Nine Circles of Hell!: Tuesday, January 31, 2012 Nine Circles of Hell!

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The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – today’s nine most hellish news stories, including three extra stories on Syria, for Tuesday, January 31, 2012, are:

Air Force illegally punished mishandled war remains whistleblowers

Marine gets 30 days for hazing that led to soldier’s suicide

Pentagon clueless on nearly $2 billion meant for Iraq

Netanyahu offers cash, wants to legalize rogue settlements

Is Hamas preparing to move HQ from Syria?

Russia calls UN draft resolution on Syria, “path to civil war”

Sudanese abduction of 29 Chinese workers “shocked” China

Eurozone joblessness at highest since beginning of euro

US home prices keep falling

Air Force illegally punished mishandled war remains whistleblowers
The Associated Press
(1/31/12)

Probe: Air Force punished Dover whistleblowers

Federal investigators have concluded that Air Force officials at the military mortuary in Dover, Del., illegally punished four civilian workers for blowing the whistle on the mishandling of war remains.

The Office of Special Counsel said in a report released Tuesday that they have recommended to the Air Force that it discipline the three officials who allegedly retaliated against the whistleblowers. The three were not identified by name. It said one is an active-duty military member and the other two are civilians.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said in a written statement that he has appointed a two-star general to review the findings and take “appropriate action.” Donley said reprisals against whistleblowers are unacceptable.

Donley said he and the Air Force’s top officer, Gen. Norton Schwartz, “believe strongly there is no place for reprisal in the Air Force. Reprisals against employees are unethical and illegal and counter to Air Force core values.”

In an earlier investigation report released last November, the Office of Special Counsel said it had found “gross mismanagement” at the Dover facility, where small body parts of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan were lost on two occasions. The Air Force said at the time that it took disciplinary action – but did not fire – three senior supervisors there for their role in the mismanagement. The reprisal accusations were a separate matter and were investigated by the Special Counsel under the Whistleblower Protection Act.

The three disciplined in connection with the earlier Special Counsel included Air Force Col. Robert Edmondson, who commanded the Dover mortuary at the time of the incidents, and two civilian supervisors – Trevor Dean and Quinton Keel.

Edmondson was given a letter of reprimand, denied a job commanding a unit at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., and barred from future command assignments. Dean and Keel took a cut in pay and were moved to non-supervisory jobs at Dover. All three have declined to comment publicly on the matter.

Although the Special Counsel did not identify the three accused of retaliating against the whistleblowers, two officials said they are Edmondson, Dean and Keel. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of privacy restrictions.

The four whistleblowers had alleged that they suffered retaliation for their disclosures, including job termination, indefinite administrative leave and five-day suspensions.

Marine gets 30 days for hazing that led to soldier’s suicide
Reuters
(1/31/12)

Marine whose hazing led to a suicide is jailed, demoted

A court-martial sentenced a Marine to 30 days of confinement and a demotion after he pleaded guilty to assaulting a fellow Marine who killed himself upon being beaten and hazed in Afghanistan.

Lance Corporal Jacob Jacoby entered his plea during the special court-martial proceeding on Monday at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe, on the island of Oahu, said Marine Corps spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Curtis Hill.

The sentence came down later on Monday night, reducing Jacoby’s pay grade to Private First Class from Lance Corporal for the assault against Lance Corporal Harry Lew, 21.

After Jacoby agreed to plead guilty, charges that Jacoby humiliated Lew and another that he threatened the Marine were withdrawn, Hill said.

Lew shot himself with his automatic rifle in Afghanistan during a patrol in April 2011 after an incident in which military prosecutors said he was beaten and hazed by others in his unit for falling asleep while on sentry duty.

Lew was the nephew of U.S. Representative Judy Chu, a Democrat who represents El Monte, California, and surrounding areas. Chu attended the special court-martial proceeding on Monday in Hawaii, Hill said.

Special court-martial proceedings are pending for two other Marines charged with abusing Lew.

Jacoby pleaded guilty to striking Lew in the back with his foot and hitting the helmeted Marine in the head with his foot and a closed fist.

Jacoby’s case on Monday was held before a special court-martial, which typically involves less severe punishment than a general court-martial.

He faced a maximum sentence of one year of confinement.

Pentagon clueless on nearly $2 billion meant for Iraq
CNBC
(1/30/12)

Pentagon Unable to Account for Missing Iraqi Millions

The Pentagon doesn’t know what happened to more than $100 million in cash held at Saddam Hussein’s palace in Baghdad during the Iraq war, according to a new report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

What’s more, the Pentagon can’t find documents to explain what it spent as much as $1.7 billion on from funds held on behalf of the Iraqi government by the New York Federal Reserve, the report says.

The missing records raise new questions about how the US government handled billions of dollars in Iraqi funds during the war.

The new report, the latest in a multi-year investigation by the inspector general into missing money in Iraq, paints a picture of Pentagon officials digging through boxes of hard copy records looking for missing paper copies of Excel spreadsheets, monthly reports and other paper documents that should have been kept detailing what the money was spent on and why those expenditures were necessary. Apparently, there are no electronic records to back up the spending.

The Inspector General’s report concludes that the problem is simply one of “records management.” But the report explains the missing records make it impossible to conduct a complete accounting of what happened to the funds.

The missing money came from the Development Fund for Iraq, a cache of billions of dollars in frozen Saddam Hussein regime assets that was held at the New York Federal Reserve on behalf of the Iraqi people.

After the Coalition Provisional Authority turned over sovereignty to the new government of Iraq in 2004 after the US invasion, the government of Iraq turned over about $3 billion of the money to the Pentagon to help pay for contracts the CPA had authorized before it ceased operations. Of that money, most was held in an account worth about $2.8 billion at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and the remainder, $217.7 million, was held in cash in Saddam’s palace.

While the New York Federal Reserve was able to provide the Inspector General with some information on electronic payments made from the funds it held, the Department of Defense was unable to provide documentation to explain why it had authorized that expenditure of $1.7 billion of the funds held at the New York Fed. And although the Pentagon spent $193.3 million of the cash at the presidential palace, officials there told the Inspector General that they could not find documents to support $119.4 million of that spending.

The Federal Reserve Board of New York told the inspector General that all it needed to make payments from the DFI account was authorization of certain officials at the Central Bank of Iraq. And the New York Fed also said it had written authorization for $2.7 billion that was spent from the DFI account. Much of that money may have been spent on US Army Corps of Engineers projects.

But the Department of Defense, (DoD) can’t say specifically because it can’t locate the records, the Inspector General said. According to the report, “DoD officials have Excel spreadsheets supporting about $1 billion of the $2.7 billion, or 37%, it used from the sub-account. These spreadsheets cover the first four months of payments from the sub-account following the CPA’s dissolution. DoD is looking for documentation supporting the remaining $1.7 billion in payments.”

Netanyahu offers cash, wants to legalize rogue settlements
The Associated Press
(1/31/12)

Israeli gov’t offers incentives to settlers

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has made two overtures to West Bank settlers in the run-up to his party’s leadership race on Tuesday: It’s offering financial incentives to encourage people to move to settlements and opening the door to legalizing rogue settler outposts.

The gestures appear to be aimed at appeasing hardline elements in the ruling Likud Party who are sympathetic to settlers. While Netanyahu is expected to win the leadership race, a relatively strong showing by his ultranationalist rival would suggest many Likud voters consider the prime minister too soft on peacemaking with the Palestinians.

The moves threatened to derail tentative new peace efforts with the Palestinians. A round of low-level peace negotiations ground to a halt last week, in large part because of Palestinian objections to Israeli settlement construction. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon is expected in the region Wednesday in an effort to restart the talks.

The Palestinians rejected Netanyahu’s latest moves.

“They are adding obstacles at a time when everyone is intensifying efforts to try to resume peace talks,” said Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib. “I think with every additional settlement activity, the feasibility of having two states is diminished.”

Is Hamas preparing to move HQ from Syria?
Xinhua
(1/30/12)

Hamas’ next host country after Syria, Jordan or Qatar?

The historic visit of Islamic Hamas movement supreme leader Khaled Meshaal on Sunday to Jordan, in the company of Qatar’s prince, carries huge significance to the changing Arab world. Observers are speculating whether Hamas would move its headquarters from Syria’s Damascus to another Arab capital.

Earlier this week, Hamas leaders denied such allegations. However, Analysts say the reality on the ground shows otherwise.

Fawzi Barhoum, Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said in a press statement emailed to reporters that “there have been no changes to the movement’s headquarters in Syria and Hamas office still operates in Damascus.”

The statement added that Meshaal’s tour aims at reconciliation with the kingdom and gaining support for the Palestinian cause.

Meshaal, born in 1956, is originally from the village of Silwad near the West Bank city of Ramallah, which his family left during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and moved to Kuwait. He later joined the Muslim Brotherhood Movement and now holds a Jordanian passport.

Mustafa Sawaf, a political analyst closed to Hamas in Gaza told Xinhua that the timing of Meshaal’s visit to Amman on Sunday “is the first step to correct the track of their relationship, which was hard hit when the Hamas bureau in Amman was shut down in 1996. ”

Hamas had then moved to Damascus and also gained the support of Iran, a strong ally. However, nobody thinks that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would accept to receive Meshaal again after he met with officials from Syria’s enemies, Jordan and Qatar.

Security has seriously deteriorated in Syria since early last year when revolting Syrians started to demand a change of regime.

“I don’t think that Meshaal’s visit to Jordan has anything to do with leaving Syria … because there are still many other Hamas leaders in Damascus,” said Sawaf, adding that “if Hamas intends to leave Syria, it would officially announce it.”

According to Sawaf, Meshaal was only obliged by the security situation to be away from Damascus temporarily.

Hamas leaders recognize Qatar’s mediating role when Jordan decided to close down its bureau in Amman. Now, Qatar is again making efforts toward a revival of ties between the Islamic movement and the Kingdom.

“I believe that Qatar is trying to play an important role in the region,” said Sawaf, referring to the pressure it mounted on Syria over its domestic violence.

Russia calls UN draft resolution on Syria, “path to civil war”
BBC News
(1/31/12)

UN resolution could spur Syria civil war, Russia warns

The Western-Arab drive to adopt a UN resolution on Syria is a “path to civil war”, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov has warned.

He said demands for President Bashar al-Assad to stand down would “not lead to a search for compromise”.

The resolution will be discussed at an imminent UN Security Council meeting on the deepening Syrian crisis.

The talks come after a day of particularly heavy bloodshed and with the army on the streets in Damascus.

More than 100 people were killed across the country on Monday, including 40 civilians, said activists.

It looks as though the violence in Syria could go on and on.

Any resolution that emerges from New York won’t involve sanctions – it may not even involve outright condemnation of the government, because the Western powers are very keen to get the Russians and Chinese and others on board for some kind of international consensus.

It’s hard to see how anything can come out of the UN – despite all the efforts and good will on the part of a lot of people – which could make much difference on the ground.

Another 20 people were killed on Tuesday, the Local Co-ordination Committee said. Such claims cannot be independently verified as the the BBC and other international media are severely restricted inside Syria.

The UN has conceded it cannot keep track of the escalating death toll, but estimates more than 5,400 people have been killed since the unrest began last March.

On Saturday, the Arab League announced it was suspending its month-old monitoring mission in Syria because of an upsurge of violence.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC that Russia would be increasingly isolated across the Arab World if it vetoed the UN resolution.

Meanwhile, the US director of national intelligence has said it is only a matter of time before Mr Assad loses his grip on power.

“I do not see how he can sustain his rule of Syria,” James Clapper told a Senate hearing, but said the process could take a long time.

The latest draft of the resolution strongly condemns violence and human rights abuses by the Syrian government and calls on countries to stop the flow of arms to Syria, without imposing an arms embargo.

At the core of the plan is an endorsement of an Arab League peace plan that would see President Assad delegate power to his deputy to oversee a political transition.

Moscow, which has maintained close ties with Damascus and has a naval base in the country, says this amounts to regime change and has criticised the document’s threat of unspecified further measures if Syria does not comply.

France says 10 of the 15 countries on the Security Council now support the resolution, taking it past the threshold needed to force a full vote.

Russia, one of the five permanent council members, has already said it will veto the action, but the BBC’s UN correspondent Barbara Plett says Western nations still hope to convince it to at least abstain.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said some countries were “obsessed” with regime change in the Middle East region.

“If this vigour to change regimes persists we are going to witness a very bad situation, much, much broader than just Syria, Libya or Egypt or any other single country,” he said.

  • Al Jazeera gives us some details on the draft resolution in, “UN to discuss removal of Syrian president“:
    The UN Security Council was to meet on Tuesday evening (20:00GMT) to discuss the draft resolution, with Russia likely to veto any punitive action.
    A French official said the draft UN resolution has a “comfortable majority” of support from 10 of the Security Council’s 15 members, meaning Russia or China, which has also shown support for Assad, would have to use their veto power to stop it.
    The draft resolution, seen by the AFP news agency, also calls for the government to put an immediate stop to violence that the UN says has killed thousands of people in the past 10 months.
    The draft stresses there will be no foreign military intervention in the conflict and demands that “the Syrian government immediately puts an end to all human rights violations and attacks against those exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association”.
    It calls on Assad to delegate his “full authority to his deputy” and then to form a national unity government leading to “transparent and free elections under Arab and international supervision”.
    The text insists it does not compel states “to resort to the use of force, or the threat of force”, which a diplomat said was a statement aimed at answering the concerns of Russia and China.
  • The UK’s prime minister keeps talking tough in The Telegraph story, “Syria: David Cameron accuses Russia of ‘shielding those with blood on their hands’“:
    David Cameron last night accused Russia of “shielding those with blood on their hands” as it tried to head off a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding President Bashar al-Assad of Syria relinquish power.
    Speaking at a meeting of EU members in Brussels, the Prime Minister denounced the “appalling” violence in Syria, saying the regime had already “murdered” more than 5,000 people, including 400 children.
    “Our message is clear, we will stand with the Syrian people,” he said. “And it’s time for all the members of the UN Security Council to live up to their responsibilities instead of shielding those with blood on their hands.”
    He called on the UN Security Council to back tougher sanctions against Syria as part of a resolution already supported by all 27 EU states.
    British and French officials said the resolution, based on an Arab League proposal agreed in Cairo earlier this month, had enough backers to go to a vote and force Russia and possibly China into the embarrassing use of a veto.
    Russia, under more diplomatic pressure than at any time for years, attempted to defer the issue last night with a last-minute proposal for peace talks in Moscow between the Syrian authorities and the principal opposition figures.
  • Reuters reports on Iran’s softening support of Assad in, “Iran says Syria must hold free poll, but needs time“:
    Iran called on staunch ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Sunday to hold free elections and allow multiple political parties to operate in the country, but said he must be given time to implement these reforms.
    Iran had at first wholeheartedly supported Assad’s hardline stance against the 10 months of popular protests that have called for an end to his leadership.
    It has since tempered its rhetoric as the uprising has dragged on and international pressure has risen, although it condemns what it calls foreign interference in Syrian affairs.
    “They have to have a free election, they have to have the right constitution, they have to allow different political parties to have their activities freely in the country. And this is what he has promised,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said at a news conference on the sidelines of an African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
    “We think that Syria has to be given the choice of time so that by (that) time they can do the reforms,” said Salehi, whose country is an observer state at the AU and has said that strengthening ties with the AU is a foreign policy priority.
    Syria has said it will hold a referendum on a new constitution soon, before a multi-party parliamentary election that has been much postponed. Under the present constitution, Assad’s Baath party is designated as “the leader of the state and society.”

Sudanese abduction of 29 Chinese workers “shocked” China
BBC News
(1/31/12)

China presses Sudan to help free workers

China urged Sudan on Tuesday to seek urgently the release of 29 Chinese workers held by rebels in the border state of South Kordofan, declaring that it was “shocked” by their abduction.

The Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Hangsheng summoned a senior diplomat at Sudan’s embassy in Beijing to deliver the message, the official Xinhua news agency said in a bulletin.

In a separate incident, Bedouin tribesmen in Egypt’s Sinai region kidnapped 25 mostly Chinese cement factory workers on Tuesday, demanding that authorities free fellow Bedouin from prison, sources from the tribe said.

China’s message to Sudan underscored the pressure that China faces to secure the safe return of the abducted construction workers, as did its announcement earlier on Tuesday that it had sent officials from the Foreign Ministry and other agencies to Sudan the previous day to “assist in rescue work”.

The workers’ plight has attracted widespread attention in China and any deaths could become a more serious headache for the government, which Chinese citizens assume can wield its influence to protect nationals abroad.

The abduction is the latest incident dramatising China’s difficulties with companies and workers venturing to dangerous places generally shunned by Western companies.

“The Chinese government attaches much importance to protecting citizens abroad and feels shocked about this abduction incident,” said Xie, the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, according to the ministry’s website (www.mfa.gov.cn).

“The Chinese government urges Sudan to act out of regard for our two countries’ friendly cooperation, and to keep using a variety of channels to intensify rescue efforts, doing everything possible to ensure the safety of the Chinese nationals and striving by every means to create the conditions for their safe release as soon as is possible.”

The rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) said it took the 29 workers on Saturday for their own safety after a battle with the Sudanese army.

Since June, the Sudanese army has been fighting the SPLM-N in South Kordofan, which is in Sudan bordering the newly independent country of South Sudan.

There was initially hope that some of workers had been released, after Sudan’s state news agency said the military freed 14 of them.

But on Monday, Chinese and Sudanese officials denied the report. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said 29 of the workers remained in rebel hands while another 17 had reached safety and one was missing.

Eurozone joblessness at highest since beginning of euro
Reuters
(1/31/12)

Euro zone jobless hits highest level since birth of euro

Euro zone unemployment has risen to its highest level since before the euro was introduced, data showed on Tuesday, a day after EU leaders promised to focus on creating millions of new jobs to try to kickstart Europe’s floundering economy.

Joblessness among the 17 countries sharing the single currency rose to 10.4 percent in December, on a par with an upwardly revised November figure, the EU’s statistics office Eurostat said in its release of seasonally-adjusted data.

It was the highest rate since June 1998, before the euro was introduced in 1999.

“We’re looking at a further increase over the coming months, so that is worrying,” said Martin van Vliet, an economist at ING. “Look at Greece, where unemployment is some 20 percent, and it is 23 percent in Spain. At a certain point this could lead to political unrest.”

After two years of debt crisis and budget austerity, the number of Europeans out of work has risen to 16.5 million people, with another 20,000 people without a job in December from the month before.

At a summit on Monday, Europe’s leaders tried to shift the debate from fighting the debt crisis to reviving growth in a bloc that produces 16 percent of global economic output.

They are looking to deploy up to 82 billion euros of unspent funds from the EU’s 2007-2013 budget in an attempt to boost employment. But most economists expect scant progress while the euro zone’s high debtors are compelled to persist with harsh austerity programs under a new ‘fiscal compact’.

Citigroup dubbed the German-inspired pact for stricter budget discipline, agreed by 25 EU leaders on Monday, as a “compact for low growth,” while one European diplomat has said that it “essentially makes Keynesianism illegal.”

US home prices keep falling
The Wall Street Journal
(1/31/12)

Home Prices Tumble

U.S. home prices fell again in November, according to the Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller indexes, indicating continued struggles for the beleaguered housing market.

The sector has remained sluggish despite lower prices and interest rates due to a slowly improving economy, an abundance of foreclosures and tighter mortgage requirements.

“Tighter lending standards and widespread expectations of further declines in home values have been depressing home sales on a larger scale,” said economists Ellen Zentner, Aichi Amemiy and Jeffrey Greenberg of Nomura Economics Research in a note to clients. “In addition, a growing share of distressed assets in home sales that are typically sold at a 20% discount are putting downward pressure on house prices.”

For November, the Case-Shiller index of 10 major metropolitan areas and the 20-city index both fell 1.3% from the previous month. David M. Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at S&P Indices, also noted that 19 of the 20 major U.S. metropolitan markets covered by the indices in November saw prices decline from October, with just Phoenix showing an increase. Atlanta, Las Vegas, Seattle and Tampa posted new index level lows.

“The only positive for the month was Phoenix, one of the hardest hit in recent years,” Mr. Blitzer said. “Annual rates were little better as 18 cities and both composites were negative.” Just Detroit and Washington D.C. notched year-over-year gains.

The 10-city and 20-city composites posted annual returns of negative 3.6% and negative 3.7%, respectively, compared with November 2010. Hard-hit Atlanta had the worst year-over-year performance, declining 11.8%.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, which aims to take into account the slower selling season in the winter, three cities — Denver, Minneapolis and Phoenix — posted monthly increases. The overall 20-city index was down 0.7% from the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

There have been indications more recently of some stabilization in home sales, and economists say that may show up in price data later this year. “Economic growth has accelerated, jobs growth has picked-up and confidence has increased. Banks even seem a little more willing to lend. After the normal lead time of around six months, the resulting rise in home sales should go some way to bringing an end to the five-year-long decline in house prices,” said Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics.

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Nine Circles of Hell!: Tuesday, January 31, 2012
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