News & Current Affairs

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.

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September 12, 2008

New Zealand leader calls election

New Zealand leader calls election

PM Helen Clark

PM Helen Clark may hope that a lengthy campaign could help her win

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has called a general election for 8 November, aiming to win a fourth term in office.

However, Ms Clark’s Labor Party has trailed the opposition National Party in opinion polls for the past year.

Economic woes and a scandal-hit foreign minister have given the opposition its best chance of power in a decade.

But the country’s aversion to the Iraq war and strong anti-nuclear stance are unlikely to change, whoever wins.

Ms Clark, 58, a successful campaigner, told a news conference on Friday that the election would be about trust.

“It is about which leader and which major party we New Zealanders trust our families’ and country’s future with,” said the prime minister.

“What I see is that as the election nears people are focusing very much on what the real choice is. And at that point it comes down to what matters most to our families and our communities,” she said.

The latest date on which elections could have been set was 15 November, and some analysts have suggested Ms Clark’s choice of date will give her time to claw back support.

Correspondents say the nation’s economy is expected to be a key issue in election. A recent cut in interest rates may help Labour, and promised tax cuts are due to take effect in October.

Public opinion polls show the Labor Party trailing the main opposition National Party by at least 6.5 percentage points – an improvement on a 16-point gap earlier in the year.

Party problems

New Zealand’s voting system is mixed-member proportional representation, which shares power with smaller parties, in a 121-seat single-house parliament.

Ms Clark’s government has led a minority parliament in recent years, relying on parties such as United Future and New Zealand First for support.

New Zealand First leader, Winston Peters, has been her foreign minister but stepped down on 29 August as he is now under investigation for donations allegedly made to his party by wealthy business figures.

Ms Clark has distanced herself from Mr Peters in recent weeks.

Just before the election announcement, Ms Clark’s government passed a promised major piece of legislation to set up an emissions trading scheme.

Parliament will be dissolved on 3 October and nomination day is 14 October, allowing for a five-week campaign period.

“I do believe the future of New Zealand is at stake,” Ms Clark said.

“I believe that Labor has shown through its record in office that we can be trusted with the future of New Zealand.”

She said her Labor Party was “ambitious” for New Zealand, whereas the opposition party was “ambiguous”.

National leader John Key did not immediately comment.

August 8, 2008

American deaths in Afghanistan war reach 500

American deaths in Afghanistan war reach 500

KABUL, Afghanistan – The deadliest three months for American forces in Afghanistan have pushed the U.S. death toll to at least 500, forcing a war long overshadowed by Iraq back into the headlines.

Larger, more sophisticated militant attacks have also caused a sharp rise in Afghan civilian deaths — at least 472 in the first seven months of the year, most in suicide bombings, according to an Associated Press count.

In all, at least 600 Afghan civilians were killed from January through July, a 30 percent increase from the same period last year, according to AP figures compiled from coalition and Afghan officials. That includes at least 128 killed by U.S. or NATO forces.

There are about 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the highest since the war began, meaning more troops than ever are patrolling this country’s mountainous terrain and exposed to ambushes and roadside bombs.

The U.S. military suffered 65 deaths in May, June and July, by far the deadliest three-month period in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. The previous deadliest three-month period was in the spring of 2005, with 45 U.S. deaths.

In July, more U.S. troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq for the month, for the first time since the Iraq war started in 2003. In all, 92 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan this year, a pace that would surpass last year’s death toll of 111.

The spike in violence is forcing U.S. leaders, including the presidential candidates, to call for still more troops here.

More than ever, the U.S. government recognizes the situation Afghanistan “is serious and needs to be dealt with,” said Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the RAND Corp., a Washington-based think tank that often does studies for the Pentagon.

“I think it is an important step that … the gravity of the situation has been recognized and that there are some steps in place to turn the tide in Afghanistan,” he said. “Whether that is successful or not is of course an open question.”

Overall, at least 500 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Qatar and United Arab Emirates in support of the Afghan mission, according to an AP analysis based on Defense Department press releases.

“In terms of milestones, it’s important to point out that no casualty is more significant than any other,” said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Wright. “Each service member is equally precious, and each loss of life is equally tragic.”

The AP count is based on information from U.S., NATO or Afghan officials, often impossible to independently verify because of the remote or dangerous locations of the incidents.

The Defense Department count often lags by several days. The most recent Defense Department count, issued Saturday, showed 496 U.S. troop deaths in and around Afghanistan.

Counting coalition troops, Taliban militants and Afghan civilians, more than 3,000 people have died in violence this year, according to the AP count.

In the past, the Taliban appeared to try to minimize civilian casualties by launching its large-scale attacks primarily against U.S., NATO or Afghan troops.

But this year a February bombing at a dog fighting competition in Kandahar killed more than 100 people, mostly civilians. An attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul last month killed more than 60.

Steven Simon, a senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the recent attacks with high civilian death tolls reflect a migration of both tactics and fighters from Iraq to Afghanistan.

“The reported presence in Afghanistan of the head of al-Qaida in Iraq underscores the extent to which blowback from Iraq is being felt in Afghanistan,” Simon said in an e-mail. “At this point, al-Qaida’s leadership seems to be looking at the Afghan theater as the next big thing.”

Afghan and U.S. officials say a big reason for the spike in violence is because militaries use sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan where they can arm and train fighters who launch attacks across the border on U.S. and Afghan forces. More al-Qaida fighters have been using the region to launch attacks than in previous years, U.S. officials say.

Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, blamed the rise on violence principally on two factors: a peace agreement earlier this year between the Pakistan government and some militants in its tribal areas near the Afghan border, and support given by Pakistan’s intelligence agency to Taliban fighters.

Pakistan denies it is helping Taliban fighters or that it has entered into peace agreements with militants who launch attacks in Afghanistan.

Insurgent attacks have jumped by 50 percent in the first half of 2008, according to data from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, a Kabul-based group paid for by Western donors that advises relief groups on security.

In a report last week, ANSO said it logged 2,056 insurgent attacks in the first half of the year, a 52 percent increase from the same period last year.

The group said violence was up sharply in relatively peaceful northern and western Afghanistan and the region surrounding Kabul.

Both major presidential candidates, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, have called for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan. President Bush has said more troops will be dedicated to the Afghan fight in 2009 but has not said how many.

U.S. military officials have said the Afghan effort needs three more brigades of troops, or about 10,500 forces.

Any new forces sent here can expect to face vicious attacks from an increasingly brazen Taliban force. Last month more than 200 militant fighters attacked a remote U.S. outpost in a dangerous and mountainous region of northeastern Afghanistan. Nine U.S. troops were killed and 15 wounded.

Even local Afghan civilians joined in on the attack, a sign the U.S. and NATO face steep challenges in their bid to win the population over to the side of the Afghan government.

“The size of the operation and the ability of the group to get support within the town was somewhat alarming, and it shows that there is clearly some concern with local Afghans, and that’s a concern because civilians are the center of gravity in a counterinsurgency,” said Jones. “The dangerous message is that there was involvement by the civilians.”

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