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Saturday, March 24, 2007

'Between Barack' funniest Second City show in years

'Between Barack' funniest Second City show in years
By Chris Jones
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published March 24, 2007

If you take the hilarious new Second City revue as a cultural barometer, the strained candidacy of an unloved Hillary Rodham Clinton is being slowly crushed by a charming rival with a Kenyan daddy and a chameleonic ability to be black, white, Jewish, Latino, gay or, in a pinch, a soccer mom. All depending on who is doing the projecting.

Obama as malleable slate for liberal hopes and dreams is the uber text of "Between Barack and a Hard Place," the funniest mainstage show on Wells Street in several years. And in one drop-dead-funny sketch late in the show, that leaves a frustrated Hillary (as played with buttoned-down veracity by the pitch-perfectly geeky Molly Erdman) stuck desperately learning how to be loved. As Erdman plays Hillary, her sincere, recognizable attempt to forge a likable laugh comes out mostly as a series of demonic gurgles.

Far more than in recent years, the show is suffused with political themes -- including a mournful Erdman love ballad titled "Where Was This Al Gore Before?" that manages a delicious rhyme between "Tipper" and "zipper." "If the Polar Icecaps Melt," Erdman goes on, warming to her once-soporific, now-rehabilitated idol, "I'll Share My Raft With You."

You could attribute the rise in sharply topical material to the power of the likes of Jon Stewart and (ex-Second Citizen) Stephen Colbert, who do most of their hiring on Wells Street. Not coincidentally, every hopeful male in this show sports a shiny shirt, a striped tie and a short, politico-style haircut. If the best ticket out of Second City to national fame used to be either outrageous edge in the John Belushi or Chris Farley mold, or irony in the Bill Murray, it's now more a matter of looking like a fake news anchor or a slick Georgetown striver. That's the market, and Second City surely has adjusted.

But in all fairness, this show has plenty of nods to the old days. The acerbic, caustic Joe Canale, who had a dazzling, standout show on opening night, has the single funniest routine involving a live audio tour of the Art Institute of Chicago. It's dispensed live from behind a door by a South Side Chicagaw character inclined to confuse Reuben sandwiches with the Rubenesque, and unimpressed by one Mon-ETTE picture of a stack of wheat at 9, followed by a picture of another stack of wheat at, "like, 9:30." This killer skit, performed by Canale and the promising Brad Morris, owes something to "Da Bears" but has a far more complex cultural perspective.

The short "blackouts" are uncommonly good here too. There's one about Attention Surplus Disorder (kid, still, smiling). And early in the show, a wife looking for her husband is told by an Indian character in her living room that hubby is playing cards elsewhere, having outsourced the evening. "Can you fix my computer?" she replies.

"Between Barack and a Hard Place"

When: Open run

Where: Second City, 1616 N. Wells St.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Tickets: $19-$24 at 312-337-3992


US lawmakers press Bush on Iraq withdrawal

US lawmakers press Bush on Iraq withdrawal
By Edward Luce in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: March 24 2007 02:00 | Last updated: March 24 2007 02:00

The US House of Representatives yesterday delivered its most stinging rebuke so far over the Iraq war when it attached conditions to a $124bn emergency funding bill that would force US combat troops to withdraw by 2008.

President George W. Bush, who said he would veto the bill in the unlikely event it reached his desk, dismissed the move as an act of "political theatre" by House Democrats that would delay the flow of vital resources to US troops in the field.

However, the measure, passed by a vote of 218 to 212, is unlikely to find strong echo in the Senate, which votes on a similar bill next week and where the Democrats will almost certainly lack the numbers to override the 60 votes needed to forestall a Republican filibuster. Were the Senate to push the measure through, however, the Democrats would still lack the two-thirds votes needed to override Mr Bush's promised veto. Republicans yesterday also attacked the bill for including hundreds of millions of dollars in special interest funding designed to win over wavering lawmakers. The legislation would impose penalties if Iraq's government fails to meet performance benchmarks, with US troops pulling out sooner if Baghdad meets fewer benchmarks.

Even if the Iraqi government met these goals on time all US forces would be required to leave by September 2008. "The Democrats in the House voted to substitute their judgment for that of our military commanders on the ground in Iraq," said Mr Bush in a short statement following the vote. "The bill has too much pork, too many conditions and an artificial timetable for withdrawal . . . I will veto it if it comes to my desk."

However, its passage also marks something of a triumph for Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, who overcame potentially deep Democratic splits over the Iraq war to cobble together a narrow majority. Only 14 of the 233 House Democrats opposed the measure, with most of the dissenters on the liberal wing of the party who argued the bill did not go far enough in forcing a rapid end to the war.

A small number of "Blue Dog" - or centrist - Democrats also opposed it on the grounds that Congress should not undercut the commander-in-chief's ability to prosecute a war. Two Republicans supported the bill.

The bill also included billions of dollars in extra money for US veterans' care and military hospitals following revelations last month of appalling conditions at Walter Reed and other army medical centres.

"As I have said from the beginning, the war in Iraq is a grotesque mistake," said Ms Pelosi.

"The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating. After four years of war, Iraq is in chaos, and the government is not being held accountable. Benchmarks without deadlines are just words."

Home sales plunge is a puzzle

Home sales plunge is a puzzle
By Mary Umberger
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published March 24, 2007

Chicago-area home sales in the first two months of the year declined 12.1 percent from 2006, confounding analysts who were looking for the first small signs of a spring bounce but instead saw a market continuing to struggle.

The fall in Chicago seemed even more painful given that the national housing picture this year is showing some signs of life.

The results for Chicago added up to the slowest February performance since 2001, which was generally considered to mark the beginning of the housing boom.

Chicago is not performing according to expectations, said economist David Stiff, of Fiserv CSW, a housing-market analyst in Cambridge, Mass.

"It's not a market that got caught up in the bubble, and it didn't have affordability issues. I suppose buyers have gotten caught up in the general psychology and are sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see what happens," added Stiff, whose company studies home-sales data in regional markets.

"I think of Illinois as a bellwether for other markets that didn't get caught up in the bubble," he said. "We have been forecasting about 4 percent price appreciation, year over year, in the Chicago area."

Slight price rise

Instead, the median price for both single-family homes and condominiums in the Chicago area in February was $240,000, up just slightly less than 1 percent from one year ago, according to data reported Friday by the Illinois Association of Realtors.

David Berson, chief economist at housing financier Fannie Mae, said he, too, was surprised at Chicago's 12.1 percent drop, and suggested that auto industry troubles might be having an indirect effect.

"[Where] the economy is most slow, it is in the upper Midwest, not necessarily in Illinois or Chicago," Berson said.

"But there are still portions of the industrial base in northeastern Illinois that support the auto industry, and that has been weak," he said.

He also wondered about the tumult in the mortgage industry. "Maybe the worsening in the mortgage market is having some spillover into the housing market, with people being forced to sell," Berson said. "We'll see, a few more months down the line."

The national home sales picture, released Friday by the National Association of Realtors, was better than Chicago's, although year-over-year numbers still were down 3.6 percent.

But economists, including NAR chief forecaster David Lereah, expressed surprise that sales managed a one-month jump of 4 percent from January to February, the biggest since April.

The data reflect home sales that closed in February, with contracts usually signed weeks before.

Lereah and others said the numbers nationally probably were buoyed by unusually tolerable weather in December and early January that put consumers into a buying mood in many parts of the country. He cautioned that next month might tell a different story.

"Winter storms last month discouraged shopping, and buyers were chilled with the third-coldest February on record," he said. "These unusual weather patterns mean home sales that close in March may decline before rebounding later this spring."

Worries persist over the inventory of unsold homes, which inched up again in February, to a 6.7-month supply nationwide, according to the NAR.

Wilmette real estate agent John Nash said inventory in his area is starting to level off. But he, like economist Stiff, said buyer psychology--specifically, bargain-hunting--is stalling a market recovery.

"The buyers I'm working with all tell me they're in no hurry," he said. "They say they want to get a good deal, and I don't know that they're not overplaying their hands."

ne of his clients, Ann Peisel, listed her Wilmette home last summer, and took it off the market after three months, without a single offer.

She lopped $100,000 off her asking price and relisted it a little over a month ago for just over $1 million.

She did get an offer--though it was for about $900,000, which she considered too low.

"It was somebody who was taking a chance, who really couldn't afford the price," she said. "Nobody is taking into consideration that I have already lowered the price by $100,000."

Negotiations didn't get far, and the buyers went elsewhere--a now-familiar scenario, Nash said.

"It's not uncommon now to see someone offer 10 percent below asking price," Nash said. "A year ago you wouldn't see anybody doing that. Offers that were 5 percent below asking price have been the ones that turn into deals."

Chicago broker Robert Zoretich noted that Illinois, like the nation as a whole, also had a one-month sales hop, of 2.4 percent. But he said he is puzzled about how the rest of spring will play out. He said that even though the marketplace seems busy, deals are not happening with much velocity.

"They're looking, there are showings," he said "There's pent-up demand, but they're just not pulling the trigger," he said.

"I thought in the last couple of weeks it would be picking up more, but it hasn't," he said. "We're showing properties, but we're just not getting contracts."

Decline in West

The Realtors' regional reports were mixed.

The market dive continued in the West, where sales dropped 9.6 percent, year over year. Prices, however, were up 2.2 percent, the NAR said.

The market picked up in the Northeast, with sales up 3.4 percent and median prices up 1.4 percent from a year earlier.

In the Midwest, sales were down 1.9 percent year over year, and prices were down 1.3 percent.

Sales were down 4.4 percent in the South, with prices down 2.9 percent.


Gonzales met with aides on firing prosecutors

Gonzales met with aides on firing prosecutors
By David Johnston and Eric Lipton
Copyright by The International; Herald Tribune
Published: March 24, 2007

WASHINGTON: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and senior advisers discussed the plan to remove seven U.S. attorneys at a meeting last Nov. 27, 10 days before the dismissals were carried out, according to a Justice Department calendar entry disclosed Friday.

The previously undisclosed meeting appeared to contradict Gonzales's previous statements about his knowledge of the dismissals. He said at a news conference on March 13 that he had not participated in any discussions about the removals, but knew in general that his aides were working on personnel changes involving U.S. attorneys.

Tasia Scolinos, a Justice Department spokeswoman, told reporters on Friday evening that Gonzales's attendance at the hourlong meeting was consistent with his past remarks.

"He tasked his chief of staff to carry this plan forward," Scolinos said. "He did not participate in the selection of the U.S. attorneys to be fired. He did sign off on the final list."

Scolinos said the meeting was in Gonzales's conference room at the Justice Department. The meeting focused on "rollout" of the dismissals, she said, and from available records was not a meeting in which a final target list was determined.

Another department official said that Gonzales did not recall the meeting and that his aides had been unable to determine whether he approved the dismissal plan then.

The meeting took place as Gonzales's aides awaited final White House approval of a detailed dismissal plan that had been drafted by D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales's chief of staff. His plan was sent to the White House on Nov. 15, according to previously released e-mail. Harriet Miers, the White House counsel at the time, approved Sampson's proposal on Dec. 4, and the dismissals were carried out three days later.

The calendar entry was among more than 280 pages of Justice Department documents released Friday night and immediately provoked further criticism of Gonzales in Congress, where the Senate and House Judiciary Committees have authorized subpoenas for sworn public testimony of presidential aides and senior department officials.

Senator Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat who has led the congressional investigation into the dismissals, said, "If the facts bear out that the attorney general knew much more than he admitted, he simply cannot continue as the attorney general."

Sampson, who played a central role in the dismissals, has agreed to testify next week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He resigned this month because of what he later said was a failure to prepare Gonzales for questions about the ousters.

In another development, Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, said Friday that the department would begin an internal review of the conduct of lawyers involved in the dismissals. The inquiry will be conducted jointly by the inspector general, Glenn Fine, and the Office of Professional Responsibility, a department watchdog unit.

The dismissals have created the gravest crisis of Gonzales's time in office, with calls for his ouster from Republicans and Democrats, even as President George W. Bush has offered his firm public support. Gonzales has sent reassuring signals to the ranks of prosecutors, but the strength of his support within the Justice Department is difficult to gauge.

Department officials said there had not been an intentional effort to delay the release of the new material. Instead, they said, the e-mail messages were overlooked in past searches of office files and computers. Many, they said, were copies of e-mail that had already been disclosed. The latest batch of documents shows just how completely the department misjudged what the reaction would be to the dismissals.

"I think most of them will resign quietly," said Scolinos, the department's chief spokeswoman, in a Nov. 17 e-mail message, a few weeks before the dismissals. "It's only six U.S. attorneys (there are 94) and they don't get anything out of making it public they were asked to leave in terms of future job prospects. I don't see it as being a national story — especially if it phases in over a few months."

Speaking with reporters on Friday evening, Scolinos said that when she sent that message she had only a fragmentary understanding of the plan to dismiss the prosecutors.

At a news conference this month, Gonzales was repeatedly questioned about the extent of his participation in the ousters. He said he was aware that his staff had been evaluating the performance of different prosecutors, but on several occasions he said that it was not a matter that he had been following closely.

"So far as I knew, my chief of staff was involved in the process of determining who were the weak performers," he said. "Where were the districts around the country where we could do better for the people in that district, and that's what I knew."

But describing himself like a chief executive of a major corporation, he said he was not involved in the details of the performance review effort.

"That is in essence what I knew about the process; was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on," he said. "That's basically what I knew as the attorney general."

Reporters expressed disbelief that as the department's top official, he would not be closely monitoring such an important matter, and pressed Gonzales again to describe his involvement in the effort.

"Many decisions are delegated," he said. "We have people who were confirmed by the Senate who, by statute, have been delegated authority to make decisions."

Gonzales then repeated: "I never saw documents. We never had a discussion about where things stood. What I knew was that there was ongoing effort that was led by Mr. Sampson, vetted through the Department of Justice, to ascertain where we could make improvements in U.S. attorney performances around the country."

The latest e-mail shows preparations for the Nov. 27 meeting at 9 a.m. to discuss "U.S. Attorney Appointments."

Department officials said that the participants at the only formal meeting known to have been held to discuss the firings included Gonzales; Sampson; Paul McNulty, the deputy attorney general; Monica Goodling, the department liaison to the White House; William Moschella, the assistant attorney general for legislative affairs; and Michael Battle, then head of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys.

Battle has since resigned, and Goodling has taken a temporary leave of absence.

Financial Times Editorial Comment: Learning to swim in the modern economy

Financial Times Editorial Comment: Learning to swim in the modern economy
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: March 24 2007 02:00 | Last updated: March 24 2007 02:00

A rising tide lifts all boats, but that is not very comforting if you are staked out on the beach. If even central bankers such as Jean-Claude Trichet and Ben Bernanke are fretting about the divide between rich and poor, income inequality really has become the topic of the day.

Mr Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, focused on large pay-cheques for top executives, warning the European parliament this week that these "are not understood by the people in our democracies". He was being tactful; the trouble is rather that some of these packages are understood all too well.

There is nothing wrong with excellent pay for excellent performance, but too many pay deals are structured both to reward mediocrity and to obscure the levels of those awards. Calling for restraint is a triumph of hope over experience. Greater shareholder rights are a solution, and the US Congress should follow through with its plans to introduce an advisory vote for shareholders on executive pay, something that has worked well in the UK.

Although executive pay in the US is far higher than in Europe, Mr Bernanke cast his net rather wider in a speech last month. He addressed the question of income inequality in the US, and found plenty to concern him. Earnings in the middle of the income distribution rose by 11.5 per cent between 1979 and 2006; near the top, they rose by a third, and near the bottom, they rose by just 4 per cent in nearly three decades. The increase in inequality was particularly rapid during the 1980s but it continues today.

Some types of inequality are not worrying at all; for instance, medical students make very little while doctors make plenty. Yet some economists fear that income mobility has fallen since the 1970s, meaning that those whose heads are underwater are unlikely ever to make it to the deck of a yacht.

Equally worrying, at least for Mr Bernanke's fellow citizens, is that the children of poor parents are more likely to grow up poor themselves in the US - and also in the UK and France - than in countries such as Canada, Denmark or Germany. This is a puzzle and an embarrassment for those, like this newspaper, who celebrate the entrepreneurial systems of the US and the UK. It is one thing to tolerate in-equality of outcome, but as Mr Bernanke rightly observes, it is quite another to shrug our shoulders at in-equality of opportunity.

The whole issue is often labelled as the problem of dealing with the losers from globalisation. That is a mistake. Better to think about the problem of dealing with losers, full stop. Technological change seems to be responsible for more of the increase in inequality. It also puts many people out of work, even if those job losses go unlamented by protectionists all too keen to put the blame on China.

The political backlash against in-equality - from causes real and imagined - is growing. But politicians should resist the temptations of protectionism and focus instead on improving income mobility. The 21st century offers unprecedented opportunity to skilled, educated workers: our school system should enable everybody to join in. Too many schools in both the US and the UK are failing to do that.

We should not try to stop either globalisation or innovation. Both are immensely beneficial, and both do indeed offer us a rising tide. But we need to make sure that nobody is stranded on the beach.

Three groups ready to vie for Chrysler

Three groups ready to vie for Chrysler
By Richard Milne in Frankfurt and John Reed in London
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: March 23 2007 22:01 | Last updated: March 23 2007 22:01

Indicative bids for Chrysler, the US carmaker put up for sale by DaimlerChrysler, are due next week from the three interested groups but any final deal is likely to take several months longer.

JPMorgan Chase, Daimler’s adviser, has asked for initial offers – to include a price and detailed business plan for Chrysler – before the end of March and at least three bids are expected, people close to the negotiations said.

Cerberus, which is advised by former Chrysler executive Wolfgang Bernhard, a consortium of Blackstone and Centerbridge, the private equity groups, and Magna International, the car part supplier, are likely to express interest.

One person close to the bidding said that Magna had teamed up with buy-out group Ripplewood while General Motors was following the situation closely and could join one of the private equity bidders.

The pressure is mounting on Daimler to go ahead with a sale of the lossmaking US carmaker as rumours of a quick sale mount. One person close to the bidding adds that a second round could be concluded by the end of April to choose a preferred bidder. But people involved in the negotiations say any sale is unlikely to be completed before the summer, if not the autumn.

Contrary to some expectations, Daimler will not give an update on the situation at its annual meeting on April 4.

The main issue for any of the bidders is to decide how viable Chrysler’s business is at all. Because of the long product cycles in the automotive industry, any buyer would be largely tied down for the first three or four years – an unusual and uncomfortable position for private equity bidders, particularly taking over a struggling and lossmaking asset. “This is about looking at the prospects for the business in 2012, 2013, 2014,” said one person close to the negotiations.

Reputational risk is another big worry, these people say, as a buyer could not afford to let Chrysler go bankrupt for political reasons – something very important with private equity in the spotlight and Blackstone preparing to list on the stock market.

Healthcare is also likely to play a big role in the negotiations with some of the bidders hoping for concessions from the UAW, the main US union, but if that fails they would want to be compensated by Daimler.

Any indicative bids are likely to be hedged with a large amount of caveats but one person close to the bidding said offers should come in at $4bn-$5bn, with up to $6bn possible.

KeyBanc Capital Markets analysts wrote on Friday that Magna and a private equity partner offered $4.6bn-$4.7bn with the supplier hoping for a 20-25 per cent stake.

Bush vows to veto Iraq pull-out bill

Bush vows to veto Iraq pull-out bill
By Edward Luce in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: March 23 2007 18:33 | Last updated: March 23 2007 21:48

The US House of Representatives on Friday delivered its most stinging rebuke so far of the Iraq war when it attached conditions to a $124bn emergency funding bill that would force American combat troops to withdraw by 2008.

President George W. Bush, who said he would veto the bill in the unlikely event it reached his desk, dismissed the move as an act of “political theatre” by House Democrats that would delay the flow of vital resources to US troops in the field.

However, the measure, which was passed by a vote of 218 to 212, is unlikely to find strong echo in the Senate, which votes on a similar bill next week and where the Democrats will almost certainly lack the numbers to override the 60 votes needed to forestall a Republican filibuster. Were the Senate to push the measure through, however, the Democrats would still lack the two-thirds votes necessary to override Mr Bush’s promised veto.

Republicans on Friday also attacked the bill for including hundreds of millions of dollars in special interest funding designed to win over wavering lawmakers. The legislation would impose penalties if Iraq government’s fails to meet performance benchmarks, with US troops pulling out sooner if Baghdad meets fewer benchmarks.

Even if the Iraqi government met these goals on time all US forces would be required to leave by September 2008. “The Democrats in the House voted to substitute their judgment for that of our military commanders on the ground in Iraq,” said Mr Bush in a short statement following the vote. “The bill has too much pork, too many conditions and an artificial timetable for withdrawal….I will veto it if it comes to my desk.”

However, its passage also marks something of a triumph for Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, who overcame potentially deep Democratic splits over the Iraq war to cobble together a narrow majority.

Only 14 of the 233 House Democrats opposed the measure with most of the dissenters coming from the liberal wing of the party who argued the bill did not go far enough in forcing a rapid end to the war.

A small number of “Blue Dog” – or centrist - Democrats also opposed it on the grounds that Congress should not undercut the commander-in-chief’s ability to prosecute a war.

The bill also included billions of dollars in extra money for US veterans care and military hospitals following revelations last month of appalling conditions at Walter Reed and other army medical centres.

“As I have said from the beginning, the war in Iraq is a grotesque mistake,” said Ms Pelosi. “The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating. After four years of war, Iraq is in chaos, and the government is not being held accountable. Benchmarks without deadlines are just words.”

Administration officials say there are signs that the “surge” of 21,500 combat troops and 7,000 support troops is showing early signs of success.

But they say it will take several months to ascertain whether the intensified US military “clear and hold” operations in Baghdad and elsewhere is achieving a sustainable turnaround in Iraq’s security.

Diplomatic crisis over UK marines held by Iran

Diplomatic crisis over UK marines held by Iran
By Stephen Fidler and Roula Khalaf in London, Guy Dinmore in Washington and Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: March 23 2007 13:30 | Last updated: March 24 2007 00:53

Britain on Friday demanded that Iran immediately release 15 British sailors and marines who were seized while searching a merchant ship in the approaches to the Shatt al-Arab waterway that divides Iraq and Iran.

The incident, which drove oil prices to three-month highs, was believed to be the most serious event involving allied forces in Iraq and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards since 2004, when eight British servicemen were captured by Iranian forces and released three days later. No shots were fired and no one was hurt during Friday’s incident.

“We sought a full explanation of what happened and left the Iranian authorities in no doubt that we expect immediate and safe return of our service personnel and boats,” said Margaret Beckett, UK foreign secretary, after Rasoul Movahedian, Iran’s ambassador to London, was summoned to the foreign office. US officials also called for the swift release of the sailors.

The sailors were seized as the United Nations’ Security Council was preparing to vote on a resolution to tighten sanctions against Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons programme.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad had declared his intention to attend the Security Council session, expected to take place on Saturday. But on Friday night Iranian officials said he was unable to get there in time because US authorities had been late in issuing visas to his air crew. Manouchehr Mottaki, the foreign minister, would try to go instead.

US officials blamed the Iranians for the delay, saying they had filed incomplete applications. “Any suggestion that visa issues are the cause of President Ahmadi-Nejad’s decision not to travel to New York is false,” the US state department said. “Rather, it would appear that he is unwilling to stand before the council and take the heat for his continued defiance of the international community.”

Diplomats were concerned that Iran had seized the British patrol in retaliation for the detention of five Iranian officials by US forces in northern Iraq in January.

“The seizure of the British personnel could be a local incident, it could be opportunistic, or it could be malign,” said one western diplomat. “The Iranians have been...flexing their muscle.”

In Tehran, Iranian state television said Britain’s chargé d’affaires had been summoned to the foreign ministry over what it called the “blatant aggression” of British forces’ “illegal” entry into Iranian waters, which had happened “a couple of times” before.

The UK defence ministry insisted the sailors were on a routine patrol inside Iraqi waters.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Fed rapped over subprime loans

Fed rapped over subprime loans
By Eoin Callan, Edward Luce and Krishna Guha in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: March 23 2007 02:00 | Last updated: March 23 2007 02:00

The Federal Reserve and its former chairman Alan Greenspan helped to create the "perfect storm" in the US subprime mortgage market that could expose up to 2.2m Americans to the threat of home foreclosure, Chris Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking committee, said yesterday.

Mr Dodd, a Democratic party candidate for the 2008 presidential nomination, said the subprime mortgage industry was guilty of some "abhorrent" lending practices. But he said the lion's share of the blame for the crisis lay with national regulators, "in particular the Fed". He said the Fed and other regulators failed to exercise proper oversight when the market for high-risk mortgage products took off.

"That is pretty negligent in my view," he told reporters, adding: "The Fed has got a responsibility as a good cop to be on the beat."

Mr Dodd said he would call a summit of industry executives, investors and regulators to try to agree a plan that would allow people sold the wrong kind of mortgage to keep their homes while negotiating with creditors to deal with excess debt.

He said he would be "very resistant" to the idea of raising new money from taxpayers to fund a bail-out. But he held open the possibility of changing the rules to allow existing community development funds, block grants and housing grants to be used to support people caught up in the subprime crisis. His comments followed a day of hearings in which regulators and industry officials were questioned harshly by members of his committee.

Senior executives from four of the leading lenders - HSBC, Countrywide, WMC Mortgage, First Franklin - testified. Of those invited, only New Century, the largest subprime lender, failed to send a witness. While regulators suffered the brunt of the criticism yesterday, the hearings highlight the risk of a political backlash against the industry. Under interrogation, Roger Cole, a senior Fed staff official, conceded that the Fed could have done more to prevent the sale of inappropriate loans. "Given what we know now - yes, we could have done more sooner."

However, Mr Cole did not admit that the Fed had made mistakes based on the information available to it at the time.

Mr Dodd played down the prospects for legislation. Instead, he urged regulators to use existing powers to clamp down on irresponsible practices. Mr Dodd said regulators should require that all lenders offering adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) with low initial interest rates check that borrowers could afford the increased monthly payment when the interest rate went up.

Several industry executives signalled that they would support such a move but Sandor Samuels, managing director of Countrywide, the largest mortgage US provider, warned against an "overreaction" that would deny people with temporarily low income or bad credit scores access to home loans.

Edwards fights on despite wife's cancer

Edwards fights on despite wife's cancer
By Andrew Ward in Atlanta
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: March 23 2007 02:00 | Last updated: March 23 2007 02:00

John Edwards has vowed to press ahead with his campaign for the Democratic US presidential nomination despite a setback in his wife's battle with cancer.

Mr Edwards, the defeated vice-presidential candidate in 2004, said his wife, Elizabeth, had suffered a recurrence of the cancer that was first diagnosed just over two years ago.

Standing beside Elizabeth in their home city of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he said his bid for the presidency would continue.

"The campaign goes on," he said. "The campaign goes on strongly."

But he made clear that politics would not interfere with caring for his wife.

"Any time, any place I need to be with Elizabeth I will be there - period," he said.

Opinion polls show Mr Edwards in third place in the race for the Democratic nomination, behind Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

But he has been polling strongly in some states with early primaries and has won praise from many grassroots Democrats for his firm opposition to the Iraq war and his progressive stance on issues such as poverty, healthcare and climate change.

Mr Edwards cancelled a campaign event in Iowa, one of the most important primary battleground states, on Tuesday to return to North Carolina. Ms Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer in the closing weeks of the 2004 presidential election campaign.

She had several months of radiation and chemotherapy and the Edwards campaign declared as recently as last week that she had made a full recovery. A check-up this week, however, found that cancer had returned in her bones.

Mr Edwards said that the cancer was not curable but he voiced optimism that treatment would allow her to live for many years. "I don't look sickly, I don't feel sickly," said Ms Edwards. "I am as ready as any person can be for [this]."

The couple met while studying law together at the University of North Carolina. In 1996, their 16-year-old son, Wade, was killed in a car accident. They have three other children.

An opinion poll released this week gave Ms Clintona 15 percentage point lead over her rival Democratic presidential hopefuls, with Mr Obama in second place and Mr Edwards tied for third with Al Gore, the former vice-president. Mr Gore says he has no plans to enter the race but has refused to rule out the possibility completely.

In the CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, 37 per cent of registered Democrats said they would vote for Ms Clinton as the Democratic 2008 nominee, while 22 per cent said they would back Mr Obama, 14 per cent Mr Gore and 12 per cent Mr Edwards. If Mr Gore sticks to his decision not to run, Ms Clinton's lead would grow even larger, according to the poll.

A recent CBS News/New York Times poll showed the public expects a Democratic candidate to win in 2008 by a more than 2-to-1 ratio.

Democrats are overwhelmingly confident of victory, with 78 per cent predicting their party will win, compared with 40 per cent of Republicans who believe that a Democrat will win.

NBC and News Corp join forces to challenge YouTube

NBC and News Corp join forces to challenge YouTube
By Aline van Duyn and Joshua Chaffin in New York
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: March 23 2007 02:00 | Last updated: March 23 2007 02:00

NBC Universal and News Corp have sealed plans to create an online site to distribute professionally produced movie and television content - the biggest media industry effort yet to knock YouTube aside as the top online video destination.

The site, which will launch this summer, has signed up AOL, MSN, MySpace and Yahoo to distribute the videos, which will be free to internet users and funded by advertising.

The plan appears to be another setback for Google, the internet search company, in its efforts to forge partnerships with traditional media companies after its October acquisition of YouTube for $1.65bn (£840m).

This month, Viacom, which owns MTV Networks, sued YouTube for $1bn after negotiations over questions about licensing fees and who would control advertising relationships foundered. Media companies have also accused YouTube of failing to take seriously efforts to identify and track copyrighted video put up by users on the YouTube site.

News Corp and NBC Universal, jointly owned by General Electric and Vivendi, will create a 50/50 joint venture, yet unnamed, which will be based in Los Angeles and New York.

Peter Chernin, president and chief operating officer of News Corp and Rupert Murdoch's number two, will sit on the new company's board with Jeff Zucker, new NBC Universal president and chief operating officer.

As well as its own top video content from TV hits such as as Heroes, 24, The Simpsons and Top Chef and movies including Borat and Little Miss Sunshine, the site is aiming to license content from other top media groups, including Time Warner, Sony Corp, CBS and Viacom.

"This is a game-changer for internet video," said Mr Chernin. "We'll have access to just about the entire US internet audience at launch. And, for the first time, consumers will get what they want - professionally produced video delivered on the sites where they live."

Together, the online traffic of AOL, part of Time Warner; Microsoft's MSN, News Corp's MySpace and Yahoo accounts for 96 per cent of the monthly US unique users on the internet.

In online video, however, YouTube continues to dominate, although much of its traffic is in user-generated videos, which do not lend themselves as easily to advertising. MySpace has rapidly developed its video capability in recent months and is now the second-biggest video site.

At launch, the site will be supported by advertisers including Cadbury Schweppes, Cisco, Esurance, Intel and General Motors.

It was not clear whether other media companies would support the venture.

EU and US set for ‘open skies’ collision

EU and US set for ‘open skies’ collision
By Kevin Done in London, Andrew Bounds in Brussels and Doug Cameron in Chicago
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: March 22 2007 11:54 | Last updated: March 22 2007 20:56

The European Union and the US were set on a collision course on Thursday night over the next stage of liberalising transatlantic aviation.

Within hours of European transport ministers approving a first stage “open skies” deal with Washington, political leaders on each side of the Atlantic set out conflicting visions for the onerous second phase of negotiations.

The UK government warned rights granted to the US could be withdrawn if Washington failed to agree to much more radical reforms by the end of 2010.

Douglas Alexander, UK transport secretary, said in Brussels the EU’s goal remained a fully liberalised open aviation area, free of restrictions on airline ownership and control, rather than the modest US-style “open skies” accord agreed on Thursday.

If a second-stage deal had not been agreed by the end of 2010, the EU would “automatically withdraw traffic rights unless the Council decides unanimously not to do so,” he said. He said he had “ensured” that the UK would have “the right – in 2010 – to re-impose some or all of the restrictions that US carriers face today”. That sent “a very clear signal to the US that we are serious about making early progress to a second-stage deal”, he said.

However, while Mary Peters, US transportation secretary, welcomed the agreement as an “historic decision”, Congress immediately shot down European demands that the cap on foreign ownership of US airlines be removed in a phase-two deal.

James Oberstar, chairman of the House of Representatives transport committee, who successfully opposed much weaker ownership reforms proposed by the administration for phase one, said he would work to ensure the deal did not lead to foreign control of US airlines.

The EU wants the US to lift rules that limit foreign investment in US airlines to 25 per cent of voting shares.

John Byerly, chief US negotiator of the open skies treaty, said “we have not agreed on either side the content of a second stage. There is no endorsement or presumption of change in US or European laws.”

Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Atlantic chairman, said the airline was “actively looking at expanding in Europe, offering flights from key European hubs such as Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Madrid to New York”.

Continental Airlines and Delta Air Lines of the US said they planned services from the US to Heathrow. Aer Lingus said it would open services from Ireland to San Francisco, Washington Dulles and Orlando before the year’s end. BMI British Midland intends to give details soon of its first US services from Heathrow.

However, according to the deal agreed on Thursday, additional rights have been agreed for European and US airlines which could lead to lower transatlantic airfares and increased competition.

Additional reporting by Eoin Callan in Washington

Gutierrez pushes immigration bill

Gutierrez pushes immigration bill
By Karoun Demirjian
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published March 23, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Congress failed last year to enact a comprehensive immigration bill, but Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said Thursday they would try again with a measure that would set guidelines for legalizing the status of many illegal immigrants while bolstering security at the U.S. borders.

Gutierrez and Flake said their bill would make undocumented immigrants who were in the U.S. before June 1, 2006, eligible for legalization. Those hoping to gain "conditional non-immigrant status" under the program would be required to pay a $500 fine, pass security and background checks, and prove that they have been actively employed since before that date. After six years, immigrants who have learned English, have a crime-free record and pay an additional $1,500 plus application fees would be eligible to become permanent U.S. residents.

"Rather than unfairly targeting Windex-wielding cleaning ladies, or wasting billions of dollars on failed strategies of the past, our bill offers real solutions to the challenges we face," Gutierrez said. "It deals directly with the undocumented who are living, working and contributing to a better, more dynamic America."

Renewable visas, more

In addition to an earned legalization program, Gutierrez and Flake's bill would create renewable visas for new immigrant workers, increase the size of the Border Patrol, establish stricter criminal penalties for evading border inspections and ease naturalization for non-citizens who serve in the armed forces.

The lawmakers also proposed another measure that would allow up to 400,000 guest workers to enter the U.S. to fill jobs that American workers do not.

Immigration reform has proved difficult for Congress, with conservatives pushing for stricter border enforcement as liberals and some moderates sought to enact measures that would lead to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants already in the country.

Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.), one of the co-sponsors of the Gutierrez-Flake bill, called it "good, common-sense legislation that addresses border security and the millions of undocumented workers in our country."

`Nothing new here,' critic says

Despite the attempt at bipartisanship on the issue, the bill stands to get ample criticism from conservatives advocating a more restrictive approach to immigration policy.

"There's nothing new here, nothing novel," said John Keeley, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that favors tighter border controls. "It doesn't at its core embrace the enforcement momentum that was achieved, particularly at the end of last year, on Capitol Hill."

The last Congress approved a measure to build a 700-mile fence along the border with Mexico but did not enact a Senate-approved bill on comprehensive immigration reform in the face of stiff opposition from House Republicans.

The Gutierrez-Flake effort is similar to that espoused in the past by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), who sponsored last year's Senate measure. But any Kennedy-McCain cooperation this year could falter in the face of presidential politics, with some of McCain's GOP opponents in the race for the White House attacking his immigration stance. Kennedy is trying to have a bill on the Senate floor before summer.

Spokesmen for Kennedy and McCain have said, however, that both senators remain committed to seeking a bipartisan immigration solution.

"I'm hopeful that the House introduction [Thursday] will help spur the necessary negotiations in the Senate to help forge the right kind of compromise," Kennedy said.

Though President Bush has indicated support for a comprehensive immigration measure, passage of one still will be a challenge, as public attitudes vary widely on the issue. It promises to be a lightning rod for debate in the 2008 elections.

"The most contentious part is what to do about the 11 to 12 million estimated undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.," said Audrey Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Now the debate will begin again, and hopefully through that debate, we'll have something realistic by the end of the year."


Ex-Daley aide indicted - Sanchez rigged hiring for political workers, U.S. says

Ex-Daley aide indicted - Sanchez rigged hiring for political workers, U.S. says
By Jeff Coen, Todd Lighty and Dan Mihalopoulos, Tribune staff reporters
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published March 23, 2007

A former top aide to Mayor Richard Daley was charged Thursday with rigging city hiring for members of a pro-Daley political group, becoming the highest-ranking mayoral ally indicted in the federal investigation of City Hall.

Former Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Al Sanchez was accused of playing a prominent role in a scheme to reward loyal campaign workers for the Hispanic Democratic Organization from 1994 until 2005, when he quit Daley's Cabinet.

Prosecutors say Sanchez cheated the system to benefit members of HDO who sought jobs, promotions, overtime, pay raises and transfers.

"It's not fair to the taxpayers and it's not fair to the people who apply for jobs," U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald said.

Sanchez was charged with nine counts of mail fraud. Also indicted on one perjury count Thursday was HDO coordinator Aaron Del Valle, a former Streets and Sanitation employee and Chicago police officer who allegedly aided Sanchez. Del Valle was accused of lying to a federal grand jury investigating the hiring fraud this year.

Daley was on a business trip to Europe when the indictment was announced, one day after a proposed settlement of the federal civil case restricting political hiring by City Hall.

The mayor issued a statement that mirrored comments he made when his former patronage chief Robert Sorich and three other aides were indicted on similar charges in 2005. All four were convicted last year in a hiring scheme that prosecutors said was centered in the mayor's office.

"Naturally, I'm disappointed to hear about this indictment," Daley said of Sanchez. "It will be up to the courts to determine whether he violated the public trust. I have known Al Sanchez for several years and know him only to be hardworking and dedicated."

Like Sorich, Sanchez is accused of depriving people of the right to expect "honest services" from government. Sorich and his co-defendants have appealed, claiming they did not personally benefit from the scheme.

Lawn care, snow removal

In the first such example in the hiring investigation, prosecutors alleged that some members of HDO who got preferential treatment in their city jobs provided Sanchez with home repair work, snow removal, lawn care and gifts.

Charges against Sanchez were widely expected since the Sorich trial, when prosecutors described Sanchez and HDO chairman Victor Reyes as "co-schemers" in the fraud. Reyes has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing.

The indictment was the latest blow to what once was the most powerful street army in Daley's campaign organization.

Sanchez, 59, led the group's Southeast Side operation, which had as many as 500 campaign workers, authorities said. Those workers were sent out to help candidates for mayor, City Council, Illinois House and Senate, statewide posts and federal offices.

Sanchez was listed as the sponsor of 112 people who sought city jobs and promotions for their political work, according to a "clout list" maintained in the mayor's office and entered as evidence against Sorich.

Sanchez and other HDO leaders lobbied mayoral aides to reward workers with coveted, blue-collar jobs such as truck driver, streetlight-maintenance worker and laborer, according to the indictment. The scheme allegedly involved falsifying hiring records and conducting sham job interviews.

Neither Sanchez nor Del Valle was in custody Thursday, with prosecutors saying they would arrange to have them appear in court to face the charges.

Sanchez's lawyer did not return calls seeking comment, and Del Valle could not be reached.

Key ally of Vrdolyak

The son of a steelworker, Sanchez was raised in the "Slag Valley" section of the South Deering neighborhood, near the Calumet River. He served in the Army during the Vietnam War.

He began working for the city in 1974 and became a key member of the 10th Ward Democratic political organization of then-Ald. Edward Vrdolyak. "He was a good precinct captain," Vrdolyak said Thursday.

When Vrdolyak faded from the City Hall scene, Sanchez began working for Daley and rose to greater prominence as HDO's influence grew.

After the mayor appointed him Streets and Sanitation commissioner in 1999, Sanchez said: "We have helped the mayor in all his elections, and it is because he has done a good job. We feel Hispanics have to get more involved in the political process."

Prosecutors declined to estimate how many HDO members Sanchez allegedly helped. A 2002 Tribune investigation found at least 500 HDO members on the city payroll, many in Streets and Sanitation.

Sanchez retired from the city weeks after federal investigators raided the mayor's office in 2005. He receives a monthly city pension of $8,120.

Three weeks before leaving City Hall, Sanchez sent a memo to employees as "a reminder that political/campaign activities ... cannot be mingled with city work or resources."

He remained involved in city politics, even in last month's City Council election. Sanchez worked for the successful re-election bids of Ald. George Cardenas (12th) and state Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Chicago), state records show.

On Thursday, Cardenas praised Sanchez as a great "alley commissioner" who made sure the garbage was picked up and the snow plowed.

"A lot of people out there judge him for his work," Cardenas said. "I'm sure things will work out for him in this case."

Del Valle, 34, also did paid campaign work for Cardenas and Sandoval in recent years and ran for 25th Ward alderman in last month's election, winning just 5 percent of the vote.

The winner of that race, Ald. Daniel Solis, said he believes Del Valle ran only to pull votes from him and force a runoff election.

"Al and Aaron were good friends. They hung out together after work," said Solis, a former HDO member who has quarreled with Sanchez and Reyes.

Del Valle became an administrative assistant in the mayor's Office of Inquiry and Information, the same office where Sanchez once was first deputy.

Soon after Sanchez became Streets and Sanitation commissioner, he brought Del Valle into that department. Del Valle became a Chicago police officer the following year but took leaves of absence from the police force to work as a top deputy to Sanchez.

Stripped of police powers

Police spokeswoman Monique Bond said Del Valle was scheduled to return from another leave of absence Thursday but was stripped of his police powers after the indictment.

Del Valle is accused of lying about his role in the hiring scheme. Another HDO Southeast operative, Water Management worker John Resa, also was charged late last year with lying to a grand jury when he testified that he had not sought city jobs for HDO workers.

Federal agents have scoured the working-class neighborhoods of the Southeast Side in recent months to interview patronage workers.

Sanchez often presided over HDO meetings at the Crow Bar, a tavern in the East Side neighborhood. Bar owner Pat Carroll said he was upset that Sanchez, a longtime friend, was indicted.

"Everyone who gets a city job knows someone," Carroll said. "That's how it's always been. That's not criminal. It's political."

By Jeff Coen, Todd Lighty and Dan Mihalopoulos, Tribune staff reporters
Published March 23, 2007

Protesters turn up heat - Immigrants rally at state Capitol to push lawmakers on reforms

Protesters turn up heat - Immigrants rally at state Capitol to push lawmakers on reforms
By Antonio Olivo and Monique Garcia
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published March 23, 2007
Arriving in busloads, about 2,000 demonstrators rallied inside the state Capitol on Thursday to pressure Illinois lawmakers into passing a series of immigration reforms, a topic likely to be debated in the next week.

Chanting and waving U.S. flags as Spanish radio hosts broadcast the action live, the crowd filled the Capitol rotunda as they pushed for measures such as new driver's certificates for undocumented immigrants and government-financed English classes at work or school.

"Today is validation," said Juan Salgado, president of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which coordinated the rally.

As the debate over federal immigration reform again heats up, the crowd traveled to Springfield to say: "Hey, we're already here, it's our home and, to be able to make the most of this home, we want to become citizens, to learn English and to be able to drive safely and securely," Salgado said.

State lawmakers are poised to deal first with the thorny question of whether to allow undocumented immigrants to drive legally in Illinois.

Next week, the House is expected to vote on a bill that would create special driving certificates for state residents who don't have a U.S. Social Security number. A similar measure was narrowly defeated after heated debate last year.

The House bill and an identical Senate version making its way toward a floor vote have received backing from a wide array of business groups, law enforcement agencies and community organizations. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has promised he would sign the legislation into law, which would put Illinois among just a handful of states to have taken such action.

"As long as the legislature passes the bill, the governor will support it," said Blagojevich spokesman Gerardo Cardenas.

If approved, the driver's certificates would be distinct from regular driver's licenses and learner's permits, supporters say. For one, they would clearly state that they cannot be used as identification for any other official purpose. The certificates are a nod to new federal standards for driver's licenses under the Real ID anti-terrorism act approved by Congress in 2005, which several states have refused to implement.

In Illinois, the Roadway Safety and Mandatory Insurance Coverage Act has been promoted as an act of pragmatism amid one of Illinois' greatest immigration waves, a way to ensure that everyone driving in the state gets proper training and has access to automobile insurance.

Immigrant advocates who have been pushing hardest for the law say it would also help connect the state's estimated 400,000 undocumented immigrants to jobs, schools and health care.

"We have several cases where parents are scared to take their kids to the hospital or to schools precisely because they are out of status and cannot have a driver's license," said Alie Kabba, president of United African Organization Inc. in Chicago.

"Now, they are using somebody else's driver's license or are totally afraid and stay inside," Kabba said.

But, the measure, which would also cover legal residents without a Social Security number, also taps into mounting frustration over the nation's illegal immigrant population, a factor that has frustrated similar efforts around the country.

Last year in Illinois, another version of the driver's certificate bill drew heated debate in the House, before it was finally defeated by a handful of votes. Other states, such as California, have been debating similar legislation since the late 1990s.

In a climate where undocumented immigrants are able to qualify for home mortgages and major credit cards, states like Illinois are becoming more hospitable to that population, said Thomas Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a Washington-based conservative government watchdog group.

"We're very concerned that the local government, in this case, is undermining federal immigration laws," he said.

Some immigrant advocates have different concerns, saying a driver's certificate's unique status could expose those who use one to discrimination and harassment.

In Tennessee, which in 2004 became the first state in the country to issue driver's certificates, holders were harassed by police and other government workers while forced to pay exorbitant "high risk" automobile insurance rates, according to a University of Tennessee Law School report. The unintended effect was that fewer drivers applied for the certificates, or drove without insurance, which recently led the state to suspend the program for further evaluation.

Brian Konen, co-owner of an insurance agency in Aurora, said he views his support for a driver's certificate law as a business decision.

"In Aurora, we have a large Hispanic population. If those folks are not driving with insurance, our clients are getting hit by them," said Konen, who is also president of the Professional Independent Insurance Agents of Illinois. "If we can get them to drive legally and with insurance, I'm sure some of those folks will also become our clients."

- - -

The activists' legislative agenda

Members of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights are pushing for the passage of the Roadway Safety and Mandatory Insurance Coverage Act, which would create special driving certificates for state residents who don't have a U.S. Social Security number.


Iran Nabs British Sailors in Iraq Waters

Iran seizes 15 British Navy personnel
© Reuters Limited
Friday March 23 2007

BASRA, Iraq, March 23 (Reuters) - Iranian forces seized 15 British Royal Navy personnel who had searched a merchant ship on Friday, Britain said, triggering a diplomatic crisis.

Britain said the incident took place in Iraqi waters, where it routinely boards merchant vessels with UN permission to search them. The Foreign Office summoned Iran's ambassador and demanded the immediate, safe release of the personnel.

"At approximately 1030 Iraqi time (0730 GMT) this morning, 15 British naval personnel, engaged in routine boarding operations of merchant shipping in Iraqi territorial waters ... were seized by Iranian naval vessels," the ministry said.

"The boarding party had completed a successful inspection of a merchant ship when they and their two boats were surrounded and escorted by Iranian vessels into Iranian territorial waters," it said in a statement.

"We are urgently pursuing this matter with the Iranian authorities at the highest level and on the instructions of the Foreign Secretary, the Iranian ambassador has been summoned to the Foreign Office. The British government is demanding the immediate and safe return of our people and equipment."

Oil prices rose above $62 a barrel after the incident.

Royal Navy personnel include sailors and marines, who typically make up boarding parties for ship searches.

Washington said no U.S. military personnel were involved.

Iranian officials could not immediately be reached for comment. The embassy in London was closed for a holiday.

The incident was similar to one in 2004 in which eight British servicemen spent three nights in the hands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards before being released unharmed.

In that incident, the Iranians accused them of crossing into Iranian waters, which Britain disputed.

Earlier, an Iraqi fisherman in Basra told Reuters he had seen the incident in the Shatt al-Arab waterway that marks the southern stretch of Iraq's border with Iran.

The fisherman, who asked not be named, said six or seven foreign military personnel were on two small boats that stopped to check Iranian ships in the Siban area of the waterway, near the al-Faw peninsula that leads into the northern Gulf.

When they boarded one ship, at least two Iranian vessels appeared on the scene and the military personnel were detained. There was no sign of any violent confrontation he said.

He said the merchant ships had stopped in a narrow area of the waterway where smaller boats normally pull alongside to take on board goods. (Additional reporting by Peter Graff and Sophie Walker in London and Ross Colvin in Baghdad) REUTERS

Rat Poison Found in Tainted Pet Food

Rat Poison Found in Tainted Pet Food
Copyright © 2007, The Associated Press
Published March 23, 2007, 11:22 AM CDT

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Tests turned up rat poison in the pet food suspected of causing kidney failure in dogs and cats across the country and killing at least 16, state officials and scientists announced Friday.

The toxin was identified as aminopterin, which is used to kill rats in some countries, state Agriculture Commissioner Patrick Hooker said. Aminopterin is not registered for killing rodents in the United States, though it is used as a cancer drug, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

State officials did not say how they believe Aminopterin got into the now-recalled pet food, though they said no criminal investigations had been launched.

The Food and Drug Administration has said the investigation was focusing on wheat gluten in the pet food. Wheat gluten itself would not cause kidney failure, but the common ingredient could have been contaminated, the FDA said.

The pet deaths led to a recall of 60 million cans and pouches of pet food produced by Menu Foods and sold throughout North America under 95 brand names. There have been several reports of kidney failure in pets that ate the recalled brands, and the company has confirmed the deaths of 15 cats and one dog.

Menu Foods last week recalled "cuts and gravy" style dog and cat food. The recall sparked concern among pet owners across North America. It includes food sold under store brands carried by Wal-Mart, Kroger, Safeway and other large retailers, as well as private labels such as Iams, Nutro and Eukanuba.

Menu Foods is majority owned by Menu Foods Income Fund of Streetsville. The company also makes foods for zoo cats, but those products are unaffected by the recall.

The company's chief executive and president said Menu Foods delayed announcing the recall until it could confirm that the animals had eaten its product before dying. Two earlier complaints from consumers whose cats had died involved animals that lived outside or had access to a garage, which left open the possibility they had been poisoned by something other than contaminated food, he said.

Menu Foods planned a media teleconference for later Friday, a spokesman said.

A spokesman for New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said he was not aware of any criminal investigation involving the tainted food. FBI spokesman Paul Holstein in Albany said Friday he was not aware of any FBI involvement in the case.

"I don't know where we'll go from here," he said.

Aminopterin, also used as a cancer drug, is highly toxic in high doses. It inhibits the growth of malignant cells and suppresses the immune system.

A complete list of the recalled products along with product codes, descriptions and production dates was posted online by Menu Foods and is available at


Associated Press writer Andrew Bridges in Washington contributed to this report.

U.S. attorneys need legal restraints BY ANDREW GREELEY

U.S. attorneys need legal restraints BY ANDREW GREELEY
Copyright by The Chicago Sun Times
March 23, 2007

Years ago, a U.S. attorney said to me: ''We can indict anybody on La Salle Street we want. Maybe it would be more difficult to get a conviction, but we still have the power to ruin him.'' Justice Robert H. Jackson, one of the Supreme Court's greats in the 20th century, warned of the power of the federal prosecutor when he said that the power is enormous and easily perverted. ''The prosecutor,'' Jackson said in 1940 when he was U.S. attorney general, ''has more power over life, liberty and reputation than any other person in America. That power must be shielded from politics and even from the Department of Justice.''

The federal prosecutor has at his disposal deep pockets of money, the support of the FBI and easy access to the media, especially when indicting someone. The accused often is assumed guilty on the day he is indicted -- especially if he doesn't have large financial resources.

Thus, U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski was indicted by a federal attorney and had to face a jury not of his peers (who live in Illinois) but of citizens of the District of Columbia who might easily resent a pushy and powerful Chicago Pole. His funds ran out before the trial began and he had to accept a plea bargain. Fighting a U.S. attorney is like fighting City Hall -- any city hall.

Gov. George Ryan, who obviously is not a rich man, could not have defended himself if his legal counsel abandoned him when his money ran out. The law firm this time around was willing to pick up the tab.

James R. Thompson became famous when he indicted former Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner on what some of his lawyers later admitted was only a technical offense. He used that fame to become governor of Illinois. Convict a governor so you can run for governor yourself.

That's what you call a political trial.

More recently, the conviction of George Ryan was marked by the ludicrous behavior of some of the jurors. The appellate court suspended a prison sentence until Ryan's appeal is heard, suggesting, according to some lawyers, that the appellate judges think they may have to overturn the conviction. Ironically, it is former Gov. Thompson's own firm that defended Gov. Ryan pro bono.

New York U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani became famous for sending some financial leaders to jail. A bright, ambitious young lawyer can manipulate his time as U.S. attorney to create a launching pad. That some of Giuliani's convictions were overturned was not big enough news to obtain national attention.

Do you want to become governor, mayor, or even president? The best way, it often seems, is to indict high-profile politicians and businessmen.

Now it develops that, while the U.S. attorney is allegedly independent, he is subject to political pressure from his political party and the White House. Carol Lam, who sent Republican Rep. Randy ''Duke'' Cunningham to prison, was threatened with ''woodshedding'' by a White House agent. Most of the others who were replaced had offended public officials from their state for not using their office for political goals of the party. In the present administration, a U.S. attorney apparently is responsible not only for enforcing the law, he must also accede to the demands of political hacks like Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) if he wants to keep his job.

A federal attorney not only may use his office to indict political opponents, but he may also be used by an administration to pursue its own political goals. Thus, he serves at the pleasure of the president (and the Karl Roves around him), but he is also expected to do some of the party's dirty work if he wants to contribute to the president's pleasure.

Perhaps Congress could bar a former U.S. attorney from running for office until five years after his term is over and make it a crime for an elected official to try to pressure a U.S. attorney. Moreover, a president might be constrained to keep such an attorney in office for a five-year term, unless he permits a public review of the reasons for removing him.

Without such a reform, we all have reason to fear this person who has so much power over the lives, the liberty and the reputations of all of us.

here! TV dumps GLAAD over gay-media ban

March 20, 2007

Stephen F. Macias
Senior Vice President, Corporate and Marketing Communications
here! Networks

Neil Giuliano
Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation
248 West 35th St., 8th Floor
New York, NY 10001
Via Messenger

Dear Neil,

Thank you for clarifying GLAAD's decision to exclude here! Networks from
submitting our gay and lesbian programming for a GLAAD Media Award. Since
you reference your Board of Directors as the group that made this
decision, I am copying your Board on this correspondence. Additionally,
as a point of reference, following is your response to our inquiry around

"The GLAAD Board of Directors made the determination to continue the focus
of the Media Awards on mainstream media last year after this same issue
was raised by the folks at Logo. A special ad hoc committee of the board
met several times and then made a recommendation to the full board of
directors. It was a long and thorough discussion that the board had at
that time, and all views were aired. In addition, I am aware that some
members of the LGBT media did contact members of the GLAAD board to
discuss the issue. This is the view they aligned with after much review,
so this remains the approach of the GLAAD Media Awards program at this
time. Of course, any board action/direction is subject to further
review/action by a future board and I suspect the overall issue will
continue to come forward. Personally, I think we should work to create a
way to recognize LGBT-focused media, and am hopeful someday we will do

As I replied to you in our response, we completely disagree with the
organization's position. Our request was simple, to be allowed to submit
our programming to be judged on its merits, not on its origin. GLAAD's
position of excluding a television network that serves the gay and lesbian
audience is counterproductive to its mission statement and an archaic
interpretation of its application in the new media space. The mission
statement does not include the word "mainstream" anywhere in it, nor is it
comforting to know GLAAD is defining "mainstream" and gay as mutually
exclusive places to be in American culture.

Media has changed dramatically over the years because of the blood, sweat,
and tears of brave LGBT activists, yet GLAAD has not adjusted its policies
and strategies to account for this as it relates to the high profile Media
Awards. In the absence of strategic change from GLAAD, the organization's
largest event is on the verge of becoming irrelevant and the millions of
dollars raised wasted when LGBT Americans need strong leadership more than

Why we see excluding gay media from the GLAAD Media Awards as the wrong

Your mission statement and the justification for the exclusion of gay
media are completely at odds with each other. GLAAD has altered its
mission statement for the GLAAD Media Award's process only, an alteration
that excludes gay media. Nowhere in GLAAD's mission statement, the mission
statement that theoretically should be the basis for any non-profit's
work, does it say that GLAAD should be solely focused on "mainstream"
media. In fact, also per your email:

"GLAAD's primary mission is to advocate for fair, accurate, and inclusive
LGBT stories in mainstream media. We want mainstream media outlets to
include us in their stories and programming - and to do it well. The GLAAD
Media Awards program is designed to help GLAAD achieve that mission, and
is the logical extension of - and in many ways the culmination of - our
work with media outlets throughout the year." NG.

Is GLAAD defining mainstream as only "Straight" outlets? Your Media Awards
logic suggests that. It is a defining moment when a LGBT civil rights
organization equates mainstream and straight as synonymous implying that
fringe and LGBT are also synonymous.

GLAAD should either change in its mission statement to clearly state that
it is only promoting straight/mainstream media programming or discontinue
the exclusion of gay media from submitting work for a GLAAD Media Award.
Gay media has changed dramatically in the past five years. A New Gay Media
has emerged and is relevant like never before. Gay television has wider
distribution than 80% of all other content providers in the United States.
here! Networks has secured partnerships for distributing LGBT stories with
EVERY primary and secondary cable company in the country and is also
available via Telcos like Verizon's FIOS TV, accessible through hundreds
of thousands of hotel rooms through partnerships with Lodgenet and
downloadable through numerous IPTV providers like AOL, MSN and Google
Video. This is something that most other "mainstream" cable nets cannot
claim. In fact, here! Networks has now launched in Canada in what will be
the start of an international roll out of our programming to LGBT
audiences around the globe. Our reach, our platform, and our impact grow
every day. While we are LGBT- themed, we are also part of the new
mainstream media landscape, as are many other gay media companies. The New
Gay Media has arrived, yet GLAAD remains mired in an old, conventional
mindset that is an obstacle to our community's growth.

Gay networks are raising the bar around what mainstream media should
consider fair, accurate, and inclusive work. No longer is the LGBT
community beholden to "mainstream" media as the only place where we might
catch a glimpse of ourselves. We salute those outlets that in the past
have included our community in their programming, and now LGBT media joins
them in expanding our stories. Finally, our community can set examples of
what LGBT should look like in a proactive way, not reacting to something
that we either "applaud" or "condemn.". We strongly urge GLAAD to march
forcefully into the 21st century, not relying on strategies that were
based on a world where we had very little day to day control on how our
stories were told.

Gay and lesbian artist's groundbreaking work should not be excluded from
being recognized by the GLAAD Media Awards. In some cases, gay media is
the only media covering diverse parts of our community. Last year Logo's
now-cancelled Noah's Arc was the only Black, gay show on television, yet
it was excluded from the submission process. This year here! Network's The
DL Chronicles will be the only scripted Black, gay show on broadcast or
network television. New standards are now being set by a new generation of
LGBT storytellers, yet GLAAD refuses to recognize and empower those

We believe that all gay media companies should be allowed to submit work
for consideration. That collective group of LGBT voices in print and
online journalism, radio, television, Telco, podcasts, and videocasts are
quite literally changing the world. The New Gay Media has grown, matured
and in many cases is taking the lead on groundbreaking points of view, yet
GLAAD remains entrenched in old "mainstream" thinking.

Inspiring closeted gay Americans to come out and be themselves is one of
the most important results that fair, accurate, and inclusive media can
have on American culture. While you can legislate equal protection under
the law, it is television that has the ability to change the hearts and
minds of all people, including gays and lesbians. Gay television now comes
into the homes of millions of Americans with programming that not only
entertains, but also inspires and gives people confidence to come out of
the closet, be themselves and lend their proud voice to change. Seeing
themselves and their stories being told on screen is a powerful and is
helping to change lives across America.

Contrary to your e-mail cited above, here! Networks also raised this issue
last year after we submitted a large package of programming for
consideration. When I received a call from Nick Adams indicating that we
were not eligible as a gay media outlet to submit our LGBT content, I
specifically asked if Logo took issue with that choice. I was informed by
Adams that they did not really care one way or another. Apparently, that
was not the case as you indicate Logo did indeed raise this issue. We were
told that we would be given the Gittings Award while GLAAD addressed its
policy. The late Ms. Gittings worked very hard to make significant change
for our community. We hope that the award named after this proud activist
is not simply a mechanism to pacify the gay media at the GLAAD Media

Finally, Black Entertainment Television (BET) is not excluded from
submitting programming to the NAACP's Image Awards. Why are gay television
networks prohibited from submitting programming for a GLAAD Media Award?
It has been impossible for us to answer that question, especially when the
organization's mission statement does not lend itself to your choice.

In the past we have provided media coverage, supported GLAAD as a major
sponsor, purchased large blocks of tickets in multiple cities, and
provided collateral and network talent for fundraising events. As a result
of GLAAD's archaic, short sighted and ghettoizing policy directed at gay
media we will no longer be supporting the GLAAD Media Awards or GLAAD
until this policy is changed to be fair and inclusive. We have sent out a
notice to all of our actors, writers, directors and producers to this
effect as well. That e-mail was issued today. In addition to the creative
list, we are also copying their individual teams of agents, managers, and
publicists explaining our position and asking for them to support that

In closing, we hope the Board of Directors recognizes the important role
that the New Gay Media represents. We exist because of the successes of
those that have come before us, and we will honor those LGBT activists by
stepping out of the shadows and demanding our rightful place at the media
table. Oddly enough, our distribution partners across the country have
made room for us, yet GLAAD continues its exclusion. If GLAAD would like
to have a meaningful conversation about change, please do not hesitate to
call. We truly believe that generations who have yet to take up the fight
will look back and wonder why GLAAD excluded gay media from participating
at the Media Awards, but will proudly remember when GLAAD changed its
policy that empowered and propelled our community's media voices.

Stephen F. Macias
Senior Vice President, Corporate and Marketing Communications
here! Networks

Thursday, March 22, 2007

My Changing Neighborhood

My Changing Neighborhood
By Paul Varnell
Copyright by The Chicago Free Press
March 14, 2007

I think of myself as a calm, even-tempered man, but a few things have begun to annoy me lately. I share them here on the off chance that you have noticed the same things.

Years ago when I came to Chicago, I moved specifically to Lakeview because it was the gay neighborhood. It was a bit bohemian, even a bit seedy, but it was friendly and tolerant—a fine place to live and flourish as a gay man. Sometimes people even nodded hello on the streets.

Now more than two decades later, the neighborhood is still disproportionately gay, but the tenor has changed. There seem to be more heterosexuals, specifically young heterosexuals. And the neighborhood is filling up with nail bars (whatever they are), coffee shops, hair salons and fashionable ethic restaurants. I don’t mind young heterosexuals so long as they behave but I’ve noticed a growing lack of common courtesy that seems unneighborly.

Perhaps most noticeable are the number of young women with baby carriages or strollers walking down the middle of the sidewalk. We didn’t used to see baby carriages in this neighborhood. But it isn’t their presence I mind so much as their regularly taking their half of the sidewalk out of the middle rather than obeying simple traffic rules of keeping to the right.

I once observed a woman pushing a baby carriage with one hand, talking into a cell phone she held to her ear and clutching the leash of her dog all at once. No, that’s too many hands. She must have had the dog tied to the baby carriage. But she was charging down the middle of the sidewalk, lost in her conversation, oblivious of other pedestrians—or her dog’s obvious needs.

More annoying still is the clotting behavior evident among young women who are wont to push their baby carriages down the sidewalk side by side, forcing pedestrians far to the edge of the walk. On the narrower sidewalks of side streets I have been forced off the sidewalk to avoid them, with no “Excuse us” or “Thank you” from the young women.

I have hard this sort of behavior called “Mommy Entitlement Syndrome”—an apt term. The idea seems to be that if they have a child, they have special rights and an immunity from criticism. Well, the simple act of reproducing, open to any human being and obviously unavoidable by many, does not get you privileges. Not in my book.

I have decided that in the future I will not step off the sidewalk. I will stand still and force them to go around me single file. I can probably get away with this because I am an official senior citizen, practically a protected class. Smiling pleasantly, I’ll say, “I’m sure you don’t mean to force elderly residents off the sidewalk.” I suspect anyone could do this. I encourage you to start.

It gets worse when the children are a little older. I was at the local library recently when I noticed a woman photocopying something while her little girl walked in the librarian’s office and started poking around among the books and paper. (The librarian was elsewhere at the moment.) I stared at the child and she guiltily ran back out. I walked on but looked back to see the child darting back into the office. When she saw me looking at her, she ran back out again.

Finally I walked over to the mother and said, “I don’t think your child should be playing in the librarian’s office.”

“I don’t have eyes in the back of my head!” she snapped, without looking up, and went on with her photocopying. I did not reply but next time, I think I will say something like, “It’s your child. Don’t inflict it on the rest of us.”

Another time I was at a local grocery store where two small children were running up and down the aisles among shoppers, laughing and yelling, while their mother calmly walked around gathering grocers. I waited a bit for the store manager to say something, then finally said to her, “Do you think you could control your children a little better?” She glared at me as if the very idea were offensive. Mommy entitlement syndrome!

I have less contact with young heterosexual men, whom I suppose are downtown at an office most of the time. Maybe it is just as well. One evening I was crossing a side street at the corner when a fashionable car came tearing up to the intersection (there was a stop sign) and came to a screeching halt a couple of yards short of me. I stopped in the middle of the street and stared disapprovingly at the young male driver. “Faggot!” he yelled.

Borders Reorganization to Focus on Superstores

PW Daily

In This Issue: Thursday, March 22, 2007
Borders Reorganization to Focus on Superstores
Borders Reports Poor 2006

Borders Reorganization to Focus on Superstores
by Jim Milliot

The new strategic plan unveiled by Borders Group this morning will put the focus on its domestic superstore operations by dramatically downsizing both its international operations and the Waldenbooks specialty group. In addition, the company, which has used to handle its online business, will roll out its own online retail operation through and will significantly increase its proprietary publishing program. The retailer also plans to make changes to its loyalty customer program, Borders Rewards, to better leverage the 17 million members in the club.

Despite the broad array of changes planned for the company, chairman George Jones said the single most important thing Borders can do to boost its performance is to improve "its blocking and tackling" in its day-to-day operations. "We need a strategy to drive sales," Jones noted. Better and more consistent store execution, improved marketing and merchandising, a change in bonus payments and a shift in corporate culture are among the areas Jones said the company will focus on.

Borders will be developing a new concept store during 2007 and plans to open the first one in early 2008. Few details were available about the new prototype, although it will likely include more technology offerings. Some existing superstores are adding digital centers that will sell audio books and e-books and devices such as MP3 players, and will offer personal publishing opportunities. Superstore stock will be trimmed back. "We have too much inventory in our stores," Jones said. He said improvement in resupplying stores and in e-commerce initiatives should help the company better manage its in-store merchandise. He noted that the new Web operation will make it much simpler for customers to pre-order titles using in-store kiosks; orders will be shipped to their homes within two days. Borders will continue to invest in its Seattle's Best Coffee and Paperchase segments and will open several standalone Paperchase stores this year. Borders will scale back the number of superstores it opens in the next couple of years to focus on developing the new prototype and upgrading existing stores. He said he was happy with most superstore locations and envisions closing or moving "less than 10" superstore outlets.

Under its restructuring plan, Borders will close 250 Walden outlets over the next two years, dropping the store count to about 300. It plans to sell its stores in the U.K., Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. It will keep its stores in Puerto Rico and in Singapore, which will serve as the headquarters for its franchise operations. Jones said its franchises in Malaysia and the UAE have done well, and the company sees more opportunities in global franchising. The company expects sales in the international segment to drop to $160 million in 2009, down from $650 million this year.
The company's proprietary publishing program will kickoff in June will a novel by Nick Santora, Slip and Fall; a book by John Legend will be released in July; and a 50th anniversary book on the Grammys is set for October.

Borders Reports Poor 2006

The need for change at Borders was evident in its just released financial results, which showed a disappointing end to a disappointing year. Total revenue rose by less than 1% for the year, to $4.11 billion. Writedowns of $186 million resulted in a net loss for the year of $151.3 million compared to earnings of $101 million in 2005.
Superstore sales were up only 1.5%, to $2.75 billion, with comp store sales off 2.2% for the year and down 2.8% in the fourth quarter. Walden sales were off 10.9% in the year, to $663.9 million, with comp sales off 7.5%. International sales rose 12.8%, to $650 million, but same store sales were down 0.4%.

PW Religion BookLine from Publishers Weekly
Editors: Lynn Garrett (;
Daisy Maryles (
Contributing Editor: Jana Riess
© 2007 Reed Business Information. Published weekly.



International Herald Tribune Editorial - The return of pay-go

International Herald Tribune Editorial - The return of pay-go
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: March 22, 2007

While the House debates the course of the Iraq war, the Senate has a chance to restore discipline to the federal budget, a first step in remedying years of damage from profligate tax cuts in the face of immense spending.

The Senate's budget plan, now being debated, resurrects the so-called pay-go rule, which Congress allowed to expire in 2002. Pay-go, already adopted by the House, would require senators to pay for new spending on entitlement programs, like Medicare and farm supports, by either raising taxes or reducing other entitlement spending. It would also require Congress to make up forgone revenue from any new tax cuts by raising other taxes or cutting spending.

Some Republican senators oppose the pay-go rule on the ground that it would increase taxes, de facto, by forcing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire as scheduled after 2010. That's untrue. The plan says only that if the cuts are extended, they should be paid for. It's hard to fathom why anyone would have a problem with that.

The problem is that no politician wants to say what must be said: Some taxes have to be raised, for the sake of children, veterans and others who are paying too high a price for the White House's spendthrift ways.

Currently, the government forgoes some $800 billion in revenue each year via hundreds of tax breaks. Some, like the mortgage interest deduction, are politically untouchable. But some others are loopholes that Congress could close to raise money for pressing needs.

A pay-go rule does not have to threaten vital programs — if the Democratically controlled Congress exerts the leadership that President George W. Bush and a Republican- controlled Congress have not.

International Herald Tribune Editorial - Congress' challenge on Iraq

International Herald Tribune Editorial - Congress' challenge on Iraq
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: March 22, 2007

The House of Representatives now has a chance to lead the United States toward a wiser, more responsible Iraq policy. It is scheduled to vote this week on whether to impose benchmarks for much-needed political progress on the Iraqi government — and link them to the continued presence of American combat forces. The bill also seeks to lessen the intolerable strains on U.S. forces, requiring President George W. Bush to certify that units are fit for battle before sending any troops to Iraq. Both of these requirements are long overdue. The House should vote yes, by an overwhelming, bipartisan margin.

It is normally the president who provides the leadership for U.S. foreign policy and decides when there needs to be a change of course. But Bush stubbornly refuses to do either, and America cannot afford to wait out the rest of his term. Given Bush's failure, Congress has a responsibility to do all it can to use Washington's remaining leverage to try to lessen the chaos that will likely follow an American withdrawal — no matter when it happens — and to ensure that the credibility and readiness of the U.S. military is preserved.

House Democrats have wisely moved beyond their earlier infatuation with mere deadlines. The benchmarks spelled out in this legislation, which also provides the next round of money for the war, require that the Iraqi government stop shielding and encouraging the Shiite militias that are helping drive the killing. U.S. and Iraqi security forces must be allowed to pursue all extremists, Shiite and Sunni, disarm sectarian militias and provide "evenhanded security for all Iraqis."

The benchmarks also require the Iraqi government to take measurable steps toward national reconciliation: equitably distributing oil revenues, opening up political and economic opportunities to the Sunni minority and amending the constitution to discourage further fragmentation.

The legislation would require the president to provide Congress, by July, with an initial detailed report on Iraq's efforts to meet these benchmarks. By October, the Iraqi government would have to complete a specific set of legislative and constitutional steps. Failure to meet these deadlines would trigger the withdrawal of all American combat forces — but not those training Iraqis or fighting Al Qaeda — to be concluded in April 2008. If the benchmarks were met, American combat forces would remain until the fall of 2008.

The measure would also bar sending any unit to Iraq that cannot be certified as fully ready. It sets a reasonable 365-day limit on combat tours for the U.S. Army and a shorter 210-day combat tour limit for the Marines. As for how many troops can remain in Iraq — until the House's deadlines for withdrawal — the legislation imposes no reduction on the level of roughly 132,000 in place at the start of this year.

Critics will complain that the House is doing the Pentagon's planning. But the Pentagon and Bush have clearly failed to protect America's forces from the ever more costly effects of repeated deployments.

If Iraq's leaders were truly committed to national reconciliation, there would be no need for benchmarks or deadlines. But they are not. If Bush were willing to grasp Iraq's horrifying reality, he would be the one imposing benchmarks, timetables and readiness rules. He will not, so Congress must.

American troops should not be trapped in the middle of a blood bath that neither Bush nor Iraq's leaders have the vision or the will to halt.

Smile! You're on YouTube - The Big Sister we can do without

Smile! You're on YouTube - The Big Sister we can do without
By Steve Chapman
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published March 22, 2007

Everyone knows Hillary Rodham Clinton, and everyone has a different reaction to her. Some find her as irritating as fingernails on a chalkboard. Some find that she makes their skin crawl. Some run screaming from the room. And some want to drink a gallon of rat poison while lying across a railroad track.

The conventional wisdom is that the former first lady will be a formidable presidential candidate because she has lots of money, veteran campaign aides, a shrewd political sense and a close connection to a president beloved by Democrats. But those may be nothing next to a couple of fairly major factors operating against her.

The first is that many people in both parties see her as ideologically repellent. Conservatives think she's an arrogant busybody with an addiction to big government. The left regards her as a cynical trimmer who can't admit when she's wrong.

The second is that many people, again in both parties, just can't stand her. You want a uniter, not a divider? Clinton has a way of uniting people who ordinarily would be pelting each other with eggs.

That explains the appeal of the new YouTube spoof, modeled on Apple's famous "1984" Super Bowl commercial, which portrays her as a blandly sinister Big Sister on a giant screen, uttering phony platitudes to an army of robotic slaves. It ends happily when a blonde female athlete sprints in and hurls a sledgehammer at the screen, obliterating the image.

Though the ad included a plug for Barack Obama (it has been traced to a now-former employee of a consulting firm that works for him), it would draw equal ovations if it were shown at a meeting of MoveOn or the Heritage Foundation. Which raises the question: If the right regards her as a dangerous leftist and the left regards her as an unprincipled accomplice in the Iraq disaster, who really likes her?

It's not as though she warms the hearts of moderates everywhere. Her husband was a master of triangulating between the two poles. But Clinton's efforts to place herself in the sensible center suggest naked opportunism, not hardheaded practicality.

The candidate we all know is the one portrayed by Amy Poehler in the "Saturday Night Live" skit who, when asked about her original position on Iraq, replied with a condescending smile, "I think most Democrats know me. They understand that my support for the war was always insincere."

Any candidate can suffer reputation damage during the course of a bitterly fought election. But Clinton rouses an exceptional amount of dislike even before we've been reminded of her flaws.

In a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, only 19 percent of those surveyed had an unfavorable opinion of Barack Obama. Even the abrasive Rudolph Giuliani had only a 22 percent unfavorable score. But 40 percent had an unfavorable opinion of her.

A December poll found 47 percent of Americans would not even consider voting for Clinton. Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington and author of a forthcoming report on attitudes about Clinton, says she can't remember a major party presidential candidate whose negative rating was so high at the start of a campaign.

Conservatives, of course, remember her angry response when her husband was accused of having sex with Monica Lewinsky--which she dismissed as a smear from a "vast right-wing conspiracy." It turned out her enemies were telling the truth and she was not.

But even many Democrats find her impossible to take. A recent online poll by The Nation, a leftist magazine, asked readers to name her "greatest weakness." Among the choices it offered, besides her refusal to apologize for supporting the Iraq war resolution, were "her rigid, poll-driven style" and "her tendency to stomp all over her critics."

Much of the support she has comes from people who wish her husband could serve a third term. But weak nostalgia is a poor campaign theme. And Clinton fails one of the most basic tests: personality.

This is someone who would be in our living rooms every night for at least four years. Looking back on recent elections, the candidate who wins is usually the more likeable--Bush over Gore, Clinton over Dole, Bush over Dukakis, Reagan over Carter. Polls indicate that the aversion to Clinton is less about her politics than about her as a person, and overcoming that sentiment will not be easy.

As the campaign proceeds, some people will be hoping for her to succeed. But I'm betting a lot more will be rooting for the blonde with the sledgehammer.


Steve Chapman is a member of the Tribune's editorial board. E-mail: