Hariri's murder

Mystery surrounds Rafiq Hariri's assassination in Beirut on Monday. While Israel was quick to blame Syria for the murder, Damascus and Tehran have pointed the finger at Tel Aviv.

Iran's reaction was blunt: it blamed Zionist terrorism for the former prime minister's murder. The bomb that killed Mr Hariri had a cutting-edge technology which rendered the jamming device in Mr Hariri's car useless.

According to Iran, only "an organized structure such as the Zionist regime" had the capacity for such a sophisticated operation, the aim being to destabilize Lebanon. At the same time, an unknown group claimed responsibility for the crime, saying it had murdered Mr Hariri for being "pro-Saudi". This does not make sense.

The former prime minister was, of course, a firm believer in Lebanon's independence and sought to check Syrian influence in his country. However, it does not stand to reason that Syria would murder a former prime minister at a time when a pro-Syrian president, Mr Emile Lahoud, and an equally pro-Damascus prime minister, Mr Omar Karameh, are in power, and elections are due in May.

The assassination must be seen against the backdrop of the pressure Syria has been under from the US and Israel for quite some time. Much to Israel and America's frustration, Syria has not chosen to break away from Arab ranks and recognize the Zionist state.

Tel Aviv has hinted at a partial return of the Golan Heights to Syria provided the latter recognizes Israel. Syria's stand is that recognition of Israel is a separate issue, and cannot be linked to the occupied Golan, which must be returned to Syria.

Israel - which also means the US - has several other complaints against Syria. This includes the support which Syria had extended to Hizbollah for resisting the Israeli occupation of a strip of southern Lebanon.

Since the end of the Iraq war, the US and Israel have come up with some more allegations against Syria. These include the asylum which Damascus is purportedly giving to Iraqi Ba'athists, the perceived infiltration of terrorists from Syria into Iraq, and its alleged plans to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Both Israel and the US also want Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon. A Lebanon which does not have Syria's security cover is bound to be vulnerable to political and military pressures from Washington and Tel Aviv. As the Syrian reaction to Mr Hariri's murder said, this crime "cannot be separated from these pressures."

America's aim basically is to further Israel's agenda in Syria. The Bush administration has already placed Syria under sanctions, and every other day there are threats of military action.

Syria has cut down its troops in Lebanon to 14,000, but it needs to maintain air surveillance scanners in the Bekaa valley to guard the approaches to Damascus. While the world will watch how Syria reacts to these pressures, there is a danger that Mr Hariri's murder could touch off a second civil war in Lebanon.

A multi-religious and multi-cultural society in which the state structure has been eroded by powerful militias, Lebanon could fall prey to a new frenzy of communal violence unless all Lebanese resolve to tackle the issue among themselves. Failure to do so will suck in foreign powers, and that will only serve to destroy the very fabric of Lebanon's state and society.

A question of ethics

Members of the federal cabinet spent much of Monday at the prime minister's house as part of what has been billed an informal 'ethics retreat'. According to the prime minister, the event was organized with help from Berlin-based Transparency International and included a lecture by officials of the National Accountability Bureau.

The prime minister is right in saying that such events are organized in other countries as well, and in fact have become increasingly popular in the corporate world. However, one wonders if values like morality and ethics can be 'taught' in a day.

The purpose of the retreat reportedly was also that the ministers reflect on the workings of their ministries and on their own performances, a practice quite common in modern education where teachers are encouraged to look back and reflect on their work, analyze possible shortcomings and come up with ways for self-improvement.

Also, it has to be said that the theme of this retreat does seem a bit ironic given the fact that quite a few ministries operate in a manner that is not entirely ethical in the sense that policies formulated and implemented by them do not necessarily seek to maximize public good (a prerequisite, according to Aristotle, for an ethical course of action).

For instance, the government allows petrol prices to be fixed by the very companies that sell the product, thereby allowing great scope for collusion and exploitation of consumers.

Industry regulators like Nepra, Pemra or PTA often fail to act to protect the larger consumer interest while the Monopoly Control Authority remains toothless to fight industrial cartels bent on keeping prices artificially pegged.

In addition, there is a general culture where officialdom by and large tends to, if not facilitate, ignore violation of the government's own rules and regulations. An apt example of this is the recent revelation that two former prime ministers and the current one spent millions of taxpayers' money on performing umra and to pay for dozens of freeloaders who accompanied them.

PR's raw deal

The Pakistan Railway has reportedly incurred a loss of Rs810 million owing to faults developed by nine of the 23 locomotives it bought from China three years ago. It is said that the platform mounting of the engines have developed cracks, forcing them out of service.

The remaining 14 locomotives have also failed to perform as expected. A total of Rs5.9 billion, mostly in the form of supplier's credit, was spent on the purchase. It is not clear what the exact terms and conditions governing the sale or the period of warranty are.

This is now causing the PR much worry as its engineers discover more and more 'disabilities' in the remaining inventory. The situation points once again at the gross mismanagement of the railway system, whereby purchases made even of its basic equipment seemed to have been a product of hasty decision-making.

One is here reminded of the case of new train carriages also, which were imported from China two years ago. On arrival in Pakistan it was discovered that platforms at various railway stations had to be 'trimmed' to accommodate the wider girth of the new carriages. As for the locomotives, (literally the engines on which the system runs) they were certainly expected to have a much longer life span than just a few years.

IT is said that the Chinese suppliers were asked to make certain changes in the design of the locomotives to match the PR's requirements. This was done before the engines arrived in Pakistan and their delivery accepted.

The PR's local workshops are generally good at providing maintenance and upkeep for the equipment in its use. It is not clear whether the major faults developed by the Chinese locomotives are due to the railway's own inability to service the new engines or they could indeed be categorized as manufacturing faults.

Whichever the case, a thorough investigation is called for into the terms and conditions governing the purchase deal and after-sale service provisions of the contract with the manufacturer - not least because the deal was made at a huge expense to the exchequer.

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