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THE INDEX - January 29, 2009

Despite Barack Obama's promises for better relations with the Muslim world, Iranian hardliners in the government could block progress if the U.S. adopts "a shift in tactics" that merely revises the tone and rhetoric of Bush administration—rather than a sweeping policy overhaul. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said America would need to apologize for its "dark background" and remove troops from posts around the Middle East and the world in order to foster a dynamic change in the Iran-U.S. relationship. The second presidential election in Afghanistan's history has been pushed back to August 20 because of "insecurity and logistic problems" within the country, according to AFP. Originally scheduled for May 22, the vote's legitimacy has also been threatened by intimidation and promises of violence at polling places. The country is depending on foreign aid, largely from the United States, to provide a secure election, but not everyone sees the postponement as constitutional. Still reeling from its social, financial, and political turmoil, Iceland is looking to a new prime minister for direction and recovery. Icelandic Social Affairs Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir is expected to take the office, and would become the first female prime minister in Icelandic history. While Sigurdardottir seems a shoo-in due to her tenacity and record of tackling tough issues, her gender may take a back seat to her sexual orientation. Sigurdardottir would be the world's first openly gay leader.   In Israel, where new lists of political hopefuls appear in every election, it is tempting to vote for candidates whose records are unblemished, if untested. But these new parties often tend to promote mere protest and not real programs, contends Shlomo Avineri in Haaretz. They never actually become ruling parties, instead eroding the ruling parties' majority, making it hard to build stable coalitions. "Voting for the nice, evanescent lists will only weaken and undermine the government's ability to make decisions." In this time of crisis, says Avineri, Israelis should vote responsibly and not scatter their votes. The gas war between Russia and Ukraine that left Europe cold could have been avoided if the Nabucco pipeline project was put at the top of the agenda, Yigal Schleifer says on Eurasianet.org. The construction of a 3,300-km-long gas line that would run from the Caspian Sea region, through Turkey, and into Eastern and Central Europe would help reduce the continent's reliance on Russian gas. Although construction is scheduled to start in 2010, the project is still far from a sure thing. One of the most critical issues that remains unanswered is who will fill the pipeline: some potential providers, such as Iran, are politically problematic. So far, only Azerbaijan has agreed to provide gas to Nabucco. Japan is expected to join a multinational effort against piracy with Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada ordering the dispatch of navy ships to Somalia's coast. Though no Japanese ship has yet been taken by pirates, some have been attacked. This decision took months of debate, given that since World War II any military action by Japan is restricted by its constitution, which allows only defensive military operations. Guarding against pirates seems to fit the bill.  Zimbabwean women living at a makeshift refugee camp in Musina, South Africa, sometimes trade sex for food—often for as little as a half loaf of bread. While Zimbabwe suffers from a huge cholera epidemic, thousands of citizens have attempted to enter South Africa legally—and illegally—to escape political and economic turmoil. Roughly 4,000 people live at the Musina transit camp in hopes of cholera treatment and asylum papers but receive only sporadic food and health aid from volunteer organizations. Christians in Myanmar, who have been tortured and arbitrarily arrested by the military, in order to control dissent, are often turned away from the Indian border according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. In addition to these brutalities, the Christian Chin communities—which account for only 1 percent of the Burmese population—also face famine after a rat infestation destroyed farmlands. The HRW report demands that India offer protection to refugees from Myanmar and that the junta cease all human rights violations.

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