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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Riot Police in Early Morning Raid on Bahrain Protesters - NYTimes.com

070122-N-9594C-001 Manama, Bahrain - King of B...Image via WikipediaRiot Police in Early Morning Raid on Bahrain Protesters - NYTimes.com

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN and NADIM AUDI
MANAMA, Bahrain — The Bahrain military, backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers, took control of most of this capital on Thursday hours after hundreds of heavily armed riot police officers fired shotguns, tear gas and concussion grenades to break up a pro-democracy camp inspired by the tumult swirling across the Middle East.

Soldiers took up positions on foot, controlled traffic and told demonstrators that any further protests would be banned. The intervention came after police, without warning, rushed into Pearl Square in the early hours of the morning, in a crackdown on demonstrators who were sleeping there as part of a widening protest against the nation’s absolute monarchy.

At least five people died, some of them reportedly killed in their sleep with scores of shotgun pellets to the face and chest, according to a witness and three doctors who received the dead and at least 200 wounded at a hospital here. The witness and the physicians spoke in return for anonymity for fear of official reprisals.

A long convoy of armored military vehicles rolled into Manama and news reports quoted a military spokesman as saying the deployment was to defend people and property. In an announcement on state television, the military said it had “key parts” of Manama “under control.”

The Interior Ministry said the army would take all necessary steps to ensure security and it urged people to avoid the city center. But at a hospital where many of the casualties from the police raid were taken, thousands of relatives and protesters massed again.

In response, the Shiite-led opposition called on Thursday for the current government to resign. A spokesman for the Pentagon, which maintains a strategic naval base here, said the American military was “closely watching developments” and urged “all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence,” Reuters reported.

The violence came against the backdrop of turmoil swirling from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean coastline as young and disaffected Arabs took to the streets, inspired by uprisings that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and redrew the region’s political map.

This week alone, renewed skirmishes and unrest were reported from Iran, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.

In some countries, protest has been aimed at governments long supported by the United States — like the monarchy in Bahrain, which hosts the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet — valuing alliances with them in the struggle to combat terrorism and build a regional security network. But the association between their rulers and the White House has presented Washington with an acute dilemma over its response to the emerging threats to its longtime allies.

In Bahrain, the violence is more complex because the island monarchy is ruled by a Sunni minority, provoking longstanding discontent among a Shiite majority linked by its faith to Iran with its Shiite theocracy across the waters of the Gulf. Reflecting the government’s general distrust of that majority, the military and police forces are largely composed of foreigners.

The government has shifted its approach to the protests repeatedly, possibly reflecting a split on how much leeway should be allowed. After two people were killed in the first two days of marches, the king and his interior minister apologized and, under American pressure, the authorities ordered the police to withdraw from the central square. But the leadership’s newfound tolerance for dissent was a mirage.

The abrupt crackdown on what had been a carnival-like protest injected a new anger into demonstrations calling on King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to enact reforms. “Death to Khalifa, death to Khalifa,” hundreds of protesters chanted on Thursday outside a hospital as women ran screaming through wards and corridors seeking lost children.

“They made the people feel safe,” said a nurse, Fatima Ali, referring to what had initially seemed to be official tolerance of the huge protest in Pearl Square, emulating an uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that brought down President Hosni Mubarak. “Then they killed them.”

Men, women and young children ran screaming, choking and collapsing as riot police ringed the square.

The square was filled with the crack of tear gas canisters and the wail of ambulances rushing people to the hospital. Teams of plainclothes police officers carrying shotguns swarmed through the area.

In the hospital morgue, one body lay next to a tray with 200 shotgun pellets that had been dug from it. Doctors said paramedics who rushed to the square in ambulances after the convulsion of violence were beaten by police. Some of the people admitted to the hospital with injuries had been handcuffed with thick plastic restraints, made to lie down, then beaten, the doctors said. A witness, who spoke in return for anonymity, said he had seen two people shot dead as they slept.

Other injuries were caused by rubber bullets, batons and beatings.

“There was a fog of war,” said Mohammed Ibrahim as he took refuge in a nearby gas station. He was barefoot, had lost his wallet and had marks on his leg where he said he had been beaten. “There were children, forgive them.”

In Pearl Square, riot police officers backed by scores of SUVs with flashing blue lights could be seen on Thursday picking their way through the deserted remnants and debris of the protesters’ tent camp.

Some of the clashes this week erupted as protesters buried two people killed earlier in the demonstrations, and organizers said on Thursday that the funerals of the latest casualties would provide a test of whether the authorities’ actions had cowed their opponents.

Only hours before Thursday’s crackdown, the square had been transformed from a symbol of the nation — anchored by a towering monument to its pearl-diving history — into a symbol of the fight for democracy and social justice that has been rocking autocratic governments all across the Middle East. Tens of thousands of people had poured into the square during the day, setting up tents, giving rousing speeches and pressing their demands for a constitutional democracy.

By 11 p.m. Wednesday, the square had started to quiet down. Young men sat smoking water pipes, while young children slept on blankets or in tents. At 2:45 a.m. Thursday, the camp was quiet, those awake still reflecting on the remarkable events of the day. And then, police vehicles began to appear, encircling the square. At first there were four vehicles, then dozens and then hundreds.

Wearing white crash helmets, the police rushed the square.

“Everybody was sleeping, they came from upside and down,” said Zeinab Ali, 22, as she and a group of women huddled, crying and angry, in small nearby market.

The protest had begun on Monday, when young organizers called for a “Day of Rage,” modeled on the uprisings in Egypt or Tunisia. On that day, the police were unforgiving, refusing to allow demonstrators to gather, overwhelming them with tear gas and other rounds. One young man was killed, shot in the back by the police. A day later, another young man, a mourner, also was killed, shot in the back.

That galvanized the opposition and under pressure from the United States, the king withdrew his police force from the streets.

For a time, it appeared that change might be coming quickly to Bahrain, a tiny nation in the Persian Gulf ruled for more than 200 years by the Khalifa family. The royal family is Sunni while the majority of the nation’s 600,000 citizens are Shiite.

The Shiite community has long complained of being marginalized and discriminated against.

On Wednesday, as the protesters gained momentum, Shiite opposition leaders issued assurances that they were not being influenced by Iran and were not interested in transforming the monarchy into a religious theocracy. Those charges are frequently leveled against them by Sunni leaders here.

Still, the leaders of the largest Shiite political party, Al Wefaq, announced that they would not return to Parliament until King Hamad agreed to transform the nation into a constitutional democracy with an elected government.

By evening, crowds spilled out of the square, tied up roads for as far as the eye could see and united in a celebration of empowerment unparalleled for the country’s Shiites.

“They say you are few and you cannot make changes,” said Ali Ahmed, 26, drawing cheers from the crowd as he spoke from a platform. “We say, ‘We can, and we will.’ ”

“The people want the fall of the regime,” the crowds chanted on the darkened square, their words echoing off the towering buildings nearby.

Late at night, thousands of people remained, hoping to establish a symbolically important base of protest in much the same way Egyptians took over Tahrir Square to launch their successful revolution against Hosni Mubarak.

Bahrain, while a small Persian Gulf state, has considerable strategic value to the United States as the base of its Fifth Fleet, which American officials rely upon to assure the continued flow of oil to the West from the Persian Gulf and to protect the interests of the United States in a 20-nation area that includes vital waterways like the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz. The base is home to 2,300 military personnel, most of them in the Navy.

United States military officials said Wednesday they were taking no extra security precautions at the American base in Manama, which is not close to the protests, and that there had been no threat to United States forces in the region. “The U.S. is not being targeted at all in any of these protests,” an American military spokeswoman, Jennifer Stride, said in a telephone interview.

Bahrain has been a politically volatile nation for generations.

The Khalifa family has ruled since the 18th century and has long had tense relations with the Shiite majority. The king recruits foreigners to serve as police rather than trust Shiite citizens to wear uniforms and carry weapons.

In 2001, voters in Bahrain overwhelmingly approved a national charter to lead the way toward democratic changes. But a year later, the king imposed a Constitution by decree that Shiite leaders say has diluted the rights in the charter and blocked them from achieving a majority in the Parliament.

Before the events in Egypt and Tunisia, the traditional opposition made little progress in pushing its demands. But the success of those popular, peaceful uprisings inspired a change of tactics here, and young people led a call for a Bahraini “Day of Rage” on Feb. 14.

By nightfall Wednesday at Pearl Square, a feeling of absolute celebration took hold, a block party in the square. If the afternoons belonged to disaffected young men, the evenings belonged to the whole community.

BBC Arabic was projected on the side of the pearl monument, making Pearl Square seem like a living room where protesters sat together, relaxed and watched TV while sipping tea. At least until the police arrived.

As the sun rose over the square, the night’s events came into sharp focus. The entire field was trampled and crushed. Canvas tents and a speaker’s podium lay crushed. The sound of ambulances continued to wail, and a helicopter circled the square.

Alan Cowell contributed reporting from Paris.

In Bahrain: 'Grief Is Turning To Anger Very Rapidly' : The Two-Way : NPR

In Bahrain: 'Grief Is Turning To Anger Very Rapidly' : The Two-Way : NPR

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Borders Files For Bankruptcy, To Close 200 Stores | Reuters

Borders files for bankruptcy, to close 200 stores | Reuters

(Reuters) - Borders Group Inc filed for bankruptcy protection and said it would close about one-third of its bookstores, after years of shriveling sales that made it impossible to manage its crushing debt load.

The long-expected Chapter 11 filing will give the second-largest U.S. bookstore chain a chance to try to fix its finances and overhaul its business in an attempt to survive the growing popularity of online bookbuying and digital formats.

But the chain still faces questions about its longer-term survival in the face of competition from larger rival Barnes & Noble Inc and discounters such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Costco Wholesale Corp, as well as from Web retailer Amazon.com Inc and from Apple Inc in electronic books.

Borders President Mike Edward said his chain "does not have the capital resources it needs to be a viable competitor." He said the bankruptcy was essential for Borders to restructure its debt and still operate.

Borders, which was founded in 1971 and bought by Kmart in 1992, had liabilities of $1.29 billion and assets of $1.28 billion as of December 25, according to documents filed on Wednesday with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan. Borders has had net losses totaling $680.6 million since the beginning of its 2007 fiscal year.

The pioneer of book superstores plans to abandon some of its highest profile locations, closing a store in its hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, as well as one on Manhattan's Park Avenue.

All 200 closings will be superstores, and about 6,000 jobs will be affected, the company said. It has the option of closing up to 275 in all, according to court documents. It said the stores it wants to close lose a combined $2 million a week. The closings will start by Saturday. The company said it will honor gift cards.

Borders operates 642 stores, including about 500 superstores as well as more than 100 smaller Waldenbooks locations. Almost all of the stores closed by the company in recent years were Waldenbooks locations.

"Waldenbooks really is a specialty retailer," said Mark Freiman, a retail consultant with Focus Management Group. "Borders is category killer and essentially a category killer in book is going to go away. There is no question about it."

The largest U.S. bookstore chain, Barnes & Noble, has had success with its Nook e-reader and online store, allowing it to stay in contention with online book pioneer Amazon.com. Borders has lagged well behind.

Borders made a major strategic error in 2001 when it handed off its online business to Amazon. It relaunched borders.com in 2008, but in the first three quarters of 2010, online sales made up only 2.3 percent of revenues.

The chain's difficulties have been worsened by the revolving door in its executive suite in recent years. The company has had four chief executive officers in the past three years and two chief financial officers in 2010.

Sales declined by double-digit percentage rates in 2008, 2009 and in the first three fiscal quarters of 2010. During those nine months, sales came to $1.54 billion.

SMALL BOOST FOR B&N?

The bankruptcy could help sales of traditional books at Barnes & Noble, at least temporarily, analysts said. Credit Suisse estimates that 70 percent of Borders stores are near a Barnes & Noble store. Barnes & Noble operates 717 superstores.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Iran Uses Force Against Protests as Region Erupts - NYTimes.com

Iran Uses Force Against Protests as Region Erupts - NYTimes.com



By NEIL MacFARQUHAR and ALAN COWELL
Hundreds of riot police officers in Iran beat protesters and fired tear gas Monday to contain the most significant street protests since the end of the 2009 uprising there, as security forces around the region moved — sometimes brutally — to prevent new unrest in sympathy with the opposition victory in Egypt.

The size of the protests in Iran was unclear. Witness accounts and news reports from inside the country suggested that perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 demonstrators in several cities defied strong warnings and took to the streets.

The unrest was an acute embarrassment for Iranian leaders, who had sought to portray the toppling of two secular rulers, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, as a triumph of popular support for Islam in the Arab world. They had refused permission to Iranian opposition groups seeking to march in solidarity with the Egyptians, and warned journalists and photographers based in the country, with success, not to report on the protests.

Iranian demonstrators portrayed the Arab insurrections as a different kind of triumph. “Mubarak, Ben Ali, now it’s time for Sayyid Ali!” Iranian protesters chanted in Persian on videos posted online that appeared to be from Tehran, referring to the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The Iranian authorities have shown that they will not hesitate to crush demonstrations with deadly force. Other governments across the Middle East and the Persian Gulf also moved aggressively to stamp out protests on Monday.

In Egypt, the army stuck to its promise not to attack demonstrators, but the death toll during the protests leading to Mr. Mubarak’s downfall reached about 300 people, according to the United Nations and human rights organizations. Most fatalities appeared to have occurred when pro-government thugs attacked demonstrators.

On Monday, the police in Bahrain fired rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds of peaceful protesters from the Shiite majority population. So much tear gas was fired that the officers themselves vomited. In Yemen, hundreds of student protesters clashed with pro-government forces in the fourth straight day of protests.

In the central Iranian city of Isfahan, many demonstrators were arrested after security forces clashed with them, reports said, and sporadic messages from inside Iran indicated that there had also been protests in Shiraz, Mashhad and Rasht.

Numbers were hard to assess, given government threats against journalists who tried to cover the protests. Aliakbar Mousavi Khoeini, a former member of Parliament now living in exile in the United States, said that 20,000 to 30,000 people had taken part across the country.

Ayatollah Khamenei and the Iranian establishment have tried to depict the Arab movements as a long-awaited echo of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, though Islamist parties had a low profile in both the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings. The Iranian opposition has painted the Arab protests as an echo of its own anti-government movement in 2009, when citizens demanded basic rights like freedom of assembly and freedom of speech after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mehdi Karroubi, an opposition leader, said in an interview last week that the opposition had decided to organize a day of demonstrations to underscore the double standard of the government in lauding protesters in Arab countries while suppressing those at home. Mr. Karroubi has been put under house arrest, with outside communication links severed, opposition reports said, as has Mir Hussein Moussavi, the other main opposition leader.

The Fars news agency, a semiofficial service linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, indirectly confirmed the protests by saying an unspecified number of demonstrators had been arrested. It called participants “hypocrites, monarchists, ruffians and seditionists” and ridiculed them for not chanting slogans about Egypt, the nominal reason for the protests.

The authorities’ tactics on Monday indicated that they were resolved to stifle unrest — starting with the refusal to issue a permit for a nationwide demonstration. Reports that did emerge suggested that security forces had tried to prevent people from gathering by blocking the access routes to main squares in major cities and closing train stations in Tehran.

The crackdown came as the protests flared in Yemen and Bahrain. While those outbreaks were reported in some official Iranian state news media, which had also covered the 18-day Egyptian uprising selectively, there was no immediate mention of the clashes in Tehran and elsewhere on such state broadcasters as the English-language Press TV in Tehran.

Iran’s Islamic government gradually stamped out the 2009 protests through the shooting of demonstrators, mass trials, torture, lengthy jail sentences and even executions of those taking part.

Reports from inside Iran on Monday were harvested from a special Facebook page set up for the day called 25 Bahman, Twitter feeds, telephone calls and opposition Web sites.

They indicated that one tactic for sympathizers hoping to avoid a beating at the hands of the police was to drive to the demonstrations, with huge traffic jams reported in Tehran. Security forces on motorcycles tried to run down protesters, witnesses said.

Callers to the BBC Persian service television program called “Your Turn” said demonstrators had tried to gather in small knots until the police turned up in force, at which point they would run into traffic to seek refuge with strangers who opened their car doors.

“It has not turned into a big demonstration mostly because they never managed to arrive at the main squares,” said Pooneh Ghoddosi, the program’s host.

Cellular telephone service was shut off around the main squares and the Internet slowed to a crawl, activists said. Echoing tactics in Egypt and Tunisia, sympathizers outside Iran set up the 25 Bahman Facebook page — named for Monday’s date on the Iranian calendar — to collect videos, eyewitness accounts and any information.

Twitter feeds informed demonstrators to gather quickly at a certain intersection, then disperse rapidly. One video showed them burning a government poster as the chant against Ayatollah Khamenei rang out.

The authorities had made no secret of their resolve to stop the demonstrators. “The conspirators are nothing but corpses,” Hossein Hamadani, a top commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said last week in comments published by the official IRNA news agency. “Any incitement will be dealt with severely.”

Monday’s clashes erupted as the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, was in Iran. Speaking at a news conference alongside President Ahmadinejad, he said, “We see that sometimes when the leaders and heads of countries do not pay attention to the nations’ demands, the people themselves take action to achieve their demands.”

A Reuters report said he did not refer directly to Iran. “In this age of communication, in an age where everybody is aware of each other, the demands and desires of the people are very realistic,” he said in a response to a question about events in the Middle East.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “We wish the opposition and the brave people in the streets across cities in Iran the same opportunity that they saw their Egyptian counterparts seize in the last week.”

Artin Afkhami contributed reporting.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Dark Origins Of Valentine's Day : NPR

Title page of Shakespeare's Sonnets (1609)Image via WikipediaThe Dark Origins Of Valentine's Day : NPR

Valentine's Day is a time to celebrate romance and love and kissy-face fealty. But the origins of this festival of candy and cupids are actually dark, bloody — and a bit muddled.

EnlargeHulton Archive/Getty Images
A drawing depicts the death of St. Valentine — one of them, anyway. The Romans executed two men by that name on Feb. 14 of different years in the 3rd century A.D.
Though no one has pinpointed the exact origin of the holiday, one good place to start is ancient Rome, where men hit on women by, well, hitting them.

Those Wild and Crazy Romans

From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain.

The Roman romantics "were drunk. They were naked," says Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, Lenski says. They believed this would make them fertile.

The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival – or longer, if the match was right.

The ancient Romans may also be responsible for the name of our modern day of love. Emperor Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on Feb. 14 of different years in the 3rd century A.D. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine's Day.

Later, Pope Gelasius I muddled things in the 5th century by combining St. Valentine's Day with Lupercalia to expel the pagan rituals. But the festival was more of a theatrical interpretation of what it had once been. Lenski adds, "It was a little more of a drunken revel, but the Christians put clothes back on it. That didn't stop it from being a day of fertility and love."

Around the same time, the Normans celebrated Galatin's Day. Galatin meant "lover of women." That was likely confused with St. Valentine's Day at some point, in part because they sound alike.

William Shakespeare helped romanticize Valentine's Day in his work, and it gained popularity throughout Britain and the rest of Europe.
Shakespeare In Love

As the years went on, the holiday grew sweeter. Chaucer and Shakespeare romanticized it in their work, and it gained popularity throughout Britain and the rest of Europe. Handmade paper cards became the tokens-du-jour in the Middle Ages.

Eventually, the tradition made its way to the New World. The industrial revolution ushered in factory-made cards in the 19th century. And in 1913, Hallmark Cards of Kansas City, Mo., began mass producing valentines. February has not been the same since.

Today, the holiday is big business: According to IBIS World, Valentine's Day sales reached $17.6 billion last year; this year's sales are expected to total $18.6 billion.

But that commercialization has spoiled the day for many. Helen Fisher, a sociologist from Rutgers University, says we have only ourselves to blame.

"This isn't a command performance," she says. "If people didn't want to buy Hallmark cards, they would not be bought, and Hallmark would go out of business."

And so the celebration of Valentine's Day goes on, in varied ways. Many will break the bank buying jewelry and flowers for their beloveds. Others will celebrate in a SAD (that's Single Awareness Day) way, dining alone and binging on self-gifted chocolates. A few may even be spending this day the same way the early Romans did. But let's not go there.