Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Anxious to keep lid on Iraq, Obama woos Kurds

Anxious-to-keep-lid-on-Iraq-Obama-woos-Kurds President Barack Obama, facing a damaging election-year problem if Iraq's political crisis worsens, has launched an urgent behind-the-scenes push to ease tensions between the Baghdad central government and the Kurds.

Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurds' semi-autonomous regional government, paid a quiet visit to the White House on April 4 and left with backing for two long-standing requests that could help build the worried Kurds' confidence in U.S. support.

Barzani's heated criticism last month of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has fanned concern the country could splinter, potentially setting off a fresh civil war.

Reuters has learned that to demonstrate U.S. support, the White House and Congress agreed to lift a designation that treats Kurdistan's two main political parties as if they were terrorist groups, complicating members' travel to the United States. In addition, the U.S. consulate in Arbil will begin issuing U.S. visas before the end of 2012.

Since withdrawing the last U.S. troops in December, Obama has, at least publicly, put little focus on Iraq, and critics view the latest gestures as not much more than damage control.

But Obama still has a lot at stake in Iraq. If violence explodes, it could tarnish Obama's bragging rights with U.S. voters for concluding the unpopular war.

And worsening relations between the Shi'ite-led central government and semi-autonomous Kurdistan could thwart White House efforts to lower gasoline prices. The Kurds halted oil exports to Baghdad on April 1, citing a payment dispute.


Barzani last month delivered a sharp denunciation of Maliki's government and suggested he could seek a referendum of some kind on the Kurdish region's relations with Baghdad - although he stopped far short of breaking a taboo by making explicit reference to independence.

Analysts say the probability of the Kurds declaring independence is low, although not zero.

"If Kurds were to declare independence in the near term there is a very high likelihood that that would provoke a war with Baghdad," said Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst.

The White House promises to the Kurdish president "constitute useful takeaways for Barzani but they are probably about the absolute minimum that he would have found acceptable," said Pollack, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

The goal of the Washington meetings in early April, both the White House and the Kurds said, was to re-commit to a relationship that both value. Obama dropped in on one of the meetings Vice President Joe Biden hosted for Barzani that day.

Biden assured Barzani of U.S. backing for the Kurds, but he also cautioned that Washington could not pick sides between Kurdistan and Baghdad, a senior administration official said.

"Neither relationship can come at the expense of the other relationship," the official said. "A red line for us is that all this must be done in a way that is consistent with the (Iraqi) constitution."


Iraq boasts some of the world's largest oil reserves and could provide essential extra production capacity to help stabilize world oil markets, at a moment when gasoline prices are one of the most pressing issues for U.S. voters.

And while foreign policy hasn't yet been a major factor in the U.S. presidential campaign, both parties are likely to sharpen their focus on it ahead of the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden's killing by U.S. commandos on May 2.

Qubad Talabani, son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and the representative for the Kurdistan Regional Government in Washington, said the Kurdish delegation was happy with Biden's words of support to Barzani.

"The reaffirmation of the commitment to Kurdistan and the Kurdish people went down very well," he said.

"For us, we're naturally an insecure people, and given the history that we've had, we're expecting at some point or another to be let down again," he said.

The Kurds, severely persecuted under late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, have become increasingly nervous since U.S. troops left.

Indeed, the troop departure was followed almost immediately by a political crisis sparked by Maliki's demand for the arrest of a Sunni Muslim vice president, who fled to Kurdistan, where Barzani defied the prime minister by granting him shelter.


Critics of Obama's Iraq policy complain that the White House is primarily concerned on keeping a lid on events until after the November 6 U.S. election.

"I think the administration is of the mind-set of 'see no evil, hear no evil' and it wants Iraq to be invisible for the political debate in the United States," said Ned Parker, a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

To encourage the Kurds to remain within Iraq's political process, the administration is bowing to their long-standing plea to amend the status of the main political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Under the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, members of the groups are deemed to be engaged in terrorist activity.

This is not as severe as being designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. But it means that members of these organizations must get a government exemption to visit or stay in the United States.

An aide to Senator Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said Lieberman was working on legislation to remove the designation.

In addition, the U.S. decision to begin issuing visas from its consulate in Arbil from the end of 2012 will save Kurds who want to visit the United States the expense and hazard of journeying to Baghdad to get a visa or traveling to a U.S. consulate outside of Iraq.

State Department spokesman Michael Lavallee confirmed this move, which had been long sought by the Kurds, but stressed in a statement that it was part of a broader effort to "work with the government of Iraq to continue to normalize our consular services throughout the country."


U.S. officials also offered to help the Kurds in talks with Baghdad to resolve the oil payments dispute and get the exports flowing once again, the Kurds said.

The amounts involved are modest - around 50,000 barrels per day from Kurdistan compared with Iraq's national output of some 2.6 million barrels, according to published 2011 estimates by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

But the dispute highlights the country's ongoing failure to agree to a national oil law, potentially dampening the willingness of big foreign oil firms to make the investments necessary to exploit these resources.

The Kurds currently have no independent export route for their oil outside of the central government.

"They have a lot of potential," said Ben Lando of the Iraq Oil Report. "There are substantial oil and gas reserves but there has not been a qualified number put on that and in many places exploration is still ongoing."

(Editing By Warren Strobel and Eric Beech)

High-level Israeli, Palestinian meeting may be off

High-level-Israeli-Palestinian-meeting-may-be-off A planned meeting on Tuesday between the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers may be cancelled or postponed after Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad refused to attend, senior Palestinian officials said

Fayyad was reluctant to be seen as engaging with Israel on a day when more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners began a hunger strike to protest against their conditions in Israeli jails, the officials said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office had released no details of a time or venue for what were to have been the highest-level talks with the Palestinians since peace negotiations broke off in 2010.

But Israeli officials, asking for anonymity because no official announcement on the talks had been made, had said on Monday that the meeting was to be held on Tuesday.

Palestinian officials said Fayyad was to have delivered a letter to Netanyahu from President Mahmoud Abbas detailing Palestinian grievances on the stalled peace talks and reiterating a call to halt settlement building.

Instead, the letter may be handed to a senior Netanyahu aide by Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat later on Tuesday or Fayyad might meet the Israeli leader on a less politically charged date, the Palestinian officials said.

Earlier, an Israeli official said Netanyahu would reiterate his call for talks to resume without any preconditions and for a meeting with Abbas.


The possible last-minute cancellation may cast new light on divisions within the Palestinian political establishment, which has struggled to craft a winning strategy to achieve statehood.

The letter could serve as a prelude to a renewed unilateral Palestinian move for statehood recognition in the United Nations, an effort suspended last autumn amid stiff opposition from Washington and Israel.

Palestinians said the letter would accuse Israel of failing to carry out its obligations under a 2003 "road map" agreed by both sides, which include a halt to settlement activity.

Foreign governments have viewed the letter with apprehension, welcoming a rare high-level Israeli-Palestinian meeting, and warning against any threatening language.

U.S.-sponsored peace talks froze in late 2010 after Netanyahu rejected Palestinian demands that he extend a partial construction freeze he had imposed at Washington's behest to coax them into talks.

Netanyahu says the future of settlements, which the Palestinians and many countries regard as illegal, should be decided in peace negotiations.

Palestinian officials said the letter is a watered-down version of previous drafts which suggested the Palestinian Authority, run by Abbas, would dissolve itself or sever ties with Israel if there was no progress.

Nonetheless, the Palestinians may take their case to the U.N. General Assembly after failing to secure backing at the Security Council in 2011, and even though only the Security Council - where the United States has veto power - has the authority to grant full U.N. membership.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Coke beats Street, sees signs U.S. economy improving

coca-cola Coca-Cola Co (KO.N) posted higher-than-expected quarterly results after the world's largest soft drink maker sold more beverages, even in developed markets with economic challenges, fueling hopes that conditions are improving.

The maker of Sprite, Minute Maid orange juice and vitaminwater, which does business in more than 200 countries, saw volume rise 3 percent in Germany and Japan, 6 percent in Spain and 1 percent in the United States, in a sign that consumers may be opening their wallets again after economic uncertainty curbed demand.

"Despite its struggle with a sustained period of relative high unemployment, we are pleased to see some early signs of a slowly improving macroeconomic environment," Coke Chief Executive Muhtar Kent said about the United States.

At the same time, performance in China may weaken as that country's economic growth slows from the meteoric rates seen in recent years.

"As we move through 2012, we anticipate that our business in China may not be immune to this cooling economy and therefore, we may also see some of our volume results in China moderate to some extent," Kent said. He added that results in Brazil should remain steady as that country's economy recovers.

Emerging markets are still what drives Coca-Cola's growth, said Sanford Bernstein analyst Ali Dibadj, but he said the pickup in mature markets was a good sign.

"That's an interesting message for us, not just for Coke but more broadly for consumer packaged goods," Dibadj said. "I don't think the U.S. is back to what it used to be, in terms of growth, but this would suggest that things are getting a little bit better."

Coke shares were up $1.45, or 2 percent, at $73.89 in morning trade on the New York Stock Exchange.


Coca-Cola's first-quarter net profit was $2.05 billion, or 89 cents per share, up from $1.90 billion, or 82 cents per share, a year earlier.

Revenue rose 6 percent to $11.14 billion, helped by a 5 percent increase in overall volume and a 3 percent increase in prices and mix of products sold.

Analysts on average expected earnings of 87 cents per share on revenue of $10.82 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

"The profit growth was quite strong considering the impact of one less selling day and the toughest commodity lap of the year," said Consumer Edge Research analyst Bill Pecoriello, referring to how much higher prices were for raw materials like packaging and sweetener than in the year-earlier quarter.

Coca-Cola also said it was on track with a productivity program aiming to save $550 million to $650 million a year by the end of 2015.

(Reporting by Martinne Geller in New York; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Lisa Von Ahn, Dave Zimmerman)

Electric and hybrid car sales record in USA

ToyotaPriusCBlue_thumb Electric and hybrid cars enjoyed their highest share of the US automotive market yet, during March.

According to new figures from Ward’s Auto Info Bank, consumers bought a record 52,000 hybrid and electric cars during the month – that’s an increase from 34,000 during the same month last year.

Now, the two categories account for 3.64 per cent of total US sales – the highest monthly market share ever. The previous high was achieved back in July 2009, when the Cash for Clunkers scheme aided the vehicles to a 3.56 per cent market share. It also marks a significant leap from the turn of the year when hybrid and electric cars accounted for just 2.38 per cent of new car sales.

It is believed that buyers have been drawn in both by increasing petrol prices – which have teetered around $4 a gallon – and by the influx of new models on the market including the Toyota Prius C (pictured), the Prius V Wagon and the Toyota Camry Hybrid.

In addition, it has been a good month for the Chevrolet Volt. During 2011, General Motors sold just 7,671 Volt models – well below its target of 10,000. However, during March it set a new monthly record of 2,289 Volts sold. The Nissan LEAF battery electric car also saw its sales nearly double to 579.

The Green Car Website

Heidi Klum Proud to Say She Never Has Plastic Surgery

heidi-klum-bares-all-for-allure After giving birth to four children, Heidi Klum still has the body to be envied for. The former Victoria's Secret Angel stripped down to her birthday suit for the May issue of Allure magazine, showing off her toned figure that she proudly declares has never been touched by any cosmetic surgery procedures.

"Ask me again when I'm 65, but ... I'm proud to be able to say, in this day and age, I haven't done anything," the 38-year-old supermodel said in an accompanying interview. "Everyone has a view of what's pretty and what's not pretty, and [surgery] just doesn't look pretty to me. Especially when I see it on really young girls."

"I don't want to name names," she continued on, "but it's like, wow, I remember you five years ago, looking to me so beautiful, and now it's like ... who is this person? And I know girls half my age who do it. What are they gonna do at 40 or 50, when the s-*-*-t really hits the fan?"

Plastic surgery isn't the only thing Klum discussed though. The "Project Runway" host also talked about her split from husband of seven years, Seal. "You know, I wouldn't change anything. If I had to go back in time and say, 'I should have changed this or that...'," she said. "No. I don't resent anything that ever happened. Things just turn out the way they turn out."

On being single again, the German-born model commented, "I had dreams of how I wanted things to be and planned for things. And, as we all know today, they don't always turn out as you dreamed them in your head."

"Because sometimes life throws you a curveball and then you just figure it out and deal with it, but my dream always was that," she continued on. "To have the perfect family and have lots of children and a beautiful garden and trampolines and swings and things."


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