Wednesday, February 06, 2008

US War Update: Reports From Iraq, Afghanistan & Iran--Civilians Killed; Splits in NATO; Rocket Launched

Row over killing of Iraqi family

An Iraqi couple and their son, 19, have been killed when US soldiers stormed a tiny one-room house north of Baghdad.

The US military says its troops killed the two men in self-defence after gunfire came from the house, but local people say the victims were unarmed.

At least one of the couple's daughters was also wounded in the raid, in the village of al-Dawr, near Tikrit.

The military said it was unclear who had fired at the female casualties and the incident is being investigated.

Separately, a suicide bomber reportedly killed eight members of an anti-al-Qaeda militia outside a Sunni Arab tribal leader's house in central Iraq.

The attack took place in Awad village near Taji about 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Baghdad, a police officer said.

'Immediate fire'

A cousin of the those killed in al-Dawr (about 175km or 110 miles north of Baghdad) said he watched the killings from his house across the street.

Karim Hamad told Associated Press news agency that at about 2300 local time on Monday night US soldiers opened the door to the house and immediately opened fire, killing or injuring its unarmed occupants.

He identified the dead as Ali Hamad Shihab, 55, and his wife Naima Sulaiman, 40, and their son Diya, who was a member of a US-backed anti-al-Qaeda militia.

He said the two wounded daughters were transported to hospitals and one of them had died.

AP says an Iraqi police officer speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed Mr Hamad's account.

The area is a Sunni Arab stronghold which is home to many former members of Saddam Hussein's regime. Al-Dawr was where the executed former leader was captured by US forces in 2003.

The US military said the raid was based on intelligence from an informant.

It expressed regret at "the loss of an innocent civilian (in reference to Ms Sulaiman) and the wounding of the child, who is currently receiving medical care" at a US military hospital.

The US statement did not mention the girl said to have died, who may have been taken to an Iraqi hospital.

Correspondents say killings of Iraqi civilians by US soldiers have put strains the relations between the US and Iraq.

On Monday the military said US troops had killed nine civilians, including a child, in strikes south of Baghdad on Saturday.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2008/02/05 13:50:56 GMT

16:47 MECCA TIME, 13:47 GMT

US raid kills Iraqi civilians

Iraqi civilians are continually caught in the crossfire

At least three Iraqis including one woman have been killed after a US raid on a house near the town of Tikrit according to Iraqi and US officials.

Iraqi police said a couple and their 19-year-old son were killed, and that their two young daughters were wounded in the attack late on Monday.

The US military released a statement confirming the raid on Tuesday saying troops came under fire while entering the building in the village of Adwar, and that soldiers shot dead two men inside.

A woman was killed and one child was injured, but it was unclear who shot them, the statement said.

Lieutenant Michael Street, a US military spokesman, said: "During an intelligence-driven operation near Tikrit this morning, coalition forces came under small-arms fire as they entered a building.

Iraqi police, relatives and neighbours said a couple and their 19-year-old son were shot to death in their beds late Monday.

Police said two young girls were wounded and one died on Tuesday at a hospital.

It was the second time in as many days that the US military conceded involvement in the death of Iraqi civilians.

Suicide attack

On Monday, the military said it had accidentally killed nine Iraqi civilians, including a child, in an air raid late on Saturday targeting al-Qaeda in Iraq south of Baghdad.

Elsewhere a suicide bomber killed at least eight members of a group opposed to al-Qaeda at a checkpoint outside a Sunni tribal sheikh's house in central Iraq, police said.

The attack took place outside the home of Sheikh Shathr al-Obeidi, head of a tribal "Awakening" group on Tuesday, in Awad village near Taji, 40 km north of Baghdad, he said.

"Eight members of the Awakening were killed at the checkpoint. Several were wounded," the officer said on condition of anonymity.

"Awakening groups" have confronted al-Qaeda in Iraq with the support of the US military for more than a year.

US commanders have said that al-Qaeda have been increasingly forced to resort to suicide attacks because their ability to stage major bombings has been reduced.

Tuesday's attack follows a spate of suicide bombings in Iraq that have killed more than 200 people already this year.

The attacks have mostly taken place in the province of Diyala province which is now considered Iraq's most dangerous region.

Source: Agencies

US admits killing Iraqi civilians

The US military has admitted accidentally killing nine Iraqi civilians, including a child, during raids south of Baghdad.

In a statement, it said the civilian deaths occurred on Saturday near the town of Iskandariya, 50km (30 miles) from the Iraqi capital.

It added that three more civilians, two of them children, were wounded "as coalition forces pursued al-Qaeda".

Witnesses say 20 people were killed in an US air strike in the area.

They said the dead included 17 members of the same family.

In a statement, the US military said: "Shortly after the incident, coalition forces leaders met with a sheikh representing the citizens of the local area.

"The incident is under investigation. We offer our condolences to the families of those who were killed in this incident, and we mourn the loss of innocent civilian life."

It gave no further details.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2008/02/04 07:08:14 GMT

More Iraqis heading to Syria than returning home: UN

Thursday, February 7

BAGHDAD (AFP)--Iraqis are once again leaving Iraq for Syria in greater numbers than are returning, despite the lower level of bloodshed in their homeland, the UN refugee agency said on Wednesday.

A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, citing Syrian immigration officials, said that in late January an average of 1,200 Iraqis entered Syria every day compared with around 700 who returned.

Most of those Iraqis who return say they are doing so because their Syrian visas have expired or because they have run out of money, rather than because conditions in their homeland have improved, the report said.

"The UNHCR has observed that the return movement to Iraq that increased immediately after the imposition of new visa regulations appears to have subsided," the report, which was sent to AFP in Baghdad, concluded.

The figures angered Iraqi officials, who have pointed to a number of high-profile convoys of returning refugees as evidence that safety is being restored to their war-torn cities after a year of battles with insurgents.

Although there was no immediate official reaction to the report, a senior officer in Iraq's ministry of migration and the displaced, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, branded it as "incorrect."

"These figures have to be false," he said. "Syria no longer allows many Iraqis in and there has been an increase in the number of buses coming back. So I don't know where they could have got this from."

The United Nations estimates there are around 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria, including 153,516 who are formally registered as refugees from the conflict that has wracked the country since the US-led invasion of March 2003.

Most fled after the bombing of the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra in February 2006, which touched off a bitter civil conflict between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite sects and sent between 30,000 and 60,000 fleeing across the border every month.

Last October Syria tightened its rules for granting visas to Iraqi refugees, a move which dramatically reduced the numbers moving there and led to scenes of thousands of Iraqis boarding buses to head back to Baghdad.

"According to an Iraqi Red Crescent report issued in January 2008, some 46,000 refugees returned home from Syria between September and December 2007, a much lower figure than that given by the Iraqi government," the report said.

The Iraqi government had given a figure of 60,000 returnees and invited reporters to homecoming ceremonies at which officials presented the refugees with gifts and boasted of the achievements of the Baghdad security plan.

But according to a survey of refugees carried out by the UN refugee agency in Syria, 46 percent of those seeking to return said they could no longer afford to live in Syria and 25 percent had seen their visas expire.

"Most refugees interviewed do not agree with the idea that security has sufficiently improved in Iraq. Refugees discussing returning to Iraq cite financial pressures as the driving reason for return," the report said.

Majdolin, an Iraqi Christian who recently returned from a trip to Syria, agreed that the worsening situation for Iraqis there was the main reason why refugees are returning.

"The situation for Iraqis is very bad in Syria right now," she said, citing the cost of living and a crackdown by Syrian authorities on forged residency papers that Iraqis can buy for as little as 1,000 Syrian pounds (13 euros).

From the February 06, 2008 edition -

Afghanistan strains NATO ties

Secretary of State Rice arrives in London Wednesday to address tensions among key allies

By Laura J. Winter
Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in the British capital Wednesday to try to bolster a battered NATO ally and address the alliance's efforts in a progressively more dangerous Afghanistan mission.

Three major studies published last week concluded that economic and military initiatives to date lack the coherent strategy needed to block the return of the Taliban and Al Qaeda – or stop the burgeoning opium economy.

The US and Britain, the lead military players in Afghanistan, have taken repeated beatings from lawmakers and allies about NATO's handling of the mission in the six years since the Taliban fell.

Many analysts say this year will test whether NATO and its Afghan partners can secure the country and build a functioning state. But the ties that bind NATO are fraying badly – and publicly – over just how much each member state wants to commit to turning Afghanistan around.

"It's starting to get to a turning point about what is this alliance about," says Michael Williams, director of the transatlan- tic program at the Royal United Services Institute in London. "The problems NATO is having in Afghanistan are just a symptom of what is wrong with the alliance. There are a lot disagreements about what NATO is and what it should be used for."

Mr. Williams adds that the issue is not a European versus an American problem. "Now you have this two-tier alliance. It is a coalition of the willing and the sort-of-willing," he says. "So the Germans aren't and the Canadians, the Brits and the Dutch are."

An exchange of pointed jabs is happening days before NATO defense ministers are scheduled to gather on Thursday in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, where US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is expected to put the squeeze on Germany and France to commit more troops to Afghanistan's "hot zones" in the south.

Secretary Rice is expected to confer with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband in London on coordinating diplomatic efforts to convince NATO members to expand their military commitments in Afghanistan to include combat.

A NATO spokeswoman in Kabul notes that while the insurgency is not spreading, 70 percent of the violence occurs in 10 percent of the country: the south, where the Canadians, the British, and the Dutch are involved in difficult counterinsurgency operations.

The Canadians, who have about 2,500 troops operating out of Kandahar Air Base, have said that unless more equipment and 1,000 more troops are sent by the allies to support their efforts in the troubled province, they will leave when the term of their mandate ends in February 2009.

The British, who have committed some 7,800 troops over the past 22 months to battle the Taliban in Helmand Province, are angry as well, still stinging from Afghan President Hamid Karzai's very public recent rebukes.

Last month, Mr. Karzai said the British bungled efforts in Helmand Province and then blocked the appointment of top British diplomat Paddy Ashdown as the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan.

"Ashdown's a celebrity. He's the Michael Jackson of postconflict reconstruction," says Williams. "He was going to raise the profile of Afghanistan. Karzai was afraid he would be too powerful. So the Afghans shot themselves in the foot. Paddy Ashdown was the best chance to get someone with the right personality to get all the players into the same ring."

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) consists of some 42,000 troops from 39 countries stationed across Afghanistan The US has about 17,000 troops under NATO command and some 12,000 more involved in counterterrorism operations.

While the Bush administration is sending an additional 3,200 Marines soon, Mr. Gates will be seeking 7,500 more troops from two major allies who have been reluctant to face off with the Taliban.

A German newspaper published a leaked letter from Gates to Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, in which Gates demanded that Germany commit an additional 1,000 soldiers and send them to the restive south. But when ISAF agreements were made in 2002, the parliament voted to send forces its troops only if they were deployed in the relatively peaceful north.

It's unlikely the defense minister will urge a revisiting of the issue. "They won't budge because of the language that has been used for the past few days," says Jan Techau, of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "The German reply to the Gates letter is a position they cannot abandon without losing face."

Mr. Techau says the public has had difficulty linking German security to Afghanistan because it has not suffered anything like the attacks in the London Underground. He says military action in Afghanistan is very unpopular.

"We are afraid of the voters. Our leaders do not tell them the truth – that what needs to be done in Afghanistan means a fight," he says. "Germany will pay a political price internationally. There are a lot of bad feelings from the Canadians, because we are not going to enter into hot combat, which everyone else has done. You cannot expect ... to have a say in the alliance when you ... always say 'no' to your allies."

The French are expected to entertain Gates's request for more help, but with conditions, according to Frederic Bozo, a professor of European studies at the Sorbonne in Paris.

"When [Nicolas] Sarkozy was elected, he said he was going to reconcile with America in general. And he said he would put France back into the NATO fold, into the apparatus. So the expectation now is that he will deliver more," says Mr. Bozo. But, he adds, "The old divides are appearing. It's about all the big issues. What is NATO's role? Are we fighting a war against terrorists?

"NATO won't fail in Afghanistan, but no one is going to win," he continues. "Afghanistan is a vast country, and the amount of troops [there] in proportion [to what is needed] is ridiculous. The notion that we are going to turn Afghanistan into a functioning democracy is incredible."

Bozo says that what France is willing to contribute differs fundamentally from what the US wants. He says the Sarkozy administration will push for NATO to focus on political solutions and development, while the Americans will want to focus on a military resolution.

In London, Williams countered, "It's useless building schools and roads if there are going to be IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and the burning of schools. The alliance needs to have reform and a strategic discussion about what NATO means. If there is not an agreement, maybe it's time to do something else."

NATO ISAF Forces in Afghanistan, as of Dec. 5, 2007

Thirty-nine nations contribute to the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)

The Top 10:

United States – 15,038
United Kingdom – 7,753
Germany – 3,155
Italy – 2,358
Canada – 1,730
Netherlands – 1,512
France – 1,292
Turkey – 1,219
Poland – 1,141
Australia – 892

Source: Nato

16:32 MECCA TIME, 13:32 GMT

Mosul stocks up for 'battle'

Iraq's city of Mosul is preparing for what Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister, calls a "decisive battle against al-Qaeda".

Traders in the northern city have said that residents are stocking up with supplies after the warning came on Saturday, following an emergency meeting al-Maliki held with his war council.

A major attack on al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters in the city by government forces will be undertaken in the next "few days", Duraid Kashmoula, the Nineveh governor said. Mosul is the capital of Nineveh province.

Mosul is believed to be al-Qaeda in Iraq's last urban stronghold.

"It is time to launch a decisive battle against terrorism," Maliki said after Saturday's meeting attended by David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, and Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security advisor.

"The battle that our armed forces will launch will destroy terrorism and the criminal gangs and outlaws in Nineveh," Maliki said.

Recent attacks in Mosul have killed dozens of people, including a police chief.

On January 25, Maliki promised a "decisive battle against al-Qaeda".

Panic buying

The panic buying intensified after military reinforcements arrived in the city a few days ago.

Abu Karim, a 49-year-old grocer, said: "I sold in one week what I usually sell in a month. The rush is continuing."

Salem Ahmed, a petrol seller, said prices had doubled because people were stockpiling.

"People are trying to buy as much petrol for their cars and kerosene for heating and cooking as they can," he said.

Mosul has been included as a target in the US' Operation Phantom Phoenix according to the American military.

The operation, which was launched on January 8, is a nationwide assault on al-Qaeda.

'Grinding campaign'

Scott Rye, a US military spokesman, said: "Coalition forces recognise the strategic importance of Mosul to al-Qaeda in Iraq and our operations will continue in the area."

Mosul is Iraq's third-largest city, 360km northwest of Baghdad.

Many fighters shifted to northern Iraq, including Mosul, to escape the US-led offensives in and around Baghdad and in Diyala province, northeast of the capital.

US commanders in northern Iraq have said the battle to oust them from Mosul will not be a swift strike as al-Maliki suggested, but rather a grinding campaign that will require more firepower from both the Pentagon and Iraqi allies.

Source: Agencies

Russia suspicious over Iran test

Russia thinks the launch of an Iranian rocket into space raises suspicion over the true aim of its nuclear programme, a foreign ministry official has said.

"Long-range missiles are one of the components of a [nuclear] weapons system," Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov told Interfax.

Therefore Monday's test launch of Iran's Explorer-1 space rocket was "of course, a cause for concern", he said.

Iran insists its nuclear programme is purely for peaceful energy production.

Correspondents say the statement by Mr Losyukov appeared to indicate that Moscow increasingly shares Western concerns about Tehran's nuclear course.

"It increases suspicion of Iran regarding its possible desire to create a nuclear weapon," he was quoted as saying.

Iran said the rocket which was test-fired would be used to launch research satellites.

The US State Department said the launch was "troubling", as it was an example of the same technology behind long-range ballistic missiles.

In the past, Russia has been more sceptical than some Western powers about Iran's missile capability, saying it would take a long time to build long-range missiles.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2008/02/06 12:29:07 GMT

12:25 MECCA TIME, 9:25 GMT

Iran launches 'space' rocket

Ahmadinejad wants an 'influential presence' in space

Iran has said that it launched a rocket designed to send its first homemade research satellite into orbit in the next year.

State television reported the rocket had blasted off but did not show the launch.

It had earlier shown footage of a rocket on a launch pad in desert terrain.

The satellite, called Omid (Hope), would be launched in the next Iranian year, which ends in March 2009.

"We need to have an active and influential presence in space," Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president, said in a televised ceremony before the launch.

"Iran took its first step [to establish a presence in space] very strongly, precisely and wisely. Building and launching a satellite is a very important achievement."

The ability to put satellites into orbit could indicate an advance in the country's missile technology.

In November, Iran had built a new missile with a range of 2,000km, adding to the scope of its conventional arsenal.

Western experts say Iran rarely gives enough details to determine how significant its technology advances are.

They say much Iranian technology is based on modifications to equipment supplied by other countries, including China and North Korea.

Space centre launched

Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad inaugurated Iran's first space centre, which includes an underground control station and launch pad which was used to fire Omid into space.

Iran has been pursuing a space programme in the last few years and in October 2005, an Iranian Russian-made satellite was put into orbit by a Russian rocket.

But Omid would be Iran's first home-built probe and the first to be launched in Iran.

Source: Agencies

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