Monday, August 25, 2008

US War Bulletin: Navy Destroyer Enters Black Sea; 25 Killed in Iraq; Afghans Call for Review After Civilian Massacre, etc.

Russian general criticizes US Black Sea presence

By David Rising, Associated Press Writer

ABOARD THE U.S.S. MCFAUL — A Russian general suggested that U.S. ships in the Black Sea loaded with humanitarian aid would worsen tensions already driven to a post-Cold War high by a short but intense war between Russia and Georgia.

The U.S. Navy destroyer U.S.S. McFaul reached Georgia's Black Sea port of Batumi on Sunday, bringing baby food, bottled water and a message of support for an embattled ally.

The deputy chief of Russia's general staff suggested the arrival of the McFaul and other U.S. and NATO ships would increase tensions: Russia shares the sea with NATO members Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria as well as Georgia and Ukraine, whose pro-Western presidents are leading drives for NATO membership.

"I don't think such a buildup will foster the stabilization of the atmosphere in the region," Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn as saying Saturday.

Georgian Defense Minister David Kezerashvili told The Associated Press on the aft missile deck of the McFaul after greeting U.S. Navy officers that the population of Georgia would feel "more safe" from the "Russian aggression" as a result of the ship's arrival.

"They will feel safe not because the destroyer is here but because they will feel they are not alone facing the Russian aggression," he said.

Local children offered the Americans wine and flowers.

In Europe, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would convene a special meeting of European Union leaders over the crisis as Russia ignored Western accusations it has fallen short of its commitment to withdraw forces from its smaller neighbor.

The war erupted Aug. 7 as Georgia launched a massive artillery barrage targeting the Russian-backed separatist province of South Ossetia. Russian forces repelled the offensive and drove deep into Georgia, taking crucial positions across the small former Soviet republic.

Russia pulled the bulk of its troops and tanks out Friday under a cease-fire brokered by Sarkozy, but built up its forces in and around South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another separatist region. They also left other military posts at locations inside Georgia proper.

The U.S. and EU say both those moves violated Russia's commitments.

NATO halted the operations of its vehicle for interaction with Russia, demanding a fuller withdrawal, and Moscow responded by freezing military contacts with the alliance -- its Cold War foe whose eastward expansion has angered a resurgent Russia.

The guided missile cruiser USS McFaul, carrying about 55 tons of humanitarian aid, is the first of three American ships scheduled to arrive this week. It brought baby food, diapers, bottled water, milk and hygiene products.

Sailors in a chain on deck passed the supplies up from the hold to be lifted by a crane for transport to shore.

The commander of the U.S. task force carrying aid to Georgia by ship, Navy Capt. John Moore, downplayed the significance of a destroyer bringing aid.

"We really are here on a humanitarian mission," he said.

The McFaul, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, is outfitted with an array of weaponry, including Tomahawk cruise missiles, which can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, and a sophisticated radar system. For security reasons the Navy does not say whether ships are carrying nuclear weapons, but they usually do not.

A U.S. official said the American ship anchored in Batumi, Georgia's main oil port on the Black Sea, because of concerns about damage to the Georgian port of Poti -- not because Poti is closer to Russian forces in Abkhazia and Georgia proper.

Russian troops still hold positions near Poti, and Georgian port officials say radar, Coast Guard ships and other port facilities were extensively damaged by Russian forces. AP journalists there have reported on Russians looting the area.

An AP television cameraman and his Georgian driver were treated roughly and briefly detained Sunday by Russian troops outside Poti as he shot video of Russian positions.

Adding to the tension, South Ossetian officials claimed that Georgia was building up military forces in an area along the edge of the battered region and had fired sporadically at villages overnight.

As Moscow's military moved to redraw de facto borders on the ground, Russia's parliament on Monday was planning to consider renewed requests from South Ossetia and Abkhazia for recognition of their claims of independence from Georgia.

Georgia claims Russia wants to annex the regions.

Russian lawmakers recognize Georgia separatists

By Mansur Mirovalev, Associated Press Writer

MOSCOW — Russia's parliament voted unanimously Monday to urge the president to recognize the independence of Georgia's two breakaway regions, a move likely to stoke further tensions between Moscow and the small Caucasus nation's Western allies.

The votes by both chambers of Russia's parliament, which were not legally binding, come as the White House announced Vice President Dick Cheney would travel to three former Soviet republics next week -- Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan.

"Russia's historic role of the guarantor of piece in the Caucasus has increased," said Boris Gryzlov, speaker of the lower chamber. "The Caucasus has always been and will remain the zone of Russia's strategic interests."

The continued presence of Russian troops in Georgia after a lightning war over the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has sunk relations between Russia and the West to a post-Cold War low. Western nations have accused Russia of reneging on its commitment to withdraw forces from U.S.-allied Georgia.

The vice president's office described Cheney's trip, which begins Sept. 2 and also includes a stop in Italy, where the U.S. has a major base, only in the broadest terms, saying President Bush wants his No. 2 to consult with key partners on matters of mutual interest.

Experts say the Russian parliament's blessing of the Georgian separatists gives the Kremlin extra leverage as Russia tries to reassert its influence in the former Soviet republics and resist moves by Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.

But it was up to President Dmitry Medvedev to make the final call on establishing full diplomatic relations with South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Currently, neither Russia nor any other member of the United Nations recognizes the two provinces' independence claims. Both won de-facto independence in the 1990s after wars with Georgia, and have survived since with Russia's financial, political and military support.

"Neither Abkhazia ... nor South Ossetia will be part of the Georgian state," Abkhazian leader Sergei Bagapsh told the upper chamber of Russia's parliament Monday.

Despite their desire for independence, one or both regions could eventually be absorbed into Russia.

After Georgia tried to reassert control of South Ossetia by force Aug. 7, Russian troops overwhelmed the Georgians, and for nearly two weeks occupied positions deep within Georgia.

Most of those forces withdrew Friday, although some Russian troops continue to operate near the Black Sea port of Poti and just outside the boundaries of the breakaway regions.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called a special meeting of European Union leaders Sept. 1 to determine what steps the EU will take in terms of aid to Georgia and future relations with Russia. France holds the 27-member bloc's rotating presidency.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, however, said Monday the EU was not considering any sanctions against Moscow.

Russia's critics say the conflict in Georgia heralds a new, worrying era in which an increasingly assertive Kremlin has shown itself ready to resort to military force outside its borders.

On Sunday, a U.S. Navy destroyer loaded with humanitarian aid reached Georgia's Black Sea port of Batumi, bringing baby food, milk, bottled water and a message of support for an embattled ally.

The guided missile cruiser, carrying about 55 tons of humanitarian aid, was the first of three American ships scheduled to arrive this week.

The deputy chief of Russia's general staff suggested Monday the arrival of U.S. and other NATO warships in the Black Sea would increase tensions. Russia shares the sea with NATO members Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria as well as Georgia and Ukraine.

The steps taken by the United States "add another degree to the tension in the region," Anatoly Nogovitsyn said Monday in televised remarks.

A U.S. official said the American ship anchored in Batumi, Georgia's main oil port on the Black Sea, because of concerns about damage to the Georgian port of Poti. Russian troops still hold positions near Poti, and Georgians say the Russians inflicted extensive damage on port facilities there.

In central Georgia, a few miles west of the city of Gori, a fire tore through an oil train after an explosion Sunday, sending plumes of black smoke into the air. The cause was not clear, but Georgians have accused Russian troops of targeting oil facilities and transport links.

Georgia straddles a key westward route for oil from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and other Caspian Sea nations -- as the United States and the European Union seek to decrease Russia's dominance of oil and gas exports from the former Soviet Union.

Associated Press Writers Jim Heintz in Tbilisi, Georgia and Maria Danilova in Moscow contributed to this report.

US military deaths in Iraq war at 4,146

By The Associated Press

As of Sunday, Aug. 24, 2008, at least 4,146 members of the U.S. military have died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

The figure includes eight military civilians killed in action. At least 3,370 died as a result of hostile action, according to the military's numbers.

The AP count is two fewer than the Defense Department's tally, last updated Thursday at 10 a.m. EDT.

The British military has reported 176 deaths; Italy, 33; Ukraine, 18; Poland, 21; Bulgaria, 13; Spain, 11; Denmark, seven; El Salvador, five; Slovakia, four; Latvia and Georgia, three each; Estonia, Netherlands, Thailand, Romania, two each; and Australia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, South Korea, one death each.

Iraqi prime minister demands US pullout timetable

BAGHDAD (AP) — Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says there can be no security agreement with the United States unless there is a "specific deadline" for the withdrawal of American troops.

Al-Maliki also says that unless some clauses in the draft agreement under discussion are changed, it will be "difficult" for the pact to be adopted. He did not identify all those clauses.

But the prime minister told tribal leaders Monday that he cannot grant "open immunity" to Iraqis or foreigners because that would violate the "sanctity of Iraqi blood."

Baghdad and Washington are negotiating an agreement on the future of U.S. troops in Iraq. Al-Maliki aides say Iraq insists on 2011 as the target date for the withdrawal of the last U.S. soldier.

25 Killed in Iraq Bombing

BAGHDAD (AP) — A suicide bomber blew himself up Sunday in the midst of a celebration to welcome home an Iraqi detainee released from U.S. custody, killing at least 25 people, Iraqi officials said.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, announced the arrest of an al-Qaeda in Iraq figure who allegedly planned the 2006 kidnapping of American journalist Jill Carroll — one of the highest-profile attacks against Westerners in Iraq.

The suicide attack occurred inside one of several tents set up outside a house in the Abu Ghraib area on Baghdad's western outskirts, according to residents and police. It was unclear if the former detainee was among the casualties.

A woman who was wounded but declined to give her name for security reasons said she was preparing food behind the tents when the blast occurred at about 9 p.m., knocking her and her three young children off their feet.

Residents and police said Ayyid Salim al-Zubaie, a local sheik in the mainly Sunni area, had invited dozens of guests to a banquet in honor of his son, who was released earlier in the day from Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.

Residents said the detainee-son had quarreled with al-Qaeda members while in detention and may have been the target of the attack.

Yassir al-Jumaili, a doctor at the hospital in nearby Fallujah where most of the wounded were taken, gave the death toll as 25 and said at least 29 other people were wounded.

The blast was a grim reminder of the dangers still facing Iraqis despite a sharp decrease in violence after the 2007 U.S. troop buildup, a Sunni decision to join forces with the Americans against al-Qaeda and a Shiite militia cease-fire.

The announcement of the arrest of Salim Abdullah Ashur al-Shujayri, also known as Abu Othman, was a major breakthrough in a series of kidnappings.

He was captured Aug. 11 in Baghdad and accused of being "the planner behind the kidnapping" of Carroll, a Christian Science Monitor reporter who was seized Jan. 7, 2006 and released three months later, according to the military.

The statement also said al-Shujayri's associates were involved in the kidnappings of Christian peace activists and British aid worker Margaret Hassan, but did not elaborate.

Kidnappings of Westerners forced foreigners to flee Iraq or take refuge in heavily guarded compounds, diminishing the ability of aid groups and journalists to operate. Many of the victims were butchered and their deaths recorded on videotapes distributed to Arab satellite TV stations or posted on the Web.

Hassan, 59, the director of CARE international in Iraq, was abducted in Baghdad in October 2004 and shown on a video pleading for her life, calling on British Prime Minister Tony Blair to withdraw troops from Iraq.

She was killed a month later, but her body was never found. The case drew special attention because Hassan, who was married to an Iraqi, had lived in the country for 30 years and spent nearly half her life helping Iraqis.

Four men from the Chicago-based group, Christian Peacemaker Teams, disappeared Nov. 26, 2005, in Baghdad and videotapes later showed them in captivity. One of the hostages, American Tom Fox, 54, of Clear Brook, Va., was found shot dead. The other three — two Canadians and a Briton — were later rescued.

Carroll was seized in west Baghdad and her interpreter was killed. The kidnappers, a formerly unknown group calling itself the Revenge Brigade, demanded the release of all women detainees in Iraq. U.S. officials freed some female detainees but said the decision was unrelated to the demands.

The statement said U.S. troops also captured another al-Qaeda figure — Ali Rash Nasir Jiyad al-Shammari — on Aug. 17 in Baghdad. He was accused of being a senior adviser for the terror network and funneling money, weapons and explosives to insurgents in the capital "during its most active operational period in early 2007," the military said.

Al-Shammari, also known as Abu Tiba, personally approved targets for car and suicide bombings targeting Iraqi civilians, the military said.

The military statement said al-Qaeda in Iraq conducted almost 300 bombings, killing more than 1,500 civilians and wounding more than twice that many in 2007, compared with 28 attacks that killed 125 Iraqi civilians in the first half of this year.

"The capture of Abu Tiba and Abu Othman eliminates two of the few remaining experienced leaders in the AQI network," said military spokesman Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll.

Also Sunday, the U.S. military said a woman wearing a bomb-laden vest surrendered to Iraqi police in Baqouba rather than blow herself up.

She led police to a second suicide vest, and a 13-year-old girl was arrested, the military said.

Women have increasingly been recruited by insurgents to carry out attacks because it's easier for them to evade security checks.

Afghan cabinet demands review of international troops

KABUL (AFP) - - The Afghan cabinet demanded Monday the renegotiation of agreements regulating the presence of the international community in Afghanistan after more than 90 civilians were killed in US-led air strikes.

The cabinet said the review should focus on the "limits of authority and responsibilities" of international troops and a halt on air strikes on civilians, illegal detentions and unilateral house searches, a statement said.

A government commission said Sunday that more than 90 civilians, most of them women and children, were killed in air strikes in the western province of Herat on Friday.

The US-led coalition says the strikes were targeted at Taliban rebels and 30 of them were killed.

The regular Monday cabinet meeting "expressed deep sorrow and condemned in the strongest possible terms" recent incidents of civilian casualties in Herat as well as the provinces of Laghman and Kapisa.

A statement about a resolution adopted by the ministers said they had tasked the foreign and defence ministries to meet international officials in line with Afghanistan's "right of national sovereignty."

"The presence of the international community in Afghanistan must be re-regulated based on bilateral agreements," said the statement carried by the government news agency.

"The limits of authorities and responsibilities of the international forces must be regulated under bilateral agreements based on international and Afghan laws," it said.

"Air strikes on civilian targets, unilateral searches of homes and illegal detentions of Afghan civilians must be stopped," it added.

US-led forces entered Afghanistan in late 2001 to topple the hardline Taliban regime after it did not hand over its Al-Qaeda allies for the September attacks on New York and Washington.

There are now nearly 70,000 international soldiers from around 40 countries in the country to fight a Taliban-led insurgency and help bring security.

US military deaths in Afghanistan region at 508

By The Associated Press

As of Sunday, Aug. 24, 2008, at least 508 members of the U.S. military had died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to the Defense Department. The department last updated its figures Thursday at 10 a.m. EDT.
Of those, the military reports 362 were killed by hostile action.

Outside the Afghan region, the Defense Department reports 65 more members of the U.S. military died in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Of those, two were the result of hostile action. The military lists these other locations as Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba; Djibouti; Eritrea; Ethiopia; Jordan; Kenya; Kyrgyzstan; Philippines; Seychelles; Sudan; Tajikistan; Turkey; and Yemen.

There were also four CIA officer deaths and one military civilian death.

The latest identifications reported by the military:

Army Staff Sgt. David L. Paquet, 26, Rising Sun, Md.; died Wednesday at Combat Outpost Vegas, Afghanistan, of undetermined causes while conducting a patrol; assigned to the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.

1.2 tons of opium seized in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan's Interior Ministry says its troops have confiscated 1.3 tons of opium in southern Afghanistan.

In a statement Monday the ministry said its counter-narcotics force seized the drugs during a raid in Marjah district of Helmand province last week. Three smugglers were detained.

Helmand is the world's largest producer of opium, the main ingredient in the production of heroin. Afghanistan last year accounted for 93 percent of the world's opium supply. In 2007 it produced 9,920 tons of opium.

Some of the proceeds from this multibillion dollar trade go to fund the Taliban-led insurgency. Profits also line the pockets of corrupt government officials.

Army buys more accurate artillery shells

By Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The Army has accelerated purchasing a high-tech artillery shell that can be fired from as far away as 14 miles yet explode within 30 feet of its target to avoid civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army officials and analysts say.

An urgent request from commanders in Iraq for more accurate artillery to reduce civilian deaths prompted the Army to speed production of the Excalibur shells, according to the Government Accountability Office. In May, the Army awarded an $85 million contract to buy Excaliburs — the most ever spent for the shells.

The need for precise weapons was underscored by Friday's airstrikes in Afghanistan by the U.S.-led coalition that President Hamid Karzai said killed at least 89 civilians. The U.S. coalition acknowledged civilian casualties and said it would investigate.

One Excalibur shell can destroy targets that would require dozens of conventional rounds. The Excalibur uses Global Positioning System signals to home in on targets, while traditional shells are aimed in a general direction.

The Excalibur shells are likened to the so-called "smart bombs" the Air Force uses to hit targets, said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent policy research institute.

Excalibur shells costs $89,000 per round, compared with $300 for a conventional 155mm shell. Over the next decade, the Army wants to acquire 30,000 Excaliburs, said Audra Calloway, an Army spokeswoman at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. As production increases, the cost per shell could be cut in half, she said.

"Excalibur is a very big deal," Krepinevich said. "It is long overdue."

The Pentagon started developing the Excalibur shells in 1997, and the program was marred by delays and cost overruns, the GAO says.

Soldiers fired the first Excalibur shells in Iraq in May 2007 to root out insurgents from Baqouba in volatile Diyala province. The shells, fired from more than 10 miles away, destroyed targets such as insurgents planting makeshift bombs, a rooftop machine gun position and a sniper team, said Maj. Evan Gotkin of the Arrowhead Stryker brigade.

"If there's one or two insurgents shooting at an infantry platoon from an building, I don't want to drop a bomb on it that will destroy the building and kill a lot of civilians," Gotkin said. "It's a perfect weapon for the urban fight."

Better accuracy means the shells can be fired within 50 yards of friendly troops, a critical concern when infantrymen come under sniper fire in urban areas, he said. And an Excalibur can be fired in bad weather when attack aircraft can't fly, he said.

At least seven Excalibur rounds have been fired in Afghanistan, according to the Army.

Capt. Victor Scharstein, whose 1st Cavalry Division unit fired the Excalibur at insurgents in Baqouba, vouched for the shell's accuracy. "It may take me 20, 30, 40, 50, upward of 100 rounds to destroy a target" with conventional artillery, he said. "Now I'm attacking a target with one or two rounds."

Gotkin said that last year, two snipers in a building in Baqouba shot a soldier's helmet, and the soldier survived. Minutes after calling Scharstein's battery, an Excalibur shell destroyed the roof of the building and killed the sniper team.

"It allowed us to destroy everyone inside or on top of the building and then walk in," Gotkin said, adding that there were no civilian casualties.

Excalibur's accuracy means the Army can keep smaller supplies of shells on hand, which puts fewer troops at risk on supply roads, said John Pike, a military analyst and director of

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