Clinton tackles Syria, Iran concerns during Saudi visit

After meeting King Abdullah and other Saudis in Riyadh on Friday, Clinton was to consult with her counterparts from Saudi Arabia and its five Gulf Arab neighbors, all of them US allies.

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Not only does Washington suspect Iran of funneling weapons to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to crush anti-government protests, it also fears Iran is both a potential nuclear weapons and missile threat to countries in the region.

Raising security ties from a bilateral to a regional level, Clinton is breaking new ground here as she will join the first strategic cooperation forum between the United States and the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

“We’re looking to develop a regional missile defence architecture,” a senior US State Department official told reporters traveling from Washington to Riyadh, adding the issue will likely come up in the GCC talks.

“No one nation can protect itself. It needs to rely on its partners in order to have an effective missile defence system,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Iran, he said, “is clearly one of the most significant threats that these nations face in the region,” and he described a missile defence system as a “priority for our partnership with the GCC countries.”

The Sunni Muslim-led Gulf Arab states are extremely wary of non-Arab Shiite Muslim Iran.

In Clinton’s talks with King Abdullah, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and others, the two sides discussed ways to tighten the sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, another State Department official said.

“They talked about keeping the global oil supply strong, and the essential role Saudi Arabia plays in that,” the official said.

The world’s largest oil producer faces Western appeals to boost output to make up for shortfalls when European countries are due to stop importing Iranian oil in June as part of tougher sanctions agreed in recent months.

Officials said Clinton also briefed the Saudis on a diplomatic opening with Iran, which said it expects to resume talks on April 13 over its nuclear program with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

Western countries fear Iran’s uranium enrichment program conceals plans to build a nuclear bomb, but Tehran insists it is only for peaceful purposes.

Clinton also discussed with the Saudis international efforts to send more humanitarian aid into Syria, and support opposition efforts to present a united and inclusive political vision for the future.

They also discussed tightening the array of US, European, Canadian, Arab and Turkish sanctions on Syria, and making sure that countries follow through on their commitments to fully impose the measures.

One official said the US and Saudi sides also discussed “reform in the kingdom, including the role of women,” tackling issues that have been at the heart of the protest movements sweeping other Arab countries since last year.

US officials expected the GCC countries to discuss preparations for the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul on Sunday which is expected to draw ministers from dozens of Arab and Western countries.

But there are differences over how to help the Syrian people in their bid for democracy.

Saudi Arabia and its neighbour Qatar have called for arming the opposition, which includes the Free Syrian Army, made up of Syrian military defectors.

An Arab league summit in Baghdad on Thursday rejected the option of arming any side, and called on all parties to engage in a “serious national dialogue.”

The United States and Turkey have agreed on the need to provide communications and other non-lethal aid to the opposition.

Protests continue against Mubarak verdict

Hundreds continue to occupy Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a protest against sentences handed down the day before to former president Hosni Mubarak and his security chiefs.

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Some of the demonstrators had slept in tents or out in the open overnight in the iconic square, epicentre of an anti-regime revolt that ousted Mubarak in 2011 after three decades of autocratic rule.

“We intend to stay today and possibly tomorrow. We expect a lot more people to come during the day,” said Omar Abdelkader, a young protester in Tahrir Square.

Around 20,000 people had taken to the vast intersection on Saturday after a judge sentenced Mubarak, 84, and his interior minister Habib al-Adly to life for their role in the deaths of more than 800 protesters during last year’s revolt, but acquitted six security chiefs on the same charges.

Corruption charges against Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal, were dropped because of the expiry of a statute of limitations, and the ousted leader was acquitted in one of the graft cases.

A senior member of Mubarak’s defence team told AFP the former president would appeal.

Mubarak, the only autocrat toppled in the Arab Spring to be put on trial in person, could have been sent to the gallows as demanded by the prosecution.

Both the toppled dictator’s defence team and lawyers representing his victims said the verdict could easily be appealed.

The verdicts prompted outrage inside and outside the courtroom, with protesters staging rallies in Cairo, Alexandria and other Egyptian cities.

“Many people had the feeling while listening to the verdict that we were back in the days of the old regime,” said Feda Essam, a student demonstrator in Tahrir.

The demonstrators erected a memorial depicting a miniature cemetery made of gravestones and sand in tribute to the “martyrs” of the revolution.

“Martyrs, we will not abandon you to the conspiracies of the old regime. In the name of your blood, there will be a new revolution,” said a nearby banner.

Early on Sunday, offices of presidential candidate Ahmad Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, were attacked in two provincial towns, a security services official said.

Shafiq’s campaign headquarters in Cairo had already been attacked on Monday.

A group of protesters invaded the headquarters of Shafiq’s campaign in Fayyoum south of Cairo before setting fire to the building, the security official said.

Premises in Hurghada on the Red Sea were pillaged and the windows smashed.

New shelling overshadows Syria truce deadline

Syrian forces shelled protest hubs and deployed reinforcements, in apparent breach of a UN-backed peace plan, activists and monitors said, as Russia urged its ally to act more decisively to implement the truce.

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But Foreign Minister Walid Muallim said in Moscow that Damascus had started to carry out the plan tabled by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan by pulling some troops out of certain provinces.

A spokesman for Annan, who was visiting Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, said the former UN chief would send a letter to the Security Council later Tuesday, the day his peace accord was scheduled to begin taking effect.

On the ground, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad shelled the villages of Marea and Hawr al-Nahr in northern Aleppo province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Mortar shells also struck old quarters of the flashpoint city of Homs, it said, adding unidentified gunmen killed six soldiers in northeastern Hassakeh province.

Under the peace plan it agreed with Annan, the Syrian government is supposed to draw back its troops and armour from population centres on Tuesday ahead of a ceasefire on Thursday.

Activists said that instead of withdrawing, the Assad government was sending even more reinforcements into at least one other rebel stronghold, the besieged city of Rastan in central Homs province.

The Local Coordination Committees, one of the main opposition groups inside Syria, said “large military reinforcements” had arrived on Rastan’s eastern outskirts overnight.

The reports, which cannot be verified due to curbs on foreign media, came after one of the bloodiest days in Damascus’ crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired protests that has seen some people take up arms against the regime.

In Moscow, Muallem told reporters after meeting his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that the government in Damascus had started implementing the Annan plan.

“I told my Russian colleague of the steps Syria is taking to show its goodwill for the implementation of the Annan plan. We have already withdrawn military units from different Syrian provinces,” said Muallem.

Lavrov, however, made it clear that Syria should be more decisive in fulfilling the plan of Annan, which most notably calls on Syria to pull out government forces and weaponry from cities hit by protests.

“We believe their actions could have been more active, more decisive when it comes to the implementation of the plan,” he told the joint news conference with Muallem.

Monday’s violence cost the lives of at least 105 people, including 74 civilians, the Observatory said, taking the monitoring group’s death toll for the past three days to close to 300.

The violence also spilled over into neighbouring countries.

Gunfire from Syria wounded four Syrians and two Turkish staff at a camp across the border in Turkey, and killed a television cameraman over the frontier with Lebanon.

Some 25,000 Syrian refugees are currently in camps in Turkey’s three provinces bordering Syria, after fleeing the crackdown on dissent.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Syria of a “clear violation” of common frontiers, while Lebanon demanded a probe into the cameraman’s shooting.

“It was a very clear violation of the border,” Erdogan told reporters on an official visit to Beijing. “Obviously we will take the necessary measures,” he was quoted as saying by the Turkish news agency Anatolia.

Washington rebuked Syria’s government for the border violence, and said Assad was showing no signs his government was sticking by the peace plan after signing up to the deal last week.

“We certainly have seen no sign yet of the Assad regime abiding by its commitments,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Current UN chief Ban Ki-moon made a final plea for Assad to stop attacks on civilians after Monday’s fierce clashes.

“The secretary general reiterates his demand that the government of Syria immediately cease all military actions against civilians and fulfill all of its commitments made through joint special envoy Kofi Annan,” UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

The peace plan has been under a cloud for days since Damascus said it would keep its side of the bargain only if rebels gave written guarantees they would also stop fighting, a condition rejected out of hand by the rebels.

Amid the clashes, China urged Syria to honour its commitments and to implement the peace deal.

“China urges the Syrian government and parties concerned in Syria to seize the important opportunities, to honour their commitment of ceasefire and withdrawal of troops,” foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.

On Sunday, Syria’s government laid out new conditions that put the truce in doubt, namely written guarantees from the rebels of a ceasefire and pledges from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey who oppose the Damascus regime that they would stop backing the rebels.

Following his visit to Turkey, Annan will travel to Syria’s ally Iran on Wednesday.

“I remind the Syrian government of the need for full implementation of its commitments and stress that the present escalation of violence is unacceptable,” Annan said at the weekend.

The United Nations says more than 9,000 people have been killed since anti-regime protests broke out in March 2011, while monitors put the number at more than 10,000.

In their words: Racism in Australia

The government has called for input from community groups on new ways to tackle racism, as indigenous and non-Anglo Australians say it is still rife.

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The Australia Human Rights Commission hopes that a series of public consultations will help it to evaluate where and how racism is being expressed across the nation.

A discussion paper released today outlines possible responses to a 2011 report that showed growing numbers of Australians who said they had experienced discrimination based on their ethnic background or appearance.

The report showed 9 per cent felt that way in 2007, 10 per cent in 2009 and 14 per cent in both 2010 and 2011.

“A zero tolerance approach to racism goes hand in hand with the broad acceptance of multiculturalism in Australia. It is integral to achieving a fair go for all,” Human Rights Commissioner Helen Szoke said in a statement on the web.

DEFINING RACISM

People who responded to an SBS request for personal accounts of their experiences with racism described a wide variety of incidents.

Indigenous Adelaide rapper Colin Darcy – also known as Caper – posted a video on Facebook of a song he wrote decrying racist insults that had been hurled at him.

He says Facebook removed the video after one user complained it contained offensive terms even though Darcy had used these to describe how others had abused him.

The video was put back up after a backlash from supporters.

Media coverage of the row attracted more viewers, and many left vicious racist comments.

‘Since the video got banned, people have checked it out and left racist comments,” Darcy told SBS.

“In a way the comments on the video prove its point.”

(NOTE: There is language some may find offensive in the video and in the comments section below it on YouTube).

Several non-government organisations are currently using ‘How Would You Like To Be Me’ to raise awareness, says Darcy.

RECRUITERS ‘REJECT SKILLED MIGRANTS’

Dr Hassan says he came to Australia on a skilled migration visa, having worked for a pharmaceutical company with a presence in 22 countries.

However, Dr Hassan said he ended up driving a taxi after several recruitment agencies refused to represent him because he had no Australian experience.

Further to that, Dr Hassan said that as a new arrival in the country, he attended a seminar organised by the immigration department.

The attendees – all recent immigrants – were told that Internet job sites only advertised 20 per cent of the positions available, and the rest could be found only through ‘networking’.

“How can people who have just landed in this country network?” asks Dr Hassan. “Is it non-mandatory to advertise?”

“Where should I sit, in the bar and start drinking? I know it doesn’t happen this way. Noone is going to come over to you and say ‘It’s your lucky day, I’ll give you a job,” he says.

‘PUT YOUR SCARF BACK ON’

Perth resident Sara A – who asked that her surname not be published – told SBS that she was ordered to put her headscarf back on or she wouldn’t be allowed to leave Australia.

Ms A says she her passport photograph – taken in her country of origin – showed her wearing the scarf because that was the law there.

However, since becoming a permanent resident of Australia she no longer wore it very often.

“Why do I have to wear Islamic attire at the airport in Australia to be able to travel?” she asked.

“(The border guard) just wanted to insult me for sure. If a man wore a tie in his passport photo does (not) necessarily means he must wear tie again,” Ms A added.

“I was truly hurt by her behavior. this happen to me just once but if I was a true Muslim and always wear scarf this things might happen more often,” Ms A said.

LATERAL RACISM

Melbourne art professor Wayne Quilliam told SBS he was the victim of racism from both the Aboriginal and Anglo communities after he was named Aboriginal Artist of the Year.

“The most recent experience was of an Aboriginal man from Victoria questioning how a lighter skinned man can name as the Aboriginal Artist of the Year when darker-skinned should be given preference,” he said in an email.

“Within our communities we are calling this lateral violence and taking people to task to confront their prejudices,” Mr Quilliam added.

Azarenka edges Ivanovic, meets Stosur in final

Playing in her first tournament since suffering knee and hip injuries at Wimbledon, the Belarussian dug herself out of a second-set hole to subdue the 2008 French Open champion, who also ran hot and cold throughout.

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Australia’s Samantha Stosur will face Azarenka in Sunday’s showdown after the fifth seed utilised her big serve and forehand to repel French wild card Virginie Razzano 7-6 6-3 in the second semi-final.

“It’s something that you expect from Ana, she’s a very big shot maker and loves to bang the ball,” Azarenka told reporters of her hard-hitting Serb opponent.

“For me the key was to not let her make those shots and be the one who was putting the pressure. I did feel more consistent.”

World number three Azarenka raced through the first set, breaking the seventh-seeded Ivanovic three times, but was less than thrilled with her play in the second, where she was broken to love and conceded it with three sizzling forehand winners.

Azarenka composed herself in the third, breaking Ivanovic with a ripping forehand crosscourt winner and never giving the Serb a look at her serve.

Following her win, the double Australian Open champion is guaranteed to pass Russian Maria Sharapova for the number two ranking when they are released on Monday. Serena Williams will remain number one.

SLOW START

Azarenka has won 28 straight matches on outdoor hard courts since her 2012 U.S. Open final defeat, despite withdrawing from three tournaments during the period with injuries.

“The reality is we have most of the tournaments on hard but that’s a great statistic,” Azarenka said.

In the late match, Stosur was able to overcome a 4-0 deficit in the first set by overpowering her ambitious opponent to reach a first WTA final in nine months.

After recovering from her slow start, Stosur dictated most of the action and played a far more authoritative tiebreaker, winning it 7-2 with a big serve that Razzano could barely touch.

The Australian broke Razzano early in the second set and went on to seal victory when the Frenchwoman, who had needed three-and-a-half hours to upset third seed Petra Kvitova in the quarter-finals, hit a backhand long.

“I don’t feel like I was playing too bad at the start to be 4-0 down but she was hitting a lot of winners and making me move a lot,” said Stosur, who ripped 20 winners.

“So I thought I have to do something to change this and be more aggressive off the front foot a lot earlier in the rallies, dictate earlier, and that made the difference.”

Azarenka will be a strong favourite going into Sunday’s final with the top seed holding an 8-0 record against Stosur in previous meetings.

(Editing by John O’Brien)