News & Current Affairs

June 20, 2009

US admits Afghan airstrike errors

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:04 am

US admits Afghan airstrike errors

A child in hospital after Farah strikes,09/05

A row has been rumbling since the strikes in early May

Failure by US forces to follow their own rules was the “likely” cause of civilian deaths in Afghan airstrikes last month, a US military report says.

US officials investigated seven strikes on Taliban targets in Farah province on 4 May, and concluded that three had not complied with military guidelines.

The report accepts that at least 26 civilians died, but acknowledges that the real figure could be much higher.

The Afghan government has said 140 civilians were killed in the strikes.

Washington and Kabul have been at loggerheads for weeks over the number of civilians killed in the incident.

ANALYSIS
James Coomarasamy
James Coomarasamy

The report’s conclusions are couched in caveats, but by releasing it late on a Friday afternoon the Pentagon has underlined its embarrassment at what may be the worst case of civilian deaths since coalition forces entered the country in 2001.

As well as acknowledging that there was a failure to follow strict military guidelines, the report recommends unspecified steps to be taken to refine that guidance and urges a greater engagement in the public relations battle.
It states that the coalition should be “first with the truth”.

Yet the report also calls into question whether the true number of civilian deaths, in this incident, will ever be known.

It sticks with the US military’s initial estimate of 26, but describes a report by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which speaks of at least 86 civilian casualties, as “balanced” and “thorough”.

The US report defends the Farah operation, saying the use of force “was an appropriate means to destroy that enemy threat”.

“However, the inability to discern the presence of civilians and avoid and/or minimise accompanying collateral damage resulted in the unintended consequence of civilian casualties,” the report says.

It says the final three strikes of the engagement, which took place after dark, did not adhere to “specific guidance” in the controlling directive.

“Not applying all of that guidance likely resulted in civilian casualties,” the report says.

It concedes that the precise number of civilians killed in the attack may never be known because many victims were buried before the investigation started.

The document makes a number of recommendations to reduce the likelihood of civilian deaths.

It says lines of communication must be improved, new guidelines should be introduced and personnel need to be retrained.

Gen Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, is currently reviewing US rules in relation to airstrikes.

He said last month that US forces should use them only if the lives of Nato personnel or American troops were clearly at risk.

Both Nato and US have have insisted that avoiding civilian casualties is their priority in all battles.

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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.

September 25, 2008

‘How Bagram destroyed me’

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 6:10 pm

‘How Bagram destroyed me’

Jawed Ahmad has just been released from US military detention at Bagram air base near the Afghan capital, Kabul. In a rare insider’s account of the base, he alleges abuse and, most controversially, that prison guards mishandled the Koran. He spoke to the BBC’s Martin Patience.

 


For Jawed Ahmad the last 11 months have been the worst of his life.

Jawed Ahmad

Jawed Ahmad says he will fight to his ‘last breath’ for justice

“They destroyed me financially, mentally and physically,” says Mr Ahmad, 21, wearing a traditional shalwar kameez and sporting a thin, wispy beard.

“But most importantly, my mother is taking her last breath in hospital just because of the Americans.”

Mr Ahmad was detained for almost a year in the Bagram air base where US forces imprison suspected Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters. He was freed last Saturday.

The facility has a controversial past – two Afghans were beaten to death by their American guards in 2002.

‘Don’t move’

Jawed Ahmad was a well-known journalist in Kandahar working for Canadian TV and on occasions the BBC. Previously, he had spent two and half years as a translator for American special forces.

For nine days they didn’t allow me sleep – I didn’t eat anything
Jawed Ahmad

So, when a press officer from an American military base asked him to come for a chat, he thought nothing of it – these people were supposed to be his friends after all.

“At once around 15 people surrounded me and dropped me to the floor,” says Mr Ahmad, becoming increasingly animated as he spoke.

“They shouted at me saying ‘don’t move’ and then they take me to the prison.”

Mr Ahmad says that the prison guards – he assumes they were American – then hit him and threw him against truck containers.

But he says that the abuse did not end there.

“For nine days they didn’t allow me sleep. I didn’t eat anything – it was a very tough time for me,” he says. “Finally, they told me you’re going to Guantanamo Bay.”

He was accused of supplying weapons to the Taleban and having contacts with the movement.

Mr Ahmad protested, saying that as a journalist it was his job. They then, he says, shaved his head and put him in an orange jump suit.

But before leaving Kandahar – his guards had one final message.

“I will never forget it,” he says. “They said ‘you know what?’, and I said ‘what’ and they said there is no right of journalists in this war.”

‘Unconscious’

Despite the threat of being sent to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Mr Ahmad was flown to Bagram air base about 70km (40 miles) north of the capital, Kabul.

Bagram air base

Bagram serves as a military base, airfield and detention centre

It’s where the US military detains about 600 prisoners whom they define as unlawful combatants.

“When I landed first of all they stood me in snow for six hours,” he says. “It was too cold – I had no socks, no shoes, nothing. I became unconscious two times.”

He continued: “They learned one word in Pashto ‘jigshaw, jigshaw’ – it means ‘stand up’. And when I became unconscious they were saying ‘jigshaw’.”

For the next 11 months Mr Ahmad was held at the facility – he says that he was unsure why he was there, and when, if ever, he would be released.

He says he and his fellow prisoners were taunted continuously by the guards.

“I thought they were animals,” he says. “When they cursed me, I cursed them twice. I challenged them.”

Mr Ahmad says he was sent into solitary confinement after an article appeared in the New York Times about his incarceration, which apparently irritated the guards.

He says he was chained in the cell in stress positions making it almost impossible to sleep.

But most inflammatory of all, Mr Ahmad says that other prisoners told him that the guards mishandled the Koran.

“They didn’t do it only one time, not two times, they did it more than 100 times. They have thrown it, they have torn it, they have kicked it.”

The day Mr Ahmad learned he was being set free was an emotional moment.

“Sometimes I laughed, sometimes I cried, sometimes I prayed,” he says. ” Finally, the next morning they just released me.”

Denial

In a statement, the US military at Bagram air base said that there was no evidence to substantiate any claims of mistreatment.

They added that Mr Ahmad had been turned over to the Afghan government as part of a reconciliation programme.

But Mr Ahmad says that he will pursue justice for what has happened to him.

“I will fight to my last breath to get my rights,” he says. ” I will knock on the door of Congress, I will ask Obama, I will ask Hilary Clinton, even Bush – I will not leave any person.”

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 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.

August 24, 2008

Solar plane makes record flight

Solar plane makes record flight

A UK-built solar-powered plane has set an unofficial world endurance record for a flight by an unmanned aircraft.

The Zephyr-6, as it is known, stayed aloft for more than three days,
running through the night on batteries it had recharged in sunlight.

The flight was a demonstration for the US military, which is
looking for new types of technology to support its troops on the
ground.

Craft like Zephyr might make ideal platforms for reconnaissance.

They could also be used to relay battlefield communications.

Chris Kelleher, from UK defence and research firm QinetiQ, said
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) offer advantages over traditional
aircraft and even satellites.

“The principal advantage is persistence – that you would be
there all the time,” he told BBC News. “A satellite goes over the same
part of the Earth twice a day – and one of those is at night – so it’s
only really getting a snapshot of activity. Zephyr would be watching
all day.”

Deployment close

The latest flight was conducted at the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.

The Zephyr flew non-stop for 82 hours, 37 minutes.

Altitude infographic NOT TO SCALE (BBC)

That time beats the current official world record for unmanned
flight set by the US robot plane Global Hawk – of 30 hours, 24 minutes
– and even Zephyr’s own previous best of 54 hours achieved last year.

However, the Yuma mark remains “unofficial” because QinetiQ did
not involve the FAI (Federation Aeronautique Internationale), the world
air sports federation, which sanctions all record attempts.

The US Department of Defense funded the demonstration flight
under its Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD) programme.

This programme is designed to advance the technologies American commanders would most like to see in the field.

“We think Zephyr is very close to an operational system – within
the next two years is what we’re aiming for,” Mr Kelleher said. “We
have one more step of improvements; we trying to design a robust and
reliable system that will really sit up there for months; and we want
to push the performance.”

Energy density

The trial, which took place between 28 and 31 July, also included the participation of the UK Ministry of Defence.

The 30kg Zephyr was guided by remote control to an operating
altitude in excess of 18km (60,000ft), and then flown on autopilot and
via satellite communication.

It tested a communications payload weighing approximately 2kg.

Zephyr (QinetiQ)

Zephyr should be in commanders’ hands within two years

At first sight, the propeller-driven Zephyr looks to be just another
model aircraft, and it is even launched by hand. But this “pilotless”
vehicle with its 18-metre wingspan incorporates world-leading
technologies.

Its structure uses ultra-lightweight carbon-fibre material; and
the plane flies on solar power generated by amorphous silicon solar
arrays no thicker than sheets of paper. These are glued over the
aircraft’s wings.

To get through the night, the propellers are powered from lithium-sulphur batteries which are topped up during the day.

“A lot of effort has gone into power storage and light-weighting
the systems,” explained Mr Kelleher. “Lithium sulphur is more than
double the energy density of the best alternative technology which is
lithium polymer batteries.

“They are an exceptional performer. We’ve worked with the Sion
Corporation. They’ve had them in development for years. We’re actually
the first application in the world for them.”

Vulture venture

Zephyr has demonstrated that it can cope with extremes of
temperature – from the blistering 45C heat found at ground level in
Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, to the minus 70C chill experienced at
altitudes of more than 18km (60,000ft).

The engineers from the Farnborough-based company are now
collaborating with the American aerospace giant Boeing on a defence
project codenamed Vulture.

This would see the biggest plane in history take to the sky,
powered by the sun and capable of carrying a 450-kilo (1,000lb)
payload.

US commanders say the design must be able to maintain its
position over a particular spot on the Earth’s surface uninterrupted
for five years.

QinetiQ is also developing UAV technology for civilian uses.

It has been working recently with Aberystwyth University on
field monitoring trials, plotting areas of ground that may or may not
need fertiliser applications.

Zephyr (QinetiQ)
Lightweight plane (30-34kg/70lb) is launched by hand
Coms or surveillance payload of about 2kg (4.5lb)
Flies autonomously and can climb to more than 18km (60,000ft)
By day, Zephyr flies on solar power and recharges its batteries
Advanced amorphous silicon solar arrays supplied by Unisolar
Rechargeable lithium-sulphur batteries supplied by Sion Corp

August 15, 2008

US jail guards in Iraq abuse case

US jail guards in Iraq abuse case

Camp Bucca

Camp Bucca in southern Iraq holds 18,000 prisoners

Six US sailors working as prison camp guards in Iraq face courts martial for abusing detainees, the US Navy said.

Eight detainees were allegedly sealed in a pepper spray-filled cell at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.

And it is claimed that two detainees were beaten, although suffered no broken bones, the US Navy said.

The assaults occurred on 14 May after some guards had been spat at and had human waste thrown at them by detainees, a naval spokeswoman said.

“Two detainees suffered minor abrasions as a result of the alleged assaults, eight others were confined overnight in a detainee housing unit which was sprayed with riot control agent and then the ventilation secured,” the US Navy said in a statement.

The six sailors are charged with assault and will face courts martial at Camp Bucca within the next 30 days, Navy 5th Fleet spokeswoman Cmdr Jane Campbell said.

Camp Bucca
Largest US-run prison camp in Iraq
18,000 detainees
Average length of stay: 330 days
80 detainees held since 2003

Seven other sailors received non-judicial punishments for failing to report the abuse at the sprawling desert camp, she said.

Two had their charges dismissed and others were given reductions in rank, with some also docked pay or confined to base for 45 days.

The latest abuse claims come after the US military said it had carried out reforms to its prison system.

In 2004 there was an international outcry after the release of pictures showing US soldiers humiliating detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, west of Baghdad.

Abu Ghraib jail has since been closed and 11 US soldiers were convicted of breaking military laws.

August 14, 2008

Rice says Russia faces isolation

Rice says Russia faces isolation

A  US C-17 transport plane sits at Tbilisi Airport on 13 August

The first US relief plane was unloaded in Tbilisi overnight

he US secretary of state has warned Russia that it risks isolation abroad if does not observe a ceasefire with Georgia and withdraw its troops.

“We expect Russia to meet its commitment to cease all military activities in Georgia,” she said.

Condoleezza Rice is to visit France for talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy, who currently chairs the EU, before visiting Georgia itself on Friday.

The US has begun delivering aid by air to the ex-Soviet republic.

Washington is showing unwavering support for Georgia in its conflict with Russia.

Russian forces briefly moved out of the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia on Wednesday to destroy military hardware at an abandoned Georgian military base in the nearby town of Gori.

Thousands of Russian troops remain in South Ossetia since they drove out a Georgian force which tried to regain control of the de facto independent province in a surprise attack one week ago.

They are also deployed in force in Abkhazia, Georgia’s other breakaway province, where separatists ejected Georgia’s remaining troops this week.

‘Isolation’ for Russia

Condoleezza Rice has warned Russia it risks further isolation.

Dispatching Ms Rice to Europe, President George W Bush called on Moscow to withdraw its forces from Georgian territory.

“The [US] stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia, insists that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected,” he said at the White House on Wednesday, flanked by the secretary of state and Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

[There is a] very strong, growing sense that Russia is not behaving like the kind of international partner that it has said that it wants to be
Condoleezza Rice
US secretary of state

Ms Rice said Russia faced international “isolation” if it refused to respect the truce.

“We expect all Russian forces that entered Georgia in recent days to withdraw from that country,” she said.

There was, she said, a “very strong, growing sense that Russia is not behaving like the kind of international partner that it has said that it wants to be”.

Ms Rice is to discuss with Mr Sarkozy the five-point peace plan he personally brokered with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili on lightning visits to Russia and Georgia on Tuesday.

FIVE-POINT PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops return to pre-conflict positions

A US military transport plane landed in Tbilisi airport on Wednesday evening, delivering what the US said was medical supplies, bedding and other items for internally displaced people.

The US special envoy to the region, Matthew Bryza, said the consignment was the first of many that would be arriving by sea and air.

The provision of US aid to Georgia follows a promise by President Bush that the US military would play a role in delivering emergency supplies to Georgia.

Kim Ghattas, the BBC’s correspondent at the US state department, says that while Washington has been warning Russia of the consequences of its military action in Georgia, so far little has happened apart from the cancellation of a joint military exercise.

But the view from Washington is that Russia has more to lose from a deterioration in ties with the West.

US officials insist that Moscow does care if concrete moves are taken to isolate it on the international scene, our correspondent says.

‘Civilised country’

The Georgian government says that 175 people, mainly civilians, were killed during the conflict with Russia and South Ossetian separatist forces.

A Russian officer records the decomposing body of a Georgian soldier on a street in Tskhinvali on 13 August

This Russian officer was recording a body found in Tskhinvali

Russia, which says that 74 of its troops were killed, reports that more than 2,000 people died in South Ossetia, the vast majority civilians allegedly killed in the Georgian attack.

While none of the casualty figures have been verified independently, the UN refugee agency estimates that some 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, both from South Ossetia and Georgia proper.

Russia says its forces dismantled and destroyed military hardware and ammunition at an undefended Georgian base near the town of Gori on Wednesday.

Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov, said attacks by Russian forces on Georgian military targets outside South Ossetia were legal and necessary.

He said Russia had to destroy Georgian artillery, and bomb military airfields, in order to protect its peacekeepers in South Ossetia.

Speaking to the BBC, he also said he was surprised at the international condemnation of Russia’s response to the crisis:

“Any civilized country would act same way. I may remind you [that on] September 11 [2001], the reaction was similar. American citizens were killed. You know the reaction.”

Meanwhile, Georgians fleeing Gori reported widespread shooting and looting by South Ossetian separatists.

Map of region


Are you in one of the affected areas of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Tell us what is happening where you are

August 8, 2008

Bin Laden driver given 66 months

Bin Laden driver given 66 months

Sketch of Salim Hamdan by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin, reviewed by the US Military

This was the first US war crimes trial since World War II

Osama Bin Laden’s former driver has been sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison at the first US military trial in Guantanamo Bay.

Salim Hamdan was convicted on Wednesday of supporting terrorism, but acquitted of conspiracy to murder.

Prosecutors had demanded a sentence of not less than 30 years.

On time served Hamdan could be released in five months but the Pentagon has said he will still be retained as an “enemy combatant”.

The US has always argued it can detain such people indefinitely, as long as its so-called war on terror continues.

The Pentagon said Hamdan would serve his sentence and then be eligible for review.

Regret

The BBC’s Kim Ghattas at the trial says the sentence is a dramatic snub to the Bush administration and came after just one-and-a-half hours of deliberation.

The jury of six US military officers, not the judge, imposed the sentence under the tribunal rules.

“It is my duty as president [of the jury] to inform you that this military commission sentences you to be confined for 66 months,” a juror told Hamdan.

HAMDAN CHARGES
Conspiracy: Not guilty of two counts of conspiring with al-Qaeda to attack civilians, destroy property and commit murder
Providing support for terrorism: Guilty on five counts, including being the driver and bodyguard for Osama Bin Laden, a man he knew to be the leader of a terrorist group. Not guilty on three other counts

Our correspondent says Hamdan looked nervous as he walked in for sentencing but after hearing it, he told jurors: “I would like to apologise one more time to all the members and I would like to thank you for what you have done for me.”

The judge, Navy Capt Keith Allred, told Hamdan: “I hope the day comes when you return to your wife and your daughters and your country.”

Hamdan, who is aged about 40, smiled as he left court and said thank you to those in the room.

After the sentencing, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said: “He will serve out the rest of his sentence. At that time he will still be considered an enemy combatant.

“But he will be eligible for review by an Administrative Review Board.”

The boards decide annually on the threat posed by detainees and the possibility of their transfer or release.

The White House had earlier said the trial was “fair”.

The defence is still likely to go ahead with the appeal it announced on Wednesday.

Rights groups have condemned the tribunal system. Amnesty International said it was “fundamentally flawed” and should be abandoned.

‘Worked for wages’

In his earlier plea for leniency to the jury, Hamdan said in a prepared statement: “It’s true there are work opportunities in Yemen, but not at the level I needed after I got married and not to the level of ambitions that I had in my future.”

He said he regretted the loss of “innocent lives”.

Hamdan had admitted working for Bin Laden in Afghanistan from 1997 to 2001 for $200 (£99) a month, but said he worked for wages, not to wage war on the US.

About 270 suspects remain in detention in Guantanamo Bay.

Among the dozens of other inmates due to be tried there in the coming months are men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

August 5, 2008

Money’s power marks US election

If Barack Obama wins his way to the White House, one quiet decision may turn out to have been crucial.

Towards the end of June, he announced that he would not participate in the system of public funding for elections in the United States.

That means he can raise – and spend – perhaps $300m (£150m) compared with the $84.1m (£43.6m) that Mr McCain will get from the tax-payer under the public funding system.

Under the rules, candidates who take public funding for the general election have their spending capped. Accordingly, Mr Obama will be free to spend – Mr McCain will be constrained, although he will be bolstered by the Republican National Committee, which has far more money than the Democratic National Committee.

Tad Devine, who was one of the main strategists for John Kerry in 2004, told the that Mr Obama had learnt from the “swift boating” that floored the Democratic contender.

(A group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran a series of adverts accusing Mr Kerry of lying about his service in Vietnam to get one of his medals for bravery and two of his three Purple Hearts.)

He says of the Kerry decision: “If we had not accepted public funding we would have had on hand enormous resources and when those Swift Boat attacks came, we would have dealt with them in the medium in which they came, which was paid advertising.”

Mr Obama had indicated that he wanted to stick with the public funding system. Renouncing it, accordingly brought Republican allegations of an about-turn.

Mr Devine, a Democrat, sees it differently.

“It’s a testament that this guy can make tough choices,” he says.

Democrats are still smarting from the mauling they got from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

They were a group of individuals who formed what is known as a 527, after the clause in the tax code that applies to such advocacy groups.

Under the rules, these 527s cannot be connected to a campaign.

But a connection to a campaign can be ambiguous, and where there is ambiguity there will be lawyers.

Democracy

Overlooking the corner of M Street NW and 26th Street in Washington DC is the office of the lawyer for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

He is one and the same man, Benjamin Ginsburg.

He told me: “There was not a direct link. The truth is that I provided legal functions for them.

“I didn’t deal with the messages and I was very careful to make sure there was no co-ordination between the two in terms of their messages and activities.”

Mr Ginsburg is a charming man with a mind like a laser. His office is a museum of mementos of big historical events in which he has been central.

In one corner, there is a metal voting booth from Palm Beach County in Florida in 2000, complete with chads, those small bits of paper – small bits of contentious paper – on which the presidency turned.

He is a great defender of 527s, the outside groups that are raucous and unpredictable in elections.

“This is a democracy,” he says. “People are allowed to express their views outside the political party structure.”

Another Republican, Michael Toner – who used to be chairman of the Federal Election Commission, which polices elections – says the imbalance in funds this time shows that the system is not working.

He wants more money to be available to candidates who take public funding.

Americans do not spend too much on elections, he thinks, but too little.

“Americans spent $3bn (£1.5bn) last year on potato chips. Isn’t the next leader of the free world worth at least that much?

Fair game

Democrats tend to see Swift Boat Veterans, and the campaign they ran last time, as way below the belt.

Republicans, in return, see it as pretty fair game and point their fingers back at campaigns run by MoveOn.org in particular, which has depicted the US military leader in Iraq, Gen Petraeus as General Betray Us.

Move On is a big web-based organisation that does take much money from ordinary people but also in the past from billionaires like George Soros. Ilyse Hogue, MoveOn’s campaigns director, defended the adverts.

“Raising that issue is critical to having a dialogue into how we responsibly and safely withdraw our troops,” she said. “We’re proud of our record.”

“MoveOn is member-driven, small donor driven. Over the past ten years, 90% of our fund-raising has been from small owners. The current average donation is $42 (£21).

“Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was all big donor funded. It was a couple of big donors calling the shots. That’s the antithesis of how MoveOn works and believes that civil society should work.”

One of the benefits for Mr Obama of raising his own money rather than relying on public funding may be that he can keep better control of his own message.

The reasoning runs that there is little point in giving to candidates if their spending is capped. Why give what cannot be spent?

So his hope may be that giving to his campaign directly might seem more effective for his supporters than giving to fringe groups. So runs the argument.

If that is so, he will be better able to meet whatever gets thrown at him, by fringe groups implying that he is a Muslim, for example.

“They will try that,” says Harold Ickes, one of the legendary political workers in Washington for the Democrats and formerly deputy chief of staff at the Clinton White House, where he earned the appellation “Garbage Man” because of his role as a cleaner up of political mess.

“If you’re talking about a tight election and enough people are convinced of that in Ohio, it can make Ohio slip into the Republican column.”

And race may surface – not formally from the McCain campaign, but from the outside groups.

As Mr Ickes said: “We’re going to find just how deep race cuts in this country.”

The first part of Steve Evans’s two-part investigation into the “The Billion Dollar Election” is broadcast on the World Service on Monday 4 August.

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