Monday, April 09, 2007

US Occupation Update: 7 NATO Troops Killed in Afghanistan; Anti-American Demos in Iraq; Military Crackdown on Deserters

Updated:2007-04-09 07:19:20

Taliban Behead Translator for Journalist: Afghan Blasts Kill Seven NATO Soldiers


KABUL, Afghanistan (April 9) - Roadside bombs in southern Afghanistan on Sunday left seven NATO soldiers dead, the alliance said, as its forces continued an anti-Taliban offensive in the world's most fertile opium-producing region.

Afghan police kept watch at the site of a suicide attack Sunday in the eastern province of Nangarhar. A car bomber blew himself up next to a U.S.-led military convoy, police said.

Separately, a purported spokesman for the Taliban said the kidnapped translator for an Italian journalist was beheaded Sunday. The Afghan government confirmed the death.

Six troops died and one was injured when one of the roadside bombs struck their vehicle, the alliance said in a statement. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed they were Canadian troops, Canadian Press reported.

A separate roadside bomb Sunday killed one NATO soldier and wounded two, NATO said.

Officials did not release the nationality of those soldiers and did not give details or say where exactly in the south the attacks took place.

The Canadians' deaths appeared to be the biggest single combat loss for foreign troops in Afghanistan since June 2005, when a U.S. helicopter crashed. Sixteen American troops died after the aircraft was apparently hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

The fatalities underline how virulent Afghanistan's Taliban-led resistance remains, more than five years after a U.S.-led invasion drove the hardline militia from power for harboring al-Qaida.

Also Sunday in the south, U.S.-led coalition aircraft tracked a car of Taliban militants after it had fired a rocket-propelled grenade into an Afghan army vehicle in the Sangin district of Helmand province, a coalition statement said Monday.

When the Taliban vehicle had moved away from the populated Sangin area, the coalition destroyed it, killing six Taliban inside, the statement said, adding that Afghan and coalition troops suffered no casualties in the incident.

Elsewhere in southern Afghanistan, freelance journalist and translator Ajmal Naqshbandi was beheaded after more than a month in captivity. He had been kidnapped along with Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo and a driver, who had been beheaded earlier.

Mastrogiacomo, who worked for the daily La Repubblica, was released March 19 in a much criticized swap for five Taliban militants.

The Taliban made a similar demand in return for Naqshbandi's release.

"We asked for two Taliban commanders to be released in exchange for Ajmal Naqshbandi, but the government did not care for our demands, and today, at 3:05 p.m., we beheaded Ajmal in Garmsir district of Helmand province," said Shahabuddin Atal, who claimed to be a spokesman for regional Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah.

"When we demanded the exchange for the Italian journalist, the government released the prisoners, but for the Afghan journalist, the government did not care," Atal said.

Sayed Ansari, a spokesman for Afghanistan's intelligence service, said the Taliban executed Naqshbandi on behalf of al-Qaida.

"Once again, the Taliban showed that they are following the steps of terrorist networks," he said.

U.S. officials also condemned the translator's execution.

"This barbaric killing reminds us of why the United States and NATO are in Afghanistan in the first place: to help the good people of that country defeat the Taliban extremists and their al-Qaida allies," said Gordon Johndroe, President Bush's national security spokesman.

In the eastern Paktika province on Sunday, two Afghan guards were killed and five wounded during a four-hour firefight with Taliban militants near the border with Pakistan, according to the U.S.-led coalition, which is operating separately from the NATO-led force.

Militants fired mortars and a rocket on a coalition checkpoint in the village of Kakakhel. Troops returned fire and called in an airstrike, leaving two militants dead and three others wounded, the statement said.

Also Sunday, in the eastern Khost province, a gunman riding on the back of a motorcycle opened fire on Afghans working for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, killing two of the men and wounding another, the force said in a statement.

And in the eastern Nangarhar province, a suicide car bomber blew himself up next to a U.S.-led coalition convoy, said Ghafor Khan, spokesman for the provincial police chief. One soldier was lightly injured, a coalition statement said.

The latest violence came days after more than 1,000 NATO and Afghan troops retook Sangin district in the opium-producing Helmand province.

The next step will be for NATO to hand over control of the area to Afghan security forces, said Lt. Col. Maria Carl, a spokeswoman for ISAF. She added that NATO already has transported about 500 Afghan forces to the south.

The operation to retake the town from militants started late Wednesday and is part of NATO's largest ever offensive in Afghanistan, Operation Achilles, launched last month to flush out Taliban militants from the northern tip of Helmand province.

About 4,500 NATO and 1,000 Afghan forces are in and around Helmand province as part of Operation Achilles. In the last several months, Taliban militants and foreign fighters have streamed into the province, according to U.S. and NATO officials.

Associated Press writer Noor Khan contributed to this report from Kandahar.

Updated:2007-04-09 06:16:22

Rally Marks Anniversary of Baghdad's Fall: Shiite Cleric Calls for Attacks on U.S. Soldiers


BAGHDAD (April 9) - Tens of thousands marched through the streets of two Shiite holy cities Monday to mark the fourth anniversary of Baghdad 's fall.

The rally was called for by powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who commands an enormous following among Iraq 's majority Shiites and has close allies in the Shiite-dominated government.

A day earlier, the renegade cleric issued a statement ordering his militiamen to redouble their battle to oust American forces and argued that Iraq's army and police should join him in defeating "your archenemy."

On Monday, demonstrators marched from Kufa to neighboring Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, with two cordons of Iraqi police lining the route.

Some at the rally waved small Iraqi flags; others hoisted up a giant flag 10 yards long. Leaflets fluttered through the breeze reading: "Yes, Yes to Iraq" and "Yes, Yes to Muqtada. Occupiers should leave Iraq."

"The enemy that is occupying our country is now targeting the dignity of the Iraqi people," said lawmaker Nassar al-Rubaie, head of al-Sadr's bloc in parliament, as he marched. "After four years of occupation, we have hundreds of thousands of people dead and wounded."

A senior official in al-Sadr's organization in Najaf, Salah al-Obaydi, called the rally a "call for liberation."

"We're hoping that by next year's anniversary, we will be an independent and liberated Iraq with full sovereignty," he said.

Iraqi soldiers in uniform joined the crowd, which was led by at least a dozen turbaned clerics _ including one Sunni . Many marchers danced as they moved through the streets.

The demonstration was peaceful, but two ambulances could be seen moving slowly with the marching crowd, poised to help if violence or stampedes broke out.

Cars were banned from Najaf for 24 hours starting from 8 p.m. Sunday, said police spokesman Col. Ali Jiryo. Buses idled at all entrances of the city to transport arriving demonstrators or other visitors to the city center. Najaf residents would be allowed to drive, he said.

Security was tight across Iraq, with a 24-hour ban on all vehicles in Baghdad starting from 5 a.m. Monday. The government quickly reinstated Monday as a holiday, just a day after it had decreed that April 9 no longer would be a day off.

Monday's demonstration marks four years since U.S. Marines and the Army's 3rd Infantry Division swept into the Iraqi capital 20 days into the American invasion.

In a statement distributed in Najaf on Sunday, al-Sadr called on Iraqi forces to stop cooperating with America.

"You, the Iraqi army and police forces, don't walk alongside the occupiers, because they are your archenemy," the statement said.

He urged his followers not to attack fellow Iraqis but to turn all their efforts on American forces.

"God has ordered you to be patient in front of your enemy, and unify your efforts against them -- not against the sons of Iraq," it said.

Al-Sadr had reportedly ordered his militia to disarm and stay off the streets during a Baghdad security crackdown that began Feb. 14, though he has nevertheless issued a series of sharp anti-American statements, demanding the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

U.S. officials have said al-Sadr left Iraq for neighboring Iran after the start of the crackdown, but his followers say he is in Iraq.

Sunday's statement was apparently issued in response to three days of clashes between his Mahdi Army militiamen and U.S.-backed Iraqi troops in Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad.

American troops continued operations in Diwaniyah on Monday, detaining four guards at a the office of a Shiite political party and scouring two neighborhoods in the city's northern and eastern sections, police said. At least 24 suspects were detained, police said. U.S. officials had no immediate comment.

On Sunday, thousands of residents in Baghdad's largest Shiite slum, Sadr City, boarded buses and minivans bound for Najaf.

Iraqi flags flew from most houses and shops in Sadr City. Drivers and motorcyclists affixed them to their vehicles. Police escorted convoys of pickup trucks overflowing with young boys waving Iraqi flags, en route to Najaf.

Despite the curfews, violence persisted Monday. In southern Baghdad, a sniper killed a civilian and a policeman, and a mortar round killed one person and wounded two others, police said.

Police in Buhriz, about 35 miles north of Baghdad, said clashes broke out between unknown gunmen and al-Qaida fighters -- leaving 30 people injured.

April 9, 2007

Army Is Cracking Down on Deserters

New York Times

Army prosecutions of desertion and other unauthorized absences have risen sharply in the last four years, resulting in thousands more negative discharges and prison time for both junior soldiers and combat-tested veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army records show.

The increased prosecutions are meant to serve as a deterrent to a growing number of soldiers who are ambivalent about heading — or heading back — to Iraq and may be looking for a way out, several Army lawyers said in interviews. Using courts-martial for these violations, which before 2002 were treated mostly as unpunished nuisances, is a sign that active-duty forces are being stretched to their limits, military lawyers and mental health experts said.

“They are scraping to get people to go back, and people are worn out,” said Dr. Thomas Grieger, a senior Navy psychiatrist. Though there are no current studies to show how combat stress affects desertion rates, Dr. Grieger cited several examples of soldiers absconding or refusing to return to Iraq because of psychiatric reasons brought on by wartime deployments.

At an Army base in Alaska last year, for example, “there was one guy who literally chopped off his trigger finger with an axe to prevent his deployment,” Dr. Grieger said in an interview.

The Army prosecuted desertion far less often in the late 1990s, when desertions were more frequent, than it does now, when there are comparatively fewer.

From 2002 through 2006, the average annual rate of Army prosecutions of desertion tripled compared with the five-year period from 1997 to 2001, to roughly 6 percent of deserters, from 2 percent, Army data shows.

Between these two five-year spans — one prewar and one during wartime — prosecutions for similar crimes, like absence without leave or failing to appear for unit missions, have more than doubled, to an average of 390 per year from an average of 180 per year, Army data shows.

In total, the Army since 2002 has court-martialed twice as many soldiers for desertion and other unauthorized absences as it did on average each year between 1997 and 2001. Deserters are soldiers who leave a post or fail to show up for an assignment with the intent to stay away. Soldiers considered absent without leave, or AWOL, which presumes they plan to return, are classified as deserters and dropped from a unit’s rolls after 30 days.

Most soldiers who return from unauthorized absences are punished and discharged. Few return to regular duty.

Officers said the crackdown reflected an awareness by top Army and Defense Department officials that desertions, which occurred among more than 1 percent of the active-duty force in 2000 for the first time since the post-Vietnam era, were in a sustained upswing again after ebbing in 2003, the first year of the Iraq war.

At the same time, the increase highlights a cycle long known to Army researchers: as the demand for soldiers increases during a war, desertions rise and the Army tends to lower enlistment standards, recruiting more people with questionable backgrounds who are far more likely to become deserters.

In the 2006 fiscal year, 3,196 soldiers deserted, the Army said, a figure that has been climbing since the 2004 fiscal year, when 2,357 soldiers absconded. In the first quarter of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 871 soldiers deserted, a rate that, if it stays on pace, would produce 3,484 desertions for the fiscal year, an 8 percent increase over 2006.

The Army said the desertion rate was within historical norms, and that the surge in prosecutions, which are at the discretion of unit commanders, was not a surprise given the impact that absent soldiers can have during wartime.

“The nation is at war, and the Army treats the offense of desertion more seriously,” Maj. Anne D. Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman, said. “The Army’s leadership will take whatever measures they believe are appropriate if they see a continued upward trend in desertion, in order to maintain the health of the force.”

Army studies and interviews also suggest a link between the rising rate of desertions and the expanding use of moral waivers to recruit people with poor academic records and low-level criminal convictions. At least 1 in 10 deserters surveyed after returning to the Army from 2002 to mid-2004 required a waiver to enter the service, a report by the Army Research Institute found.

“We’re enlisting more dropouts, people with more law violations, lower test scores, more moral issues,” said a senior noncommissioned officer involved in Army personnel and recruiting. “We’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to get people to join.” (Army officials agreed to discuss the issue on the condition that they not be quoted by name.)

The officer said the Army National Guard last week authorized 34 states and Guam to enlist the lowest-ranking group of eligible recruits, those who scored between 16 and 30 on the armed services aptitude test. Federal law bars recruits who scored lower than 16 from enlisting.

Desertions, while a chronic problem for the Army, are nowhere near as common as they were at the height of the Vietnam War. From 1968 to 1971, for instance, about 5 percent of enlisted men deserted.

But the rate of desertion today, after four years of fighting two ground wars, is “being taken much more seriously because we were losing so many soldiers out of the Army that there was a recognized need to attack the problem from a different way,” said an Army criminal defense lawyer.

In interviews, the lawyer and two other Army lawyers each traced the spike in prosecutions to a policy change at the beginning of 2002 that required commanders to welcome back soldiers who deserted or went AWOL.

Before that, most deserters, who are often young, undistinguished soldiers who have fallen out of favor with their sergeants, were given administrative separations and sent home with other-than-honorable discharges.

The new policy, ordered by the secretary of the army, effectively eliminated the incentive among squad sergeants to urge returning AWOL soldiers to stay away for at least 30 days, when they would be classified as deserters under the old rules and dropped from the roll.

But some unit commanders, wary of scrutiny from their superiors, go out of their way to improperly keep deserted soldiers on their rosters, and on the Army’s payroll, two officers said in interviews. To counter that, the Army adopted a new policy in January 2005 requiring commanders to formally report absent soldiers within 48 hours.

Such problems are costly. From October 2000 to February 2002, the Army improperly paid more than $6.6 million to 7,544 soldiers who had deserted or were otherwise absent, according to a July 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office.

Most deserters list dissatisfaction with Army life or family problems as primary reasons for their absence, and most go AWOL in the United States. But since 2003, 109 soldiers have been convicted of going AWOL or deserting war zones in Iraq or Afghanistan, usually during their scheduled two-week leaves in the United States, Army officials said.

With the Iraq war in its fifth year, a new subset of deserter is emerging, military doctors and lawyers said: accomplished soldiers who abscond reluctantly, as a result of severe emotional trauma from their battle experiences.

James, a 26-year-old paratrooper twice deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, went AWOL in July after being reassigned to Fort Bliss, Tex., an Army post in the mountainous high-desert region near El Paso.

“The places I was in in Iraq and Afghanistan look exactly like Fort Bliss,” said James, who agreed to talk about his case on the condition that his last name not be printed. “It starts messing with your head — ‘I’m really back there.’ ”

In December, he and another deserter, Ronnie, 28, who also asked that his last name not be used, tried to surrender to the authorities at Fort Bliss. A staff sergeant told them not to bother, James said.

James and Ronnie, who both have five years of service, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and abuse alcohol to self-medicate, said Dr. David M. Walker, a former Air Force psychiatrist who has examined both men.

With help from lawyers, James and Ronnie returned to Fort Bliss on Tuesday. They were charged with desertion and face courts-martial and possibly a few months in a military brig.

“If I could stay in the military, get help, that’s what I want,” said Ronnie, who completed an 18-month combat tour in Kirkuk, Iraq, with the 25th Infantry Division in 2004.

The Army said combat-related stress had not caused many soldiers to desert.

Major Edgecomb, the spokeswoman, said more than 80 percent of the past year’s deserters had been soldiers for less than three years, and could not have been deployed more than once.

Morten G. Ender, a sociologist at the United States Military Academy at West Point, said soldiers’ decisions to go AWOL or desert might come in response to a family crisis — a threat by a spouse to leave if they deploy again, for instance, or a child-custody battle.

“It’s not just that they don’t want to be in a war zone anymore,” Dr. Ender said. “We saw that a lot during Vietnam, and we see that a lot in the military now.”

1 comment:

Pan-African News Wire said...

EXCLUSIVE: Pentagon Considers Extended Tours for All Soldiers

ABC News Has Learned New Plan Would Accommodate Bush Troop Surge


April 10, 2007 — - ABC News has learned that the Pentagon is considering extending the tours of duty for every active duty soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Forget small extensions and trickles of National Guard troops. Under the proposal, deployments for active duty soldiers would be extended from the current 12 months to 15 months. Senior Defense Department officials say the idea has already been presented to Defense Secretary Gates. A decision is expected as early as this week.

"These soldiers have paid the price for this policy for four years. Now they are being given an additional burden to bear, and it will be a cause of concern for the soldiers and even more so for the families," says retired Gen. William Nash.

The stress on the Army has been compounded by the surge of additional forces the president announced in January, a surge Iraq commander David Petreaus wants to extend. Senior officials tell ABC News there is now consensus at the Pentagon and the White House that Petreaus is right. The surge needs to be extended, until at least the end of the year.

Defense officials say extending the surge is simply impossible to do without either extending the tours of those troops already there, or dramatically cutting the time soldiers spend back home.

The Army is proposing an across-the-board extension in part because it is considered to be fairer than imposing piecemeal extensions on individual units. It will also erase uncertainty: Soldiers will know ahead of time how long they'll be in Iraq.

"A clear policy that applies to all is greatly appreciated by soldiers," Nash said. "It is the unknown that is more of a problem."

This plan would be unwelcome news to soldiers who have already had two and sometimes three deployments in Iraq, but officials say there is something of a silver lining: Under the plan, soldiers would be guaranteed at least 12 months at home between deployments.

The proposal would not affect the 25,000 Marines now serving in Iraq, although there has been discussion at the Pentagon of extending Marine deployments as well. The Marines currently serve seven-month tours in Iraq.

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