Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama Update: Gitmo Closure Welcomed; Plan Requested For Iraq Withdrawal; Middle-East Envoy Appointed; People Applaud Bush Departure

Americans welcome Gitmo closure, fret on detainees

Thu Jan 22, 2009 5:37pm EST
By Tim Gaynor

PHOENIX (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's order to shut Guantanamo prison was welcomed by many Americans as a boost to the country's tarnished prestige abroad, but some were worried about moving the prisoners to the United States.

"Closing Guantanamo may give a better perception of the United States. There's a lot to be done, but it is a step," said salesman Jason Resto as he stopped to fill his car at a Phoenix Valley gas station.

Obama signed the executive order on Thursday, signaling his determination to reverse some of the policies of President George W. Bush that had stirred condemnation abroad.

He set a one-year deadline for shutting the prison at Guantanamo Bay U.S. military base in Cuba, barred harsh treatment of terrorism suspects held there and closed secret CIA jails overseas, pledging to combat "violence and terrorism" in a way consistent with American "values and our ideals."

Closing the jail "sends a clear message about what we believe in," said retiree Deborah Guimon, as she shopped in Scottsdale, Arizona, expressing a view echoed by rights activists.

"We wanted an executive order on the first day and we got it on the second day so we're thrilled," said David Gushee, president of Evangelicals for Human Rights, which has been part of a broader group of religious organizations campaigning against Bush detention policies.

Atlanta-based Gushee said the order to close the jail and end rough interrogation techniques were good first steps, although he said he would also like to see "legislation that solidifies these important new commitments."


While many Americans welcomed the move, others worried about what will actually be done with the 250 or so detainees, around 80 of whom the United States may seek to try.

Pentagon officials have inspected several military bases in the United States that could potentially replace the detention center for foreign terrorism suspects at Guantanamo, among them military facilities in Kansas and California.

Congressional Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, introduced legislation on Thursday to prevent Guantanamo detainees from being transferred to either Marine Corps Air Station Miramar or Camp Pendleton, near San Diego, Calif.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, an staunch Obama supporter and a one-time potential Cabinet appointee, has adamantly opposed moving the detainees to Fort Leavenworth, which she said was "not properly equipped to safely detain these foreign prisoners."

Residents close to the base, which is the home of the Army graduate school for U.S. military leaders, also vigorously opposed the possible arrival of Guantanamo detainees.

"Nobody wants them. I think they should send them all to Alcatraz," said Mary Kendall, a manager of a thrift store in the Leavenworth area, the long-closed island prison in San Francisco bay.

"Everybody is just waiting to see what they decide."

Obama asks military to plan for withdrawal from Iraq

Thursday, January 22

WASHINGTON, (AFP) - - President Barack Obama said he asked top military commanders to draw up plans needed for a "responsible" withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

"I asked the military leadership to engage in additional planning necessary to execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq," Obama said in a statement one day after being sworn in as commander-in-chief.

Obama said he issued the instructions in a meeting with the US ambassador to Iraq, the US military commander in Iraq, the commander for the region and top cabinet and national security officials.

The meeting was designed "to get a full update on the situation in Iraq," Obama said.

Obama had promised during his campaign to order US troops out of Iraq within 16 months.

The new president, who opposed the Iraq war, has said he wants to redeploy thousands of combat troops from the country to Afghanistan, where conditions have deteriorated and which he says is the prime front against Al-Qaeda.

Obama names peacemakers to hotspots in break with Bush

WASHINGTON (AFP) - - US President Barack Obama picked two high-powered peacemakers for the Middle East as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, in yet another swift break with Bush administration policy.

In an aggressive push for peace in the world's most intractable hot spots, Obama named Northern Ireland mediator George Mitchell for the Middle East and Balkans broker Richard Holbrooke for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Flanked by the pair, Obama told US diplomats that he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton summoned the envoys to "convey our seriousness of purpose" in light of "the urgency and complexity of the challenges we face."

Clinton, who led the State Department ceremony that was also attended by Vice President Joe Biden, added: "Anything short of relentless diplomatic efforts will fail to produce a lasting, sustainable peace in either place."

The former US first lady said the State Department was "grateful" that Obama, on only his second day in office, was taking prompt action to deal with "two of the biggest foreign policy challenges of our time."

Obama's choice of two such respected envoys signaled a new engagement in global affairs by his administration -- and another break with the policy of former president George W. Bush who resisted such a step.

The new president has also pledged to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay , Cuba within a year.

However, there was little sign Obama would drop the Bush administration's hard line toward the Hamas Islamist movement when he backed Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip as a defensive move against Hamas rocket fire.

He called on Israel to open Gaza border crossings to aid and commerce to help ease the plight of Palestinians, but he made no mention of Jewish settlement building in the West Bank -- a sore point for the Palestinians.

Obama said he was sending Mitchell to the region as soon as possible to help shore up a fragile ceasefire that took hold last weekend after a three-week Israeli offensive left more than 1,330 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

"It will be the policy of my administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors," Obama said.

Mitchell said he did not "underestimate the difficulty" of his assignment.

Mitchell, a Maronite Catholic whose mother was Lebanese, managed to bring together the leaders of Northern Ireland's religious communities with a mixture of compromise and talks to sign the historic Good Friday agreement in 1998.

At the time Mitchell, a Democrat, was considered one of the only actors in the peace process enjoying the trust of all parties, earning a reputation in Belfast as a safe pair of hands and a shrewd, level-headed operator.

However, his efforts to help end the Israeli-Palestinian violence that erupted after the collapse in 2000 of the peace process brokered by president Bill Clinton proved fruitless.

Sallai Meridor, Israel's ambassador in Washington welcomed Mitchell's appointment.

"Israel holds Senator Mitchell in high regard and looks forward to working with him on taking the next steps toward realizing a future of peace and security for Israel and her neighbors," Meridor said in a statement.

Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Accords which ended the Bosnian war, will take on responsibility for implementing an integrated strategy to US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He acknowledged that Afghanistan and Pakistan were two "distinct" countries entwined by history and ethnic ties. "This is a very difficult assignment as we all know," said Holbrooke.

Obama calls the war in Afghanistan, which also spills into Pakistan, as the "central front" in the war against terrorism, where the Taliban has come back from its ouster by the Bush administration in 2001 to wage a deadly insurgency.

He accused his predecessor of taking his "eye off the ball" by invading Iraq.

In taking charge of US foreign policy, Clinton proclaimed a "new era for America" based on robust diplomacy, and an end to the intra-government divisions that "paralyzed" US decision-making under the Bush administration.

US activists vent their rage as Bush exits

Tuesday, January 20

WASHINGTON (AFP) - - As George W. Bush prepared to leave the US presidency, protestors hurled shoes at the White House in a symbolic farewell for the man they accuse of gross mismanagement, obstructing justice and war crimes.

Activists and tourists eager to see the Bush era end appeared throughout the day in front of the famed residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to snicker their good-byes.

There were no huge crowds celebrating Bush's pending departure, as the focus of the human flood that descended on Washington was on celebrating Barack Obama's historic rise to the presidency. But many were bitter over the Bush years.

"President Bush is leaving office and he's not being held accountable for his offenses. There is a laundry list of things he could be charged with," said activist Jamilla El-Shafei, who organized the shoe-throwing protest.

The protest honored the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at the US president on December 14 during Bush's farewell visit to Iraq, an action considered a grave insult in the Arab world.

El-Shafei inflated a 25-foot (eight-meter) effigy of Bush with a long Pinocchio nose at Dupont Circle, away from the heavy flow of tourists, and invited activists and people passing by to throw shoes at it.

A few hundred protesters then marched to the White House, where they threw shoes at the building's iron gates.

Jay Marx, an activist with the Washington Peace Center, stood on a walkway outside the rear White House gates and called for Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to be tried as war criminals.

"You've killed millions, displaced millions, (brought) endless shame, wasted trillions. You've wasted our time," Marx cried. Two security guards surveyed the cluster of shoes that littered the ground near Marx, grinning.

A woman dressed as the Grim Reaper and a man in a paper mache Bush headpiece, prison garb and ball and chain posed for photographs with tourists.

"I hated Bush before it was cool," read one banner.

Bush "was given his eviction papers by the American people," said Arizona resident Diamond Dar, using a touch of embellishment.

"As a Native American we never trusted the US government because they've always lied to us," said Dar, but she said she expected conditions to improve under Obama.

In downtown Washington a lone protestor stood in the middle of a human flood heading into a subway station holding aloft a small sign that simply read "Arrest Bush."

Bartholomew Jackson, 17, said he wanted to bring the outgoing president to justice for causing the deaths of thousands of American troops by ordering them to Iraq.

At a small square three blocks from the White House, protestors shackled their legs together, donned orange prison suits -- similar to those worn by some detainees at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- and held signs including "Arrest Bush" and "No torture for empire."

Few people seemed to take notice.

"Bush used scare tactics to silence the opposition," said Gary Brooks, a middle-aged African-American doctor visiting Washington for the inauguration. "The use of patriotism went a long way" in keeping dissidents quiet, he said.

"The Iraq war was a war for oil," added his friend Derrick Buckingham, a computer security analyst. "The Bush administration was government for the oil industry. That will change under Obama."

Not everyone thought ill of Bush.

"It's going to be sort of like Richard Nixon. Ten, 15 years later he'll become an elder statesman," said Howard Brown, a substitute high school teacher from the state of Connecticut.

"People will realize what he did, and that he did it with the best interests of America in his heart," he said.

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