Marchand Wraps Protest with Louisiana Road Home Changes

On Monday December 18, maverick Democrat Louisiana Rep. Charmaine Marchand pitched a tent on the lawn of the State Capitol in Baton Rouge and vowed to stay there until changes were made to speed up the Road Home program.

The following evening, she had achieved her aims and was packing up camp.

The Road Home is a federally-funded disaster relief program managed by the state of Louisiana that aims to help an estimated 123,000 local residents rebuild their homes which were destroyed or severely damaged in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August-September 2005.

Ms Marchand’s electorate includes the devastated Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans where entire neighborhoods remain uninhabited, and many properties’ front steps lead to open spaces where homes once stood. Although the Ninth Ward has one of the highest rates of home ownership in the city, it also has one of the highest rates of poverty, which has hampered the ability of many local residents to return.

Sixteen months after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, only 85 Road Home applicants in Louisiana have received their awards, which are capped at $150,000. One Ninth Ward homeowner received a Road Home offer of $87.

The coming months mark a critical threshold for the rebuilding process. Many residents and business owners in New Orleans have said that the early new year will be their make-or-break decision time, to either rebuild or leave for good.

On December 15, the Louisiana State legislature passed a non-binding resolution calling for Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to terminate the state’s contract with ICF, the Virginia-based company hired to administer the Road Home program.

ICF maintains that it has met or exceeded all its requirements under its contract.

Frustrated with the program’s glacial rate of progress, and the perceived lack of urgency from Governor Blanco and ICF, Ms Marchand decided to camp outside the State Capitol to raise public awareness of the plight of desperate homeowners who remain scattered across the United States and feel all but forgotten.

News of the one-woman protest spread like wildfire through Louisiana. Yet the story’s significance seemed all but lost on some commentators who dismissed Ms Marchand’s action as a frivolous grab for publicity: “Well, that’s show business. A New Orleans legislator plans to sleep in a tent on the State Capitol grounds until the ‘Road Home’ program is working the way she thinks it should … The needed changes in the program must come from action taken in the governor’s office, not in Marchand’s tent,” grizzled The Advertiser in Lafayette.

The Advertisermay be pleased to know that Ms Marchand’s action got results that will now help speed up the rebuilding process for tens of thousands of homeowners throughout the state.

On Tuesday, Ms Marchand met with Governor Blanco, fellow legislators and representatives of ICF and the Louisiana Recovery Authority for a full and frank discussion on the Road Home’s shortcomings.

At the end of the meeting, three main improvements had been negotiated:

Improvement 1:  ICF to obtain more accurate property values using local appraisers

ICF now plans to use local Louisiana licensed appraisers to provide more accurate pre-storm values of properties, instead of continuing to use a national system that lists average property values for neighborhoods. High rates of variation within neighborhoods had resulted in flawed calculations and numerous appeals by homeowners.

Improvement 2:  Homeowners to be given money to start rebuilding during appeals

Homeowners who dispute the amount of their award currently don’t have access to any money until their disputes are settled. ICF Road Home director Mike Byrne has agreed to pursue changes so that homeowners can have access to some of their funds while their disputes are being settled.

Improvement 3:  Money to be made available to homeowners when grants approved

Currently, federal money is not placed in state accounts until final agreements are reached with homeowners, on a case-by-case basis. Mr Byrne said he would now seek a federal waiver to make large blocks of money available in Louisiana so that ICF can disburse funds to homeowners as soon as their awards are approved.

ICF is also looking at ways to make the third-party verification process more efficient. Ms Marchand, who is an attorney, suggested that this process could be shortened by calculating awards using FEMA and insurance payments; the amounts could be included in sworn affidavits submitted by applicants and later verified by Road Home representatives. Intentionally deceptive applicants could be prosecuted.

It seems that Ms Marchand and her legislative colleagues have given input that stands to significantly improve the Road Home process. These changes were previously not negotiated because both ICF and the LRA were appointed by the governor, which effectively locked state representatives out of their processes.

That’s not show business, that’s taking care of business. That’s freedom of expression and democracy in action – and an elected representative prepared to do what it takes to help her constituents come home.  

At the end of the day, Ms Marchand’s success represents a victory for people throughout New Orleans and Louisiana who are relying on Road Home grants to rebuild their lives and communities.

Advertisements

NASA-Google Agreement: Net Users Will Be Over the Moon

NASA and Google have signed a historic agreement that will provide online access to interactive video from the moon and Mars, real-time weather visualization and forecasting, and real-time tracking of the International Space Station and the space shuttle.

“NASA has collected and processed more information about our planet and universe than any other entity in the history of humanity,” said Chris Kemp, director of strategic business development at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. “The vast majority of this information is scattered and difficult for non-experts to access and to understand.”

The Space Act Agreement signed by NASA Ames Research Center and Google paves the way for NASA’s wealth of datasets to be loaded into Google Earth, which will provide instant access to high-resolution images and video. Ames will also provide Google with its weather forecasting information, three-dimensional maps of the moon and Mars, and real-time tracking of the ISS and space shuttle flights.

“This agreement between NASA and Google will soon allow every American to experience a virtual flight over the surface of the moon or through the canyons of Mars,” said a NASA administrator, Michael Griffin.

Video footage from the Apollo missions to the moon has also been digitally reformatted and might be made available for viewing online.

“Partnering with NASA made perfect sense for Google, as it has a wealth of technical expertise and data that will be of great use to Google as we look to tackle many computing issues on behalf of our users,” said Eric Schmidt, chief executive officer of Google.

“The goal is to allow the public to feel they are virtually there,” said Pete Warden, director of the Ames Center. “In the next decade, we’re looking at the kind of technology that would enable people to feel the crunch of Martian soil as they move around, to feel the Martian wind on their faces. This is a step in that direction.”

Powell Warns Against Sending More US Troops to Iraq

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell declared on December 17 that the US is “losing” the war in Iraq and warned against the Bush administration’s plans to send in more troops, even in the short-term.

He told CBS’ Face the Nation program: “It’s grave and deteriorating and we’re not winning, we are losing … And this is the time, now, to start to put in place the kinds of strategies that will turn this situation around. I am not persuaded that another surge of troops into Baghdad for the purposes of suppressing this communitarian violence, this civil war, will work.”

A former four-star general, Mr Powell argued that the war in Iraq has already pushed the US military near breaking point and there is no clear mission for them to accomplish: “The current active Army is not large enough and the Marine Corps is not large enough for the kinds of missions they’re being asked to perform. There are really no additional troops. All we would be doing is keeping some of the troops who were there longer, and escalating or accelerating the arrival of other troops. If I were still chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my first question to whoever is proposing it (would be), what mission is it these troops are to accomplish? If victory means you have got rid of every insurgent, that you have peace throughout the country, I don’t see that in the cards right now.”

Mr Powell generally endorses the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations. He said the priority of the US should be to work with the Maliki government to facilitate national reconciliation and the handover of security responsibilities to the Iraqis, and he supports opening dialogue with Syria and Iran. Although he has “no illusion that either Syria or Iran want to help us in Iraq”, he said his military and diplomatic experience has taught him that it is nevertheless necessary to engage nations such as these in dialogue.

Meanwhile, President Bush has dismissed the Iraq Study Group’s report in favor of a paper entitled “Choosing Victory” prepared by the American Enterprise Institute, the same neoconservative think tank that provided the ideological basis for using war to spread democracy. After consulting the report’s authors, Mr Bush now favors sending a ‘surge’ of 25,000 additional troops to Iraq in the new year.

Critics argue that the ideological mission failed because it is “too simplistic” to try to spread democracy through military force. As Michael O’Hanlon, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, recently told Time magazine, “The Administration’s top-down approach of assuming that elections will solve problems has been too simplistic. You also need educational institutions and economic development.” The Bush administration has clearly not budgeted for that level of nation-building.

Mr Powell also pointed out that while the US is mired in Iraq, “we have been somewhat constrained in our ability to influence events elsewhere”, such as escalating conflicts throughout the Middle East and North Korea. “I think we are a little less safe, in the sense that we don’t have the same force structure available for other problems,” said Mr Powell.

It is not yet clear what contribution will be made by incoming Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a renowned foreign policy realist who candidly told the Senate during his confirmation hearings that the US was “not winning” in Iraq. Following his swearing in at the Pentagon on Monday, Mr Gates said, “We simply cannot afford to fail in the Middle East. Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility and endanger Americans for decades to come”.

Mr Gates said his first priority is visiting Iraq to meet with military commanders as he works to develop a new war plan. Only last month, Gen. John Abizaid, commander of US forces in the Middle East, told a Senate panel that higher troop levels are not sustainable because nearly every unit is either deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, recovering from a deployment, or preparing for one; he added that sending more US troops would reduce pressure on Iraqis to take over their own security.

The new Secretary of Defense has already broken the mold of his predecessor by vowing to listen to his generals and military advisors. Mr Gates continues to raise hopes that he will use his influence to transform the Bush administration’s failed ideology-driven foreign policy to one that is driven by realism.

Sen. Tim Johnson: Power Change Uncertain

Senator Tim Johnson’s (D-S.D.) sudden critical illness has set off a veritable media frenzy in the US, fuelled by speculation that the Democrats could be set to lose their razor-thin majority in the US Senate.

Indeed, Sen. Johnson’s departure from office would enable South Dakota’s Republican governor to appoint a Republican replacement, resulting in a new 50-50 split in the US Senate – which, with Vice-President Dick Cheney’s deciding vote, would hand control of the Senate back to the Republicans. Yet after his surgery on Wednesday to treat an “intracerebral bleed caused by a congenital arteriovenous malformation”, Sen. Johnson is said to be recovering well at George Washington University Hospital. Most importantly, he has survived the critical post-operative forty-eight hour threshold, which greatly improves his chances of making a full recovery.

Professor of History Julian Zelizer of Boston University told the News Hour with Jim Lehrer that there is no historical precedent in which a member of Congress has been forced to resign due to poor health. He cited the example of the late Karl Mundt (also from South Dakota), a Republican who served as a member of the US House of Representatives from 1938-1948 and as a US Senator from 1948-1973. Sen. Mundt suffered a severe stroke in 1969 that rendered him unable to attend sessions of Congress, yet he remained in office until the end of his term in 1973. More recently, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) returned to the Senate in late 1988 after several months recovering from a near-fatal brain aneurysm.

Most unforgettable is the historic contribution of the late Senator Clair Engle (D-Calif.), who battled brain cancer in 1963-64 while fending off calls for his resignation from his fellow Democrats. On June 10, 1964 he cast the deciding vote in the US Senate which ended the filibuster preventing passage of the Civil Rights Act 1964 – a landmark US legislative achievement.  Senator Engle insisted on being wheeled into the chamber and used sign language to cast his historic vote – a moment preserved in a US Senate Historical Minute Essay: “The clerk proceeded to call the roll. When he reached ‘Mr. Engle’, there was no response. A brain tumor had robbed California’s mortally ill Clair Engle of his ability to speak. Slowly lifting a crippled arm, he pointed to his eye, thereby signaling his affirmative vote [‘aye’]. Few of those who witnessed this heroic gesture ever forgot it.” Six weeks later, Senator Engle died in Washington, D.C. at the age of 52.

Historical precedent indicates that, apart from Sen. Johnson’s voluntary retirement, only his untimely death can force his seat to be vacated. And only then would the conditions be set for the governor of South Dakota to appoint a Republican to shift the balance of power in the US Senate.  Even so, it does seem counter-democratic that such a scenario could be played out – especially given that US voters clearly used the November 7 mid-term elections to discipline the Republican party and transfer Congressional power to the Democrats.

All things considered, it seems fair and reasonable to support the introduction of uniform legislation across the country that removes the ability of state governors to make political appointments (albeit only in rare and unfortunate circumstances) that overrule the vote of the American people.

Battle of Baghdad: Sectarian Divide Tearing Apart Families, Communities

A new US military map of Baghdad shows clearly drawn battle lines between warring Shiite and Sunni militias, who are now claiming vast areas of the city in their bid for territorial control and political power.

In what is shaping up to be the Battle of Baghdad, the Shiites are claiming all of the city to the east of the Tigris River, as well as areas on the west bank to the north and south of districts claimed by the Sunnis.

As militias transform hundreds of mixed neighborhoods into strictly Shiite or Sunni enclaves, the five most violent neighborhoods in Baghdad include the Sunni area of Ahdamiya in the north (turning Shiite), Khadamiya in the north-west (turning Shiite), Ghazaliya in the west (turning Sunni) and Amariya and Khadasiya in the south-west (both turning Sunni). The fortified Green Zone is located between the major areas of conflict and transition, in the center of Baghdad on the west bank of the Tigris River.

The map also highlights current flashpoints, three of which are in historically Shiite neighborhoods near Khadamiya in north-western Baghdad, sitting directly on the border between opposing Shiite and Sunni forces. On the east bank, the other four flashpoints extend south from Ahdamiya through mixed neighborhoods in Shiite territory, but stop short of four Christian communities in the city’s south-east.

Many neighborhoods in Baghdad have taken on the appearance of makeshift fortresses, and residents claim that the city now feels like a ghost town. Homes, schools and shops are shuttered and local roads are barricaded with building materials and burnt out cars. Militias patrol an increasing number of checkpoints. Throughout the city, there is limited pedestrian traffic during the day, and only armed militia men walk the streets at night.Residents who have found themselves in the minority in their neighborhoods have been threatened, assaulted, kidnapped or killed by militias in broad daylight. There are reports of teachers being dragged from classrooms pleading for their lives. This has forced many residents to move their families to ‘safer’ areas of Baghdad, other parts of Iraq or even neighboring countries.

The sustained violence and displacement is being fuelled by militias with political connections in the Iraqi parliament: on the Shiite side is the Sadrist Mahdi Armi and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI); on the Sunni side is the Islamic Party and the Muslim Scholars Association.Overall, the exodus of refugees from Iraq now stands at 1.5 million. The UN estimates that 3,000 people are leaving Iraq every day, including a substantial number of the country’s professional and skilled classes. Most insist they do not want to return to Iraq. Among these refugees are 120,000 Christians, most of whom say they want to resettle in the US.

The sheer scale of the refugee crisis has called into question the US policy which accommodates only 500 refugees from Iraq next year. As a historical comparison, the US took in 823,000 refugees as ‘boat people’ in the wake of the Vietnam War. Currently, even the Iraqi refugees who have officially requested resettlement in the US have been caught in a tug-of-war between the US State Department and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who has not yet determined their status.

As the Battle of Baghdad gains momentum against the backdrop of civil war in Iraq, so will the refugee crisis continue to escalate. In the coming months, this will no doubt raise additional issues concerning US responsibilities associated with the war in Iraq.

Source: The Times (London)

Iraq Study Group: Mixed Reviews

The response to the Iraq Study Group’s bipartisan report has been anything but unified, having touched off a firestorm of debate throughout the US and the world.

The ISG warned that the crisis in Iraq is “grave and deteriorating” and said the US should scale back its military mission to pursue a political solution. This means reassigning US combat troops to train Iraqi soldiers, redeploying most US troops by early 2008, forcing the Maliki government to accelerate national reconciliation and diplomatically engaging Iran and Syria within a broader Middle East peace plan.

The two heads of state who bear primary responsibility for the Iraq war have responded rather differently to the ISG report, which presents a powerful indictment of the failed US-led policy in Iraq.

President Bush, still smarting from the stinging repudiation delivered by US voters on November 7, gave the report a somber nod and noted that it was “worthy of serious study”. Yet behind the scenes, he had already defiantly ordered that the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council develop alternative proposals. Mr Bush refuses outright to consider timelines for US troop withdrawal from Iraq and he remains viscerally opposed to dialogue with Iran and Syria.

Meanwhile, a beleaguered Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is suffering a punishing backlash over the Iraq war from the British public, praised the report for “offering a strong way forward”. Prior to the report, Mr Blair had already called for dialogue with Iran and Syria to help stabilize Iraq and the region. It’s also been recently announced that British troops may wrap up their operations in southern Iraq by mid-2007.

The ISG report has received a mixed reaction from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) insists that more troops should be sent to Iraq: “I believe that this [report] is a recipe that will lead to, sooner or later, our defeat in Iraq.” Yet Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.) believes the timeline for bringing the troops home needs to be shorter.  Most Democrats and moderate Republicans fall somewhere in between these two poles of opinion.

By far the most explosive reactions to the ISG report have come from the conservative media in the US, which has been shredding the report and baying for more troops. The New York Post branded the ISG “The Counsel of Cowards” and the group’s co-chairs, former Secretary of State Jim Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, “surrender monkeys”. The Wall Street Journal dismissed the report as a “strategic muddle,” Richard Perle shrugged it off as “absurd,” and Rush Limbaugh labeled it “stupid.”

At the ISG’s press conference on Wednesday, Mr Hamilton declared, “The current approach is not working, and the ability of the United States to influence events is diminishing.” He later told CNN’s Late Edition, “We still think we can achieve the President´s goal of an Iraq that can defend itself, support itself and sustain itself, govern itself … We don´t want a precipitous withdrawal.” He also told Fox News Sunday, “We want to conclude this war, and we want to conclude it in a responsible way.” Mr Hamilton and Mr Baker have said the ISG represents the kind of bipartisan cooperation the US needs right now.

Iraqi National Reconciliation

Prior to the official release of the ISG report in Washington, the two co-chairs addressed Iraqi government leaders via video link on a big screen in an office in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. Mr Baker spoke directly to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and summarized the recommendations.

The New York Times reported that Mr Maliki initially seemed pleased and said, “If the report is written in that way, it’s good”. However, he added that he would reserve his judgment until he is able to read the details of the report. The responses of Iraqi politicians have predictably been split along sectarian lines. The Shiites and the Kurds, the main authors of the Iraqi constitution, are opposed to the constitutional review recommended in the report, which aims to facilitate national reconciliation with the minority Sunnis. Meanwhile, Sunnis are sorely disappointed that the report did not explicitly propose a purge of Shiite militias from the ranks of the Iraqi security forces; Sunnis fear these militias will resume committing atrocities when US troops leave. Dhafir al-Ani, a conservative Sunni Arab Member of Parliament said, “These recommendations might be a solution for the American crisis in Iraq, but not a solution for the Iraqi crisis.” Kurdish leaders, who are demanding regional autonomy, are said to be livid that the report recommends giving the central government control over oil revenues while blocking an opportunity for the oil-rich city of Kirkuk to vote on joining Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, slammed the report as “dangerous” and “an insult to Iraqis”, because “the report has a mentality that we are a colony where they impose their conditions and neglect our independence.” On Late Edition, Mr Hamilton defended the proposal to make economic and military aid conditional on achieving measurable progress: “Up until this point, we´ve given a blank check to the Iraqis. And I´m not surprised that the president would like that sort of a deal.”

Dr Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information, said timelines and benchmarks are critical to success in Iraq. He told Australia’s Lateline program: “I think the key is that when you set a specific timeline to get out, a specific withdrawal date, that sends a signal to the Iraqi Government that they have to start the reconciliation process. They promised that four months after the election they would modify the constitution to ensure that the Sunnis got their fair share of the resources of the country. Until they do that, it doesn´t matter how many troops you have. You could have a soldier or a Marine on every street corner in Baghdad and it´s not going to dampen down the violence if they haven´t decided the questions of the sharing of the oil revenues, the balance between the provincial and central government and the protection of minority rights. That´s the key. You´ve got to be able to get them to do what they should have been doing for the past year. The civil war is happening because the Iraqis have not done what they´re supposed to do.”

Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, leader of Iraq’s Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), denied that the Iraqi government needs to be prodded to take up the challenge of national reconciliation. He told Late Edition, “The reconciliation did not come because of the pressure of the United States or any other forces, outsiders, but it was just coming from the Iraqi government itself.” When asked whether SCIRI is aligned with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Mr Hakim simply responded that his party has “a strong relationship with Iran”. Mr Hakim then refused to state whether he supports Israel’s right to exist, despite being asked several times by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer.

New Diplomatic Offensive in the Middle East

A key set of recommendations in the ISG report proposes the development of a New Diplomatic Offensive to bring peace to the Middle East. On NBC’s Meet the Press, Mr Hamilton explained, “We need to build a consensus in the region with Iraq’s neighbors. Iran and Syria are major players. Now, to try to isolate them, to shove them aside, I don’t think gets you anywhere. How do you solve problems with people unless you talk to them?”

Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) threw his support behind this diplomatic strategy and told Late Edition, “To get to the ultimate result you have to go into areas you don´t want to get to that final result. To not have dialogue with either country I think is a mistake.” Incoming Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also supports the New Diplomatic Offensive and told CBS’s Face the Nation that the US needs to try to involve Iran and Syria, but he’s skeptical that they will cooperate.

UN special envoy on Syria-Lebanon issues, Terje Roed-Larsensaid, is also pessimistic about the prospect of the US getting help from Iraq’s neighbors. He told the Chatham House think tank that the ISG report falsely assumes that there is a common interest among states in the Middle East to stop Iraq’s slide into chaos. He believes that some of Iraq’s neighbors have an interest in maintaining instability in Iraq because they know it will backfire on Washington. He did however agree that if progress were made on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it might well help to defuse other flashpoints in the region.

Training Iraqi Security Forces

One of the final glaring challenges involved for the US will be training the Iraqi security forces, which are rife with sectarianism and militias. Mr Hamilton conceded on Meet the Press, “Not enough of these Iraqi troops are national troops. They’re still sectarian troops.” Sensitive to Sunni Arab fears about Shiite militias serving in the police and security forces, the ISG recommended that control of the elite police units (rumored to be dominated by Shiite militiamen) be transferred from the Shiite-led Interior Ministry to the Sunni-led Defense Ministry. Shiite leaders are expected to strenuously resist any such move.

Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “It´s not so much that Iraqis are not capable of being trained. It´s a question about loyalties: To what extent can the Iraqis be loyal to the central government?” There have been numerous reports of security forces fleeing from battles, being infiltrated by sectarian militias, actively cooperating with death squads and even running their own death squads. Most current divisions are sect- or tribe-based.

Dr Korb said that US troops assigned to train Iraqi security forces will probably find that the greatest challenge is the pervasive lack of motivation: “It´s not really a question of training. It´s a question of motivation. You change the motivation by creating an Iraqi nation that people want to fight and die for.”

With the complex and critical goal of nation-building carefully laid out in 79 interdependent recommendations, it’s little wonder that Mr Baker warned the Senate that the ISG’s report must be considered as a whole and not as “a fruit salad where one can say, ‘I like this but I don´t like that’.”

It remains to be seen whether President Bush will work with the US Congress to set a truly bipartisan example and firmly set Iraq on a new course that leads to a future of peace and prosperity.

Alexander Litvinenko Death ‘Courts’ Putin

Former Soviet spy Alexander Litvinenko was laid to rest on Thursday when a procession of Russian émigrés bearing his specially sealed coffin ended in London’s Highgate Cemetery. He was 43 years of age.

The life and death of Mr Litvinenko reads like a classic Cold War spy novel with all the high drama of  government conspiracies, dissidents, defections, poisonings and assassinations.

Mr Litvinenko died on November 23 after three weeks in a London hospital. It has been revealed that he was poisoned with the rare and highly radioactive isotope polonium-210 on November 1, which caused his hair to fall out and his internal organs to severely burn, peel and inevitably fail.

Experts have said that as little as three millicuries (a microscopic dose) of polonium-210 is enough to kill, and the cost of producing such a dose is about one million dollars. Mr Litvinenko’s autopsy is said to have revealed that the dose he ingested would have cost closer to $40 million to produce.

On his deathbed, Mr Litvinenko accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering his murder.

Mr Litvinenko, a former KGB spy, had lived in London since being granted political asylum by the UK in 2001. He became one of the most outspoken critics of Mr Putin and had most recently accused him of ordering the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist who accused Mr Putin of human rights abuses, criminal activity and systematic oppression in Chechnya. Ms Politkovskaya also published English-language books based on her journalistic exposés. Having long feared for her life because of her work, she was shot dead outside her apartment in Moscow on October 7.

Mr Putin and the Kremlin have repeatedly denied involvement in the deaths of both Ms Politkovskaya and Mr Litvinenko.

Scotland Yard are treating Mr Litvinenko’s death as a homicide and have conducted interviews and forensic testing in London and Moscow. Their prime suspect is believed to be former Russian spy Andrei Lugovoi. However, in a very recent twist, Mr Lugovoi has reportedly been admitted to a hospital in Russia suffering the effects of radiation poisoning.

Mr Lugovoi seems to have left a trail of radiation across Europe recently. A week before Mr Litvinenko’s poisoning, Mr Lugovoi flew with a group of Russians from Moscow to London; traces of plutonium-210 were later found in the British Airways jet on which they travelled and in the five rooms they occupied at the London’s Sheraton Park Lane Hotel. On October 31, Mr Lugovoi travelled from Moscow to London with two Russian businessmen, Dmitri Kovtun and Vyacheslav Sokolenko. Traces of polonium-210 were also found on the British Airways jet in which they flew, as well as the Parkes Hotel room where Mr Lugovoi stayed, and the Emirates Stadium where he and the other two men attended a soccer match the following day. Later on November 1, Mr Lugovoi and Mr Kovtun met Mr Litvinenko at the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair, where Mr Litvinenko is believed to have been poisoned.

Relatively high levels of polonium-210 were detected in the Pine Bar, and all seven staff who worked that day have tested positive. Four are reportedly suffering flu-like symptoms, but health officials say they are only at risk of “a very slight increase” of health problems in the longer term. Officials have also asked that anyone who visited the bar between Oct 31-Nov 2 come forward for testing, while stressing that the substance is not harmful through skin contact, only by inhalation or ingestion.

Further linking Mr Lugovoi to the polonium-210 are traces of radiation found in the British Airways jet that carried him back to Moscow, and in the British Embassy in Moscow, where he was later questioned. He denies any involvement in Mr Litvinenko’s poisoning.

Apart from Mr Lugovoi, there are several other persons of interest to Scotland Yard.

Mr Lugovoi’s travelling companion Mr Kovtun was also questioned by British detectives in Russia before reportedly falling ill with ‘acute radiation poisoning’ and lapsing into a coma. Interfax news agency said Mr Kovtun suffered “damage to his vital organs, in particular his liver and kidneys, caused by radioactive nuclides”. Yet this has been disputed by Andrei Romashov, a lawyer for Lugovoi and a former officer of the Federal Protection Service (the agency that succeeded the KGB). He told the Russian News and Information Agency Novosti, “I have just clarified the facts. This can only be called a provocation. Kovtun’s condition is satisfactory.”

British Police also want to further question ‘Third Man’ Vyacheslav Sokolenko, who maintains that he only traveled to London with the other two men to attend the soccer match at Emirates Stadium on November 1. He stayed at the Millennium Hotel but says he only briefly greeted Mr Litvinenko, Mr Lugovoi and Mr Kovtun in the Pine Bar – he shook hands with Mr Litvinenko, but did not join the group.

Before his fateful meeting at the Pine Bar, Mr Litvinenko also met with Italian security consultant Mario Scaramella for lunch at the Itsu sushi restaurant in Piccadilly. Mr Scaramella had arranged the meeting to warn Mr Litvinenko that his life was in danger, based on information he had received via email. Mr Scaramella later suffered a brief illness and was admitted to hospital, where he was found to have ingested “significant amounts” of polonium-210. His condition improved and he has been released. Meanwhile, no traces of the substance have been detected in either the Itsu restaurant’s staff or premises.

Vladimir Simonov, a political commentator for the Russian News and Information Agency Novosti has questioned the murder/assassination theory in the Litvinenko poisoning. He argues that $40 million is high for any professional hit, and that Mr Litvinenko posed no real threat to the Russian government. Moreover, polonium-210 leaves an easily detectable radioactive trail that leads back to operatives and the original source.

Mr Simonov believes Mr Litvinenko may have been smuggling polonium-210 because he “badly needed money”, “made a bit on the side by smuggling toxic isotopes”, and “wanted to earn from the transaction”. Mr Simonov also states that on the day of his poisoning, Mr Litvinenko visited Boris Berezovsky, an exiled Russian businessman and “key wheeler and dealer of the Yeltsin era”, and left traces of the radioactive isotope in Mr Berezovsky’s office.

Apart from accidental self-contamination, Mr Simonov further suggests that Mr Litvinenko may have been murdered by Mr Berezovsky because he “knew too much” about fraud charges pending in Russia and “posed a threat to the exiled oligarch”. He said a memorandum of cooperation between Russia’s Deputy Prosecutor General and Scotland Yard does not bode well for Mr Berezovsky, who may have figured that “a dead acquaintance is better than a living friend who talks too much”.

In an alternative scenario, Mr Simonov cites a recent television broadcast in Russia in which Mr Litvinenko was linked with “an underground London laboratory where a dirty nuclear bomb was being made for Chechen terrorists”. He also states that: (1) “One of Litvinenko’s close friends was Akhmed Zakayev, the former commander of Chechen fighters, whom Russian prosecutors want to see in Moscow in connection with cases of murder and torture in Chechnya”; and (2) “About two years ago, Berezovsky told the world that Chechen separatists had acquired a portable nuclear bomb and lacked only one minor detail. That “minor detail” could be polonium-210.”

The ongoing wave of mysterious poisonings, wildly conflicting theories, and radiation trail between Moscow and London all pose enormous challenges to police trying to solve the Litvinenko case.

Nevertheless, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has vowed that those responsible for the London poisonings will be found and brought to justice. Although Mr Putin has stated that his government will co-operate with British investigators, his prosecutor general Yuri Chaika insists that Russia will refuse any requests to extradite suspects. If incriminating evidence is found against them, they will be tried in their own country. The Russian government has also announced that it will conduct its own investigation into the poisonings.

The high drama and intrigue surrounding the Litvinenko case looks set to rival that of the most acclaimed Cold War spy novels. And the plot is only beginning to unfold in this mysterious and ultimately tragic tale of the spy who came in from the cold.

Previous Older Entries