News & Current Affairs

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.

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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.

September 9, 2008

US to review Afghan attack case

US to review Afghan attack case

US forces in Afghanistan are to review an inquiry into an air raid last month after new video evidence emerged indicating scores of civilian deaths.

The US had earlier said that no more than seven civilians died in the attack on the western province of Herat.

However, the Afghan government and the UN said up to 90 people were killed, including many women and children.

The US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says such attacks are eroding support for the government and foreign forces.

HRW says civilians deaths from international air strikes nearly tripled between 2006 and 2007.

Disturbing footage

The US general in charge of NATO-led troops (Isaf) in Afghanistan said at the weekend that he was requesting the US military’s Central Command to review the investigation into last month’s air raid.

Gen McKiernan said Isaf realized there was “a large discrepancy between the number of civilian casualties reported by US and Afghan National Army soldiers, and local people”.

The US and Nato need to dramatically improve their co-ordination with each other and with the government of Afghanistan
Rachel Reid
Human Rights Watch

The US military subsequently said it would “appoint a senior US military officer to review the investigation into the combined Afghan National Army (ANA) and US forces operation”.

A US military statement said: “This review will consider new information that has become available since the completion of the initial investigation.”

Disturbing video footage – apparently of the aftermath of the raid – has been seen by top military figures and diplomats in Kabul.

The shaky footage – possibly shot with a mobile phone – shows some 40 dead bodies lined up under sheets and blankets inside a mosque.

The majority of the dead are children – babies and toddlers, some burned so badly they are barely recognizable.

The covers are removed for the camera one by one: a little girl of perhaps four with brown curly hair; a boy with his eyes still eerily open; another girl with huge injuries on the side of her head.

Graves being prepared Azizabad for people killed in last month's attack by US forces

Villagers say up to 90 civilians died in last month’s attack by US forces

Another boy has his hand up as if to protect his face which was crushed under the rubble.

Clearly heard on the tape is the crying of relatives and the survivors of the bombing raid.

US forces had originally said seven civilians were killed in a “successful” US raid targeting a Taleban commander in Azizabad village in Herat’s Shindand district.

However, the UN, the Afghan government and an Afghan human rights group said the number of civilian deaths was far higher.

Their estimates of the number of civilians killed varied between 76 and 90, with the UN eventually concluding that children accounted for 60 of the dead.

The dispute over the figures had escalated into a fierce behind-the-scenes battle behind the UN and the Pentagon.

Warning over deaths

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Monday that decreased reliance on ground forces and greater use of air power was leading to “mistakes” that had “dramatically decreased” support for the Afghan government and international troops.

“Civilian deaths from air strikes act as a recruiting tool for the Taleban and risk fatally undermining the international effort to provide basic security to the people of Afghanistan,” Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW, said in a statement.

Hamid Karzai visiting Azizabad

Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Azizabad after the air strike

The group found that in 2007 at least 321 Afghan civilians had been killed in international air strikes – a rise from at least 116 in 2006.

This figure was much lower than the number of civilians killed in militant attacks, the group said. Nearly 950 people were killed by insurgents in 2008, compared with 700 in 2006.

HRW said most of the air strike casualties occurred in unplanned raids, when air power was called to give support to troops on the ground.

“The US and Nato need to dramatically improve their co-ordination with each other and with the government of Afghanistan,” HRW’s Rachel Reid told the BBC.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly warned the US and Nato that civilian deaths undermine his government and damage the reputation of foreign forces in the country.

September 5, 2008

S bomb ‘kills five in Pakistan’

S bomb ‘kills five in Pakistan’

Pakistani paramilitary troops patrol streets in Jamdrud, an area of Pakistan's Khyber tribal region, Sunday, Aug. 31, 2008.

Tensions in the border region are rising

At least five people have been killed in another suspected US missile strike on militant targets in Pakistan’s border region, Pakistani officials say.

Officials said a missile was launched by a suspected US aircraft in the North Waziristan tribal area.

Pakistan’s army says it is investigating the incident.

It would be the third attack in three days allegedly carried out by US forces, who have not officially confirmed their involvement.

Unilateral strikes

Some reports say Islamist militants were killed in Friday’s attack, while local TV channels said women and children were among the dead.

map

Witnesses said missiles fired by an unmanned aircraft hit one or two houses in the village of Kurvek, about 30km (18 miles) west of the main town of Miranshah in North Waziristan.

“Two drones were flying in the area. They fired three missiles,” one unnamed witness told Reuters news agency.

Several people are reported to have been injured in addition to those killed.

Pakistan’s military spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas said reports of the incident were being investigated.

“Pakistani forces did not carry out any activity in the area,” he told the AFP news agency.

This would be the third such attack in three days, including an unprecedented ground assault allegedly carried out by American commandos.

In recent months US forces have stepped up unilateral strikes on Taleban and al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

They say Pakistan – a key US ally in the “war on terror” since 2001 – is not doing enough to stem the flow of insurgents across the border into Afghanistan.

Pakistani security officials suspect the Americans are trying to hit senior al-Qaeda targets ahead of forthcoming US presidential elections, our correspondent says.

Targets

At least two senior al-Qaeda figures are believed to have been killed in US missile strikes on Pakistani territory this year.

A senior al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan, Abu Laith al-Libi, was reported killed in February, while Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, described as a leading al-Qaeda chemical weapons expert, died in July, reports said.

It is not clear who the targets of strikes this week might have been.

On Thursday, at least five people were killed in a missile strike in the village of Mohammad Khel near Miranshah. Officials said all five were low-level militants of Arab origin.

Meanwhile, large numbers of people have decided to leave their settlements near Angor Adda in South Waziristan.

The town was attacked on Thursday by foreign troops carried across the border from Afghanistan by helicopter, Pakistan’s government says.

Officially, the US military has no knowledge of such an incursion, but Pentagon sources have confirmed that US commandoes carried out the raid.

Pakistan responded furiously, summoning the US ambassador and calling the attack a gross violation of its sovereignty.

Pakistan’s army has warned that such direct US action could rally more tribesmen behind the Taleban and incite a wider uprising.

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.

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