Thursday, 1 November 2012

Lebanon opposition urges UN complaint against Damascus

AFP

BEIRUT THE Lebanese opposition on Tuesday called for an urgent complaint to the UN Security Council and the Arab League against Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime.

Lebanon’s March 14 coalition, which is bitterly opposed to Assad, has accused Damascus of planning a series of bombings in Lebanon.

The demand for a formal complaint comes after a series of territorial violations by Syrian regime forces, including frequent cross-border shelling in recent months.

Earlier this month, a deadly car bomb blast in Beirut killed three people including a top security official. The opposition blamed Syria and its Lebanese allies for the attack.

A statement by the March 14 coalition called for “the filing of an urgent complaint to the Arab League and the UN Security Council against the Syrian regime over the (bombing) and the daily violations against Lebanon’s borders and citizens.” Tensions in Lebanon have run high since the massive car bomb attack in Beirut on October 19, which killed Internal Security Forces (ISF) intelligence chief Wissam al Hassan.

The opposition called for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati after the attack.

The bombing has been linked to evidence implicating former minister Michel Samaha, who was arrested in August over an alleged bomb plot, and who has close ties to the Assad regime.

Samaha is suspected of planning attacks to provoke sectarian strife in Lebanon at Syria’s behest. Hassan and the ISF played a key role in the investigation that led to Samaha’s arrest.

There has been frequent shelling into Lebanese territory by the Syrian army.

Syria accuses Lebanon of laxity on its borders, and of allowing fighters and weapons to be smuggled into the strife-torn country.

Lebanon was dominated politically and militarily by Syria for almost 30 years.

Syria’s troops withdrew following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Iran has put N-bomb ambitions on hold, temporarily: Barak

AFP

LONDON IRAN averted a showdown over its nuclear programme by putting a third of its medium- enriched uranium to civilian use, but the respite may be short-lived, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Tuesday.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph while on a visit to London, Barak said it was “probable” that a tipping point in Israel’s standoff with Iran over its nuclear programme would have been reached before the US presidential election next month had Iran not diverted the fuel in August.

The decision put back any immediate plans Iran had for acquiring a nuclear bomb, but Barak told the British newspaper the “moment of truth” had only been delayed by “eight to 10 months”.

Israel has engaged in much sabre-rattling over Iran’s nuclear programme in recent months, with several politicians proposing a preemptive military strike to avoid any possibility of Tehran acquiring an atomic weapon.

Barak explained that Tehran had amassed 189 kilograms (417 pounds) of 20-percent pure uranium — a key step in the development of weapons-grade material — but that 38 percent of this was converted into fuel rods for a civilian research reactor.

In comments published on the Telegraph’s website, Barak argued there were three possible reasons for this. “One is the public discourse about a possible Israeli or American operation deterred them from trying to come closer,” he reasoned.

“It could probably be a diplomatic gambit that they have launched in order to avoid this issue culminating before the American election, just to gain some time,” Barak said.

“It could be a way of telling the International Atomic Energy Agency ‘oh we comply with our commitments’,” he added.

Several rounds of negotiations between world powers and Tehran have failed to produce much progress on increasing the transparency of Tehran’s nuclear programme, which the West suspects is a front for developing nuclear weapons.

Tehran denies the charge and insists it has a right to enrich uranium — despite four rounds of UN sanctions over its refusal to cooperate with nuclear agency inspectors.

Iran and the United States have recently both denied reaching a deal for one-onone nuclear talks, as The New York Times had reported — even though the White House said it was open to such dialogue.

Barak said he doubted that sanctions and diplomacy would resolve the crisis and predicted Israel would probably face a decision over whether to launch strikes in 2013.

He insisted that Israel had the right to act alone and that a preemptive strike would be less risky than waiting until Iran had acquired a nuclear weapon.

Iran leader warns against public-political clashes

AP

TEHRAN IRAN’S supreme leader warned government officials and politicians on Wednesday against turning their disputes into a public discussion, calling it “treason” against the state.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s comments were a direct jab at embattled President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who publicly lambasted Iran’s judiciary chief last week for rejecting his request to visit Evin prison.

Ahmadinejad accused the judiciary of “unconstitutional” behaviour, claiming that as Iran’s president he did not need permission to visit the prison. Judiciary chief Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani fired back, saying Ahmadinejad does not understand his constitutional powers.

Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters in Iran, said that provoking political differences ahead of presidential elections, scheduled for June 14, is ‘treason’.

“One of the harmful cases is differences among authorities, and worse than that is taking it to the public. I warn the officials and the heads of branches of power to be careful and not take their differences to the people,” Khamenei said in a speech broadcast on state TV on Wednesday.

Larijani wrote a confidential letter to Ahmadinejad earlier this month rejecting the president’s demand to visit Evin where his top press adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr is being held. Javanfekr was jailed last month after being convicted of publishing material deemed insulting to Khamenei.

But the president revealed the contents of the note and publicly criticised Larijani for barring him from visiting Evin.

Iran’s State Prosecutor Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi said the judiciary rejected Ahmadinejad’s request because the president’s planned visit appeared to be politically motivated.

Ejehi asked why the president never asked to visit Evin during his seven years as president but wants to go there now that his close aide is behind bars.

Ahmadinejad originally had the backing of the clerics, but the support broke down over his perceived challenge to the authority of Khamenei last year. Since then, Ahmadinejad has rapidly lost his political clout.

Ahmadinejad and Iran’s powerful clerics have long had their differences, and the conflict has intensified ahead of next year’s presidential elections. Ahmadinejad cannot run for another term but wants to influence the race to pick his successor. In parliamentary elections earlier this year, his supporters were soundly defeated.

“The recent exchange of letters and their contents were not important at all but these disputes should not be made public as it gives ammunition to foreign media and enemies to create controversy,” Khamenei said. “From today to election day, whoever willfully takes disputes to the people and uses their sentiments to provoke differences has definitely committed treason against the state.”

US calls for Syrian opposition shakeup

AFP

ZAGREB US SECRETARY of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday that Washington wanted to help the Syrian opposition unite against President Bashar al Assad’s regime but urged it to resist efforts by “extremists” to hijack the revolution.

“There are disturbing reports of extremists going into Syria attempting to take over what has been a legitimate revolution against an oppressive regime for their own purposes,” Clinton warned during a visit to Croatia.

The opposition should “strongly resist the efforts by the extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution.” Clinton’s comments came as international Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi urged China to help end the escalating conflict that has killed more than 36,000 people since an uprising against Assad’s rule erupted in March last year.

“We are working very hard with many different elements of opposition inside and outside Syria,” Clinton told reporters, saying the United States was interested in “helping the opposition to unite strongly and resist the Assad regime”.

Washington wanted to assist the opposition “to unite behind a shared effective strategy that can resist the regime violence and begin to provide for a political transition”.

The opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Council (SNC) “can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition,” Clinton said.

“They can be part of the opposition, but the opposition must include people from inside Syria and others.” Clinton also called for an opposition “leadership structure” to ensure that all Syrians are represented and protected, adding: “There has to be a representation of those who are on the front line fighting and dying today.” Earlier on Wednesday, Syrian opposition groups, including representatives from the SNC and leaders of the Free Syrian Army, called for a transitional government in exile to be formed to win greater political support from the international community.

But in Paris, Russia warned that the “bloodbath” in Syria would continue if the West stuck to its demand for Assad’s ouster.

“If the position of our partners remains the departure of this leader who they do not like, the bloodbath will continue,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after talks with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius.

Fabius also said France and Russia failed to bridge their differences over Assad’s role in any future transition government at a meeting in Paris.

$100bn Gulf railway plan set to shape economies

REUTERS

DUBAI A CENTURY after Lawrence of Arabia cut the Damascus- Medina railway, governments are embarking on plans to restore long-distance rail transport in the region and extend it across the Arabian Peninsula.

Official figures suggest around $100 billion may be spent by the end of this decade laying over 6,000 kilometres (3,750 miles) o f track for both national lines and a route linking all the states in the Gulf Cooperation Council: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain.

The governments face big technical challenges, such as making six national rail systems compatible and building on the shifting sands of remote deserts.

But success could have far-reaching effects on economies in the region, cutting their dependence on expensive road and air travel, boosting trade and even bringing the GCC closer together politically.

“It will undoubtedly transform the economies as any major piece of railway does,” said Keith Hampson, director of global rail transit at Aecom, a US-based transport planning firm.

“It opens up all sorts of trading relationships that probably otherwise would not have existed.” The Turkish-built Hejaz Railway to the Saudi city of Medina was never rebuilt in Saudi Arabia after Lawrence of Arabia’s raiding parties destroyed parts of it during World War I. Rail transport has been neglected in the Gulf since then; trade depends heavily on columns of smog-spewing trucks running along desert highways.

Currently, the only major rail systems operating in the GCC are a 60- year old freight and passenger link between Riyadh and the port of Dammam in Saudi Arabia, and Dubai’s metro.

But that is set to change dramatically as growing populations and countries’ desire to diversify their economies away from oil exports cause them to pour money into railway construction.

Saudi Arabia is building a 2,750 kilometre line from Riyadh to its northern border with Jordan, aiming to complete it in 2014.

Qatari banks gear up for core sector growth pie

REUTERS

DOHA QATARI banks are bulking up to play a role in funding the country’s massive infrastructure expansion. But in a country which is already overbanked by some measures, they may risk becoming too big.

Doha Bank, Qatar’s fifthlargest lender by market value and part-owned by the country’s sovereign wealth fund, announced plans in October to increase its share capital by 50 percent in the first quarter of next year, raising about $1.6 billion.

Other Qatari banks have tapped debt markets this year. Qatar Islamic Bank, the country’s largest Islamic lender, returned to the global debt market after a two-year absence with a $750 million sukuk sale earlier this month.

Qatar International Islamic Bank followed a week later, pricing its debut $700 million, fiveyear sukuk. Doha Bank also raised $500 million from a bond sale in March.

“For the infrastructure projects, local banks want to be in the game, and they will be given priority by the government,” said Robert Pramberger, acting head of asset management at The First Investor in Doha.

“They need to get the money from somewhere, and they’ll want it to be an equal combination of debt and equity.” An analyst with a Qatari bank, who declined to be named because of the commercial sensitivity of the subject, said he believed the central bank would want to make sure that local lenders took a large slice of the infrastructure business, rather than leaving it to foreign banks.

“There will be a huge incentive for local lenders to raise capital to meet the demand. Banks here are hoping to make quite a lot of money.

“I’m sure the central bank and other authorities are encouraging local banks to bolster their balance sheets, so that they can take advantage of project bonds and other opportunities.” The Qatari government has allocated 40 percent of its budget between now and 2016 to fund a string of mega-projects, including $5.5 billion for a deepwater seaport, $20 billion for roads and a $17.5 billion new airport.