Sunday, December 18, 2011

Surfing The News...LPP FrontLine...24/7...

Cuba remains aloof from the US but edges closer to Rome

Cuba shows US its response plans in case of oil spill

Reporter's notebook: Return to Cuba

 Tampa flights to Cuba threatened if travel restrictions pass

Limits on Cuba travel, remittances stricken from bill

Cuba Travel, Money Restrictions Dropped From Fed Budget Bill

Ros-Lehtinen, Diaz-Balart vote for omnibus despite Cuba provision


Last U.S. troops leave Iraq, ending war

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The last convoy of U.S. soldiers pulled out of Iraq on Sunday, ending nearly nine years of war that cost almost 4,500 American and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives and left a country grappling with political uncertainty.
The war launched in March 2003 with missiles striking Baghdad to oust President Saddam Hussein closes with a fragile democracy still facing insurgents, sectarian tensions and the challenge of defining its place in an Arab region in turmoil.
The final column of around 100 mostly U.S. military MRAP armored vehicles carrying 500 U.S. troops trundled across the southern Iraq desert from their last base through the night and daybreak along an empty highway to the Kuwaiti border.
Honking their horns, the last batch of around 25 American military trucks and tractor trailers carrying Bradley fighting vehicles crossed the border early Sunday morning, their crews waving at fellow troops along the route.
"I just can't wait to call my wife and kids and let them know I am safe," Sgt. First Class Rodolfo Ruiz said as the border came into sight. Soon afterwards, he told his men the mission was over, "Hey guys, you made it."
For U.S. President Barack Obama, the military pullout is the fulfillment of an election promise to bring troops home from a conflict inherited from his predecessor, the most unpopular war since Vietnam and one that tainted America's standing worldwide.
For Iraqis, though, the U.S. departure brings a sense of sovereignty tempered by nagging fears their country may slide once again into the kind of sectarian violence that killed many thousands of people at its peak in 2006-2007.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government still struggles with a delicate power-sharing arrangement between Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni parties, leaving Iraq vulnerable to meddling by Sunni Arab nations and Shi'ite Iran.
The intensity of violence and suicide bombings has subsided. But a stubborn Sunni Islamist insurgency and rival Shi'ite militias remain a threat, carrying out almost daily attacks, often on Iraqi government and security officials.
Iraq says its forces can contain the violence but they lack capabilities in areas such as air defense and intelligence gathering. A deal for several thousand U.S. troops to stay on as trainers fell apart over the sensitive issue of legal immunity.
For many Iraqis, security remains a worry - but no more than jobs and getting access to power in a country whose national grid provides only a few hours of electricity a day despite the OPEC country's vast oil potential.
U.S. and foreign companies are already helping Iraq develop the world's fourth-largest oil reserves, but its economy needs investment in all sectors, from hospitals to infrastructure.
"We don't think about America... We think about electricity, jobs, our oil, our daily problems," said Abbas Jaber, a government employee in Baghdad. "They (Americans) left chaos."
GOING HOME
After Obama announced in October that troops would come home by the end of the year as scheduled, the number of U.S. military bases was whittled down quickly as hundreds of troops and trucks carrying equipment headed south to Kuwait.
U.S. forces, which had ended combat missions in 2010, paid $100,000 a month to tribal sheikhs to secure stretches of the highways leading south to reduce the risk of roadside bombings and attacks on the last convoys.
Only around 150 U.S. troops will remain in the country attached to a training and cooperation mission at the huge U.S. embassy on the banks of the Tigris river.
At the height of the war, more than 170,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq at more than 500 bases. By Saturday, there were fewer than 3,000 troops, and one base - Contingency Operating Base Adder, 300 km (185 miles) south of Baghdad.
At COB Adder, as dusk fell before the departure of the last convoy, soldiers slapped barbecue sauce on slabs of ribs brought from Kuwait and laid them on grills beside hotdogs and sausages.
Earlier, 25 soldiers sat on folding chairs in front of two armored vehicles watching a five-minute ceremony as their brigade's flags were packed up for the last time before loading up their possessions and lining up their trucks.
The last troops flicked on the lights studding their MRAP vehicles and stacked flak jackets and helmets in neat piles, ready for the final departure for Kuwait and then home.
"A good chunk of me is happy to leave. I spent 31 months in this country," said Sgt. Steven Schirmer, 25, after three tours of Iraq since 2007. "It almost seems I can have a life now, though I know I am probably going to Afghanistan in 2013. Once these wars end I wonder what I will end up doing."
NEIGHBOURS KEEP WATCH
Iran and Turkey, major investors in Iraq, will be watching with Gulf nations to see how their neighbor handles its sectarian and ethnic tensions, as the crisis in Syria threatens to spill over its borders.
The fall of Saddam allowed the long-suppressed Shi'ite majority to rise to power. The Shi'ite-led government has drawn the country closer to Iran and Syria's Bashar al-Assad, who is struggling to put down a nine-month-old uprising.
Iraq's Sunni minority is chafing under what it sees as the increasingly authoritarian control of Maliki's Shi'ite coalition. Some local leaders are already pushing mainly Sunni provinces to demand more autonomy from Baghdad.
The main Sunni political bloc Iraqiya said on Saturday that it was temporarily suspending its participation in the parliament to protest against what it said was Maliki's unwillingness to deliver on power-sharing.
A dispute between the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and Maliki's central government over oil and territory is also brewing, and is a potential flashpoint after the buffer of the American military presence is gone.
"There is little to suggest that Iraq's government will manage, or be willing, to get itself out of the current stalemate," said Gala Riani, an analyst at IHS Global Insight.
"The perennial divisive issues that have become part of the fabric of Iraqi politics, such as divisions with Kurdistan and Sunni suspicions of the government, are also likely to persist."
(Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal; writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

Gold to drop in Q1, far from retesting record high: Reuters poll

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Gold prices will fall below $1,500 an ounce over the next three months and are unlikely to retest September's all-time highs until later 2012 at the earliest, according to a Reuters poll of 20 hedge fund managers, economists and traders.
The bleak forecast, coming after gold has lost 11 percent of its value so far this month, is likely to fuel fears that bullion is close to ending its more than decade long bull run and entering a bear market.
Almost half of respondents predicted bullion will fall to 1,450 an ounce in the first quarter next year, with three seeing prices as low as $1,400 an ounce.
The forecasts come after a dismal performance last week when prices hit a 2 1/2 month low of $1,560 and gold lost its safe haven status.
Selling was fuelled by a scramble by hedge funds for cash to meet client redemptions at the end of a difficult year and a run for cash by European banks seeking to raise capital.
"What is surprising is that in an environment where headline risk news is bigger than ever, gold has actually fallen from its highs," said Christoph Eibl, CEO and founding partner of the Swiss commodity hedge fund Tiberius.
"We believe that, in 2012, of all metals gold will be the worst performing," Eibl said.
The market eked out small gains Friday to trade just under $1,600, but showed little sign of strength even after a small bout of short covering took other financial markets higher.
The precious metal is now heading for its first quarterly loss for the fourth quarter after its second-worst rout since September 2008 when the global credit crunch was at its height.
In another immediately bearish sign, U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) figures released Friday showed that managed money in gold futures and options cut bullish bets for the second consecutive week.

DOWNBEAT OUTLOOK
The long-term outlook is no more upbeat either, with more than half of respondents predicting that gold is unlikely to stage another run to new all-time highs until at least the second half of 2012.
Four said they don't expect a new record until at least 2014.
A lack of immediate monetary easing or stimulus programs by central banks has prompted money managers to turn bearish on gold even though the precious metal is traditionally considered a safe haven in times of uncertainty.
"To me, gold is not attractive right now because we don't see any inflation threats," said Jeffrey Sherman, commodities portfolio manager of DoubleLine Capital, a Los Angeles-based investment manager with $21 billion in assets.

BREAK OUT
Gold has increasingly moved in tandem with risky assets such as equities and industrial commodities. But gold broke ranks last week with a 7 percent decline, which dwarfed a 3 percent drop of the S&P 500.
Bullion's plunge below its 200-day moving average, which it had held for nearly three years, prompted a prominent market watcher to call an end to gold's decade-long bull cycle.
"We have the beginnings of a real bear market, and the death of a bull," said veteran trader Dennis Gartman, a long-time gold bull who completely exited his bullion investments last week.
Since September, gold has underperformed commodities measured by the RJ/CRB index and the euro, while U.S. equities measured by the S&P 500 eked out a slight gain.
(Additional reporting by Claire Milhench, Harpreet Bhal in London and Rujun Shen in Singapore; Editing by Jon Loades-Carter; Josephine Mason and Andrea Evans)

Russian drilling rig sinks off Sakhalin, 49 missing

MOSCOW (Reuters) - An oil drilling rig with 67 crew on board capsized and sank off the Russian far eastern island of Sakhalin on Sunday when it ran into a storm while being towed, leaving 49 of the crew unaccounted for, the regional Emergencies Ministry said.
Fourteen crew members were rescued alive from the 'Kolskaya' jack-up rig, operated by Russian offshore exploration company Arktikmorneftegazrazvedka (AMNGR), and four bodies were recovered. The rest of the crew were missing.
"The floating drilling rig capsized 200 kilometers (125 miles) off the coast of Sakhalin island at 12.45 local time (0145 GMT)," the Emergencies Ministry said in a statement on its website.
The statement said a rescue craft and helicopters had been sent to the site to scour the waters for survivors.
President Dmitry Medvedev ordered all necessary help be allocated to the search and rescue of any remaining survivors in the icy waters, while the Emergencies Ministry said it would work through the night.
The disaster posed no ecological danger, but it will deal a blow to efforts by Russia, the world's largest energy producer, to step up offshore oil and gas exploration to offset a long-term production decline in onshore production.
"There is no ecological danger. The vessel was carrying the minimum amount of fuel as it was being tugged by two craft," said a spokesman for AMNGR, a unit of state-owned Zarubezhneft.
The 'Neftegaz-55' tugboat, also owned by AMNGR, had been towing the Kolskaya rig and took part in the search effort, but pulled out after suffering hull damage. The tug, carrying 11 crew rescued from the rig, was limping to port.
An icebreaker, the 'Magadan', was still at the scene.
Most of the missing crew were from the far eastern town of Magadan, AMNGR said. The company, based in the northern port of Murmansk, flew out counselors to support relatives.
He said a company commission was working out the financial losses from the lost drilling vessel.
RIG WAS WORKING FOR GAZPROM
The rig, built in Finland in 1985, had been doing work on a minor gas production project in the Sea of Okhotsk for a unit of state-controlled gas export monopoly Gazprom, the company said.
The Kolskaya was heading to the port city of Kholmsk on the western side of Sakhalin island from the Kamchatka peninsula when strong winds and high waves capsized the vessel. It sank in 20 minutes into waters that are more than 1,000 meters deep.
"(President) Dmitry Medvedev has ordered all necessary assistance be provided to the victims of the drilling platform accident and has ordered a probe into the circumstances of the loss of the platform," the Kremlin said.
Russia's prize offshore gas and oil fields lie to the northeast of Sakhalin island.
Two major offshore projects are already producing oil and gas off Sakhalin - Sakhalin-1, operated by Exxonmobil and Sakhalin-2, in which Gazprom has a controlling stake.
The disaster is unlikely to seriously affect oil or gas production. AMNGR said the vessel was no longer under contract when it sank.
Operating conditions at the Sakhalin fields, explored by Soviet geologists in the 1960s and 1970s, are among the harshest for Russian energy companies.
OFFSHORE DRILLING
The jack-up rig, which has three support legs that can be extended to the ocean floor while its hull floats on the surface, was overturned in stormy winter conditions with a swell 5-6 meters high.
"The violation of safety rules during the towing of the drilling rig, as well as towing without consideration of the weather conditions ... are believed to be the cause of the (disaster)," investigators said in a statement on their website.
Winter often lasts 220-240 days in the waters off Sakhalin, where the main companies operating are ExxonMobil, Gazprom, and Royal Dutch Shell, who produce oil and gas, sometimes in icebound conditions, for export largely to Asian markets.
Sakhalin-2, in which Shell and Mitsui also have stakes, produces 10 million tones per year of liquefied natural gas at Russia's only LNG plant in the port of Prigorodnoye for export to Asia, much of it to Japan.
Each tanker of crude oil produced by at the 160,000 barrels-per-day Sakhalin-1 project, operated by ExxonMobil, is escorted by two icebreakers when ice thickness reaches 60 centimeters.
State-controlled Rosneft this year reached a major deal with Exxon to explore for oil and gas in the Kara Sea, to the north of the Russian mainland, a largely unexplored region estimated to hold over 100 billion barrels of oil.
A combination of poor infrastructure and chronic corner cutting has dealt the country its share of sea disasters, notably the 2000 sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea in August 2000, killing all 118 aboard and prompting criticism of the sluggish response.
(Additional reporting/editing by Douglas Busvine)