Saturday, February 3, 2007

Cornered Clinton sets date to end war

Hillary Clinton declared for the first time yesterday that she she would end the Iraq war as soon as she became President, as she tried to confront the issue that poses the greatest danger to her White House ambitions.

Speaking to a huge audience of Democratic elders and activists, Mrs Clinton was left in no doubt by the heckling she received — and the rapturous reception given to her rival Barack Obama — that her vote authorising the war poses a serious threat to her candidacy.

As the two presidential candidates were forced to appear on the same stage after weeks of carefully avoiding each other, Mr Obama, who spoke shortly before Mrs Clinton, brought the audience to its feet as he reminded his party that he opposed the war before it began.

The two frontrunners were taking part in the first public parade of the party’s ten White House hopefuls — and before an audience that will be crucial to gaining the nomination.

Mr Obama received a long and cheering standing ovation on the issue of Iraq; for Mrs Clinton, many sat on their hands.

“As was mentioned [in the introduction] I was opposed to this invasion publicly and frequently,” Mr Obama declared, in a clear reference to Mrs Clinton’s vote in October 2002 authorising the war.

“But whether you were for or against it, we all have an obligation to come up with the best plan to bring our troops home.” He was greeted with whoops of “Love Ya!”.

Mrs Clinton, by contrast, struggled to win over her audience. Reminding it that she recently proposed capping troop levels, some in the crowd shouted out: “What about bringing them home?” Mrs Clinton persevered. “If I’d been president in October 2002 I would not have started this war,” she said. “And if we haven’t ended this war in Congress by January 2009, as President I will!” A carefully choreographed standing ovation by a block Clinton supporters followed, but at least two thirds of those in the Washington Hilton remained seated.

Winning over the Demcratic National Convention members, particularly, is the candidates’ first key challenge, as these are the people with the political muscle to influence donors and organise party workers during the primary nominating campaign.

Although the first caucus in Iowa is nearly a year away, the contours of the contest were already clear — and became explicit yesterday.

Mr Obama will rely heavily on his mesmerising charisma and consistent opposition to war; Mrs Clinton on her massive fund-raising operation and one of the most fearsome political machines in America.

Mr Obama’s meteoric political rise has thus far been a masterclass in style over substance, and his speech yesterday was still heavy on grandiloquent themes such as the triumph of hope over cynicism.

But as the Senate prepares to debate a resolution next week opposing President Bush’s surge of troops into Iraq, Mr Obama’s consistent stance on the conflict is clearly the biggest obstacle between Mrs Clinton and the nomination.

Although that is still hers to lose — she leads Mr Obama by 20 points among likely primary voters — the war is her Achilles heel.

Every other major candidate who backed the war has since recanted their vote, most notably John Edwards, the 2004 vice-presidential nominee who yesterday called for an immediate troop withdrawal.

But not Mrs Clinton. Fearful of appearing too liberal should she become the candidate, she has stopped short of apologising for the vote.

Yesterday was by far the most explicit and strident she has been on Iraq. But however she tries to criticise Mr Bush’s “reckless war”, many in the party cannot forgive her the vote, which they see as a calculated move at a time when Mr Bush was riding high in the polls.

The parade of candidates made clear how little room is left for Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama’s eight other challengers to make an impact. “Give me a chance to be heard,” implored Chris Dodd, a Connecticut senator. It was an appeal likely to fall on deaf ears.

Italy cancels football after policeman dies

A policeman died during rioting at a football match between two Sicilian teams last night, prompting the cancellation of all professional games in Italy this weekend and friendlies next week.

Chief Inspector Filippo Raciti, 38, was hit in the face by a small explosive device while dealing with clashes between Catania and Palermo fans outside the Angelo Massimino Stadium, in Catania. He later died in hospital. Another officer was in a critical condition.

Police fired teargas, which wafted into the stadium and forced the match to be temporarily suspended, in the 58th minute. Nine Catania fans were detained, it was reported.

Romano Prodi, the Italian Prime Minister, said last night: “We unfortunately need a loud and clear signal to avoid the degeneration of the sport that we, unfortunately and dramatically, are witnessing.” Luca Pancalli, the commissioner of the Italian football federation, said: “What we’re witnessing has nothing to do with soccer, therefore Italian soccer is stopping.” About a hundred people were injured, some seriously, after fighting broke out before the fiercely contested derby.

Palermo won the match 2-1.

The players and hundreds of fans were kept in the stadium after the final whistle as the police attempted to regain control of the situation.

Pietro Lo Monaco, the Catania director, said that he would quit football following the policeman’s death. “I have loved football my whole life and I no longer recognise myself in this sport. With this news, I will leave football — it’s not for me any more.”

Francesco Guidolin, the Palermo coach, said that he was extremely disappointed by last night’s events. “If we cannot get into our heads that football is a sport, we cannot live in the world of football. What has happened tonight offends sport.”

A flag and an anthem for Kosovo... and new fears of conflict in Europe

Ethnic and religious tensions in the most unstable corner of Europe threatened to flare last night after Kosovo took a giant step towards independence.

A long-awaited blueprint proposed that the breakaway Serb province establish its own constitution, national flag and anthem. It should also be allowed to negotiate membership of the UN and other international organisations.

The plan stopped short of recommending fully-fledged independence. It nevertheless immediately sharpened the divide between the majority Muslims in Kosovo and Orthodox Christians in Serbia that drove Europe to war seven years ago.

“Serbia will never accept an independent Kosovo,” said Boris Tadic, the Serbian President. Vojislav Kostunica, the Prime Minister, called the proposals illegitimate and meddling.

Kosovo Albanians welcomed the plans as the beginning of a process that would end with independence.

Since 1999, when Nato bombs drove out Serb forces accused of slaughtering 10,000 ethnic Albanians, the province has been administered as an international protectorate. The draft proposals by Martti Ahtisaari, charged by the UN with resolving Kosovo’s status, threatened to bring the enmities of the Balkans back to centre stage.

Mr Ahtisaari said his plans amounted to a compromise between Albanian aspirations for independence and Serbia’s desire to keep what it regards as its ancient spiritual heartland, with its most ancient churches and monasteries.

Although Kosovo could take the first steps towards statehood, an international civilian representative with wide-ranging powers would be appointed to oversee the province and Nato troops would remain “as long as necessary”.

The Ahtisaari plan deliberately avoids mention of the word “independence” and spells out new protections for the 114,000 ethnic Serbs who live in Kosovo — 6 per cent of the province’s population.

Special zones would be created to safeguard 40 cultural and religious sites in Kosovo that are crucial to Serb identity.

Municipalities with Serb majorities would be set up to run their own schools and health systems at arm’s length from Pristina, the Kosovan capital.

Serbs maintained that the plan would mean independence in all but name. Mr Kostunica refused to meet Mr Ahtisaari when the Finnish diplomat flew to Belgrade to unveil his plans. European and US officials warned that the stability of the Balkans was at stake and urged Serbia to remain flexible in its response. Washington said the plan was “fair and balanced”. Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, urged Belgrade to be positive and constructive.

Mr Ahtisaari wants Serb and Kosovan negotiators to meet in ten days to discuss the details. The plan would go for final approval to the UN Security Council in the spring.

Russia has threatened to use its Security Council veto to block any plan that does not meet with Belgrade’s approval.

The plan thrusts into the spotlight Kosovo’s Serbs, who fear for the their future. Some estimates suggest that 70,000 — more than half — could flee, possibly destabilising the region.

“If Kosovo becomes independent, I’ll not stay. None of us will,” says Milanka Tonic, 53. She has lived in a cabin for the past three years since Albanian mobs forced her and thousands of other Serbs out of their homes in the riots of March 2004.

“They bombed our house; my son and I only just escaped with our lives. They beat my husband so badly they thought he was dead. We’re scared. Imagine what it will be like if the Albanians are in total control.” She lives in the Serb enclave of Gracanica, with its 14th-century Serbian Orthodox Church, where a solitary Swedish soldier stands guard.

In Mitrovica, where violence in March 2004 prompted province-wide unrest as Albanian gangs attacked and burnt down Serb houses and churches, Zdravko Djuric, 25, is weighing his options. “For seven years since the Nato bombing we’ve been living a simple life in abnormal circumstances. If there is independence I will wait and see what happens. But I won’t necessarily leave. All I want is a job,” he said.

In one of the rundown cabins masquerading as a shop, Njuki, 51 a Muslim, said: “I wish everyone could live together again like in the old Yugoslavia. But if there’s to be independence, I’d sit down with my family and we’d discuss the future.Ideally, I’d want to stay. It might depend if there’s any violence.”

Conflict in Land of the Churches

Ethnic Albanians make up 90 per cent of Kosovo’s population, but Serbs consider the territory to be an important religious, political and historical centre, calling it Kosovo-Metohija (“land of the churches”)

In the 13th Century the Serbian Orthodox Church moved to Pec, in western Kosovo, and Serbia’s political centre of gravity shifted to Kosovo, which was then majority Serb

A century later the Muslim Ottoman Empire annexed the territory. Turkish and Albanian immigration followed, and with it the destruction of many churches. A steady outflow of Serbs began, culminating in the Patriarch of Pec fleeing to Serbia in the 17th century

The region changed hands several times in the early 20th century, before being subsumed into Yugoslavia

In 1993, after the breakdown of communism, the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army began operating, and Belgrade started vicious reprisals which would precipitate the 1999 Nato bombing campaign

After Nato’s defeat of Serbia the UN assumed authority over Kosovo, organising multi-ethnic elections and policing the region with 16,000 troops.