Karzai's U.S. visit a time for tough talk

The last time Presidents Obama and Karzai met was in May in Kabul, when they signed a pact regarding U.S. troop withdrawal.


  • Afghan President Karzai meeting with President Obama in Washington this week

  • Felbab-Brown: Afghan politics are corrupt; army not ready for 2014 troop pullout

  • She says Taliban, insurgents, splintered army, corrupt officials are all jockeying for power

  • U.S. needs to commit to helping Afghan security, she says, and insist corruption be wiped out

Editor's note: Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Her latest book is "Aspiration and Ambivalence: Strategies and Realities of Counterinsurgency and State-Building in Afghanistan."

(CNN) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai is meeting this week with President Obama in Washington amid increasing ambivalence in the United States about what to do about the war in Afghanistan.

Americans are tired of the war. Too much blood and treasure has been spent. The White House is grappling with troop numbers for 2013 and with the nature and scope of any U.S. mission after 2014. With the persisting corruption and poor governance of the Afghan government and Karzai's fear that the United States is preparing to abandon him, the relationship between Kabul and Washington has steadily deteriorated.

As the United States radically reduces its mission in Afghanistan, it will leave behind a stalled and perilous security situation and a likely severe economic downturn. Many Afghans expect a collapse into civil war, and few see their political system as legitimate.

Karzai and Obama face thorny issues such as the stalled negotiations with the Taliban. Recently, Kabul has persuaded Pakistan to release some Taliban prisoners to jump-start the negotiations, relegating the United States to the back seat. Much to the displeasure of the International Security Assistance Force, the Afghan government also plans to release several hundred Taliban-linked prisoners, although any real momentum in the negotiations is yet to take place.

U.S. may remove all triips from Afghanistan after 2014

Vanda Felbab-Brown

Vanda Felbab-Brown

Washington needs to be careful that negotiations are structured in a way that enhances Afghanistan's stability and is not merely a fig leaf for U.S. and NATO troop departure. Countering terrorism will be an important U.S. interest after 2014. The Taliban may have soured on al Qaeda, but fully breaking with the terror group is not in the Taliban's best interest. If negotiations give the insurgents de facto control of parts of the country, the Taliban will at best play it both ways: with the jihadists and with the United States.

Negotiations of a status-of-forces agreement after 2014 will also be on the table between Karzai and Obama. Immunity of U.S. soldiers from Afghan prosecution and control over detainees previously have been major sticking points, and any Afghan release of Taliban-linked prisoners will complicate that discussion.

Karzai has seemed determined to secure commitments from Washington to deliver military enablers until Afghan support forces have built up. The Afghan National Security Forces have improved but cannot function without international enablers -- in areas such as air support, medevac, intelligence and logistical assets and maintenance -- for several years to come. But Washington has signaled that it is contemplating very small troop levels after 2014, as low as 3,000. CNN reports that withdrawing all troops might even be considered.

Everyone is hedging their bets in light of the transition uncertainties and the real possibility of a major security meltdown after 2014. Afghan army commanders are leaking intelligence and weapons to insurgents; Afghan families are sending one son to join the army, one to the Taliban and one to the local warlord's militia.

With Afghan president's visit, nations' post-2014 future takes shape

Patronage networks pervade the Afghan forces, and a crucial question is whether they can avoid splintering along ethnic and patronage lines after 2014. If security forces do fall apart, the chances of Taliban control of large portions of the country and a civil war are much greater. Obama can use the summit to announce concrete measures -- such as providing enablers -- to demonstrate U.S. commitment to heading off a security meltdown. The United States and international security forces also need to strongly focus on countering the rifts within the Afghan army.

Assisting the Afghan army after 2014 is important. But even with better security, it is doubtful that Afghanistan can be stable without improvements in its government.

Afghanistan's political system is preoccupied with the 2014 elections. Corruption, serious crime, land theft and other usurpation of resources, nepotism, a lack of rule of law and exclusionary patronage networks afflict governance. Afghans crave accountability and justice and resent the current mafia-like rule. Whether the 2014 elections will usher in better leaders or trigger violent conflict is another huge question mark.

Emphasizing good governance, not sacrificing it to short-term military expediencies by embracing thuggish government officials, is as important as leaving Afghanistan in a measured and unrushed way -- one that doesn't jeopardize the fledgling institutional and security capacity that the country has managed to build up.

U.S. likely to keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan after NATO forces leave

Karzai has been deaf and blind to the reality that reducing corruption, improving governance and allowing for a more pluralistic political system are essential for Afghanistan's stability. His visit provides an opportunity to deliver the message again -- and strongly.

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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Vanda Felbab-Brown.

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More turbulence for Dreamliner

Chicago-based Boeing Co. has "extreme confidence" in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and the plane is "absolutely 100 percent safe to fly," Mike Sinnett, the chief project engineer for the 787 said during a news conference Wednesday.

The public statements come on the third day in a row that different Boeing 787s have had high-profile problems, including an electrical battery fire on Monday, a fuel leak on Tuesday and a problem with brakes on Wednesday.

"Clearly there are issues," Sinnett said, adding that he won't be happy until the 787 is 100 percent reliable. However, all new planes have such "teething pains," and the 787 problems are similar to incidents experienced when the Boeing 777 went into service, he said.

"This is par for the course for any new airplane program ... just like any new airplane program we work through those issues and move on," he said. "There are no metrics that are screaming at me that we have a problem."

Aviation experts, industry analysts and some Boeing customers have echoed that, saying all new aircraft have such problems for the first year or two and that such glitches don't make flying in a 787 unsafe.

The first 787 Dreamliner was delivered 15 months ago -- more than three years late because of design and production delays -- to a Japanese airline. There are now 50 Dreamliners in service with various airlines around the world.

Chicago-based United Airlines so far has six 787s. Since early November, the airline has temporarily been flying a 787 route between Chicago O'Hare and Houston, as well as on other domestic routes. The Chicago route is scheduled to end March 29, when United will use the 787s on international routes.

LOT Polish Airlines will operate the first regular 787 route out of O'Hare -- to Warsaw -- starting with an inaugural flight scheduled for next week.

The Dreamliner is touted as offering greater passenger comforts and better fuel efficiency than any other airplane in its class, largely due to far more use of light composite materials rather than metals.

However, it has seen its share of problems, including a rash of incidents recently.

Japan's All Nippon Airways said Wednesday it was forced to cancel a 787 Dreamliner flight scheduled to from fly from Yamaguchi prefecture in western Japan to Tokyo due to brake problems. That followed a fuel leak on Tuesday that forced a 787 operated by Japan Airlines to cancel take-off at Boston's Logan International Airport, a day after an electrical fire on another 787 after a JAL flight to Boston from Tokyo.

Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered inspections on 787s for a problem with fuel leaks.

In a news conference Wednesday dominated by technical discussions of the 787's electrical systems and batteries, Sinnett emphasized the "redundancies" or backup protections built into the aircraft's electrical systems. For example, the plane has six power generators but can fly with just one functioning, he said.

The 787 more heavily relies on electrical components than any other aircraft, in an effort to shed the weight of traditional pneumatic systems and improve fuel efficiency, he said.

Overall, the plane is meeting goals for fuel efficiency and passenger comfort, Sinnett said. "We're very, very happy with how the airplane is performing," he said.

Asian customers rallied behind the Boeing, saying such troubles were not uncommon on new planes and confirming they had no plans to scale back or cancel orders for the aircraft, which has a list price of $207 million.

Japan is by far the biggest customer for the Dreamliner to date, with JAL and All Nippon Airways (ANA) operating a total of 24 of the 49 new planes delivered to end-December. The aircraft entered commercial service in November 2011, more than three years behind schedule after a series of production delays. Boeing has sold 848 of the planes.

JAL spokesman Kazunori Kidosaki said the carrier, which operates seven Dreamliners, had no plans to change orders it has placed for another 38 aircraft. ANA, which has 17 Dreamliners flying its colors, will also stick with its orders for another 49, spokesman Etsuya Uchiyama said.

State-owned Air India, which on Monday took delivery of the sixth of the 27 Dreamliners it has ordered, said precautionary measures were already in place and its planes were flying smoothly.

"It's a new plane, and some minor glitches do happen. It's not a cause of concern," said spokesman G. Prasada Rao. There was no immediate suggestion that the 787 Dreamliner, the world's first passenger jet built mainly from carbon-plastic lightweight materials to save fuel, was likely to be grounded as investigators looked into the fire incident.

 Air China, which sees the 787 as a way to expand its international routes, and Hainan Airlines also said they were keeping their orders for 15 and 10 of the planes.

"New airplanes more or less will need adjustments, and currently we have no plans to swap or cancel orders," said an executive at future 787 operator Hainan Airlines, who was not authorized to talk to the media and did not want to be named.

Qatar Airways Chief Executive Akbar Al Baker, who has previously criticized technical problems or delays with Boeing or Airbus jets, said there were no technical problems with the five 787s currently in use by the Gulf carrier. "It doesn't mean we are going to cancel our orders. It's a revolutionary airplane," he said.


Reuters contributed

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Venezuela court endorses Chavez inauguration delay

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's top court endorsed the postponement of Hugo Chavez's inauguration this week and ruled on Wednesday that the cancer-stricken president and his deputy would continue in their roles, despite a cacophony of opposition complaints.

Critics had argued the 58-year-old's absence from his own swearing-in ceremony on January 10 meant a caretaker president must be appointed. Chavez has not been seen in public nor heard from in almost a month following surgery in Cuba.

"Right now we cannot say when, how or where the president will be sworn in," Supreme Court Chief Judge Luisa Morales told a news conference.

"As president re-elect there is no interruption of performance of duties ... The inauguration can be carried out at a later date before the Supreme Court."

The decision opens the door in theory for Chavez to remain in office for weeks or months more from a Cuban hospital bed - though there is no evidence he is even conscious.

It leaves the South American country in the hands of Vice President Nicolas Maduro, as de facto leader of the government.

The opposition say that is a brazen violation of the constitution, and that Maduro should leave office on Thursday when the current presidential term had been due to expire.

They say National Assembly boss Diosdado Cabello, another powerful Chavez ally, should take over the running of the country while new elections would be organized within 30 days.

Maduro would be the ruling Socialist Party's candidate.

Government leaders insist Chavez, 58, is fulfilling his duties as head of state, even though official medical bulletins say he suffered complications after the surgery, including a severe lung infection, and has had trouble breathing.

His resignation or death would transform politics in the OPEC nation, where he is revered by poor supporters thankful for his social largesse, but denounced by opponents as a dictator.


Moody's Investors Service warned on Wednesday that Venezuela's sovereign credit rating, already at junk status, faces short-term risks over any political transition.

Prices of Venezuela's widely traded bonds have soared lately on Chavez's health woes, but dipped this week as investors' expectations of a quick government change apparently dimmed.

The president has undergone four operations, as well as weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, since being diagnosed with an undisclosed type of cancer in his pelvic area in June 2011.

He looked to have staged a remarkable recovery from the illness last year, winning a new six-year term at a hard-fought election in October. But within weeks of his victory he had to return to Havana for more treatment.

The government has called for a huge rally outside the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on Thursday, and allied leaders including Uruguay's Jose Mujica and Bolivia's Evo Morales have said they will visit - despite Chavez's absence.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, a close friend, has announced plans to visit Chavez in Cuba on Friday.

The unprecedented silence by Chavez, who is well known for his hours-long rambling speeches, has convinced many Venezuelans that his 14 years in power may be coming to an end.

Unlike after his previous operations in Cuba, no photographs have been published of him recuperating, and social media in Venezuela is buzzing with rumors he is on life support.

Cabello, the pugnacious head of the National Assembly, has repeatedly ruled out taking over as caretaker president to order a new presidential election, saying Chavez remains in charge.

"Tomorrow we will all go to the Miraflores palace," he told a televised Socialist Party meeting on Wednesday. "The people will be invested as president. We are all Chavez!"

(Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga and Diego Ore; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

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Wall Street indexes slide, AT&T down

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks fell on Tuesday ahead of what is expected to be a weak earnings season, as investors retreated from last week's rally on the "fiscal cliff" deal in Washington.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> unofficially ended down 55.14 points, or 0.41 percent, at 13,329.15. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> slipped 4.75 points, or 0.32 percent, to 1,457.14. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was off 7.01 points, or 0.23 percent, to 3,091.81.

(Reporting by Leah Schnurr; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

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Saban quickly turns to challenges of 2013 season

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — It's becoming a familiar January scene for Nick Saban.

The Alabama coach plastered a smile on his face for a series of posed photos next to the various trophies awarded to college football's national champions and then proceeded to talk about the challenges facing his team.

Maybe Saban let the Gatorade dry from the celebratory drenching before thinking about the 2013 season. Maybe.

"The team next year is 0-0," Saban, who is on a 61-7 run over the past five seasons, said Tuesday morning. "Even though I really appreciate what this team accomplished and am very, very proud of what they accomplished, we need to prepare for the challenges of the new season very quickly with the team we have coming back. "

It didn't take Saban long to refocus after Monday night's 42-14 demolition of Notre Dame that secured a second straight BCS title, the Crimson Tide's third in four seasons and the seventh straight for Southeastern Conference teams.

Shortly after the game, he was already talking about getting back to the office by Wednesday morning.

Alabama players, meanwhile, finally were able to voice the "D-word." Center Barrett Jones said he had a Sports Illustrated cover from a couple of years ago after his last college game.

"It says, 'Dynasty. Can anybody stop Alabama?' I'll never forget looking at that thing and wondering if we really could be a dynasty," said Jones, who mainly put it on the wall because he's featured. "I think three out of four, I'm no dynasty expert, but that seems like a dynasty to me. I guess I can say that now that I'm gone. Don't tell coach I said that."

The 2013 team will almost certainly be regarded among the preseason favorites to get back to the summit, even though three Tide stars — tailback Eddie Lacy, cornerback Dee Milliner and right tackle D.J. Fluker — could decide to skip their senior seasons and turn pro.

Saban also emphatically tried to end speculation that he might return to the NFL, where he spent two years with the Miami Dolphins before returning to the SEC.

It was a question that really made him bristle during the 30-plus minute news conference.

"How many times do you think I've been asked to put it to rest?" Saban said. "And I've put it to rest, and you continue to ask it. So I'm going to say it today, that — you know, I think somewhere along the line you've got to choose. You learn a lot from the experiences of what you've done in the past. I came to the Miami Dolphins, what, eight years ago for the best owner, the best person that I've ever had the opportunity to work for. And in the two years that I was here, I had a very, very difficult time thinking that I could impact the organization in the way that I wanted to or the way that I was able to in college, and it was very difficult for me."

He said that experience taught him that the college ranks "is where I belong, and I'm really happy and at peace with all that."

As for the players, All-America linebacker C.J. Mosley has already said he'll return. So has quarterback AJ McCarron, who had his second straight star turn in a BCS title game.

"We certainly have to build the team around him," Saban said, adding that a late-game spat with Jones showed the quarterback's competitive fire. "I've talked a lot about it's difficult to play quarterback when you don't have good players around you. I think we should have, God willing and everybody staying healthy, a pretty good receiver corps. We'll have to do some rebuilding in the offensive line. Regardless of what Eddie decides to do, we'll probably still have some pretty decent runners. But I think AJ can be a really good player, maybe the best quarterback in the country next year."

The biggest question mark is replacing three, maybe four, starters on an offensive line that paved the way.

Amari Cooper, who broke several of Julio Jones' Alabama freshman receiving marks, and fellow freshman running back T.J. Yeldon give McCarron and the Tide a couple of potent weapons, even if Lacy doesn't return.

"I am going to try to win three or four," said Cooper, who had 105 yards and two touchdowns in the title game. "This season was good, but I expected it to be even more. There is so much more that I can do."

Saban emphasized the difficulty of repeating and said he showed the players a video of NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan saying that the first title isn't the hardest — it's the ones after that.

That's because, Saban said, "you have to have the will to fight against yourself."

Now, the 'Bama coach has four titles, including one during his stop at LSU. Saban doesn't wear the championship rings but uses them for a different purpose.

"I just put them on the coffee table for the recruits to look at," he said, cracking up the room.

Saban has already lined up another highly rated recruiting class and has the next wave of young talents waiting in the wings.

After all, he talked about the sign mentor Bill Belichick hung in the football building during their NFL days together: "Do your job."

Saban jokingly acknowledged that while he prepares for everything, the one thing he has never been able to anticipate is the Gatorade bath. He drew heat for a scowl after the first one, following the title game win over Texas when he got dinged in the head. Monday night's dousing went better.

"It's cold, it's sticky, but I appreciated not getting hit in the head with the bucket," Saban said. "That was an improvement."

No program has had this kind of championship run since Tom Osborne's Nebraska teams won it all in 1994, 1995 and 1997.

Saban remembers that second team well. The Cornuskers stomped Michigan State 50-10 in Saban's first game as head coach.

"I'm thinking, we're never going to win a game," Saban said. "We'll never win a game here at Michigan State. I must have taken a bad job, wrong job, no players, something. I remember Coach Osborne when we shook hands after the game, he put his arm around me and whispered in my ear, 'You're not really as bad as you think.'"

So take heart, college football.

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It’s So Hot in Australia That They Added New Colors to the Weather Map

See that deep purple in the middle of this acne-red weather report from Down Under? That right there represents 129.2° F or 54 °C — it’s a brand-new shade that the Australian bureau of meteorology was forced to add to its heat index because their country is, you know, kind of on fire. 

“The scale has just been increased today and I would anticipate it is because the forecast coming from the bureau’s model is showing temperatures in excess of 50 degrees,” David Jones, head of the bureau’s climate monitoring and prediction unit, told The Sydney Morning Herald, which notes that the previous record high was 50.7°C  (123°F), recorded in 1960 at Oodnadatta Airport in the southern part of Australia — right around where the new shades of hot are showing up today. 

RELATED: How China Could Stop Environmental Protests; Australia’s Marine Parks

To give you an idea of just how uncomfortable this Australian heatwave really is, consider that at just past midnight, it’s 95°F in Sydney. Doubly scary are the giant fire risks that come with the heat — risks so severe Australian officials are taking no chances and labeling the warning “catastrophic.” “A ‘catastrophic’ warning carries the risk of significant loss of life and the destruction of many homes, according to the NSW Rural Fire Service,” reports CNN.

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Iran faces oil revenue problem

By John Defterios, CNN

January 8, 2013 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)

With elections in June, it remains unclear how energy policy will evolve after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's era


  • The IEA has suggested Iraq surpassed Iran in output for the first time in over 20 years

  • The Iranian people are faced with spiralling inflation and job layoffs within the state sector

  • Iranian oil revenues in the country plummeted 40 percent, while gas export revenues fell by 45%

Editor's note: John Defterios is CNN's Emerging Markets Editor and anchor of Global Exchange, CNN's prime time business show focused on the emerging and BRIC markets. You can watch it on CNN International at 1600 GMT, Sunday to Thursday.

Abu Dhabi (CNN) -- All indications are that sanctions against Iran are really starting to bite and this time it is coming from the oil ministry in Tehran, which for months has denied that oil production was suffering due to international pressure.

In an interview with the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA), Gholam Reza Kateb a member of the national planning and budget committee in Parliament referenced a report from Iran's oil minister Rostam Qasemi. In that report, the minister suggested that oil revenues in the country plummeted 40 percent, while gas and gas products' export revenues fell by 45% compared to the same period last year.

Read more: Official: Iran, nuclear watchdog group deal close

This is a hot button issue in Iran, where the currency due to sanctions has dropped 80 percent from its peak in 2011. The Iranian people are faced with spiralling inflation and job layoffs within the state sector.

I spoke with a source in Iran's representative office to OPEC who declined to comment and referred all matters to the Oil Ministry. A spokesman at the state oil company Iran Petroleum would only say "in this political climate it is difficult to confirm these statements."

Read more: Iran steps up uranium enrichment, U.N. report says

Hours later, a spokesman from the Ministry told another Iranian news agency, Mehr, that the numbers quoted about revenue and production drops are not true, although he offered no specific numbers.

Until this report to the Iranian Parliament, Minister Qasemi has maintained that Iran's production was hovering around four million barrels a day, where it was two years ago.

Read more: Opinion: Time to defuse Iranian nuclear issue

Back at the OPEC Seminar in June 2012, the minister told me that sanctions would not have any influence on plans to expand production and investment, shrugging off questions that suggested otherwise. This despite analysis to the contrary from the Paris based International Energy Agency and Vienna based OPEC of which Iran is a member.

The IEA back in July suggested that Iraq surpassed Iran in production for the first time in over two decades and production in Iran dipped to 2.9 million barrels a day. OPEC in its October 2012 survey said it slipped to 2.72 million at the time Minister Qasemi said output remained at 4 million barrels.

Minister Qasemi was recently quoted at a conference in Tehran that Iran needs to invest $400 billion over the next five years to maintain production targets and to play catch up after years of under investment.

Iran is a land full of potential. According to the annual BP Statistical Review, Iran sits on nearly 10 percent of the world's proven reserves at 137 billion barrels. The South Pars field which it shares with Qatar is one of the largest natural gas fields in the world -- but Iran, due to sanctions, cannot expand development.

This is a highly charged period. With elections in mid-June, it remains unclear how energy policy will evolve after the era of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad passes. It has been eight years of his tough line against Washington, Brussels and other governments that put forth sanctions against Iran. It is not clear if a new President will usher in a new nuclear development policy to ease the pressure on Iran's energy sector and the country's people.

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Quinn urges compromise on pension plan

Gov. Pat Quinn this afternoon floated a desperation plan on pension reform, throwing his support behind a bill that would set up a commission to decide how to fix Illinois' financially failing government worker retirement systems.

Conventional efforts to craft a compromise on pension changes have gone nowhere during the lame-duck session. The new measure filed today would set up an eight-member commission appointed by the four legislative leaders. The panel would issue a report on pension system changes that would become law unless the General Assembly voted to overturn it.

Testifying before a House panel, Quinn said the measure represents "extraordinary action" to break the gridlock. It is modeled after federal military base closing commission reports to Congress. "We must have some sort of movement," Quinn said.

It's unclear whether lawmakers will support the idea, which would give much power to a committee controlled by legislative leaders. The report would be due April 30, and lawmakers would have a month to vote on it if they decided to overturn it.

Labor leaders immediately called it a "clearly unconstitutional delegation of power" and a "sad attempt to get something done."

Quinn maintained the approach has been upheld as constitutional. The governor said he wanted the pension systems fully funded by the end of December 2045, saying it is critical to "act promptly on this crisis."

Under questioning, Quinn acknowledged, "we need a new mechanism or different structure" because political gridlock had not yielded a solution.

Quinn's latest plan came after he urged lawmakers to take a vote on government worker pension reform before the new legislature is sworn in at noon Wednesday, saying Illinois' economy is being held hostage by "political timidity."

The Democratic governor suggested there needs to be compromise, but did not offer specifics on how he thinks the gridlock on pensions could be broken.

Quinn decided to hold his news conference despite being told by House Speaker Michael Madigan that demanding a vote, even for symbolic reasons, didn't make sense when there aren't enough votes to pass the bill, according to Steve Brown, a Madigan spokesman.

Brown said forcing such a tough vote could irk lawmakers who are coming back in the new General Assembly and whose votes may be needed to pass pension reform down the road.

So far, House sponsors have been unable to line up enough votes to pass a comprehensive plan that would freeze cost-of-living increases for six years, delay granting pension inflation bumps until retirees hit 67 and require employees to pay more toward their retirement.

Even if that plan passed the House, it could face an uphill climb in the Senate, where senators went home last Thursday and would have to quickly return to vote. In addition, Senate President John Cullerton has indicated he prefers his own version of pension reform that he argues is constitutional, unlike the House plan.

With time running short, Quinn today said all parties need to double their efforts to reach a comprehensive bill that clears up the state's worst-in-the-nation $96.8 billion in a generation.

Pension reform is essential to put the Illinois economy on "sound financial footing," Quinn said.

"We cannot allow the state's economy to be held hostage by political timidity," Quinn said.

Quinn said more compromises need to be reached on legislative proposals, but he said he did not favor the Senate plan that dealt with state rank-and-file workers and legislators because it was not comprehensive.

A bill pending on the House floor reins in pension costs and addresses the state's pensions for four pension systems. The two additional systems are for university workers and and public school teachers from the suburbs and downstate.

Quinn said the Senate and House are both going to be in Springfield today, although the Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, had said it would be back if the House passed a significant pension bill.

"We've put them on stand-by," said Rikeesha Phelon, Cullerton's spokeswoman. "It's still tentative."

She said the Senate is awaiting House action before it returns. "I don't know how to be more clear," Phelon said.

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Insight: Aleppo misery eats at Syrian rebel support

ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) - At a crowded market stall in Syria, a middle-aged couple, well dressed, shuffle over to press a folded note, furtively, into the hand of a foreign reporter.

It is the kind of silent cry for help against a reign of fear that has been familiar to journalists visiting Syria over the past two years. Only this is not the Damascus of President Bashar al-Assad but rebel-held Aleppo; the note laments misrule under the revolution and hopes Assad can defeat its "terrorism".

"We used to live in peace and security until this malicious revolution reached us and the Free Syrian Army started taking bread by force," the unidentified couple wrote. "We ask God to help the regime fight the Free Syrian Army and terrorism - we are with the sovereignty of President Bashar al-Assad forever."

While they might not be all they seemed - agents of Assad's beleaguered security apparatus want to blacken the rebels' name - their sentiments are far from rare in Aleppo, Syria's biggest city and once vibrant hub of trade and industry, whose diverse urban communities now face hardship and chaos at the hands of motley bands of fighters recruited from surrounding rural areas.

As government forces fight on in parts of Aleppo, in large areas that have been under rebel control for six months or more complaints are getting louder about indiscipline among the fighters, looting and a general lack of security and necessities like running water, bread and electricity in districts that have been pounded by tanks and hit by Assad's air force.

Recognizing that mistrust, rebel units have set up command and policing structures they see forming a basis of institutions which might one day run the whole country and which, meanwhile, they hope can show Arab and Western supporters that they have the organization to handle aid in the form of money and weapons.

For those who fear the worst for Syria now that the revolt has unleashed long suppressed ethnic and sectarian rivalries, however, evidence in Aleppo that these new institutions have had little practical impact on often rival rebel groups is ominous.

And all the while relations grow testier between the rebels and Aleppines, for whom many fighters harbor some disdain after the urbanites' failed to rise up on their own against Assad.


Rebel commanders interviewed in and around Aleppo in the past two weeks acknowledged problems within the FSA - an army in name only, made up of brigades competing for recognition and resources. But they laid much of the blame on "bad apples" and opportunists and said steps are being taken to put things right.

"There has been a lot of corruption in the Free Syrian Army's battalions - stealing, oppressing the people - because there are parasites that have entered the Free Syrian Army," said Abu Ahmed, an engineer who heads a 35-man unit of the Tawheed Brigade, reckoned to be the largest in Aleppo province.

Abu Ahmed, who comes from a small town on the Turkish border and like many in Syria would be identified only by the familiar form of his name, estimated that most people in Aleppo, a city of over two million, were lukewarm at best to a 21-month-old uprising that is dominated by the Sunni Muslim rural poor.

"They don't have a revolutionary mindset," he said, putting support for Assad at 70 percent among an urban population that includes many ethnic Kurds, Christians and members of Assad's Alawite minority. But he also acknowledged that looting and other abuses had cost the incoming rebels much initial goodwill.

"The Free Syrian Army has lost its popular support," said Abu Ahmed, who said the Tawheed Brigade was now diversifying from fighting to talking on civic roles, including efforts to restore electricity supplies and deal with bread shortages. His own wife was setting up a school after months without classes.

Hunger and insecurity are key themes wherever Aleppines gather this winter. Outside a busy bakery in one rebel-held neighborhood men complained of having to stand in line for hours in the hope of bread, and of feeling the need to arm themselves for their own protection on the streets of the city.

Schools are being stripped of desks and chairs for firewood.


Lieutenant Mohammed Tlas, like many FSA officers, defected from Assad's army. He now commands the 500 men of the Suqoor al-Shahbaa Brigade and put civilian complaints down to "bad seeds" who can label themselves as FSA fighters without any vetting.

"There are some brigades that loot from the people, and they are fundamentally bad seeds," he said, chain-smoking in a green army sweater as he sat at his desk in a spartan office. "Anyone can carry a rifle and do whatever he wants."

But concern about fighting other anti-Assad units holds Abu Golan back from trying to contain abuses, for now: "Are we going to be fighting Bashar and them?" Tlas asked of untrustworthy new fighters. "There's a lot of that in Aleppo ... We cannot reject them. It's not the time for that. Those are the bad seeds."

Many rebel commanders have a low opinion of their fellows. Abu Marwan, a uniformed young air force pilot leading a long siege of a government air base, described another rebel leader as running his brigade as a personal fiefdom, ignoring any semblance of military hierarchy by promoting his favorites.

"It was like the regime all over again, wanting only their own family or sect to rule," he told Reuters as a walkie-talkie cackled nearby. "After the regime falls, we still have a long battle just to clean up the revolutionaries.

"There are a lot of parasites."


Some rebels in Aleppo have formed what they call a military police force to try to stop abuses. Headed by another defector, Brigadier-General Zaki Ali Louli, it is funded by the Tawheed and Mohamed Sultan Fateh brigades, Louli said, and aims to coordinate with others. He declined to say how many men he had.

"We're in the final stage of the revolution and the tyrant Assad regime is fading," he said in a sprawling police building where rebels in army fatigues worked in offices. "We have set up institutions that in the future will become the administration," he added of his hopes for a post-Assad role for his unit.

"In each regiment, there's a police officer whose responsibility is to observe the revolutionaries and tell us about all their observations within that regiment," he said, as he stamped paperwork. They pay particularly close attention to those who join up "on the pretence that they are fighters".

Sometimes, Louli said, "through observing them it becomes obvious to us that they are anomalous". On the alert for agents of Assad, the rebels' military police is quick to remove those it does not trust, and also vets new defectors from the army.

A sister institution deals with complaints from Aleppo civilians, said Louli, adding that he was in talks to spread that organizational model nationwide.

Such hopes for national structures reflect similar moves in the overall command of the opposition movement. After a National Coalition was formed abroad in November with Arab and Western backing, an Islamist-dominated military command was set up last month to oversee operations against Assad's forces inside Syria.

Accounts differ on how effective the new structure is but rebel leaders say there is a clearer chain of command than before, and rebel groups are more aware of who is in charge of which sectors within Aleppo and the surrounding countryside.

Lieutenant Tlas, whose Suqoor, or Falcons, brigade has been in the thick of fighting in the city, says the rebel forces now have a combined operations room and hold weekly meetings for all brigades, as well as daily gatherings of frontline commanders.


"Basically a ministry of defense has been created. A force for Syria," he said. "But this force needs weapons and money."

That is a common refrain among those fighting Assad, and reflects frustration at hesitation among Western powers in particular to aid rebel groups whose wider goals are unclear.

The United States has branded one rebel force a "terrorist" organization, accusing it of links to al Qaeda. Most Islamist fighters - including Tlas, who sits beside a black flag bearing a religious slogan - have declared loyalty to the Western-backed National Coalition. But allies in the West remain suspicious.

While there are arms coming in from abroad, most rebels complain of a lack of weapons and a chronic shortage of ammunition, which has hampered their advance on several fronts.

Tlas said he been told that only a few thousand bullets had reached rebel forces in Aleppo province in one month and sources of revenue were drying up. In desperation, some leaders have sought out wealthy Gulf Arabs to fund their revolt.

One Kuwaiti businessman met Tlas: "He came on a tour, we showed him the different fronts, immersed him in the atmosphere of a war zone and even let him fire a rifle," he said. "He left here really happy. I thought ... he would solve everything.

"And we never heard back from him. Maybe he got scared of the rifle. That was about a month and a half ago."

As the war grinds on, and despite efforts by some commanders to create a semblance of order, some Aleppines are growing impatient with the Free Syrian Army: "We don't care about the regime," said 48-year-old Abu Majid, who worked in one of Aleppo's many textile factories. "We need peace and security."

Sitting on a plastic chair in the middle of a busy market on Thirtieth Street, Abu Majid held the rebels responsible for desperate conditions in the city: "We've gone back to the Stone Age. The Free Syrian Army must get an organized leadership.

"At the beginning people rallied behind them; now they're alienated from the rebels."

Tlas, who comes from central Syria, and other rebel commanders in the northern city bristle at such complaints, saying their men, too, are short of bread and power.

Of Aleppo's civilians, Tlas said: "They think the Free Syrian Army owns everything or that it can substitute a state."

While many people in Aleppo still say they, too, want rid of Assad, the rebels' inability to bring order or to improve the miserable conditions of the city, an ancient jewel of the Arab world now ravaged by 21st-century war, is losing them support.

"The Free Syrian Army's brand has mostly been tarnished," said Abu Marwan, the pilot.

"After it gained an international reputation for being an army that is fighting for the Syrian people, for Syria, all this stuff, these people, has diminished the value of the Free Army."

(Editing by Dominic Evans and Alastair Macdonald)

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