Saturday, December 22, 2012
The US House of Representatives has approved a ‘defense bill’ that includes new anti-Iran sanctions, another almost USD500 million for the Israeli regime’s missile systems and approximately USD89 billion for its war in Afghanistan.
The anti-Iran sanctions portion of the 633-billion-dollar legislation targets Iran’s energy, shipping and ship-building industries as well as its sea ports.
The fresh measure further seeks to enforce sanctions on the Islamic Republic broadcasting networks.
US lawmakers reportedly approved the so-called defense bill, which also authorizes USD480 million for the Israeli regime’s missile system, with a vote of 315 in favor and 107 against.
Moreover, the bill allocates USD88.5 billion for the US-led war effort in war-torn nation of Afghanistan, despite the Obama administration’s announced plans to drawdown its forces in the Asian country.
The fiscal measure further earmarks another USD17 billion for American nuclear program.
The legislation is now awaiting approval by the US Senate before being signed into law by President Barack Obama.
White House, however, has threatened to veto measure, forcing it back to Congress for revisions and revote.
During a four and a half hour question and answer session, the president said Russian MPs had acted "emotionally, but reasonably" in approving the legislation, a retaliation for a new US law that bans alleged Russian human rights abusers from visiting the country.
Mr Putin said that despite Americans being "up to their ears in a certain substance" made up of their own problems, they still insisted on highlighting Russia's ills.
"Why does one country consider itself entitled to spread its jurisdiction to the entire world?" he said in his characteristic rapid-fire delivery.
"Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo – people are kept in prison for years without being charged, they walk around in shackles like in the Middle Ages. "They have legalised torture inside their own country.
"Can you imagine what it would be like if we had at least something similar? We'd have been eaten alive! They would spread such a Bacchanalia [of criticism]! But in the US there's only silence."
The withering remark was just one of the notable moments in a combative performance from the Russian leader, who was giving his first mass press conference – a yearly feature of his first two terms in the Kremlin – since 2008.
Mr Putin also warned of an "endless" war in Syria, promised French actor Gerard Depardieu a Russian passport and claimed jailed billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky had been fairly prosecuted.
More than 1,200 reporters from all over the country and abroad attended the event at a central Moscow business centre. As in the past, many provincial journalists frantically waved signs with the names of their regions, or with words on the subject they wanted to ask about: Ice, Crude oil, Students, Problem, and From the Countryside were just some.
Delegates took the microphone with flowery compliments on Mr Putin's achievements and his family. One invited him to a celebration of record coal production and a correspondent from Kalmykia on the Caspian coast asked for a birthday message for his daughter. The president dashed it off on a notepad and handed it over forthwith.
But there was also a smattering of ticklish questions from liberal media - and some surprisingly challenging posers from pro-Kremlin outlets.
The Russian leader seemed at ease as he kicked off with a 15-minute speech giving a blizzard of statistics about harvest output, tractor production and rising birthrates. Yet two early questions about the legislation to ban Americans adopting Russian children - which still needs to pass a third reading in the State Duma and be signed by the president - appeared to get his hackles up.
One reporter criticised the law, which is named after Dima Yakovlev, a Russian toddler who died in Virginia in 2008 when his adoptive US father forgot him in a car for nine hours. The reporter said he had been humiliated in a Russian court when trying to adopt a child.
But Mr Putin retorted that the failure to allow Russian oversight of court cases involving abuse of adoptees in the US was unacceptable.
"Do you think this is normal? What's normal if you are humiliated?" he asked the journalist. "Are you a sado-masochist?"
The law, which would end around 1,000 adoptions a year, came after Barack Obama last week signed into law the Magnitsky Act - a measure paying tribute to a Russian lawyer who died in custody in Moscow in 2009 after blowing the whistle on a $235 million police embezzlement scheme.
After a raft of questions on internal matters, which he used to plug Russia's reviving economy, Mr Putin returned to foreign affairs. Asked whether Russia was risking its reputation in the Middle East by supporting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, whose government could fall, he replied: "We are not anxious about the fate of Assad's regime. We understand what is happening there and that [his] family has been in power for 40 years. Undoubtedly, change is needed. We are worried about something else: what happens next." Russia wanted to see dialogue between Mr Assad and the Syrian opposition to "save the region and the country from collapse and endless civil war," he added.
In a curious vignette, Mr Putin said the French actor Gerard Depardieu - who recently announced he was leaving France because of high taxes – was welcome to a Russian passport if he wanted one.
When a pro-Kremlin website asked if he had promised so much to the Russian people because he knew the exact date for the end of the world, the Russian leader caused a ripple of excitement by confirming "I know when the end of the world will be".
However, after a pause for effect, Mr Putin added: "In about 4.5 billion years' time." The Russian leader brushed off rumours over his health, suggesting they were invented by his political opponents.
The Assad regime may firing Scud weapons to warn off the west from intervening in Syria, according to Shashank Joshi research fellow at the Royal United Services defence think tank.
Speaking to the Guardian he said:
Missiles are a useful way of reminding the outside world ‘look we still have potentially several hundred of these ballistic missiles and if they can land very near the Turkish border they can also land within Turkey itself’.
Assad may be gambling that this is a useful signal of deterrent against foreign intervention ... it only takes one [missile] to get through and hit a populated area, or an air base, for their to be very serious political consequences particularly in this context if it has chemical armed warheads.
I still don’t see any strong reason for Assad to use such weapons, but the capability does exist. And it is only sensible for Turkey and other countries to prepare for that contingency.
Joshi warned that the Nato Patriot missile system, which is due to be operational on the Turkish border by the end of January, “hasn’t been tested against fall-blown Scud missiles in battlefield conditions".
He said Iranian suggestions that the deployment of Patriots was a step towards war were “absurd”.
Joshi said reports of Scud missile attacks were credible. There is little reason for the US government to make false claims about such attacks, he said. And he warned that the legacy of the Iraq invasion should not be used to “reflexively reject all evidence”.
In the case of Syria, western states continue to have little appetite for intervention, he said.
If we had wanted a reason to intervene [in Syria] there are innumerable pretexts to have done so, without have to raise the spectre of chemical weapons.
Although I think we should be sceptical, I’m not one of those who thinks this is a swirl of propaganda being thrown up in the air simply to allow an easy path for western states simply to assault Syria under false pretexts. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be very much on our guard in how we assess these little bits of fragmentary evidence coming through.
He warned that it is unlikely to be clear from satellite detection whether the missiles launched were Scud or Scud-type missiles.
“It is easy to confuse the specifics. But what’s clear is that some sort of missile was launched at this base last week and something has been launched this week," he said.
He said Scud missiles were too imprecise to hit specific targets, but can be effective against wide areas like air bases.
Assad maybe turning to such missiles because his air force is over stretched and now vulnerable to anti-aircraft weapons, newly acquired by rebels, Joshi said.
He said were “grounds for scepticism” about US claims that Assad is preparing to use chemical weapons, as they were based on anonymous briefings.
If officials are only willing to speak off the record there is a problem of accountability and reliability of the evidence.