Syria army engaged in crucial battle: Assad

The Syrian army is engaged in a “crucial and heroic battle,” President Bashar al-Assad said in a speech published by official media agency SANA on the occasion of the 67th anniversary of the army.

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“The army is engaged in a crucial and heroic battle… on which the destiny of the nation and its people rests. The enemy is among us today, using agents to destabilise the country, the security of its citizens… and continues to exhaust our economic and scientific resources,” he said.

“They (the enemy) wanted to deprive the people of their national decision… but they were astonished to see these proud people, who confronted their plans and defeated them,” said Assad.

“You men of the country… you have demonstrated, in dealing with the war waged against our country by the terrorist gangs, that you possess an iron will and a keen awareness.”

“Our military remains the backbone of the motherland,” Assad said.

Damascus does not recognise the popular revolt that erupted in March 2011, describing opposition activists and rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) alike as “armed terrorist groups” financed by foreign powers and sent to sow chaos.

Assad’s speech comes as clashes escalate in a number of areas including Aleppo, where the FSA on Tuesday announced that it had captured three police stations in the heart of the country’s commercial capital.

A Damascus security source said the offensive, which the army launched on Saturday to recapture rebel-held areas, looked likely to last for “several weeks.”


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What to do with Ground Zero?

In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, their building was shut down, smothered in debris and dust.

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Today, from their 17th floor lounge-room window, you can look straight down into the heart of Ground Zero, the desolate hole in the ground barren for many years but more recently a construction zone as new buildings rise up to replace those that fell.

For New Yorkers, 9-11 has never really gone away and remains an emotional touch paper for many. It’s also an easy button to press for politicians looking to establish apparent patriotic credentials.

So it comes as no surprise that a plan to build “a mosque at Ground Zero” has become a flashpoint and one of the hottest national topics in the middle of this American summer.

Critics claim such a building on such a site (“on hallowed ground”, according to several descriptions) is an insult to those who died in 2001.

“I don’t want to be lectured by them about religious liberty at a time when there is not a single church or single synagogue in Saudi Arabia,” claimed Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, maybe forgetting one of the key differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia is religious freedom.

“Where does the funding come from for a $100-million mosque?” asked inquisitive Rick Lazio, a Republican candidate for New York State Governor (probably the same place as most other new constructions).

Crackpots have populated Internet posts (some suggesting this is part of an Obama plan to introduce Sharia law to the US) but most have missed some key points.

Importantly, visions of minarets, golden domes and stars and crescents overlooking the World Trade Center Site are not part of the plan.

In fact, this “Ground Zero Mosque” is not actually a mosque but a cultural centre based on the YMCA (this prompted one witty critic to suggest outrage should be directed at the construction of a swimming poll on the site, which was possibly more inappropriate).

The original building, actually located several blocks north of Ground Zero, and nearby another existing mosque, is the former site of a discount clothing retailer damaged by landing gear from one of the planes that hit the Twin Towers nine years ago.

Ironically, the group planning the centre claims to want to foster “inter faith understanding”.

That idea is not working out too well at first look but the issue has brought to the forefront just where Islam in a post-9/11 world fit.

It also shows how New York, especially Manhattan, is a complex city of many, many, layers.

There are many critics from outside New York (including former Alaska governor Sarah Palin) but NY Governor David Patterson offered to find an alternative location for the proposed centre as compromise.

Manhattan borough President Scott Stringer supports the construction of the centre while New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg made an impassioned speech on religious freedoms.

“We would betray our values – and play into our enemies’ hands – if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else,” Bloomberg said.

Last weekend, President Obama too claimed the issue was not about 9/11 but the US Constitution.

“As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,” Obama said at a dinner celebrating Ramadan (triggering more radical Christian outrage).

“That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan in accordance with local laws and ordinances.”

It was, however, a Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat, who made a somewhat overlooked but important point.

“I recently got back from Afghanistan and, you know, we’re sending young majors in Army, Marines, Special Forces people, into villages to try to find common ground with Muslims to try to put aside the obvious differences that might superficially appear,” he said.

“And if we can’t do that here in the United States, then we’re going to have a very difficult time over there.”


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‘Don’t cry for me’, says defiant Armstrong

In his first public appearance since announcing he would no longer fight doping charges brought by USADA, Armstrong finished second in a 36-mile mountain bike race in Aspen, Colorado, five minutes behind a 16-year-old rider, Keegan Swirbul.

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Wearing sunglasses and black and gold riding gear adorned with sponsors’ logos, Armstrong appeared unfussed by the media throng that had travelled to the mountain resort amid concerns his legacy has been irrevocably tarnished.

“Nobody needs to cry for me. I’m going to be great,” Armstrong told reporters.

“I have five great kids and a wonderful lady in my life. My foundation is unaffected by all the noise out there.

“I think people understand that we’ve got a lot of stuff to do going forward. That’s what I’m focused on and I think people are supportive of that. It’s great to be out here,” he said.

Despite giving up the fight against the charges, Armstrong has maintained his innocence and railed against what he says is an unfair witch-hunt.

The Texas-born cyclist, who famously beat cancer and whose foundation Livestrong has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in the fight against the disease, has retained major sponsors and enjoyed the backing of many key cycling figures.

Others, including WADA chief John Fahey, say his failure to contest his charges can only mean he is a drug cheat who has defrauded the cycling tour, his rivals and millions of sports fans for over a decade.

The Armstrong case has yet to rest, with cycling’s global governing body, the International Cycling Union, demanding USADA hand over its evidence. The Court of Arbitration for Sport could ultimately have a final say on his guilt or innocence.

The retired Armstrong said he was no longer concerned about racing.

“It’s more about staying fit and coming out here and enjoying one of the most beautiful parts of the world, on a beautiful day, on a very hard course,” said the 40-year-old.

“Some may say you’re a little sick to spend your free time doing stuff like this. I had a good time.”

Armstrong remained the ‘seven-time Tour champ’ to teenager Swirbul. “I’m so psyched right now,” he said. “I wanted to win this race so bad.”

Donations to his foundation on Friday were up more than 20 times their daily average, Livestrong staff said, and Armstrong received positive crowd support in Colorado.

“The people like the people who are standing around here or on the course, they voiced their opinion in the last 48 hours and are going to support us,” Armstrong said, adding that the future of cycling was in good shape.

“It’s cool to get your butt kicked by a 16-year-old when you know he has a bright future,” he said.

“There are a lot of good young guys. Cycling is going to be fine.”


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Concern as Aussie cannabis gains potency

Cannabis in Australia has become more potent over the years and contains high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), according to a study of samples confiscated from recreational users and growers.

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The drug has an average THC content of just under 15 per cent, according to the study by University of New South Wales (UNSW) and University of Sydney researchers.

There is widespread international concern that cannabis containing high levels of THC could be associated with increased mental health risks, says study leader Dr Wendy Swift of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at UNSW.

There is a strong lobby in the Netherlands to classify cannabis with 15 per cent or higher THC as a hard drug.

Dr Swift’s team examined the content of 206 cannabis samples confiscated under the NSW cautioning scheme for recreational users found with 15g or less. They also examined 26 samples seized from large indoor and outdoor cultivation sites.

Both sets of samples had similar potency, according to the study, which is published in the international science journal PLOS ONE.

More than 40 per cent of the samples seized on the street and more than half seized from cultivation sites contained more than 15 per cent THC.

More than 85 per cent overall contained less than 0.1 per cent cannabidiol (CBD).

CBD does not get users high and is thought to counteract some of the negative effects of THC.

Dr Swift says the study is the first to demonstrate that, on average, cannabis in Australia is as powerful as samples measured in other countries.

“It also shows levels of CBD, which may ameliorate some of the harmful effects of THC, are extremely low.

“These results suggest the profile of cannabis currently used in Australia may make some users vulnerable to mental health problems.”

More research is needed, however, to understand the full relevance of potency.

“We need to know more about the factors that affect how people respond to the drug,” Dr Swift said.

“It is important that we have a national routine monitoring system to assess trends in the profile of cannabis and to better understand its relationship with health outcomes.”


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Syrian regime ‘ready to talk’

The Syrian regime is ready to talk with all parties, including armed rebels, who want dialogue to end the conflict, Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said on Monday at talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

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“We are ready for dialogue with all who want dialogue, including those who are carrying arms,” Muallem said at the Moscow talks with Lavrov, in an apparent reference to the rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

“We still believe in a peaceful solution to the Syrian problem,” said Muallem, pointing to the creation of a government coalition that would negotiate with both the “external and internal opposition.”

Lavrov said alongside Muallem that there was no alternative to a political solution to the two-year conflict agreed through talks.

“There is no acceptable alternative to a political solution achieved through agreeing positions of the government and the opposition,” said Lavrov.

“We are for Syria to be independent, united, and for all Syrian citizens, regardless of their religion, to live freely in peace and democracy.

“The Syrian people should decide their fate without external intervention,” said Lavrov.

Lavrov added that the situation in Syria was “at the crossroads” but expressed optimism that a negotiated solution could be found.

“There are those who have embarked on a course of further bloodshed that risks the collapse of the state and society,” Lavrov said.

“But there are also sensible forces who are increasingly aware of the necessity to begin the talks as soon as possible to reach a political settlement.

“The number of supporters of such a realistic line is growing,” said Lavrov.

Lavrov had said last week there were positive signs from both sides of a new willingness to talk but called on the regime of Assad to turn oft-stated words about its readiness for dialogue into deeds.

The fighting — which according to the United Nations has claimed 70,000 lives since the conflict began in March 2011 — has further intensified in the last days as both sides press for the military advantage.

Russia has also been working on agreeing a trip to Moscow, possibly in early March, by the head of the Syrian opposition National Coalition Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib.

However the rebels have now pulled out of talks with foreign powers in protest at the international community’s inability to halt the bloodshed.


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