng Saisai shocks reigning Australian Open champion in Qatar

Angelique Kerber's first WTA Tour outing since her brilliant Australian Open triumph ended in disappointment as the top seed suffered a shock 7-5 6-1 loss to Zheng Saisai at the Qatar Open.

     China's Zheng Saisai returns a shot to Germany's Angelique Kerber during the first round at the Qatar Wednesday.

 Kerber upset the odds to defeat Serena Williams in the Melbourne showpiece last month, but the German - who has played in the Fed Cup but not on Tour since her win - looked flat in Doha.

Zheng deserved credit for a tenacious showing and accurate ground strokes, while Kerber's 38 unforced errors gave the Chinese plenty of cheap points en route to the biggest win of her career.

Next up for Zheng is a tricky contest with wildcard Eugenie Bouchard.

The Canadian continued to show signs that she is back to her best by defeating Denisa Allertova 7-6 (7-0) 7-5.

There was also disappointment for Simona Halep, Belinda Bencic and Lucie Safarova on a day of upsets.

Second seed Halep was up a set and 4-1 in the second before losing 11 out of the next 12 games in a 6-7 (1-7) 6-4 6-1 to qualifier Elena Vesnina.

Bencic - the sixth seed - was put to the sword 6-4 6-2 by Coco Vandeweghe, a week after losing in the first round in Dubai to Jelena Jankovic – herself beaten 3-6 6-4 7-5 by Monica Niculescu.

As for defending champion and seventh seed Safarova, she lost 7-6 (8-6) 7-5 to wildcard Cagla Buyukakcay.

It was a straight-forward outing for third seed Agnieszka Radwanska as she saw off Kateryna Bondarenko 6-4 6-4, but ninth seed Roberta Vinci had to save three match points in a 2-6 6-4 7-6 (7-3) win over Daria Kasatkina.

Garbine Muguruza easily saw off Nao Hibino 6-2 6-0, a win that will see her move above Halep in the rankings, while Caroline Wozniacki's resurgence continued in a 6-3 6-3 victory over Daria Gavrilova.

Petra Kvitova and Carla Suarez Navarro, the fifth and eighth seeds, were comfortable winners. The former beat Czech compatriot Barbora Strycova 7-6 (7-2) 6-4, while the latter saw off Donna Vekic 7-6 (7-5) 6-4.

Timea Babos put paid to 16th seed Sara Errani's hopes in a 6-4 6-1 victory, Andrea Petkovic was a 6-3 6-3 winner against Margarita Gasparyan, Julia Ostapenko beat Svetlana Kuznetsova 7-6 (7-5) 6-0 and Timea Bacsinszky overcame Yulia Putintseva 6-2 7-6 (7-0).

27th Group Army becomes first army in PLA to relocate HQ

President Xi Jinping (L, front), also general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, confers a military flag to Commander Liu Yuejun and Political Commissar Zheng Weiping of the Eastern Theater Command in Beijing, capital of China, Feb 1, 2016. Xi on Monday conferred military flags on the five newly-established theater commands of the People's Liberation Army (PLA)

 The 27th Group Army recently became the first army of the People's Liberation Army to relocate its headquarters in the country's new military reform, the military newspaper PLA Daily reported on Thursday.

The 27th Group Army, which has a long and honorable history, received a relocation order from the Central Military Commission on Dec 2 to move from North China's Hebei province to new barracks in Shanxi province before Jan 5.

The army's leading group later held a meeting to arrange the relocation work. Soldiers and officers left for Shanxi's barracks separately on Dec 14, 23 and 27.

The relocation was completed by the end of last year.

143 barracks and more than 2,600 pieces of equipment in the headquarters in Shijiazhuang has been registered and recorded. The remaining fifty-one million yuan in maintenance fees for the 27th ground army will be left to a newly established ground force unit, the PLA Daily reported.

In November, the Central Military Commission held a three-day PLA reform meeting in Beijing, during which President Xi Jinping, also the chairman of the Central Military Commission, gave guidelines on reform.

The general command for the PLA Army, the PLA Rocket Force and the PLA Strategic Support Force were established. President Xi conferred military flags at their inauguration ceremony held on Dec 31 in Beijing.

After the reshuffle, the People's Liberation Army was regrouped into five new theater commands to replace the former seven military area commands. The five commands are the Eastern Theater Command, the Southern Theater Command, the Western Theater Command, the Northern Theater Command and the Central Theater Command.

President Xi conferred the military flags of the five theater commands to their leaders on Feb 1 in Beijing.

The amazing art of flower buns

Flower bun art resembles cucumbers. [Photo by Wang Zirui/Asianewsphoto]

A flower bun art festival is ongoing in Hebi city of Henan province, which puts on display more than 300 pieces of creative flower buns from Shaanxi, Shanxi, Anhui, Henan provinces in Central China.

The age of the creators ranges from 8 to 66 years old. Flower buns, an edible art form, is a traditional folk art in China with a long history dating back to the ancient Han Dynasty. During important occasions, people always make flower buns to wish for happiness and good fortune.

         Flower bun art resembles red peppers.[Photo by Wang Zirui/Asianewsphoto]

These flower buns resemble two turtles. [Photo by Wang Zirui/Asianewsphoto)

 This flower bun art portrays several dragons on a round plate. [Photo by Wang Zirui/Asianewsphoto]

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

CDC investigates 14 more possible cases of sexually transmitted Zika virus

Times New York - The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is investigating 14 new reports of possible sexual transmission of the Zika virus.

The CDC said several of these cases are among pregnant women, although it did not specify how many.

"These new reports suggest sexual transmission may be a more likely means of transmission for Zika virus than previously considered," the CDC said in a  written

Two of the cases are in women whose only known risk is sexual contact with a male partner exhibiting symptoms of the virus after returning from an infected area, according to the CDC.

Lab results are pending for four additional suspected cases among women. There are eight other suspected cases under investigation

The CDC is working with state health officials to investigate all of these cases. Officials have not said which states they are working with or where these women live because the risk applies to all women in the United States, according to Dr. Jennifer McQuiston, deputy incident manager for Zika virus at the CDC.

"We have been a little surprised by the number of suspected cases we've received," she told NMP

The CDC is urging individuals to follow its previously issued guidance of abstinence or condom use for women, especially those who are pregnant, whose male sexual partners have traveled to a Zika-infected area. It also issued a notice through their Health Alert Network that notified health care providers, labs and local, state and federal public health employees about urgent public health information.

The recommendations single out partners of pregnant women because the virus has been linked to the neurological birth defect microcephaly. Infants with the disorder have unusually small heads and sometimes developmental delays that vary in severity.

The CDC restated there is no evidence that women can transmit the virus to their sexual partners and that the most likely way to become infected with the Zika virus is from infected mosquitoes.

In February, the CDC confirmed the virus had been transmitted to the sexual partner of an individual in Texas who had traveled to a Zika infected area -- a first for this outbreak but not a first in and of itself. The first known case of sexual transmission of the Zika virus was occurred in 2008, when a microbiologist from Colorado State University returned from Senegal, reunited with his wife and infected her with the virus.

"The report of the case in Dallas raised concern so doctors are beginning to think about it when they see patients," McQuiston said, adding that another possible reason for the increase in these possible cases could be reflective of the travel patterns and people returning from infected areas..

FIFA reduces bans for Blatter, Platini from 8 to 6 years

FIFA reduces bans for Blatter, Platini from 8 to 6 years

ZURICH - Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini had their bans from soccer reduced from eight years to six by FIFA's appeal body on Wednesday, two days before the sport's ruling body tries to turn the page on years of scandals by electing a new president

Blatter and Platini were initially found guilty of wrongdoing by FIFA's independent ethics committee, which is led by a German judge, over a previously-secret 2011 financial transaction.

Platini, the UEFA president, said not being cleared was an "insulting decision, shameful and a denial of rights" - and announced he will appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Blatter, as FIFA president, authorized a payment of 2 million Swiss francs ($2 million) to Platini which was found to be unethical and a conflict of interest.

But following hearings last week, an in-house appeal committee comprising members of federations voting in Friday's presidential election decided to relax the suspensions. The committee is headed by Larry Mussenden of Bermuda, who is currently campaigning to win a May vote to become president of CONCACAF and a FIFA vice president.

"The appeal committee considered that Mr. Platini's and Mr. Blatter's activities and the services they had rendered to FIFA, UEFA and football in general over the years should deserve appropriate recognition as a mitigating factor," FIFA said in a statement.

Blatter said in a statement that he was "deeply disappointed" with the verdict. Having hoped to be cleared in time to preside over the electoral congress on Friday, Blatter might have run out of time for an urgent CAS hearing.

Both Blatter and Platini have constantly denied wrongdoing and claimed they had a verbal deal for additional salary that former France great Platini would receive for working as Blatter's presidential adviser from 1999-2002.

Platini had been the leading candidate to succeed Blatter in FIFA's emergency election before the payment was revealed in September.

"The reasons given against me are baseless, trumped up and surreal, given the facts and explanations that I gave during the hearing of the appeals board," Platini said in a statement released through his legal team. "This decision is in reality a political decision taken by the FIFA administration."

He added: "I am the victim of a system that had only one goal: To prevent me from becoming FIFA president in order to protect certain interests that I was about to bring into question."

Platini said he would pursue all possible means to appeal, starting with CAS, and that he had asked his legal team to launch an appeal to the Lausanne-based court "without waiting."

Platini has previously said he asked for a salary of 1 million Swiss francs when approached in 1998 to work for the newly-elected Blatter.

Blatter said there was a contract for 300,000 Swiss francs, the same as FIFA's then secretary general in line with its salary structure, plus a "gentleman's agreement" to get the rest later.

Swiss law obliged FIFA only to pay the deferred money within five years. It was not until 2010 that Platini, by then UEFA president, reportedly asked for the balance, and was paid in February 2011.

That timing has raised suspicion as the payment came during a FIFA presidential election campaign. UEFA later urged its members to support Blatter — who promised them it would be his final term — against Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar.

Blatter won that 2011 election unopposed after Bin Hammam was implicated in bribing Caribbean voters. From then on, Platini was the likely successor to lead FIFA.

Platini's provisional suspension by the ethics committee last October, pending a full investigation, stalled his presidential bid and the ban in December effectively ended it.

Both were fined by the ethics judges in December. Blatter was ordered to pay 50,000 Swiss francs ($50,000) and Platini was fined 80,000 Swiss francs ($80,000).

The Platini payment emerged during a wider Swiss federal investigation of FIFA business, including suspected money laundering in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding contests.

Switzerland's attorney general, Michael Lauber, opened criminal proceedings against Blatter in September for alleged mismanagement and misappropriation of FIFA funds.

That case also relates to Blatter signing off undervalued 2010-2014 World Cup broadcast rights for the Caribbean to former FIFA vice president Jack Warner.

Platini's status in the Swiss investigation is "between a witness and an accused person," Lauber has said..