In ex-rebel bastion, Iraqis vote ‘without fear’

RAMADI (AFP) – If democracy is to finally flourish in war-torn Iraq then the path to transition might just have started in classrooms at an elementary school in the former Sunni Arab rebel bastion of Ramadi.

In 2005 elections, less than two percent of the city’s half-million population turned out as residents took to heart warnings from insurgents that they would behead anyone who dared to vote.
But, this time, voters on Saturday flocked in droves to the Ussud Al-Rafidain (Lions of the Two Rivers) school on the outskirts of Ramadi.

“There is more stability and more security,” said Hiba, a 32-year-old woman teacher and volunteer at the polling station set up inside the red-brick school.

Hiba was one official overseeing the poll in Anbar, a province of sweeping deserts dominated by Sunni Arabs that was once the main battleground in the insurgency that followed the US-led invasion of 2003.
“We had breakfast and then we voted,” she said, sitting beside her friend Hanna near the polling station. “Today should be completely normal.”

The turnout in Anbar four years ago was pitiful. Just 3,775 voters showed up amid a tense security situation that inspired an almost complete Sunni boycott but also left them under-represented in the government.
Many of those who did vote were later murdered.

At the time Anbar was the scene of explosive fighting as Sunni-led insurgents battled US forces in the wake of the invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

Dressed in a brown dishdasha, the traditional Arab dress for men, Abu Riad, 42, was once a feared insurgent with an Al-Qaeda-linked group.

“I used to belong to Ansar al-Sunna, and at the time our chief convinced us that the election was prohibited and the people who were going to vote were heretics,” he told AFP at a polling station in the central Ramadi district of Al-Azizia.
“But after the Sahwa were created I understood that political action was better than military,” he said, referring to the Sunni militias formed in 2006 that have played a key role in driving Al-Qaeda fighters out of Iraq.

We are Iraqis too, Christian voters insist

HAMDANIYAH (AFP) – Christians turned out to vote in Iraq’s provincial elections on Saturday, overcoming their fears to claim their rights as citizens of the violence-scarred country.
“I didn’t intend to vote, but I came today to send a message to the terrorists who have attacked Christians. We want to tell them that we are citizens of Iraq,” said Sargun Hanna, 53.

“I wasn’t able to vote in 2005 because of terrorism and I had no confidence in the future. But I decided to vote today to prove my existence,” he said at a polling station in Hamdaniyah, in the dangerous northern province of Nineveh.
Amina Abush Bolus, a schoolteacher, voiced similar sentiments.

“We decided to participate... to remove the fear in our hearts and in the hearts of our families. We have been displaced from our land, and we left our homes and work because of this fear,” she said.
“But now I feel the Iraqi government was honest when they said they will ensure the full participation of all the sons of Iraq. This is the first time we Christians feel it.”

For Imad Sami Jaju, an engineer, the turnout was due to improved security and protection, but also “to shout out to the world that we are committed to our land and reject any plans for partition.”

For the provincial elections, Iraq’s first polls since 2005, minorities have had seats reserved in advance. Christians have been allocated one seat in Baghdad, one in Nineveh and another in oil-rich Basra in the south.

Around 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq at the time of the invasion, but the number has since shrunk by at least a third as members of the various communities have fled the country, according to Christian leaders.
While Christians make up around 3% of Iraq’s 29 million overwhelmingly Muslim population, most of them are now concentrated in the relatively stable Kurdish autonomous region in the north.


Thousands march to Govt House in fresh Thai protests

BANGKOK (AFP) – Thousands of supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra marched towards Thailand’s main government offices in Bangkok Saturday, vowing to fight on until the new administration left office.

The protesters set off just after 10pm (1500GMT), an AFP correspondent at the scene said, making their way past four steel barricades manned by unarmed police.

Protest leaders said they would remain outside Government House, where they would read a list of demands that include the dissolution of government.

“We will not go inside Government House,” rally leader Jatuporn Prompan said.
“If the government uses force... this government will not last until tomorrow,” he later added.
Around 30,000 protesters gathered at Sanam Luang park in Bangkok to hear protesters’ speeches before the crowd set off, led by more than 100 motorbikes and 10 trucks carrying rally leaders.

Police have deployed 5,250 officers in response to the rally, Lieutenant General Suchart Mueankaoe, commander of Bangkok Metropolitan police, told AFP, with many more on standby along with the army.

Four barriers had been set up across the four-kilometre (2.5-mile) route to Government House, where police and military, fearing a repeat of a three-month siege by rival protesters that began last August, manned the compound.
Saturday’s protesters – known as the “Red Shirts” because their crimson clothes show they oppose the yellow-clad, anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) – said they would give the government 15 days to leave before staging a permanent protest.

“The government has 15 days (to leave). From then, no matter how long we have to protest we will do it,” Jatuporn Prompan earlier told the cheering crowd.

The crowd was in good spirits during its march, waving Thai flags and foot-shaped clappers as they walked past police carrying riot shields.

The Red Shirts are calling for those involved in a siege of Bangkok’s airports last year to be fired from government jobs and then prosecuted, and for parliament to be dissolved.


Once-in-century Australian heatwave claims homes, lives

MELBOURNE (AFP) - Australia’s second-largest city Melbourne ground to a halt Saturday, crippled by a once-in-a-century heatwave that has claimed almost 30 lives and razed at least 17 homes.

Wildfires raged through the southeastern state of Victoria, where authorities said flames had come dangerously close to major electricity transmission lines which supplied power to Melbourne on Saturday.
More than 500,000 homes and businesses in Melbourne were left without power on Friday night after an electrical substation exploded in the heat, bringing the city to a standstill.

Temperatures in Victoria topped 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit) for a record-breaking third consecutive day on Friday, when 10 homes and a timber plantation were destroyed in a 6,500 hectare (16,000 acre) blaze.
The heat was blamed for a spike in sudden deaths in the neighbouring state of South Australia, which was in the grip of its hottest weather since 1908.

At least 22 people died in the South Australia capital, Adelaide, on Friday, said the state’s health minister John Hill. Most were older than 70 and had likely just “succumbed to the heat,” he said.

By Saturday morning the state’s ambulance service said it had recorded another six deaths in a period of just three hours and expected to at least equal Friday’s count by the day’s end.

In Melbourne, the power cut meant all trains were cancelled, city buildings were evacuated, and rescue crews were called in to free workers trapped in office tower elevators.

Patients were turned away from overstretched hospitals running on reserve generator power.
“The line ... literally exploded in the heat, and I don’t know if anyone could ever have prevented that from occurring,” Victoria’s premier John Brumby told Sky News.

“We’re in unchartered waters, unprecedented conditions, and with the week and hot weather (we’ve had) some of these systems have never been designed to operate in 44 to 45 degree heat,” he said.
The unrelenting heat is forecast to continue for the next seven days, according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology. Temperatures have topped 48 degrees in country areas, the bureau said.


Nigerians can sue US drugs firm

Nigerian families can sue the Pfizer drugs giant in the US over its alleged role in the deaths of children, a US appeals court has ruled.

The decision overturns ruling by a lower court that the case must be heard in Nigeria. Pfizer is accused of killing 11 children and injuring 181 others when an antibiotic was tested on them during a meningitis epidemic in 1996. Pfizer denies the claims, saying they were victims of the outbreak. The epidemic killed 12,000 children in Nigerian in six months.

The families say that Pfizer tested out an oral antibiotic called Trovan on some 200 ill children in hospital in Kano, without first getting the consent of their parents. They say the drug killed 11 children and caused blindness, deformities and brain damage in others.

Their original law suit had been dismissed on the grounds that it could not be pursued under the Alien Tort Statute, an old law allowing foreigners to sue in the US courts.

But the Second Curcuit US Court of Appeals in New York ruled that the statute could be used.
Peter Safirstein, a lawyer for the Nigerians, said the ruling was “very, very important”. Pfizer has always maintained that the tests were carried out with the approval of the Nigerian government and that the children’s parents were fully informed. In a statement, the company said it had great sympathy for those affected by the epidemic but that “all clinical evidence points to the fact that any deaths or injuries were the direct result of the illness, and not the treatment provided to patients in the Pfizer study”.
Pfizer said it remained “confident that it will prevail”.


UK rejects massacre inquiry call

Britain has rejected a call for an inquiry into the massacre of villagers by its troops in Malaysia in 1948, the Foreign Office has confirmed.
Activists had demanded an official probe into the deaths of 24 unarmed people in Batang Kali at the hands of 14 members of the Scots Guards.

The country - then known as Malaya - was under British rule at the time.
But the UK government rejected inquiry calls put forward in a petition, citing a lack of new evidence.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We have replied to the petition regretting that without new evidence, no further action would be taken by the government.

“The matters have been considered previously by investigations into the Batang Kali massacre in 1949 and 1970 and those investigations found insufficient evidence to pursue prosecution.”
Activist co-ordinator Quek Ngee Meng said: “We are absolutely disappointed with this decision.

“The earlier investigations were of a criminal nature but we are not asking for criminal prosecutions as it has been over 60 years.
“All we want is an inquiry to determine the true facts, an apology, compensation and a memorial to the victims.”
He said the action committee, made up of activists, politicians and relatives of the victims, is to ask the British government to reconsider before launching a legal case.


Millions gather for Bangladesh Islamic meet

TONGI, Bangladesh (AFP) - At least two million worshippers gathered north of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka Friday for a three-day event billed as the largest annual Islamic event after the hajj.

Columns of thousands of devotees -- most carrying beds and utensils -- have been streaming towards the gathering site on the banks of the river Turag at Tongi for the Bishwa Ijtema, or World Muslim Congregation.

The gathering, at which Muslims pray and listen to religious scholars, was first held in the 1960s and was launched by Tablig Jamaat, a non-political group that urges people to follow Islam in their daily lives.

“I’ve come to learn from our elders. It’s very tough times for Muslims across the world and I hope this Bishwa Ijtema will strengthen our faith and make us true believers,” said Mohammad Ishaq, a trader from Pakistan.

Organisers said some 6,000 foreigners from more than 100 countries have attended the event but most of the worshippers are from rural areas of Bangladesh who equate the event to pilgrimage to Islam’s birthplace, Mecca.

“It’s fifth year I am here. Every time I went back to my village I became a better Muslim. It’s like a hajj for poor people like us and it purifies your soul,” said Zakir Hossain, 48, a farmer from the northern Bangladesh district of Dinajpur.

Local police chief Abdul Baten said more than two million people were taking part this year, with the crowd spilling over from the tented venue to roads and highways leading to the river.

Security has been tight with some 11,000 police and elite Rapid Action Battalion officers deployed, he said.
Police have set up scores of checkpoints and closed circuit television cameras as part of security measures. Helicopters and speedboats have been kept on standby.