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
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
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
“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,”
“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
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
“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
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
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
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
The country - then known as Malaya - was under British rule at
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
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
“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
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.