The bottom line is clear: Our vital interests in Afghanistan are limited and military victory is not the key to achieving them. On the contrary, waging a lengthy counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan may well do more to aid Taliban recruiting than to dismantle the group, help spread conflict further into Pakistan, unify radical groups that might otherwise be quarreling amongst themselves, threaten the long-term health of the U.S. economy, and prevent the U.S. government from turning its full attention to other pressing problems. -- Afghanistan Study Group

Thursday, February 21, 2008

News & Views 02/21/08

Photo: Supporters of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr carry flag trapped empty coffins during a parade in Baghdad's Sadr City February 21, 2008. Thousands of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr supporters held a parade marking the 4th anniversary of Mahdi Army foundation in Baghdad's Sadr City on Thursday. REUTERS/Kareem Raheem (IRAQ)

REPORTS – LIFE IN IRAQ

1 US Soldier, 38 Iraqis Killed; 16 Iraqis Wounded

IRAQ: Unemployment Too Becomes an Epidemic

Many Iraqi workers enjoyed huge salary increases following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. But unemployment rose more sharply under policies introduced by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). CPA head L. Paul Bremer decommissioned the Iraqi military, leading to overnight unemployment for hundreds of thousands of military personnel. And that was not all. The ministries of culture and information also saw drastic layoffs, some through privatisation. Almost a year into the occupation, defence ministry employees, many of them ex-military, started to receive monthly payments of about 100 dollars as "donation of emergency". "This payment does not meet 10 percent of the monthly needs of many families," ex-soldier in the previous Iraq army Muhsin Aboud told IPS in Baquba, 40 km northeast of Baghdad. "It's unfair to leave us without jobs." Still, the unemployed are lucky. Many employees of the abolished offices were accused of being terrorists, and imprisoned.

2nd anniversary of al-Askari imam bombings dominates Baghdad press

Iraqi newspapers on Thursday focused on the second anniversary of the bombing attacks that targeted the two holy Shiite shrines of al-Askari imams in Samarra two years ago. The government-funded al-Sabah newspaper published an article entitled 'Peace be upon Iraq and the shrines' by its Editor-in-Chief Fallah al-Mashaal in which he commemorated the second anniversary of Samarra bombings, which pushed the country close to all-out civil conflict.

Arbaeen against the occupation

The Arbaeen starts next week, and tens of thousands of pilgrims are on their way to the Karbala for the occasion. Fadhil Rashad writes in Al-Hayat: “Karbala and the surrounding cities are experiencing a major sandstorm, which however isn't keeping the visitors from continuing their journeys on foot to the city...from cities in some cases hundreds of kilometers away, in pilgrimages that in some cases can take ten days or a month or more, such as those from Basra, and they hold many-colored flags, and some of them hold up portraits of their religious leaders, the most prominent being the Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr. The followers of Sadr generally wear a white gown, symbolizing their willingness to "face up to wearing the shroud". And on their way they chant phrases praising their leaders, and attacking the occupation forces and those that cooperate with them. And these processions and rest-camps stretch all with way from Basra to Karbala, and from Baghdad to Karbala also.”

Meanwhile in Karbala, security officials have been regularly reporting arrests of persons they say belong to the "Adherents of the Mahdi", one of the groups focused on the coming appearance of the 12th Iman, and who the authorities say are planning violence violence during the Arbaeen, just as they say they did in Basra and Nasiriya a couple of months ago. One of the main tenets of the Mahdists is the corruption of the Shiite religious establishment in Najaf, headed by the Ayatollah Sistani, because of their support for a corrupt, occupation-friendly government.

REPORTS – IRAQI MILITIAS, POLITICIANS, POWER BROKERS

Mahdi Army enforces cease-fire with wide-scale purge – paper

Shiite Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army enforced the decision to freeze its activities through a wide-scale purge among all its members, who did not abide by the freezing decision, the Washington Post newspaper said on Thursday. "The Mahdi Army fighters recalled dragging the 25-year-old man into a dark house where, while verses were chanted from the Koran, he was hanged from a hook in the ceiling," the newspaper reported. "The execution, carried out last month by Iraq's largest Shiite militia, would have been unexceptional but for one fact: The victim was one of its own," the paper added. The man, a Mahdi Army commander whose nom de guerre was Hamza, had killed and kidnapped scores of people despite what was then a five-month-old order to militia members to lay down their weapons, group leaders said. So after Hamza confessed to his crimes during repeated interrogations, a three-page death sentence was issued by the office of the militia's leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, they said.

IRAQ: Minister wants much more funding for power sector

Iraq needs at least US$4 billion in 2008 to allow swifter rehabilitation of its battered power plants nationwide, Electricity Minister Karim Wahid said on 19 February. "We have asked the government to allocate US$4 billion in the 2008 budget to our ministry to rebuild the power network, instead of $1.4 billion. We need $1.5 billion to repair power stations and $2.5 billion to buy new ones," Wahid said. According to Wahid, Iraq's 27 million people need 9,500MW of power daily to meet their minimum requirements, but current production was about 4,000MW per day. He said Iraq was importing 150MW per day from Iran to cover some of Diyala Province's needs.

Clashes between Iraqi army, armed groups in Basra

Iraqi army troops clashed with armed groups in the early hours on Thursday throughout Basra, leaving unspecified number of casualties, a police source said. "Fierce clashes flared up between Iraqi soldiers and armed groups throughout Basra, mainly in Hussein and al-Jamaayat neighborhoods in western Basra," the source told Aswat al-Iraq – Voices of Iraq (VOI) on condition of anonymity.

Iraqi official says troop shortage delaying Mosul offensive

A lack of forces has delayed the start of what Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has vowed will be a "decisive battle" against Al-Qaeda in the war-torn city of Mosul, an official said on Thursday. The operation, which two weeks ago officials said would start within "days" is now only likely to be launched in the coming weeks, said Khorso Korane, deputy governor of northern Nineveh province of which Mosul is the capital.

REPORTS – US/UK/OTHERS IN IRAQ

Turkey shells Kurdish rebel positions in N.Iraq

The Turkish military shelled several Kurdish rebel positions inside northern Iraq on Thursday, Kurdish officials said, days after Ankara said it was weighing a ground operation against the guerrillas. A senior Iraqi border official said a bridge had been destroyed in Nerva Rikan, an area close to Iraq's border with Turkey in Dahuk province.

New stand-off on Iraqi borders with Turkey

Turkish forces stationing in Bamarni district in the farthest part of northern Iraq near borders with Turkey moved five kilometers outside agreed barracks on Thursday leading to a new stand-off with Kurdish Peshmerga, Kurdish officials said. "A climate of tension cast over the situation between the Turkish forces stationing in Bamarni district and the Peshmerga (Local Kurdistan) fighters in Duhuk province," the spokesman for Iraq's Kurdistan Presidency, Foad Hussein, told Aswat al-Iraq – Voices of Iraq- (VOI).

A new US push to release more detainees in Iraq

The US military, in a move to foster "goodwill and reconciliation," has this month released 300 detainees in Iraq who are no longer considered a threat. The release reflects the beginning of a push by the military to release thousands of individuals who have been held for months or even years but who were never charged with wrongdoing. The move also represents a careful balancing act for the military: While counterinsurgency experts say there is an inherent value to releasing individuals who are not considered an "imperative threat" to society, military commanders remain concerned that releasing too many too soon could undermine improving security trends in Iraq. During a series of meetings that ended last month, Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, worked with subordinates to hammer out an agreement under which thousands of detainees could be let go. Under the new approach, representatives from each command sit on review boards to assess the cases of the roughly 24,000 individuals currently held in US detention in Iraq.

Australia confirms Iraq troop withdrawal

US soldier convicted of assault in Iraq death

A United States soldier was found guilty Wednesday by a military jury in Hawaii of aggravated assault over the death last June of an unarmed civilian near the northern Iraq city of Kirkuk. But the jury acquitted the soldier, Army Spc. Christopher Shore of Winder, Georgia, of manslaughter. The assault conviction carries a maximum jail term of eight years and dishonorable discharge. At the same time, a pretrial hearing began Wednesday for US Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who led a squad that allegedly killed 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in 2005.

Money Day in Baghdad

Around 10 a.m. on a Friday morning, a small group of American soldiers driving armored humvees pulled into Joint Security Station Casino in the Ghazaliya. Capt. Garrett Hooper and his team were understandably mum about their mission--slung over Hooper's left shoulder was an ordinary-looking backpack with more than $110,000 in neatly bound packets of greenbacks. With equal innocuousness, local merchants began lining up outside Casino--at the back gate--having received a phone call in recent days setting up the appointment. Months ago, they had each completed an application for a microgrant of up to $2,500, funds that were now being distributed. The recipients were interviewed and had their fingerprints and eyes digitally scanned and entered into a database. Then they signed on the line and accepted a packet of bills.

In the past, soldiers distributing the money would arrive at the various small butcher shops, vegetable stands, and pharmacies in the local markets. They drew lots of attention--even attracting large groups of children who would follow the soldiers from shop to shop. The next day, invariably, those who had received the money complained that local toughs had robbed them or, worse, threatened them for "collaboration with the army of occupation."

HISTORY

UK Labor Party Used Law to Keep Nuclear Criticism of Israel Secret

The document reveals how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) successfully fought to keep secret any mention of Israel contained on the first draft of the controversial, now discredited Iraq weapons dossier. At the heart of it was nervousness at the top of government about any mention of Israel's nuclear arsenal in an official paper accusing Iraq of flouting the UN's authority on weapons of mass destruction.

Felicity Arbuthnot: Iraq; ARE THERE ANY TEARS LEFT?

As the Nineties were drawing to a close and Iraqis were already anticipating another massive bombing or invasion, an international symposium was held in Baghdad, on health and the embargo's effects. Whilst eminent international experts presented factual papers, woeful statistics and practical wish lists, inevitably denied by the United Nations Sanctions Committee - which, if implemented, would have slowed or even stemmed some of the tide of human tragedy - it was, as ever, when slipping away, alone, to talk to families, wander streets and hospital wards, that the statistics came to life - or manifested, as always, in preventable deaths.

There were again, the tiny mewings, of small children in intractable pain, denied pain relief - vetoed or delayed by the Sanctions Committee. There was the brief leap of hope, in the eyes of parents vigilling by a child's bed. A foreigner would, perhaps, be able to wreak a miracle and provide what their precious creation needed. The look, as almost always, died. Even with hard currency, stocks, mostly, simply did not exist. It was the terror of women in labour, wondering if they would give birth to baby barely recognisable as human, due to the depleted uranium and other poisonings, polluting the “land between two rivers”, since the 1991 bombings and topped up by subsequent, ever ongoing ones. Scanners, ultra-sound, being vetoed, there was no way of knowing the state of the baby for certain, until birth.

IRAQI REFUGEES

UNHCR hails Lebanon move to legalise Iraqi refugees

Lebanon has moved to regularise the status of Iraqi refugees residing illegally in the country, a decision the top U.N. refugee agency says will benefit thousands of Iraqis and help release hundreds in detention. Starting this week, the government is giving foreigners, including Iraqis, who entered Lebanon illegally or who have stayed beyond their visa limit a three-month grace period to legalise their status. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says there are an estimated 50,000 Iraqis in Lebanon, 77.5 percent of whom entered illegally, according to a survey by the Danish Refugee Council conducted in late 2007.

Exiled Iraqi clowns cheer refugees

A few months ago the group started receiving death threats warning them against continuing their show, entitled A Child is as Scared as a Country. But the clowns kept going, until two members of the troupe were murdered. This was enough to drive the surviving three to leave Iraq. "We don't know why they targeted us. We were entertaining children," says Rahman. Like many thousands of fearful Iraqis, Rahman and his fellow clowns left their home and fled to Syria. Not knowing what awaited them in Syria, they went to the UN refugee agency to register and ended up working with the UNHCR to entertain refugee children. Despite all efforts to provide security in Iraq, large numbers of Iraqis are still fleeing the country, with about 1,000 reportedly crossing into Syria daily, where they join a population of more than one million.

Less than generous

WHETHER they supported the American-led campaign to topple Saddam Hussein or denounced it, all rich countries now agree that the turmoil which engulfed Iraq after the war was a tragedy whose victims should be succoured. But by no means all wealthy countries are prepared to back up those compassionate sentiments with money or hospitality. Of the 4m Iraqis who have been displaced by conflict at various times, about half are still inside the country. Most of the rest found shelter of sorts in nearby places, like Syria and Jordan. But there is an important third category: people deemed by the United Nations' refugee agency to be extremely vulnerable and in need of relocation somewhere far from the region.

JORDAN: Visa fine waiver not enough to lure Iraqis home

Jordan's decision to waive visa fines on illegal Iraqi residents to encourage them to return home is having a limited impact in terms of boosting the number of returnees, according to Jordanian officials and activists. Last week Jordan granted illegal Iraqi residents the chance to rectify their legal status by waiving visa fines for those who wish to return home, and reducing by 50 percent visa fines for those who wish to remain in the kingdom. Figures released by the Jordanian government this week show that hosting Iraqis has cost the kingdom nearly US$1.6 billion, mainly in terms of education and health. There is no independent verification of the claim. Interior Minister Eid Fayez said Iraqi migrants could go to immigration departments from 17 February-17 March to take advantage of the amnesty. After the expiry of the deadline, those who failed to report to the immigration authorities will have to pay visa violation fines and forfeit the 50 percent discount.

How to Help Iraqi Refugees

COMMENTARY

Channel 4 unveils Happy Birthday Iraq plans

Channel 4 is to launch its Happy Birthday Iraq season with a week of programmes examining the devastating fallout from the war for Iraq and the Middle East, America and Britain. In a week-long season to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Channel 4 and More4 are screening 11 films by award-winning journalists and filmmakers. They include acclaimed documentary-maker Nick Broomfield's Battle for Haditha, two special editions of Dispatches and a one-off film by Channel 4 News anchor Jon Snow. At the heart of the season will be Broomfield's latest feature film, Battle for Haditha, which will be followed on More4 by On That Day - an investigative documentary about the Haditha massacre. ….Footage for the Snow documentary has been shot by Iraqi cameramen and interviews carried out with ordinary citizens, to show "a country on the brink of collapse with broken infrastructure, devastating violence and the power of gangsters and militias".

Audio: Journalist Patrick Cockburn on Iraq's Tenuous Calm

The cease-fire that's kept Shiite militias in check for months is in danger of unraveling. And some U.S.-backed Sunni militias are growing restless. Patrick Cockburn, author and Iraq correspondent for The Independent in London, offers observations on war in Iraq.

Ceasefire has strengthened Iraq's Sadr: analysts

Moqtada al-Sadr's six-month freeze on attacks by his Mahdi Army has strengthened his hand and allowed him to purge dissidents from the ranks of the militia, analysts and aides of the Shiite cleric said. ….The pause has given Sadr a chance to strengthen his power base and purge his ranks of rogue fighters. Aajari said the Mahdi Army, estimated to be some 60,000 strong and with broad support in the Shiite community, has been reorganised. "We have isolated bad elements and we have prevented them from infiltrating the militia," he said. British journalist Patrick Cockburn, author of "Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq" due to be published in May, believes the ceasefire is also aimed at ridding the militia of its reputation as a haven for death squads and criminals. The American military, which clashed with the Mahdi Army twice in 2004, was at first sceptical about the ceasefire -- but now has nothing but praise. "Moqtada al-Sadr's efforts in the ceasefire have been productive," said US military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith. Sadr and his supporters "recognise the responsible role they play in the Shiite community," he said.

Making Iraq Disappear: the Million Year War

It is a delusion to believe that the US military is a force that stands between Iraqis and catastrophe. It is a significant part of the catastrophe and, as long as Washington is committed to any form of permanency, it cannot help but remain so, says Tom Engelhardt. Think of the top officials of the Bush administration as magicians when it comes to Iraq. Their top hats and tails may be worn and their act fraying, but it doesn't seem to matter. Their latest "abracadabra," the President's "surge strategy" of 2007, has still worked like a charm. They waved their magic wands, paid off and armed a bunch of former Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists (about 80,000 "concerned citizens," as the President likes to call them), and magically lowered "violence" in Iraq. Even more miraculously, they made a country that they had already turned into a cesspool and a slagheap -- its capital now has a "lake" of sewage so large that it can be viewed "as a big black spot on Google Earth" -- almost entirely disappear from view in the US

Iraq Is Still Important

Given the likelihood that Iraq will once again emerge as a conflict area, and that tensions with Iran will remain or even grow, Democrats will need to take a different tack than they did five years ago when this mess began, says James Zogby. Despite polls showing that the economy has eclipsed the Iraq war as the number one issue for US voters, the war itself, and as Barack Obama rightly terms it, "the mindset that got us into this war," will remain critical issues in the 2008 Presidential contest. Here's why:

While Iraq has largely fallen off the front pages of US newspapers, the country remains a tinderbox, ready to ignite. The reduction in violence is due not so much to the US military surge as it the result of a change in tactics by competing Iraqi groups. Any one of a number of factors, both internal and external to Iraq (for example: a change in Iran's regional approach; a renewed Kurdish push toward independence; heightened tensions between competing Shi'a groups in the south; or tensions between newly armed Sunni groups and Shi'a led security forces) could inflame the situation, leading quickly to renewed conflict. The many gaps that plague Iraqi society continue to grow despite the current reduction in violence.

RESISTANCE

Peace Sign Turns Fifty

Asian American soldiers of conscience

The war in Iraq has thrust American soldiers of Asian ancestry into the limelight as no other US conflict has done. Aside from their Asian heritage there is another tie that these men share - one that reflects an on-going battle in the halls of Congress and in countless debates around the world. Asian American soldiers are front and center in fights over the use of torture, questions of wartime ethics and conduct and even over the legality of the Iraq war itself.

We Support the Troops Who Oppose the War

On the weekend of 13-15 March, 2008, Iraq Veterans Against the War will assemble history's largest gathering of US veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Iraqi and Afghan survivors. They will provide first hand accounts of their experiences and reveal the truth of occupation. We support Iraq Veterans Against the War and their Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan Investigation. Join us in supporting the effort to reveal truth in the way that only those who lived it can.

Please go to this website to sign the petition to support IVAW.

Quote of the day: With no guarantees given that the troops would not repeat the mistake committed in other rebel cities in the subjugation of which the U.S. employed warplanes and heavy artillery, tens of thousands of residents are fleeing to safer areas. ~ Samer Saeed, in U.S. troops erect walls in Mosul as inhabitants flee

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