Thursday, March 26, 2009

US War Bulletin: Bomb Kills Many in Baghdad; Afghan Police Ambushed by Resistance Forces

PANW Editor's Note: Although the Obama administration has stated that it is drawing down combat troops from Iraq and therefore concluding the war, nothing could be further from the truth. The war is continuing in Iraq as the following reports will convey. Another war time presidency is well underway. Also in Afghanistan, where the US is sending in another 17,000-30,000 troops, the resistance forces are escalating their attacks against the occupationists and their puppets.

Additional developments in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and inside the US itself, makes it clear that the military industrial complex is alive and well. Not to mention the imperialist threats towards China, Sudan, DPRK, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Zimbabwe and others, any objective observer can clearly see that there has been no fundamental shift in military and political policy.

Thursday, March 26, 2009
16:15 Mecca time, 13:15 GMT

Car bomb kills many in Baghdad

The car bomb attack came three days after a suicide attack against Kurdish mourners in central Iraq

At least 16 people have been killed and 35 others wounded in a car bomb at a crowded market in Baghdad, police say.

At least four children and three women were among the casualties from the blast next to a bus terminal in the mostly Shia district of Shaab, officisal said on Thursday.

The explosion came a day after a US military spokesman said attacks across the country had dropped to their lowest levels since the months following the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the former president.

"Attacks are at their lowest since August 2003," Major General David Perkins told reporters in Baghdad on Wednesday, saying incidents were down 90 per cent from June 2007.

"There were 1,250 attacks a week at the height of the violence; now sometimes there are less than 100 a week," he said.

The Shaab car bomb attack came three days after a suicide attack against Kurdish mourners in central Iraq, which killed 27 people and wounded 50 others.

On Monday, a bomb at a bus terminal in west Baghdad's Abu Ghraib district killed nine people and wounded 23, Iraqi police said.

Source: Agencies

US flag-burning marks war anniversary

Mar. 20- American flags were set on fire Friday to chants of "no, no for occupation" as followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr marked the sixth anniversary of the Iraq war.

In five other Iraqi cities, Sadr supporters either marched or stood in protest after prayers to demand the release of their allies detained at Iraqi and U.S.-run prisons.

In the capital, al-Sadr aide Sheik Haidar al-Jabiri urged supporters to join an April 9 march to protest the six-year anniversary of Americans taking over the city.

"Today, a remembrance of the cruel occupation of Iraq, and on April 9, there will be a chant for liberation," al-Sadr aide Sheik Haidar al-Jabiri told worshippers gathered in Baghdad's Shiite district of Sadr City for Friday sermons.

He added: "Sayed Muqtada invites you to march by the millions on April 9, the anniversary of the cruel occupation."

Baghdad fell to U.S. forces on April 9, 2003. The war began with a missile and bombing attack on south Baghdad before dawn on March 20, 2003 — March 19 in Washington.

"No, no for occupation. Yes, yes for liberation. Yes, yes for Iraq," the demonstrators chanted.

Two American flags were set on fire.

Thousands of Sadr's followers in five other cities — Basra, Kut, Diwaniyah, Amarah and Nasiriyah — also took to the streets Friday in an apparent planned series of protests.

In Kut, up to 1,000 worshippers marched from the grand mosque in center of the city to Sadrist offices a short distance away, denouncing the U.S. occupation and calling for detainees to be released.

Source: AP

Jobless rate at 11.2% for veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan

By Gregg Zoroya

Mar. 21- The economic downturn is hitting Iraq and Afghanistan veterans harder than other workers — one in nine are now out of work — and may be encouraging some troops to remain in the service, according to Labor Department records and military officials.

The 11.2% jobless rate for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and who are 18 and older rose 4 percentage points in the past year. That's significantly higher than the corresponding 8.8% rate for non-veterans in the same age group, says Labor Department economist Jim Walker.

Army records show the service has hit 152% of its re-enlistment goal this year. "Obviously the economy plays a big role in people's decisions," says Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, an Army spokesman.

Some soldiers are re-enlisting specifically because of the poor civilian job market, says Sgt. 1st Class Julius Kelley, a career counselor at Fort Campbell, Ky. "It's job security (in the Army), and I try to sell that all the time," he says. "You don't have to worry about getting laid off in the Army."

The market is tough outside the Army. Unemployment among the youngest of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, those ages 20 to 24, reached 15% in February, records show. That compares with 13.8% for the same age group of non-veterans. Some government jobs offer preference to veterans by giving them extra points on civil service exams. However, there is no evidence this is having much effect on unemployment.

The $787 billion economic stimulus law enacted last month includes a $2,400-per-person tax credit for employers who hire unemployed veterans in 2009 and 2010.

In addition, the Labor Department operates career centers that provide priority service for veterans and the HireVetsFirst website, says Peggy Abrahamson, a Labor Department spokeswoman.

Young veterans, Walker says, often have trouble "translating their military skills into skills on their résumé that employers recognized."

The total number of unemployed veterans of the two wars — about 170,000 — is about the same as the number of U.S. troops deployed to those wars.

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans enter the workforce at a disadvantage, says Justin Brown, a Veterans of Foreign Wars specialist in veterans' economic issues. "If you served in the military, you're disconnected from the civilian workforce, you don't have contacts that a civilian person has," he says.

The least the country can do, Brown says, is help veterans find jobs so "they come home and they're not living in the streets, unemployed, homeless or in bankruptcy."

Robert Pearson, 23, of Minneapolis, is a former paratrooper who served in Afghanistan. He says it's hard to find work as a human resources manager in order to use the skills he learned managing soldiers as a combat team leader.

He says he was shocked when a job-placement worker told him that some employers consider a military record almost like having "a felony."

"People just frown upon us nowadays, thinking we're all flying-off-the-handle crazy guys," says Pearson, who has a bachelor's degree in business management. "They don't even give us a chance."

Source: USA Today

British diplomat: Intelligence made it clear Saddam was not a threat

By David Hencke

Mar. 20- A former diplomat at the center of events in the run-up to the Iraq war revealed yesterday that the British government has a "paper trail" that could reveal new information about the legality of the invasion.

Carne Ross, who was a first secretary at the United Nations in New York for the British Foreign Office until 2004, told MPs: "A lot of facts about the run-up to this war have yet to come to light which should come to light and which the public deserves to know." There were also assessments by the joint intelligence committee which had not been disclosed, Ross told the Commons public administration select committee.

He told the inquiry that the intelligence made it "very clear" that Saddam Hussein did not pose a significant threat to the UK, as was being claimed at the time by ministers, and that tougher enforcement of sanctions could have brought his regime down.

He said he tried to inform ministers about his misgivings over the developing momentum towards war, taking them aside during their visits to New York or having brief conversations in their car to the airport.

But he said he was aware that speaking out too often or too openly - even in internal debates - about his concerns about the government's policy direction would damage his career by winning him a reputation as a "naive troublemaker".

Ross's evidence, by video link from New York, came days after Jack Straw, who was foreign secretary at the time, used the first ministerial veto under the freedom of information act to ban the release of cabinet minutes on the decision to go to war.

"I feel very strongly that there has still not been proper accountability and scrutiny into what happened in Iraq," Ross said.

"There should be a full public inquiry or parliamentary inquiry into the decision-making that took place. Hutton and Butler are by no means sufficient to that purpose and it is disgraceful that the government pretends that they are... if we had those systems of accountability and scrutiny then leaking and other more aberration behaviour from civil servants would be less necessary."

He was one of four "whistleblowers" who yesterday gave evidence to the committee.

They also included Katharine Gun, a former GCHQ translator who revealed the organisation was tapping phones of countries that were against the Iraq war; Brian Jones, the most senior expert on chemical weapons at the Defence Intelligence Staff; and Derek Pasquill, a former Foreign Office official who leaked documents about rendition and Muslim groups who were hostile to the UK receiving government money.

Jones and Ross never leaked any information to the press. Jones instead complained to his superior that he thought the intelligence dossier on weapons of mass destruction was being exaggerated but was told that there was "one secret piece of information which could not be shared with [him]" because it was too sensitive.

He told MPs that when the WMD dossier was published and he saw the difference between the foreword by the prime minister and the contents he "thought the intelligence services were going to be crucified".

But he instead he found that most MPs, with a few exceptions, supported the government. "I feel that you gentlemen [the MPs] have been either deliberately or accidentally misled and these incidents have not been followed up. I think that there has been a great laxity and that won't encourage people like me or my colleagues to come to you," he said.

Tony Wright, the chairman of the committee, agreed with the allegation. "I think you are absolutely right to castigate parliament, which I think has behaved abysmally in this matter - endless bleating about the need for an inquiry but a complete failure to insist upon one," he said.

Gordon Brown has promised to look at an inquiry after all the troops come home from Iraq.

Source: Guardian (UK)

US troops to be active in Iraq after pullback

Mar. 15- American forces will still conduct joint combat operations even after they pull back to bases outside Baghdad and other cities as part of the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, a spokesman said Sunday.

Brig. Gen. Frederick Rudesheim, a deputy commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, said the redeployment to the periphery will actually help improve security in the capital because U.S. troops can help stop militants from using bases in rural areas to stage urban attacks.

"I want to leave it very clear that there's no cessation of combat operations," Rudesheim said at a news conference in Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone.

But he said the troops will travel to the site of the combat operations from bases outside the city instead of outposts that were established throughout various neighborhoods as part of the 2007 U.S. troop surge.

Meanwhile, the Baghdad-based independent Journalistic Freedom Observatory warned local and international media to use caution and body armor in traveling with Iraqi security forces after two Iraqi television journalists were killed in one of last week's bombings.

Iraqi police and tribesmen also said gunmen last week killed six former detainees recently released from the U.S. detention center Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. The men were killed near the town of Hadra, between the northern city of Mosul and western Anbar province.

Source: AP

Iraqis still dislike US and the invasion

By Greg Mitchell

Mar. 17- A new poll by leading media organizations, as the sixth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq approaches, finds that despite progress there, most Iraqis still dislike or distrust America.

The new poll of more than 2,200 Iraqis, an annual venture by ABC and the BBC and NHK networks, finds that most Iraqis agree that things are going much better there and they feel safer. At the same time, they seem to have not warmed to the U.S. much and want us to leave very soon.

Last year, 70% of Iraqis in the same survey said we were doing a bad job there. This year that dropped all the way to ...69%. And that includes the always more favorable views of the Kurds.

That means 90% of Sunnis are negative (remember, they are supposed to be "awakening" towards us), and two out of three Shiites agree-- largely unchanged from 2008.

Nearly as many (64%) say the U.S. is hurting Iraq as Iran (68%). But the views of nearly every other country have improved quite a bit, including Saudi Arabia, Syria and the UK.

But here's a key finding and the rejoinder to the constant call for war critics (and Obama) to admit that it was, despite everything, correct to topple Saddam: 56% now say the U.S. was wrong to invade, actually up (despite the cooling of violence) since last year's 50%.

And 57% say they aren't too concerned about what might happen after the U.S. exits.

In fact, about half want us to leave faster than the current timetable.

From an ABC summary: "Just 27 percent are confident in U.S. forces (albeit nearly double its low). Just 30 percent say U.S. and coalition forces have done a good job carrying out their responsibilities in Iraq. Still fewer, 18 percent, have a positive opinion of the United States overall. Barely over a third think the election of Barack Obama will help their country."

Source: Editor & Publisher

US urged to fix Iraqi refugee 'mess' it created

By Karin Zeitvogel

Mar. 18- As the Iraq war entered its seventh year, Ahlam, Dalal and Saad could be considered among the luckier Iraqis: they're alive and have made it to the United States as refugees.

But calling them lucky would be a stretch, because they, like the estimated 4.4 million Iraqis who have fled Iraq or are internally displaced in the country, have not only lived through hell but continue to suffer as the United States fumbles its handling of a crisis that it played a key role in creating.

"The Iraqi refugee crisis is a mess involving very large numbers and great human tragedy," Michele Pistone, a professor at American University's law school told a seminar this week in Washington.

A high proportion of Iraqi refugees say they have been raped or tortured, seen family members or friends kidnapped or killed, she said.

The United Nations has estimated that some two million Iraqis have fled the war and sought refuge in neighboring countries, primarily Syria and Jordan.

The two small countries are being severely strained by the refugee influx, their ambassadors to Washington told the conference.

Jordan, which has an unemployment rate of nearly 13 percent and is "one of the most water-deprived countries in the world" has spent 1.4 billion dollars on Iraqi refugees, who have swollen the kingdom's population by 10 percent, Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, Jordan's ambassador to Washington, said.

The United States has to take more of a lead in trying to resolve the Iraqi refugee crisis which, after all, it "played a significant role in creating," said Pistone.

But when a lifeline of resettlement in the United States is thrown to the refugees, it has often turned out to be frayed or completely broken.

Saad, who asked not to be fully named, came to the United States in May last year on a special visa for Iraqis who risked their lives, and the lives of their families, to help the Americans. Saad had worked as an interpreter for the US army for four years.

A year after arriving in the United States, the former Iraqi air force officer with a bachelor's degree in translation was working in a supermarket.

His two children are still in Iraq -- the United States said they could not be resettled here because they are both over 21.

The meager benefits he was given by the US government -- foodstamps and state health insurance -- have dried up. Two Iraqi refugees Saad knows in the United States became homeless when their benefits were stopped a few months after they arrived.

Dalal came to the United States three weeks ago with her father, her brother and his very pregnant wife, and her two school-age sons, whom she is raising alone after her husband disappeared.

The family fled to Jordan three years ago when the fallout of Dalal's brother's work with the US army made life in Iraq too dangerous for them.

On arrival in the United States, the entire family was put in a two bedroom apartment.

"She has been crying every day since she got here," her brother told AFP.

"She is thinking to sell her stuff like jewelry and rent a studio ... The kids have to go to school soon. They need suitable living conditions. Dalal can't take it any more," he said.

Last year, some 13,800 Iraqis were resettled in the United States, and this year the bar has been raised to 17,000, Barbara Strack of the Department of Homeland Security's US Citizen and Immigration Services told the conference.

"I can't believe we can't do better," said Kirk Johnson, a former USAID worker in Iraq who founded a non-profit company to help resettle Iraqis whose lives are endangered because they worked with the United States.

But US diplomat James Foley, who was appointed senior coordinator for Iraqi refugee issues by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, insisted Washington has "led to a remarkable degree" in trying to solve the Iraqi refugee crisis.

Foley did not stay at the seminar to listen to former Baghdad council member Ahlam Mahmood, who was kidnapped in Iraq in 2005 and freed on condition that she leave the country.

She fled to Syria, where she watched her oldest son die because of poor healthcare. Last year, she was thrown into a Syrian jail for eight months without charge. She was released and put on a plane to the United States in November.

"Iraqis come here with a lot of promises but in four months, maximum eight months, everything stops," said Mahmood.

"How can we expect people who lived all this drama to be normal persons in no time?" she said.

"Nobody knows what it's like to be unsafe for six years," she said.

"Here, we are safe, but give us some way to survive."

Source: Agence France-Presse

Military rape reports rise, prosecution still low

By Anne Gearan

Mar. 17- More people came forward to report sexual assaults in the military last year, but a significant percentage wouldn't give crucial details needed for an investigation.

The Pentagon said it received 2,923 reports of sexual assault across the military in the 12 months ending Sept. 30 2008. That's about a 9 percent increase over the totals reported the year before, but only a fraction of the crimes presumably being committed.

Among the cases reported, only a small number went to military courts, officials acknowledged.

The Pentagon office that collects the data estimates that only 10 percent to 20 percent of sexual assaults among members of the active duty military are reported — a figure similar to estimates of reported cases in the civilian sphere.

The military statistics, required by Congress, cover rape and other assaults across the approximately 1.4 million people in uniform.

Kaye Whitley, director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said most victims are women, most cases involve young people and alcohol is often involved.

The yearly increase in reports is more likely due to larger numbers of victims being willing to come forward than to an overall increase in sexual violence, Whitley said.

That increase includes a jump in cases from combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, to 165 from 131 the year before.

Congresswoman Jane Harman, a congressional critic of the military's handling of sexual violence, said the statistics show the problem is still rampant.

"While the report shows modest improvement, we're far from Mission Accomplished," the California Democrat said in a statement. "Military women are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq."

The latest figures include 2,280 cases in which a victim provided full accounts and physical evidence when possible, and 643 in which a victim sought care or made a report but refused to provide all the information necessary to pursue an investigation.

The Defense Department allows those limited reports on the theory that it encourages victims to at least seek care when they might otherwise keep silent.

Prosecution is slow and large numbers of cases are thrown out or dropped.

The most recent figures, which include cases left open from previous years, show that only 317 cases were referred for courts-martial, or military trials. Another 247 were referred for nonjudicial punishment.

Source: AP

Thursday, March 26, 2009
14:49 Mecca time, 11:49 GMT

Fighters kill police in Afghanistan

Suspected Taliban fighters attacked the police checkpoint

Nine police have been killed by suspected Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan, interior ministry sources say.

The ministry said the officers were attacked at a police checkpoint in Nahri Sarraj district of Helmand province on Thursday.

"Nine hero policemen were martyred in the cowardly attack by the enemies of Afghanistan," a ministry statement said.

The phrase "enemies of Afghanistan" normally refers to Taliban fighters.

The ministry said an operation had been launched to hunt down the attackers.

Elsewhere in the south, police sources said Taliban fighters ambushed a police convoy carrying a Taliban detainee to the city of Ghazni, injuring seven policemen.

The police are frequently attacked in Afghanistan, and their training is part of measures the US and other international partners have identified as key to restoring stability in the country.

The main police building in Lashkar Gah, the administrative capital of Helmand, was attacked earlier this month and at least 11 people were killed.

New US strategy

Against this backdrop of rising violence, the US administration is expected to present a new strategy for its military operation in Afghanistan on March 31.

Barack Obama, the US president, is also about to appoint a new ambassador to the country.

Karl Eikenberry, nominated for the post, is an army general with considerable Afghan experience.

Formal procedures to confirm his appointment are to be held on Thursday.

'ISI-Taliban nexus'

The challenges that Eikenberry will face were highlighted by a report in the New York Times on Thursday, which cited American, Pakistani and other security officials as saying that operatives in Pakistan's military intelligence agency are aiding the Taliban’s campaign in southern Afghanistan.

"The support consists of money, military supplies and strategic planning guidance to Taliban commanders," the newspaper said.

"There is even evidence that ISI [Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence] operatives meet regularly with Taliban commanders to discuss whether to intensify or scale back violence before the Afghan elections."

Hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters sought refuge in Pakistan's northwest tribal region after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban government in late 2001.

Source: Agencies

U.S. weighs Taliban strike into Pakistan

By David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt

Mar. 17- President Obama and his national security advisers are considering expanding the American covert war in Pakistan far beyond the unruly tribal areas to strike at a different center of Taliban power in Baluchistan, where top Taliban leaders are orchestrating attacks into southern Afghanistan.

According to senior administration officials, two of the high-level reports on Pakistan and Afghanistan that have been forwarded to the White House in recent weeks have called for broadening the target area to include a major insurgent sanctuary in and around the city of Quetta.

Mullah Muhammad Omar, who led the Taliban government that was ousted in the American-led invasion in 2001, has operated with near impunity out of the region for years, along with many of his deputies.

The extensive missile strikes being carried out by Central Intelligence Agency-operated drones have until now been limited to the tribal areas, and have never been extended into Baluchistan, a sprawling province that is under the authority of the central government, and which abuts the parts of southern Afghanistan where recent fighting has been the fiercest. Fear remains within the American government that extending the raids would worsen tensions. Pakistan complains that the strikes violate its sovereignty.

But some American officials say the missile strikes in the tribal areas have forced some leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda to flee south toward Quetta, making them more vulnerable. In separate reports, groups led by both Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of American forces in the region, and Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, a top White House official on Afghanistan, have recommended expanding American operations outside the tribal areas if Pakistan cannot root out the strengthening insurgency.

Many of Mr. Obama's advisers are also urging him to sustain orders issued last summer by President George W. Bush to continue Predator drone attacks against a wider range of targets in the tribal areas. They also are recommending preserving the option to conduct cross-border ground actions, using C.I.A. and Special Operations commandos, as was done in September. Mr. Bush's orders also named as targets a wide variety of insurgents seeking to topple Pakistan's government. Mr. Obama has said little in public about how broadly he wants to pursue those groups.

A spokesman for the National Security Council, Mike Hammer, declined to provide details, saying, "We're still working hard to finalize the review on Afghanistan and Pakistan that the president requested."

No other officials would talk on the record about the issue, citing the administration's continuing internal deliberations and the politically volatile nature of strikes into Pakistani territory.

"It is fair to say that there is wide agreement to sustain and continue these covert programs," said one senior administration official. "One of the foundations on which the recommendations to the president will be based is that we've got to sustain the disruption of the safe havens."

Mr. Obama's top national security advisers, known as the Principals Committee, met Tuesday to begin debating all aspects of Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. Senior administration officials say Mr. Obama has made no decisions, but is expected to do so in coming days after hearing the advice of that group.

Any expansion of the war is bound to upset those in Mr. Obama's party who worry that he is sinking further into a lengthy conflict in Afghanistan, even while reducing forces in Iraq. It is possible that the decisions about covert actions will never be publicly announced.

Several administration and military officials stressed that they continued to prod the Pakistani military to take the lead in a more aggressive campaign to root out Taliban and Qaeda fighters who are attacking American forces in Afghanistan and increasingly destabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan.

But with Pakistan consumed by political turmoil, fear of financial collapse and a spreading insurgency, American officials say they have few illusions that the United States will be able to rely on Pakistan's own forces. However, each strike by Predators or ground forces reverberates in Pakistan, and Mr. Obama will be weighing that cost.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on "The Charlie Rose Show" on PBS last week that the White House strategy review addresses the "safe haven in Pakistan — making sure that Afghanistan doesn't provide a capability in the long run or an environment in which Al Qaeda could return or the Taliban could return." But another senior official cautioned that "with the targets now spreading, an expanding U.S. role inside Pakistan may be more than anyone there can stomach."

As part of the same set of decisions, according to senior civilian and military officials familiar with the internal White House debate, Mr. Obama will have to choose from among a range of options for future American commitments to Afghanistan.

His core decision may be whether to scale back American ambitions there to simply assure it does not become a sanctuary for terrorists. "We are taking this back to a fundamental question," a senior diplomat involved in the discussions said. "Can you ever get a central government in Afghanistan to a point where it can exercise control over the country? That was the problem Bush never really confronted."

A second option, officials say, is to significantly boost the American commitment to train Afghan troops, with Americans taking on the Taliban with increasing help from the Afghan military. President Bush pursued versions of that strategy, but the training always took longer and proved less successful than plans called for.

A third option would involve devoting full American and NATO resources to a large-scale counterinsurgency effort. But Mr. Obama would be bound to face considerable opposition within NATO, whose leaders he will meet with early next month in Strasbourg, France. At the very time the United States is seeking to expand its presence in Afghanistan, many of the allies are scheduled to leave.

As for American strikes on militant havens inside Pakistan, administration officials say the Predator and Reaper attacks in the tribal areas have been effective at killing 9 of Al Qaeda's top 20 leaders, and the aerial campaign was recently expanded to focus on the Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, as well as his fighters and training camps. American intelligence officials say that many top Taliban commanders remain in hiding in and around Quetta, but some Afghan officials say that other senior Taliban leaders have fled to the Pakistani port city of Karachi.

Missile strikes or American commando raids in the city of Quetta or the teeming Afghan settlements and refugee camps around the city and near the Afghan border would carry high risks of civilian casualties, American officials acknowledge.

Source: New York Times

US will appoint Afghan 'prime minister' to bypass Hamid Karzai

By Julian Borger in Brussels and Ewen MacAskill in Washington

Mar. 23- The US and its European allies are ­preparing to plant a high-profile figure in the heart of the Kabul government in a direct challenge to the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, the Guardian has learned.

The creation of a new chief executive or prime ministerial role is aimed at bypassing Karzai. In a further dilution of his power, it is proposed that money be diverted from the Kabul government to the provinces. Many US and European officials have become disillusioned with the extent of the corruption and incompetence in the Karzai government, but most now believe there are no credible alternatives, and predict the Afghan president will win re-election in August.

A revised role for Karzai has emerged from the White House review of Afghanistan and Pakistan ordered by Barack Obama when he became president. It is to be unveiled at a special conference on Afghanistan at The Hague on March 31.

As well as watering down Karzai's personal authority by installing a senior official at the president's side capable of playing a more efficient executive role, the US and Europeans are seeking to channel resources to the provinces rather than to central government in Kabul.

A diplomat with knowledge of the review said: "Karzai is not delivering. If we are going to support his government, it has to be run properly to ensure the levels of corruption decrease, not increase. The levels of corruption are frightening."

Another diplomat said alternatives to Karzai had been explored and discarded: "No one could be sure that someone else would not turn out to be 10 times worse. It is not a great position."

The idea of a more dependable figure working alongside Karzai is one of the proposals to emerge from the White House review, completed last week. Obama, locked away at the presidental retreat Camp David, was due to make a final decision this weekend.

Obama is expected to focus in public on overall strategy rather than the details, and, given its sensitivity, to skate over ­Karzai's new role. The main recommendation is for the Afghanistan objectives to be scaled back, and for Obama to sell the war to the US public as one to ensure the country cannot again be a base for al-Qaida and the Taliban, rather than the more ambitious aim of the Bush administration of trying to create a European-style democracy in Central Asia.

Other recommendations include: increasing the number of Afghan troops from 65,000 to 230,000 as well as expanding the 80,000-strong police force; ­sending more US and European civilians to build up Afghanistan's infrastructure; and increased aid to Pakistan as part of a policy of trying to persuade it to tackle al-Qaida and Taliban elements.

The proposal for an alternative chief executive, which originated with the US, is backed by Europeans. "There needs to be a deconcentration of power," said one senior European official. "We need someone next to Karzai, a sort of chief executive, who can get things done, who will be reliable for us and accountable to the Afghan people."

Money and power will flow less to the ministries in Kabul and far more to the officials who run Afghanistan outside the capital - the 34 provincial governors and 396 district governors. "The point on which we insist is that the time is now for a new division of responsibilities, between central power and local power," the senior European official said.

No names have emerged for the new role but the US holds in high regard the reformist interior minister appointed in October, Mohammed Hanif Atmar.

The risk for the US is that the imposition of a technocrat alongside Karzai would be viewed as colonialism, even though that figure would be an Afghan. Karzai declared his intention last week to resist a dilution of his power. Last week he accused an unnamed foreign government of trying to weaken central government in Kabul.

"That is not their job," the Afghan president said. "Afghanistan will never be a puppet state."

The UK government has since 2007 advocated dropping plans to turn Afghanistan into a model, European-style state.

Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who will implement the new policy, said it would represent a "vastly restructured effort". At the weekend in Brussels, he was scathing about the Bush administration's conduct of the counter-insurgency. "The failures in the civilian side ... are so enormous we can at least hope that if we get our act together ... we can do a lot better," he said.

Source: Guardian (UK)

Obama's overtures 'just a slogan', says Iran's spiritual head

By Stephen Foley

Mar. 24- Iran's spiritual leader has rebuffed diplomatic overtures from Barack Obama, saying that the US President's promise of a new beginning in relations between the countries was nothing more than a "slogan".

Speaking a day after Mr Obama issued a video appeal to the Iranian leadership, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the US continued to insult Iran, to back its enemies and to impoverish its people through sanctions. He said the US must alter its actions as well as its language. "You change, and our behaviour will change."

The supreme leader's uncompromising response came in his own video address, broadcast to a crowd in the north-eastern city of Mashhad. Chants of "Death to America" broke out as he spoke.

The scenes will be a disappointment to Mr Obama, who had hoped for some sign that Iran's religious leadership would respond to the hand being extended them. It was another setback to end the President's most difficult week since taking office, during which he has struggled to keep up with public anger over financial bailouts and made a TV gaffe.

Mr Obama's video message to Iran, released on Friday, was timed to coincide with the festival of Nowruz, which marks the arrival of spring. "My administration," he said, "is committed to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community."

Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had already said on Friday that "minor changes will not end the differences". Yesterday's response from Ayatollah Khamenei is potentially much more significant, however, because the spiritual leader has the final say on all matters of state. In his message, he celebrated the testing of Iran's first nuclear power plant, at Bushehr, as one of the "joyful developments" of the past year.

The Obama administration has also warned of tougher sanctions if Iran continues to defy UN demands to halt sensitive nuclear work, and Ayatollah Khamenei accused the US President of hypocrisy. "Our nation cannot be talked to like this," he said. "In the same congratulatory message they accuse the Iranian nation of supporting terrorism, pursuing nuclear arms and such things. What has changed?"

Mr Obama's intervention was designed as much as a message to the Iranian people as a direct address to the country's leadership, and has been accessible on the internet and on television channels broadcast across the border. Analysts say that President Obama could find changing relations will be slower than he hoped – something that is becoming a common theme for the new leader.

His efforts to roll back the bonus culture on Wall Street were set back by news yesterday that bonuses to the staff at AIG, the nationalized insurance giant, were $218 million, or nearly a third higher than previously disclosed.

And, during an appearance on Jay Leno's talk show on Thursday, Mr Obama joked that his terrible performance at ten-pin bowling was like "the Special Olympics", a comment that sparked a furor. Mr Obama immediately called the chairman of the Special Olympics, Tim Shriver, to apologize.

Source: Independent (UK)

Afghan officials in drug trade cut deals across enemy lines

By Graeme Smith

Mar. 21- In the shadow of the craggy mountains overlooking the road between Kabul and the eastern city of Jalalabad, a specially trained unit of police conducted a nearly perfect ambush of a drug dealer.

Officers surrounded Sayyed Jan's vehicle so quickly that his two bodyguards never had a chance to fire their weapons, and he was caught moving at least 183 kilograms of pure heroin.

But the Counternarcotics Police of Afghanistan realized they had a problem when they discovered that Mr. Jan's powerful friends included their own boss. The drug dealer was carrying a signed letter of protection from General Mohammed Daud Daud, the deputy minister of interior responsible for counternarcotics, widely considered Afghanistan's most powerful anti-drug czar.

That document, along with other papers and interviews with well-placed sources, show that Gen. Daud has safeguarded shipments of illegal opiates even as he commands thousands of officers sworn to fight the trade. Some accuse the deputy minister of taking a major cut of dealers' profits, ranking him among the biggest players in Afghanistan's $3-billion (U.S.) drug industry.

Reached by telephone this week, Gen. Daud angrily denied involvement in drug corruption. "Your information is completely defective and deficient, and shameful for the prestige of journalism," he said.

The Globe and Mail's investigation of Gen. Daud highlights the wider implications of drug cartels operating inside the Kabul administration. It's a toxic triangle of alliances, as corrupt officials work with drug traffickers who, in turn, help the Taliban.

Some international officials still say the corruption is limited to isolated bureaucrats who supplement their meagre salaries with graft. But a growing number of informed observers now agree with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent description of Afghanistan as a "narco-state," saying they are concerned about networks of corrupt officials taking over parts of government - in effect, running branches of the state for illegal gain.

This is a problem for Canada and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries, not only because Afghanistan supplies most of the heroin on their own streets, officials say, and not only because such large-scale corruption wastes the money and lives spent in support of the Kabul government.

More important, the routes used to export heroin also bring guns and ammunition into the country, giving firepower to those killing Canadian soldiers. The drug barons inside the Afghan administration are believed to be cutting deals across enemy lines, supplying cash and weapons to the rising insurgency.

One of the most notorious departments in Kabul is the anti-drug section of the Ministry of Interior, the Counternarcotics Police of Afghanistan.

Gen. Daud has been responsible for the CNPA since his presidential appointment as deputy minister for Counternarcotics in 2004, and the force has grown to an estimated 3,000 drug officers across the country. But the documents and case studies gathered by The Globe paint a disturbing portrait of his role in the industry.

"You have chosen a wolf as your shepherd," said an Afghan police officer who worked with Gen. Daud.

The officer spoke on condition of anonymity, as did all other Western and Afghan officials who provided details about drug corruption.

Talking about narcotics can be dangerous in Kabul; in December, an outspoken judge who handled drug cases was dragged out of his house by masked men and executed with a gunshot to the head.

One of the few people who has discussed Gen. Daud's dealings on the record is Lieutenant Nyamatullah Nyamat, then serving as head of the counternarcotics police in Kunduz province. He gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times accusing Gen. Daud of running a drug business in northern Afghanistan and protecting other dealers; shortly after the article was published in 2005, Lt. Nyamat disappeared. Two sources familiar with the incident said British advisers to the CNPA scrambled to ensure the lieutenant's safety, holding a meeting in which Gen. Daud admitted ordering his arrest. (Gen. Daud now denies this.) The lieutenant was eventually released unharmed, and reassigned to a less active post in central Afghanistan.

The Kabul government has often emphasized the lack of firm evidence against its top members; Ms. Clinton's "narco-state" reference was angrily rejected by government officials earlier this year. Gen. Daud's boss, Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar, specifically defended the counternarcotics force during an interview last month at his elegant offices in Kabul. When asked whether he still has confidence in the CNPA, Mr. Atmar nodded vigorously.

"Absolutely, absolutely," he said. "That's not to say some people may not be honest in their jobs, but this is an ongoing battle in every country, every nation, with every police force. By and large they are actually doing the right job with honesty and integrity."

Mr. Atmar's appointment to the Interior Ministry last fall was greeted with optimism among foreign diplomats, who hoped the well-regarded administrator would clean up corruption among the police. The minister says he has tried to purge the senior ranks, removing 10 police generals and charging some with drug corruption in the few months since he took office.

Powerful figures in the ministry such as Gen. Daud remain untouched, but the minister said he can only take action with proof of wrongdoing.

"One unfortunate thing is that much of this is based on speculation," Mr. Atmar said. "Give me the evidence, and hold me accountable for action on that evidence."

The strongest paper trail connecting Gen. Daud with drug dealing comes from the arrest of Sayyed Jan, the infamous trafficker, on June 19, 2005.

Officials disagree about how much heroin Mr. Jan was carrying: one source said 183 kilograms, another said 192, and Gen. Daud himself said it was 250.

Sources also disagree about whether the dealer was wearing a CNPA uniform when arrested, but either way it appears he was operating with Gen. Daud's blessings until he was undeniably caught smuggling. A letter from Gen. Daud to the governor of Helmand province, dated March 15, 2005, introduces Mr. Jan as a "respected Haji," meaning a Muslim who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and urges the provincial administration to assist Mr. Jan. The letter was signed with a flourish by Gen. Daud. The governor seems to have obeyed the counternarcotics chief.

Investigators found two other letters written the same month, one from the governor telling the police chief to allow safe passage for Mr. Jan and another from the police chief repeating the instruction to his men.

A relative of Mr. Jan described him as a hard-working young trafficker from the southern province of Helmand who got started as a teenager during the Taliban regime, guarding small caches of opium in the desert. Mr. Jan founded his own drug business in 2001, his relative said, and the operation thrived under the new government as he bought protection for his refineries and transportation routes.

One of the dealer's biggest protectors was Gen. Daud, his relative said, describing a conversation in which Mr. Jan confided that he paid the deputy minister $50,000 (U.S.) for permission to run a single convoy through his zone of control. When speaking about the counternarcotics chief, the trafficker used a Pashto word that means "boss."

Another source confirmed that Gen. Daud received payments from Mr. Jan, but suggested they were based on 50 per cent commission on his drug profits.

That relationship seems to have broken down when a CNPA unit, apparently acting without Gen. Daud's knowledge, caught the trafficker with a vehicle full of heroin. Gen. Daud initially attempted to set Mr. Jan free from prison, but then reversed himself and declared his support for the prosecution.

In a complicated series of legal manoeuvrings, however, the young trafficker was transferred to a prison in Helmand where sources say a local official accepted a bribe of 1.8 million Pakistani rupees, worth about $28,000 Canadian, to set him free. The dealer is now believed to be continuing his work outside of Afghanistan.

When confronted with this information, Gen. Daud said he cannot be held responsible for Mr. Jan escaping prosecution because it falls outside his jurisdiction. He denied taking money from Mr. Jan or any other dealer.

"Sayyed Jan fled from jail, but God willing we are chasing him to arrest him again and put him back in jail," the counternarcotics chief said.

Another arrest caught Gen. Daud by surprise in the summer of 2005. His own men, again apparently working without the direct supervision of the counternarcotics chief, captured a fuel tanker packed with an estimated 700 kilograms of raw opium on the outskirts of Kabul. The driver, Noor Mohammed, asked for permission to make a phone call; he dialled a number, and shortly afterward Gen. Daud's personal bodyguards rushed to the scene, brandishing their weapons and demanding the CNPA officers leave.

A tense standoff followed, then confusion as the CNPA bodyguards realized they were pointing their guns at fellow CNPA officers. Two Afghan officials who described the scene said they eventually settled the dispute by agreeing to take the tanker back to CNPA headquarters, and it's not known what eventually happened to the drugs. But those involved saw the incident as a clear example of Gen. Daud trying to protect some shipments.

"This is nonsense," Gen. Daud said, suggesting that drug dealers spread unfounded rumours to undermine his work.

Such anecdotes have spread widely, in fact, in Kabul's community of Western officials. But some take a sanguine view of reported corruption, especially when the reports concern a figure so prominent as Gen. Daud.

Born in 1969 to a family from the northern province of Takhar, Gen. Daud joined the anti-Soviet resistance as a teenager and became part of the famed militia of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the so-called Lion of the Panjshir.

After the assassination of Massoud in 2001, Gen. Daud worked with U.S. forces overthrowing the Taliban regime and was rewarded with control over a broad territory in the north.

As the country held its first presidential elections in 2004, however, Western officials became increasingly concerned that warlords such as Gen. Daud and their private armies would not fit into their plans for a heavily centralized government. Like other warlords, Gen. Daud was invited to accept a senior appointment in Kabul in hopes that he could be drawn away from his regional power base and integrated into the new regime.

This strategy worked, in some respects; officials say Gen. Daud no longer ranks among the country's biggest militia commanders, though he could still mobilize 4,000 to 6,000 armed men within 48 hours if necessary. He remains popular in his home province, where Western officials have been amused to hear villagers reciting poems in his honour.

Gen. Daud's supporters point out that many senior figures in the Kabul administration are implicated in drug corruption, and pushing them out of their jobs won't solve the problem. They emphasize that Gen. Daud appears to be reducing his involvement in the drug trade as he reaches middle age; his second wife is a U.S. citizen, and some speculate that he might try to clean up his business and eventually settle in the United States.

"Dealing with these characters is a slow process," a senior Western official said. "You can't judge them based on the past. You have to think about what they can do for this country in the future."

Others disagree, seeing the problem of corruption in more urgent terms.

"Fighting corruption and official involvement in drug trafficking in Afghanistan is as critical a challenge to rebuilding the country as defeating the Taliban," veteran ABC news correspondent Gretchen Peters writes in her forthcoming book Seeds of Terror, based on five years of field research along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

The need for such reform becomes clearer as drug investigators find traffickers involved with another kind of contraband: weapons.

Two Western officials closely monitoring the problem said about 50 to 70 per cent of weapons that supply the insurgency arrive in the country by road, facilitated by corrupt figures in the Afghan government - a statistic that shatters the image of Taliban hauling shipments of guns and ammunition through snowy mountain passes, as usually portrayed by NATO leaders; instead, many insurgents apparently find it more convenient to buy supplies from corrupt authorities.

The profits are huge: a Kalashnikov rifle purchased for $100 or $150 in Tajikistan can be smuggled to the battlefields of southern Afghanistan and sold for $400. The fact that the same rifle might be used to kill a Canadian soldier - or the corrupt Afghan official who sold it - has not diminished the trade.

"This government is not working for us," said the relative of Mr. Jan, the trafficker, expressing his disgust with the business. "We hate the drugs. But this government is addicted to money."

Source: Globe & Mail (Canada)

Kandahar villagers blame US troops for deaths

By Murray Brewster

Mar. 16- For the second time in as many months, angry Afghans have paraded through the streets of Kandahar the blood-splattered bodies of civilians allegedly killed by NATO forces.

The latest protest, involving people from the village named China, happened Monday and was quickly shut down by the Afghan Uniformed Police.

The villagers claimed that U.S. troops in Maywand, the western-most district of Kandahar, conducted a raid Saturday night in which five people were killed and two others went missing.

American special forces along with Afghan commandos were operating in the area, but a statement from the U.S. military said only insurgents had been killed.

A spokeswoman for the Canadian army said no Canadian troops were involved in the incident last weekend in Maywand.

Three corpses of bearded men were displayed in the open back of white Toyota pickup trucks at a traffic circle in a suburb of Kandahar.

"I think foreigners came to Afghanistan to kill innocent people, not to kill Taliban," said Haji Mohammed, one the village elders.

He stood on the open tailgate of one of trucks and beckoned passersby to look at two of the men who were laid out side by side in one vehicle.

More than 100 people took part in the demonstration before the provincial police chief, Col. Matiullah Qateh, accused the villagers – from a region known for being a Taliban stronghold – of being in league with the militants.

"You are Taliban," he shouted. "Go home."

Local journalists witnessing the event were forced at gunpoint to leave the area, and the crowd dispersed soon afterward.

The protesters said the men belonged to the Noorzai tribe, a group in Afghanistan that has occasionally aligned itself with the Taliban. There were fears among Afghan officials Monday night that the killings would whip up anti-American sentiment as the United States prepares to send 17,000 additional troops into the country.

Last month, people living in Salehan, a village for the handicapped just outside Kandahar city, accused Canadian troops of leaving behind an explosive that killed three children. But an investigation determined that the bomb likely belonged to the Taliban.

The accident had prompted an angry anti-Canadian demonstration at which the bodies of two of the boys were displayed outside Kandahar's provincial council office.

A statement from the U.S. command in Afghanistan said Saturday's operation, conducted with Afghan commandos, was aimed at disrupting foreign fighters and a weapons distribution network in the district.

"When the combined force arrived at the targeted location, they called out for all non-combatants to peacefully exit the buildings," said the statement.

"Five militants who maneuvered on the force were killed during the operation. Several buildings were cleared without incident and three suspected militants were detained."

There were 19 women and 38 children in the compounds at the time, but none of them were injured, the statement said.

Source: Canadian Press

Afghans say 5 civilians killed in US raid

By Jason Straziuso

Mar. 14- An overnight raid by U.S. coalition troops and Afghan special forces killed five militants during a mission targeting the leader of a roadside bomb-making cell south of Kabul, a U.S. spokesman said Saturday.

However, a spokesman for the governor of Logar province said a government delegation had confirmed those killed were civilians.

Angry villagers gathered in protest near a government compound later Saturday and police opened fire to keep them from storming the building, Logar governor's spokesman Den Mohammad Darwesh said. Two people were wounded.

U.S. spokesman Col. Greg Julian denied any civilian fatalities and said militants opened fire after American and Afghan troops ordered them to surrender.

"They were five armed militants that fired on a joint force ... when they went in to get a targeted individual," Julian said. "They called them out when they arrived, and these guys came out shooting and were killed in the process."

A search of the compound found grenades and other weapons, a U.S. statement said.

After angry condemnations by President Hamid Karzai over the last several months on the issue of civilian deaths, the U.S. recently agreed to put Afghan forces on all of its missions, including sensitive overnight raids conducted by U.S. Special Operations Forces.

Despite that step, the Ministry of Defense spokesman said he knew nothing about the raid. Darwesh said Logar's governor contacted U.S. officials in the province to ask for an explanation, but they responded that they did not know about it because it was conducted from the U.S. base at Bagram — a reference to U.S. Special Operations Forces.

Darwesh said a delegation that included provincial lawmakers visited the site of the raid and reported that all five people killed were civilians — a mullah from Kabul and four farmers. Darwesh earlier identified the dead as a father and four of his adult sons.

U.S. officials have also been slow to acknowledge when American troops have killed Afghan civilians in past instances. Journalists and human rights monitors can rarely travel to remote battle sites to confirm information from officials.

Taliban and other militants have increased attacks during the last three years and now control wide swaths of countryside that NATO troops and Afghan forces can't protect.

Source: AP

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