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.”

September 5, 2008

US ‘spying’ on Iraqi leadership

US ‘spying’ on Iraqi leadership

US President Bush with Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad in 2006

Mr Bush says he has worked hard on his relationship with Mr Maliki

The US has been extensively spying on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a new book by renowned US reporter Bob Woodward claims.

A source in the book is quoted as saying “we know everything he says”, according to the Washington Post.

The book also says “ground-breaking” covert techniques have helped reduce the violence in Iraq.

This is the fourth book on the Bush administration by Mr Woodward, the Washington Post’s associate editor.

The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008, examines the handling of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and President Bush’s leadership and governing style, according to the Post.

Several sources in the book support the claim that Mr Maliki and other Iraqi leaders were being spied on by the US administration.

But Mr Woodward says the tactic was not universally popular in the White House – some senior US officials questioned whether it was worth the risk, given Mr Bush’s efforts to develop a close working relationship with Mr Maliki.

Growing rifts

The book also claims that the US “surge” in 2007, in which nearly 30,000 extra troops were sent to Iraq, was not the primary reason for the steep drop in violence seen over the last year.

Mr Woodward says new covert techniques have been used successfully by US military and intelligence officials to find, target and kill insurgents.

He does not go into detail about them, saying the White House asked him to withhold specifics in the interests of national security.

The book quotes from interviews given by Mr Bush himself, and looks at the how the decision-making of the war evolved and the internal clashes it caused.

It reveals a breakdown in the confidence between the president and his military commanders in the region, as well as discord between the state and defence departments.

US officials have not commented on the book, which is due to be published on Monday.

Mr Woodward is well-known for his investigative reporting, and first came to prominence for his role in exposing the Watergate scandal which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

August 22, 2008

US troops ‘to quit Iraq by 2011’

US troops ‘to quit Iraq by 2011’

US soldier in Baghdad

US troops’ immunity from Iraqi law has been a controversial issue

US combat troops could leave Iraq by 2011 under the terms of a deal awaiting approval by Iraq’s parliament and presidency, an Iraqi official has said.

The draft security agreement also calls for US forces to withdraw from all Iraqi urban areas by June 2009.

The 27-point agreement reportedly includes a compromise allowing US soldiers some immunity under Iraqi law.

The final date when US troops leave will depend largely on security.

The decision will be taken by a joint committee, which could reduce or extend the amount of time US troops spend in the country.

Mohammed al-Haj Hammoud, the top Iraqi official negotiating with the US on the status of US forces in Iraq, said a deal had been agreed that envisaged all US combat troops leaving Iraq by 2011.

Some US troops could remain beyond 2011 “to train Iraqi security forces”, the AFP news agency quoted him as saying.

“The combat troops will withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 2009,” Mr Hammoud said.

“Both the parties have agreed on this… The negotiators’ job is done. Now it is up to the leaders.”

Handover aim

A deal also appears to have been struck on the controversial issue of granting US troops immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law.

Mr Hammoud said the deal allowed US troops to remain immune from prosecution on military bases and while on operation.

All other cases would be considered by a joint judicial committee.

The draft deal still needs to be approved by the Iraqi Presidential Council, and critically, by the parliament.

The deal marks the end of 10 months of difficult negotiations.

Speaking on a visit to Baghdad on Thursday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the final deal would be in line with Iraqi laws and sovereignty.

Ms Rice said the aim remained to hand over responsibility for security to Iraqi forces.

There are currently around 147,000 US troops in Iraq.

August 7, 2008

Mehdi Army ‘stops carrying arms’

Mehdi Army ‘stops carrying arms’

Mehdi Army members in Basra, August 2004

The militia is weakened after many battles with US and Iraqi forces

A spokesman for Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr says his militia  will no longer carry weapons, but he stopped short of declaring an end to violence.

In a BBC interview, Salah al-Obeidi said future decisions about the Mehdi Army’s strategy would depend on the long-term status of US troops in Iraq.

“Resistance” would go on if a timetable for US withdrawal was not set, he said.

Iraq and the US are negotiating a status of forces agreement to decide the future role of US troops.

An announcement is expected to be read out at prayers in many Shia mosques in Baghdad on Friday.

The BBC’s Crispin Thorold in Baghdad says the Mehdi Army was once arguably the most powerful Shia military and political movement in Iraq, but it has been seriously weakened after military operations against it.

Local ceasefires were declared in Basra and Baghdad earlier year year after intense fighting, but the militia still retains its weapons.

In June, the militia announced a reorganisation along the lines of Hezbollah in Lebanon – turning it into a large social movement with small secretive fighting units.

Separately, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has given militants in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, a week to lay down their arms.

He said those that did so would receive an amnesty.

So far, almost 500 suspected militants have been captured in an offensive there over the past eight days.

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