Middle East, terrorism and others

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Arabs want democracy, but they also want even-handedness

Arabs want democracy, but they also want even-handedness

Sir: Politics is never simply black and white ("Is Lebanon walking into another nightmare?", 7 March). That the Syrian forces should leave Lebanon immediately is self-evident. That it is wrong for one army to occupy another country is also a platitude.

But we are now in a very grey area. It is felt all over the Arab world that the sight of millions of brave Iraqis braving violence to cast their democratic vote led to Lebanon's remarkably brave Cedar Revolution, to Egypt's sudden conversion to pluralist presidential elections, to Saudi Arabia's snails-pace move to democratic local elections, to Palestine's open and honest presidential elections. Many wonder if President Bush was right: democracy, even imposed by initial force, is a superlative weapon against injustice, dictatorship and terrorism.

So why is there still this destructive scepticism about the success of a free and democratic Lebanon? Well, the grey area has been spectacularly muddied by President Bush. Not a single word on the necessity for Israeli forces to withdraw from occupied Palestinian lands, Syrian lands and the small enclave of Lebanese territory. Nor any mention of the very large number of foreign troops in Iraq.

When will the western world understand that Arabs, like all human beings, strive for their freedoms, value their civil rights and want their democratic institutions. The inherent injustice of the USA consistently attacking the Arab world for its shortcomings whilst letting Israel off the hook is putting ammunition into the hands of the very people that we are being constantly told we should be rid of: extremists and dictators.

Along with the wonderful democracy that President Bush wants to introduce to the Arab world, would it not be passing great to have some even-handedness? Lebanon's Cedar Revolution is largely by young people. The new generation is sophisticated and educated. They will not accept the current double standards.

Dr F H MIKDADI
Dorchester

Terrorists should be brought to justice

Sir: Former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens has said that there are up to 200 al-Qa'ida "terrorists" walking around the streets.

If this is true, and the statement is based on hard intelligence, then why have these individuals not already been arrested and held for conspiracy to commit murder?

However if this statement was based on something other than hard fact, it is irresponsible and shameful scaremongering, designed only to frighten people into supporting an authoritarian Bill giving alarming powers to a politician. Terrorism is designed to instil fear. It's time our leaders stopped doing Bin Laden's job for him.

JO SELWOOD
Thatcham, Berkshire

Sir: The question as to whether we are really facing an "unprecedented" terrorist threat deserves more critical examination than it is getting.

There have been no deaths from terrorist actions in the UK in this millennium. Despite excellent intelligence, the security services were unable to prevent IRA attacks on a fairly regular basis prior to the ceasefire. The security services tell us that al-Qa'ida is much harder to penetrate. So why have there been no actual attacks? Is it that all these evil people Sir John Stevens imagines to be "prepared" to blow us all up have not got around to it just yet? Or is it that the intelligence concerning the threat comes from people who have a track record of seeing "intelligence" as the servant of policy, and not as its guide.

The risk of my being killed by a terrorist must be much less than my risk of being killed in a road accident or by MRSA. I accept all these risks. I would not be prepared to lose one jot of my freedoms in order to reduce an almost imperceptible risk by a small amount.

R I SYKES
Worcester

Sir: The concept of an executive control order is so abhorrent that however the Bill is amended it is unacceptable to the Green Party.

An aspect as yet not debated is the range of those against whom an order can be applied. Because the definition of terrorism in the original Act is so broad, under the proposed law you could technically be considered eligible for a control order if you gave a lift to someone who had taken a picture of Big Ben. Given that as a result of this order you could also go to prison for not providing required information, unless you can prove you don't have it, we have the tools for a police state.

For the Home Office to give itself these powers would be dangerous, and for the Home Office minister, Hazel Blears, to say they will mostly be used against Muslims is hardly reassuring.

HUGO CHARLTON
Chair, The Green Party of England and Wales, London WC1

Sir: A couple of weeks ago the Queen, Ken Livingstone and Tony Blair were glad-handing the IOC visitors in support of London's optimistic Olympics bid. But now Tony Blair and Sir John Stevens, the ex-Commissioner of the Met, have told us that there are hundreds of terrorists lurking in our midst, awaiting the chance to blow us all up. Is this alarmist message intended to attract the Olympic athletes to London?

JOHN MACMILLAN
Chesham, Buckinghamshire

Sir: Churchill's warning of a "Labour Gestapo, humanely administered" seemed absurd in 1945 but now looks astonishingly prescient. As a Liberal, I resented his call for tactical voting to oust the Labour Government in 1950/51, but I am warming to the idea today.

DEREK COLE
Hastings

Sir: Under the new anti-terror laws would it be possible to apply for house arrest? Presumably the Government would have to cover my mortgage and utility bills while also ensuring I have enough food and drink (I wouldn't be going on hunger strike). I would also gladly give up the internet and my mobile phone. As long as I was left with enough reading material - barring election literature - I would be perfectly happy. Having a policeman permanently stationed outside would also be a comfort, providing protection against cold callers and any other scallywag with designs on my property.

D RIPPINGALE
Sutton, Surrey

Refugees seek work

Sir: Your report ("The dentist's tale", 5 March) on Souad Gasmi's frustration as a trained dentist not allowed to practice her trade aptly captures the frustration of not only many asylum seekers, but also many of the UK's recognised refugees.

While the British Medical Association's database of medically qualified refugees and asylum seekers exceeds 1,000 skilled individuals, as of late last year only 69 were recorded as employed. The BMA stated that many of these qualified refugees were taking years to find work and instead were living on benefits as low as £39 a week. While some £2m has been spent over the past four years providing support, advice and training for refugee health professionals, UNHCR believes that more needs to be done in all sectors of the workforce to better integrate people who have been forced to flee their homelands.

Recent UNHCR statistics show that asylum claims in the UK have plummeted 61 per cent over the last two years and currently stand at levels not seen since the mid 1990s. There is no asylum crisis, Britain having dropped to third place among industrialised countries with only 40,200 asylum seekers last year, well behind France and the USA. On a per capita basis, the UK is mid-table among EU countries receiving asylum claims.

The UN refugee agency believes that giving these exiles opportunities to contribute to UK society with proper oversight and certification can go far in improving community cohesion, rebuilding the damage that has been inflicted by the overheated exaggerations that have accompanied recent discussions on asylum.

PETER KESSLER
Senior External Affairs Officer
UNHCR
London SW1

Spending figures

Sir: The decision that there will be a reclassification of some spending on road maintenance was made in accordance with the National Statistics Code of Practice ("Tories accuse Brown of 'brazen cheating' to meet his golden rule", 19 February).

The possible need to review the treatment of road repair and maintenance was first identified by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in autumn 2002. The revisions are the result of a subsequent joint study by statisticians in the Treasury and ONS. The Public Finances release is a joint Treasury/ONS release as much of the core data is collated and quality assured in the Treasury.

This particularly applies to data on public expenditure, which is routed from departments and agencies to ONS through the Treasury. However the decision to make the revisions was made by me as National Statistician, on advice from the ONS's Director of National Accounts. The need for the revision was discovered during regular scrutiny of data and methodology.

Once the need to make the change was recognised and a method established to do so, ONS moved to effect this at the first available opportunity, consistent with the protocols, Code of Practice and the revisions policy for this release.

LEN COOK
National Statistician
Office for National Statistics
London SW1

NHS at risk

Sir: The battle of Margaret's shoulder has submerged one very simple fact regarding the average operation - that it takes around 20 individual NHS staff, including porters, technicians, nurses, anaesthetists and surgeons, to perform a single operation.

An operation is scheduled. But what if the overworked, underpaid porter goes off sick? What if the nurse, stressed out by patient complaints and constant demands, finally succumbs to her bad back? What if the sterile technicians decide that the awful job just isn't worth the derisory pay and leave? Add to this the pressure to admit A and E patients within a four-hour turnaround and to operate on patients who are far from urgent to meet waiting-list targets and it is a miracle Margaret's operation was cancelled only three times.

The only thing keeping the NHS going now is the dedication and commitment of the staff within it. Once this is lost, and this Government is doing quite a good job of making most non-management tiers of the NHS very unhappy, the whole system will rapidly collapse.

A chain is as strong as its weakest link, and without trained staff being paid a proper wage in order to keep them in NHS posts, we will soon have many more weak links in the chain as disgruntled staff vote with their feet.

Dr SAMANTHA HARDING
Senior House Officer in Ophthalmology
London NW5

Sir: I find this constant reference, by the Leader of the Opposition, to our National Health Service as a "failed National Health Service", sickening. My husband and I are but two among countless patients who are alive and well today solely because of the skill, dedication and hard work of numerous NHS staff. On our regular visits to hospital we meet countless other patients who share our views of the quality of the service received and our thanks for the dedication of the NHS staff. The overwhelming satisfaction and gratitude of patients far outweighs the dissatisfaction of a very small minority.

What we all suffer from is not a failed NHS but a plethora of failed politicians of whom the Leader of the Opposition is one among many.

MARGARET ALSTON
Ipswich, Suffolk

Sir: The news that Blair intends to fine hospitals who repeatedly cancel operations confirms that the NHS is now experiencing the Admiral Byng Syndrome.

Admiral Byng was shot for failing to meet mutually exclusive "targets" from the Admiralty of the day, who expected him to (a) not incur losses to his fleet, whilst (b) defeat the French navy.

Blair expects hospitals to meet centrally driven targets, but when targets clash with clinical priorities - and shortage of beds - Blair throws a wobbly and decides to "shoot" the hospitals!

Admiral Byng would have understood the hospitals' predicament.

TOM MacFARLANE
Thornton Cleveleys, Lancashire

Leering men

Sir: Shahida Kiani's definition of "appropriate" dress appears to be anything which does not attract the "leering stares of men" (letter, 5 March). What she fails to address is why the only possible response to the putative bad behaviour of men is for women to modify theirs.

KATHRYN ROBERTSON
Milton Keynes

Intelligent fish

Sir: Marie Woolf ("Living in a goldfish bowl earns protection", 4 March) writes of the three-second memory of goldfish. My own research and that of others shows clearly that fish can learn to distinguish between simple shapes (triangle, square etc) and use these as signs to indicate where their food can be found. Once established, these habits can be maintained throughout the lifetime of the fish.

GRAHAM HEMMINGS
Stoke on Trent

Milk-shake hero

Sir: Thank you for your article on Steve Fossett's achievement. In these troubled times of poverty, disease, ethnic conflict and environmental gloom, there is nothing more cheering than to read about a billionaire flying a small plane whilst drinking chocolate milk-shakes.

ALISTAIR LEIGHTON
London SW1

Sir: Who defines "round the world"? Steve Fossett never crossed the equator. If I were to start in Spitsbergen, fly north to the pole (less than a thousand miles), fly round the pole and return to Spitsbergen, which would take comfortably less than a day, could I claim a new world record? And if not, what is it that Steve Fossett has done which qualifies him to keep it?

MICHAEL SHOESMITH
Lydbury North, Shropshire

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