Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Jack's Pearl Of Wisdom For Wednesday

US Homebuyers Often Pay Cash

U.S. housing market shifts from liar loans to hard cash

About 27 per cent of home sales in March were made in cash
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U.S. bond rates raise alarm
Overhaul of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac faces hurdles
Property Report: U.S. property plunge - how low will it go?
Article Comments (23)
Barrie McKenna
Washington — From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Published on Monday, Mar. 29, 2010 8:00PM EDT
Last updated on Wednesday, Mar. 31, 2010 2:56AM EDT
Remember the NINJA mortgage? No income, no job, no assets.

Exotic U.S. mortgages are disappearing in the Spartan post-meltdown era, supplanted by a decidedly old-school mode of financing – cash.

In what experts say is a sign the battered U.S. housing market is cautiously finding a bottom, more Americans than ever are choosing to plunk down cold, hard cash to buy homes.

Cash was the currency of choice in 27 per cent of all homes purchased in the United States in March, according a survey by the U.S. National Association of Realtors (NAR).

That's up from 18 per cent a year earlier – and well above the historic norm of less than 10 per cent. Even those who do get mortgages are making much larger down payments than in the past.

“We've had this huge pendulum swing – from liar loans, no-doc loans and no-income loans – to no loans at all,” NAR spokesman Walter Molony said. “We've gone to the opposite extreme.”

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Blame it on a combination of extremely tight credit conditions, a glut of foreclosed properties, sellers eager to get their money out without strings attached and a surge of buying by investors, who see the best real estate values in years and don't want to share the profits with lenders.

Even with interest rates at historic lows, banks are no longer offering the generous terms that were once commonplace.

Nowhere is this more the case than in the areas of the country that saw the most speculative excess in the boom years – California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona. In Miami, for example, well more than 50 per cent all transactions are now in cash.

“Nine out of 10 deals we do are all cash,” said Miami real estate agent Peter Zalewski of Condo Vultures Realty.

“It's virtually the only way to get a deal done in south Florida, especially if the property is a condo.”

The preference for cash is a function of both cautious lenders and nervous sellers, suggested Mr. Zalewski, who specializes in brokering bulk condo sales.

After being so badly burned during the boom, major national lenders have virtually pulled out of the Miami housing market, he said.

At the same time, sellers – many of them banks holding foreclosed properties – want the certainty and expediency of cash. In this new show-me-money environment, buyers with cash are beating out those waiting for financing.

“Sellers would rather take a lower price and close with all cash in two weeks, instead of waiting 30 to 60 days for a deal at a higher price that may or may not happen,” Mr. Zalewski explained.

And the return of investor-purchasers to cities such as Miami is a sign that buyers believe prices have nowhere to go but up after the historic meltdown.

“People are going in with cash because they're confident it's the bottom,” Mr. Zalewski said.

It isn't only investors who are paying in cash.

Mr. Molony said first-time buyers and those looking for loans on high-end properties are finding traditional financing tough to get. So they're selling their investments to raise money for a home, or borrowing from family and friends.

Investors accounted for 19 per cent of homes bought in the United States in March, up from 15 per cent in December, and a large percentage of those paid in cash, Mr. Molony said.

But the rest were ordinary home buyers, who are being turned down by lenders, in spite of the extraordinary efforts by the U.S. government to prop up the housing market.

“All-cash purchasing is just standing out,” Mr. Molony said. “It's a really high share.”

Buying without a mortgage means people are coming up with substantial liquid assets.

The median price of a single-family home in the United States was $164,300 (U.S.) in February; $170,200 for a condo.

Iranian Nuclear Scientist Defects

Shahram Amiri Defects To US: Missing Iranian Nuclear Scientist Helping CIA, Reports ABC News
First Posted: 03-30-10 08:08 PM | Updated: 03-31-10 10:47 AM


Read More: ABC News, Ahmadinejad, Cia, Defections, Espionage, Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Malek Ashtar University, Mecca, Nuclear Energy, Nuclear Program, Nuclear Scientist, Nuclear Weapons, Sanctions, Saudi Arabia, Shahram Amiri, Tehran, World News

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(AP) WASHINGTON — An Iranian nuclear scientist who had been reported missing since last summer has defected to the U.S. and is assisting the CIA in its efforts to undermine Iran's nuclear program, ABC News reported Tuesday.

The scientist, Shahram Amiri, has been resettled in the U.S., according to the report.

The CIA had no comment on the report, a spokesman said.

President Barack Obama said Tuesday he hopes international sanctions against Iran for pursuing its nuclear ambitions will be in place this spring. Iran maintains that its nuclear research is for peaceful purposes and not to develop weapons.

Amiri, who worked at Tehran's Malek Ashtar University, an institution closely connected to Iran's Revolutionary Guard, disappeared last June while in Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage. While his disappearance led to speculation that he had defected and was assisting the West in its efforts to keep track of Iran's nuclear program, the foreign minister for Iran accused the U.S. of helping to kidnap him.

Citing people briefed on the intelligence operation, ABC News said Amiri's disappearance was part of a long-planned CIA operation to persuade him to defect. The CIA reportedly approached Amiri in Iran through an intermediary who made an offer of resettlement on behalf of the United States, ABC News said.

Amiri has been extensively debriefed since his defection, according to the report, and has helped to confirm U.S. intelligence assessments about the Iranian nuclear program.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Imagining An Israeli Attack On Iran

Imagining an Israeli Strike on Iran

Alicia Cheng and Sarah Gephart, Mgmt. Design
Published: March 26, 2010

In 1981, Israel destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak, declaring it could not live with the chance the country would get a nuclear weapons capability. In 2007, it wiped out a North Korean-built reactor in Syria. And the next year, the Israelis secretly asked the Bush administration for the equipment and overflight rights they might need some day to strike Iran’s much better-hidden, better-defended nuclear sites.

Agencies Suspect Iran Is Planning New Atomic Sites (March 28, 2010)
They were turned down, but the request added urgency to the question: Would Israel take the risk of a strike? And if so, what would follow?

Now that parlor game question has turned into more formal war games simulations. The government’s own simulations are classified, but the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution created its own in December. The results were provocative enough that a summary of them has circulated among top American government and military officials and in many foreign capitals.

For the sake of verisimilitude, former top American policymakers and intelligence officials — some well known — were added to the mix. They played the president and his top advisers; the Israeli prime minister and cabinet; and Iranian leaders. They were granted anonymity to be able to play their roles freely, without fear of blowback. (This reporter was invited as an observer.) A report by Kenneth M. Pollack, who directed the daylong simulation, can be found at the Saban Center’s Web site.

A caution: Simulations compress time and often oversimplify events. Often they underestimate the risk of error — for example, that by using faulty intelligence leaders can misinterpret a random act as part of a pattern of aggression. In this case, the actions of the American and Israeli teams seemed fairly plausible; the players knew the bureaucracy and politics of both countries well. Predicting Iran’s moves was another matter, since little is known about its decision-making process. —DAVID E. SANGER


Without telling the U.S. in advance, Israel strikes at six of Iran's most critical nuclear facilities, using a refueling base hastily set up in the Saudi Arabian desert without Saudi knowledge. (It is unclear to the Iranians if the Saudis were active participants or not.)

Already-tense relations between the White House and Israel worsen rapidly, but the lack of advance notice allows Washington to say truthfully that it had not condoned the attack.


In a series of angry exchanges, the U.S. demands that Israel cease its attacks, though some in Washington view the moment as an opportunity to further weaken the Iranian government, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Telling Israel it has made a mess, Washington essentially instructs the country to sit in a corner while the United States tries to clean things up.


Even while calling for restraint on all sides, the U.S. deploys more Patriot antimissile batteries and Aegis cruisers around the region, as a warning to Iran not to retaliate. Even so, some White House advisers warn against being sucked into the conflict, believing that Israel's real strategy is to lure America into finishing the job with additional attacks on the damaged Iranian facilities.


Despite warnings, Iran fires missiles at Israel, including its nuclear weapons complex at Dimona, but damage and casualties are minimal. Meanwhile, two of Iran's proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, launch attacks in Israel and fire rockets into the country.

Believing it already has achieved its main goal of setting back the nuclear program by years, Israel barely responds.


Iran, while wounded, sees long-term opportunities to unify its people - and to roll over its opposition parties - on nationalistic grounds. Its strategy is to mount low-level attacks on Israel while portraying the United States as a paper tiger - unable to control its ally and unwilling to respond to Iran.

Convinced that the Saudis had colluded with the Israelis, and emboldened by the measured initial American position, Iran fires missiles at the Saudi oil export processing center at Abqaiq, and tries to incite Shiite Muslims in eastern Saudi Arabia to attack the Saudi regime.

Iran also conducts terror attacks against European targets, in hopes that governments there will turn on Israel and the United States.


After a meeting of its divided leadership, Iran decides against directly attacking any American targets - to avoid an all-out American response.


Though Iran's retaliation against Israel causes only modest damage, critics in the Israeli media say the country's leaders, by failing to respond to every attack, have weakened the credibility of the nation's deterrence. Hezbollah fires up to 100 rockets a day into northern Israel, with some aimed at Haifa and Tel Aviv.

The Israeli economy comes to a virtual halt, and Israeli officials, urging American intervention, complain that one-third of the country's population is living in shelters. Hundreds of thousands flee Haifa and Tel Aviv.


Israel finally wins American acquiescence to retaliate against Hezbollah. It orders a 48-hour campaign by air and special forces against Lebanon and begins to prepare a much larger air and ground operation.


Knowing that its ultimate weapon is its ability to send oil prices sky high, Iran decides to attack Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, an oil industry center, with conventional missiles and begins mining the Strait of Hormuz.

A Panamanian-registered, Americanowned tanker and an American minesweeper are severely damaged. The price of oil spikes, though temporarily.


Unable to sit on the sidelines while oil supplies and American forces are threatened, Washington begins a massive military reinforcement of the Gulf region.


The game ends eight days after the initial Israeli strike. But it is clear the United States was leaning toward destroying all Iranian air, ground and sea targets in and around the Strait of Hormuz, and that Iran's forces were about to suffer a significant defeat. Debate breaks out over how much of Iran's nuclear program was truly crippled, and whether the country had secret backup facilities that could be running in just a year or two.


1. By attacking without Washington's advance knowledge, Israel had the benefits of surprise and momentum - not only over the Iranians, but over its American allies - and for the first day or two, ran circles around White House crisis managers.

2. The battle quickly sucked in the whole region - and Washington. Arab leaders who might have quietly applauded an attack against Iran had to worry about the reaction in their streets. The war shifted to defending Saudi oil facilities, and Iran's use of proxies meant that other regional players quickly became involved.

3. You can bomb facilities, but you can't bomb knowledge. Iran had not only scattered its facilities, but had also scattered its scientific and engineering leadership, in hopes of rebuilding after an attack.

4. No one won, and the United States and Israel measured success differently. In Washington, officials believed setting the Iranian program back only a few years was not worth the huge cost. In Israel, even a few years delay seemed worth the cost, and the Israelis argued that it could further undercut a fragile regime and perhaps speed its demise. Most of the Americans thought that was a pipe dream. —D.E.S.

Illustrations by Alicia Cheng and Sarah Gephart, Mgmt. Design.

South African Government Seizes Zimbabwe Properties To Compensate Zimbabwe Farmers For Lost Land

Business Day (Johannesburg)
South Africa: Zimbabwe Properties Attached to Pay Farmers

Stephan Hofstatter

30 March 2010

Johannesburg — CIVIL rights group AfriForum plans to serve attachment orders today against four properties in Cape Town owned by the Zimbabwe government.

This marks the first time Zimbabwe's properties in SA risk being sold to compensate some white farmers in Zimbabwe for land seizures deemed illegal by a regional court in Namibia.

The move could set a precedent for hundreds of dispossessed farmers seeking to enforce much larger compensation claims through courts in SA.

AfriForum legal representative Willie Spies said attachment orders would be noted against two non-diplomatic properties in Zonnebloem, one in Kenilworth and another in Wynberg.

Its lawyers planned to commence proceedings at the sheriff's offices in Barrack Street .

The sheriff visited the properties earlier this month to attach moveables belonging to the Zimbabwean government, but had found three vacant and one being rented to a third party, he said.

A writ of execution was issued by the North Gauteng High Court on Friday and would be executed today for a costs order against the Zimbabwean government of R113000 awarded by the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) Tribunal in Windhoek last year.

"This is a small amount, but we are sending a symbolic message to the Zimbabwean government that, contrary to President Robert Mugabe's statements that the Sadc rulings are of no consequence to Zimbabwe, they are enforceable in SA," said Spies.

Zimbabwe does not recognise the Sadc ruling. It has argued that the ruling has yet to be ratified by the regional body's summit. Government spokesman George Charamba previously told Business Day there was therefore no question of Zimbabwean assets being attached in SA. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.
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The combined value of the properties far exceeds the costs order. But Spies said their sale in execution could be delayed until a much larger claim worth tens of millions was instituted by 79 farmers who were party to the Sadc ruling.

The Sadc Tribunal previously declared Zimbabwe's 2005 constitutional amendment that allowed the government to redistribute white-owned farms without compensation as racially discriminatory and illegal. It ordered the government to pay dispossessed farmers fair compensation, and protect the property rights of those still on their farms.

Zimbabwe's High Court rejected an application to enforce the Sadc judgment in Zimbabwe. Judge Bharat Patel said this would be "fundamentally contrary to public policy" by forcing Zimbabwe to reverse its land reforms since 2000.

But last month , the North Gauteng High Court ruled the Sadc judgements, including the costs award, were enforceable in SA.

Bank of America To Increase Foreclosures 600% In 2010

Monday, March 29, 2010

Decadence. Bondage And Voyeurism In The Repulican Party

Voyeur West Hollywood: GOP Spent Funds At Club, Lavish Hotels [UPDATE]
First Posted: 03-29-10 10:09 AM | Updated: 03-29-10 02:51 PM

2,883 Read More: Michael Steele, Michael Steele Daily Caller, Michael Steele Rnc, Michale Steele RNC Fundraising, Republican National Committee, Rnc, Slidepollajax, Steele West Hollywood, Voyeur West Hollywood, Politics News
The Daily Caller's Jonathan Strong has basically won the morning with a story about RNC Chairman Michael Steele's lavish lifestyle on the road. Strong reports that Steele "once raised the possibility of using party money to buy a private jet for his travel," and has run up some substantial tabs at some of our nation's nicest hotels. But if you ask me, he sort of buried the lede... probably strategically! Because look what awaits you in paragraph six:

Once on the ground, FEC filings suggest, Steele travels in style. A February RNC trip to California, for example, included a $9,099 stop at the Beverly Hills Hotel, $6,596 dropped at the nearby Four Seasons, and $1,620.71 spent [update: the amount is actually $1,946.25] at Voyeur West Hollywood, a bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex.
Oh, wow, awesome. Note that Strong's done his due diligence on the amount spent. As of this writing, Voyeur's website is not loading, probably because every single staff member of the Democratic National Committee is currently on the site, looking for images of Steele in the champagne room. But check out some of the Yelp testimonials:

The girl at the door sent us in right away and told us to go to a table by the bar and get some free Champagne. Seriously. This club is amazing. There are topless "dancers" acting out S&M scenes throughout the night on one of the side stages, there's a half-naked girl hanging from a net across the ceiling and at one point I walked to the bathroom and pretty much just stopped dead in my tracks to watch two girls simulating oral sex in a glass case.

Really understated elegance here.

Also, Lindsay Lohan was at our table at one point.

Other relatively recent reviews testify to Voyeur being something of a "velvet rope" type of place -- more a haven for celebrities to dip their toes into some sanitized version of outre culture than an out-and-out bondage club. Like a Ruby Tuesday of gothic sex at which you might see Mickey Rourke.

Strong focuses primarily on Steele in his article, noting that he declined requests for an interview. He reports a fair share of off-the-record, internecine disgruntlement, however:

Complaints, almost always expressed off the record, have been bitter. "This is not somebody who is out recruiting candidates," said an aide who worked closely with Steele. "He is not meeting with donors. He's not asking for money. The guy is writing his book or doing his speaking gigs, or whatever the hell else he fills his days with. Those are his priorities."
Well, maybe he is recruiting some very unique candidates?

Story continues below

Take a look at more of the RNC's lavish spending habits:

Voyeur West Hollywood Nightclub 1 of 8

In February, the RNC reportedly spent nearly $2,000 at Voyeur West Hollywood, a nightclub featuring scantily-clad dancers. UrbanDaddy calls Voyeur "a lavish new nightspot suggesting that highbrow elegance and a bit of S&M are not mutually exclusive."


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UPDATE: Greg Sargent says the RNC is undertaking an investigation of the Voyeur West Hollywood expenditures, and has been quick to establish that Steele was not the patron in question. A statement from the RNC reads thusly:

We are investigating the expenditure in question. The story willfully and erroneously suggests that the expenditure in question was one belonging to the Chairman. This was a reimbursement made to a non-committee staffer.

The Chairman was never at the location in question, he had no knowledge of the expenditure, nor does he find the use of committee funds at such a location at all acceptable.

Good reporting would make that distinction crystal clear. The committee has requested that the monies be returned to the committee and that the story be corrected so that it is accurate."

Elsewhere, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jay Bookman wonders if Steele has finally "run out of lives as RNC Chair." And earlier this year, former White House official/Bob Dole spokesman Doug MacKinnon sounded alarms, slamming Steele (along with Florida Governor Charlie Crist), for "reckless and self-indulgent behavior" and for placing a higher priority on promoting his "ego-centric book."

FURTHER UPDATE: Alex Pappas of the Daily Caller has identified Erik Brown as the staffer responsible for the RNC-funded escapade. Brown owns Dynamic Marketing Inc. a marketing and consulting firm recently linked to California GOP gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner, and has apparently attended an NFL football game with RNC Chairman Michael Steele.

Tucker Carlson, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Daily Caller, responded to RNC complaints about this morning's article, saying:

Our questions remain: Why did the committee spend more than $17,000 on private jets in the month of February? How and why was RNC business conducted in a bondage-themed nightclub, and how and why were the nearly $2,000 in charges that resulted approved by RNC staff?

High flyer: RNC Chairman Steele suggested buying private jet with GOP funds [The Daily Caller]

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Stark Video From The Moscow Subway Bombing

Murder, Inc. Private US Security Firms Carry Out "Hits" All Over The World

March 22, 2010
A fascinating scandal has erupted in Washington that is exposing the sordid underbelly of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
According to a “New York Times” investigation and other Washington sources, the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies have fielded covert mercenary networks in Afghanistan, Pakistan (aka “Afpak”), and Iraq whose mission is to murder tribal militants and nationalists opposing Western occupation.
US law forbids murder or using mercenaries. But, as Cicero said, “laws are silent in times of war.”
A former senior Pentagon official specializing in murky foreign operations, Mike Furlong, set up a company, International Media Ventures(IMV), to supposedly provide the US military with “cultural information” about Afghanistan’s Pashtun tribes. Codename: Operation Capstone.
Two obscure, Orwellian-named Pentagon outfits, “the Cultural Engineering Group” of Florida, and “Counter-Narcoterrorism Technology Program” of Virginia funded Furlong with $24.6 million.
Furlong hired a bunch of former special forces types and assorted thugs. These rent-a-Rambos’s real mission was to assassinate Pashtun leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and target tribal compounds for strikes by US Predator drones. Another heartwarming example of free enterprise at work and how to win Muslim hearts and minds.
In short, a 2010 version of the Mafia’s contract killers, known as “Murder Inc.”
Thickening this plot, retired CIA types, including the flamboyant Dewey Clarridge, whom I well recall from the 1980’s Afghan war, were reportedly involved. IMV’s CEO came from major defense contractor L-3, long involved in top secret operations.
It is uncertain if Furlong’s Murder Inc had time to go operational. But its exposure is causing a huge ruckus. In best US government tradition, the Pentagon has cut Furlong adrift. He is now under criminal investigation.
Shades of CIA agent Ed Wilson, whose frightful case I long followed. Wilson was set up as a deniable “independent” by CIA to supply arms and explosives to Libya and Angola. When this intrigue blew wide open, Wilson was kidnapped by US agents, convicted on the basis of lies by the government, and buried alive in federal prison.
This latest guns-for-hire scandal recalls the brutal, 1980’s guerilla war in El Salvador, which I covered, where the US became involved with government death squads. It also reminds me of the long-forgotten 1968-1972 Operation Phoenix in South Vietnam in which CIA and South Vietnamese special units killed from 26,000 to 44,000 suspected Communists or sympathizers. US Special Forces were heavily involved in these liquidation operations.
The Furlong scandal comes at a time of growing criticism of the US government’s use of over 275,000 mercenaries (aka “private contractors”) in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These hired gunmen and logistics personnel operate without any accountability, legal structure, or oversight.
Intelligence sources in Pakistan say that US mercenaries are likely behind some of the bombings of civilian targets, particularly those in Peshawar. Indian intelligence agents are also spreading mayhem in an effort to destabilize Pakistan.
Private mercenary firms like Xe (formerly Blackwater) and DynCorp have raked in fortunes running private armies for the US. They are major donors to the far right of the Republican Party. Deeply worried civil libertarians warn these private armies are only a few goose-steps away from resembling the Nazi Brownshirts of late 1920’s Germany.
Amazingly, it seems US Special Forces in Afpak have not until this month been under the control of supreme commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. They apparently reported to his rival, Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus in Tampa. These Rambos have been rampaging around, killing at will and committing atrocities against civilians, reports the UN.
This is ironic since McChrystal rose to his high rank by leading US Joint Special Operations Command’s special forces on campaigns of liquidation and intimidation in Iraq, and later, Afghanistan.
To the Pentagons’s fury, CIA has long run its own killer paramilitary units and drone assassination operations, 90% of whose victims are civilians, according to Pakistani media investigations. Such “wet affairs” undermine the agency’s basic mission of intelligence-gathering.
CIA’s paramilitaries report only to Langley which does not talk to the Pentagon. Pakistan’s feeble rent-a-government is not even informed in advance of Predator strikes and assassinations on its own territory.
How many of the 15 other US intelligence agencies are running their own little illegal private armies? Add special forces from NATO contingents, whose operations remain a deep secret. Australia, for one, has come under heavy criticism for attacks on civilians by its SAS units. Britain’s renowned SAS and SBS commandos are very active in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The US brands all al-Qaida suspects and Taliban “illegal combatants,” denying them due process of law and the Geneva Convention’s prisoner protections. It’s ok to murder and torture such “terrorists,” says Washington.
But what, then, about the army of US mercenary Rambos that are running amok, who wear no uniform, kill at will, and have no legal oversight? Or America’s Special Forces?
Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2010

Jack's Pearl Of Wisdom FOr Monday

Jack's Pearl Of Wisdom For Monday

Mon 29 Mar 2010, 16:19 0 Comment(s) Email article
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Two Female Suicide Bombers Kill Over 67 In Moscow Subway

Moscow Subway Explosions: Dozens Killed By Two Female Suicide Bombers

DAVID NOWAK | 03/29/10 08:21 AM | AP

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MOSCOW — Two female suicide bombers blew themselves up Monday in twin attacks on Moscow subway stations jam-packed with rush-hour passengers, killing at least 37 people and wounding 65, officials said. They blamed the carnage on rebels from the Caucasus region.

The blasts come six years after Caucasus Islamic separatists carried out a pair of deadly Moscow subway strikes and raise concerns that the war has once again come to Russia's capital, amid militants' warnings of a renewed determination to push their fight.

Chechen rebels claimed responsibility for a deadly bombing late last year on a passenger train en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Last month, Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov warned in an interview on a rebel-affiliated Web site that "the zone of military operations will be extended to the territory of Russia ... the war is coming to their cities."

The first explosion took place just before 8 a.m. at the Lubyanka station in central Moscow. The station is underneath the building that houses the main offices of the Federal Security Service, the KGB's main successor agency.

About 45 minutes later, a second explosion hit the Park Kultury station, which is near the renowned Gorky Park.

"I heard a bang, turned my head and smoke was everywhere. People ran for the exits screaming," said 24-year-old Alexander Vakulov, who said he was on a train on the platform opposite the targeted train at Park Kultury.

"I saw a dead person for the first time in my life," said 19-year-old Valentin Popov, who had just arrived at the station from the opposite direction.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who built much of his political capital by directing a fierce war with Chechen separatists a decade ago, vowed Monday that "terrorists will be destroyed."

The iconic Moscow subway system is one of the world's busiest, carrying around 7 million passengers on an average workday, and is a key element in running the sprawling and traffic-choked city.

Story continues below

Russian TV showed amateur video from inside the Lubyanka station of wounded and possibly dead victims sitting and lying on the floor. The train platform was filled with smoke.

Outside both stations, passengers flooded out, many of them crying and making frantic calls on their cell phones. The wounded were loaded into ambulances and helicopters, some with their heads wrapped in bloody bandages, as sirens wailed.

The last confirmed terrorist attack in Moscow was in August 2004, when a suicide bomber blew herself up outside a city subway station, killing 10 people. Responsibility for that blast was claimed by Chechen rebels.

Russian police have killed several Islamic militant leaders in the North Caucasus recently, including one last week in the Kabardino-Balkariya region. The killing of Anzor Astemirov was mourned by contributors to two al-Qaida-affiliated Web sites.

The killings have raised fears of retaliatory strikes by the militants.

Emergency Minister Sergei Shoigu said the toll was 37 killed and 102 injured, but he did not give a breakdown of casualties at each station.

In a televised meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev, Federal Security Service head Alexander Bortnikov said body fragments of the two bombers pointed to a Caucasus connection. He did not elaborate.

"We will continue the fight against terrorism unswervingly and to the end," Medvedev said.

Neither he nor Putin, who was on an official trip in Siberia, announced specific measures and it was not clear if Russia has new strategies to unleash in the Caucasus, where violent separatism has spread from Chechnya into neighboring republics.

Although the Russian army battered Chechen rebels in massive assaults a decade ago, the separatists continue to move through the region's mountains and forests with comparative ease and launch frequent small attacks.

New York's transit system beefed up security as a precaution following the Moscow bombings. A spokesman for New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Kevin Ortiz, said the agency has a "heightened security presence," but declined further comment.

The agency is in charge of New York City buses and subways, as well as suburban trains, and bridges and tunnels.

The Moscow blasts practically paralyzed movement in the city center as emergency vehicles sped to the stations.

In the Park Kultury blast, the bomber was wearing a belt packed with plastic explosive and set it off as the train's doors opened, said Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for Russia's top investigative body. The woman has not been identified, he told reporters.

A woman who sells newspapers outside the Lubyanka station, Ludmila Famokatova, said there appeared to be no panic, but that many of the people who streamed out were distraught.

"One man was weeping, crossing himself, saying 'thank God I survived'," she said.


Associated Press Writers Jim Heintz, Lynn Berry and Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow contributed to this report.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Rebel Groups Kill Hundreds In The Congo

Weakened Rebel Group Kills Hundreds of Congolese

Jehad Nga for The New York Times

A woman and her child in Makombo, one of the Congo villages raided last year by armed rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army. More Photos »

TAPILI, Congo — Depleted by an American-backed offensive and seemingly desperate for new conscripts, the Lord’s Resistance Army, one of the most infamous armed groups in Africa, has killed hundreds of villagers in this remote corner of Congo and kidnapped hundreds more, marching them off in a vast human chain, witnesses say.


The New York Times

The rebels marched people out of Tapili at gunpoint. More Photos »

Jehad Nga for The New York Times

A father and a child walked on a path cutting through a dense jungle where the armed rebels are active. More Photos »

The massacre and abductions are a major setback to the effort to stamp out the remnants of the group, a primarily Ugandan rebel force that fielded thousands of soldiers in the 1980s and ’90s. But in recent years it has degenerated into a band of several hundred predators living deep in the bush in Congo, Sudan and the Central African Republic with child brides and military-grade weaponry.

The United States is providing the Ugandan Army with millions of dollars’ worth of aid — including fuel, trucks, satellite phones, night-vision goggles and contracted air support — to hunt the fighters down.

It is one of the signature programs of Africom, the new American military command for Africa, which is working with the State Department to employ what officials call “the three D’s” — defense, diplomacy and development — to help African nations stabilize themselves.

These efforts appeared to be succeeding, eliminating up to 60 percent of the Lord’s Resistance Army fighters in the past 18 months, American officials said. But that may have been why the fighters tore off on their raid, late last year, to get as many new conscripts as possible, along with medicine, clothes and food.

They also kidnapped nurses from hospitals, witnesses said, and stripped blood-splattered clothes off corpses for themselves, a sign they are increasingly desperate.

Human Rights Watch, which sent a team to investigate the killings in February, said the L.R.A. killed at least 320 people in this area, calling the massacre one of the worst in the group’s 23-year, atrocity-filled history.

Witnesses said that the number of dead could be several hundred more, and that most victims had been taken from their villages, tied at the waist and forced into the jungle, often with enormous loads of looted food balanced on their heads. Along the way, fighters randomly selected captives to kill, usually by an ax blow to the back of the head.

“They only scream once,” said Jean-Claude Singbatile, a high school student who said that he spent 14 days in captivity and witnessed dozens of killings.

What the attack shows, said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a Human Rights Watch researcher who was recently in Congo, “is that whether they are weakened or not, the L.R.A.’s capacity to kill remains as strong as ever.”

The events expose another troubling reality: Even as Congo’s leaders are pushing theUnited Nations to begin withdrawing peacekeepers, partly to make the government look more independent from the West, this immense nation of nearly 70 million people remains as vulnerable as ever.

This particular patch of northeastern Congo is so cut off from the rest of the country — there is no electricity, no cellphones and no roads, save 18-inch-wide footpaths barely passable by motorbike — that only now, more than three months later, is the scale of the massacre becoming clear. Human Rights Watch is planning to release an extensive report on the killings soon.

Residents here said that they had heard warnings for months.

“ ‘We are going to feast with you for Christmas’ — that what’s the L.R.A. kept telling people,” said Papa Adam Matsaga, the leader of a local human rights group that also documented the recent killings. Mr. Matsaga keeps a notebook log of the dead, including Merci Zunane, a 3-year-old. The list, in neat capital letters, covers page after page.

The massacre also had a clear precedent. Nearly a year before, more than 800 civilians were killed in revenge attacks after an American-backed air raid that went awry.

At the time, the American military had sent advisers to Uganda to help plan an attack on the headquarters of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Garamba National Park, in northeastern Congo. Ugandan helicopters strafed the camp, narrowly missing Joseph Kony, the group’s leader, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on crimes against humanity. Afterward, the fighters scattered and vented their outrage on nearby villagers.

This time, the L.R.A. seemed to have had a different strategy.

Instead of storming into villages and burning down huts (as it did in 2008 and early 2009), the group sent in relatively clean-cut soldiers dressed in proper military fatigues.

“They came in saying they were the national army and they wanted to know where were the churches and schools, so they could protect them,” said the Rev. Joseph Nzala, a priest in Tapili.

Eastern Congo has been a dumping ground for various armed groups for years, so it is not surprising that the villagers might have been confused. But as soon as they gathered, the roughly two dozen fighters roped them up at gunpoint and took them away. The band repeated the ruse in village after village, steadily expanding but eliminating hundreds along the way.

There were no peacekeepers or real government soldiers around, and when the killing started Dec. 14, all the people could do was run. Several men who escaped said the fighters must have had their own secretive selection process because there was no way of knowing who was about to die.

“Was it someone walking slow or someone old? No,” said Charles Emabe, who managed to slip away one night.

Today, all along the paths that the L.R.A. traveled, in the shadows of freakishly tall palm trees and gigantic tangles of bamboo, lie the heaped-dirt graves of the men, women and children who were pulled out of line.

Thousands of displaced villagers are now camping in Niangara, the one town in this area, itself a study in decay. During the Belgian colonial days, Niangara was a major hub for cotton and coffee trade. Today, all that is left are faint outlines of cobblestone roads barely perceptible under the red dirt paths and brick mansions sinking into the weeds.

Even before the news of this attack emerged, American officials had been increasingly concerned about the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has not had a discernible political agenda for years and has become infamous for its brutality. The Senate recently passed a bill calling for a more coherent strategy against it, and American officials in Uganda have been pushing for more support for the Ugandan military, seen as the most capable and disciplined in this area.

“As long as the L.R.A are out there, this is exactly what they will do — kill a lot of people,” one American military official said.

According to American and Ugandan Army officers, the rebels are still split among small groups. Mr. Kony and a band of hard-core fighters have crossed into the Central African Republic and possibly to Darfur in Sudan.

But many analysts say the desert is not for them. They need a jungle to hide in, and people to prey on. The villages outside Niangara, in hindsight, were an obvious target. There was a lot of food, a lot of people and no soldiers.

The last time Cecilia Nendu saw her three sons, they were bound with rope and being marched off toward a wall of green.

“I think they are dead,” she said.

Jack's Words Of Wisdom For Sunday

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Obama's New Loan Modification Program WIll Help Banks More Than Homeowners

US banks to gain from home loans aid

By Suzanne Kapner in New York

Published: March 26 2010 19:20 | Last updated: March 26 2010 19:20

Banks stand to benefit from the Obama administration’s latest initiative to help struggling homeowners.

The administration plans to use $14bn of taxpayers’ money to allow borrowers to refinance with federally guaranteed loans at lower rates.

The scheme, which also provides for debt forgiveness and principal reduction for unemployed borrowers, will be paid for by money from the troubled asset relief programme, the bank bail-out scheme.

The latest evolution of the Home Affordable Modification Programme , like the initial version, is voluntary. While it provides incentives for banks to participate, there are no requirements for doing so.

“Everything they put on the table helps the banks disproportionately compared with homeowners,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic & Policy Research, a left-leaning think-tank. “Because the Federal Housing Administration will be guaranteeing these loans, when they go bad it’s the taxpayer out of that money, not the banks.”

The Mortgage Bankers’ Association and the American Securitization Forum both supported the plan, as did Hope Now, an industry alliance of mortgage servicers.

The proposals unveiled on Friday mark an important turning point in the Obama administration’s efforts to halt a housing collapse. The crisis began with a wave of defaults by riskier subprime borrowers, but has shifted to mainstream homeowners who have lost their jobs or now owe more than their properties are worth.

The latest plan attempts to address that shift by helping the 3m to 4m homeowners that the administration deems “responsible” – not speculators or investors or people who bought homes they could not afford, but who are temporarily out of work.

The programme also excludes holiday homes and those with a mortgage balance of more than $729,750 (€547,700, £490,200).

Mortgage servicers will be encouraged to lower monthly payments for eligible borrowers to no more than 31 per cent of their income and provide debt relief for a minimum of three months and as long as six months.

Also included in the plan is an attempt to unstick the logjam of second lien loans. Banks that hold these loans have resisted modifications because they fear that they, as subordinated debt holders, will not get paid. Now that borrowers will be able to reduce overall debt to no more than 115 per cent of the value of their home, second lien holders, along with holders of first liens, will be encouraged to accelerate write-offs.

Consumers groups said they supported any steps to help struggling homeowners, but worried that the new plan did not go far enough. They pointed out that under the existing HAMP programme, only 170,000 borrowers had received permanent modifications.

“We remain concerned that even these new, improved programmes remain voluntary,” noted the Center for Responsible Lending. “The entire system relies on incentives without any mandates – we have carrots, but no sticks.”

There are signs that mortgage services are beginning to recognise that it is in their interest as much as in the interest of homeowners to start tackling this pile of troubled loans. By some estimates foreclosures could reach 12m over the next few years. Bank of America on Wednesday unveiled a plan to offer loan forgiveness to 45,000 homeowners.