THE INDEX – February 5, 2009

The European Union‘s system of presidential musical chairs is putting the Union at a grave disadvantage, according to Celestine Bohlen on Bloomberg.com. While the rotating system made sense when there was only six in the union, now with 27 countries in the mix (ranging from France to Malta) the six-month presidency system presents problems in dealing with such issues as the global economic downturn and the Ukraine-Russia gas spat. The current president, Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic, seems an unfortunate leader amid these tumultuous times—especially considering the Czech Republic’s refusal of the euro and its already reluctant membership in the Union. Many are wondering if Klaus is the right person to lead the EU right now and whether this short-term rotating system can really float in an ocean of long-term crises? 

Despite an international plea from the United States, Britain, and Canada (among others) to both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers (or LTTE) to halt or reduce their intendifying attacks on one another, the government has vowed to continue shelling and pushing into LTTE territory “until the separatist rebel movement is crushed.” The plea aims for a short pause in fighting so that civilians can flee the conflict areas to governmental safe zones. The rebels, however, understand that a civilian population prevents the army from waging an all-out attack and have refused to let people leave rebel-held territory. Almost 70,000 people have died in the 26-year history of this conflict. 

Last week’s spat at Davos between Turkish Prime Minister Tayyp Erdogan and Israeli President Shimon Peres may be flaring anti-semitic sentiments in Turkey, says Geries Othman for SperoNews. According to the piece, “five of the main U.S. Jewish organisations wrote a letter to Prime Minister Tayyp Erdogan asking him to ‘urgently address current wave of anti-Semitism.'” While military relations between the two nations are still in good shape, the economic situation is taking a hit as some Turks have called for a boycott of Israeli goods, exports of which to Turkey are valued at $3 billion annually. However, Gaby Levy, Israel’s ambassador to Turkey, remains positive, saying: “I am confident and trustful that we are going to be able—within a period of time—to come back to business as usual in our relations.”  

The Pakistani Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has shifted its attention to the Bangladeshi chapter of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami (HuJI-B) as the responsible party for planning and implementing last year’s Mumbai attacks. According to media outlets in the region, the FIA’s report to the Pakistani government  emphasizes that the attack was not planned in Pakistan and seems to deflect any notion that the November 26 attacks were rooted in India/Pakistan tensions. The report does, however, seem to mention local Indian support, an aspect of the attacks that New Delhi has been reluctant to admit. There also appears to be a tenuous connection to Al Qaeda’s international terror network, as HuJI-B was formed in 1992 with material support and inspiration from Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front. The veracity of this report may come under fire as some may see it as an attempt to deflect responsibility.            

Al Watan Daily reports that an Israeli lawmaker said that time is running out for Israel to pre-emptively strike Iranian nuclear sites. Isaac Ben-Israel, a weapons and expert and legislator, said that an independent Israeli attack is still possible, but would only delay—not end—Iran’s enrichment program. But Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, disagrees both on the military option and on the winnowing time frame, noting that CIA intelligence points to a larger window for diplomatic overtures. “We’re still talking about two to five years from now [until Iran would be able to produce nuclear weapons],” says ElBaradei. Iran maintains its nuclear facilities are intended to generate electricity. 

David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, has called for a new seriousness in ridding the world of nuclear weapons. With the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 40 years old now, Milliband is calling for a new rigor on disarmament. With growing concern that a Iranian bomb would set off a Middle East arms race, Milliband has put forth a six-point plan to rid the world of its nuclear weapons. However, calls for Britain to lead the way in this effort by scrapping Trident, its costly “submarine-based nuclear deterrent,” were rejected by Milliband. President Obama is rumored to be considering a bilateral deal with Russia to reduce the number of warheads by 80 percent.

Afghanistan exported 3,200 tons of pomegranates over the last 11 months, according to the Kandahar Chamber of Commerce. Increasing cultivation and production of this fruit (long prized in the Middle East, but increasingly popular in the United States and Europe) brought in revenues of $32 million. The chamber noted that agriculture output could double with the addition of more processing and packaging facilities and greater security in the region. However, the pomegranate still has a ways to go before it puts a dent in Afghanistan’s opium production and trafficking, which in 2007 brought in a total export value of $4 billion.   

Syria plans to introduce new regulations on private Islamic schools following the the September 2008 Damascus terrorist attack that killed seventeen. In a video release after the bomb, one of the alleged masterminds said he attended a prominent private Islamic school where a “hardline” interpretation of Islam is taught. Currently, there are 32 private schools that will be affected by the regulations, which grant the government greater control over the curricula, hiring practices, and the ability to monitor funding. Most of the operating budget comes from comes from private donors. One school official termed the new regulations “intellectual terrorism.”

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