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Monthly Archives: July 2010

Germany mourns Love Parade victims at memorial service

German lower house of parliament Bundestag president Norbert Lammert (L-R), Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Christian Wulff and his wife Bettina (3L) and Hannelore Kraft, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia NRW attend a memorial service in Salvator Church (Salvatorkirche) in Duisburg July 31, 2010. (Getty Images)

July 31, 2010

(KATAKAMI / BBC)  Germany has held an emotional memorial service for 21 people killed at the Love Parade dance festival last weekend.

At the service, a top state official vowed that authorities would do everything to find out who was responsible for the tragedy.

More than 500 people were injured during a mass panic at the event in the western city of Duisburg.

As a mark of respect, flags across Germany flew at half-mast.

Visibly shaken, the state governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Hannelore Kraft, said the authorities owed it to the relatives of the victims as well as to the injured and rescue workers to thoroughly investigate what led to the mass panic in a tunnel leading to the festival site.

Chancellor Angela Merkel had broken off her summer holiday to attend the memorial service at the Salvator Church in Duisburg, along with friends and relatives of those killed at the Love Parade festival.

“The Love Parade was like a dance of death,” the head of the regional Lutheran church, Nikolaus Schneider, said in his sermon.

“In the middle of a celebration of the lust for life, death showed its ugly face to all of us.”

Rescue workers who had helped to look after the victims at the Love Parade site lit a candle for each person who died.

They later carried the candles to the tunnel where the festival-goers were killed and where another service is due to be held this afternoon.

The service at the Salvator Church was broadcast live on German television, and hundreds were watching it on big television screens at other churches and a football stadium in the city.

Love Parade tragedy

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Angelika Schick, who visited the Love Parade with her two daughters, watched the service in the stadium of local team MSV Duisburg. “I hope this service will help me to find peace”, she told German public broadcaster ARD.

Before the service, church bells across Duisburg and neighbouring cities rang in memory of those who died.

All week long people have been laying flowers and lighting candles at the exit to the tunnel where the deadly stampede took place.

Prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation to determine whether negligent manslaughter was involved in the deaths of so many young people.

Police investigators have accused the Love Parade organisers of failing to control the huge crowds which led to a bottleneck at the tunnel, the only entrance to the festival grounds.

Feelings have been running high and angry residents have staged rallies demanding the resignation of Duisburg’s mayor, who has been blamed for ignoring safety warnings in the run-up to the festival, BBC correspondent Tristana Moore in Berlin says.

The mayor, Adolf Sauerland did not attend the memorial service. Mr Sauerland said he feared his presence would hurt the feelings of victims’ relatives. He has been placed under police protection after receiving a number of death threats.

The festival organisers have said that they will discontinue the Love Parade.

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President Obama in Detroit: The Fight for America’s Workers

President Obama speaks to crowd at GM Auto Plant in Michigan
President Barack Obama delivers remarks at General Motors Auto Plant in Hamtramck, Michigan. The Hamtramck GM plant is one of nine that GM recently kept open during a scheduled summer shutdown in production. July 30, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Remarks by the President on the American Auto Industry and American Economy at Chrysler Auto Plant

Chrysler Jefferson North Assembly Plant

Detroit, Michigan  (July 30. 2010)

(KATAKAMI / WHITE HOUSE GOVTHE PRESIDENT: Hello, Detroit!  (Applause.)

Well, it is good to be here.  Everybody, if you have a seat, have a seat.  (Laughter.)  It is good — it’s good to be back.

AUDIENCE: Yeah!

THE PRESIDENT: It’s good to be back.  First off, give it up — give it up to Leah for that wonderful introduction.  (Applause.)

We’ve got some special guests here that I want to acknowledge.  First of all, your Secretary of Transportation, who has helped to make sure that we are guiding this process of rebuilding the American auto industry and is doing an outstanding job, from Peoria, Illinois, Secretary Ray Lahood.  Give him a big round of applause.  (Applause.)

Because of a funeral, she couldn’t be here, but I want everybody to give a huge round of applause to one of the best governors in very tough times that exists anywhere in the country, Jennifer Granholm.  She’s doing a great job.  (Applause.)

Your outstanding new mayor and close to my heart, NBA Hall of Famer, Dave Bing is in the house. (Applause.)

Two of the hardest working senators anywhere.  And they are always thinking about Michigan and Michigan manufacturing, making stuff right here in the United States of America, Carl Levine and Debbie Stabenow.  (Applause.)

Outstanding member of Congress, Representative Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick.  (Applause.)  UAW President Bob King is in the house.  (Applause.)  And Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne.  (Applause.)  Sergio is modest.  He doesn’t stand up.  (Laughter.)  But he’s doing a great job.

So I just had a tour of this outstanding plant with Sergio and Pat Walsh, your plant manager; General Holiefield — now, that’s a name right there — (Laughter.)  General Holiefield, vice president of the UAW.  (Applause.)  Cynthia Holland, your local UAW president.  (Applause.)

And it was great to see the work that you’re doing and the cars that you’re building.  Especially when you consider the fact that just over a year ago, the future here seemed very much in doubt.

Now, before I make my remarks, I’ve got to disclose, I’m a little biased here because the first new car that I ever bought was a Grand Cherokee.  (Applause.)  First new car.

Up until that point I had had some old, beat up — (laughter) — used cars — they were not state of the art.  And I still remember walking into that showroom and driving out with that new car.  It had that new car smell, and everything worked.  (Laughter.)

Photo :  U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the assembly plant at a General Motors Auto Plant in Hamtramck, Michigan, near Detroit, July 30, 2010. (Getty Images)

I wasn’t used to that.  Had all these — everything was electronic, and I had — all my — I’d had to roll up my windows up until that point.  So I’ve got some good memories of that car.  But I’ve got to tell you when I sat in this car, this is a better car.  This is a state-of-the-art car.  This is a world-class car right here.  (Applause.)

Now, I want everybody to think about where we were.  We were in the midst when I took office of a deep and painful recession that cost our economy about 8 million jobs — 8 million jobs — and took a terrible toll on communities like this one.

Our economy was shrinking about 6 percent per quarter.  Now, this morning we learned that our economy grew by 2.4 percent in the second quarter of the year, so that means it’s now been growing again for one full year.  (Applause.)

Our economy is growing again instead of shrinking.  That’s a welcome sign compared to where we were.  But we’ve got to keep on increasing that rate of growth and keep adding jobs so we can keep moving forward.  And that’s especially important for places like this.

In the 12 months before I took office, the American auto industry lost hundreds of thousands of jobs.  Sales plunged 40 percent.  Think about that.  The industry looked like it was going over a cliff.  As the financial crisis and the vicious recession collided with an industry that for too long had avoided hard choices and hadn’t fully adapted to changing times, we finally reached the point where two of the Big Three — Chrysler and GM — were on the brink of liquidation.

And that left us with very few choices.  One choice, one option was to keep the practice of giving billions of dollars of taxpayer money to the auto industry but not really forcing any accountability or change -– so you just keep on kicking the tough problems down the road year after year and hopefully seeing if you can get more and more money out of Washington.

A second option was to do nothing and risk allowing two of the Big Three to disintegrate.  And that could have meant the end of an industry that, like no other industry, represents so much of what makes up the American spirit.

This industry has been the source of deep pride for generations of American workers whose imaginations led to some of the finest cars the world has ever known — and whose sweat built a middle class that has held the dreams of millions of our people.

I just met one of your co-workers on a line.  He is third generation working at Chrysler.  His grandfather worked at Chrysler.  His father worked at Chrysler.  And now he is on the line at Chrysler.  And that could have all vanished.

Now, the worse thing about it is that if we had done nothing, not only were your jobs gone, but supplier jobs were gone and dealership jobs were gone, and the communities that depend on them would have been wiped out.  And, by the way, when you talk to the CEO of Ford, he’ll tell you that wouldn’t have been good for Ford either, because a lot of those suppliers that they depend on might have gone out of business.

Independent estimates suggest that more than 1 million jobs could have been lost if Chrysler and GM had liquidated.  And in the middle of a deep recession, that would have been a brutal, irreversible shock not just to Detroit, not just to the Midwest, but to our entire economy.  So I refused to let that happen.

And we came up with a third way.  What we said was, if you’re willing to take the tough and painful steps necessary to make yourselves more competitive; if you’re willing to pull together workers, management, suppliers, dealers, everybody to remake yourself for changing times then we’ll stand by you and we’ll invest in your future.  Our strategy was to get this company and this industry back on its feet, taking a hands-off approach, saying you guys know the business, we don’t.  We’re going to give you a chance, but we do know you’ve got to change.

Now, not surprisingly, a lot of folks were skeptical.  You remember last year.  A lot of folks were saying, well, this is stupid, we shouldn’t be helping them.  And I understood that.  Look, this was a hard decision.  I didn’t want government to get into the auto business.  I’ve got enough to do.  (Laughter.)  And the politics of it weren’t good.  Your delegation was supportive.  But Debbie and Carl, and Carolyn and others, they’ll tell you there are a lot of folks in Washington who said it couldn’t be done.

Photo : US President Barack Obama (C) prepares to drive the 2001 Chevy Volt as he tours a General Motors Auto plant in Hamtramck, Michigan, July 30, 2010 with Assembly Plant Manager Teri Quigley (L).  (Getty Images)

But I believed that if each of us were willing to work and sacrifice in the short term — workers, management, creditors, shareholders, retirees, communities — it could mark a new beginning for a great American industry.  And if we could summon that sense of teamwork and common purpose, we could once again see the best cars in the world designed, engineered, forged, and built right here in Detroit, right here in the Midwest, right here in the United States of America.  (Applause.)

So I placed that faith in you and all of America’s autoworkers, and you’ve vindicated that belief.  The fact that we’re standing in this magnificent factory today is a testament to the decisions we made and the sacrifices that you and countless stakeholders across this industry and this country were willing to make.  So today, this industry is growing stronger.  It’s creating new jobs.  It’s manufacturing the fuel-efficient cars and trucks that will carry us toward an energy independent future.  You are proving the naysayers wrong, all of you.  (Applause.)

They thought it would be impossible for your company to make the kind of changes necessary to restore fiscal discipline and move towards viability.  Today, for the first time since 2004, all three U.S. automakers are operating at a profit, the first time in six years.  (Applause.)

Last year, sales plummeted and manufacturers and suppliers across the country were forced to idle plants and furlough workers.  Today, Chrysler is responding to more demand than anticipated by keeping this plant and others running through the usual summer shutdown.  The same goes for GM’s plants.  Sales have rebounded.  Across the supply chain, plants that wouldn’t exist without the sacrifices made across this industry are running at nearly full capacity.

Last year, many thought this industry would keep losing jobs, as it had for the better part of the past decade.  Today, U.S. automakers have added 55,000 jobs since last June, the strongest job growth in more than 10 years in the auto industry.  This plant just hired a new shift of 1,100 workers last week.  (Applause.)

I met one of your co-workers on the line.  He said, “Thank you, Mr. President, I needed to get out of the house.”  (Laughter.)

I said, “I know your wife really felt that way.”  (Laughter.)  “I’m sure you were driving her crazy.”

The Dundee Chrysler plant will begin production of an American-made, advanced technology, fuel-efficient engine this December.  (Applause.)  The Sterling Heights Chrysler plant that was scheduled to close after 2012 will stay open and add a second shift of 900 workers next year.  (Applause.)  And when a plant thrives, that doesn’t just affect the new workers, that affects the entire community.

Now, it also helped that we took steps to stimulate demand, steps like Cash for Clunkers, which said that if you trade in your old car in for a new, more fuel-efficient model you’d get a rebate.  That program was good for automakers.  It was good for consumers.  But you know what, it was also good for the environment.  It was more successful than we ever imagined and it saved at least 100,000 jobs, giving dealerships sales numbers they hadn’t had in years and communities an economic boost they wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

So there’s no doubt that the auto industry is growing stronger.  But, look, the hard truth is this industry lost a lot of jobs in recent years.  Some of those jobs aren’t coming back partly because automakers have become so much more efficient than they used to be.  This is a lean, mean operation.  And so there are people who have still lost their jobs, haven’t been hired back and it wasn’t their fault.  Mistakes were made in managing the company that weren’t theirs.

So that’s why we still also got to make targeted investments to encourage new private sector manufacturing growth.  We got to encourage clean energy.  That’s why we’re taking steps to help communities revitalize and redevelop old, shuttered auto facilities, preparing them for new industries and new jobs and new opportunities.

Photo : US President Barack Obama (R) gives remarks at the Chrysler Auto Plant in Detroit, Michigan, July 30, 2010 where he toured. Obama said Friday that four consecutive quarters of US economic growth is a ‘welcome sign’ of a US recovery but more was needed to put unemployed Americans back to work. (Getty Images)

I’ll give you an example, those investments that we’re making are helping to create an entire new advanced battery industry take root right here in Michigan.  That industry was producing only 2 percent of the world’s advanced batteries last year, but by 2015, we expect to produce 40 percent of the advanced batteries that go into our cars.  (Applause.)  And we’re going to do it right here in Michigan — all across the Midwest.

Investments like those mean jobs for American workers to do what they’ve always done: build great products and sell them around the world.

So the bottom line is this — we’ve got a long way to go, but we’re beginning to see some of these tough decisions pay off.  We are moving forward.

I want you to remember, though, if some folks had their way, none of this would have been happening.  I just want to point that out.  Right?  I mean this — this plant — this plant and your jobs might not exist.  There were leaders of the “just say no” crowd in Washington — they were saying — oh, standing by the auto industry would guarantee failure.  One of them called it “the worst investment you could possibly make.”

AUDIENCE: Boo!

THE PRESIDENT: They said — they said we should just walk way and let those jobs go.

AUDIENCE: Boo!

THE PRESIDENT:  I wish they were standing here today.  (Applause.)  I wish they could see what I’m seeing in this plant and talk to the workers who are here taking pride in building a world-class vehicle.  I don’t think they’d be willing to look you in the eye and say that you were a bad investment.  They might just come around if they were standing here and admit that by standing by a great American industry and the good people who work for it, that we did the right thing.  It’s hard for them to say that.  You know, they like admitting when I do the right thing.  (Laughter.)  But they might have had to admit it.  And I want all of you to know, I will bet on the American worker any day of the week!  (Applause.)

You know, when World War II hit Pearl Harbor, we didn’t throw up our arms and said “boy, this is tough.  I don’t know what we’re going to do.”  We rolled up our sleeves.  We got to work.  And it was workers just like you, right here in Detroit, who built an arsenal of democracy that propelled America to victory.  It was workers like you that built this country into the greatest economic power the world has ever known; it workers like you that manufactured a miracle that was uniquely American.

We faced down impossible odds.  We can rise to meet any challenge.  As I was thinking about what to say today, an extraordinary story was brought to my attention.

I don’t know if they’re here, but I think some of you just know 14 of your fellow employees at the plant won the lottery.  (Applause.)  Where are they?  That’s one — a couple of them right there?  (Applause.)  You know, lunch is on them, by the way.  (Laughter.)

Now, the first assumption people might make is, you know after you win the lottery, you just kick back and you retire.  Nobody’d fault folks for that.  This is tough work.  But most of them, they just want to keep on working.  And I — (Applause.)  Is William Shanteau here?  He’s not?  Well, he was one of the guys who bought one of the — he bought the winning ticket, right?  Turns out he used some of the winnings to buy his wife one of the Jeep Grand Cherokees that you build right here.  (Applause.)  He called it a sweet ride.  (Laughter.)  And he’s going to pay for new American flags for his hometown because he loves his country.  (Applause.)

And he’s going to keep coming to work because he loves this plant, and he loves these workers, so don’t bet against the American worker.  Don’t bet against the American people.  We got more work to do.  It’s going to take some time to get back to where we need to be, but I have confidence in the American worker.  I have confidence in you.  I have confidence in this economy.  We are coming back!  (Applause.)

Thank you, everybody.  Thank you.  God bless you.  And God bless the United States of America.  (Applause.)  (*)

5.7 quake shakes Iran

https://i0.wp.com/images.wikio.com/images/p/46d17/mexicali-earthquake-7-2-quake-shakes-april-4-2010-southern-california.jpeg

July 30, 2010

TEHRAN, Iran (KATAKAMI / MSNBC)  — A 5.7-magnitude earthquake rattled the northeast Iranian city of Torbat-e Heydariyeh on Friday, injuring at least 110 people.

Iran’s state TV said the quake also damaged several villages and temporarily disrupted communications. The earthquake occured at around 06:20 p.m. local time (14:50 GMT) and rocked the city for about 10 seconds, causing cell phone disconnections.

Local Governor Mojtaba Sadeqian said one of the injured was in critical condition.

Torbat-e Heydariyeh is in Razavi Khorasan province, about 445 miles (714 kilometers) east of Tehran.

Iran is located on seismic fault lines and is prone to earthquakes. It experiences at least one slight earthquake every day on average.

Some 26,000 people were killed by a 6.6-magnitude quake that flattened the historic southeastern city of Bam in the same region in 2003.

David Cameron’s Visit to India: A Blueprint for Obama in November

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron attends a business meeting in New Delhi July 29, 2010. Cameron trumpeted a $1.1 billion defence deal with India on Wednesday, an early result of a big diplomatic push to court Indian business and tap new sources of economic growth. (Getty Images)

July 30, 2010

(KATAKAMI / BLOG AMERICAN.COM)  British Prime Minister David Cameron arrived in India this week under much skepticism that he and his delegation of ministers and business leaders could do much to strengthen the ties between the two nations. Indians were either dismissive of the potential for a closer partnership, considering Britain’s own economic troubles, or were suspicious of the U.K.’s intentions, evoking the two countries’ tumultuous historical relationship.

But as the visit ends, it appears that Cameron could not have played his cards any better. In fact, the visit should serve as an example for President Obama’s own trip to India in November.

First, Cameron satiated India’s media by declaring that Pakistan should “stop exporting” terrorism to India. This quote was plastered over the front page of every newspaper and flashed endlessly on cable news tickers; it was enough to distract the press corps for a few days and make space to do business.

Second, in a speech at the IT giant Infosys, Cameron clarified that his interest in closer economic ties between the United Kingdom and India was motivated by the potential to create thousands of new jobs in the United Kingdom. This was the right message to send back home, and one President Obama will need to send as well, considering American fears of jobs moving from “Buffalo to Bangalore,” as candidate Obama once put it.

Photo : PM David Cameron & President Barack Obama  in Washington DC, 20 July 2010.

Finally, Cameron and his delegation were successful in forging accords on trade, security, and people-to-people contact, three areas critical to the U.S.-India relationship. And declaring the U.K.’s support for India’s seat on the UN Security Council was further music to many Indians’ ears, regardless of its feasibility in the near future.

The U.K.’s delegation put on a true charm offensive over the last few days, particularly considering the cynicism that clouded Cameron’s arrival to New Delhi.

There will be similar murmurs before President Obama’s arrival, and his team will have their work cut out for themselves.

Good thing there’s a blueprint now.  (*)

Pakistan Steps Up Rescue After Flash Floods Kill 313

Pakistani villagers pile up their rescued belongings from houses flooded by heavy rain fall in Nowshera near Peshawar, Pakistan on Thursday, July 29, 2010. (Getty Images)

(Updates death toll in first paragraph.)

July 30 (KATAKAMI / Bloomberg) — Pakistan stepped up rescue efforts after flash floods and heavy rains in the northwest killed 313 people and left thousands stranded in the region’s worst storms. Communication systems collapsed.

“The relief efforts of everyone combined is only five percent of what’s required,” Mujahid Khan, a spokesman for the Edhi Rescue Service, said by telephone from Peshawar today. “We can see people drowning but we can’t go into the water because of its high pressure.”

The death toll is on top of the 152 people who died when a plane crashed in heavy rains near the capital two days ago. Homes and bridges collapsed in the rain, live electric wires fell into the water and families were swept away in the floods.

“The infrastructure of this province was already destroyed by terrorism,” Mian Iftikhar Hussain, provincial information minister, said in a televised news conference from Peshawar yesterday. “Whatever was left, was finished off by these floods. There are chances of further flooding and more damage.” He appealed for tents, boats and food for those left homeless and asked people to evacuate affected towns and cities.

Army Troops

Army troops equipped with life jackets, motorboats and heavy rafts were called in to help move families to safe locations, the military said in a statement on its website yesterday. At least 400,000 people were stranded in cities and villages across the province.

Pakistani television channels showed images of submerged huts, collapsed bridges and people grabbing onto wreckage on flooded roads to keep from being swept away by the water.

“All the houses in my village have been destroyed and now it’s simply a fight for survival for us,” Mehmood Khan, a tribal elder, said by telephone from Wana, South Waziristan. “Food supplies have started to run out. We haven’t eaten in 48 hours and the scant food supplies we saved for women and children may not last long.”

The districts of Peshawar, Swat, Nowshera, Lower Dir and Charsadda were worst affected, according to the government.

The water level in the River Swat crossed 250,000 cusecs yesterday, the highest since 1929, according to the National Disaster Management Agency in Islamabad. Of 55 Chinese engineers trapped in the Kohistan district, 46 were rescued, it said.

The first spell of the monsoon started on July 22 and affected the western province of Baluchistan, the disaster authority said. (*)

Photostream : Over 300 dead in Pakistan floods

Pakistani villagers move into safe place from a flooded village near Nowshera, Pakistan, Thursday, July 29, 2010. Rivers burst their banks during monsoon rains, washing away streets, battering a dam and killing at least 60 people in most severe floods in decades in northwest Pakistan, officials said Thursday. Hundreds of thousands more were stranded as rescue workers struggled to reach far-flung villages. (Getty Images)

Residents and shopkeepers wade through a flooded street with their belongings after heavy rains in Peshawar July 29, 2010. Almost 300 people have been killed by flashfloods and bad weather in Pakistan in the. Last week, with the country’s northwest and Baluchistan provinces. bearing the worst of the storms, officials said on Thursday. (Getty Images)

Pakistani villagers use ropes to reach their homes flooded by heavy monsoon rain in Bakhtiarabad, 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Quetta, Pakistan on Friday, July 23, 2010. (Getty Images)

People flee their flooded villages after heavy monsoon rain in Nowshera near Peshawar, Pakistan on Thursday, July 29, 2010. Rivers burst their banks during monsoon rains, washing away streets, battering a dam. (Getty Images)

In this image released by the Pakistan Inter Services Public Relations Department, People rush for a helicopter ride as they are evacuated from a village flooded by monsoon rains in Charsadda near Peshawar, Pakistan on Thursday, July 29, 2010. Dozens of people were killed by heavy rains which caused flooding. (Getty Images)

In this image released by the Pakistan Inter Services Public Relations Department, People get down from a helicopter after they were evacuated from a village flooded by monsoon rains in Charsadda near Peshawar, Pakistan on Thursday, July 29, 2010. Dozens of people were killed by heavy rains which caused flooding. (Getty Images)

Pakistani commuters cross a flooded street after a heavy downpour in Karachi, 10 August 2007. Floods unleashed by a tropical cyclone and monsoon rains in the south and southwest of Pakistan late July 2007, have claimed over 200 lives and affected some 1.6 million people. (Getty Images)

A Pakistani woman sits with her belongings on a roadside as her house is flooded in Nowshera near Peshawar, Pakistan on Thursday, July 29, 2010. (Getty Images)

Medvedev sent his condolences to President of the Democratic Republic of Congo Joseph Kabila Kabange

July 30, 2010

(KATAKAMI / KREMLIN.RU)  Dmitry Medvedev sent his condolences to President of the Democratic Republic of Congo Joseph Kabila Kabange following the capsizing of a ferry on the Kasai River.

The President said, in particular, in his telegram:

“I express my sincere condolences over the great loss of life caused by the capsizing of the ferry on the Kasai River.

Please pass on my words of profound sympathy to the victims’ families and my wishes for a speedy recovery for all who were injured.”

A total of 138 people were killed when a ferry capsized in DR Congo on July 28, 2010.

Russia Prime Minister Putin arrives in fire ravaged region to assess situation

Vladimir Putin

July 30, 2010

(KATAKAMI / RIA NOVOSTI)  Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday arrived in the wildfire ravaged region of Nizhny Novogorod, where more than 500 homes have been destroyed, to assess the situation.

Over the last 24 hours, 505 homes have been destroyed in the largest wildfire in the European part of Russia.

Russia’s Emergencies Ministry has not received reports of human casualties from the Nizhny Novgorod region, but at least 1,662 residents have been evacuated from the areas threatened by quickly spreading fires.

The ministry has dispatched additional firefighting units and 16 aircraft and helicopters to fight wildfires in five regions of central Russia.  (*)

Syrian and Saudi leaders head for Beirut to avert crisis

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad (L) and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia review the honor guards in Damascus July 29, 2010. (Getty Images)

July 30. 2010

Photostream : Syrian President Bashar Assad meets King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

(KATAKAMI / FRANCE24 /AFP) – Lebanon on Friday hosts a rare summit of regional leaders aimed at defusing tensions over reports of an impending indictment against Hezbollah members for the murder of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.

The meeting between Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, Saudi King Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was hastily organised amid fears of Sunni-Shiite violence erupting in Lebanon should the UN court probing Hariri’s 2005 murder implicate the powerful Hezbollah.

Abdullah and Assad are to arrive together from Damascus and meet with Sleiman before attending a luncheon to which members of Lebanon’s unity government, which includes two Hezbollah ministers, have been invited.

“The whole visit is about containing the situation for the immediate future,” said Sahar Atrache, a Beirut-based analyst with the International Crisis Group think-tank.

“They are here to exert influence on their internal allies … to prevent a real escalation.”

Assad will be visiting Lebanon for the first time since Hariri — father of current Prime Minister Saad Hariri — was assassinated in 2005, leading to a sharp downturn in relations between Damascus and Beirut.

Syria, as the main power-broker in Lebanon at the time, was widely blamed for the murder of the Sunni former premier, but it has consistently denied any involvement.

Relations have been on the mend since 2008, when diplomatic ties were established for the first time between Beirut and Damascus. Saad Hariri has made four trips to Syria in the past eight months.

Saudi Arabia, a staunch supporter of the slain Hariri and his son, has played a key role in the rapprochement between the two countries.

The Saudi monarch is expected to press Assad to use his influence over Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, to avoid a political stalemate or a sectarian conflict similar to the one that brought Lebanon close to civil war in 2008.

Fears of renewed conflict rose last week after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said he knew that the UN tribunal probing Hariri’s murder was set to indict members of his Shiite party.

He made clear that he would not accept such a scenario, accusing the tribunal of being politicised and part of an Israeli plot.

“The Arab leaders’ visit to Lebanon is an opportunity to show Arab unity in the face of this plot which aims to destabilise Lebanon and sow sedition,” Hezbollah deputy Hassan Fadlallah told AFP.

“This would not be in the interest of the Lebanese or their Arab brothers.”

Analysts say that in addition to threatening civil peace, an indictment of Hezbollah members would deal a blow to the party’s reputation and destabilise Hariri’s unity government.

“It seems that Assad and Abdullah are the only ones able to seek a compromise in order to avoid a new Sunni-Shiite conflict,” the daily Al-Akhbar newspaper, close to Hezbollah, said on Thursday.

“The UN tribunal has become a burden for Syria and Saudi Arabia,” it added.

Friday’s summit will mark Assad’s first visit to Lebanon since 2002 when he traveled to Beirut to attend an Arab summit.

As for King Abdullah, he will be the first Saudi monarch to visit the country since 1957. The king attended the 2002 summit but he was crown prince at the time.

Bomb explodes in Bangkok, seriously wounding man

A member of a Thai bomb squad inspects the scene of an explosion at bus stop in Bangkok on July 26, 2010.

July 30, 2010

(KATAKAMI / Reuters) – A bomb exploded in Bangkok early on Friday, seriously wounding a man and stoking fears of civil unrest following a deadly blast five days ago and violent anti-government protests in April and May.

Police said a grenade tied with an oiled rubber band and wrapped in a garbage bag exploded at about 2 a.m. (1900 GMT Thursday) in an alley near Victory Monument, an area usually choked with traffic and surrounded by government buildings. (*)

British PM Defends Remarks on Pakistan and Terrorism

British Prime Minister David Cameron and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh address members of the media during a joint press conference at Hyderabad House on July 29, 2010 in Delhi, India. (Getty Images)

July 29, 2010

David Cameron tells Pakistan ‘not to promote terror’

(KATAKAMI / VOA)  British Prime Minister David Cameron has wrapped up a three-day visit to India, calling for a stronger partnership with India.  The visit was overshadowed by the British leader’s comments about terrorism emanating from Pakistan.

Mr. Cameron ended his visit by defending his remarks that Britain wants a strong, stable Pakistan that does not “promote the export of terror” to India or anywhere else.

The comments were made at the start of his visit on Wednesday and angered the Pakistani government, which says the British leader ignored the role Islamabad has played in the war on terror.

At a press conference in New Delhi on Thursday, Prime Minister Cameron said he believed in “speaking clearly and plainly about these matters.” He said no one was in doubt, least of all the Pakistan government, that there are terrorist organizations like the Laskhar-e-Taiba and others, that need to be eliminated.  But he acknowledged that Pakistan was a victim of terrorism.

Photo : Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron attends a business meeting in New Delhi July 29, 2010. (Getty Images)

“It is not acceptable, as I have said, for there to be within Pakistan the existence of terror groups that cause terrorism both within Pakistan and also outside Pakistan – in Afghanistan, in India, elsewhere in our world,” said Cameron.  “What we will continue to do is work with the Pakistan government to do everything we can to encourage them to crack down and to take on these groups that have caused so much pain and so much suffering – both, as I say, both within Pakistan and outside Pakistan,”

Mr. Cameron’s comment came in the wake of leaks of classified U.S. documents that allege Pakistan supports some insurgent groups in Afghanistan.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that he and his British counterpart agree that terrorism is the biggest threat in the region.  He also expressed hope that Pakistan will clamp down on terror groups that target India.

“I sincerely hope that the government of Pakistan would honor its commitments given to us on many occasions – to myself, to my predecessors – that Pakistan territory will not be allowed to be use for acts of terrorism directed against India.  We believe Pakistan should be as serious in paying attention to terror on the western borders of Pakistan as on the eastern border.  And I sincerely hope the world community will use its good offices to promote this cause,” said Singh.

British Prime Minister David Cameron addresses media representatives during a joint press interaction after an agreement signing in New Delhi on July 29, 2010. (Getty Images)

After holding talks, the Indian and British leaders said they had agreed to take their partnership to a “higher level.”  The talks focused on enhancing security ties and increasing bilateral trade.  The two countries have set a target of doubling trade within five years.  The British prime minister, who dubbed his trip a “jobs mission,” made a strong pitch for more investment flows between the two countries.

Britain says it hopes that intensifying business ties with India’s emerging economy will help it recover from the global economic downturn. (*)

Photostream : Syrian President Bashar Assad meets King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, second left, review an honor guards in Damascus, Syria, Thursday, July 29, 2010. Saudi King Abdullah arrived in Damascus as part of a regional tour that comes amid heightened tensions in the Middle East, Syria’s state-run news agency said. (Getty Images)

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz reviews anhonour guard at al-Shaab palace in Damascus on July 29, 2010, on the eve of a joint mission with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Lebanon aimed at containing political tensions there. (Getty Images)

Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, receives King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, left, on his arrival at al-Shaab presidential palace in Damascus, Syria, Thursday, July 29, 2010. Saudi King Abdullah arrived in Damascus as part of a regional tour that comes amid heightened tensions in the Middle East, Syria’s state-run news agency said. (Getty Images)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) shakes hands with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in Damascus July 29, 2010. (Getty Images)

Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, meets with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, left, at al-Shaab presidential palace in Damascus, Syria, Thursday, July 29, 2010. Saudi King Abdullah arrived in Damascus as part of a regional tour that comes amid heightened tensions in the Middle East, Syria’s state-run news agency said. (Getty Images)

Karzai puts pressure on Pakistan after WikiLeaks revelations

Afghan President Hamid Karzai gestures during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on July 29, 2010. (Getty Images)

July 29, 2010

(KATAKAMI / FRANCE 24 / AP) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai pushed his international partners on Thursday to take stronger action against terrorist sanctuaries outside of Afghanistan. In a clear reference to havens in Pakistan, Karzai said: “The international community is here to fight terrorism, but there is danger elsewhere and they are not acting.”

Pressure is building on Pakistan to escalate the fight against militants on its soil, especially since the release of more than 90,000 leaked U.S. military documents posted Sunday on the web by WikiLeaks. The trove of U.S. intelligence reports alleged close connections between Pakistan’s intelligence agency and Taliban militants fighting Afghan and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Pakistan called the accusations malicious and unsubstantiated, but the push to persuade Pakistan to do more to eliminate Islamic extremists on its soil continues.

In a wide-ranging news conference, Karzai said Afghanistan has deep ties with “our brothers” in Pakistan. He didn’t mention Pakistan by name, but Karzai said that while Afghanistan is working diplomatic channels to prevent nations from training, protecting and giving sanctuary to terrorists outside Afghanistan, only the international community has the capability of actually doing something about them.

“The question is, why are they not doing it?” Karzai said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday that Pakistan needs to
make progress against terrorist groups on Pakistani soil.

“To be fair, the Pakistan government — they have taken action against these groups,” he said.

But refusing to back down from comments he made this week in India, Cameron added: “We need them to do more and we will support and help them as they do more.”

Karzai told reporters he ordered his cabinet ministers to study the war papers, especially those that address Pakistan and civilian casualties in Afghanistan. He also said documents that disclosed the names of Afghans who have worked with the NATO-led force were “shocking” and “irresponsible”.

“Their lives will be in danger now,” he said. “This is a very serious issue.”

Karzai also was asked about the Obama administration’s decision last week to target key leaders of the Afghan Taliban with new financial sanctions, a move that could complicate relations with Pakistan and the Karzai government’s efforts to try to talk with some insurgent factions.

The action by the Treasury Department freezes the militants’ assets, bans travel and triggers an arms embargo against three financial kingpins, including a key member of the al Qaeda linked Haqqani network, which directs operations against US and coalition forces in Afghanistan from Pakistan.

It follows similar action by the United Nations earlier this week, and it comes after calls from Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Afghanistan, and Sen. Carl Levin, Democrat-Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, for sanctions against Afghan insurgent commanders operating in Pakistan.

Taken together, the US and UN sanctions prohibit any financial transactions of terrorist leaders in UN member countries, putting additional pressure on Pakistan to take broader actions against Taliban militants.

US officials have urged Pakistan to crack down on the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, saying Islamabad’s reluctance to move into the group’s base in North Waziristan is hampering the Afghan war effort.

Pakistan has moved cautiously, but has been slow at times to take on militants that Islamabad does not believe pose a direct threat. Pakistan has had historic relations with some of the Afghan insurgents, and analysts suggest Islamabad perceives them as useful allies in Afghanistan when international forces withdraw.

Karzai did not comment directly on the new sanctions, saying they were decisions by the US and international community. He said only that Afghanistan did not and would not have a so-called “blacklist”.

“We want to take a step toward the peace,” he said, adding that his government is reaching out to militants who want to lay down their weapons, sever ties with terrorists and embrace the Afghan government and its constitution. “Bullets firing from their guns are targeting their children, their property, their lives,” he said.

President Obama on Education: “The Status Quo is Morally Inexcusable”

President Barack Obama delivers remarks during the Urban League Centennial ConferencePresident Barack Obama delivers remarks to the National Urban League Centennial Conference at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., July 29, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)


Remarks by the President on Education Reform at the National Urban League Centennial Conference

Washington Convention Center
Washington, D.C. (July 29, 2010)

(KATAKAMI / WHITE HOUSE GOV)  Thank you.  Everybody, please have a seat.  Have a seat.  Take a load off.  (Applause.)  Thank you.

The President : Good morning, Urban Leaguers.

AUDIENCE: Good morning.

THE PRESIDENT:  Yes.  It is wonderful to be here with all of you.  It is wonderful to be here.  And let me begin by congratulating Marc Morial for his outstanding leadership, his great friendship.  (Applause.)  I want to thank the entire National Urban League on your centennial.  From your founding, amid the great migration, to the struggles of the civil rights movement, to the battles of today, the Urban League has been on the ground, in our communities, working quietly -– day in, day out -– without fanfare; opening up opportunity, rolling back inequality, making our union just a little more perfect.  America is a better place because of the Urban League.  And I’m grateful to all of you for the outstanding contributions that you’ve made. (Applause.)

The last time I spoke with you was during your Orlando conference in August — (applause) — got Orlando in the house.  (laughter) — Orlando conference back in August of 2008.  I didn’t have any gray hair back then.  (Laughter.)  Say that’s all right?  (Laughter and applause.)  But I want to remind you what things were like in August of 2008.  Our economy was in freefall. We had just seen seven straight months of job loss.  Foreclosures were sweeping the nation.  And we were on the verge of a financial crisis that threatened to plunge our economy into a second Great Depression.

So, from the moment I took office, we had to act immediately to prevent an even greater catastrophe.  And I knew that not everything we did would be popular.  Sometimes when we do things, the scribes, the pundits here in Washington, they act surprised. They say, why would you do such a thing, it doesn’t poll well.  And I have to explain to them I’ve got my own pollsters.  (Laughter and applause.)  But I wasn’t elected just to do what’s popular; I was elected do what was right.  That’s what you supported me for.  (Applause.)

And because of what we did, America, as a whole, is in a different place today.  Our economy is growing, instead of shrinking.  Our private sector has been adding jobs for six straight months, instead of losing them.  (Applause.)

Yesterday a report was put out by two prominent economists  — one of them John McCain’s old economist — that said if we hadn’t taken the actions that we took, we would have had an additional 8 million people lose their jobs.

Now, that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods yet.  Every sector of our economy was shaking by the crisis; every demographic group felt its impact.  And as has been true in the wake of other recent recessions, this one had an especially brutal impact on minority communities — communities that were already struggling long before the financial crisis hit.

The African American unemployment rate was already much higher, the incomes and wealth of African American families already lower.  There was less of a cushion.  Many minority communities — whether in big cities or rural towns — had seen businesses and opportunities vanish for years, stores boarded up, young people hanging out on the street corners without prospects for the future.

So when we came in to office, we focused not just on rescuing our economy in the short run, but rebuilding our economy for the long run — creating an economy that lifts up all Americans.  (Applause.)   Not just some, but all.

That’s why we passed health insurance reform that will give every American — (applause) — more choices, more control over their health care; will narrow the cruel disparities between Americans of different backgrounds.  That’s why we passed Wall Street reform — not only to make sure that taxpayers aren’t paying for somebody else’s foolishness, but also to protect consumers from predatory credit cards and lending practices, regulating everything from mortgages to payday loans; making sure that we’re protecting our economy from the recklessness and irresponsibility of a few.  (Applause.)

Across agencies, we’re taking on the structural inequalities that have held so many of our fellow citizens back, whether it’s making more housing available and more affordable, making sure civil rights and anti-discrimination laws are enforced, making sure our crime policy is not only tough, but also smart.  So yesterday, we took an important step forward when Congress passed a fair sentencing bill that I look forward to signing into law — (applause) — a bipartisan bill to help right a longstanding wrong by narrowing sentencing disparities between those convicted of crack cocaine and powder cocaine.  It’s the right thing to do. (Applause.)  We’ve gotten that done.

So we’ve made progress.  And yet, for all of our progress -– progress that’s come through the efforts of groups like the Urban League; progress that makes it possible for me to stand here as President — we were reminded this past week that we still got work to do when it comes to promoting the values of fairness and equality and mutual understanding that must bind us together as a nation.

Now, last week, I had the chance to talk to Shirley Sherrod -– an exemplary woman whose experiences mark both the challenges we have faced and the progress that we’ve made.  She deserves better than what happened last week — (applause) — when a bogus controversy based on selective and deceiving excerpts of a speech led her — led to her forced resignation.

Now, many are to blame for the reaction and overreaction that followed these comments -– including my own administration. And what I said to Shirley was that the full story she was trying to tell –- a story about overcoming our own biases and recognizing ourselves in folks who, on the surface, seem different -– is exactly the kind of story we need to hear in America.  (Applause.)

It’s exactly what we need to hear because we’ve all got our biases.  And rather than jump to conclusions and point fingers, and play some of the games that are played on cable TV, we should all look inward and try to examine what’s in our own hearts.  (Applause.)  We should all make more of an effort to discuss with one another, in a truthful and mature and responsible way, the divides that still exist — the discrimination that’s still out there, the prejudices that still hold us back — a discussion that needs to take place not on cable TV, not just through a bunch of academic symposia or fancy commissions or panels, not through political posturing, but around kitchen tables, and water coolers, and church basements, and in our schools, and with our kids all across the country.  (Applause.)

If we can have that conversation in our own lives, if we can take an opportunity to learn from our imperfections and our mistakes, to grow as individuals and as a country, and if we engage in the hard work of translating words into deeds — because words are easy and deeds are hard — then I’m confident that we can move forward together and make this country a little more perfect than it was before.  (Applause.)

Now, since we’re on the topic of speaking honestly with one another, I want to devote the balance of my time, the balance of my remarks, to an issue that I believe will largely determine not only African American success, but the success of our nation in the 21st century — and that is whether we are offering our children the very best education possible.  (Applause.)

I know some argue that as we emerge from a recession, my administration should focus solely on economic issues.  They said that during health care as if health care had nothing to do with economics; said it during financial reform as if financial reform had nothing to do with economics; and now they’re saying it as we work on education issues.  But education is an economic issue — if not “the” economic issue of our time.  (Applause.)

It’s an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks who’ve never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have gone to college.  (Applause.)  It’s an economic issue when eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of this decade.  It’s an economic issue when countries that out-educate us today are going to out-compete us tomorrow.

Now, for years, we’ve recognized that education is a prerequisite for prosperity.  And yet, we’ve tolerated a status quo where America lags behind other nations.  Just last week, we learned that in a single generation, America went from number one to 12th in college completion rates for young adults.  Used to be number one, now we’re number 12.

At the same time, our 8th graders trail about eight — 10 other nations — 10 other nations in science and math.  Meanwhile, when it comes to black students, African American students trail not only almost every other developed nation abroad, but they badly trail their white classmates here at home — an achievement gap that is widening the income gap between black and white, between rich and poor.

We’ve talked about it, we know about it, but we haven’t done enough about it.  And this status quo is morally inexcusable, it s economically indefensible, and all of us are going to have to roll up our sleeves to change it.  (Applause.)

And that’s why — that is why, from day one of this administration, we’ve made excellence in American education — excellence for all our students — a top priority.  And no one has shown more leadership on this issue than my Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who is here today.  (Applause.)

I chose Arne not only because he’s a great ballplayer —  (laughter) — Arne and I play a little bit on the weekends — I choose Arne because I knew that for him, closing the achievement gap, unlocking the potential of every child, isn’t just a job, it’s been the cause of his life.

Now, because a higher education has never been more important –- or more expensive -– it’s absolutely essential that we put a college degree within reach for anyone who wants it.  And that’s why we’re making higher education more affordable, so we can meet the goals I’ve set of producing a higher share of college graduates than any other nation by 2020.  I want us to be back at number one instead of number 12.  (Applause.)

And in pursuit of that goal, we eliminated taxpayer subsidies to big banks.  We saved tens of billions of dollars, and we used those savings to open the door to additional financial aid — to open the door for college to millions more students.  This is something that a lot of you may not be aware of, but we have added tens of billions of dollars that were going to bank middlemen, so that that money is now going to students — millions more students who are getting scholarships to go to college.  (Applause.)  That’s already been done.

We’re making loan repayment more manageable, so young people don’t graduate — like Michelle and me — with such big loan payments every month.

Photo : U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 100th anniversary convention of the National Urban League on July 29, 2010 in Washington, DC.  (Getty Images)

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you!

THE PRESIDENT: You’re welcome.  Right there.  (Laughter.)  You can relate.  (Laughter.)

And we’re reinvesting in our Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  (Applause.)  Our HBCUs, we are reinvesting in them, while at the same time reforming and strengthening our community college, which are great, undervalued assets — (applause) — great assets that are a lifeline to so many working families in every community across America.

But here’s the thing.  Even if we do all this good stuff for higher education, too many of our children see college as nothing but a distant dream -– because their education went off the rails long before they turned 18.  These are young people who’ve been relegated to failing schools in struggling communities, where there are too many obstacles, too few role models -– communities that I represented as a state senator; communities that I fought to lift up as a community organizer.

I remember going to a school back in my organizing days and seeing children — young children, maybe five or six — eyes were brimming with hope, had such big dreams for the future.  You’d ask them, what do you want to be when you grow up?  They’d want to be a doctor; they’d want to be a lawyer.  And then I remember the principal telling me that soon, all that would change.  The hope would start fading from their eyes as they started to realize that maybe their dreams wouldn’t come to pass — not because they weren’t smart enough, not because they weren’t talented enough, but because through a turn of fate they happened to be born in the wrong neighborhood.  They became victim of low expectations, a community that was not supporting educational excellence.

And it was heartbreaking.  It is heartbreaking.  And it reinforced in me a fundamental belief that we’ve got an obligation to lift up every child in every school in this country, especially those who are starting out furthest behind.  (Applause.)

That’s why I want to challenge our states to offer better early learning options to make sure our children aren’t wasting their most formative years — (applause) — so that they can enter into kindergarten already ready to learn — knowing their colors, knowing their numbers, knowing their shapes, knowing how to sit still.  (Laughter.)  Right?  That’s no joke.  You got to learn that, especially when you’re a boy.  (Laughter.)  That’s why we placed such heavy emphasis on the education our children are getting from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Now, over the past 18 months, the single most important thing we’ve done — and we’ve done a lot.  I mean, the Recovery Act put a lot of money into schools, saved a lot of teacher jobs, made sure that schools didn’t have to cut back even more drastically in every community across this country.  But I think the single most important thing we’ve done is to launch an initiative called Race to the Top.  (Applause.)  We said to states, if you are committed to outstanding teaching, to successful schools, to higher standards, to better assessments -– if you’re committed to excellence for all children -– you will be eligible for a grant to help you attain that goal.

And so far, the results have been promising and they have been powerful.  In an effort to compete for this extra money, 32 states reformed their education laws before we even spent a dime. The competition leveraged change at the state level.  And because the standards we set were high, only a couple of states actually won the grant in the first round, which meant that the states that didn’t get the money, they’ve now strengthened their applications, made additional reforms.  Now 36 have applied in the second round, and 18 states plus the District of Columbia are in the running to get a second grant.  (Applause.)

So understand what’s happened.  In each successive round, we’ve leveraged change across the country.  And even students in those districts that haven’t gotten a grant, they’ve still benefited from the reforms that were initiated.  And this process has sown the seeds of achievement.  It’s forced teachers and principals and officials and parents to forge agreements on tough, and often uncomfortable issues — to raise their sights and embrace education.

For the most part, states, educators, reformers, they’ve responded with great enthusiasm around this promise of excellence.  But I know there’s also been some controversy about Race to the Top.  Part of it, I believe, reflects a general resistance to change.  We get comfortable with the status quo even when the status quo isn’t good.  We make excuses for why things have to be the way they are.  And when you try to shake things up, some people aren’t happy.

There have been criticisms from some folks in the civil rights community about particular elements of Race to the Top.  So I want to address some of those today.  I told you we’re going to have an honest conversation.

First, I know there’s a concern that Race to the Top doesn’t do enough for minority kids, because the argument is, well, if there’s a competition, then somehow some states or some school districts will get more help than others.  Let me tell you, what’s not working for black kids and Hispanic kids and Native American kids across this country is the status quo.  That’s what’s not working.  (Applause.)  What’s not working is what we’ve been doing for decades now.

So the charge that Race to the Top isn’t targeted at those young people most in need is absolutely false because lifting up quality for all our children — black, white, Hispanic — that is the central premise of Race to the Top.  And you can’t win one of these grants unless you’ve got a plan to deal with those schools that are failing and those young people who aren’t doing well.  Every state and every school district is directly incentivized to deal with schools that have been forgotten, been given up on.

Photo :  U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 100th anniversary convention of the National Urban League on July 29, 2010 in Washington, DC.  (Getty Images)

I also want to directly speak to the issue of teachers.  We may have some teachers here in the house.  (Applause.)  I know Urban League has got some teachers.  Nothing is more important than teachers.  (Applause.)  My sister is a teacher.  I’m here because of great teachers.  The whole premise of Race to the Top is that teachers are the single most important factor in a child’s education from the moment they step into the classroom.  And I know firsthand that the vast majority of teachers are working tirelessly, are passionate about their students, are often digging into their own pockets for basic supplies, are going above and beyond the call of duty.

So I want teachers to have higher salaries.  I want them to have more support.  I want them to be trained like the professionals they are –- with rigorous residencies like the ones that doctors go through.   (Applause.)  I want to give them a career ladder so they’ve opportunities to advance, and earn real financial security.  I don’t want talented young people to say I’d love to teach but I can’t afford it.  (Applause.)

I want them to have a fulfilling and supportive workplace environment.  I want them to have the resources — from basic supplies to reasonable class sizes — that help them succeed.   And instead of a culture where we’re always idolizing sports stars or celebrities, I want us to build a culture where we idolize the people who are shaping our children’s future.  (Applause.)  I want some teachers on the covers of some of those magazines.  (Applause.)  Some teachers on MTV, featured.  (Applause.)

I was on the “The View” yesterday, and somebody asked me who Snooki was.  I said, I don’t know who Snooki is.  (Laughter.)  But I know some really good teachers that you guys should be talking about.  (Laughter and applause.)  I didn’t say the teacher part, but I just — (laughter.)  The question is, who are we lifting up?  Who are we promoting?  Who are we saying is important?

So I am 110 percent behind our teachers.  (Applause.)  But all I’m asking in return — as a President, as a parent, and as a citizen — is some measure of accountability.  (Applause.)  So even as we applaud teachers for their hard work, we’ve got to make sure we’re seeing results in the classroom.  If we’re not seeing results in the classroom, then let’s work with teachers to help them become more effective.  If that doesn’t work, let’s find the right teacher for that classroom.  (Applause.)

Arne makes the point very simply:  Our children get only one chance at an education, so we need to get it right.

I want to commend some of the teachers unions across this country who are working with us to improve teaching — like the Delaware Education Association, which is working with state leaders as part of their Race to the Top efforts, not only to set aside 90 minutes of collaboration time a week to improve instruction, but to strengthen teacher development and evaluation.  That’s the right way to go.

So, for anyone who wants to use Race to the Top to blame or punish teachers — you’re missing the point.  Our goal isn’t to fire or admonish teachers; our goal is accountability.  It’s to provide teachers with the support they need to be as effective as they can be, and to create a better environment for teachers and students alike.

Now, there’s also the question of how hard our teachers should push students in the classroom.  Nations in Asia and Europe have answered this question, in part by creating standards to make sure their teachers and students are performing at the same high levels throughout their nation.  That’s one of the reasons that their children are doing better than ours.  But here at home, there’s often a controversy about national standards, common standards — that violates the principle of local control. Now, there’s a history to local control that we need to think about, but that — that’s the argument.

So here’s what Race to the Top says:  Instead of Washington imposing standards from the top down, let’s challenge states to adopt common standards voluntarily, from the bottom up.  That doesn’t mean more standards; it means higher standards, better standards, standards that clarify what our teachers are expected to teach and what our children are expected to learn -– so high school graduates are actually prepared for college and a career. I do not want to see young people get a diploma but they can’t read that diploma.  (Applause.)

Now, so far, about 30 states have come together to embrace and develop common standards, high standards.  More states are expected to do so in the coming weeks.  And by the way, this is different from No Child Left Behind, because what that did was it gave the states the wrong incentives.  A bunch of states watered down their standards so that school districts wouldn’t be penalized when their students fell short.  And what’s happened now is, at least two states -– Illinois and Oklahoma –- that lowered standards in response to No Child Behind — No Child Left Behind — are now raising those standards back up, partly in response to Race to the Top.

And part of making sure our young people meet these high standards is designing tests that accurately measure whether they are learning.  Now, here, too, there’s been some controversy.  When we talk about testing, parents worry that it means more teaching to the test.  Some worry that tests are culturally biased. Teachers worry that they’ll be evaluated solely on the basis of a single standardized test.  Everybody thinks that’s unfair.  It is unfair.

But that’s not what Race to the Top is about.  What Race to the Top says is, there’s nothing wrong with testing -– we just need better tests applied in a way that helps teachers and students, instead of stifling what teachers and students do in the classroom.  Tests that don’t dictate what’s taught, but tell us what has been learned.  Tests that measure how well our children are mastering essential skills and answering complex questions.  And tests that track how well our students are growing academically, so we can catch when they’re falling behind and help them before they just get passed along.  (Applause.)

Because of Race to the Top, states are also finding innovative ways to move beyond having just a snapshot of where students are, and towards a real-time picture that shows how far they’ve come and how far they have to go.  And armed with this information, teachers can get what amounts to a game tape that they can study to enhance their teaching and their focus on areas where students need help the most.

Now, sometimes a school’s problems run so deep that you can do the better assessments and the higher standards and a more challenging curriculum, and that’s not enough.  If a school isn’t producing graduates with even the most basic skills –- year after year after year after year -– something needs to be done differently.  You know, the definition, somebody once said, of madness is you do the same thing over and over again and keep expecting a different result.  If we want success for our country, we can’t accept failure in our schools decade after decade.

And that’s why we’re challenging states to turn around our 5,000 lowest performing schools.  And I don’t think it’s any secret that most of those are serving African American or Hispanic kids.  We’re investing over $4 billion to help them do that, to transform those schools -– $4 billion, which even in Washington is real money.  (Applause.)  This isn’t about — unlike No Child Left Behind, this isn’t about labeling a troubled school a failure and then just throwing up your hands and saying, well, we’re giving up on you.  It’s about investing in that school’s future, and recruiting the whole community to help turn it around, and identifying viable options for how to move forward.

Now, in some cases, that’s going to mean restarting the school under different management as a charter school -– as an independent public school formed by parents, teachers, and civic leaders who’ve got broad leeway to innovate.  And some people don’t like charter schools.  They say, well, that’s going to take away money from other public schools that also need support.  Charter schools aren’t a magic bullet, but I want to give states and school districts the chance to try new things.  If a charter school works, then let’s apply those lessons elsewhere.  And if a charter school doesn’t work, we’ll hold it accountable; we’ll shut it down.

So, no, I don’t support all charter schools, but I do support good charter schools.  I’ll give you an example.  There’s a charter school called Mastery in Philadelphia.  And in just two years, three of the schools that Mastery has taken over have seen reading and math levels nearly double –- in some cases, triple.  Chaka Fattah is here, so he knows what I’m talking about.  One school called Pickett went from just 14 percent of students being proficient in math to almost 70 percent.  (Applause.)  Now — and here’s the kicker — at the same time academic performance improved, violence dropped by 80 percent -– 80 percent.  And that’s no coincidence.  (Applause.)

Now, if a school like Mastery can do it, if Pickett can do it, every troubled school can do it.  But that means we’re going to have to shake some things up.  Setting high standards, common standards, empowering students to meet them; partnering with our teachers to achieve excellence in the classroom; educating our children — all of them — to graduate ready for college, ready for a career, ready to make most of their lives — none of this should be controversial.  There should be a fuss if we weren’t doing these things.  There should be a fuss if Arne Duncan wasn’t trying to shake things up.  (Applause.)

So Race to the Top, isn’t simply the name of an initiative. It sums up what’s happening in our schools.  It’s the single most ambitious, meaningful education reform effort we’ve attempted in this country in generations.

And I know there are a number of other steps we need to take to lift up our education system — like saving teachers’ jobs across this country from layoffs — and I’ll continue fighting to take those steps and save those jobs.  But I’ll also continue to fight for Race to the Top with everything I’ve got, including using a veto to prevent some folks from watering it down.  (Applause.)

Now, let me wrap up by saying this.  I know there are some who say that Race to the Top won’t work.  There are cynics and naysayers who argue that the problems in our education system are too entrenched, that think that we’ll just fall back into the same old arguments and divides that have held us back for so long.  And it is true, as I’ve said since I ran for President, and that everybody here knows firsthand, change is hard.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed.  That’s why I’ve got all this gray hair. (Laughter.)

Fixing what was broken in our health care system is not easy.  Fixing what was broken on Wall Street is not easy.  Fixing what’s broken in our education system is not easy.  We won’t see results overnight.  It may take a decade for these changes to pay off.  But that’s not a reason not to make them.  It’s a reason to start making them right now, to feel a sense of urgency — the fierce urgency of now.  (Applause.)

We also know that as significant as these reforms are, there’s going to be one more ingredient to really make a difference:  parents are going to have to get more involved in their children’s education.  (Applause.)  Now, in the past, even that statement has sparked controversy.  Folks say, well, why are you talking about parents?  Parents need help, too.  I know that. Parents need jobs.  They need housing.  They need — in some cases — social services.  They may have substance abuse problems.  We’re working on all those fronts.

Then some people say, well, why are you always talking about parental responsibility in front of black folks?  (Laughter and applause.)  And I say, I talk about parent responsibility wherever I talk about education.

Michelle and I happen to be black parents, so — (laughter and applause) — I may — I may add a little umph to it when I’m talking to black parents.  (Laughter.)

But to paraphrase Dr. King, education isn’t an either/or proposition.  It’s a both/and proposition.  It will take both more focus from our parents, and better schooling.  It will take both more money, and more reform.  It will take both a collective commitment, and a personal commitment.

So, yes, our federal government has responsibilities that it has to meet, and I will keep on making sure the federal government meets those responsibilities.  Our governors, our superintendants, our states, our school districts have responsibilities to meet.  And parents have responsibilities that they have to meet.  And our children have responsibilities that they have to meet.  (Applause.)

It’s not just parents.  It’s the children, too.  Our kids need to understand nobody is going to hand them a future.  (Applause.)  An education is not something you just tip your head and they pour it in your ear.  (Laughter.)   You’ve got to want it.  You’ve got to reach out and claim that future for yourself. And you can’t make excuses.  (Applause.)

I know life is tough for a lot of young people in this country.  The places where Urban League is working to make a difference, you see it every day.  I’m coming from the Southside of Chicago.  (Applause.)  So I know — I see what young people are going through there.  And at certain points in our lives, young black men and women may feel the sting of discrimination.  Too many of them may feel trapped in a community where drugs and violence and unemployment are pervasive, and they are forced to wrestle with things that no child should have to face.

There are all kinds of reasons for our children to say, “No, I can’t.”  But our job is to say to them, “Yes, you can.”  (Applause.)  Yes, you can overcome.  Yes, you can persevere.  Yes, you can make what you will out of your lives.  (Applause.)

I know they can, because I know the character of America’s young people.  I saw them volunteer on my campaign.  They asked me questions in town hall meetings.  They write me letters about their trials and aspirations.

I got a letter recently postmarked Covington, Kentucky.  It was from Na’Dreya Lattimore, 10 years old — about the same age as Sasha.  And she told me about how her school had closed, so she had enrolled in another.  Then she had bumped up against other barriers to what she felt was her potential.  So Na’Dreya was explaining to me how we need to improve our education system. She closed by saying this:

“One more thing,” she said.  (Laughter.)  It was a long letter.  (Laughter.)  “You need to look at us differently.  We are not black, we’re not white, biracial, Hispanic, Asian, or any other nationality.”  No, she wrote -– “We are the future.”  (Applause.)

Na’Dreya, you are right.  And that’s why I will keep fighting to lead us out of this storm.  But I’m also going to keep fighting alongside the Urban League to make America more perfect, so that young people like Na’Dreya — people of every race, in every region — are going to be able to reach for that American Dream.  They’re going to know that there are brighter days ahead; that their future is full of boundless possibilities. I believe that, and I know the Urban League does, too.

Thank you very much, everybody.  God bless you.  God bless the United States of America.  (Applause.)  (*)

President Zuma to visit Russia

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, left, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shake hands during the official family photo at the G20 Summit Sunday, June 27, 2010, in Toronto. (Getty Images)

July 29, 2010

(KATAKAMI / IOL.CO.ZA)  President Jacob Zuma will pay an official visit to Russia from August 4 to 6, the international relations and co-operation department said on Thursday.

The visit follows an invitation by Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev, the department said in a statement.

A bilateral meeting between the two presidents would be held in Sochi on August 5

Photostream : PM Cameron continues India visit

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron inspects a guard of honour during his ceremonial reception at the presidential palace in New Delhi July 29, 2010. Cameron trumpeted a $1.1 billion defence deal with India on Wednesday, an early result of a big diplomatic push to court Indian business and tap new sources of economic growth.  (Getty Images)

British Prime Minister David Cameron inspects an honour guard at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi on July 29, 2010. Cameron, accompanied by a bevy of top ministers and a small army of business leaders arrived in India late July 27, at the head of the largest British delegation to travel to the former jewel in its colonial crown in recent memory. It has been tagged as a mould-breaking mission to redefine what Cameron’s government sees as a long-neglected relationship with one of the world’s fastest growing economies. (Getty Images)

British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh share a moment during a ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi, India, Thursday, July 29, 2010. (Getty Images)

British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, gestures as he stands with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi, India, Thursday, July 29, 2010.  (Getty Images)

British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, introduces a member of his delegation to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, center during a ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi, India, Thursday, July 29, 2010. (Getty Images)

British Prime Minister David Cameron (C) lays a wreath at Mahatama Gandhi memorial Rajghat in New Delhi on July 29, 2010. Cameron will push Indian leaders Thursday to strengthen trade ties on the second leg of a visit marked by his warning to Pakistan about promoting the ‘export of terror.’ Cameron was to hold talks in New Delhi with top officials including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and attend a summit on expanding economic relations between Britain and its former colony — now one of the world’s fastest growing economies. (Getty Images)

British Prime Minister David Cameron pays floral tributes at the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi, India, Thursday, July 29, 2010. (Getty Images)

British Prime Minister David Cameron holds a bust of Mahatama Gandhi upon visiting the independence leader’s memorial site Rajghat in New Delhi on July 29, 2010. Cameron will push Indian leaders Thursday to strengthen trade ties on the second leg of a visit marked by his warning to Pakistan about promoting the ‘export of terror.’ Cameron was to hold talks in New Delhi with top officials including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and attend a summit on expanding economic relations between Britain and its former colony — now one of the world’s fastest growing economies. (Getty Images)

British Prime Minster David Cameron, left, holds a scroll with Mahatma Gandhi’s seven principles presented to him, after paying tribute at the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi, India, Thursday, July 29, 2010. (Getty Images)

DELHI, INDIA – JULY 29: British Prime Minister David Cameron shakes hands with Indian President Pratibha Patil prior to a meeting at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the President of India, on July 29, 2010 in Delhi, India. The British Prime Minister is on a two day visit leading a delegation comprising six ministers and more than 30 senior executives from top firms, to show that Britain is committed to boosting economic exchanges with India. (Getty Images)

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron (L) and Indian President Pratibha Patil attend their meeting at the presidential palace in New Delhi July 29, 2010. Cameron trumpeted a $1.1 billion defence deal with India on Wednesday, an early result of a big diplomatic push to court Indian business and tap new sources of economic growth. (Getty Images)

Saudi king heads to Syria

https://i2.wp.com/www.reasonpad.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/Abdullah-Bin-Abdul-Aziz-Al-Saud-Saudi-Arabia.jpg

July 29, 2010

(KATAKAMI / ALJAZEERA)  Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is scheduled to arrive in Damascus, the Syrian capital, on the second-leg of his four-nation “Arab unity tour”.

King Abdullah was in Egypt on Wednesday and held talks with its president Hosni Mubarak on the Arab-Israeli peace process.

He is scheduled to meet Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, on Thursday.

King Abdullah is to travel to Lebanon and Jordan after wrapping up his Syria visit. He is expected to travel with al-Assad to Beirut for joint talks with Saad al-Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister.

If al-Assad does visit Lebanon, it will be his visit since the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, Saad’s father and the former prime minister of Lebanon.

The killing, blamed by many on Syria, led to relations between Beirut and Damascus hitting rockbottom.

Ties have been on the mend since 2008 when diplomatic relations were established for the first time between Lebanon and Syria.

Conflict fears

The Lebanon visit is aimed, in part, at reducing tensions over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the UN-backed body investigating the murder of al-Hariri.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, last week alleged that the special tribunal was set to indict his group for al-Hariri’s murder, triggering fears of a Shia-Sunni conflict being reignited in Lebanon.

There is also concern a new conflict might be looming between Hezbollah and Israel, which in recent months has accused the Lebanese group of stockpiling weapons in preparation for a new war.

The two foes fought a devastating war in 2006 that left much of Lebanon’s infrastructure in ruins.

Shadi Hamid, the deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, said: “I think the next two weeks will be crucial.

“There is a risk of escalation, of sectarian violence, and all players involved realise that risk and are taking pre-emptive action to defuse things before they get out of hand in the next weeks and  months,” Hamid told the AFP news agency.