Saturday, February 09, 2008

US War Bulletin: Soldier Tells of Killing Iraqi Civilian; Forces Join Resistance, Five US Soldiers Killed; NATO Problems in Afghanistan

1:03 MECCA TIME, 22:03 GMT

Iraqi groups 'withdraw' US support

The US military says the Awakening Councils have helped fight al-Qaeda in Iraq

Sunni armed groups known as Awakening Councils appear to have withdrawn their support for US forces and the Iraqi government in Diyala province.

The move has been seen as a significant blow to the US, which has hailed the groups' work in securing towns and neighbourhoods as a rare success in increasing security in the country.

Meanwhile, the US military announced that five American soldiers were killed in two roadside bombings on Friday.

Four of the deaths occurred in Baghdad and one in Tamim province, the US military said in two separate statements on Saturday. The Tamim blast also wounded three soldiers.

At least 3,958 members of the US military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press news agency count.

For their part, US troops killed eight suspected fighters and captured 26 people - including an alleged Shia militia leader - in two days of raids across Iraq, the US military said.

Council anger

In Diyala province, a curfew has been imposed after the Sunni Awakening Councils ended patrols of towns and neighbourhoods.

The councils, comprised of mostly Sunni tribesmen who have worked with American troops to force al-Qaeda and other fighters from their home towns, are refusing to return to the streets unless the chief of police resigns.

Tensions began mounting after two girls were kidnapped and killed last week by men dressed in Iraqi security forces uniform. Their bodies were later found stripped naked.

The armed groups gave the chief of police until midday on Friday to apologise and arrest the men, who they say are Shia militiamen in the Iraqi security forces.

"We hereby declare suspension of all co-operation with both US military, Iraqi security forces and the local government," Abu Abdullah, spokesman for Diyala's Awakening Council, announced after the deadline passed.

The fallout between the councils and Iraq's government is likely to impede US efforts to gain full control of the region.

'Dramatic' change

Speaking to Al Jazeera on Sunday, Laith Kubba, a former spokesman for the ex-Iraqi prime minister, said the withdrawal is unlikely to cause "dramatic" damage to Iraq's security in the short term.

"This is a way to pressure the Iraqi government to compromise its position and take the Awakening Council militias on the government payroll," he said.

He also seemed sceptical about the groups' threatened suspension.

"I do not believe they are genuinely going to withdraw support, so it is not really going to affect security, but it is going to increase pressure and force the Iraqi government to compromise its position," he said.

Diyala operation

Hoda Abdel-Hamid, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Iraq, said: "As US forces push into Diyala as part of a massive operation to clear up the province, they need these people.

Council suspends patrols

"And once you have one Awakening Council who is going to retract, it might be more difficult to convince others citizens anywhere else to be part of these Awakening Councils."

There are now more than 130 Awakening Councils across Iraq and financially supported by the US military.

The crisis threatens to spread as Awakening Councils in Falluja, Ramadi and certain neighbourhoods in Baghdad, complain of a lack of support from the government.

Targeted by both al-Qaeda fighters and Shia militias, a roadside bomb killed three Awakening Council members and wounded eight others south of Baghdad on Thursday. About 100 members were killed in January alone.

Security forces

"The Iraqi government hasn't been too forthcoming and we'll see more and more of these problems bubbling up unless the US manages to convince the Iraqi government to act a bit more quickly and to integrate them into the Iraqi security forces," Abdel-Hamid said.

"Most of these Awakening Councils say 'We are securing our area, we want to be Iraqi security forces and we want to be officially recognised by the Iraqi government.'"

The government has said it will would integrate only a portion of them into the security forces, and try to allocate civilian jobs for the rest.

In other violence in Iraq, a university student was shot dead in the centre of Mosul, in the north of the country.

In Hawija town, three policemen were injured when a bomb targeting their patrol exploded.

In the southern Iraqi city of Wasit, the US army arrested a leader of a one of groups that split from the Mahdi Army militia and three other suspects during a raid.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

February 9, 2008

G.I. Tells of Ordering Unarmed Iraqi’s Death

New York Times

CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq — A top Army sniper testified Friday in a military court that he had ordered a subordinate to kill an unarmed Iraqi man who wandered into their hiding position near Iskandariya, then planted an AK-47 rifle near the body to support his false report about the shooting.

Under a grant of immunity, the sniper, Sgt. Michael A. Hensley, an expert marksman and sniper trainer, testified in the court-martial of Sgt. Evan Vela. Sergeant Vela is accused of murder, impeding a military investigation and planting evidence to cover up an unjust shooting. An earlier charge of premeditated murder was dropped.

Sergeant Vela is the third soldier to be charged in the death of the Iraqi, Genei Nesir Khudair al-Janabi, last May. Sergeant Hensley and another soldier, Specialist Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., were acquitted of murder charges last year, but were convicted of planting evidence. As part of his sentence, Sergeant Hensley was demoted from staff sergeant.

All three soldiers were elite snipers with the 501st Infantry Regiment, Fourth Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.

The military trials have highlighted a secret baiting program, begun in early 2007, in which snipers placed lures like fake explosives or other weaponry to draw insurgents into the open, where they could be killed.

But Sergeant Hensley’s testimony at the base here suggested that by last spring, in addition to baiting and killing, soldiers had added a new tactic: carrying weapons to plant on bodies to deter prosecution.

Sergeant Vela’s lawyer, James Culp, of Austin, Tex., did not dispute that his client had shot and killed Mr. Janabi, but emphasized the battlefield stresses the soldiers endured. Mr. Culp argued that Sergeant Vela had had only a few hours of sleep over three days of constant operations.

Mr. Culp also said his client’s superiors pressed his squad to increase their kill rate, while holding out the threat of prosecution for unjust shootings.

“It’s not a case of beyond reasonable doubt,” Mr. Culp said in an interview after Friday’s proceeding. “It’s about giving warriors the benefit of the doubt.”

Sergeant Vela may testify Saturday.

Sergeant Hensley said that on May 11, he led his squad to a hiding spot overlooking a village they suspected was controlled by Sunni insurgents. But after several days with little rest, soldiers were drifting into sleep.

“I woke up to a local national squatting in front me with his hands up,” Sergeant Hensley testified. The man was Mr. Janabi, who lived nearby. Sergeant Hensley said he tackled Mr. Janabi and pinned him to the ground.

Mr. Janabi was followed into the hide-out by his son, Mustafa, 17. Sergeant Hensley and his team held the two captive until he spotted several Iraqi men in the distance and Mr. Janabi became agitated. Sergeant Hensley feared that Mr. Janabi’s thrashing would alert the other Iraqis.

Sergeant Hensley said he released the boy and ordered everyone except Sergeant Vela to leave because he “didn’t want them to bear witness” to what they were about to do.

“I pretty much knew at this point that something was going to happen to the father,” Sergeant Hensley testified. “He was making too much noise. I thought that the only way to protect my guys was to take this guy’s life.”

Sergeant Hensley said he ordered Sergeant Vela to load his 9-millimeter pistol, and then made four radio calls to his command post to support a cover story. The first call reported that an Iraqi man was approaching, the second that the man was armed, the third that the sergeant was preparing to shoot.

The fourth call confirmed that he had killed his target.

“At that point his head was at Sergeant Vela’s feet, and I asked him if he was ready and then I moved out of the way,” Sergeant Hensley said. He ordered Sergeant Vela to fire, and Sergeant Vela complied immediately, Sergeant Hensley said.

“A round was fired into his head,” he said.

Mr. Janabi did not die immediately, Sergeant Hensley said. As his brain hemorrhaged, he choked on his blood. Sergeant Hensley simulated the gurgling sound and testified that he ordered Sergeant Vela to fire again.

Sergeant Hensley said he pulled out an AK-47 that he had ordered one of his men to carry and placed it near the body.

“It wasn’t uncommon for us to have stuff like that out there,” he said. They often carried incriminating items to plant on Iraqis as “insurance,” he said.

Dr. Michael Baden, a prominent New York forensic pathologist, showed several poster-size photographs of Mr. Janabi’s body and said he had been killed by a single shot to the head. The photos showed two coin-size wounds behind each ear, which Dr. Baden described as entrance and exit wounds.

The victim’s son, Mustafa Ghani Nesir al-Janabi, also testified. He said he had found his father being held captive by American soldiers hiding in a stand of trees. When the soldiers saw him, they sat him next to his father.

“At the beginning I talked to him and he answered back,” he said. Perhaps drawing a parallel with their perilous situation, he said he told his father about how one of their relatives had recently been killed. “I was talking to him about how my cousin Saif was killed in Iskandariya,” Mr. Janabi said. “I told him that the Mahdi Army killed him.”

The Americans shushed them repeatedly and then told the son to go away, he said.

When a military prosecutor exhibited a picture of the dead man, the young man said, “That’s my father.” Another was shown and he repeated, “That’s my father.”

“Did your father look like this when they released you?” the prosecutor asked.

“No, he didn’t,” the son answered.

Bombs Kill 5 G.I.’s

BAGHDAD (AP) — Five American soldiers were killed Friday in two roadside bombings, the military said on Saturday.

Four of the deaths were in Baghdad. The fifth death was in northern Iraq, in Tamim Province.

The military gave no further information.

February 10, 2008

Conflicts Deepen Between Local Iraqi Governments and U.S.-Backed Sunni Groups

New York Times

BAGHDAD — Conflicts between provincial governments and local Sunni Arab forces allied with the United States intensified this weekend in two provinces. The conflicts raise the prospect that the creation of the forces, known as Awakening Councils or Concerned Local Citizens, formed to fight extremists and bring calm to the country, might instead add to the unrest in Diyala and Anbar provinces.

In Diyala, northeast of Baghdad, 300 members of the local concerned citizens groups, many of whom are former insurgents, left the outposts, from which they start patrols and guard the surrounding areas.

The citizens groups said the walkout was a protest against the Shiite police commander for the province, whom they accuse of being sectarian and a member of the Mahdi Army, a militia affiliated with the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, according to an official in the governor’s office who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The police commander, Staff. Gen. Ghanim al-Quraishi, has accused many in those citizens groups of continuing their past activities of killing and displacing Shiite families, and he has removed some of them from their posts and detained others.

The American military recruits and pays the groups to fight Islamic extremists. Although the groups have mostly seemed to be cooperating, more recently their behavior has been problematic.

In Anbar Province, tensions escalated between leaders of the local Awakening movement and the Iraqi Islamic Party, which as the sole major Sunni party to contest the most recent local elections won control of the provincial council. Party members said Saturday that they might bring a lawsuit against the Awakening leaders for saying they would oust the party from control; the leaders had previously called for a new election in the next few months in order to try to win seats on the council.

In southern Iraq, more than 30 people from different Shiite groups were detained by the police, who are also Shiite in those areas. In Karbala, at least 15 people were taken in to custody, and at least 15 were picked up by the police around Nasiriya, according to local police officers. The detentions appeared aimed partly at curtailing the activities of a messianic Shiite cult, the Soldiers of Heaven, but appeared to include some people with no affiliation with the group.

A police spokesman in Karbala denied that those arrested were connected with Mr. Sadr’s militia. More arrests were under way in Nasiriya on Saturday, according to Ahmed Taha, the province governor’s deputy.

In Najaf, President Jalal Talabani visited with the five members of the Marjaia, the most senior clerics in Iraq, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Afterward, Mr. Talabani told reporters that contrary to some Iraqi news reports, there was no plan among them to replace Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

“There is a deal on keeping the prime minister, changing the ministers and reducing the number of ministries by half,” he said, apparently referring to longstanding discussions among the leaders of different political parties about restructuring the government.

He added that the goal was to create a governing coalition made up of the six parties that together would represent Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

February 10, 2008

NATO’s Leader Says the Alliance Remains Unified on Troops for Afghan Mission

New York Times

MUNICH — NATO is not devolving into a two-tier alliance of those who fight and those who will not, the alliance’s secretary general said Saturday at an international security conference.

Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer’s defense of the unity of the alliance follows several weeks of difficult wrangling between the United States, Canada and their European allies over sorely needed troops to help fight the insurgency in Afghanistan.

He seemed to be responding to recent remarks by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who warned Congress that the alliance risked becoming a “two-tiered” organization with “some allies willing to fight and die to protect people’s security, and others who are not.”

“We are not on the brink of falling apart,” Mr. de Hoop Scheffer told reporters here, expanding on remarks he made in an address to the Munich Conference on Security Policy.

The secretary general said there had been some recent success in persuading allies to provide more resources for the fight in Afghanistan. Belgium announced recently that it would send four F-16 fighter-bombers to join the effort in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, the most violent part of the country. Germany last week agreed to send 200 more troops to the northern part of the country as part of a quick-reaction force.

Despite the Secretary General’s positive remarks, no NATO nation has come up with substantial new contributions for the Afghan mission except for the United States, which has committed to sending 3,200 more marines into southern Afghanistan.

The annual conference in Munich brings together heads of state, foreign and defense ministers and other high-ranking diplomats. Relations among NATO members seemed to be slightly less strained following the two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers in Lithuania that ended last week.

Mr. Gates, scheduled to deliver a keynote address on Sunday at the Munich conference on Afghanistan, said Saturday that the United States had not issued any sort of ultimatum to NATO allies to provide more troops.

In conciliatory remarks to alliance members, he expressed Washington’s understanding of political pressures within NATO capitals that have made some allies reluctant to join the combat mission there.

Mr. Gates said his recent letters to alliance defense ministers instead “expressed the hope” that they would increase their contributions of combat troops and security trainers for the Afghan mission.

He said American bilateral relations with individual NATO nations would not be harmed if they were unable to contribute more to the mission in Afghanistan. “We have a realistic understanding of some of the political limitations here in Europe in certain countries,” Mr. Gates said.

But the American defense secretary coupled those comments with a clear warning that the alliance itself could suffer if it does not succeed in Afghanistan because only some allies step up to the combat mission.

“It’s a military alliance,” he said. “The members have signed up with certain obligations in this regard. But if it were to become the case that some allies are not prepared to fulfill their military obligations, while others continue to do so, I think that is a very dangerous situation for the future of the alliance.”

Speculation was rampant throughout the day at the conference that Germany would raise the ceiling on its troop deployments in Afghanistan from a maximum of 3,500 to 4,500. But a spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel said there had been no deliberation of the matter in the chancellery, just discussions among members of Parliament.

Germany has come under significant pressure from the United States to move some of its 3,200 troops from the northern part of Afghanistan to the south.

Polls show a majority of the German public opposes an expanded role for the country’s soldiers in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The Munich Conference on Security Policy, which began during the heart of the cold war, is meeting for the 44th time. The conference theme, “The World in Disarray — Shifting Powers, Lack of Strategies,” reflected the air of uncertainty afflicting the alliance, which had a clearer mission when the Soviet Union was the enemy.

The event lacked some of the luster of previous years. Mrs. Merkel was not scheduled to attend. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, pulled out at the last minute because of the demands of his presidential campaign.

The conference also lacked a significant controversy, such as the large protests in 2003 when then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld spoke to what he previously had referred to as “Old Europe” on the eve of the Iraq invasion, or last year’s event, when Russian President Vladimir V. Putin went beyond the usually diplomatic niceties in a speech harshly critical of United States foreign policy.

This year, Mr. Gates and Sergei B. Ivanov, Russia’s first deputy prime minister, were back to the niceties.

As he entered a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Gates after a series of other country’s speeches that had criticized both American and Russian policy, Mr. Ivanov said, “Everyone pokes his finger at you and us — we are responsible for everything.”

Laughing, Mr. Gates said, “Some things never change.”

February 9, 2008

Gates Says Anger Over Iraq Hurts Afghan Effort

New York Times

MUNICH — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Friday that many Europeans were confused about NATO’s security mission in Afghanistan, and that they did not support the alliance effort because they opposed the American-led invasion of Iraq.

“I worry that for many Europeans the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are confused,” Mr. Gates said as he flew here to deliver an address at an international security conference.

“I think that they combine the two,” he added. “Many of them, I think, have a problem with our involvement in Iraq and project that to Afghanistan, and do not understand the very different — for them — the very different kind of threat.”

The comments were the first in which Mr. Gates had explicitly linked European antipathy to American policy in Iraq with the reason large segments of the public here do not support the NATO operation in Afghanistan.

Mr. Gates’s assessment was an unusually candid acknowledgment from a senior member of President Bush’s cabinet that the war in Iraq had exacted a direct and significant political cost, even among Washington’s closest allies.

Over recent weeks, Mr. Gates has made public and private efforts to persuade NATO governments to offer more combat troops and military and police trainers for the Afghan mission. At the conclusion of a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers in Lithuania on Friday morning, Mr. Gates expressed confidence that “a number of the allies are considering what more they might be able to do.”

Mr. Gates said his recent public comments, as well his keynote speech scheduled here for Sunday, were meant to “focus on why Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and failure in Afghanistan would be a security problem for Europe.”

He said Qaeda leaders hiding in and near Afghanistan and terrorist foot soldiers linked to the organization had already been responsible for violent attacks in Europe.

In a public diplomacy strategy somewhat unusual for an American defense secretary, Mr. Gates said he would speak directly to the people of Europe, and not to their governments, “in an effort to try and explain why their security is tied to the success in Afghanistan and how success in Afghanistan impacts the future of the alliance.”

Mr. Gates acknowledged that there was a risk in making a personal appeal to Europeans for support in stabilizing and rebuilding Afghanistan when their own governments had not yet been able to make the case with complete success.

Mr. Gates said there was no need to rethink the NATO strategy in Afghanistan or to reshape the mission. But, he said, while he was pressing immediately for increased commitments from NATO nations and other allies for combat troops, trainers and transport aircraft, he also stressed that rebuilding Afghanistan was “a long-term project.”

“Afghanistan is going to need significant international help and support for a long time,” he said, adding that the goal should be to move toward civil reconstruction as insurgents are defeated.

Yet 2007 was a violent year for the mission, and a series of recent studies by policy institutes have said the international mission in Afghanistan is at risk of failure.

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