Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Fiscal Pressures Lead Some States to Free Inmates Early

NEW YORK -- Reversing decades of tough-on-crime policies, including mandatory minimum prison sentences for some drug offenders, many cash-strapped states are embracing a view once dismissed as dangerously naive: It costs far less to let some felons go free than to keep them locked up.

It is a theory that has long been pushed by criminal justice advocates and liberal politicians -- that some felons, particularly those convicted of minor drug offenses, would be better served by treatment, parole or early release for good behavior. But the states' conversion to that view has less to do with a change of heart on crime than with stark fiscal realities. At a time of shrinking resources, prisons are eating up an increasing share of many state budgets.

"It's the fiscal stuff that's driving it," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that advocates for more lenient sentencing. "Do you want to build prisons or do you want to build colleges? If you're a governor, it's kind of come to that choice right now."

Mauer and other observers point to a number of recent actions, some from states facing huge budget shortfalls, some not, but still worried about exploding costs.

· To ease the overcrowding and save California about $1.1 billion over two years, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has proposed freeing about 22,000 prisoners convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual offenses 20 months earlier than their scheduled release dates. He also wants to place them on unsupervised parole, saving the state the cost of having all parolees assigned to an agent.

· Lawmakers in Providence, R.I., approved an expansion last week of the state's "good time" early-release rules to cover more inmates serving shorter sentences. The new rules, which will put more inmates under post-prison supervision, are expected to save Rhode Island an estimated $8 billion over five years.

· In Kentucky, where 22,000 state inmates are housed in county prisons and private facilities, lawmakers agreed to allow certain nonviolent, nonsexual offenders to serve up to 180 days of their sentences at home, and to make it easier for prisoners to earn credit for good behavior. The move could save the state, which is facing a $900 million deficit over the next two years, as much as $30 million.

· In Mississippi, where the prison population has doubled during the past dozen years to 22,600, Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has signed into law two measures that will reduce it: One to let certain nonviolent offenders go free after serving 25 percent of their sentences, and the other to release some terminally ill inmates.

· South Carolina, meanwhile, is looking to abolish parole, in part to slow the growth of its prison population since there would be fewer people returned to prison for parole violations.

Proposals to free prisoners are still met with opposition, particularly from law enforcement officials who fear that a flood of released felons could return to their communities, and from victims groups that worry that justice is being sacrificed for budgetary concerns.

The California plan has drawn criticism from the Legislative Analyst's Office, the state's nonpartisan fiscal adviser, which warned that 63,000 mid-level offenders would "effectively go unpunished, serving little or no prison time" and would not have active supervision.

The proposal also worries local governments and police in California, particularly in Los Angeles County -- home to the nation's largest prison system, which supplies about a third of the state's prison population. "It's kind of like the volcano has erupted," County Sheriff Lee Baca said. "To let out 63,000 prisoners on summary parole -- which means no parole -- is not good policy."

Bob Pack, 52, of Danville, Calif., is particularly disturbed by the prospect of softer punishment forthose convicted of drunken driving. In 2003, Pack's two children -- Troy, 10, and Alana, 7 -- were struck and killed when a drunk driver's car jumped a curb and ran onto a neighborhood sidewalk. The driver had three prior drunken-driving convictions.

Said Pack: "I guarantee you that if this program is fulfilled, somewhere down the road -- it could be three months or a year -- there's going to be a family in court over the death of a loved one, because of someone who got out early."

But for now, state officials are finding themselves under mounting pressure to cut costs and are looking at their rising prison population.

Between 1987 and last year, states increased their higher education spending by 21 percent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the Pew Center on the States. During the same period, spending on corrections jumped by 127 percent.

In the Northeastern states, according to the Pew report, prison spending over the past 20 years has risen 61 percent, while higher education spending has declined by 5.5 percent.

California -- which has the country's worst fiscal crisis, with a potential shortfall of $20 billion -- has seen its prison-related spending swell to $10.4 billion for the 2008-2009 fiscal year. About 170,000 inmates are packed into California's 33 prisons, which were designed to hold 100,000. About 15,000 prisoners are being housed in emergency beds, in converted classrooms and gymnasiums.

Rhode Island's prison population peaked and its 4,000-inmate prison capacity was exceeded in recent years, prompting a lawsuit and a court settlement. "The soaring inmate census has created a crisis here," said Ashbel T. Wall, the state's corrections director. "We've been busting the budget continuously. . . . Our prisons have been packed."

New Jersey is one state making changes out of a desire for more efficiency. Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) is proposing legislation to expand drug courts to channel more nonviolent, first-time drug offenders into treatment instead of prisons, and also to expand supervised parole. Another proposal would change the parole policy so parolees were not automatically returned to prison for minor drug offenses, said Lilo Stainton, the governor's spokeswoman.

She said that in New Jersey's case, the changes are not budget-driven. "We think this is a more humane and sensible way to treat people," she said.

Michigan is grappling with a massive prison population, mainly because "truth in sentencing" rules make the state less generous about granting paroles. Michigan's incarceration rate is 47 percent higher than that of the other Great Lakes states, according to experts.

Michigan has become one of the few states that actually spend more on prisons than on higher education -- about $2 billion for prisons, and $1.9 billion in state aid to its 15 public universities and 28 community colleges. "It's insane," said Barbara Levine of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending in Lansing. "The governor is always talking about how we need to be high tech. But these days, the best career opportunity is to get a job as a prison guard."

In fact, according to Thomas Clay, a prisons and budget expert with Michigan's nonprofit Citizens Research Council, the state government employed 70,000 people in 1980, including 5,000 working for the prisons system. Today, the number of state workers has dropped to 54,000, but 17,000 work for the prisons.

"You've got two decades of failed policies," said Laura Sager a consultant in Michigan for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She said mandatory sentencing laws and tough penalties for drug offenses in the 1980s "bloated prisons and prison populations, and the taxpayer is paying a very high price."

Now with states struggling with budget deficits, she said, "you have pressures that make it palatable to take a second look."

Surdin reported from Los Angeles.

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Failing Economy Predicts Worse Health

Health care in the U.S. is expensive. That much is plain to many Americans these days. But as the economy spirals downward, a series of recent reports forecasts that the country's health-care crisis is about to get worse, particularly for children.

A study conducted at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and released Saturday analyzed data on more than 15,000 children in Ohio, and found that kids who did not have continuous health insurance were 14 times less likely to have regular visits with a pediatrician than those who did. They were also three times less likely to fill prescriptions for necessary medication. "These unmet medical needs directly put a child's health at risk," says Gerry Fairbrother, a researcher on health policy at Cincinnati Children's.

In a second study, Fairbrother concluded that children who were covered by private insurance were over three times more likely than government-insured children to lose their coverage if a parent lost or quit a job. That's a scenario increasingly familiar to Americans. "Higher unemployment figures mean more and more families are ending up uninsured now," Fairbrother says. Moreover, she adds, they're not getting access to the public insurance to which they're entitled, because of budget cuts. "The federal government needs to fund its health-care programs in a way not so exposed to economic cycles."

That's not likely to happen any time soon. Leading health researchers at the Urban Institute on April 29 warned that each percentage-point rise in unemployment would result in an additional 1.1 million people losing health insurance; add that to the 47 million Americans who are currently uninsured. Virtually all of those newly uninsured will be forced to enroll in Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program, the government's primary low-income health plans. To support the growing registry, these health plans will need $3.4 billion in additional funding, at least $1.4 billion of which will have to come from state legislatures. But the extra money will be difficult to collect, as states' revenues and the economy continue to shrink. Nearly 30 states are already forecasting budget shortfalls for the coming year exceeding $39 billion. "Most states at this point simply can't afford to give any additional people health care," Fairbrother says.

More and more, workers can barely afford to keep it. In recent years, most people have seen larger chunks of their paychecks going to health-insurance premiums. Indeed, premiums have increased 10 times faster than incomes, according to a study released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation last Wednesday. In 2005, the average American family paid 30% more for health coverage than it did in 2001, while incomes rose only 3% in the same period. In dollar figures, that's a $2,500 price increase each year. What's more, the study found, the number of private companies offering health benefits to employees shrank by 30,000. "Providing insurance coverage takes a bigger bite from the family budget every year," says Robert Wood Johnson's CEO Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey.

It's a situation that has driven Americans to new extremes. Some 7% of people polled by the Kaiser Family Foundation in April reported that one member of their household got married to a health-insured person within the past year just to get a piece of the benefits. More commonly, however, families went without medical attention. Twenty-nine percent of people said they'd put off necessary care, 24% had delayed a medical test or treatment and 23% said a prescription had gone unfilled. But none of this is surprising when you consider that one in three people surveyed also said they or their family had had serious trouble paying for health care over the past year. "Many people view health and the economy as separate issues," says Kaiser CEO Drew E. Altman. "But the cost of health care is a significant pocketbook issue for many families."

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Welfare grows after decade of declines

WASHINGTON, May 5 (UPI) -- Tourist destinations like Florida and Nevada are beginning to see a rise in their welfare rolls after years of declines, state officials said.

"When the economy starts to tank, that's when our business starts growing," chief of eligibility for Nevada's welfare agency Jeff Brenn told USA Today.

"This is the first time that we've really seen several consecutive months of increase," Deputy Secretary of Florida's Department of Children and Families Don Winstead said. "People are having more difficulty finding jobs as the economy softens."

Twenty-seven states have reported increases in their welfare rolls in the last half of 2007, USA Today reported Monday.

"The safety net is still here," Kevin McGuire, executive director of Maryland's Family Investment Administration, told the newspaper. "We're probably going to see more business during the next year."

An economic slowdown also pushed welfare numbers in 2001, the report said. But the recent rise is a reversal of more than a decade of declines in welfare recipients.

In 1996, 12 million people were signed up for welfare in the United States. After new rules were adopted to force recipients to find jobs, the number dropped to 3.9 million adults.
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Yahoo shares fight to regain ground after open

This post was updated at 1:45 p.m. PDT with updated information following the market's close:

Yahoo's shares took a hammering early Monday morning. But by the market's close, a badly beaten, but not mortally wounded, Yahoo ended the day down 15 percent at $24.37 a share.

Microsoft closed out the session at $29.08, down 0.55 percent.

This blog was also updated at 9:50 a.m. PDT.:

Yahoo shares fought back some of their losses in late morning trading, reaching $24.70 a share, down 13.85 percent from Friday's close.

At the start of the session, the Internet search pioneer was down nearly 20 percent, and in premarket trading down 22 percent.

Microsoft's gains have been shrinking through the morning, leaving the software giant up 0.24 percent to $29.48 a share in late morning trading.

Since the opening bell, shares of Microsoft, which remain in positive territory, have been edging slowly south, while Yahoo, which plunged into the red following Redmond's withdrawal over the weekend of its unsolicited buyout bid, has been pushing upward. Whether this convergence is a sign investors believe the parties may lock horns again has yet to be seen.

"We believe that Microsoft's decision to walk away is driven by its desire to expose Yahoo management as apathetic to shareholder interests," Heath Terry, a Credit Suisse analyst, said in a report.

Needham analyst Mark May, meanwhile, anticipates Yahoo will make a move to appease its shareholders by announcing a "transformational partnership or transaction," such as a Google ad outsourcing deal.

"However, it remains unclear if this deal alone will enable Yahoo to hit the aggressive (2009 and 2010 financial) projections it recently set forth, and we believe some large Yahoo shareholders are unhappy with the prospect of outsourcing a meaningful portion of the company's strategic business," May stated in his report.

Yahoo kicked off at $23.02 per share as the markets opened Monday--down 19.7 percent from Friday's close. The Internet pioneer regained a bit of ground compared with its premarket price on Monday of $22.41.

On Saturday, Microsoft said the two companies could not overcome differences in opinion over the price of a potential acquisition. Microsoft was offering $33 a share; Yahoo wanted $37 per share. Yahoo's two largest institutional investors were willing to take $34 a share, according to a source familiar with their thinking.

Yahoo, prior to the bid's original announcement, had closed at $19.18 on January 31. Over the course of the three months since then, Yahoo's shares had traded as high as $30.25 and as low as $25.72.

Will it or won't it?
Wall Street has conflicting views on whether Microsoft will return to the negotiating table.

"We see the bid premium diminishing but not disappearing given...precedents for a thwarted bidder returning, such as Oracle/BEA," James Mitchell, a Goldman Sachs analyst, stated in a research note.

But Walter Pritchard, an analyst with Cowen & Co., doesn't believe Microsoft's decision to walk away was a negotiating tactic.

"Microsoft is far enough behind in (its online services business) that it needs to commit to a strategy, and waiting on a Yahoo acquisition simply puts the company further behind," Pritchard stated in a research report.

UBS analysts, meanwhile, believe that Microsoft still needs Yahoo and that a deal is still doable. But any chance for reigniting negotiations, they said, depends on whether Yahoo moves forward with its Google ad-outsourcing deal, as is expected midweek.

Microsoft shares creep up
Microsoft, meanwhile, opened at $29.95 per share on Monday, up 2.4 percent from Friday.

Shares in the software giant have been under pressure since Microsoft announced its buyout bid. Microsoft closed at $32.47 a share on January 31--the day before it announced its unsolicited bid. During the past three months, the stock had traded as high as $32.10 and as low as $26.87.

Microsoft, when it initially announced its buyout bid, had valued Yahoo at $31 a share. Last week, it raised the bid to $33 a share.

Pritchard predicted in his report that Microsoft stock will do well following the weekend's news. "We believe (Microsoft) shares can outperform the market by 10 percent over the next 12 months, although upside beyond this is likely capped due to worries of higher online services business spending coming," Pritchard wrote.

He added that instead of buying Yahoo, Microsoft would be better off acquiring "smaller but more innovative Internet companies" and taking an aggressive approach to signing advertising deals.

Microsoft, which had been relatively quiet on its plan B while its Yahoo quest was still alive, outlined a few of its options in a letter to its employees after the pullout.

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NASA employees big spenders on government credit

NASA employees have used government credit cards to ring up iPods, video games and even clothes from the agency's own gift shop, while at other times using the cards in ways that sidestep competitive bidding rules, federal documents and a Chronicle review of agency records show.

The review comes at a time when Congress is considering tightening purchase card regulations across government, after a federal report last month that found widespread abuse in government credit card programs, including charges that did not follow policies to prevent waste and fraud.

Internal investigations have for years uncovered similar problems within NASA, which has long been criticized for poor financial management, even as the agency has pleaded with Congress for billions of dollars to fuel new manned missions into space.

"We should be outraged. Everybody should be," said U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Stafford, whose district includes Johnson Space Center. "Clearly we have not done enough."

The Houston Chronicle analyzed 451,000 charges, totaling more than $265 million, made on NASA purchase cards between January 2004 and July 2007. The newspaper also reviewed audits, internal reports and other documents related to card use. Among the findings:

•NASA employees have made numerous charges for seemingly personal items, including custom-engraved iPods and a Christmas tree. About $270 worth of T-shirts and hats purchased from a NASA gift shop were justified by one cardholder as "safety attire," and one former civil servant pleaded guilty to embezzlement charges last year after spending more than $157,000 on things including jewelry, electronics and an air conditioner for her home.
•When doing NASA business, most cardholders are allowed to spend only $3,000 per transaction, but many exceeded that limit by splitting more expensive purchases into smaller chunks. Some purchases were so large that they may have violated federal competitive bidding rules.
•NASA auditors have pointed out purchase card abuses in no fewer than five internal reports since 1997.
Space agency procurement officials said they are aware the purchase card program, with its massive volume of transactions, has at times fallen victim to waste and fraud.

More than 3,200 NASA employees used a purchase card at some point between 2004 and mid-2007, agency data show. Charges made on the cards are reviewed and paid directly by the government, not as reimbursements to the cardholder.

Some disciplinary action

At least 160 cases of card abuse were referred to NASA investigators during fiscal years 2007 and 2008, with 25 resulting in disciplinary action.

Bill McNally, the space agency's assistant administrator for procurement, said NASA intends to review its card policies by mid-summer in response to a recent White House memo instructing agencies to cinch up internal controls over purchase card programs.

"We are always looking at ways to improve our processes and procedures," McNally said. "Unfortunately, if people try to get around those, (abuse) can happen."

Credit card misuse is not unique to the space agency. The Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, reported last month that employees across government spent extensively on apparently personal transactions during 2005 and 2006.

Lawmakers were quick to decry the waste.

Lampson, who has crusaded to increase federal funding for NASA, characterized improper spending as an affront to the majority of space agency employees and called for harsh punishments.

"The fact that there are a few bad eggs ... doesn't mean the agency is not worthwhile," said Lampson, who sits on the space and aeronautics subcommittee that oversees NASA. "We let (violators) off. There needs to be jail time."

One of the most blatant cases of abuse occurred at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where a former employee pleaded guilty to embezzlement charges and went to federal prison last year after a $157,000 spending spree was uncovered by NASA investigators.

Court documents show that the employee, Elizabeth Ann Osborne, used her purchase card to ring up thousands in personal items including clothing, jewelry and electronics between 2001 and 2005.

Among other purchases, she spent $2,000 to install a new air conditioner at her Florida home, more than $51,000 on Wal-Mart gift cards and groceries and at least $13,000 on electronics from Best Buy.

The NASA records provided to the Chronicle do not explain justifications for the purchases, or even the specific items bought. Most of the transactions were made to vendors that appear to sell legitimate business items.

Other transactions, though not necessarily inappropriate, ranged from the curious to the bizarre, including thousands spent at hunting and fishing retailers, paintball courses, pet stores, video gaming services and Web sites that sell karate gear.

At times, the records show even apparently legitimate charges have run afoul of requirements to bid high-dollar projects competitively.

Federal employees are allowed to use their cards only for what the government considers small purchases. Until September 2006, the limit was $2,500; now the cap is $3,000. Larger purchases are supposed to be shopped around to ensure taxpayers are getting the best deal.

However, the Chronicle found about 4,600 cases, totaling nearly $20 million, in which a NASA employee exceeded those limits by swiping their card multiple times for the same company on a single day.

Although most of those purchases appear to be with vendors that likely do legitimate NASA business, outside experts say that splitting charges may result in unnecessarily high bills to taxpayers.

Avoiding competitive bids?

Among the transactions questioned by NASA investigators last year were 393 charges to a graphics support vendor totaling more than $235,000 — so much money that not bidding the purchases competitively may have been illegal, documents show.

"That should send up a red flag," said Scott Amey, general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog organization. "You have to ask: Is somebody trying to get around competitive requirements?"

NASA officials contend that purchase cards save the agency millions. By allowing approved employees to make their own small purchases without going through red tape, the agency can be more productive, McNally said. Along with card benefits such as rebates, NASA estimates it saved more than $8 million last year.

"It's not as loose as people make it out to be," said Fred Lees, a George Washington University federal contract law professor who worked for NASA until the mid-1980s. "Once (cardholders) get trained and educated, they won't be doing things like that."

Bill would strengthen rules

Still, studies of card use at NASA have revealed problems for more than a decade. One internal audit in 2003 recommended nine changes to the purchase card program — most of which advocated further training and reviews of cardholders but stopped short of calling for further discipline.

A follow-up audit in 2007 found that, although those recommendations ensured cardholders were trained and their purchases reviewed, they did little to prevent them from buying inappropriate items.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, would require agencies to establish safeguards and punishments designed to prevent waste in government credit card programs. It passed through committee last month and awaits approval by the Senate.

Days after last month's Congressional report on card abuse, Lampson signed on as a co-sponsor to a companion bill in the House. Local Reps. John Culberson, Michael McCaul and Ron Paul, all Republicans, are also co-sponsoring the measure.

"We don't have adequate strengths within the (card) program to hold people accountable," Lampson said.

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CCTV boom has not cut crime, says police chief

Cameras on Tower Bridge Road, London

(Ben Gurr)

Billions of pounds spent on Britain’s 4.2 million closed-circuit television cameras has not had a significant impact on crime, according to the senior police officer piloting a new database.

Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville said it was a “fiasco” that only 3 per cent of street robberies in London were solved using CCTV.

Mr Neville, who heads the Visual Images, Identifications and Detections Office (Viido) unit, told the Security Document World Conference that the use of CCTV images as evidence in court has been very poor.

“Billions of pounds have been spent on kit, but no thought has gone into how the police are going to use the images and how they will be used in court,” he told the conference.

“It’s been an utter fiasco: only 3 per cent of crimes were solved by CCTV. Why don’t people fear it? [They think] the cameras are not working.”

The aim of the Viido unit is to improve the way that CCTV footage is processed, turning it into a third forensic specialism alongside DNA analysis and fingerprinting.

Britain has more CCTV cameras than any other country in Europe. But Mr Neville is reported in The Guardian as saying that more training was needed for officers who often avoided trawling through CCTV images “because it’s hard work”.

Viido had launched a series of initiatives including a new database of images that will be used to track and identify offenders using software developed for the advertising industry. This works by following distinctive brand logos on the clothing of unidentified suspects. By backtracking through images officers have often found earlier pictures of suspects where they have not been hiding their features.

Mr Neville said that Viido would be publishing pictures of suspects in mugging, rape and robbery cases on the internet from next month and building a national CCTV database that will hold images of convicted criminals and unidentified suspects.

Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, said: “We would expect adequate safeguards to be put in place to ensure the images are used only for crime detection purposes, stored securely and that access to images is restricted to authorised individuals. We would have concerns if CCTV images of individuals going about their daily lives were retained.”

Original here

Somalia forces 'out of control'

Somali policemen
Amnesty blames all sides for the violence

Civilians are completely at the mercy of armed groups in Somalia, says human rights group Amnesty International.

It says the situation is "dire" in the centre and the south with government troops, their Ethiopian allies and Islamist insurgents "out of control".

They carry out killings, torture, rape, beatings, arbitrary detention and forced disappearances, a report says.

The Ethiopian government has dismissed the report as a "total fabrication" and demanded an apology.

"We have said repeatedly that our soldiers are the most disciplined soldiers in the world," said foreign ministry spokesman Wahide Belaye.

"They have never cut anybody's throat, never gang-raped any women, never deliberately shot civilians in Somalia."

In Mogadishu, hundreds of people have stormed through the Bakara market area, hurling stones at cars and shops and setting fire to tyres in protest at rising food prices and fake currency.

Troops shot two people dead on Monday in similar protests.

People who have visited the capital, Mogadishu, recently say parts of it are a ghost town, but Amnesty says residents fleeing the city are prey for armed bandits on the road who rape women and girls and steal whatever they have taken with them.

A young child's throat was slit by Ethiopian soldiers in front of the child's mother
Amnesty report

Even in refugee camps, Somalis face attack, Amnesty says. It says no-one is offering them any protection.

The group says more than 6,000 civilians have been killed in Somalia in the past year.

Many of the accounts blamed Ethiopian troops for some of the worst violations - which appeared to be revenge for insurgent attacks, Amnesty says.

"Nothing justifies gang rape, slitting the throats of civilians or disproportionate attacks," Amnesty's Michelle Kagari told the BBC.

In one case, "a young child's throat was slit by Ethiopian soldiers in front of the child's mother," the report says.

But this was strongly denied by the Ethiopian government, which says "the cutting of throats of even enemies is not in the tradition of Ethiopian troops".

'Eyes gouged out'

In another incident, the report quotes Haboon, 56, saying Ethiopian troops raped a neighbour's 17-year-old daughter in 2007.

When the girl's two brothers tried to help her, Ethiopian soldiers gouged out their eyes with a bayonet, she said.

The Ethiopian and Somali governments say they are fighting al-Qaeda-backed militants.

They frequently use road-side bombs to target troops from the two armies.

Last week, Aden Hashi Ayro, a senior commander of the militant group al-Shabab, was killed in a US air-strike.

Amnesty calls on the UN to condemn the violations in the strongest terms, strengthen its weapons embargo, increase its monitoring capacity, and set up a commission of inquiry.


At least two people were shot dead in the capital, Mogadishu, on Monday when troops opened fire to halt riots over rising costs and counterfeit money.

Thousands of people rioted, burning tyres and throwing stones after traders refused to accept local notes and demanded US dollars instead.

The recent printing of local shilling notes on illegal presses has led to spiralling inflation, reporters say.

This and the increasing insecurity have seen food prices double.


Somali troops kill two during riots

Somalia has been without a central government for more than 17 years and for the past 17 months, the Ethiopian-backed interim government has been struggling to exert its control over the country.

The United Nations reports that soaring food prices have already forced more than a third of all Somalis to rely on outside assistance to feed their families.

Last week, the UN Food Security Analysis Unit warned that the country was facing a major famine caused by a prolonged drought and the soaring food prices.

It said that half of the population would need food aid by the end of the year and that hyperinflation, the devaluation of the Somali shilling and the relentless armed conflict were making it more and more difficult for the urban poor to get enough to eat.

Original here

Myanmar: Death toll more than 15,000

YANGON, Myanmar (CNN) -- The death toll from the Myanmar cyclone is more than 15,000 people, Myanmar's government has said, with at least 10,000 killed in the township of Bogalay alone, according to the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua.

People in Yangon queue for drinking water.

Survivors were facing their third night without electricity in the aftermath of the historic cyclone that also clogged roads with thousands of downed trees.

Diplomats were summoned to a government briefing Monday as the reclusive southeast Asian country's ruling military junta issued a rare appeal for international assistance in the face of an escalating humanitarian crisis.

A state of emergency was declared across much of the country following the 10-hour storm that left swathes of destruction in its wake.

The death toll of more than 15,000, official sources told Xinhua, makes the weekend cyclone the deadliest natural disaster to hit Myanmar in recent history, according to figures compiled by a U.N.-funded disaster database.

The toll eclipses that from a 1926 wind storm the killed about 2,700 people in the country, according to the database.

The government of neighboring Thailand said Myanmar's leaders had already requested food, medical supplies and construction equipment, AP reported. The first plane-load of supplies was due to arrive Tuesday, a Thai spokesman said.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement he was "deeply saddened by the loss of life and the destruction suffered by the people of Myanmar" and pledged to mobilize international aid and assistance as needed.

A United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination team is on stand-by to assist the government in responding to humanitarian needs if required, the statement said.

Scenes of the destruction showed extensive flooding, boats on their sides in Yangon harbor, roofs ripped off buildings, uprooted trees and downed power lines after cyclone Nargis battered the Irrawaddy delta with 150 mile (240 km/h) an hour winds throughout Friday night and Saturday morning, dumping 20 inches of rain. Video Watch how the cyclone crippled Yangon »

Residents of Yangon trudged through knee-deep swirling brown waters Monday as the delta city remained mostly without electricity and phone connections.

The U.S. Embassy in Myanmar has issued a "disaster declaration" in the country and authorized the release of $250,000 for cyclone relief efforts, Deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Monday.

A disaster relief team is standing by, Casey said, but the Myanmar government had not given permission for the team to enter the country.

U.S. first lady Laura Bush blasted the military government, saying the lack of warning before the deadly cyclone hit was the latest example of "the junta's failure to meet its people's basic needs."

Hakan Tongkul, with the United Nation's World Food Programme, said residents in Yangon needed urgent assistance. "This has pushed people to the edge. All that they have has been blown away." Video Watch the cyclone hammer Yangon »

Michael Annear, regional disaster manger for the Red Cross, said the group was helping provide safe drinking water.

Relief agencies met at the United Nations' Bangkok headquarters Monday to coordinate their response to the disaster. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it had released 200,000 Swiss Francs (about $190,000) to help with the aftermath.

A state of emergency was declared Sunday across five regions: the city of Yangon, Irrawaddy, Pegu and the states of Karen and Mon. All flights to Yangon, the former capital, were canceled.

"Most Burmese with whom we've been in touch report they lost their roofs, although so far everyone we have been able to contact reports that they and their families are safe," said a Yangon-based diplomat who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. Photo See photos of the destruction »

Most telephone and cell phone service was down in Yangon, a city of about 6.5 million people, according to Dan Rivers, a CNN correspondent in the country.

In some places, the price of fuel had quadrupled to $10 a gallon. Even with that price lines for gas stretched around the block and some sought to buy gas on the black market.

The main water supply has been cut in many areas and power lines are down, Rivers reported.

Earlier Monday, an editor for an independent Myanmar newspaper based in Thailand told CNN that people in the Southeast Asian nation were angry over the response to the disaster by the ruling military junta.

"People are very angry with the slow response coming from the military government," said Aung Zaw of Irrawaddy news magazine. Video Listen to Irrawaddy journalist discuss the situation in Myanmar »

Khin Maung Win, a spokesman for the Democratic Voice of Burma -- a broadcast media group run by opposition expatriates -- said the whole of the delta region had been affected and entire villages had disappeared.

Pictures from inside the country showed a cyclone-ravaged region with tin huts crushed under trees. Bicyclists navigated around large branches that littered the deserted roads.

A man with his pant legs rolled up waded through knee-deep water and strained to clear massive limbs that were blocking the entrance to a house.

Despite widespread damage, Myanmar's junta plans to proceed with a referendum on the country's constitution on May 10 -- the fourth step of a "seven-step road map to democracy" -- according to state-run media reports. Learn more about Myanmar »

A critic of Myanmar's government said the referendum must be postponed.

"They would be very stupid to go ahead with it," said Khin Maung Win with Democratic Voice of Burma, a broadcast media group run by opposition expatriates. "Thousands of people are dying or missing. It is very difficult to get around or get food and water. How can people vote?"

Myanmar, formerly called Burma, last held multi-party elections in 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy handily won. The military junta ignored the results. Suu Kyi, who is currently under house arrest, has been in detention without trial for more than 12 of the past 18 years.
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An Enemy on the Run

A Marine from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit fires on Taliban positions in Afghanistan's Helmand province Friday.
A Marine from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit fires on Taliban positions in Afghanistan's Helmand province Friday. (By David Guttenfelder -- Associated Press)

JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- The most interesting discovery during a visit to this city where Osama bin Laden planted his flag in 1996 is that al-Qaeda seems to have all but disappeared. The group is on the run, too, in Iraq, and that raises some interesting questions about how to pursue this terrorist enemy.

"Al-Qaeda is not a topic of conversation here," says Col. Mark Johnstone, the deputy commander of Task Force Bayonet, which oversees four provinces surrounding Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. Lt. Col. Pete Benchoff agrees: "We're not seeing a lot of al-Qaeda fighters. They've shifted here to facilitation and support."

You hear the same story farther north from the officers who oversee the provinces along the Pakistan border. A survey conducted last November and December in Nuristan, once an al-Qaeda stronghold, found that the group barely registered as a security concern among the population.

The enemy in these eastern provinces is a loose amalgam of insurgent groups, mostly linked to traditional warlords. It's not the Taliban, much less al-Qaeda. "I don't use the word 'Taliban,' " says Alison Blosser, a State Department political adviser to the military commanders here in the sector known as Regional Command East. "In RC East we have a number of disparate groups. Command and control are not linked up. The young men will fight for whoever is paying the highest rate."

The picture appears much the same in RC South, where British and Canadian troops have faced some of the toughest battles of the war. Members of the British-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand province describe an insurgency that is tied to the opium mafia -- hardly a bastion of Islamic fundamentalism.

Traveling to the British headquarters in Lashkar Gah in a low-flying Lynx helicopter, you fly over mile after mile of poppy fields -- and hundreds of Afghan men in turbans and baggy trousers out harvesting the resin that will be turned into opium. British military officers and diplomats describe the core problems in their sector as bad governance, corruption and lack of economic development, not a resurgent al-Qaeda or Taliban.

Terrorist attacks such as last week's assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai demonstrate that insurgents are still able to create havoc. Indeed, the statistics gathered by the NATO-led coalition show that civilian and military casualties are up this year. That instability undermines the good work of the development projects. But commanders say it's spasmodic violence, rather than a sustained and coordinated campaign by a tightly knit al-Qaeda.

Traveling in Iraq this year, I've heard similar accounts of al-Qaeda's demise there. That stems from two factors: the revolt by Sunni tribal leaders against al-Qaeda's brutal intimidation and the relentless hunt for its operatives by U.S. Special Forces. As the flow of human and technical intelligence improves and the United States learns to fuse it for quick use by soldiers on the ground, the anti-terrorist rollback accelerates.

The al-Qaeda menace hasn't disappeared, but it has moved -- to Pakistan. The latest State Department terrorism report, issued last week, says the group "has reconstituted some of its pre-9/11 operational capabilities through the exploitation of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas."

This evidence from the field suggests two conclusions:

First, al-Qaeda isn't a permanent boogeyman; it's losing ground in Iraq and Afghanistan because of U.S. counterinsurgency tactics, especially the alliances we have built with tribal leaders and the aggressive use of Special Forces to capture or kill its operatives. These anti-terrorist operations require special skills -- but they shouldn't require a big, semi-permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq or Afghanistan. Local security forces can handle a growing share of responsibility -- perhaps ineptly, as in Basra a few weeks ago or in Kabul last weekend, but that's their problem.

Second, the essential mission in combating al-Qaeda now is to adopt in Pakistan the tactics that are working in Iraq and Afghanistan. This means alliances with tribal warlords to bring economic development to the isolated mountain valleys of the FATA region in exchange for their help in security. And it means joint operations involving U.S. and Pakistani special forces to chase al-Qaeda militants as they retreat deeper into the mountains.

The solution isn't to send a large number of U.S. soldiers into Pakistan -- indeed, that could actually make the situation worse -- but to send the right ones, with the right skills.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address

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Three German Infants Found Dead In Freezer

Police officers stand in front of a house in Wenden, Germany, on Monday, May 5, 2008 after the bodies of three German infants were found stuffed in a basement freezer and their mother was arrested, a prosecutor's spokesman said Monday. (AP Photo/Hermann J. Knippertz)

(AP) German police arrested the mother of three infants whose bodies were found stuffed into a basement freezer, a prosecutor's spokesman said Monday.

Johannes Daheim said police have determined the three infants had not been stillborn but did not say how old they were or what the cause of death was. He said the bodies were found Sunday night after police received a tip and searched the home in Wenden in North Rhine-Westphalia.

The woman, whose name was not released, was taken into custody on suspicion that she killed the children. Police said they planned to hold a news conference about the case later Monday.

There have been a number of similar cases in Germany.

In February, police were called to a home in northern Germany where a dead infant was discovered in the cellar.

In January, a 28-year-old German woman was charged with manslaughter after the remains of three babies were discovered in her house and the home of a relative. That woman has denied killing the three babies.

Another woman was convicted of manslaughter in 2006 for killing eight of her babies in eastern Germany.

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Kraken Botnet Infiltration Triggers Ethics Debate

Not news in America - American envoy assaulted in Israel

It is interesting that we have all the news about Britney, Lindsay, and of course, the latest on what the publicity hound Rev. Wright has just said which can be replayed for hours and hours, analyzed, dissected and discussed endlessly by serious looking idiots errr... pundits.

So, lets see how the peace negotiations are going in Israel. We sent an envoy there don't you know (I bet you don't... sad, but realistic).

The American bodyguards of a Bush administration envoy who was dispatched to the region to monitor the implementation of the road map engaged in a violent confrontation with right-wing Israelis who sought to disturb a visit to Hebron on Friday, Israel Radio reported.

One of the rightists is reported to have driven his jeep into the convoy accompanying General William Fraser. Subsequently, one of the vehicles in the convoy heavily collided with the jeep, according to Israel Radio.

Re-read the last paragraph. A crazed settler drove a jeep into the American envoy's convoy, violently colliding with a car.

Now, a standard procedure in a situation like that is to:
1) avoid the incoming car and
2) open fire on it, to disable it

Because a speeding car which is driving straight towards you, in the Middle East, almost certainly can mean a suicide bomber.

Now, imagine for a second what would happen if an American envoy was in Hamas controlled territory, and a crazed Arab guy drove a jeep into one of the diplomatic convoy's cars.

The bodyguards would probably open fire immediately, killing the driver and making a shishka-bob out of the car, while the cars of the convoy themselves swerved and drove away at full speed - after all, who knows if there isn't a bomb in that car?

But most importantly, whatever would happen during the incident, you can be sure that the US TV "news" would be informing about this incident 24/7, the pundits would discuss the incident endlessly, while calling Hamas a terrorist organization that has no control over the territory it polices.

But the incident happened in Israel, and involved a bunch of Israeli settlers, so - no TV reports. No outrage. Nothing happened at all, according to the TV news - focus on Rev. Wright, that's what Americans need to see!

A fracas ensued between the guards and the rightists before the Americans decided to cut the visit short, Israel Radio reported.

A fracas? Does that mean that the settlers engaged the bodyguards in hand to hand combat or a shoving match? Why didn't the bodyguards use their guns and/or tasers?

And where the hell was the Israeli police/Army anyway?

Keep in mind, the incident was serious enough so that the American envoy cut his mission to Israel and run back to the USA.

So what will happen now?
Well, the incident will NOT be reported on American TV "news", instead we will get the smiling mug of Rev. Wright - again, for 20th night in a row.

Israel will get its $5+ billion "aid" money this year, as it gets it every single year.

And, while before, in the days of the Liberty Incident, Israel at least apologized to America when it did an outrage towards this country, these days don't expect this. Israel will simply ignore this and pretend nothing happened - it's not like our president or our Congress people will ask Israel about this incident, much less nicely ask Israel to explain things, or perhaps ask it to apologize for assaulting an American envoy...

No, the last one is pure science fiction - which American politician would even dare to utter under his breath something along the lines of "Perhaps we should ask Israel to explain the incident which just happened, when the American peace envoy was attacked by Israeli citizens. We need answers, and we need an official apology from Israel for this disgraceful behaviour!".

Well, any politician who would say something like that would be labeled by the TV pundits an anti-semite, as clearly going overboard, overreacting and criticizing our greatest friend and ally in the world, and the AIPAC and the rest of the pro-Israel Lobby in the USA would mark him and give moneys to his opponent during his next election.

I wonder how the professional pro-Israel apologists will try to spin this one, as they bury the story in digital media.
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Pakistan's 'Gandhi' party takes on Taliban, Al Qaeda

Activists of Awami National Party (ANP) chanted slogans during a May Day rally on May 1. The ANP espouses a nonviolent approach to tackling extremism.

Athar Hussain/Reuters

In following the will of its people by attempting to find a negotiated solution to mounting extremism, the new Pakistani government is wading against American skepticism, the lessons of the recent past, and – some suggest – its own military establishment.

Early indications, however, point to the enormousness of the task facing Pakistan's new ruling coalition. The US is likely to increase pressure after a major State Department report last week concluded that Al Qaeda has rebuilt some of its pre-9/11 capabilities from havens in Pakistan's contested border region with Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda and Taliban militants have the upper hand in these Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the region's colonial-era rules limit the new government's authority.

The job of overcoming these obstacles has largely fallen to the overlooked member of Pakistan's new ruling coalition, the Awami National Party (ANP). As Pashtuns, the ANP can talk to the Taliban as ethnic brothers. Yet as disciples of the nonviolence espoused by its late founder, Abdul Ghaffar Khan – the so-called "Frontier Gandhi" and follower of the Mahatma – the ANP is uniquely qualified to attempt peacemaking.

Whether it succeeds could determine whether Pakistan finds the peaceful resolution that a majority of its people so desire or descends back into war.

"The responsibility for a deal lies with the ANP because of the ANP being Pashtun and because they have been very critical of the way the war on terror has been conducted," says Rasul Baksh Rais, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Facing opposition to cease-fires

The ANP is a minor partner in the national parliament, but it leads the ruling coalition in the strategically vital North West Frontier Province. Adjacent to the central battleground of FATA, the province is the front line against the Talibanization of Pakistan. Rising militancy in FATA has spilled into it with bombings against barbers who trim beards and owners of DVD shops – both Taliban taboos.

Already, the ANP-led government in the North West Frontier Province has had to withstand global criticism for its new, conciliatory tack – such as last week's release of Sufi Mohammed, a pro-Taliban hard-liner, from jail.

The US has warned against negotiations, saying they lead only to toothless cease-fires that have allowed militants time and space to tighten their grip on territory. Indeed, the State Department's annual terrorism report released last week suggested that suicide attacks in Pakistan more than doubled to 887 last year because terrorists were able to regroup during a 2006 cease-fire.

For this reason, a new potential cease-fire with militants in FATA, reported last week but apparently abandoned, raised deep concern in Washington.

"It's important that any agreement be effectively enforced and that it not interrupt any operations where we are going after terrorists in that area," said White House press secretary Dana Perino.

The White House was right to be worried, some experts agree. "The government is negotiating from a position of weakness," says Seth Jones, an analyst at RAND Corp., a security consultancy in Arlington, Va. "There should be no illusions – these [militant] groups are trying to strengthen their position."

But others see another dynamic at work in the scrapped cease-fire, too.

"The military is out to save itself," says Ahmed Rashid, author of "Taliban," a book considered one of the most insightful looks into the group.

He suggests that the failed deal was not the fault of the new government, but of the Army, which wields great influence in FATA, because it is controlled federally. The deal was essentially a capitulation to militants, Mr. Rashid adds, because the Army wants to get out of an unpopular campaign.

The military denies this, saying it is not in any direct negotiations with the Taliban. "The government officials are negotiating with them through interlocutors," says Maj. Gen. Atthar Abbas, an Army spokesman.

Yet due to the peculiar rules governing FATA, the Army does have more of a voice there. In the North West Frontier Province, the only government negotiators are new lawmakers. In FATA, however, talks are being supervised by a governor appointed by President Musharraf, and the regional Army corps commander, in addition to federal lawmakers, says Rahim Dad Khan, a member of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), an ANP ally.

ANP pushes for more accountability

The ANP, for its part, wants to bring more accountability to negotiations by putting all the facts before the people. Past negotiations under the military-led government were never made public, says Sen. Zahid Khan of the ANP. So when agreements inevitably fell apart amid accusations and counteraccusations, no one knew who was right.

"We'll make all the developments in the talks public so as the masses can judge who is backing out of his words," he says. "The party going against the agreement would have to take the ire of the masses."

In this way, negotiations can serve a strategic purpose. Defense analyst Ikram Sehgal says there are many natural points of disagreement between Pashtun tribals and foreign terrorists, such as the tactic of suicide bombing.

"Terrorist ideology is completely anathema to tribal ideology," he says. "The whole idea is to drive a wedge between the tribals and the terrorists."

Yet Rashid and others say that to ultimately succeed, the government must have a policy beyond just talks – or bullets, for that matter. The government of North West Frontier Province has drawn a $4 billion development plan designed to spread the authority of the government through new counsels and government positions. But it must address the root causes of the tribal belt's problems – the economic backwardness and political isolation that have made the area a haven for militants, analysts add.

"They have to offer some strategic vision," says Rashid. "[The terrorists] want sharia. What are you offering?"

• A contributor from Karachi, Pakistan, and Ghulam Dastageer from Peshawar supplied material.
Original here

Hotels, shops, condos planned for Green Zone

BAGHDAD — Forget the rocket attacks, concrete blast walls and lack of a sewer system. Now try to imagine luxury hotels, a shopping center and even condos in the heart of Baghdad.

That’s all part of a five-year development “dream list” — or what some dub an improbable fantasy — to transform the U.S.-protected Green Zone from a walled fortress into a centerpiece for Baghdad’s future.

But the $5 billion plan has the backing of the Pentagon and apparently the interest of some deep pockets in the world of international hotels and development, the lead military liaison for the project told The Associated Press.

For Washington, the driving motivation is to create a “zone of influence” around the new $700 million U.S. Embassy to serve as a kind of high-end buffer for the compound, whose total price tag will reach about $1 billion after all the workers and offices are relocated over the next year.

“When you have $1 billion hanging out there and 1,000 employees lying around, you kind of want to know who your neighbors are. You want to influence what happens in your neighborhood over time,” said Navy Capt. Thomas Karnowski, who led the team that created the development plan.

Karnowski said a deal already has been completed for Marriott International Inc. to build a hotel in the Green Zone. He also said a possible $1 billion investment could come from MBI International, a conglomerate that focuses on hotels and resorts and is led by Saudi Sheikh Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber.

Elizabeth Caminiti, a Marriott spokeswoman, declined to comment. Phone calls and e-mails sent to London-based MBI were not returned.

For the moment, however, it’s mortars and rockets — not investment money — pouring into the Green Zone, which includes the U.S. and British embassies, key Iraqi government offices and other international compounds. Militants have escalated their shelling of the enclave since Iraqi forces began a crackdown on Shiite militias in late March.

But developers are clearly looking many years ahead and gambling that Baghdad could one day join the list of former war zones such as Sarajevo and Beirut that have rebounded and earned big paydays for early investors.

Even now — with violence in Baghdad again creeping up — the faint hints of the development plan have driven up the Green Zone’s already sky-high real estate prices.

Land that a few years ago was going for $60 a square meter on 50-year leases in the zone is now going for up to $1,000 a square meter, American officials say.

Last week, a Los Angeles-based holding company for equity firms, C3, confirmed it was starting a $500 million project to build an amusement park on the outskirts of the Green Zone in an area encompassing the Baghdad Zoo. The first phase, a skateboard park, is scheduled to open this summer.

But any Green Zone project is literally starting from the ground up.

“There is no sewer system, no working power system. Everything here is done on generators. No road system repair work. There are no city services other than the minimal amount we provide to get by,” Karnowski said.

He noted that of 500 development projects carried out in Baghdad last year, not one was done in the Green Zone — with the exception of the building of the new American embassy.

The plan also envisions significantly reducing the non-Iraqi footprint in the Green Zone, a five-square-mile area crisscrossed by 15-foot-high blast walls and checkpoints.

About 50 percent of the area is now occupied by coalition forces, the U.S. State Department or private foreign companies. If all were to go according to Karnowski’s plan, only 5 percent of land in the Green Zone will be in foreigners’ hands in five years.

Privately, American diplomats say the plan is, at best, wishful thinking.

Security is nowhere near the level needed for major development projects. Then there is the question of whether the Iraqi government even wants U.S. involvement in developing the center of their capital.

One diplomat, who asked not to be named because of no authorization to speak to the media, said they did not think Iraqis would want Washington to “turn this area into downtown Kansas City.”

But Both Karnowski and Iraqi officials said the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is interested in hearing U.S. ideas in developing the Green Zone, though many Iraqi leaders have expressed worries and words of caution.

“The Iraqi government wants to limit U.S. power in the Green Zone,” a top adviser to al-Maliki said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Iraqis also complain that the Americans — because they control security in the Green Zone — essentially hold a veto over the investors.

Karnowski acknowledged that American officials would vet potential investors because of a “vested interest.”

Some Iraqi leaders even have drawn parallels to the U.S.-backed development plan and what Saddam Hussein did in the area — known by its Iraqi name of Tashri during his regime.

Hussein stocked the neighborhood with family and tribal allies, political loyalists and members of his elite Republican Guard. Karnowski called the accusation “partially true.”

“Why do people build fences around their house? The intent is until such time as it’s much safer around here, you want to be able to influence what goes on,” he said.

The biggest hurdle to the plan is sorting out the true owners of property in the Green Zone, where “eminent domain by gun” was employed during the Saddam era, Karnowski said.

The chaos after Saddam’s fall also added the murkiness.

“It’s a jungle here,” said Hussein, a 28-year-old from Lebanon who started a contracting company about a year ago in Baghdad and rents out living space in the Green Zone on the side. “It used to be like the Wild West — you grabbed some property and said, ‘this is mine.”

Air Force Lt. Col. Monte Harner leads the effort to discover who owns the titles and consolidate the areas held by the U.S. military.

He said the Army plans to move a military hospital in the zone — now located in a former private medical facility — to a base nearby, freeing it up for Iraqi use. Also in the works is the consolidation of Green Zone housing used by American troops.

Sadiq al-Rikabi, a top adviser to al-Maliki, said there are also plans for development projects at the Baghdad airport west of the city, including a hotel.

American officials confirmed some projects would be carried out near the airport.

According to Karnowski, the United States will spend $120 million to demolish buildings damaged by air strikes during the opening days of the war.

Both Karnowski and Harner are aware their Green Zone plan is viewed as unrealistic by many, primarily U.S. Embassy officials.

“If you talk to people at the State Department, they still believe a hotel isn’t going up. But it is a done deal,” Karnowski said of the Marriott project.

Harner also believes even having a blueprint is important.

“You have to stake a goal in the sand before you can begin to move toward it,” he said. “Without a vision of what could be, you’re just treading water.”

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Canada's age of consent raised by 2 years

It is now illegal for adults in Canada to have sex with a partner under the age of 16, one of the new provisions of the Tories' violent crime law that came into effect on Thursday.

The Tackling Violent Crime Act raises the legal age of sexual consent in Canada to 16 from 14, the first time it has been raised since 1892.

But the law includes a "close-in-age exception," meaning 14- and 15-year-olds can have sex with someone who is less than five years older.

The Tories said they raised the age, in part, to deal with internet predators. The new law puts Canada's age of consent in line with those in Britain, Australia and most of the United States.

Gun crime punishment increased

The act also includes higher mandatory prison sentences for those committing serious gun crimes.

Those convicted of using a gun while committing a violent crime such as attempted murder, aggravated sexual assault and kidnapping will be automatically sentenced to five years for a first offence and seven years for a second offence.

As well, those accused of gun crimes will find it tougher to get bail. The new law places "reverse onus" bail conditions on those accused of gun crimes.

Previously, the Crown had to prove to a judge that those accused of gun crimes should be detained. The new legislation now requires the accused to prove to a judge why they should be released from jail while awaiting trial.

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Smarter electric grid could be key to saving power

The glowing amber dot on a light switch in the entryway of George Tsapoitis' house offers a clue about the future of electricity.

A few times this summer, when millions of air conditioners strain the Toronto region's power grid, that pencil-tip-sized amber dot will blink. It will be asking Tsapoitis to turn the switch off -- unless he's already programmed his house to make that move for him.

This is the beginning of a new way of thinking about electricity, and the biggest change in how we get power since wires began veining the landscape a century ago.

For all the engineering genius behind the electric grid, that vast network ferrying energy from

power plants through transmission lines isn't particularly smart when it meets our homes. We flip a switch or plug something in and generally get as much power as we're willing to pay for.

But these days the environmental consequences and unfriendly economics of energy appear unsustainable. As a result, power providers and technology companies are making the electric grid smarter.

It will stop being merely a passive supplier of juice. Instead, power companies will be able to cue us, like those amber lights in Tsapoitis' house, to make choices about when and how we consume power. And most likely, we'll have our computers and appliances carry out those decisions for us.

Done right, the smarter grid should save consumers money in the long run by reducing the need for new power plants, which we pay off in our monthly electric bills. However, if people fail to react properly to conservation signals, their bills could spike.

And certainly a smart grid that can encourage us to conserve will feel different. Envision your kitchen appliances in silent communication with their power source: The fridge bumps its temperature up a degree on one day, and the dishwasher kicks on a bit later on another.

Smart-grid technologies have gotten small tests throughout North America, as utilities and regulators scout how to coax people to reduce their demand for power. But there's little doubt it's coming. The utility Xcel Energy plans to soon begin a $100 million smart grid project reaching 100,000 homes in Boulder, Colo.

In Milton, an exurb where dense subdivisions encroach on farm fields, a test with the Tsapoitis family and 200 other households reveals what will be possible -- and how much more work needs to happen.

Tsapoitis uses his computer to visit an online control panel that configures his home's energy consumption. He chooses its temperature and which lights should be on or off at certain times of the day. He can set rules for different kinds of days, so the house might be warmer and darker on summer weekdays when his family is out.

The family can override those changes manually, whether it's by turning on the porch light or raising the thermostat to ward off a Canadian chill. But the system guards against waste. If midnight comes and no one has remembered to lower the thermostat and turn off the porch light, those steps just happen.

These little tweaks add up nicely for another person testing the Milton system, Marian Rakusan. He's saved at least $300 on utility bills since the program began in September. Tsapoitis and his wife, Lisa, aren't certain of their savings but say their 2,400-square-foot home has lower energy bills than a friend's 1,800-square-footer.

This alone is not revolutionary, because programmable thermostats and other "smart home" controls let people craft similar resource-saving plans. The big change here is the combination of these controls with that blinking amber light on the switch -- where the grid talks back.

Milton's local gas and electricity retailer, Direct Energy, will set those amber dots blinking in an emergency. It might happen a few times in a summer month. Maybe there will be congestion in Ontario's overtaxed transmission network. Perhaps a power plant will be down for maintenance. Or rapacious air conditioners will overwhelm electric capacity.

Whatever the cause, at that moment, this section of the grid needs a reduction in demand, fast, or else outages loom.

People in Milton's test are expected to configure a "brownout" setting on their computers, indicating how their homes should respond in such a situation. In this test, Direct Energy also will enforce conservation remotely. It can raise the set temperature in a participant's home by 2 degrees Celsius in the summer (nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit), reducing its air conditioning load. The company also has permission to shut off the testers' hot-water heaters and electric pool pumps for four hours at time during these power emergencies.

Tsapoitis shrugs at that aspect of the arrangement. It's better than rolling blackouts. Rakusan, however, says he's not sure he likes the idea of the power company tweaking his home's settings.

Indeed, it appears unlikely that broad swaths of the public will accept remote control from the power company. California officials recently had to back away from a proposal to require remote-controlled thermostats in new buildings.

So a more likely scenario is that consumers will get powerful economic incentives to make those decisions themselves.

Typically we pay a flat rate for electricity, even if sometimes it falls below the actual costs of supplying power at a given moment. In a growing number of places, rates move slightly higher in hours that typically are busiest.

An advanced notion of this will be tested this summer in 1,100 homes served by Baltimore Gas & Electric

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co

100.5 UNCH 0%

[BGLEP 100.5 --- UNCH (0%)]. Pricing plans will vary, but generally the households will pay the cheapest, "off-peak" rates most of the time. Some testers will pay higher rates every weekday afternoon. And all of them will be subject to "critical peak" periods of even higher charges, declared on as many as 12 weekday afternoons with stress on the grid.

The Maryland utility will have its own version of Milton's amber dots. Most of the homes will get 3-inch-high orbs that will glow different colors to indicate the price of electricity: red instead of their usual green, for example, during critical peak periods.

Even this will probably be a primitive step.

Keeping It Auto

Eventually, the smart grid will let rates fluctuate even more dynamically, depending on conditions. That already happens in wholesale electricity markets, in which power suppliers buy energy from power producers. Now that would extend to the retail level -- our homes. The price of electricity would dip when demand is softest, typically at night or on mild days, and rise in periods of strain.

There's only one problem. "Consumers are not sitting at home waiting for the latest signal from the power grid," says Rob Pratt, a scientist with the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "To get the kind of widespread response that we'd really like to have, keeping it automatic is real important."

In other words, appliances designed to interact with the smarter electric grid will adjust themselves.

Pratt's lab has already built and tested controllers that can make it happen. And over the next decade, Pratt expects homes to get appliance controls with a sliding scale. At one end people could choose something like "maximize my ease and comfort." At the other, "save me the maximum amount of money." The highest-conservation settings might lead dishwashers to start only when electricity prices are at their lowest, or when wind power has kicked on.

When Pratt and colleagues tested aspects of this in 112 homes in Washington state, they determined the average household's electricity bills would drop 10 percent.

It says a lot that conservation would be encouraged by the very companies that make money off the use of electricity. But they have no real choice.

Electricity use per home rose 23 percent from 1981 to 2001, according to the Department of Energy. Blame increases in electronics and appliances, and our decreasing tolerance for sweating through the summers. The Census Bureau says 46 percent of single-family homes completed in the U.S. in 1975 had air conditioning. In 2006 that was 89 percent.

Meanwhile, meeting that demand is getting trickier. Raw materials that fuel power plants are soaring in price and being eyed more skeptically by regulators concerned about air quality and greenhouse gases. And that's even before the next U.S. president, as seems likely, supports caps on carbon emissions.

"We just can't keep building more coal plants," says Roy Palmer, head of regulatory affairs at Xcel Energy

Xcel Energy Inc

21.33 UNCH 0%

[XEL 21.33 --- UNCH (0%)].

So until some bountiful and clean power source can be delivered cheaply, electric utilities are pressured to extend the generating capacity we already have.

The effects of well-chosen reductions in usage -- an idea known as "demand response" -- can be huge. A mere 5 percent improvement in U.S. electric efficiency would prevent 90 large coal-fired power plants from having to be built over the next 20 years, according to Jon Wellinghoff, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission who advocates demand response.

Demand response isn't new, but it's existed in low-tech form. Utilities in capacity crunches would call companies and request that they do something to help, like idling an assembly line for a few hours. In some states, residents can get rebates if they let the utility trigger radio transmitters on their air conditioners that cycle the chillers off for a few minutes in strained summer hours.

Now though, technology can do demand response in a more sophisticated way.

Companies such as EnerNOC

EnerNOC Inc

14.41 UNCH 0%

[ENOC 14.41 --- UNCH (0%)] have built software and sensor networks that can remotely dim lights or raise refrigerator temperatures inside businesses, in an instant. For homes, upgraded electric meters can offer near-real-time feedback on energy use. And new generations of appliances and thermostats can coordinate with each other and electric meters over in-home wireless networks.

The key hurdle is figuring out how to pay for it all.

The equipment in Milton's tests costs more than $1,000 per house. That will come down with larger-scale efforts, and utilities will save money as networked meters free them from sending out human meter readers each month. But for bigger smart-grid investments, energy companies generally want regulators to let them recoup the costs through higher electric rates. That can get thorny.

Tsapoitis hopes some kind of smarter system sticks after his test ends in Milton this fall. When asked why he signed up, he said it might keep his 4-year-old son, Brogan, from worrying about global warming and other environmental threats. He pointed to a tattoo running down his arm that spells out Brogan's name in an Old English font.

"That," he said, "is what we do it for." ..

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