Thursday, February 03, 2011

Bernanke Takes Sides on Debt Limit Vote(background on the upcoming football in DC)

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, warned Congressional Republicans on Thursday not to “play around with” a coming vote to raise the government’s legal borrowing limit or use it as a bargaining chip for spending cuts.

In remarks after a luncheon speech here, Mr. Bernanke sided with the Obama administration in the fight over the debt ceiling, which the government is on course to hit in April or May, saying it should be raised without conditions. Some Republicans have insisted on immediate spending cuts in exchange for raising the limit.

It was the first time that Mr. Bernanke, who in contrast to his predecessors has avoided taking sides in partisan debates on fiscal matters, had spoken out on the debt ceiling issue. His willingness to do so suggested a desire by the central bank to prevent Washington lawmakers from toying with bond markets that have been volatile since the European debt crisis last year.

House Republicans have vowed to make deep spending cuts a precondition for voting to lift the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. The White House has described raising the ceiling as nonnegotiable, saying that spending cuts and tax increases should be considered separately. The increasingly tense debate has left Republican leaders, like the new House speaker, John A. Boehner, in a politically delicate spot.

Though he called on Congress and Mr. Obama to confront “daunting fiscal challenges,” Mr. Bernanke said the debt ceiling should not be used as a negotiating tactic, warning that even the possibility of the United States not being able to pay its creditors could create panic in the debt markets.

“I think this is very remote, but it’s not something you want to play around with — the United States would be forced into a position of defaulting on its debt,” Mr. Bernanke said. “And the implications of that for our financial system, for our fiscal policy, for our economy would be catastrophic.”

He added: “So I would very much urge Congress not to focus on the debt limit as being the bargaining chip in this discussion, but rather to address directly the spending and tax issues that we all have to deal with if we’re going to make progress on this fiscal situation.”

Mr. Bernanke’s remarks, which were made in response to questions at a luncheon at the National Press Club, underscored once again his delicate position as a moderate Republican economics professor who was appointed by President George W. Bush but won a second term last year with support from Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats.

Mr. Bernanke also expressed urgency about fiscal reform, in terms of deficit spending, saying, “There is only so far that we can kick the can down the road.”

He said, “We have to address this. And the sooner we do it, the less painful it will be and the better it will be for our economy.”

In his prepared speech, Mr. Bernanke said the United States could not rely on economic growth to solve its long-term fiscal problems, emphasizing that the country would have to cut spending, raise taxes or both.

But as before, Mr. Bernanke declined to specify how the deficit — about 9 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product each of the last two years — should be reduced.

He did, however, say that plans offered recently by a presidentially appointed fiscal commission and by other prominent groups “provide useful starting points for a much-needed national conversation.” Those plans have called for revising entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security and increasing tax revenue, though they differ on many specifics.

Mr. Bernanke’s increasingly urgent warnings about the deficit have been welcomed by Republicans, but on Thursday he also indicated support for Mr. Obama’s position that the debate over fiscal policy should take into account the need to improve the nation’s economic competitiveness.

Mr. Bernanke said that tax and spending changes should “serve not only to reduce the deficit, but also to enhance the long-term growth potential of our economy — for example, by reducing disincentives to work and to save, by encouraging investment in the skills of our work force as well as in new machinery and equipment, by promoting research and development, and by providing necessary public infrastructure.”

Mr. Bernanke also reiterated his defense of the Fed’s plan to lower long-term interest rates by buying $600 billion in Treasury securities. He called the bond-buying plan, which began in November and is to last through June, an appropriate response to high unemployment and low inflation.

Since August, when the Fed first signaled it was considering the strategy, Mr. Bernanke said, stock prices have “risen significantly,” inflation expectations have remained fairly steady, and interest rates on corporate bonds have fallen relative to yields on comparable Treasury securities, suggesting that investors are more confident about the outlook for businesses and less worried about the risk of defaults.

Critics say the effort — popularly known as QE2 because it is the second round of the bond-buying strategy known as quantitative easing — could touch off future inflation in the United States and abroad, devalue the dollar and increase the cost of food, energy and other commodities in the developing world.

Mr. Bernanke said the United States was not to blame for inflation in emerging economies, which have been growing at a much faster rate than the rich economies of Western Europe, North America and Japan.

The inflationary pressures, Mr. Bernanke said, arise from long-term trends — like the tendency of consumers to eat better as they move up from poverty, which tends to push up food prices — and suggest that some economies are pushing the limits of their capacity for growth.

He said that “emerging markets have all the tools they need to address excess demand in those countries,” and added, “They can adjust their exchange rates, which is something that they’ve been reluctant to do in some cases.”

That was a clear reference to China, which has managed the value of its currency, the renminbi, in relation to the dollar.

On the eve of new unemployment figures for January that the Labor Department will report Friday, Mr. Bernanke predicted that “we’ll start seeing some stronger payroll reports and some lower unemployment rates pretty soon,” but cautioned that it would take years for the job market to return to normal.

He said that uncertainty about the recovery’s durability was hampering firms from hiring. “Firms have been using a lot of temporary workers, because they can bring temporary workers on and if the economy weakens again, they can let them go,” he said. “It’ll be a really good sign when we see those temporary jobs being converted into permanent jobs.”


Bumbling Brotherhood

AS Egyptians clash over the future of their government, Americans and Europeans have repeatedly expressed fears of the Muslim Brotherhood. “You don’t just have a government and a movement for democracy,” Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, said of Egypt on Monday. “You also have others, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, who would take this in a different direction.”

The previous day, the House speaker, John Boehner, expressed hope that Hosni Mubarak would stay on as president of Egypt while instituting reforms to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists from grabbing power.

But here’s the real deal, at least as many Egyptians see it. Ever since its founding in 1928 as a rival to Western-inspired nationalist movements that had failed to free Egypt from foreign powers, the Muslim Brotherhood has tried to revive Islamic power. Yet in 83 years it has botched every opportunity. In Egypt today, the Brotherhood counts perhaps some 100,000 adherents out of a population of over 80 million. And its failure to support the initial uprising in Cairo on Jan. 25 has made it marginal to the spirit of revolt now spreading through the Arab world.

This error was compounded when the Brotherhood threw in its lot with Mohamed ElBaradei, the former diplomat and Nobel Prize winner. A Brotherhood spokesman, Dr. Essam el-Erian, told Al Jazeera, “Political groups support ElBaradei to negotiate with the regime.” But when Mr. ElBaradei strode into Tahrir Square, many ignored him and few rallied to his side despite the enormous publicity he was receiving in the Western press. The Brotherhood realized that in addition to being late, it might be backing the wrong horse. On Tuesday, Dr. Erian told me, “It’s too early to even discuss whether ElBaradei should lead a transitional government or whether we will join him.” This kind of flip-flopping makes many Egyptians scoff.

When the army allowed hundreds of Mubarak supporters and plainclothes policemen through barricades on Wednesday to muscle out protesters, the Muslim Brotherhood may have gained an opportunity. It might be able to recover lost leverage by showing its organizational tenacity in resisting the attempts to repress the demonstrators.

Nonetheless, the Brotherhood did not arrive at this historical moment with the advantage of wide public favor. Such support as it does have among Egyptians — an often cited figure is 20 percent to 30 percent — is less a matter of true attachment than an accident of circumstance: the many decades of suppression of secular opposition groups that might have countered it.
The British, King Farouk, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar el-Sadat all faced the same problem that Hisham Kaseem, a newspaper editor and human rights activist, described playing out under Mr. Mubarak. “If people met in a cafe and talked about things the regime didn’t like, he would just shut down the cafe and arrest us,” Mr. Kaseem said. “But you can’t close mosques, so the Brotherhood survived.”

If Egyptians are given political breathing space, Mr. Kaseem told me, the Brotherhood’s importance will rapidly fade. “In this uprising the Brotherhood is almost invisible,” Mr. Kaseem said, “but not in America and Europe, which fear them as the bogeyman.”

Many people outside Egypt believe that the Brotherhood gains political influence by providing health clinics and charity for the poor. But the very poor in Egypt are not very politically active. And according to Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council, the group has only six clinics in Cairo, a city of 18 million.
Many of the other clinics are Islamic in orientation simply because most Egyptians are Islamic. The wealthier businessmen who often sponsor them tend to shun the Brotherhood, if only to protect their businesses from government disapproval.

Although originally the Brotherhood was organized into paramilitary cells, today it forswears violence in political struggle. This has made it a target of Al Qaeda’s venom. In January 2006, Ayman al-Zawahri, the former leader of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda’s leading strategist, blasted the Brotherhood’s willingness to participate in parliamentary elections and reject nuclear arms. You “falsely affiliated with Islam,” he said in vilifying the group. “You forget about the rule of Shariah, welcome the Crusaders’ bases in your countries and acknowledge the existence of the Jews who are fully armed with nuclear weapons, from which you are banned to possess.”

People in the West frequently conflate the Brotherhood and Al Qaeda. And although their means are very different, even many Egyptians suspect that they share a common end that is alien to democracy. When I asked Dr. Erian about this, he retorted that the United States and Mr. Mubarak had conspired after Sept. 11 to “brainwash” people into thinking of all Muslim activists as terrorists, adding that “the street” knew the truth.

The street, however, manifests little support for the Brotherhood. Only a small minority of the protesters in Tahrir Square joined its members in prayers there (estimates range from 5 percent to 10 percent), and few Islamic slogans or chants were heard.

Obviously the Brotherhood wants power and its positions, notably its stance against Israel, are problematic for American interests. “Israel must know that it is not welcome by the people in this region,” Dr. Erian said. Moreover, the Brotherhood will probably have representatives in any freely elected government. But it is because democracies tolerate disparate political groups that they generally don’t have civil wars, or wars with other democracies. And because the Brotherhood itself is not monolithic — it has many factions — it could well succumb to internal division if there really were a political opening for other groups in Egypt.

What we are seeing in Egypt is a revolt led by digitally informed young people and joined by families from all rungs of society. Though in one sense it happened overnight, many of its young proponents have long been working behind the scenes, independent of the Brotherhood or any old guard opposition. Egyptians are a pretty savvy lot. Hardly anyone I talked to believes that democracy can be established overnight.

The Brotherhood leadership talks of a year or two of transition, although that may reflect a vain hope of using that time to broaden its popular support enough to reach a controlling plurality. The more common assessment even among democracy advocates is that the military will retain control — Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief and new vice president, will be acceptable to Egyptians if the army gets rid of Mr. Mubarak now — and over the next decade real democratic reforms will be instituted.

“Egypt is missing instruments essential to any functioning democracy and these must be established in the transition period — an independent judiciary, a representative Parliament, an open press,” Mr. Kaseem said. “If you try to push democracy tomorrow we’ll end up like Mauritania or Sudan,” both of which in recent decades have had coups on the heels of democratic elections.

A military in control behind the scenes — for a while — is probably the best hope for a peaceful transition. “Let the U.S.A. stay away,” urged Mr. Kaseem, who insisted that he is pro-American and abhors the Brotherhood. “They are only bungling things with calls for immediate reforms and against the Brotherhood.
We are handling this beautifully. Even a military leader with an I.Q. of 30 wouldn’t go down the same path as Mubarak because he would understand that the people of Egypt who are out in the streets are no longer apathetic, their interests are mostly secular, they are connected and they will get power in the end.”

If America’s already teetering standing among Egyptians and across the Arab and Muslim world is not to topple altogether, the United States must now publicly hold Mr. Mubarak responsible for the violence and privately inform the Egyptian Army that it cannot support any institution that is complicit.

But there is little reason for the United States to fear a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood.
If Egypt is allowed to find its own way, as it so promisingly began to do over the past week, the problems of violent extremism and waves of emigration that America and Europe most fear from this unhappy region could well fade as its disaffected youth at last find hope at home.

Scott Atran, an anthropologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, the University of Michigan and John Jay College, is the author of “Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood and the (Un)making of Terrorists.”

Obama Opens Up About His Faith, Prays for Peace in Egypt at National Prayer Breakfast

President Obama said on Thursday he prays for an end to the ongoing violence in Egypt on Thursday, as well as for "the rights and aspirations of the Egyptian people."

Speaking at Thursday's annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, the president told Mark Kelly - Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' husband - that his wife was in his prayers and that "we are with them for the long haul." Kelly spoke at the event after Mr. Obama.

"We have been praying for Mark's wife, Gabby Giffords, for many days now, but I want Gabby and Mark and their entire family to know that we are with them for the long haul," Mr. Obama said. "God is with them for the long haul."
"We pray that the violence in Egypt will end, and that the rights and aspirations of the Egyptian people will be realized, and that a better day will dawn over Egypt and throughout the world," Mr. Obama said.

The president spoke about his own experience with faith, which he said his experience as president had strengthened.

"The presidency has a funny way of making a person feel the need to pray," Mr. Obama quipped. "Abe Lincoln said, as many of you know, 'I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.'"

He also opened up about his experience finding his faith, which he called a "sustaining force" in his life.

Noting that he "did not come from a particularly religious family," Mr. Obama said it was faith leaders of the civil rights movement who had initially inspired his life of service - but that his experience as a community organizer in Chicago inspired his Christian faith.

"A call rooted in faith is what led me, just a few years out of college, to sign up as a community organizer for a group of churches on the south side of Chicago," Mr. Obama said. "It was through that experience, working with pastors and laypeople, trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods, that I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace him as my lord and savior."

He added that one of the major themes among his prayers was humility - a prayer which he said God had answered early on "by having me marry Michelle."

Speaking more seriously, Mr. Obama said that as a politician, it was sometimes helpful to "go back to scripture to remind ourselves that none of us has all the answers."

"The challenge I find, then, is to balance this uncertainty, this humility with the need to fight for deeply held convictions, to be open to other points of view, but firm in our core principles," he continued. "And I pray for this wisdom every day."

Glenn Beck Is Today's Number One 'Exporter Of Fear'

Chris Matthews: Glenn Beck's 'explanation' of the Egyptian crisis the other day has outraged certain quarters of the media.

Last night Chris Matthews jumped on board calling Beck "today's number one exploiter of fear." People like him "scare us, set blame and then try best they can to reap the benefits."

"Yesterday when we were giving you the latest news from Cairo and the White House, Beck was preaching the coming of the caliphate. That's right, the coming of the caliphate. 'Oh, we've got trouble in River City.' The mad professor is prophesizing now that Britain, France, Spain and Portugal are all going to be grabbed up by the second coming of the Ottoman empire."

"Why is Beck selling this fear? Because he doesn't want to deal with the problem at hand.
It's too tricky for him, as it is for most of us. So what are Beck and the troublemakers doing?
They're scaring people into a frenzy over the coming of a global caliphate. And to what effect?
To fight for Mubarak?
To place blame if we don't? To encourage Mubarak to fight the people in the streets?
No. I'll bet Its to begin a long campaign of fear, something to talk about on the radio, something to scare people with."

MORE REASON TO NOT WATCH FOX NEWS UNLESS YOUR ARE STUPID! SURPRISE! Leaked Emails Show Fox News' Exec's Attempt To Link Obama Campaign To Marxism

Media Matters has uncovered even more internal Fox emails revealing a purported network-wide campaign to link Barack Obama to "Marxists" and "socialism" during his 2008 presidential race.

October of 2008 was a busy month for Fox News exec Bill Sammon, now the managing editor of Fox's Washington, D.C., bureau.

Media Matters has cataloged the multiple appearances he made on Fox News trying to tie Obama to socialism -- but more troublesome perhaps are his Fox News internal emails that continue to be leaked (some former co-worker has it in for him!).

For example, on October 27, 2008, Sammon sent an email to his Fox News colleagues with the subject heading "fyi: Obama's references to socialism, liberalism, Marxism and Marxists in his autobiography, 'Dreams from My Father.' Plus a couple of his many self-described 'racial obsessions'..."

The body of the email contained the references -- and, unfortunately for Sammon, there weren't too many. His email only mentioned five somewhat tenuous references from Obama's book, e.g.:

"In search of some inspiration, I went to hear Kwame Toure, formerly Stokely Carmichael of SNCC and Black Panther fame, speak at Columbia. At the entrance to the auditorium, two women, one black, one Asian, were selling Marxist literature."

90 minutes after sending the email, Sammon appeared on the broadcast of Fox's LiveDesk to discuss the quotes, and later that day posted a piece by Sammon under the headline: "Obama Affinity to Marxists Dates Back to College Days."

That was fast.

But Sammon apparently wasn't the only one at Fox attempting to ratchet up the socialist talk.

Another leaked email from Fox producer Elizabeth Fanning shows that staffers were encouraged to ask questions linking Obama to communism.

In an October 27, 2008 Fox & Friends segment on Obama's campaign, Steve Doocy asked Fox News' contributor Michelle Malkin, "Isn't this what happens in socialist countries?"

This question was regarding Obama's reported cancellation with WFTV (ABC's Orlando affiliate), following anchor Barbara West's interview with Joe Biden, where she asked him how Obama "was not being a Marxist" after his "spread the wealth" exchange with Joe the Plumber.

Doocy's question seemed like a spontaneous question -- but it wasn't. It was almost an exact replica of one of the five scripted questions sent around the night before by Fanning: "Isn't this what happens in Communist countries?"

This, by the way, is during the same month that Sammon said on LiveDesk:

Let me be clear: The media is biased. I have spent a lifetime in the media. I spent ten years as a White House correspondent surrounded by my friends from other major news organizations. They're liberals. They just are.



White House, Egypt Discuss Plan for Mubarak’s Exit

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is discussing with Egyptian officials a proposal for President Hosni Mubarak to resign immediately and turn over power to a transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman with the support of the Egyptian military, administration officials and Arab diplomats said Thursday.

Even though Mr. Mubarak has balked, so far, at leaving now, officials from both governments are continuing talks about a plan in which Mr. Suleiman, backed by Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, chief of the Egyptian armed forces, and Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the defense minister, would immediately begin a process of constitutional reform.

The proposal also calls for the transitional government to invite members from a broad range of opposition groups, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, to begin work to open up the country’s electoral system in an effort to bring about free and fair elections in September, the officials said.

Senior administration officials said that the proposal was one of several options under discussion with high-level Egyptian officials around Mr. Mubarak in an effort to persuade the president to step down now.

They cautioned that the outcome depended on several factors, not least Egypt’s own constitutional protocols and the mood of the protesters on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities.

Some officials said there was not yet any indication that either Mr. Suleiman or the Egyptian military was willing to abandon Mr. Mubarak.

Even as the Obama administration is coalescing around a Mubarak-must-go-now posture in private conversations with Egyptian officials, Mr. Mubarak himself remains determined to stay until the election in September, American and Egyptian officials said. His backers forcibly pushed back on Thursday against what they viewed as American interference in Egypt’s internal affairs.

“What they’re asking cannot be done,” one senior Egyptian official said, citing clauses in the Egyptian Constitution that bar the vice president from assuming power. Under the Constitution, the speaker of Parliament would succeed the president. “That’s my technical answer,” the official added. “My political answer is they should mind their own business.”

Mr. Mubarak’s insistence on staying will again be tested by large street protests on Friday, which the demonstrators are calling his “day of departure,” when they plan to march on the presidential palace. The military’s pledge not to fire on the Egyptian people will be tested as well.

The discussions about finding a way out of the crisis in Cairo take place as new questions are being raised about whether American intelligence agencies, after the collapse of the Tunisian government, adequately warned the White House and top lawmakers about the prospects of an uprising in Egypt.

During a Senate hearing on Thursday, both Democrats and Republicans pressed a senior Central Intelligence Agency official about when the C.I.A. and other agencies notified President Obama of the looming crisis, and whether intelligence officers even monitored social networking sites and Internet forums to gauge popular sentiment in Egypt.

“At some point it had to have been obvious that there was going to be a huge demonstration,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence.

She said that intelligence agencies never sent a notice to her committee about the growing uprising in Egypt, as is customary in the case of significant global events.

Stephanie O’Sullivan, the C.I.A. official, responded that the agency had been tracking instability in Egypt for some time and had concluded that the government in Cairo was in an “untenable” situation. But, Ms. O’Sullivan said, “we didn’t know what the triggering mechanism would be.”

Because of the fervor now unleashed in Egypt, one Obama administration official said, Mr. Mubarak’s close aides expressed concern that they were not convinced that Mr. Mubarak’s resignation would satisfy the protesters.

In an interview with Christiane Amanpour of ABC News, Mr. Mubarak said that he was “fed up” with being president but that he could not step down for fear of sowing chaos in the country.

“The worry on Mubarak’s part is that if he says yes to this, there will be more demands,” said Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “And since he’s not dealing with a legal entity, but a mob, how does he know there won’t be more demands tomorrow?”

A number of high-level American officials have reached out to the Egyptians in recent days. While administration officials would not offer details of the alternatives that were being discussed, they made it clear that their preferred outcome would be for Mr. Suleiman to take power as a transitional figure.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke by phone to Mr. Suleiman on Thursday, the White House said in a statement, urging that “credible, inclusive negotiations begin immediately in order for Egypt to transition to a democratic government that addresses the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”

Mr. Biden’s phone call came after a mission by Mr. Obama’s private emissary, Frank G. Wisner, was abruptly ended when Mr. Mubarak, angry at Mr. Obama’s toughly worded speech on Tuesday night, declined to meet with the envoy a second time, officials said.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has made three calls since the weekend to Egypt’s powerful defense minister, Field Marshal Tantawi, who served on the coalition’s side in the Persian Gulf war of 1991.

Pentagon officials declined on Thursday to describe the specifics of the calls but indicated that Mr. Gates’s messages were focused on more than urging the Egyptian military to exercise restraint.

Officials familiar with the dialogue between the Obama administration and Cairo say that American officials have told their Egyptian counterparts that if they support another strongman to replace Mr. Mubarak — but without a specific plan and timetable for moving toward democratic elections — Congress might react by freezing military aid to Egypt.

On Thursday, the Senate passed a resolution calling on Mr. Mubarak to begin the transfer of power to an “inclusive, interim caretaker government.”

Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert on the Egyptian military at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that a transition government led by Mr. Suleiman and the military, with pledges to move toward democratic elections, was in his mind “the most probable case.” But he said the administration had to proceed with extreme caution.

“Everybody working this issue knows that this is a military extremely sensitive to outside pressure,” Mr. Cordesman said.

Even as the Obama administration has ratcheted up the pressure on Egypt, it has reaffirmed its support for other Arab allies facing popular unrest.

The White House released a statement saying that Mr. Obama called President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen on Wednesday to welcome Mr. Saleh’s recent “reform measures” — the Yemeni president promised not to run again in 2013.

And on Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called King Abdullah II of Jordan to say that the United States looked forward to working with his new cabinet — recently announced — and to underline the importance of the relationship between Jordan and the United States.

Philip J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, declined to say whether Mrs. Clinton had enlisted King Abdullah in an effort to ease out Mr. Mubarak. But Mr. Crowley praised the king for responding to the unrest in Jordan.

“He’s doing his best to respond to this growing aspiration,” Mr. Crowley said. “And we appreciate the leadership he’s shown.”


Army Intervenes, but Violence Rages in Cairo DAY #10

At Least Eight Dead and Hundreds Hurt in Second Day of Heavy Fighting; Prime Minister Issues Apology; Journalists Rounded Up
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Egyptian army tanks and soldiers cleared away pro-government rioters and deployed between them and protesters seeking the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, moving to halt violence as the prime minister made an unprecedented apology Thursday for the assault by regime backers that turned central Cairo into a battle zone.

Another bout of heavy gunfire and clashes erupted around dusk in the Cairo square at the center of Egypt's anti-government chaos, while new looting and arson spread around the capital. Gangs of thugs supporting Mubarak attacked reporters, foreigners, and human rights workers and the army rounded up foreign journalists.

Gunfire rang out in central Tahrir Square, where Mubarak supporters and opponents have been fighting for more than 24 hours. At least one wounded person was carried out. At least eight people have been killed since the clashes erupted Wednesday afternoon.

CBS News Khaled Wassef reports that another person was killed - and three more injured - by gunshots fired by snipers positioned on buildings surrounding Tahrir Square Thursday. An eyewitness told Al Jazzeer that the slain protester died of a bullet in his head and that the shooting was caught on videotape.

Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said the attack Wednesday on the anti-Mubarak protesters was a "blatant mistake," acknowledged it was likely organized and promised to investigate who was behind it.

The protesters accuse the regime of organizing the assault, using paid thugs and policemen in civilian clothes, in an attempt to crush their movement. Government supporters charged the protest camp in Tahrir Square Wednesday afternoon, sparking uncontrolled violence that lasted until the next morning, as the two sides battled with rocks, sticks, bottles and firebombs and soldiers largely stood by without intervening.

Vice President Omar Suleiman said Mubarak's son will not seek to succeed his father in elections later this year, in the latest concession to anti-government protesters.

It was widely believed that Mubarak was grooming his son Gamal, 46, to succeed him despite significant public opposition.

Egypt's state news agency also reported that the prosecutor-general has banned travel and frozen the bank accounts of three former ministers of the government that was sacked over the weekend, including the interior minister who was responsible for police.

The prosecutor-general said he ordered the same restrictions against a senior ruling party official until security is restored in the country.

Suleiman vowed to release detained all youth and advocacy workers who had participated in the protests without inciting violence. But Suleiman also vowed punishment for those currently fighting - and for those behind the pro-Mubarak gangs that sparked violence Wednesday.

"What happened in Tahrir Square yesterday was a conspiracy and we must punish those who cooked this conspiracy," Suleiman said, in a translation provided by Wassef. "Investigations will show who pushed those people to go to Tahrir Square, who incited them. … Whoever did that wasted all the efforts exerted by President Mubarak over the past few days."

Suleiman said the protesters have legitimate and acceptable demands and that the government was happy to listen - but alluded to foreign interests infiltrating protest groups as well.

The vice president then spoke about a process of constitutional changes - revisions, but not a complete overhaul - that would need to take place before new elections in September.

The military fanned out early Thursday to separate the two sides and allowed thousands more protesters to enter their camp in the square. Soldiers then stepped aside as the anti-government side surged ahead in the afternoon in resumed clashes.

Automatic weapons fire pounded the anti-government protest camp in Cairo's Tahrir Square before dawn on Thursday in a dramatic escalation of what appeared to be a well-orchestrated series of assaults on the demonstrators.

The nation's health minister, speaking to state television early Thursday morning, said 836 people had been injured in the melee, though other reports put those numbers higher.

CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann reports that Mubarak's government was almost certainly responsible for deploying the waves of attackers to lay siege to the camp in Tahrir Square. They were well-organized. And on some of them, protestors later found government or police ID's.

"A day after asserting he would not run again for office, Egypt's president re-asserted his authority - tried to crush this popular dissent - reminding protestors why they had taken to the streets in the first place," notes Strassmann.

At the same time, Mubarak supporters carried out a string of attacks on journalists around the square. One Greek print journalist was stabbed in the leg with a screwdriver, and a photographer was punched, his equipment smashed. Arab TV network Al-Jazeera reported two correspondents attacked. The army started rounding up journalists, possibly for their own protection.

Many Western journalists were attacked by apparent Mubarak supporters on Wednesday, with both Strassmann and CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric and their crews meeting hostility for the first time since the Cairo protests erupted more than a week ago.

Mob gangs are likely involved in an organized campaign targeting the foreign reporters, Wassef reports. A U.S. intelligence source told CBS News correspondent Lara Logan that the Egyptian secret police may be behind the organized attacks on media.

The U.S. State Department condemned what it called a "concerted campaign to intimidate" foreign journalists in Egypt. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday that violence against journalists was part of a series of deliberate attacks and called on the Egyptian military to provide protection for reporters.

An Associated Press reporter saw eight foreign journalists detained by the military near the prime minister's office, not far from Tahrir Square

The Arabic-language satellite channel Al-Arabiya pleaded on an urgent news scroll for the army to protect its offices and journalists.

The attacks appeared to reflect a pro-government view that many media outlets are sympathetic to protesters who want Mubarak to quit now rather than complete his term.

The Qatar-based pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera said on a news scroll that two of its correspondents had been attacked by "thugs." It didn't say when the attack took place, or how badly they were hurt.

Al-Jazeera kept its camera crews away from the square and instead relied on reporters of Arab descent who had flip cameras and tried to do their work by blending in with the crowd, said Al Anstey, the network's managing director.

"It's a very, very challenging situation," Anstey said. "But it's history in the making."

Earlier Wednesday, Couric Tweeted that Mubarak supporters near Tahrir Square were "very hostile," preventing a CBS crew from shooting video and punching a photographer.

(Watch protesters crowd around Couric and her camera crew at left)

Strassmann reports that he and a photographer were attacked at a checkpoint near Tahrir Square.

Shafiq's highly unusual apology and the army intervention suggested at least some in the regime want to step back from Wednesday's dangerous turn — the first outbreak of street violence between the two sides in what is now 10 days of unprecedented protests demanding Mubarak, unquestioned leader for nearly 30 years, quit power.

The notion that the state may have coordinated violence against protesters, whose vigil in Tahrir Square had been peaceful for days, raised international outrage, including a sharp rebuke from Washington, which has considered Egypt its most important Arab ally for decades, and sends it $1.5 billion a year in aid.

"If any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

Tanks cleared a highway overpass Thursday from which Mubarak supporters had hurled rocks and firebombs onto the protesters. On the streets below, several hundred soldiers carrying rifles lined up between the two sides, pushing the pro-government fighters back and blocking the main battle lines in front of the famed Egyptian Museum and at other entrances to the square.

A sense of victory ran through the protesters, even as they organized their ranks in the streets in case of a renewed assault. "Thank God, we managed to protect the whole area," said Abdul-Rahman, a taxi driver who was among thousands who hunkered down in the square through the night.

Mubarak backers seethed with anger at a protest movement that state TV and media have depicted as causing the chaos and paralyzing businesses and livelihoods. "You in Tahrir are the reason we can't live a normal life," one screamed as he threw stones in a side street.

Shafiq's promise to investigate who organized the attack came only hours after the Interior Ministry issued a denial that any of its police were involved.

"I offer my apology for everything that happened yesterday because it's neither logical nor rational," Shafiq told state TV. "Everything that happened yesterday will be investigated so everyone knows who was behind it."

The anti-Mubarak movement has vowed to intensify protests to force the president out by Friday. In a speech Tuesday night, Mubarak refused to step down immediately, saying he would serve out the remaining seven months of his term — a halfway concession rejected by the protesters.

GOP loses 'forcible rape' language

House Republicans plan to sidestep a charged debate over the distinction between “forcible rape” and “rape” by altering the language of a bill banning taxpayer subsidies for abortions.

The provision in question, written as an exemption from the ban for women who become pregnant as a result of “forcible rape,” touched off a firestorm of criticism from women’s groups, and it gained enough attention to become the subject of a satirical segment on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

But a spokesman for the bill’s author, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), says the modifier “forcible” will be dropped so that the exemption covers all forms of rape, as well as cases of incest and the endangerment of the life of the mother.

“The word forcible will be replaced with the original language from the Hyde Amendment,” Smith spokesman Jeff Sagnip told POLITICO, referring to the long-standing ban on direct use of taxpayer dollars for abortion services.

The fight over the definition of rape threatened to sabotage Republican efforts to highlight their push to end taxpayer subsidies for abortion, and the distinction between types of rape mystified some GOP aides.

“Such a removal would be a good idea, since last I checked, rape by definition is non-consensual,” said one aide.

The underlying bill, which imposes sweeping new restrictions on existing taxpayer subsidies for health plans that cover abortion, has support from a bipartisan group of anti-abortion lawmakers, including several House GOP leaders who attended a press conference announcing its introduction last month.

But proponents have found themselves on the defensive in the last few days over the phrase “forcible rape” and a decision to grant an incest exemption only to minors. Under the Hyde amendment, which is recodified annually in an appropriations law, women who are victims of any type of rape or incest at any age are eligible for federally subsidized abortions.

“The phrase ‘forcible rape’ was abandoned some time ago, and there is some indication that what they would be trying to do is make women jump over an additional hurdle if they want to get an abortion,” Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) told POLITICO this week.

The bill’s authors, including Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), say it’s not their intent to change the way the exemption is applied.

“The language of H.R. 3 was not intended to change existing law regarding taxpayer funding for abortion in cases of rape, nor is it expected that it would do so,” Lipinski told Talking Points Memo in a statement.

Regardless of the intention, the language became an inviting target for critics, and its potential to hijack the debate over taxpayer subsidies for abortion forced a quick reversal from GOP leaders.

“By proposing this legislation, Republicans are finally closing the glaring rape loophole in our health care system,” the Daily Show’s Kristen Schaal dead-panned Wednesday night — after GOP leaders had decided to change the language. “You’d be surprised how many drugged, underaged or mentally handicapped young women have been gaming the system. Sorry, ladies the free abortion ride is over.”

© 2011 Capitol News

New York City on Wednesday moved a step closer to ban smoking in parks

New York City on Wednesday moved a step closer to ban smoking in parks, beaches and other outdoor public spaces, amid grumbling that the city government may have gone too far in its war on salt, fat and smoke.

The city council voted 36 to 12 in favor of the smoking restrictions, extending an existing ban on smoking in restaurants and bars.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said he would sign the bill, and it would come into effect 90 days later.

At the council hearing on Wednesday, opponents to the bill denounced the dangers of smoking but said this ban represented government overreaching.

"I truly believe government is being too restrictive in this particular matter," said Councilman Robert Jackson, a Harlem Democrat. "It's a totalitarian society that's going to have this type of restrictions."

By adopting the restrictions, New York would join cities such as Chicago and San Francisco in the fight against second-hand smoke in public places.

The bill would leave enforcement to the city Parks department, which said it would give a warning before issuing a $50 fine. Police would not enforce the ban.

The ban includes boardwalks and pedestrian plazas such as the one in busy Times Square, where the city provides tables and chairs.

"This summer, New Yorkers who go to our parks and beaches for some fresh air and fun will be able to breathe even cleaner air and sit on a beach not littered with cigarette butts," Bloomberg said in a statement.

Under the Bloomberg administration, the city has promoted other health measures including a ban on trans fats in restaurant food and a requirement that chain restaurants display calorie counts on menus.

The mayor also has campaigned for food companies to cut salt levels in their products and for the federal government to ban the purchase of sugary drinks with food stamps -- federal vouchers used by 42 million low-income Americans to buy food.

McCain Fires Back at Rumsfeld Memoir: 'Thank God He Was Relieved of His Duties'

That's what Sen. John McCain told me this morning when I asked him about a report that former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote in his new book that McCain had a “hair-trigger temper” and “a propensity to shift his positions to appeal to the media.”

“I respect Secretary Rumsfeld. He and I had a very, very strong difference of opinion about the strategy that he was employing in Iraq which I predicted was doomed to failure,” the Arizona Republican said on “GMA.”

McCain and Rumsfeld had clashed over troop levels.

“And thank God he was relieved of his duties and we put the surge in otherwise we would have had a disastrous defeat in Iraq,” McCain told me.

George Stephanopoulos is anchor of ABC's "Good Morning America."

Protesters Clash Again on Cairo’s Streets

CAIRO — With the eyes of the Arab world upon them, protesters seeking the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak regrouped at Tahrir Square on Thursday after a night of gunfire and a day of mayhem that left at least five dead and more than 800 wounded in a battle for the future of the Middle East’s most populous nation.

The outcome is pivotal in a region where uprising and unrest have spread from Tunisia to many other lands, including Jordan and Yemen, forcing their leaders into precipitate concessions to their suddenly vocal foes and stretching American diplomacy.

In Sana, the Yemeni capital, on Thursday, thousands of protesters assembled, some for and some against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The demonstrations were peaceful, in marked contrast to the chaos that ruled in Cairo on Wednesday when President Mubarak struck back at his opponents, unleashing waves of supporters armed with clubs, rocks, knives and firebombs in a concerted assault on thousands of antigovernment protesters in Tahrir Square.

Sounding a highly unusual note of public contrition among Egypt’s elite, the newly-appointed prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, said on Thursday he apologized for the violence and vowed to investigate who had instigated it, The Associated Press reported. “I offer my apology for everything that happened yesterday because it’s neither logical nor rational,” he said.

A government spokesman, Magdy Rady, denied that the authorities had been involved in the violence. “To accuse the government of mobilising this is a real fiction. That would defeat our object of restoring the calm,” the spokesman told Reuters. “We were surprised with all these actions.”

In the clashes on Wednesday, the Egyptian military did nothing to intervene. But, on Thursday for the first time, a thin line of soldiers backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers appeared to have taken up positions between the combatants and to be urging Mr. Mubarak’s supporters, numbering in the hundreds, to avoid confrontation.

For their part, several thousand anti-government protesters, far fewer than in previous days, called for peaceful protest. “An Egyptian will not attack another,” some chanted from behind makeshift barricades thrown up to seal access to the square. “No bloodshed.”

When one man shouted an insult at a Mubarak supporter around 100 yards away, another, Mahmoud Haqiqi, told him: “Don’t say that. Stay quiet. Tell them we are here for their sake.”

After hours of bloody clashes starting on Wednesday with rocks, iron bars and petrol bombs into the night, the confrontation seemed to escalate early Thursday morning when the staccato rattle of automatic gunfire rang out over Cairo.

It was unclear whether the shots came from the pro-government demonstrators or from the military forces stationed in the square.

Two people were killed by the gunfire and 45 people were wounded, said a doctor at a nearby emergency clinic set up by the antigovernment demonstrators. After the initial volleys, soldiers fired into the air, temporarily scattering most of the people in the square.

The Egyptian Health Ministry said on Thursday that five people have been killed in the violence since Wednesday and 836 injured, most of them hit by stones or beaten with metal rods and sticks.

More than 150 people have died in the uprising, human rights groups say.

By mid-morning on Thursday, as the protesters’ numbers again began to swell, the antigovernment side had held its ground in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square — the focus of the clashes — milling around and chanting slogans on the 10th day of the campaign to oust Mr. Mubarak.

Volunteers arrived carrying water, yoghurt, bananas and medical supplies for the makeshift clinics that sprung up to tend the wounded. In the absence of any municipal services or authority, others tried to sweep the square of debris, using brooms, shovels and sheets of cardboard.

The violence on Wednesday and Thursday seemed to have hardened the protesters’ demands, going far beyond the ouster of Mr. Mubarak. “The people want the execution of the president,” some chanted. “Mubarak is a war criminal.”

Some low-level clashes continued, but nothing on the scale of the volleys of rocks and petrol bombs of the earlier fighting.

Early Thursday, the square was littered with rocks and makeshift barricades, with smoke drifting overhead. Troops guarded the Egyptian Museum, Cairo’s great storehouse of priceless antiquities dating to the time of the Pharaohs and a huge emblem of national pride.

As the fear of further clashes gripped Cairo, foreigners, including many Americans, continued their exodus.

In a statement, the American Embassy, which has ordered the compulsory evacuation of some diplomats and their families, said that more than 1,900 American citizens had been flown out of Egypt since Monday and more would leave on Thursday.

There was no indication that the anti-government side was in a mood for retreat. On Thursday, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood — the biggest organized opposition group — again rejected a government offer to negotiate once the protesters had left Tahrir Square.

Essam el-Erian, a senior leader of the Islamist organization, told Reuters the movement was calling for the removal of “the regime, not the state.”

“This regime’s legitimacy is finished, with its president, with his deputy, its ministers, its party, its Parliament. We said this clearly. We refuse to negotiate with it because it has lost its legitimacy,” he said.

Wednesday’s crackdown was in defiance of calls by the United States and Europe to avoid violence, and it provoked swift condemnation and a rift with the Egyptian government, a longstanding ally.

Only two days after the military pledged not to fire on protesters, it was unclear where the army stood. Many protesters contended that Mr. Mubarak was provoking a confrontation in order to prompt a military crackdown.

Mohamed ElBaradei, who was designated to negotiate with the government on behalf of the opposition, demanded on Wednesday that the army move in and protect the protesters. The deployment of plainclothes forces paid by Mr. Mubarak’s ruling party — men known here as baltageya — has been a hallmark of the Mubarak government, and there were many signs that the violence was carefully choreographed.

The preparations for a confrontation began Wednesday morning, a day after Mr. Mubarak pledged to step down in September while insisting that he would die on Egyptian soil. The president’s supporters waved flags as though they were headed to a protest, but armed themselves as though they were itching for a fight. Several wore hard hats; one had a meat cleaver, and two others grabbed the raw materials to make firebombs from their car.

Some of the Mubarak supporters arrived in buses. When they spoke with one another, they referred to the antigovernment protesters as foreigners or traitors, and to Mr. Mubarak as Egypt’s “father.”

But some were also men like Mohamed Hassan, an accountant, who had attended Tuesday’s antigovernment demonstration. “Of course we needed a change,” Mr. Hassan said on Wednesday, standing on the Corniche, a boulevard in sight of the Egyptian Museum. Mr. Mubarak’s speech had changed his mind. “I think all of our demands were filled,” he said. “We need change, but step by step.”

The anti-Mubarak demonstrators had organized themselves to try to avoid violence. Men held hands in long chains to keep the two groups apart. Others, with effusive apologies, searched those entering the square for weapons. Some stepped in with whistles to break up arguments that had started to grow heated.

Several people interviewed independently said that ruling party operatives had offered them 50 Egyptian pounds, less than $10, if they agreed to demonstrate in the square on Mr. Mubarak’s behalf. “Fifty pounds for my country!” said Yasmina Salah, 29.

Then, suddenly, at exactly 2:15 p.m., arguments between pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators around the square turned into shoving matches.

“We don’t know who is with us and who is against us now — we are lost,” said Abdel Raouf Mohamed, 37, before he was interrupted by a burly young man who shouted: “I love Mubarak! I need Mubarak!”

Seven minutes later, Reda Sadak, 45, said, “In 10 minutes, there will be a big fight here — it is an old game, the oldest game in the regime.”

In fact, before he finished speaking, rocks and sticks began to fly from the pro-Mubarak forces into the crowd of anti-Mubarak demonstrators.

Even then, many tried to avoid retaliation. A line of a half-dozen unarmed men stood quietly, waving their hands in the air while the pro-Mubarak forces rained rocks down on them.

At 2:50 p.m., as hundreds of rocks flew past the Egyptian Museum, two tanks started up. Anti-Mubarak protesters who had been standing on them jumped off and the crowd cheered with delight. “The people and the army are one hand!” they chanted.

The tanks rolled to create a barricade between the opposing groups, and for a while the soldiers encouraged both sides to calm down. But then the soldiers seemed to retreat, and soon the anti-Mubarak forces began hauling scraps of metal to build a barricade around one tank.

A soldier on top of another tank fired live ammunition into the air to push back a surging group of pro-Mubarak protesters. A couple of men jumped up on the tank and started to kiss his feet, and for a moment the soldier, weapon in hand, began to cry.

A higher-ranking officer climbed up, and the anti-Mubarak protesters begged him to protect them. “But aren’t they Egyptian?” the officer replied. “You want me to fire at Egyptians?”

And for the rest of the day the soldiers did nothing, telling anti-Mubarak protesters who begged them to engage that they “had no orders.”

Then, about 3:15 p.m., the battle was joined. Abandoning any attempt to avoid violence, thousands of anti-Mubarak protesters used scraps of steel to rip up the pavement into pieces, carrying them in milk crates and scarves to hurl back at their attackers.

“They want to take the revolution from us,” said Mohamed Gamil, a 30-year-old dentist in the crowd of antigovernment protesters. “We are ready to die for the revolution.”

Pro-government demonstrators chanted, “With our blood, with our souls, we sacrifice for you, oh Mubarak.” Eighteen charged their foes on horseback and two on camels.

Many journalists were harassed and detained.

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo, and Alan Cowell from Paris. Kareem Fahim, Mona El-Naggar and Anthony Shadid contributed reporting from Cairo.

Las Vegas Bellagio Casino chips robber arrested (Judge's son arrested in Bellagio robbery)

LAS VEGAS, Nev.-- Las Vegas Metropolitan Police have made an arrest in connection with the December robbery of the Bellagio Casino.

In a statement authorities say Anthony Carleo, 29, was charged with one count of robbery with use of a deadly weapon, burgalry with use of a deadly weapon and trafficking in a controlled substance.

Police say no one else has been arrested but the invesitgation continues.

During the early morning hours of December 14th, around one and a half million dollars worth of casino chips were stolen from a craps table.


Judge's son arrested in Bellagio robbery

Las Vegas police late Wednesday arrested the son of a city judge in connection with December's $1.5 million Bellagio casino heist.

Anthony Michael Carleo, 29, the son of Las Vegas Municipal Court Judge George Assad, was arrested after he met undercover officers to sell high-value chips taken in the heist, law enforcement sources said.

Carleo was a guest at the very hotel he is accused of robbing in December, and police executed search warrants at both the hotel and at the home of the judge. No one answered the telephone in his room at the Bellagio on Wednesday night.

The Bellagio robbery, one of the largest in recent Southern Nevada history, drew national headlines in part because of the amount of money, but also because of its brazen nature.

The robbery occurred at 3:50 a.m. Dec. 14 when a man parked a late-model black motorcycle at the casino's north valet entrance.
Leaving the motorcycle running, he walked into the casino wearing a white, full-face motorcycle helmet and a leather jacket.
He approached a craps table, pulled a pistol and demanded money. He was given an estimated $1.5 million in casino chips in denominations from $100 to $25,000.

No one was hurt, and no shots were fired, police said. Security officers did not try to stop the man out of concern that a shootout might injure casino patrons.
In and out of the casino in a matter of minutes, the robber was last seen traveling west on Flamingo Road on the motorcycle, police said.

Because of the large denominations of the chips, police and gaming industry insiders have speculated the robber would never be able to cash them without giving himself away.

The same suspect was believed to have robbed the Suncoast casino about 12:30 a.m. Dec. 8. In that robbery, a man wearing a full-face motorcycle helmet held up a poker room cashier cage, taking $20,000, police said.

Police reviewed surveillance footage of the robberies but said they revealed little about the suspect's identity. The suspect was described as a white man about 5 feet 10 inches tall and 220 pounds.

According to newspaper reports and public records, Carleo was a longtime resident of Pueblo, Colo., where he was a real estate broker and owned two businesses, one a mobile disk jockey service, the other a limousine service co-owned with his stepfather, Gino Carleo.

Anthony Carleo filed bankruptcy in Colorado in 2009, and reportedly was living at the Assad home in Las Vegas at the time of his arrest.

Attempts to reach Assad at his home were unsuccessful Wednesday night.

Assad was appointed to Las Vegas Municipal Court Dept. 3 in June 2002, and won election to the post in 2003. Prior to his appointment, Assad was judge pro tem in Las Vegas Municipal Court, Henderson Justice Court, North Las Vegas Justice Court and North Las Vegas Municipal Court, according to a city website.

The website profile notes that Assad, who emigrated from Syria with his parents as a baby, worked as a Las Vegas blackjack and craps dealer to earn money for law school.

Assad has had difficulties on the Las Vegas bench. In 2008 the Nevada Supreme Court ordered him to apologize to a woman he ordered locked up at traffic court for two hours in 2003, and to pay to attend a class on judicial ethics.

Last May, Assad was given low marks in the Review-Journal's "Judging the Judges" survey, with two-thirds of approximately 115 respondents rating him "less than adequate" on two of the four questions, and more than half rated him "less than adequate" on the other two.

Criticisms included "Two words, nut case," and "ruthless dictator who tramples over the Constitution and people's rights."

Assad recently filed for re-election and will face Heidi Almasebe on the April 5 ballot.

Antonio Planas