Saturday, December 25, 2010

I JUST DO NOT UNDERSTAND THIS, YET!? How is this possible in today's world?

Female Bomber Kills 43 at Pakistan Aid Center
Christmas Day Suicide Attack in Bajur May Be First by a Woman in Pakistan; Army Offensive Kills Dozens of Militants

KHAR, Pakistan - A burqa-clad female suicide bomber in Pakistan lobbed hand grenades, then detonated her explosive belt among a crowd at an aid center Saturday, killing at least 45 people in militants' latest strike against the authorities' control over the key tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

Police believed it was the first time Islamic militants have sent a woman to carry out a suicide attack in Pakistan, where the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan against al Qaeda and the Taliban insurgents continues to spill over despite Islamabad's repeated claims of victory on its side of the porous border.

The bomber, dressed in the head-to-toe burqa robes that women commonly wear Pakistan and Afghanistan, was challenged by police at a check point, officials said.

She then charged toward a group of 300 people lined up outside the food aid distribution center in the town of Khar, tossing two hand grenades before blowing herself up, officials said. The crowd was made up of people who have fled conflicts elsewhere in the area.

President Barack Obama condemned the bombing as "outrageous." In a statement released in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he was spending Christmas, Obama said, "Killing innocent civilians outside a World Food Program distribution point is an affront to the people of Pakistan, and to all humanity."

The attack in Khar, the main city in the Bajur region of Pakistan's northwest, came a day after 150 militants waged pitched gun battles against five security posts in the adjourning Mohmand tribal region to the south. The fighting, which left 11 soldiers and 24 militants dead, was an unusually strong show of strength by insurgents in border country that the military has twice claimed to have cleaned of militants.

Helicopter gunships backed by artillery continued the battle on Saturday, pounding enemy hideouts and killing another 40 militants, said Amjad Ali Khan, the top government official in Mohmand.

The tribal regions are of major concern to the U.S. because they have been safe havens for militants fighting NATO and American troops across the border in Afghanistan. The U.S. has long pressured Pakistan to clear the tribal belt of the insurgents.

The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for Saturday's suicide attack in Khar, through its spokesman, Azam Tariq.

The spokesman suggested the victims may have been targeted because most of them belonged to the Salarzai tribe, which was among the first to set up a militia — known as a lashkar — to fight the Taliban in 2008. Other tribes later formed similar militias to resist the militants.

"All anti-Taliban forces — like lashkars, army and security forces — are our target," he said. "We will strike them whenever we have an opportunity."

The attack killed 45 people, including six policemen, and wounded more than 100, at least 30 critically, said Tariq Khan, a government official in the Bajur region.

Police said the victims were from various parts of Bajur who gather daily at the center to collect food tokens distributed by the World Food Program and other agencies to conflicted-affected people in the region. The people were displaced by an army offensive against Taliban militants in the region in early 2009.

Islamist militants battling the state have attacked buildings handing out humanitarian aid in Pakistan before, presumably because they are symbols of the government and Western influence.

Tariq Khan and another local official, Sohail Khan, said an examination of the human remains has confirmed the bomber was a woman.

Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based security and political analyst, said the suicide bombing appeared to be the first carried out by a woman in Pakistan.

"It is no surprise. They can use a woman, a child or whatever," Rizvi said. "Human life is not important to them, only the objective they are pursuing" of undermining state power, he added.

Male suicide bombers often don the burqa — an Islamic dress that also covers the woman's face — as a disguise. In 2007, officials initially claimed Pakistan's first female suicide bomber had killed 14 people in the northwest town of Bannu but the attacker was later identified as a man. Islamic militants in Iraq have used women suicide bombers several times, since women in their all-enveloping robes are seen as able to pass more easily through security, especially since male security officers are often hesitant to search women.

Akbar Jan, 45, who sustained leg wounds in the bombing, said from his hospital bed that people were lining up for the ration coupons when the explosion went off.

"We thought someone had fired a rocket," he told The Associated Press. He said within seconds he saw the ground strewn with the wounded.

"I realized a little later that I myself have suffered wounds," he said. "Everybody was crying. It was blood and human flesh everywhere."

Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the bombing and said Pakistanis are "united against them."

Bajur is on the northern tip of Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal belt, bordering Afghanistan and the so-called "settled" areas in Pakistan. It has served as a key transit point and hideout for al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The military first declared victory in Bajur following a six-month operation launched in late 2008. But the army was forced to launch a follow-up operation in late January this year and declared victory again about a month later. Still, violence has persisted.


MRS. OBAMA ANSWERS CALLS FROM CHILDREN TO THE NORAD SANTA TRACKER - In Hawaii yesterday, the First Lady spent 38 minutes as the surprise guest, and the White House released a transcript:

OPERATOR: We have Max. ...

MRS. OBAMA: Right now I'm looking at the radar and I see a big, bright light. Santa is moving pretty fast, and right now he is in Johannesburg, South Africa. ...

MAX: Would you want to talk to Alex?

MRS. OBAMA: Is Alex your brother?

MAX: Yes. ...

MRS. OBAMA: I'd love to talk to Alex.

ALEX: Hi. ...

MRS. OBAMA: I just told your brother, Max, that right now Santa's sleigh is over South Africa -- Johannesburg, South Africa. That's where the sleigh is. The radar has got him.

ALEX: (Giggle.) ...

SEAN: I got an email from Santa this year.

MRS. OBAMA: You got an email from Santa? Well, he's really moving up. He's pretty high-tech now. ... Well, the important thing to remember is that he doesn't come to your house until you're fast asleep, no matter where he is in the country. So you've got to make sure you get a good night's sleep. Leave out your cookies and some vegetables for the reindeer and you should be good to go. ...

SETH: Is Rudolph on there? ...

AUSTIN: Is it hard to have all that security around you?

MRS. OBAMA: No, because the security -- the Secret Service, they're really professional and they're really nice guys. So they're fun. They're good with the girls. So they're not -- they do their jobs, but they're really nice guys. It's almost like they're family after a while. So it's not that hard having them around. And they're there to keep us safe, right? You can't be mad at that, right?

AUSTIN: Right ... Is it hard to like be married to the President?

MRS. OBAMA: No, he's a pretty good guy. I mean, it's a tough job and sometimes you want to do everything you can to help him, but it's pretty easy being married to him. He's kind of funny -- fun to hang out with. ...

MRS. OBAMA: Hi, sweetie. How old are you?


MRS. OBAMA: You're eight. Wow! You're one year younger than Sasha. This is so exciting. She's bouncing off the walls. I know you are, too. ... What's the thing you're most excited to get tomorrow?

JULIANA: My MP-3 player.

MRS. OBAMA: Oh, you sound just like Sasha. Same thing.

Senator to push limits on fees for prepaid debit cards (These thieves charge people for use of their OWN MONEY!)

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who led the fight to regulate debit-card "swipe" fees, said he will seek similar rules to restrict what he called "abusive fees" associated with prepaid cards.

In a letter to Elizabeth Warren, the Obama administration adviser setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Durbin promised "further legislative steps" to cut fees tied to prepaid debit cards, according to a copy of the letter released this week.

Durbin said he would work with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who introduced legislation on Dec. 17 that would place disclosure requirements and fee limits on the cards.

"In the meantime, I urge the Bureau to closely monitor the market, fees and terms of these products, and to alert businesses and consumers about deceptive and abusive products," Durbin wrote in the letter. Peter Jackson, a spokesman for Warren, declined to comment on the letter.

Prepaid debit cards, designed to function like checking accounts, have been faulted for charging consumers fees for activation, checking balances and other functions.

Durbin successfully pushed for an amendment to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that requires regulators to ensure that debit-card swipe fees paid by retailers to card issuers are "reasonable and proportional to the cost incurred by the issuer." The senator's new effort aims to address the law's exemption for most prepaid debit cards.

Trish Wexler, a spokeswoman for the Electronic Payments Coalition, said fees for the prepaid cards are important to the products' viability. "You can't expect to force a business to offer a product at a loss, period," Wexler wrote in an e-mail on behalf of the coalition, which represents card issuers including Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase as well as payment network operators such as Visa and MasterCard.

Warren, an assistant to President Obama and special adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, is charged with setting up the new bureau created by the Dodd-Frank Act. The bureau will have no formal authority until July 21.

Hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, who markets a prepaid debit card called the RushCard, successfully lobbied Congress to exempt the cards from the swipe-fee regulation.

With a GOP Congress, Obama's social side starts to thaw

Solitary by nature, President Obama has always been a man of boundaries.

He curtailed donor access to the White House early in his term, annoying prominent Democrats who were accustomed to being courted. His frequent golf games the past two years have been mostly limited to a familiar handful of younger aides.

He banters with his top advisers around the West Wing but does not spend hours regaling them with stories or invite them in to keep him company, several said. He has cultivated few, if any, new friends since taking office. And until recently, his calls to members of Congress have been rare.

He has, some might say, a schmooze deficit.

But as the president adapts to the new reality of a Republican Congress, an unfamiliar side of him has started to emerge: that of a man who is willing to engage a wider range of people more often - even if for just a little while.

In recent weeks, Obama invited leaders in both parties to join him at Camp David in the new year. He worked the phones during the negotiations over an arms treaty with Russia, helping secure its passage by cajoling members of Congress. Along with first lady Michelle Obama, he hosted nearly two dozen holiday parties, adding photo lines for many more guests after complaints last year that he was inaccessible.

Obama is even open to playing a round of golf with incoming Republican House speaker John Boehner, a senior administration official said. "I could certainly see a scenario where that does happen," the official said.

Obama, it seems, is trying. Steve Hildebrand, a close adviser in the 2008 campaign, said the job of working the donor circuit, for instance, "is not one he relishes." But, he said, "there's no doubt he knows that's an important role for him to play."

His limited charm offensive, however, may be too late for his Republican critics and too little for Democratic donors, who expect more fawning attention before being asked to open up their checkbooks heading into the 2012 presidential campaign. That Obama is aloof is a caricature of the man, but it's one that may not be easy to erase.

Advisers said a more accurate description is of someone simply self-reliant, lacking the insecurity gene that leads other politicians to crave constant attention and seek new acquaintances. "In his private time, he likes to be with his friends," another close White House adviser said. "Admittedly, it's a complaint you hear from fundraisers and reporters - that he doesn't schmooze. But he just doesn't like being with people who he doesn't necessarily know."

But there can be a downside to his cloistered approach: It does not give him ready access to political friendships that can prove helpful in a pinch or let him explore ideas with allies - or foes - outside the formal setting of meetings and phone calls. One Democrat who has been invited to the White House for several meetings said that at one encounter, Obama's appearance was so brief he did not even ask any of his supporters questions or advice.

Some lawmakers see it more as a sign of insularity, if not arrogance. "He doesn't suffer fools, and he thinks we're all fools," one senior Republican member of Congress said.

Several White House advisers said they expect that perception to start to change, in part from political necessity as the president forges new alliances with the Republican Congress. Already, in the lame duck session, he found common cause on taxes with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) - who is equally uninterested in schmoozing and would rather get down to business, one of his aides said.

Yet in numerous interviews, donors and outside consultants, along with lawmakers in both parties, complained about what they described as Obama's arm's-length treatment. They did so on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely about the president's personality.

Obama rarely makes a spontaneous phone call, as President Bill Clinton would, or stays well past the dessert course because he is engrossed in conversation. His social encounters are highly scheduled, and to participants they sometimes feel forced unless they are also about work. "He's disdainful of things that make people feel connected to him," one Democratic leader said. "People want to feel like they have a relationship, and he stridently resists."

It is a characteristic that dates back to his early adulthood, at least. On the first page of his autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," Obama describes himself as a 21-year-old loner who was "prone to see other people as unnecessary distractions" and to avoid excessive social contact in his New York neighborhood.

"If the talk began to wander, or cross the border into familiarity, I would soon find reason to excuse myself," Obama wrote in the 1995 memoir. "I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew."

The Republican lawmaker said Obama "always seems a little uncomfortable" in social settings, unlike his two predecessors.

This year's White House holiday party for members of Congress was no exception, he said. Where Vice President Biden was chatting up members - telling jokes and slapping his former congressional colleagues on the back - and Michelle Obama was "great with kids, and humoring politicians," her husband seemed less enthralled by having guests sidle up to him. In most cases, Obama spent only a moment or two with each at the photo line.

Obama did, of course, have thousands of photos to endure throughout 20 holiday parties at the White House, making the encounters necessarily brief and awkward. At the same time, he literally rushed to one of them - the one he held for his staff - leaving Clinton behind in the White House briefing room taking questions from reporters.

The Clinton comparison may be part of Obama's difficulty. Although Clinton was sometimes social to the point of being unproductive, he was able to forge relationships with Republican leaders who took power halfway through his first term. That did not, of course, prevent his impeachment trial. But it left members who personally encountered Clinton feeling that they were worthy of personal attention and that the president remembered them. Donors sometimes felt as if they were practically family.

Today's gripes are largely a result of the change in atmosphere for Democrats. "Those complaints are fundamentally from people that were spoiled by Bill Clinton - both political people and the donor community, people like me that have 42 pictures of themselves with Bill Clinton," California Democratic consultant Bill Carrick said. "I don't know that it's a reality that any president is going to duplicate.

In fact, President George W. Bush was no more fond of cultivating donors or new friends than his successor is, and he tended to retire to the residence at an even earlier hour. But what Bush lacked in enthusiasm for late-night events he made up for in nicknames and jokes. Bush also knew how to win certain men's hearts: He assiduously cultivated Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, inviting his family for a movie at the White House, naming a Justice Department building for Kennedy's brother Robert and hosting a black-tie dinner in honor of his sister Eunice.

People who have worked with Obama acknowledged he is not - and will never be - the kind of jocular creature Bush was, nor overly social as Clinton was. If he is branching out now, either with donors or Republicans, it is to achieve specific goals rather than forge new but vague alliances.

Another veteran Democratic consultant who knows both presidents said that whether Obama relishes it or not, he should be nudged in a more expansive direction in the coming months. Onetime Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta "walled off time for Clinton not to talk to people. Obama needs the opposite," she said.

Now, Obama needs his chief of staff, Pete Rouse, to do the opposite, the consultant said. "He needs Pete to say, 'You're playing golf with Boehner at 3 - get in the car.' "

Anne E. Kornblut Washington Post