Tuesday, July 08, 2008

US War Report: Bomb Kills Contractors Near Mosul; Pakistan Denies Involvement in Afghan Blasts

Bomb kills contractors near Mosul

A roadside bomb has killed four contractors and wounded eight others in northern Iraq, the US military said.

The bomb struck a convoy carrying contractors near Mosul on Monday, the military said in a statement released on Tuesday.

It is not known whether the contractors were Iraqis or foreigners.

US commanders have described Mosul as al-Qaeda in Iraq's last urban stronghold. Iraqi troops backed by the US military launched a major offensive in the city in May.

The blast happened the same day that Iraq's prime minister for the first time publicly called for a US troop withdrawal timetable.

Withdrawal talks

Nuri al-Maliki said on Monday that a military agreement the two countries are negotiating should include provisions for the withdrawal of American troops.

With the country facing its lowest levels of violence in four years, Iraq's government has felt increasingly confident about its authority.

The White House said it did not believe al-Maliki was proposing a rigid timeline for US troop withdrawals.

"Negotiations and discussions are ongoing every day," Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, said on Tuesday in Japan, where George Bush, the US president, was attending the Group of Eight summit.

"It is important to understand that these are not talks on a hard date for a withdrawal."

Source: Agencies

Deaths in Iraq suicide attack

Children and women were among the injured in Monday's blast

A bomb attack in the centre of a market in northern Iraq has killed at least nine people and injured 13 others, including women and children, police said.

The explosion, set off by a suspected female suicide bomber, occurred on Monday morning in al-Mafraq market in Baquba, the capital of Diyala province.

Three other attacks in the same province left four more people dead on Monday, police said.

A roadside bombing in northern Baquba's al-Rahima district killed a woman, police said.

A second woman was killed by a stray bullet after locals fired guns into the air.

Over the past year, Diyala has suffered several suicide bomb attacks carried out by women, some of them causing high casualties.

The US military says al-Qaeda in Iraq is increasingly using female suicide bombers to avoid detection by security forces.

The military also says there have been more than 20 female suicide bombings this year in Iraq.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

US announces Iraq uranium transfer

The yellow cake was found in Iraq in 2003, shortly after a US-led invasion of the country

The United States secretly shipped hundreds of tons of uranium from Iraq to a customer in Canada on the request of Baghdad, a spokesman for the Pentagon has said.

About 550 metric tons of yellow cake uranium was moved to Baghdad's fortified Green Zone before being flown to a third country, where it was then shipped to Canada, Bryan Whitman said.

"The operation was completed over the weekend, on Saturday," Whitman said.

The uranium was found by US troops after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Facility south of Baghdad.

It was placed under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Enrichment process

Yellow cake uranium is not strong enough to power an electricity station or nuclear weapon until it is re-processed and enriched.

But Cameco, a company in Canada, is now going to process the yellow cake in a deal worth tens of millions of dollars.

An Iraqi government spokesman said Baghdad asked the US to help get rid of the uranium because of its potentially harmful effects.

The shipments cost the US about $70m, but the Iraqi government has pledged in principle to repay some of the costs, Whitman said.

Arrangements for the sale began several months ago, but the transfer itself took "weeks not months", he said.

Deal questioned

The shipment came after Cameco responded to a bid request made last year by the US government, Lyle Kharan, a spokesman for the company, said.

"We are satisfied at having been able to remove uranium from one of the most unstable regions of the world, and to have transfered it to a stable region to produce our own electric power," he said on Sunday.

He said the yellow cake would be used at the Blind River and Port Hope nuclear power plants north of Toronto.

But Gordon Edwards, a spokesman for the Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, told Al Jazeera that some questions regarding the transfer have not been answered.

"One has to wonder why the secrecy? I think it is probably because of the origin and therefore the symbolic importance of it - not because the material itself could be used for any nefarious purpose," he said.

"[Cameco] bought [the yellow cake] at cheaper prices than world market prices and one has to wonder whether this was a smart deal for the Iraqis.

"Instead of selling it to Cameco, which is more or less a wholesaler, they could have instead had a bidding process that involved the utilities - and they probably would have gotten a better price for it."

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Iraq wants US pullout timetable

Al-Maliki says the interim pact's goal would be to end foreign troop presence

Iraq's prime minister has for the first time publicly called for a US troop withdrawal timetable.

Nuri al-Maliki said on Monday that a military agreement the two countries are negotiating should include provisions for the withdrawal of American troops.

In a meeting with Arab ambassadors in the United Arab Emirates on Monday, al-Maliki said Iraq had proposed a short-term interim memorandum of agreement rather than the more formal status of forces agreement the two sides have been negotiating.

"Negotiations are ongoing with the US side and the current attitude is to reach a memorandum of understanding either for immediate US forces withdrawal or timetable withdrawal," he said on Monday.

The memorandum "now on the table" includes a formula for the withdrawal of US troops, he said.

"The goal is to end the presence [of foreign troops]," al-Maliki said.

The prime minister offered few details, but his national security adviser, Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, told The Associated Press that the government was proposing a timetable contingent on Iraqi forces being able to provide security.

No 'hard date'

The Bush administration's response was muted, saying it was not negotiating for a "hard date" to withdraw its troops.

"Negotiations and discussions are ongoing every day," Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, said on Tuesday in Japan, where George Bush, the US president, was attending the Group of Eight summit.

"It is important to understand that these are not talks on a hard date for a withdrawal."

Some type of agreement is needed to keep US troops in Iraq after a UN mandate expires at year's end.

But many Iraqi legislators have criticised the government's attempt to negotiate a formal status of forces agreement, worried that US demands would threaten the country's sovereignty.

Al-Maliki's latest comments could be aimed at trying to blunt opposition in parliament to any deal.

He could also be trying to avoid parliament altogether.

Although he promised in the past to submit a formal agreement with the US to the legislative body, his spokesman indicated on Monday that the government might feel no need to get approval from parliament for a shorter-term interim deal.

"It is up to the cabinet whether to approve it or sign on it, without going back to the parliament," Ali al-Dabbagh said.

Negotiating ploy

Just last month, facing growing internal Iraqi opposition, the prime minister had said the talks over the security deal were at a "dead end".

"We have reached a deadlock because, when we started these talks, we found that the US demands hugely infringe on the sovereignty of Iraq, and this we can never accept," he had said.

But his foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, admitted that statement was a negotiating ploy, and the talks have continued.

But negotiations have repeatedly stalled, with Iraq and the US seemingly unable to agree on a range of conditions.

One of the most contentious issues was a US demand for immunity for foreign security contractors.

Last week, Zebari claimed the US had agreed to drop the immunity demand, which would subject contractors to prosecution under Iraqi law.

The Bush administration had hoped to wrap up negotiations by the end of July, but has since backed off that deadline while still expressing confidence a deal can be reached.

Now with al-Maliki's latest push for a withdrawal timetable, which Bush rejects, neither country appears any closer to signing the deal.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Pakistan rejects Kabul bombing link

The area near the embassy suffered major damage in Monday's explosion

Pakistan is not behind the suicide car-bombing that targeted the Indian embassy in Kabul on Monday, killing 41 people, including two senior Indian diplomats, Yousaf Raza Gillani, the country's prime minister, has said.

The Afghan interior ministry said it thought the blast was carried out "with co-ordination and advice from regional intelligence circles".

Speaking to Reuters news agency on the sidelines of an Islamic summit in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, on Tuesday, Gillani rejected the claim.

"We need a stable Afghanistan," he said.

"Certainly, why should Pakistan destabilise Afghanistan? It is in our interest, a stable Afghanistan. We want stability in the region."

Up to 141 people were wounded in addition to the deaths in the embassy bombing, according to government officials.

Security report

The bombing received support from foreign intelligence agencies, Afghanistan said in a security report released on Tuesday.

It said terrorists had entered the country after receiving training and logistical support from across the border, a reference to Pakistan.

"Without any doubt the terrorists could not have succeeded in this act without the support of foreign intelligence agencies," the report said.

Meanwhile, the bodies of the dead diplomats have been flown to New Delhi for cremation.

Pranab Mukherjee, the Indian foreign minister, announced on Monday that an Indian military attache and a diplomat were among those killed, and identified them as Brigadier R Mehta and V Venkat Rao.

Mukherjee said two Indian security guards and an Afghan national who worked at the embassy were also killed.

"Such acts of terror will not deter us from fulfilling our commitments to the government and people of Afghanistan," he said.

Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, the Afghan foreign minister, visited the embassy soon after the attack to show support, Sultan Ahmad Baheen, his spokesman, said.

"The enemies of Afghanistan and India's relationship cannot hamper our relationship by conducting such attacks," Baheen said.

India has provided significant support to Afghanistan's efforts to restore order after the removal of the Taliban, which seized power in 1996 until they were pushed out.

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani author and expert on the Taliban, told Al Jazeera that the Afghan government is implicitly linking Pakistan to the attack.

"Pakistan, like many previous attacks, is blamed," he said.

"This is a worsening regional situation, particularly now that foreign embassies, like India, which has no troops in Afghanistan, are also being targeted."

Taliban denial

The Taliban has carried out a wave of suicide attacks across the country in the past seven years, but said it did not carry out the embassy attack.

Zabihullah Mujahed, a group spokesman, told the AFP news agency that the Taliban would have been proud to claim responsibility for the attack but they had not been involved.

"We wish we had carried out this attack ... since India has been the enemy of the Islamic emirate," he said.

"They send secret military experts to Afghanistan and they train (the) Afghan army.

"Had we carried out the attack, we would have claimed responsibility for it with pride since we have good reasons for it."

Mujahed said America, China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and other countries around "are rivals in Afghanistan and this attack may be the result of this rivalry".

Possible perpetrators

Retired Major-General Dipankar Banerjee, director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, told Al Jazeera that the Taliban may not be responsible for the attack.

"This terrorist attack is the work of those that are highly specialised ... but I am not entirely sure if the blame can be pointed towards the Taliban because the majority of those killed were Afghan civilians," he said.

"Also, India has no troops stationed in the country, but over 3,000 personnel involved in development projects.

"Perhaps this is the work of those that are not happy between this partnership between India and Afghanistan."

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Pakistan arrests blast suspects

A string of blasts struck Islamabad and Karachi within a span of 48 hours

Pakistani police have arrested several suspects over multiple blasts in Karachi which killed one person and wounded at least 41 on Monday evening.

Babar Khattak, police chief of Sindh province, told the AFP news agency on Tuesday that five people from different parts of the city had been held after investigators got some leads about their involvement.

"We cannot disclose to which group they belong or what we have recovered from them," he said.

Wasim Ahmed, the city police chief, said "a few" more suspects had been arrested in addition to the five seized earlier and that jihadi materials had been confiscated from them.

"We have seized hate literature in books and CDs," Ahmed said.

Qaim Ali Shah, the Sindh chief minister, said the bombs were meant to "destabilise the coalition government" which won the national elections, state media said.

The explosions in Karachi came a day after a suicide bombing in the capital Islamabad killed 19 people near a rally marking the first anniversary of a bloody government raid on a radical mosque.

Severed head

Meanwhile, investigators have found a severed head.

The head was found in the bushes by the road where the attack took place, a Reuters news agency photographer said.

Police declined to comment on the grisly find.

The heads of suicide bombers are often severed by the explosives strapped to their torsos and can provide vital clues.

The government is led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of former Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, who was killed in a suicide attack in Rawalpindi last December.

'Despicable attack'

Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who took over as leader of the party after his wife's murder, said in a statement those behind Sunday's "despicable" attack were trying to create chaos.

"The Pakistan People's Party realises the grave threat that such terrorist activities pose ... and the PPP government will do everything possible to check the activities of such elements and those responsible will be brought to justice," he said.

Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president whose power has withered since his allies were defeated in a February election and who has been facing calls to step down, cautioned on Friday that more "radical mosques would emerge if extremism and militancy were not tackled".

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