News & Current Affairs

June 30, 2009

Challenges loom as Iraqis celebrate

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Challenges loom as Iraqis celebrate

Iraqi celebrate 29 June 2009

Iraqis celebrated US troop withdrawals from cities in a way that has not been seen since the invasion

There was a pop concert and celebrations in the Baghdad zoo park, fireworks in the night sky, and jubilation in the streets.

Security forces were everywhere, all leave cancelled, for fear that the bombers might strike again.

But even the checkpoints were garlanded with flowers and flags, and many had music blaring.

They were marking the arrival of the last day of June, the deadline for US forces to be out of Iraqi towns and cities.

It’s been named Sovereignty Day, and declared a public holiday. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has said it is a huge victory for Iraq.

But the fact is that for most people in Baghdad and elsewhere, 1 July will look very similar to 30 June or 29 June.

‘A few miles away’

American troops have rarely been seen on the streets in many areas in recent months.

Most of the tasks involving contact with the public have been taken over by Iraqi security forces.

But the withdrawal process did see the US troops either dismantling some 86 bases in the capital or handing them to Iraqi forces.

At one such base, Joint Security Station Comanche on the edge of Sadr City, American soldiers were toiling last week in the baking heat to meet the deadline.

People have tasted democracy, they have worked on democracy… Nobody can enforce dictatorship again on this country
Haidar al-Obadi
Shia MP

Huge concrete blast-walls were taken to pieces and trucked away in the dust to another base outside the city.

The US soldiers from the 1st Cavalry’s Ironhorse Brigade were packing their kitbags and backpacks, stashing them in MRAP armoured vehicles, and being driven away.

“Since we came here in February, our 2,300 men haven’t suffered a single fatality,” said the position commander, Capt Chris Clyde.

“We’re moving to another base a few miles away outside the city, and will continue working with our Iraqi partners from there.”

JSS Comanche is already a thing of the past.

It is no longer a military position. It has been totally dismantled. The building used as its command centre was handed back to its original owners, the Iraqi Agriculture Ministry.

‘Sacrifices’

On Monday, there was a symbolic ceremony at the old Iraqi Ministry of Defence building in the centre of Baghdad, the last US-held position to be handed over to the Iraqi authorities.

At another big ceremony and parade on Tuesday, Mr Maliki paid tribute to the “increasing credibility” of the Iraqi security forces.

Iraqi soldiers on parade 29 June 2009

He said the US withdrawal from the cities vindicated the position taken by Iraqi negotiators in the tough talks with the US that led to the agreement under which American troops should be entirely out of Iraq by the end of 2011, and that the withdrawal timeline would be adhered to.

As far as the towns and cities are concerned, while US forces remain on call outside city limits, their role in urban areas now changes to one of training and advising.

“This is a huge day both for the American and Coalition forces and for the Iraqis,” said the chief spokesman for the US-led Multinational Forces, Brig Gen Steve Lanza.

“This is the culmination of much hard work and sacrifice over the years, as Iraqi security forces now have primacy and control in this country.”

Election test

Much now depends on whether Iraqi forces can prevent the upsurge of violence which heralded the approach of the US withdrawals from triggering another spiral of sectarian violence – the clear aim of a series of deadly bomb attacks directed almost exclusively against Shia neighbourhoods and markets.

It was just such attacks which provoked Shia militias to take brutal revenge against Sunnis in 2006 and 2007, taking the country to the brink of civil war and disintegration.

US soldier in Baquba

More than 130,000 US soldiers remain in Iraq, with full withdrawal due in 2011

“Iraqi society, two years and more ago, looked into that abyss and rejected it, and that is the trend now,” said British ambassador in Baghdad Christopher Prentice, looking ahead to key general elections scheduled for January.

“The concentration and effort across Iraq now is on a very vigorous political campaign. Six months from a landmark election, this is almost unique in the region, a country that is focusing on coalition building, on real politics, and the question is which politicians can win the trust of the electorate to deliver better services and build on the improving security in the way that meets the national needs.”

The period leading up to the elections will be a real test for the Iraqi forces.

They still have 131,000 US troops standing by to help if they run into trouble.

But if they do have to call them back in, it will be seen as a reverse for the Iraqi government, and for President Barack Obama’s hopes of getting all of his forces out of Iraq by the end of 2011 without leaving chaos in their wake.

Changed society

Last January’s provincial elections set an impressive model of democracy in action, with powerful parties in some cases losing out, but accepting the results with good grace.

Will they do so in future elections, when the Americans are no longer around to stiffen the resolve of security forces? Is democracy now sufficiently rooted that it will survive the US withdrawal?

Haidar al-Obadi, a Shia Member of Parliament and close adviser to the prime minister, believes it is.

“There is no going back to a dictatorship or a one-party system in the country now,” he said.

“People have tasted democracy, they have worked on democracy, it is an operation not only at the centre, but also in other areas, in the governorates and in the regions. Nobody can enforce dictatorship again on this country.”

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US soldiers leave Iraq’s cities

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 11:28 am

US soldiers leave Iraq’s cities

Iraqi soldiers carry the national flag and a banner that reads in Arabic "Parade to Mark the Iraq Pride day" in the city of Karbala

US and Iraqi commanders say Iraqi forces are ready to take over security

US troops have withdrawn from towns and cities in Iraq, six years after the invasion, having formally handed over security duties to new Iraqi forces.

A public holiday – National Sovereignty Day – has been declared, and the capital, Baghdad, threw a giant party to mark the eve of the changeover.

Hours before the midnight deadline, four US soldiers were killed in combat.

US-led combat operations are due to end by September 2010, with all troops gone from Iraq by the end of 2011.

The US military said the four soldiers served in Baghdad, but did not provide further details before families had been notified. They died as a “result of combat related injuries”, the military said.

Iraqi and US troops have been on the alert for insurgent attacks during the handover.

Despite the pullback from cities and towns, due to be completed on Tuesday, US troops will still be embedded with Iraqi forces.

We think Iraq is ready and Iraq thinks Iraq is ready
Christopher Hill
US Ambassador to Iraq

Both American and the Iraqi commanders say they are expecting al-Qaeda in Iraq and other groups to attempt to re-ignite sectarian tensions.

BBC defence and security correspondent Rob Watson says that while the pullback is significant, the actual withdrawal of US combat troops in 2010 will pose a greater challenge.

The success of that depends on Iraq’s political leaders and their ability to tackle the country’s many outstanding problems and tensions, he says.

Some 131,000 US troops remain in Iraq, including 12 combat brigades, and the total is not expected to drop below 128,000 until after the Iraqi national election in January.

‘Now is the time’

Iraqi soldiers paraded through Baghdad’s streets on Monday in vehicles decorated with flowers and Iraqi flags, while patriotic songs were played through loudspeakers at checkpoints.

Signs were draped on some Baghdad’s concrete blast walls reading “Iraq: my nation, my glory, my honour”.

US commanders have said security and stability is improving, and that Iraqi forces are now ready to take over security operations.

The US Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, said there would be no major reduction in forces until 2010 but the pullback was a “milestone”.

“Yes, we think Iraq is ready and Iraq thinks Iraq is ready,” he said.

“We have spent a lot of time working very closely with Iraqi security services… and I think there is an understanding that now it is the time.”

Mr Hill stressed that there would still be “a lot of US combat capabilities in Iraq for months to come”.

“After 30 June, with US combat forces out of cities and villages, localities, we’ll still be in Iraq,” he said.

“We will still have a very robust number of US troops in Iraq and, in fact, those troops will not begin to withdraw from Iraq until probably several months from now.”

The pullback comes two years after the US “surge” of extra troops between February and June 2007, which took US troop levels in Iraq to 168,000.

There was a decline in violence, but recent months have seen an upsurge.

In the past 10 days nearly 170 people have been killed and many more injured in three attacks in Baghdad and Kirkuk.


Did you attend Monday’s celebrations in Iraq? Send your comments or pictures

January 31, 2009

Iraqis vote in landmark elections

Iraqis vote in landmark elections

A man casts his vote in Baghdad, Iraq (31/01/2009)

Voters had to pass through strict security to cast their ballots

Iraqis are electing new provincial councils in the first nationwide vote in four years, with the Sunni minority expected to turn out in strength.

Sunnis largely boycotted the last ballot. Correspondents in Baghdad, where there has been a total ban on vehicles, said voting started slowly.

The vote is seen as a test of Iraq’s stability ahead of the next general election later this year.

Security is tight and thousands of observers are monitoring the polls.

Up to 15 million Iraqis are eligible to cast votes.

“This is a great chance for us, a great day, to be able to vote freely without any pressure or interference,” a Baghdad voter identified as Hamid told Reuters news agency.

Another voter said he had not slept in order to be first at the polling station.

“I want this experience to be a success, and that there will no fraud,” said Adnan al-Janabi.

Security tight

Voters had to pass through stringent security checks to reach the polling stations, which were mostly set up in schools.

As voting got underway, several mortar rounds landed near polling stations in Tikrit, hometown of late ruler Saddam Hussein, but no casualties were reported.

Hundreds of international observers are monitoring the vote, as well as thousands of local observers from the various political parties.

We didn’t vote and we saw the result – sectarian violence
Khaled al-Azemi
Sunni speaking about 2005 boycott

At least eight of the 14,000 candidates have been killed in the run up to the election.

Three of the candidates – all Sunni Muslims – were killed on Thursday, in Baghdad, Mosul and Diyala province.

While the recent level of violence around Iraq is significantly lower than in past years, Iraq’s international borders have been shut, traffic bans are in place across Baghdad and major cities, and curfews have been introduced.

Hundreds of women, including teachers and civic workers, have also been recruited to help search women voters after a rise in female suicide bombers last year, according to the Associated Press.

Iraqi and US military commanders have in recent days warned that al-Qaeda poses a threat to the elections.

Setting the stage

Sunnis largely boycotted the last ballot, a general election which resulted in Shia and Kurdish parties taking control of parliament.

Despite intimidation, many Sunni voters say they will vote this time.

PROVINCIAL ELECTIONS
Baghdad prepares for Saturday's election

Some, like Khaled al-Azemi, said the boycott last time had been a mistake.

“We lost a lot because we didn’t vote and we saw the result – sectarian violence” he told the News.

“That’s why we want to vote now to avoid the mistakes of the past.”

The drawing of alienated Sunnis back into the political arena is one of the big changes these elections will crystallise.

On the Shia side, the results will also be closely watched amid signs that many voters intend to turn away from the big religious factions and towards nationalist or secular ones.

If they pass off relatively peacefully, these elections will set the stage for general polls at the end of the year and for further coalition troop withdrawals, our correspondent says.

The election is also being seen as a quasi-referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

Saturday’s elections are being held in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces, with more than 14,000 candidates competing for just 440 seats.

There is no vote in the three provinces of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of the north and the ballot has been postponed in oil-rich Kirkuk province.

Iraq’s provincial councils are responsible for nominating the governors who lead the administration and oversee finance and reconstruction projects.

December 14, 2008

Shoes thrown at Bush on Iraq trip

14bush5_6001

A surprise visit by US President George Bush to Iraq has been overshadowed by an incident in which two shoes were thrown at him during a news conference.

An Iraqi journalist was wrestled to the floor by security guards after he called Mr Bush “a dog” and threw his footwear, just missing the president.

The soles of shoes are considered the ultimate insult in Arab culture.

During the trip, Mr Bush and Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki signed the new security agreement between their countries.

The pact calls for US troops to leave Iraq in 2011 – eight years after the 2003 invasion that has in part defined the Bush presidency.

Speaking just over five weeks before he hands over power to Barack Obama, Mr Bush also said the war in Iraq was not over and more work remained to be done.

His previously unannounced visit came a day after US Defence Secretary Robert Gates told US troops the Iraq mission was in its “endgame”.

‘Size 10’

In the middle of the news conference with Mr Maliki, a reporter stood up and shouted “this is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog,” before hurtling his shoes at Mr Bush, narrowly missing him.

PREVIOUS BUSH VISITS TO IRAQ
President Bush serves Thanksgiving dinner to US troops in Baghdad - 27/11/2003
Nov 2003: Serves Thanksgiving dinner to troops in Baghdad
June 2006: Meets new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki
Sept 2007: Visits Anbar province – former stronghold of Saddam Hussein

“All I can report is a size 10,” Mr Bush said according to the Associated Press news agency.

The shoe thrower was taken away by security guards and the news conference continued.

Correspondents called it a symbolic incident. Iraqis threw shoes and used them to beat Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad after his overthrow.

‘American security’

Mr Bush’s first stop upon arriving in Baghdad was the Iraqi presidential palace in the heavily-fortified Green Zone, where he held talks with President Jalal Talabani.

“The work hasn’t been easy but it’s been necessary for American security, Iraqi hope and world peace,” Mr Bush said during his talks with Mr Talabani.

The Iraqi president called Mr Bush “a great friend for the Iraqi people, who helped us liberate our country”.

The key issue at present is exactly how American troops will withdraw within the next three years and what sort of Iraq they will leave behind.

The US media has just published details of a US government report saying that post invasion reconstruction of Iraq was crippled by bureaucratic turf wars and an ignorance of the basic elements of Iraqi society.

The report is circulating among US officials in draft form, says the New York Times.

It reveals details of a reconstruction effort that cost more than $100bn (£67bn) and only succeeded in restoring what was destroyed in the invasion and the widespread looting that followed it, the newspaper said.

Troop promises

Mr Bush’s visit, unannounced in advance and conducted under tight security, follows the approval last month of a security pact between Washington and Baghdad that calls for US troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011.

US troops are first to withdraw from Iraqi cities, including Baghdad, by June next year.

Defence Secretary Gates said on Saturday that “the process of the drawdown” had begun.

US troops near Mosul

The end in sight for US troops in Iraq?

“We are, I believe, in terms of the American commitment, in the endgame here in Iraq,” he told US troops at an airbase near Baghdad.

Mr Gates has been picked to stay on as defence secretary by President-elect Barack Obama.

President Bush leaves the White House in less than six weeks. He said in a recent interview with ABC News that the biggest regret of his presidency was the false intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Finding these was one of the key justifications for the invasion. None were ever found.

Mr Obama has promised to bring home US combat troops from Iraq in a little over a year from when he takes office in January.

More than 4,200 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and security personnel have been killed since the invasion in 2003.

There are currently about 149,000 US soldiers in Iraq, down from last year’s peak of 170,000 after extra troops were poured in to deal with a worsening security situation.

As Mr Bush arrived in Baghdad, Gen David Petraeus, the head of the US Central Command, which includes Iraq, said attacks in the country had dropped from 180 a day in June 2007 to 10 a day now.

In a sign of modest security gains in Iraq, Mr Bush was welcomed with a formal arrival ceremony – a flourish that was not part of his previous three visits.

He arrived in the country on Air Force One, which landed at Baghdad International Airport in the afternoon, after a secretive Saturday night departure from Washington on an 11-hour flight.

September 19, 2008

Becalmed Baghdad counts war’s cost

Becalmed Baghdad counts war’s cost

There have been dozens of bombings in the Karrada district of Baghdad. But there is one date Ali Hameed will never forget – 26 July 2007.

Ali Hameed
We have a bright future in Iraq. The cloud that was hanging over all of us has passed
Ali Hameed

At six pm, a massive truck bomb exploded near his fish shop. Five members of his family were killed.

“We thought it was an earthquake because of the power of the explosion,” he told me.

Ali spent several minutes helping the wounded in the street. Only later did he realise that his home nearby had been destroyed. The whole apartment block was flattened.

In total, more than 60 people were killed. Ali pulled the bodies of his daughter and his brother from the rubble.

But, despite everything that happened to his family, he does not come across as angry or full of hate.

“The situation now is getting better,” he tells me.

“Life is gradually coming back to normal for us. People have started to question the purpose of fighting.

“We have a bright future in Iraq. The cloud that was hanging over all of us has passed.”

The smell of grilled fish wafts out onto the road. It is full of people buying groceries, sitting in cafes, and standing around chatting.

There is a sudden bang and I instinctively flinch. But it is just a car backfiring. The locals do not even notice.

Future anguish

Across Baghdad, people are starting to feel more confident. There are still bombings and shootings almost every day. But there is no longer the constant fear.

Dr Haider Maliki
Many of the children who have experienced trauma become very violent…. It will be a very violent generation
Dr Haider Maliki

The drop in violence has allowed many to think more about its effects. One recent study found that 70% of children exposed to trauma in Iraq go on to develop psychological problems.

At a park in central Baghdad, two orphans are playing.

Salah is nine years old. He was found by the police after a bomb went off. Nobody knows what happened to his family.

Saif is seven. His parents were killed in an explosion.

“I want to tell them [the bombers] it’s against God’s law to kill people,” he tells me. “I want to ask them: why did you kill my mother and father.”

He says he wants to be a policeman when he grows up, so that he can find his parents’ killers and send them to prison.

Salah barely talks at all. His shaking hands tell their own story.

Dr Haider Maliki deals with many similar cases at Baghdad’s only child psychiatric ward. Flowers hang from the ceiling and the walls are brightly painted. They have tried to make it as friendly as possible for the children.

Dr Maliki thinks problems are being stored up for the future.

“Many of the children who have experienced trauma become very violent,” he says. “They are violent towards their parents and they have no respect for their teachers. It will be a very violent generation.”

Letting off steam

On the other side of the city, there is a very different scene. We watch as the stunt bikers of Baghdad take to the streets.

Bikers in Baghdad

Bike enthusiasts make the most of a relatively safer Baghdad

At dusk, more than a hundred people gather on motorbikes. It is an anarchic sight as they race around performing skids, jumps and wheelies for the crowd.

The police keep moving them on, but they always find another venue for their impromptu displays.

The young men are ecstatic – almost intoxicated by the mix of testosterone and petrol fumes.

At one point, the bikers are joined by a man driving a minibus who skids his vehicle wildly around the empty car park.

After all the violence of recent years, young people in Baghdad clearly need to let off a lot of steam.

September 18, 2008

US helicopter troops die in Iraq

US helicopter troops die in Iraq

US Chinook CH-47 on operation in Afghanistan

The Chinook CH-47 is manufactured by the Boeing corporation

A US military helicopter has crashed in southern Iraq, killing seven US soldiers, the military has said.

The CH-47 Chinook helicopter made a “hard landing” shortly after midnight on Thursday about 96km (60 miles) west of the city of Basra, it said.

The helicopter was flying from Kuwait in a convoy that was heading to a US military base north of Baghdad. An investigation is under way.

The US currently has around 147,000 troops based in Iraq.

A US spokesman said hostile fire was not suspected.

The twin-rotored Chinook transport helicopter has long been the workhorse of the US army, primarily used since its introduction in 1962 to move troops, artillery, ammunition, fuel and other supplies.

It can carry 54 troops or 25,000lbs (11,340kg) of freight.

Equipped with satellite navigation and an instrument landing system, it has a defensive system to warn of approaching missiles and can fire diversionary “chaff” and flares.

Negotiations over the future status of the US troops are underway between Washington and Baghdad.

A UN mandate covering the presence of foreign troops in Iraq expires at the end of 2008.

September 15, 2008

Pentagon chief lands in Baghdad

Pentagon chief lands in Baghdad

Robert Gates arrives in Baghad

Mr Gates is on his eighth trip to Iraq since succeeding Donald Rumsfeld

US defense secretary Robert Gates is in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, on a previously unannounced visit.

He is expected to oversee a ceremony at which Lt-Gen Ray Odierno will take over command of US troops in Iraq.

Gen Odierno will replace Gen David Petraeus, who is moving to a new job in charge of US forces in the Middle East and Horn of Africa.

Last week, Mr Gates said the Iraq war had reached its end-game, but the US should be wary about troop withdrawals.

He is expected to hold talks with Iraqi officials, in what is his second trip in eight months and his eighth since becoming Pentagon chief in December 2006.

Washington and Baghdad are negotiating a controversial security pact that will govern the US troop presence in Iraq when a UN mandate expires at the end of 2008.

Maintaining pressure

“The challenge, I think, for Gen Odierno is: How do we work with the Iraqis to preserve the gains that have already been achieved, expand upon them, even as the numbers of US forces are shrinking,” Mr Gates told reporters on his flight to Baghdad.

He added that Iraqis must move forward with reconciliation between Shia Muslims, Sunni Arabs and Kurds

“There’s still people who would like to see this fail and the important thing will be to keep the pressure on all of them,” he said.

Violence has decreased in Iraq under Gen Petraeus’s strategies, which included a surge of US troop numbers to implement crackdowns on insurgents.

Mr Gates praised Gen Petraeus as “the hero of the hour” but said those working for him who put his plans into action were also “heroes”.

Correspondents say he was aided by factors such as the decision of former Sunni insurgents to turn against al-Qaeda and a ceasefire by the Mehdi Army militia.

September 12, 2008

No victory in Iraq, says Petraeus

No victory in Iraq, says Petraeus

The outgoing commander of US troops in Iraq, Gen David Petraeus, has said that he will never declare victory there.

In a BBC interview, Gen Petraeus said that recent security gains were “not irreversible” and that the US still faced a “long struggle”.

When asked if US troops could withdraw from Iraqi cities by the middle of next year, he said that would be “doable”.

In his next job leading the US Central Command, Gen Petraeus will also oversee operations in Afghanistan.

This is not the sort of struggle where you take a hill, plant the flag and go home to a victory parade… it’s not war with a simple slogan
Gen David Petraeus

He said “the trends in Afghanistan have not gone in the right direction… and that has to be addressed”.

Afghanistan remained a “hugely important endeavor”, he said.

Earlier this week, President George W Bush announced a cut of 8,000 US troops in Iraq by February – with some 4,500 being sent to Afghanistan.

‘Hard but hopeful’

Gen Petraeus took up his role in Iraq in February 2007, as President Bush announced his “surge” plan.

He has overseen its implementation, including the deployment of nearly 30,000 additional troops to trouble spots in Iraq.

In an interview with the BBC’s Newsnight programme, Gen Petraeus said that when he took charge in Iraq “the violence was horrific and the fabric of society was being torn apart”.

A handing over ceremony by US troops to the Iraqi military at a base in Baghdad (09/09/08)

Gen Petraeus said the Iraqis were standing up as US forces stood down

Leaving his post, he said there were “many storm clouds on the horizon which could develop into real problems”.Overall he summed up the situation as “still hard but hopeful”, saying that progress in Iraq was “a bit more durable” but that the situation there remained fragile.

He said he did not know that he would ever use the word “victory”: “This is not the sort of struggle where you take a hill, plant the flag and go home to a victory parade… it’s not war with a simple slogan.”

He said al-Qaeda’s efforts to portray its jihad in Iraq as going well were “disingenuous”. It was, in fact “going poorly”, he said.

Of his strategy of establishing joint security stations in key locations, Gen Petraeus said that “you can’t secure the people if you don’t live with them”.

He said it was now fair to say that the Iraqis were standing up as US forces stood down. The confidence and capability of Iraqi forces had increased substantially, he said.

Gen Petraeus did not confirm reports in the media that the US was preparing to withdraw all troops from Baghdad by next summer, but he did say that consideration was being given to removing US forces from a number of cities, including the capital.

August 14, 2008

Iraq suicide blast kills pilgrims

Iraq suicide blast kills pilgrims

Iraq map

Eighteen people have died and another 75 were injured after a female suicide bomber struck in southern Iraq.

The female attacker blew herself up while among a group of Shia pilgrims in the town of Iskandariya.

One witness said women were cooking dinner and children were playing when the explosion occurred.

Thousands of pilgrims are heading to the holy city of Karbala for a major religious festival this weekend marking the birthday of the 12th Shia imam.

Ahmed al-Saadi, a 34-year-old carpenter from Baghdad’s Sadr City district, told the Associated Press news agency: “Minutes after I passed the resting spot, I heard a big explosion. I turned my head back and saw big flames.

“We rushed to the site and saw charred bodies while wounded people were crying for help. Pots and burnt prayer rugs were scattered all the place.”

Iskandariya had seen a recent decline in violence due to an influx of US troops and a Sunni backlash against al-Qaeda.

Tens of thousands of Shia pilgrims are expected to flock to Karbala this weekend.

August 8, 2008

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

BEIJING – President Bush took another swipe at China’s human rights record Friday, the latest tit-for-tat salvo with Beijing before he put politics on hold and switched to fan mode for the Olympics’ gala opening ceremonies.

The past week has seen blunt language from both sides — with China clearly unhappy that its record of repression was being repeatedly aired even as it was seeking to revel in its long-anticipated debut on the world’s biggest sporting stage. But U.S. officials dismissed any suggestion of a widening rift.

“We’ve had these back-and-forths with China for years,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

As Bush opened a massive U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Friday, he prodded China to lessen repression and “let people say what they think.” The communist nation, which tolerates only government-approved religions, has rounded up dissidents ahead of the Olympics and imposed Internet restrictions on journalists that some say amount to censorship, all contrary to Beijing’s commitments when it won hosting rights for the games.

“We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful,” Bush said at the vast American diplomatic complex, built at a cost of $434 million.

His comments came on the heels of a speech Thursday in Bangkok in which he urged greater Bangkok for the Chinese people. Beijing responded by defending its human rights record and saying Bush shouldn’t be meddling in its internal affairs.

But Bush also took care during the embassy ribbon-cutting to praise China’s contributions to society and embrace its relationship with the United States as strong, enduring and candid.

“Candor is most effective where nations have built a relationship of respect and trust,” Bush said. “I’ve worked hard to build that respect and trust. I appreciate the Chinese leadership that have worked hard to build that respect and trust.”

The new U.S. embassy is its second-largest in the world, only after the heavily fortified compound in Baghdad, and Bush said this is symbolic of China’s importance to the United States.

“It reflects the solid foundation underpinning our relations,” Bush said. “It is a commitment to strengthen that foundation for years to come.”

The ceremony took place with a heavy haze engulfing the Chinese capital despite concerted government efforts to slash pollution before the games. It was full of emotional resonance, with those attending including Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, and Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state during the Nixon presidency when the U.S. began a relationship with China.

It was the senior Bush, as chief of the U.S. liaison office during a critical period when the United States was renewing ties with China, who first brought his son to China in 1975. The current president fondly recalls biking around Beijing when that was the predominant form of transport.

Much has changed since. While there still are lots of bicycles, cars dominant the streets today. Skyscrapers have sprouted like mushrooms. And the proliferation of construction cranes shows the building boom is far from over — evidence of the country’s economic growth — though most of the work has ground to a halt to help the anti-pollution battle.

The American embassy, on 10 acres in a new diplomatic zone, is wrapped in freestanding transparent and opaque glass.

The dedication followed China’s unveiling of its own imposing new embassy in Washington last week. That 250,000-square-foot glass-and-limestone compound is the largest foreign embassy in the U.S. capital.

The number eight is considered auspicious in China — Friday is 8/8/08 on the calendar — so the embassy ceremony began at 8:08 a.m. local time. The opening ceremonies begin exactly 12 hours later at 8:08 p.m.

Bush, the first American president event to attend an Olympics on foreign soil, was to meet with U.S. athletes right before the ceremonies.

“I’m looking forward to cheering our athletes on,” Bush said. “I’m not making any predictions about medal counts, but I can tell you the U.S. athletes are ready to come and compete, in the spirit of friendship.”

Also Friday, Bush attended a lunch for world leaders hosted by Chinese President Hu Jintao in the Great Hall of the People.

His known schedule over the next three days is thin, with large gaps left open for Bush to cherry-pick sporting events to watch with the numerous family members who have accompanied him to Beijing.

On Saturday, he meets with Olympic sponsors and watch women’s basketball. On Sunday, he will attend a government-approved Protestant church and then speak to reporters about religious freedom, mirroring his practice during a 2005 trip to China. He then plans to take in some men’s and women’s Olympic swimming.

Business takes over briefly Sunday afternoon, with talks with Hu as well as China’s vice president and premier. But then it’s back to sports: the much-anticipated U.S.-China basketball game Sunday night and a practice baseball game between the U.S. and China on Monday. He returns to Washington Monday night.

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