Thursday, August 14, 2008

US War Bulletin: 5 Killed in Iraq Bomb Attacks; Sailors Accused of Abuse; 3 Soldiers Killed in Afghanistan, etc.

Five killed in Iraq bomb attacks

BAGHDAD (AFP) - - A rash of bomb attacks in Iraq, two targetting pilgrims headed to the holy city of Karbala for a Shiite religious festival, killed five people and wounded 18 on Thursday, security officials said.

In one of the attacks a Shiite pilgrim was killed and seven others wounded by a roadside bomb in Baghdad's commercial district of Karrada as they set off towards Karbala, 110 kilometres (70 miles) south of Baghdad, the officials said.

Another explosion killed a policeman and injured five of his colleagues near a checkpoint in the Zafraniya district of southern Baghdad set up to search pilgrims heading south.

Tens of thousands of Shiites are expected to flock to Karbala to venerate Imam Mahdi, an eighth century imam who vanished as a boy and whom Shiites believe will return to bring justice to the world.

The Shiite community was once led by a series of infallible imams that were direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed and his son-in-law Ali. When the Mahdi went into hiding, leadership of the community passed to the clergy.

In other violence, a car bomb targeting a police patrol near the restive city of Baquba, about 60 kilometres (35 miles) north of Baghdad, killed two policemen and injured six, security officials said.

The defence ministry said that on Tuesday the Iraqi army discovered dozens of houses which had been booby-trapped with explosives by Al-Qaeda jihadists in the same area -- about 10 kilometres southeast of Baquba.

Also near Baquba, a bomb hidden in a field killed a 10-year-old girl, a security official said.

On July 29, some 50,000 Iraqi soldiers and police launched a major push against Al-Qaeda and other insurgents in Diyala, which commanders describe as Iraq's most dangerous province.

The Iraqi military imposed a curfew on Baquba, capital of Diyala, on Tuesday after a suicide bomber struck, injuring a the governor of the province.

U.S. Navy: 6 sailors accused of abusing detainees in Iraq

(AP) — The U.S. Navy says six sailors have been accused of abusing detainees at U.S. detention center in Iraq.
A statement issued Thursday says two detainees suffered minor abrasions in the alleged assault and eight others were sealed in a cell that had been sprayed with a riot control agent.

The Navy says the six acccused in the assaults face courts-martial. It says seven others received non-judicial punishment.

The alleged assaults occurred at the Camp Bucca detention center in southern Iraq on May 14 and a formal investigation began four days later.

Kirkuk reflects challenges of ethnic conflict in Iraq

By Charles Levinson, USA TODAY

KIRKUK, Iraq — Hiwa Assad and his wife, Guller Sabbah, are still visibly in love after 20 years of marriage. They snuggle on the couch, exchange smiles as they talk and keep their sparsely furnished home ringing with laughter.
He is a Kurdish former guerrilla. She comes from a separate ethnic group, the Turkmen. Yet there is no sign that, just outside their door, their peoples are locked in a struggle for the city of Kirkuk.

Until, that is, she steps out of the room.

"If there is a fight," Assad quietly confides, "if the Turkmens try to take this city from us, I will take my weapons and I will fight for my people. I can never let my people lose what they've won.

"There will be a fight for Kirkuk," he adds. "Things are getting worse day by day."

Such warnings are becoming ever more common here: at violent street demonstrations, in the angry speeches of politicians, and even in previously harmonious places such as the Assad family home. The city's status has become one of Iraq's most urgent political issues, threatening to spark a new conflict just as security gains have been made in other parts of the country and debate intensifies about when to bring more American troops home.

The confrontation in Kirkuk comes down to who will control the city and the surrounding oil fields, which contain 40% of Iraq's massive reserves of crude. Nearly every ethnic and religious group in Iraq is present here — the city of about 850,000 has been called "Iraq's Jerusalem" — meaning an eruption of sectarian violence in Kirkuk could spread quickly elsewhere in the country.

This month, arguments over Kirkuk prevented the Iraqi parliament from reaching a deal on bigger national issues, namely scheduling a date for provincial elections that President Bush says are crucial to a long-term peace in Iraq. The war of words has since become more heated, with one leading politician in Kirkuk threatening to cut off his rival's head.

"Kirkuk is a minefield," says Redha Taki, a leading Shiite politician. "If we touch it and try to solve the problem, it will blow up. And if we continue ignoring and delaying it, it will also eventually blow up."

Kurds, who make up the city's majority, believe that Kirkuk should be incorporated into Kurdistan, the Kurdish-controlled region that lies just a few miles to the northeast and operates almost like a separate country from the rest of Iraq. Arabs and Turkmens, fearful of discrimination if that happens, want the city to remain under the power of the central government in Baghdad.

The political tensions have started to spill into the streets. Two weeks ago, a demonstration by Kurds was hit by a suicide bomber. Seeking revenge, the protesters overran the headquarters of the local Turkmen party, exchanged gunfire with the guards and set the building on fire. Twenty-two people were killed.

So far, the clashes are not of a scale similar to those between Sunni Arabs and Shiites that left tens of thousands of Iraqis dead in 2006 and 2007.

Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, says Kirkuk is "relatively peaceful," but acknowledges the military is closely watching the "flash point there."

Indeed, some familiar warning signs are present: Al-Qaeda is trying to use its remaining foothold in northern Iraq to enflame sectarian tensions here, just as it once did in Baghdad, according to Hussein Kamal, head of intelligence at Iraq's interior ministry.

Yahya Barzangi, a 38-year-old photographer, was badly beaten during the recent demonstration when one of the protesters accused him of being a Turkmen agent.

"Suddenly there were 50 people hitting me, kicking me, shouting, 'Kill him, kill him,' " says Barzangi, who is not Turkmen but from a well-known Kurd family.

Friends were able to pull him away to safety, but not before he was wounded. Barzangi spent two days in the hospital.

"In the past it was just the politicians talking about fighting and civil war, but now the people are starting to follow," Barzangi says. "This is the real danger, and this is exactly what happened in Baghdad in 2006."

'They want to kill each other'

Just as Sunnis and Shiites in Baghdad once pointed to mixed marriages, jointly owned businesses and a long history of coexistence as proof that a civil war would never occur, Kirkuk's people make similar arguments now.

During a lunch of spiced rice and salted fish at the Assad house, the mix of languages — jokes flew in Kurdish, Arabic and Turkmen — reflects the patchwork of ethnicities and tribes that have long lived side by side.

"The problem is between politicians and political parties," says Rizkar Mohammad, Assad's brother-in-law and life-long friend, who also is married to a Turkmen.

"There are no problems between the people," he says.

Assad listens politely to such talk — and later dismisses it, when no one else is around.

"Don't believe a word they say," he says. "With their tongues they say everything is all right, but in their hearts they want to kill each other.

"People in Kirkuk have two faces," he continues. "They sit with you and talk as if they're angels. They say, 'I have no enemies and don't hate other religions and nationalities.' But the minute they are alone with their own sect, they are the first ones to insult and hate."

Meanwhile, many Iraqi politicians have dropped any pretense of civility when it comes to Kirkuk. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said last month that, if his people were denied control of the city, "there were other choices available," a possible threat to use force to take the city if politics didn't work.

Arab leader Mohammad Hussein al-Jabbouri countered that Arabs would defend Kirkuk. In response, the Kurds' senior leader in Kirkuk, Najat H.K. Manmi, vowed: "We will cut off Jabbouri's head. If he thinks he can beat the Kurds, he doesn't understand Kurdish history."

Together 'hundreds of years'

The rancor has surprised many city residents. "We've lived together for hundreds of years," says Abdel Razaq, an Arab arts professor. "But things are different today."

The confrontation is also pulling in people of all ages. Back at the Assad house, lunch is ongoing as his 17-year-old son steps in from the street. Some young kids just got into a fight, he says. It was Turkmens vs. Kurds.

Even between Assad and Sabbah, husband and wife, the ethnic tension occasionally surfaces. They are adept at laughing it off, but a sharp edge occasionally shows through.

"Your father always says bad things about the Kurds. He calls us thieves and hooligans, and I stay quiet out of respect," Assad says.

"You stay quiet because you know Kurds are bad," she counters.

Then, as if talking to a dog, she says: "Down Kurd! Down Kurd!"

They share a laugh, and then turn serious again.

"The Kurds think they should get special treatment because they suffered under Saddam (Hussein), but Saddam did the same thing to the Turkmens as he did to the Kurds," Sabbah says, prompting angry cries of protest from Assad.

"Noooooo!" he says. "Anfal, Anfal! It wasn't the same," he says, referring to Saddam's genocidal campaign against the Kurds in 1988 that killed tens of thousands of Kurds.

It is that history of persecution that makes Kurds so eager to control their own destiny in Kirkuk, and in Kurdistan just to the north. The Kurds have been largely left alone by Iraq's Arabs since the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam in 2003, but that is now changing as violence comes down elsewhere.

The Kurds "are doing everything they can now to secure their long-term advantage," says Sam Parker, an analyst with the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace.

Iraq's constitution calls for a referendum in Kirkuk so the city's residents can determine whether to become part of Kurdistan. Voting has been postponed for years now because of fears that forcing a decision could spark violence, and Parker says "the best solution on Kirkuk is to just keep delaying it."

Whether that's a viable strategy, or whether Kirkuk's politicians and residents force a decision, remains to be seen. In the Assad family, though, the vote is for the fragile status quo.

"We don't talk about politics in the house so things remain calm," Assad says. "If we did, we'd have big problems."

Report: U.S. using contractors in Iraq at unprecedented rateStory Highlights

Report says U.S. on track to spend $100 billion on contractors by end of 2008

Figures reflect reliance on contractors to fill jobs typically held by military personnel

From Mike Mount
CNN Pentagon Producer

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States spent $85 billion on contracts in Iraq and other countries in the first four years of the war and is relying on contract employees at a greater rate than in any other war, according to a government report released Tuesday.

Iraqi contractors check debris for a rehabilitation project at a shrine in northern Iraq in April.

A report by the Congressional Budget Office says that a fifth of spending on the Iraq war has gone to contractors. Between 2003 and 2007, 70 percent of $85 billion in contracts were for work inside Iraq. The remaining 30 percent went to contracts in surrounding countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the report said.

The Government Accountability Office says the United States has spent $435 billion on operations in Iraq.

Based on war contract spending patterns since 2004, the United States could spend more than $100 billion on contractor operations in Iraq by the end of 2008, according to the report.

The U.S. military has used contractors in all of its recent conflicts, from the Gulf War to the Balkans. But military leaders are using contractors to a greater extent in Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to the report, reflecting a reliance on contractors to fill jobs held by military personnel in past conflicts.

Contractors in and around Iraq help serve food, clean and provide security for the U.S. and Iraqi governments, according to the report. Most of the contracts were for logistics support, gas and diesel fuel, and food.

The report says that about 40 percent of the contractors are Iraqi citizens and 20 percent American civilians.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld argued that using contractors freed troops up for more combat roles when the military was short on personnel for deployment.

But the United States' dependence on contracting companies has also led to questions about corruption and overcharging of the government.

Major companies, such as Halliburton and its former subsidiary KBR, have been found guilty of bilking tens of millions of dollars from the government because of a lack of oversight or political favoritism.

Contractors in various roles have been criticized for the quality of their work, but companies handling security for the U.S. and Iraqi governments have become the most scrutinized contractors in Iraq.

Between 25,000 and 30,000 security contractors are believed to be operating inside Iraq, the Congressional Budget Office report says, about as many as as a division and a half of U.S. military forces.

The future of using security contractors in military roles has come under question, both legally and politically, in large part due to the lack of direct authority that U.S. military commanders have over their actions.

According to the report, between 2003 and 2007, the United States spent $6 billion to $10 billion on security contractors, about as much as it would cost to have U.S. military units performing the same mission.

U.S.-funded contracts employed an estimated 190,000 contractors in Iraq in 2007, about 40,000 to 50,000 more than the number of U.S. troops in the country.

The report says that during peacetime, the contractors would not be renewed; the duty would return to military units.

The use of contractors in war zones also has enflamed members of Congress, who have called for numerous hearings.

The war contract business has become so large and complicated that one U.S. senator proposed a special war-contracting committee to watch over it.

"I believe that we need to create a special committee in the U.S. Senate to exercise oversight over contracting abuses related to reconstruction and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, said in April.

Dorgan's proposal of an oversight committee on government contracting would model itself after the waste and corruption hearings held by Sen. Harry Truman in 1941 in the buildup to World War II.

"I still believe that we need to establish a bipartisan Truman Committee, with subpoena power, to exercise the oversight that these abuses demand," Dorgan said.

Afghan blast kills 3 international troops

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — An explosion against troops on a foot patrol in southern Afghanistan killed three service members Thursday, the U.S.-led coalition said.

The last three months have been the deadliest for international troops in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S. led invasion. A record number of U.S. and NATO troops are in Afghanistan — around 65,000 — exposing more soldiers than ever to increasingly lethal Taliban bombings and ambushes.

The coalition did not release any details about Wednesday's attack, including the troops' nationalities or the blast's location. American forces comprise the vast majority of the U.S.-led coalition, which includes special forces units and soldiers who train Afghan army and police. The 40-nation NATO-led force operates under a separate command.

The nations with the most troops in southern Afghanistan are Britain, Canada, the United States and the Netherlands.

Southern Afghanistan is the center of the Taliban-led insurgency. More than 3,200 people have died in violence countrywide so far this year, according to an Associated Press tally of figures provided by Afghan and Western officials.

At least 93 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan this year, a pace that would make 2008 the deadliest for American forces since the 2001 invasion. At least 29 British troops have died, as have at least 15 Canadian forces.

Pentagon official removed from 2nd Gitmo trial

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) — A military judge on Thursday barred a Pentagon official from taking part in a second war crimes trial at Guantanamo Bay, providing more ammunition for detainee lawyers who allege that political interference taints the proceedings.

The ruling will fuel defense challenges in other trials at this U.S. Navy base, where a former chief prosecutor and defense lawyers have accused Air Force Brig Gen. Thomas Hartmann, the legal adviser to the tribunals, of demanding that certain cases be pursued over others based on political considerations.

Judge and Army Col. Steve Hanley ruled that Hartmann compromised his objectivity in public statements aligning himself with prosecutors and defending the Pentagon's system for prosecuting alleged terrorists.

Hartmann, who was also barred from the first Guantanamo war crimes trial, will not be allowed to provide further advice in the case against an Afghan detainee. But the judge rejected a defense to dismiss war crimes charges against Mohammed Jawad.

The former chief prosecutor, Air Force Col. Morris Davis, testified that Hartmann pushed for Jawad to be charged because the American public would be gripped by the details of the case — a grenade attack on two U.S. soldiers and their interpreter in Afghanistan.

"The guy who threw the grenade was always at the top of the list," Davis said.

Jawad's attorney, Air Force Maj. David Frakt, said the ruling "really affects some of the high-profile cases that Gen. Hartmann has had his hands in."

Hartmann supervises the chief prosecutor at Guantanamo and has extensive powers over the tribunal system. He testified Wednesday that he believed he was doing his job properly and said he has not offered to resign.

A judge in the trial of another prisoner, Salim Hamdan, disqualified Hartmann from participating in that case.

Hamdan was convicted last week and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison, concluding the first Guantanamo war crimes trial.

Iran president to visit Turkey; gas deal expected

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) — Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was due in Turkey Thursday where he was expected to sign a new gas pipeline deal in a demonstration of the improved ties between the Islamic Republic and the NATO ally.

The two-day visit is Ahmadinejad's first to Turkey since he came to power in 2005. He was scheduled to meet with his counterpart Abdullah Gul in Istanbul.

Relations have improved between Iran and Turkey's Islamic rooted leadership, which took power in 2002. Earlier Turkish governments accused Iran for decades of trying to export its radical Islamic regime to secular Turkey, which is aspiring to join the European Union.

While the West has threatened a fourth round of sanctions over Tehran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment, because of fears Iran could develop a nuclear weapon, Turkey has said it is not opposed to the nuclear work if it is only for civil use.

Iran is Turkey's third biggest natural gas supplier. The two countries were expected to seal an agreement to build a new gas pipeline to prevent the frequent cuts in gas from Iran during wintertime. Washington opposes any new energy deal between Iran and Turkey on grounds that it could send a wrong message to Tehran amid the nuclear standoff.

The United States has also opposed plans for Turkey's investment in Iran's South Pars gas fields, and the Islamic Republic selling its gas in European markets via a U.S.-backed pipeline through Turkey.

Turkey's military regards a nuclear Iran as a possible security threat but has shared intelligence with Iran as the two countries staged simultaneous attacks against a common enemy, separatist Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq.

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