Five Britons Kidnapped, 8 Americans Killed in Iraq

Coalition forces in Iraq suffered a substantial setback on Tuesday, with the kidnapping of five Britons and the announcement that 10 American soldiers had been killed on Memorial Day, marking the deadliest month for US forces for more than two years. Meanwhile, 32 Iraqis were killed in two separate explosions in Shia areas of Baghdad on Tuesday.

At 11.40 am local time, Iraqi police vehicles surrounded the Finance Ministry on Palestine Street in eastern Baghdad as gunmen wearing Iraqi police commando uniforms stormed the building. They seized four British security guards and a computer consultant at gunpoint and took them away in the vehicles.

Canadian security firm Garda World confirmed that the hostages are four Britons employed on security detail as well as their client, a management consultant, who is believed to be employed by a US-based management consultancy firm BearingPoint.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was visiting Libya, told reporters: “We will do everything we possibly can to help.”

A British foreign ministry spokeswoman also said, “Officials from our embassy are in urgent contact with the Iraqi authorities to try to establish the facts and to secure a swift resolution.”

The kidnapping is most likely the work of the Mahdi Army, a Shia militia loyal to nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, to avenge last week’s killing of local Mahdi Army leader Abu Qadir in Basra carried out by Iraqi special forces supported by British troops. The Iraqi police force has long been infiltrated by Mahdi Army militiamen.

The Mahdi Army has issued conflicting statements. According to The Times, a local Mahdi Army commander in Basra, Abu Hussein, apparently claimed responsibility for the kidnapping with this statement: “It is not only a reaction but it is the end of the British here. We will take revenge on the British. It is not just this operation but there will be more and bigger operations against them. In quality and quantity.”

However, another Mahdi Army commander in Baghdad denied the militia’s involvement and said, “We called all our groups immediately afterwards and no one said they did it.”

It is also possible that Sunni insurgents, including al Qaeda in Iraq, took the Britons hostage. If that is the case, then it may be more difficult to secure the hostages’ safe release, since these groups have been known to kill their captives and have never made representatives available for negotiations.

A British crisis team known as Cobra (Cabinet Office Briefing Room A), which usually meets at the Prime Minister’s office in Downing Street, is trying to establish lines of communication with the kidnappers. The team includes British diplomats, police hostage negotiators and intelligence specialists.

The British Embassy remains in shut down while Iraqi police inspect vehicles and question drivers at roadblocks, and Iraqi tanks survey passing traffic.

US and Iraqi forces also raided Baghdad neighborhoods overnight, including the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, searching for the captives.

News of US casualties dealt another blow to the new security plan meant to bring peace to Iraq. On Monday, two American soldiers were killed when insurgents shot down their helicopter over Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. Six more soldiers were killed by roadside bombs as they rushed to the crash site. Roadside bombs also claimed the lives of two US soldiers as they patrolled an area in southern Baghdad.

This brings the death toll for US troops to 114 for the month of May and marks the second deadliest month for the US military since November 2004, when 137 soldiers were killed.

Barack Obama’s Health Care Prescription

Presidential candidate Barack Obama announced his plans on Tuesday for sweeping reforms to the US health care system which he said overcharges patients, tolerates poor quality health care, rewards waste and inefficiency, favors disease treatment over disease prevention and leaves 45 million Americans uninsured.

Speaking at the University of Iowa on Tuesday, Senator Obama (D-Ill.) said health insurance premiums have skyrocketed at a rate of nearly 90% over the past six years, four times that of wage rises. He said the bulk of health care cost increases have been due to administrative charges, insurance company profits, excessive salaries and bonuses for industry CEOs, and the growing cost of prescription drugs.

“Every year, candidates offer up detailed health care plans only to see them crushed under the weight of Washington politics and drug and insurance industry lobbying,” said Senator Obama. “Well, this cannot be one of those years.”

Citing a raft of statistics, he said health care costs impose an onerous burden on US businesses and health consumers: over half of small businesses cannot afford to insure their workers; 11 million insured Americans spend more than a quarter of their income on health care; and over half of all personal bankruptcies are now caused by medical bills.

Senator Obama also said that the US spends “almost twice as much for health care per person than other industrialized nations, and too much of it has nothing to do with patient care”.

He vowed that if elected President he would enact a universal health care plan by the end of his first term in office. He believes there is now strong support for universal health care in the US, unlike when it was first proposed by the Clinton administration in the early 1990s, because the rising costs of health care have convinced many more businesses and individual states to back reform.

Under his strategy, he said the average family’s health insurance premiums would be reduced by as much as $2,500 per year. The plan would cover all essential medical services including preventive, maternity, disease management and mental health care, and no one would be excluded because of a preexisting condition or illness.

This would cost between $50-$65 billion per year. It would be funded by providing incentives for all but the smallest businesses to participate, and by allowing the Bush administration’s temporary tax cut for the wealthiest Americans to expire.

The Obama health care proposal is based on five principles:

  1. Reduce insurance premiums for businesses and workers by subsidizing “catastrophic cases” such as cancer and heart disease
  2. Focus the health care system on preventing costly, debilitating diseases
  3. Reduce the cost of health care by improving the quality of health care – (includes providing the public with information about preventable medical errors, nurse-to-patient ratios, and hospital-acquired infections)
  4. Save billions in waste and inefficiency by moving away from a paper-based medical records system to one based on the latest information technology – (to enable ready access to patient information such as prescriptions and allergies, prevent errors and substantially reduce time spent on paperwork)
  5. “Break the stranglehold” that a small group of drug and insurance companies have on the health care market – (includes making generic drugs more easily accessible and prosecuting monopolies in the insurance industry)

Senator Obama acknowledged that there would be initial resistance to any proposal for a universal health care system in US, especially from some pharmaceutical and insurance companies, yet he said such reform is critical and long overdue.

“We have reached a point in this country where the rising cost of health care has put too many families and businesses on a collision course with financial ruin and left too many without coverage at all – a course that Democrats and Republicans, small business owners and CEOs, have come to agree is not sustainable or acceptable any longer.”

By announcing the details of his strategy, Senator Obama has weighed in more forcefully into the debate over universal health care, which has been a cornerstone of the campaigns waged by his fellow Democratic presidential hopefuls, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

IPCC: Mitigation of Climate Change Summary

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Working Group III report on Friday in Bangkok titled “Mitigation of Climate Change”, which focuses on scientific, technological, environmental, economic and social aspects of mitigating climate change.

The report builds on the two previous IPCC reports released this year which confirmed that climate change is “very likely” the result of human activity, and that global warming is already adversely affecting human, animal and plant life.

The Working Group III study identifies the most effective technologies and policies to combat climate change through the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the cost of implementing the recommended changes.

Here are the report’s key points, at a glance:

1.         GHG Emission Trends

Global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increased 70% between 1970 and 2004 (24% between 1990 and 2004). Carbon dioxide emissions accounted for 77% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions in 2004, mostly from the energy supply sector. Emissions will continue to increase by 25-90% to the year 2030, with approximately 75% of the projected increase from developing nations.

2.        Mitigation in the short and medium term

Mitigation of global GHG emissions is necessary to offset the growth of emissions or reduce emissions below current levels. A number of currently available mitigation technologies have been identified by sector:

Energy Supply – improved supply and distribution efficiency; fuel switching from coal to gas; nuclear power; renewable heat and power (hydropower, solar, wind, geothermal and bioenergy); combined heat and power; early applications of Carbon Capture and Storage

Transport – more fuel efficient vehicles; hybrid vehicles; cleaner diesel vehicles; biofuels; modal shifts from road transport to rail and public transport systems; non-motorized transport (cycling, walking); land-use and transport planning

Buildings – efficient lighting and daylighting; more efficient electrical appliances and heating and cooling devices; improved cook stoves, improved insulation ; passive and active solar design for heating and cooling; alternative refrigeration fluids, recovery and recycle of fluorinated gases

Industry – more efficient end-use electrical equipment; heat and power recovery; material recycling and substitution; control of non-carbon dioxide gas emissions; also a wide array of process-specific technologies

Agriculture – improved crop and grazing land management to increase soil carbon storage; restoration of cultivated peaty soils and degraded lands; improved rice cultivation techniques and livestock and manure management to reduce methane emissions; improved nitrogen fertilizer application techniques to reduce nitrous oxide emissions; dedicated energy crops to replace fossil fuel use; improved energy efficiency

Forestry/forests – afforestation; reforestation; forest management; reduced deforestation; harvested wood product management; use of forestry products for bioenergy to replace fossil fuel use

Waste – landfill methane recovery; waste incineration with energy recovery; composting of organic waste; controlled waste water treatment; recycling and waste minimization

Estimated global costs in the year 2030 have been calculated for least-cost trajectories for a range of stabilization levels from 445-710 CO2 parts per million.

Benefits that may offset mitigation costs include increased energy security, increased agricultural production and reduced pressure on natural ecosystems.

3.        Mitigation in the long term (after 2030)

Mitigation efforts over the next 20-30 years will determine humanity’s ability to achieve lower stabilization levels and avoid the worst affects of climate change.

Lower stabilization levels are best achieved through a system of appropriate and effective incentives for the development, acquisition, deployment and diffusion of technologies and for addressing related barriers.

Economic costs of more rapid emission reductions now need to be balanced against the corresponding medium-term and long-term climate risks of delay.

4.        Policies, measures and instruments to mitigate climate change

National strategies can create incentives for action, and can be evaluated using four main criteria: environmental effectiveness, cost effectiveness, distributional effects (including equity) and institutional feasibility.

The following strategies have been demonstrated as environmentally effective:

Energy Supply

  • reduction of fossil fuel subsidies
  • taxes or carbon charges on fossil fuels
  • feed-in tariffs for renewable energy technologies
  • renewable energy obligations
  • producer subsidies

Transport

  • mandatory fuel economy, biofuel blending and CO2 standards for road transport
  • taxes on vehicle purchase, registration, use and motor fuels, road and parking pricing
  • influence mobility needs through land use regulations and infrastructure planning
  • investment in attractive public transport facilities and non-motorized forms of transport

Buildings

  • appliance standards and labeling
  • building codes and certification
  • demand-side management programs
  • public sector leadership programs, including procurement
  • incentives for energy service companies

Industry

  • provision of benchmark information
  • performance standards
  • subsidies, tax credits
  •  tradable permits
  •  voluntary agreements

Agriculture

  •  improved land management
  •  maintenance of soil carbon content
  •  efficient use of fertilizers and irrigation

Forestry/forests

  •  increase forest area (at the national and international levels)
  •  reduce deforestation
  •  maintain and manage forests
  •  land use regulation and enforcement

Waste Management

  •  improved waste and wastewater management
  •  renewable energy incentives or obligations
  •  waste management regulations

Government support through financial contributions, tax credits, standard setting and market creation is important for effective technology development, innovation and deployment. Transfer of technology to developing countries depends on enabling conditions and financing.

5.        Sustainable development and climate change mitigation

Implementation of sustainable development policies can make a major contribution to climate change mitigation. However, there will be multiple barriers and resources will need to be allocated to assist adaptation.

Decisions concerning macroeconomic policy, agricultural policy, multilateral development bank lending, insurance practices, electricity market reform, energy security and forest conservation can potentially significantly reduce emissions.

Making development more sustainable can enhance both mitigative and adaptive capacity to substantially reduce emissions and vulnerability to climate change.

IPCC AR4 Working Group 3:  http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg3/en/contents.html

Recovery Czar Ed Blakely Outlines New Orleans Reconstruction

“When you turn on the radio, you hear New Orleans. No matter where you are in the world. If you’re in Leningrad, the taxi driver puts on New Orleans music. It’s a city we all know about and should care about.”

With these words Dr Ed Blakely began his public lecture, at the University of Sydney on 5 April, on the rebuilding of the world’s jazz capital.

A professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Sydney, Dr Blakely was recently appointed to head the reconstruction of New Orleans, which was virtually destroyed on 29 August 2005 when the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina burst through levees meant to protect the low-lying city from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Eighty per cent of the city was inundated.

In the aftermath the world watched as the Bush administration’s failure to respond left tens of thousands of people stranded for days without food or water. This failure was later widely linked to the fact that most of the city’s residents were poor and black.

Dr Blakely believes such incompetence and indifference would not be tolerated under Australia’s parliamentary form of government. “The Prime Minister would be gone because you couldn’t have a leader who had disappointed the electorate that badly,” he said.

Nineteen months later, about half the pre-Katrina population has returned to New Orleans only to find their neighbourhoods are still a disaster zone.

Traffic lights remain broken and many roads are impassable. Schools are badly damaged and some are rodent-infested. In March, 18 months after the flood, the city’s first hospital and emergency room re-opened. Some neighbourhoods in the city still have no electricity or drinkable water.

The US government has refused to release $1.1 billion in disaster aid under a reimbursement process which requires that the city first fund its own repairs, despite being bankrupted the day Katrina hit. Federal emergency loans to New Orleans also have not been forgiven, even though such debts were forgiven within the first month for every other major disaster to hit the US.

In its April Katrina Index, independent research organisation The Brookings Institution says New Orleans may have turned a corner with the January appointment of Dr Blakely, dubbed the city’s ‘Recovery Czar’. He has brought to the role extensive experience helping cities recover from disasters.

In New Orleans, his first task was to secure private funding to kick-start infrastructure projects by selling bonds and borrowing against the redevelopment of abandoned properties seized by the city.

His recovery strategy involves developing cluster housing on higher ground in 17 districts across New Orleans and reviving these areas’ commercial centres. Residents of the lowest-lying neighbourhoods will be encouraged to swap their land for a nearby property on higher ground. This strategy was unveiled on 30 March to wide acclaim.

Five principles drive the strategy:

  • Continue the healing and consultation;
  • Insure safety and security in all neighbourhoods;
  • Build 21st and 22nd century infrastructure;
  • Diversify the economy; and
  • Design a sustainable settlement pattern.

Conscious of the ongoing distress felt by local residents, Dr Blakely gives daily media interviews to reassure people that New Orleans will recover and that local government remains deeply committed to rebuilding the city.

The major objectives of the 15-year recovery plan are to enable the city to survive and grow sustainably, while preserving the culture that has made New Orleans such a unique historical treasure.

“New Orleans already has a very well-defined and excellent urban fabric, with unique architecture,” said Dr Blakely. “We have to build onto this fabric.”