News & Current Affairs

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.

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December 14, 2008

Shoes thrown at Bush on Iraq trip

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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 18, 2008

UN admits Darfur troop shortfall

UN admits Darfur troop shortfall

A Unamid peacekeeper talks to civilians in Darfur (UN image from 2006)

Unamid had hoped to deploy 80% of 26,000 mandated troops by 2009

Only half the troops intended for a joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force for the Sudanese region of Darfur will be deployed by 2009, the UN says.

Alain Le Roy, the new head of UN peacekeeping, said only 13,000 of the 26,000 troops authorized for the Unamid force would arrive by the end of 2008.

Unamid took over peacekeeping duties in the war-ravaged Darfur province last January from a 7,000-strong AU force.

It had planned to have more than 20,000 staff deployed by the start of 2009.

But by last month it had only 8,100 troops and fewer than 2,000 police on the ground.

In July, Unamid’s commander, Nigerian Gen Martin Agwai, expressed optimism that 80% of the force could be deployed by year’s end. That optimism was echoed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

But Mr Le Roy said: “I think 80% sadly has been, as far as I know so far, a bit optimistic.”

He said the arrival of Thai and Nepalese units in Darfur had been delayed, adding that he expected an additional 3,000 troops and police to be on the ground by the end of November, primarily from Ethiopia and Egypt.

In July, seven Unamid peacekeepers were killed and 22 injured when they were attacked by heavily armed militia in northern Darfur, prompting the UN to move its non-essential staff to locations outside the country.

Some 300,000 people have died as a result of the conflict in Darfur since 2003, while more than two million people have fled their homes, the UN estimates.

Sudan’s government denies mobilising Arab Janjaweed militias to attack black African civilians in Darfur since rebels took up arms in 2003.

September 9, 2008

Bush to announce troop reshuffle

Bush to announce troop reshuffle

US soldier in Falluja

The bulk of the 146,000 US troops deployed in Iraq will remain behind

US President George W Bush is set to announce plans to withdraw about 8,000 troops from Iraq by February and to send additional forces to Afghanistan.

Mr Bush will say in a speech on Tuesday that the improving security situation in Iraq will allow a “quiet surge” of troops in Afghanistan in coming months.

A Marine battalion due to go to Iraq in November will be sent to Afghanistan, followed by an Army combat brigade.

There are currently 146,000 US troops in Iraq and 33,000 in Afghanistan.

Any long-term decision about their future deployment will be left to Mr Bush’s successor, who will take office in January.

‘Degree of durability’

The continued decline in violence in Iraq since last year’s US troop “surge” has given President Bush a chance to ease the growing strain on his country’s military.

If the progress in Iraq continues to hold, Gen Petraeus and our military leaders believe additional reductions will be possible in the first half of 2009
President George W Bush

Acting on the advice of his generals, Mr Bush will announce on Tuesday that a Marine battalion, comprising about 1,000 troops, scheduled to leave Anbar province in November will return home as planned without being replaced.

An army brigade of between 3,500 and 4,000 troops will also leave in February, accompanied by about 3,400 support forces, he will say.

“While the progress in Iraq is still fragile and reversible, Gen [David] Petraeus and Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker report that there now appears to be a ‘degree of durability’ to the gains we have made,” Mr Bush will say in a speech at the National Defense University, according to the White House.

“And if the progress in Iraq continues to hold, Gen Petraeus and our military leaders believe additional reductions will be possible in the first half of 2009.”

Our correspondent says the withdrawals announced on Tuesday will mark the start of a slow and limited draw-down based on what Mr Bush calls “return on success”. However, it will still leave the bulk of US forces behind in Iraq.

Last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said that although a timetable for the withdrawal of the remaining troops did not exist, he had tentatively agreed with the US military to end the presence of foreign combat troops by 2011.

The Iraqi government is currently negotiating a security agreement on the future of US forces in Iraq before a UN mandate expires.

Afghanistan ‘fragile’

In his speech on Tuesday, Mr Bush will also signal that the US will make modest increases in the strength of its forces in Afghanistan to combat the growing threat posed by the Taleban.

Taleban in opium field in south-west Afghanistan, April 2008

Aid agencies point to a 50% increase in insurgent attacks in Afghanistan

“For all the good work we have done in that country, it is clear we must do even more,” he will say.

“Unlike Iraq, it has few natural resources and has an underdeveloped infrastructure. Its democratic institutions are fragile.”

“And its enemies are some of the most hardened terrorists and extremists in the world. With their brutal attacks, the Taleban and the terrorists have made some progress in shaking the confidence of the Afghan people.”

In November, a Marine battalion that was scheduled to deploy to Iraq will instead go to Afghanistan. It will be followed in January by an army combat brigade.

The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief said last month that violence in Afghanistan had reached its worst level since 2001, when US-led forces overthrew the Taleban, with more than 260 civilians killed in July.

Afghanistan’s government said the bloodshed was connected to peace deals Pakistan’s government had sought with Islamist militants in the north-western tribal areas along the border.

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