Iraqi army in tense stand-off at Fallujah

Sunni fighters carry RPG missiles launcher and machine guns as they take up position in Fallujah (EPA)

Iraqi forces were engaged in a tense stand-off on Monday night outside two cities said to have been taken over by al-Qaeda as the government attempted to end its latest crisis without major bloodshed.

At least 200 troops, rebel fighters and civilians have already been killed in clashes and bomb blasts across west and north-west Iraq since fighting began last week between militants, the army and local tribes loyal to the government.

Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, on Monday called on the residents of Fallujah, one of the two cities seized by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, the local al-Qaeda group, to drive out the militants themselves. In the meantime, the army, which has surrounded the city, held off from a full-blown assault.

Al-Qaeda are said also to be partly in control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, where an attempt last week to break up an anti-government protest camp led to the current crisis.

Fallujah was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the insurgency against the American presence in Iraq after the allied invasion of 2003.

Then as now al-Qaeda forces, believed to have been initially bolstered by Sunni remnants of the regime of Saddam Hussein, were attempting to drive out what they regarded as foreign-backed forces.

The crisis has raised new questions about American policy in the Middle East, highlighted when the deputy chief of staff of the Iranian army, Gen. Mohammad Hejazi, offered to send weapons to his Iraqi counterparts.

The United States has already sent Hellfire missiles to help the army counter al-Qaeda, another sign that the return of al-Qaeda in both Iraq and neighbouring Syria may end up bringing the US and Iran closer. However, it has rejected suggestions that it might end up sending back troops, withdrawn at the end of 2011.

Although the conflict has pitted the Shia-led government against al-Qaeda, comprising Sunni militants, Mr Maliki has also been able to rely on Sunni tribal leaders in the area who helped the US eventually defeat the militant threat in Anbar.

But the area has never been entirely pacified, and al-Qaeda has been strengthened by new recruits drawn in by its involvement in the civil war in neighbouring Syria.

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Criminal barristers stage walkout to protest against planned cuts

Barristers, protest outside the Old Bailey this morning.

Austerity measures attracted outrage from an unlikely quarter on Monday as criminal barristers protested at the government’s proposed cuts to legal aid.

On the same day that chancellor George Osborne outlined a further £12bn of public spending cuts, courts across England and Wales played host to a much less typical kind of anti-austerity anguish. Bewigged barristers, joined by solicitors and members of the public, brandished signs saying “Save British Justice” and “#fight4legalaid”.

While hundreds voiced their discontent in public, thousands of criminal barristers stayed out of court until at least 2pm on Monday in an act of “mass non-attendance” – the first such walkout in 400 years.

The protests came in response to plans by the Ministry of Justice to cut publicly funded fee rates by up to 30 per cent.

The budget for legal aid – introduced after the second world war and designed to provide representation for those unable to afford it – is £1.8bn this financial year, a 7.7 per cent fall year on year.

Criminal barristers – who are on average paid less than their commercial counterparts – say falling rates are threatening the continued existence of the criminal bar and the dispensation of justice.

“To defend people with no money is hugely important, but we are getting to the stage where the criminal bar cannot make it sustainable,” said Sarah Forshaw QC, of barristers 5KBW and leader of the southeastern circuit.

Mrs Forshaw said there was also some sympathy from fellow barristers specialising in commercial law who were concerned that the UK’s reputation as a centre of legal excellence could be undermined by the changes and an exodus of barristers from the profession.

The protests, which took place outside courts in England and Wales on Monday morning, including in Birmingham and Southwark and the Old Bailey in London, was organised by the Criminal Bar Association, which represents more than 4,000 criminal barristers.

They say the government’s proposed cuts, due to be implemented for trials from April, follow 40 per cent cuts already applied since 1997.

Hourly rates are set to be cut by 30 per cent for so-called very high cost crime (VHCC) cases from April, which include white-collar fraud trials.

Karl Turner, Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull East and a former criminal barrister, said the cuts were part of an “ideological drive to undermine the welfare state”.

“The profession can’t take any more cuts to legal aid,” he said.

Defendants are struggling to get barristers to represent them at the new rates.

Under the rates, for VHCC cases, an experienced junior barrister would see pay drop from £61-£79 an hour to £49-£55 an hour.

It is difficult to assess precisely how much criminal barristers earn because of fluctuations in the frequency of cases they handle and their status as self-employed.

At the protest outside the Old Bailey, attended by 150 barristers and solicitors, Mukul Chawla QC, head of chambers at 9-12 Bell Yard, read a letter on behalf of the southeastern circuit saying that most criminal barristers or solicitors “do not earn the mythical sums suggested”.

According to the Ministry of Justice, the mean income for the 4,931 barristers claiming money through legal aid schemes in the financial year to April 2013 was £72,000. This figure, however, does not include VAT, professional insurance and expenses, and may take into account money earned over several years.

Barristers say they already do significant unpaid overtime on complex cases as hours have to be preapproved by the Legal Aid Authority. Mr Chawla notes that as a general rule of thumb, one minute a page is permitted for reading statements and 30 seconds a page for reading exhibits.

The Criminal Bar Association points to government figures that showed that 60 per cent of “median” barristers doing legal aid work earn an average of £37,000 a year after expenses. The CBA claims that many are working for less than £25,000 before tax.

It says barristers, who are self employed and so do not receive holiday or sick pay, can face a rate as low as £20 a day, once the hours of preparation, time in court and chambers’ fees are included.

The CBA says that the cuts have recently led to one criminal case, a complex fraud trial, being placed in jeopardy because a representative for four of the eight defendants on trial approached 17 sets of chambers – and every one of them declined to accept the case.

Nigel Lithman QC, chairman of the CBA, said: “A line has to be drawn in the sand before it’s too late. The cuts pose the most serious threat to the British legal system in more than 400 years.

“Who can blame anybody for wishing to protest against swingeing cuts that mean they can’t pay their mortgages or afford to come back to work after being on maternity leave?”

He said he had heard of a number of examples of low-paid barristers including a young woman in her second year of practice who had taxable income of £13,800 and a 60-year-old man who made a loss and would have had to file for bankruptcy had he not received an inheritance.

“People are not prepared to work for the rates being offered,” he added.

The MoJ believes the cuts are necessary. “We agree legal aid is a vital part of our justice system. That’s why we have to find efficiencies to ensure it remains sustainable,” a spokesperson said.

The SilkRoad saga continues as new admin goes AWOL

SilkRoad’s new leader has went into exile following a global sting that rounded up several of the rehashed drug marketplace’s employees

It seems like the drama is never ending at the infamous online drug marketplace known as SilkRoad. Over the weekend, Silkroad’s new Admin Dread Pirate Roberts (AKA DPR. Not to be confused with the original SilkRoad DPR) signed off from the site with a post informing users that he would release information concerning the arrest of several SilkRoad employees.

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The post was made on Saturday and nothing else has been heard from DPR since. Another site admin who goes by the name DefCon says that DPR has entered exile and his whereabouts are unknown. DefCon says that DPR took the sites key used to unlock its Bitcoin storage with him. This means that none of the bitcoins the site held in escrow can be released until DPR’s return. DefCon says that SilkRoad users should not worry too much as DPR will return and the digital currency will be returned.

Shanghai Tower (650 meters)

Raskalov and Russian photographer Vadim Mahora broke into and climbed the Gensler-designed Shanghai Tower, soon to be China’s tallest and the world’s second tallest skyscraper at 632 meters (2,074 feet) high. Although the tower will eventually boast the world’s fastest elevators (reaching 40mph), the pair had to climb the 120 flights of stairs by foot (taking them about two hours); they then spent another 18 hours sleeping and waiting for the weather to clear. The staggering resulting images show not just the dizzying heights, but also fantastic views of the adjacent Jin Mao Tower and Shanghai World Financial Center (together, the trio of buildings that are re-defining the Shanghai skyline).

Bitcoin bounces back in China to top $1,000

ILLUSTRATION - Bitcoins photographed at the oline coin dealer 'BitcoinCommodities' in Berlin, Germany, 28 November 2013. Bitcoin is an open source peer-to-peer electronic money and payment network. The coins carry a numerical code called private key that provides the bitcoin with it's value. Bitcoins can be used for digital payments or are bought and sold at a variable price against the value of other currencies. Photo: JENS KALAENE

Bitcoin has bounced back in China, helping to push the virtual currency back above $1,000 a unit, as exchanges devise work-around solutions to the regulatory crackdown last month.

When Chinese regulators banned financial institutions from doing business with Bitcoin exchanges last month, the move was thought by many to spell the end for the virtual currency in China. Would-be buyers were told they would no longer be able to transfer cash onto exchanges via digital payment platforms, in effect making it impossible to buy Bitcoins.

“In the darkest hours we thought everything was going to come crashing down and the game was over,” said Bobby Lee, co-founder of BTC China, one of the country’s top exchanges.

But China’s Bitcoin brigades have defied that gloomy outlook to start the new year much as they left off 2013 – with a dominant share of global transactions in the virtual currency.

In the US, Bitcoin received a further fillip after Zynga, the provider of online social network games, said it would begin a pilot programme to accept the virtual currency.

Players of FarmVille 2, a farming simulation game, CastleVille, ChefVille, CoasterVille, Hidden Chronicles, Hidden Shadows and CityVille, will have the option to make in-game purchases using Bitcoin.

Bitcoin’s survival in China has helped push the currency back above $1,000 a unit, about double its value just a few weeks earlier. This resilience is testament to the agility of the leading Chinese exchanges. Faced with the crackdown on third-party payment systems, the exchanges have all devised work-around solutions, some in legal grey areas.

One exchange, BTCtrade, has continued using a third-party payment provider even though the central bank banned such links with Bitcoin exchanges. A customer service representative for the exchange said its payment provider had yet to receive a formal notice from regulators and so remained active.

Other exchanges have looked for loopholes. Huobi, a Beijing-based exchange, allows users to make direct deposits in its own corporate bank account or even the personal one of Li Lin, its founder, with the company then brings the money onto its trading platform.

“We are a company and we have a business selling a product, and we need to settle accounts. This is totally legal. Yes, we can’t co-operate with payment providers but we can still conduct our own business,” Mr Li said.

OkayCoin has tried both approaches. It has worked with 95gateway.com, a small payment provider still willing to do business with Bitcoin exchanges, but this payment company has struggled to cope with the volume of transactions. At the end of December, OkayCoin created a corporate account similar to that of Huobi to handle deals. “For the two weeks that funds could not be added to our exchange, it was as painful as sitting on a thorn. The days went by like years,” it said in a statement on its website when unveiling the new corporate account method for transferring funds.

The competitive landscape in the Chinese Bitcoin market has changed dramatically as a result. BTC China, which became the world’s biggest Bitcoin exchange by transaction volume in November, saw its share of the global market plunge from more than 30 per cent to less than 5 per cent virtually overnight after it stopped users from making new cash deposits.

Huobi, its rival, quickly plugged that gap, and then some. It has hosted 58 per cent of global Bitcoin transactions over the past seven days, according to Bitcoinity, a website that tracks the virtual currency.

BTC China is beginning to fight back. It has opted not to use the corporate account transfer method out of concern that regulators might deem this to be the same as using a third-party payment provider. However, it has created a voucher system that allows people with money on the exchange to sell the right to that cash to people who want to buy Bitcoins.

To regain transaction volume, it also unveiled a new market maker incentive this weekend that allows people dealing in Bitcoins to earn a small fee.

“We want to find a viable way to align our business with what the government wants to see,” BTC China’s Mr Lee said. “We are trying to compete fairly, without crossing the line in terms of ethical and legal boundaries.”

Yet the resurgent Bitcoin optimism in China still faces one major hurdle. By banning financial institutions from dealing with Bitcoin, the central bank has made it all but impossible for the virtual currency to be used in transactions for goods and services. Unlike social gaming company Zynga and other international companies that accept Bitcoin as a payment option, China’s big internet companies have stopped using the virtual currency. Yet even on this front, China’s Bitcoin enthusiasts see a sliver of hope.

“In the short term, using Bitcoin for payment or as a currency is clearly not allowed,” said Mr Li of Huobi. “But in the long term, it will depend on the government’s perspective, and that will be shaped by lots of other factors, including the stances of other countries.”

Trust Eroded, Obama Looks Beyond Karzai

American soldiers on Tuesday near Kandahar, Afghanistan, after meeting with officials at an Afghan National Police outpost.

WASHINGTON — President Obama, apparently resigned to President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign a long-term security agreement with the United States before he leaves office, told him in a phone call on Tuesday that he had instructed the Pentagon to begin planning for a complete withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

But in a message aimed less at Mr. Karzai than at whoever will replace him, Mr. Obama said that the United States was still open to leaving a limited military force behind in Afghanistan to conduct training and counterterrorism operations.

Noting that Mr. Karzai had “demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign” the agreement, Mr. Obama told him, in effect, that the United States would deal with the next Afghan leader. He warned Mr. Karzai that the longer it took for Afghanistan to sign the pact, known as a bilateral security agreement, or B.S.A., the smaller the residual force was likely to be.

It was the first time the leaders had spoken since last June, and for all intents and purposes, it marked the end of a relationship that had long since broken down in acrimony.

A member of the Afghan National Security Forces kept watch as American soldiers met with Afghan officials near Kandahar

While Mr. Obama’s message was not a surprise — administration officials had concluded weeks ago that any agreement would probably come only after elections in April — the White House’s blunt description of his call with Mr. Karzai underscored the depth of the president’s frustration and the erosion of trust in the Afghan leader.

But the call also confirmed that the White House has retreated from its earlier insistence that the Afghan government sign the agreement before the elections or face the threat of a total pullout.

“Clearly, the president is putting pressure on Karzai without closing the door on B.S.A. just as he is preparing the ground for the possibility that B.S.A. may not happen,” said Vali Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Indeed, in the call with Mr. Karzai, Mr. Obama made clear that he views a residual force as a way to prevent Afghanistan from becoming once again a haven for terrorist groups.

“Should we have a B.S.A. and a willing and committed partner in the Afghan government, a limited post-2014 mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces and going after the remnants of core Al Qaeda could be in the interests of the United States and Afghanistan,” the White House said in a statement issued after the call.

The White House had hoped to seal the security pact before a meeting this week of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, where Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel plans to discuss the logistics of the American troop reduction in Afghanistan and the shape of a potential postwar force with other alliance partners.

Military planners have faced deep uncertainty in preparing for a mission to train, advise and assist Afghan forces after combat operations officially end this year. The governments of nations that contribute troops must approve any sustained deployments months in advance.

The major candidates for president in Afghanistan have all signaled they would sign the security agreement. But if history is any guide, the April election might necessitate a runoff, which could lead to months of political uncertainty, further delaying the security deal.

A senior administration official said Mr. Obama was sending a message to Mr. Karzai that there would be a cost to further delays, both in the rising chance that the United States might go down to zero troops and in the more limited size and scope of a residual force.

Mr. Obama’s decision to look beyond Mr. Karzai, the official said, was driven by Mr. Karzai himself, who has told the administration that he believes his successor should sign the agreement because the future government will have to live with its consequences.

Appearing before troops at Fort Eustis and Langley Air Force Base near Newport News, Va., Mr. Hagel said the military would now engage seriously in contingency planning for a complete troop withdrawal, known as the “zero option.” While he held open the option of a continued troop presence after 2014, he told reporters that as long as the agreement goes unsigned, “our options narrow and narrow.”

But he declined to give another deadline for when the United States must decide that it will go down to zero. Some Afghanistan experts have criticized Mr. Obama for imposing deadlines, given the mercurial nature of the relationship between him and Mr. Karzai.

For all the tough talk, few people in the Obama administration are willing to say publicly that they believe leaving no residual force behind is a good idea, in large part because of the fear that without any American or NATO troops, Afghanistan could revert to its status as a staging ground for terrorist plots against the West.

“The preponderance of opinion across the government is that some reasonable post-2014 presence in Afghanistan is necessary to lock in our very hard-fought gains,” Michelle Flournoy, a former top Pentagon official, said in an interview.

Faced with continued uncertainty, American and NATO commanders have drawn up plans to deploy a force this summer that is tailored to assume a training mission in 2015 but also small enough to withdraw, if no deal for an enduring presence is reached. The plan would give Mr. Obama and other political leaders maximum flexibility.

Some analysts said the administration erred by tying the decision on troops too closely to its relationship with Mr. Karzai, which became toxic this month after Afghanistan released 65 prisoners that the United States said had the blood of American soldiers on their hands.

“Making it about President Karzai is simply not the right thing to do,” said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States. “President Obama needs to decide what’s in America’s interest, and whether America can continue to fight global terrorism without an effective military presence in the Central and South Asian theater of war.”

The greatness of Nelson Mandela challenges us all

The greatness of Nelson Mandela challenges us all

AMONG Nelson Mandela’s many achievements, two stand out. First, he was the world’s most inspiring example of fortitude, magnanimity and dignity in the face of oppression, serving more than 27 years in prison for his belief that all men and women are created equal. During the brutal years of his imprisonment on Robben Island, thanks to his own patience, humour and capacity for forgiveness, he seemed freer behind bars than the men who kept him there, locked up as they were in their own self-demeaning prejudices. Indeed, his warders were among those who came to admire him most.

Second, and little short of miraculous, was the way in which he engineered and oversaw South Africa’s transformation from a byword for nastiness and narrowness into, at least in intent, a rainbow nation in which people, no matter what their colour, were entitled to be treated with respect. That the country has not always lived up to his standards goes to show how high they were.

Exorcising the curse of colour

As a politician, and as a man, Mr Mandela had his contradictions (see article). He was neither a genius nor, as he often said himself, a saint. Some of his early writings were banal Marxist ramblings, even if the sense of anger with which they were infused was justifiable. But his charisma was evident from his youth. He was a born leader who feared nobody, debased himself before no one and never lost his sense of humour. He was handsome and comfortable in his own skin. In a country in which the myth of racial superiority was enshrined in law, he never for a moment doubted his right, and that of all his compatriots, to equal treatment. Perhaps no less remarkably, once the majority of citizens were able to have their say he never for a moment denied the right of his white compatriots to equality. For all the humiliation he suffered at the hands of white racists before he was released in 1990, he was never animated by feelings of revenge. He was himself utterly without prejudice, which is why he became a symbol of tolerance and justice across the globe.

Perhaps even more important for the future of his country was his ability to think deeply, and to change his mind. When he was set free, many of his fellow members of the African National Congress (ANC) remained dedicated disciples of the dogma promoted by their party’s supporter, the Soviet Union, whose own sudden implosion helped shift the global balance of power that in turn contributed to apartheid’s demise. Many of his comrades were simultaneously members of the ANC and the South African Communist Party who hoped to dismember the capitalist economy and bring its treasure trove of mines and factories into public ownership. Nor was the ANC convinced that a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy—with all the checks and balances of bourgeois institutions, such as an independent judiciary—was worth preserving, perverted as it had been under apartheid.

Mr Mandela had himself harboured such doubts. But immediately before and after his release from prison, he sought out a variety of opinions among those who, unlike himself, had been fortunate enough to roam the world and compare competing systems. He listened and pondered—and decided that it would be better for all his people, especially the poor black majority, if South Africa’s existing economic model were drastically altered but not destroyed, and if a liberal democracy, under a universal franchise, were kept too.

That South Africa did, in the end, move with relatively little bloodshed to become a multiracial free-market democracy was indeed a near-miracle for which the whole world must thank him. The country he leaves behind is a far better custodian of human dignity than the one whose first democratically elected president he became in 1994. A self-confident black middle class is emerging. Democracy is well-entrenched, with regular elections, a vibrant press, generally decent courts and strong institutions. And South Africa still has easily sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest and most sophisticated economy.

But since Mr Mandela left the presidency in 1999 his beloved country has disappointed under two sorely flawed leaders, Thabo Mbeki and now Jacob Zuma. While the rest of Africa’s economy has perked up, South Africa’s has stumbled. Nigeria’s swelling GDP is closing in on South Africa’s. Corruption and patronage within the ANC have become increasingly flagrant. An authoritarian and populist tendency in ruling circles has become more strident. The racial animosity that Mr Mandela so abhorred is infecting public discourse. The gap between rich and poor has remained stubbornly wide. Barely two-fifths of working-age people have jobs. Only 60% of school-leavers get the most basic high-school graduation certificate. Shockingly for a country so rich in resources, nearly a third of its people still live on less than $2 a day.

Without the protection of Mr Mandela’s saintly aura, the ANC will be more harshly judged. Thanks to its corruption and inefficiency, it already faces competition in some parts of the country from the white-led Democratic Alliance. South Africa would gain if the ANC split, so there were two big black-led parties, one composed of communists and union leaders, the other more liberal and market-friendly.

Man of Africa, hero of the world

The ANC’s failings are not Mr Mandela’s fault. Perhaps he could have been more vociferous in speaking out against Mr Mbeki’s lethal misguidedness on the subject of HIV/AIDS, which cost thousands of lives. Perhaps he should have spoken up more robustly against the corruption around Mr Zuma. In foreign affairs he was too loyal to past friends, such as Fidel Castro. He should have been franker in condemning Robert Mugabe for his ruination of Zimbabwe.

But such shortcomings—and South Africa’s failings since his retirement from active politics—pale into insignificance when set against the magnitude of his overall achievement. It is hard to think of anyone else in the world in recent times with whom every single person, in every corner of the Earth, can somehow identify. He was, quite simply, a wonderful man.

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