Also today: French air traffic controllers add to Europe’s flying woes; Greater polarisation over Obama healthcare plan; Abbey Road now a national monument; FDIC prepares for more bank failures; UN Security Council likely to veto Iran’s uranium-exchange deal; Hillary Clinton tries to sweet talk Russia on perceived Nato threat.
Top US general apologises on Afghan TV for civilian deaths
The public apology is king. It’s hard to imagine George Patton or Douglas MacArthur doing it, but in a media-driven world Toyota and Tiger Woods have been forced to do it. And so has General Stanley McChrystal, commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, as he went on that country’s national television to apologise for an air strike that killed at least 20 civilians. It comes as the allies, including Afghan troops, are making the biggest push of the eight-year war against the Taliban stronghold of Marjah. The city of some 80,000 people produces opium that enables the militants to buy weapons. In his TV appearance, McChrystal tried to win back the hearts and minds of a population that suffers a fair bit of collateral damage, saying in a video translated into the Afghan languages that he’d begun an investigation into the deaths to prevent this from happening again.
French air traffic controllers add to Europe’s flying woes
Europe’s commercial airspace is experiencing heavy turbulence after French air-traffic controllers followed Lufthansa pilots out on strike, grounding numerous flights in the busy airline hub of Paris. The City of Love and Lights has two main airports, Orly and Charles de Gaulle, and while French air-traffic controllers are among the best paid in Europe and work only 100 days a year, they’re angry at plans that could consolidate air-traffic control in Europe, and lead to lower salaries and benefits. Lufthansa’s flyers have ended their one-day strike, but flight delays will persist until Friday. And now British Airways cabin crews, who nearly walked out at Christmas, are again threatening to down tools.
Greater polarisation over Obama healthcare plan
Even US President Barack Obama’s own party is leery of his new healthcare plan, so Congressional Democrats have only given a lukewarm thumbs-up for the latest blueprint that seeks to provide millions more Americans with health cover. But the Republicans aren’t playing ball at all, and have no desire to help Democrats in the scramble for votes in an election year. The issue has plagued every modern US president, but Obama’s plan uses legislation already passed by the Senate, and includes changes he hopes will appeal to House Democrats. The $1 trillion cost over a decade requires nearly everyone to be insured or pay a fine, and puts new restrictions on health insurance companies raising their premiums. But the GOP don’t like the plan because it smacks of big government, while Democrats still want to pass a sweeping, big government-type bill, rather than tweak things here and there.
Abbey Road now a national monument
In a move that will keep the tourist dollars flowing, and hopefully, generations of artists recording there, London has declared the iconic Abbey Road Studios a historic building, after cash-strapped owner EMI scrapped plans to sell it. The zebra crossing outside the north London premises was made famous on the cover of the album Abbey Road, showing The Beatles striding across with long hair and bell-bottoms at the apex of their glory-days. Paul McCartney wanted it preserved, while English heritage authorities appealed to the government to make the Georgian building a modern-day monument to the history of recorded music. They say some of the defining sounds of the 20th century were created within its walls. It seems everybody has come together over this issue.
FDIC prepares for more bank failures
The US Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. is readying for a new round of bank failures that could cost it many billions of dollars. American bank failures are still running at their highest level in decades after markets crashed in October 2008, showing that substantial problems remain for the resurgent US economy. The FDIC is trying to keep up with rising losses to its insurance fund, which protests the public’s bank accounts, after it placed another 702 lenders on its list of problem banks. Officials hope that banking failures will peak this year. But they fear the fund may have to cover $20 billion in additional losses by 2013, and more if the economy spirals downward again. The FDIC says it can cope, but might have to tap emergency federal funding if things don’t soon improve for many of the nation’s 8,000 banks.
UN Security Council likely to veto Iran’s uranium-exchange deal
After waiting six months, the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany will almost surely reject Iran’s terms for giving up most of its enriched uranium. The country’s conditions fall well short of what’s been demanded. The Iranians say they’re ready to hand over the bulk of their stockpile, as called for by a deal brokered by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But Tehran says it immediately wants nuclear fuel rods for a research reactor in return, and that this exchange must take place in Iran. The big powers earlier said such an exchange could take up to a year, and that Iran must first surrender its enriched uranium stockpile. They fear the country’s nuclear programme will soon give it atomic weapons, despite Iranian claims the fuel is simply to provide nuclear power for electricity and medical research. The UN has slapped limited sanctions on the Islamic Republic, after Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country would now process uranium to 20% enrichment from a current 3%, in defiance of UN stipulations.
Hillary Clinton tries to sweet talk Russia on perceived Nato threat
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to reassure Russia that Nato is not a threat to its national security, saying the West wants closer co-operation between the trans-Atlantic alliance and Moscow. She said they face a common threat from extremists and drug traffickers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and have agreed to deal with that. But she rejected Russian calls for a new European security treaty that would revise Nato’s Cold War role following the Second World War. Russia fears that Nato will draw in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia, and is angry over US plans to place anti-missile defensive weapons in Romania and possibly elsewhere behind the former Iron Curtain. Clinton made her comments at a meeting on Nato’s future role, stating that Nato and Russia should regularly exchange information, and permit observation of military exercises and visits to new or improved military installations.