Sunday, December 18, 2011

Last US troops pull out of Iraq

Soldiers in the last American military convoy to depart Iraq from the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division walk from their vehicles after crossing over the border into Kuwait on December 18, 2011.—AFP
IRAQ-KUWAIT BORDER: The last US forces left Iraq and entered Kuwait Sunday, nearly nine years after launching a divisive war to oust Saddam Hussein, and just as the oil-rich country grapples with renewed political deadlock.
The last of roughly 110 vehicles carrying 500-odd troops mostly belonging to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, traversed the border at 7:38 am, leaving just a couple hundred soldiers at the US embassy, in a country where there were once nearly 170,000 troops on 505 bases.
It ends a war that left tens of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 4,500 American soldiers dead, many more wounded, and 1.75 million Iraqis displaced, after the US-led invasion unleashed brutal sectarian killing.
The last group of vehicles transporting US troops out of Iraq left the recently-handed over Imam Ali Base in Nasiriyah, southern Iraq, at 2:30 am to make the 350-kilometre journey south to the Kuwaiti border.
They travelled across a mostly-deserted route, which US forces paid Shiite tribal sheikhs to regularly inspect to ensure no attacks could take place.
Five hours later, they crossed a berm at the Kuwaiti border lit with floodlights and ringed with barbed wire, whooping and high-fiving in joy having left Iraq.
“(It’s) a good feeling … knowing this is gonna be the last mission out of here,” said Private First Class Martin Lamb, part of the final “tactical road march” out of Iraq.
“(It’s) part of history, you know — we’re the last ones out.” The withdrawal comes as the country struggles with renewed political deadlock as the Iraqiya bloc, which won March 2010 elections and drew most of its support from minority Sunnis, said it was boycotting parliament to protest Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s centralisation of decision-making.
The bloc, which controls nine ministerial posts, has not, however, pulled out of Iraq’s national unity government led by Maliki.
“We can no longer remain silent about the way the state is being administered, as it is plunging the country into the unknown,” the bloc, which holds 82 seats in the 325-member legislature, said in a statement on Saturday.
Iraqiya said the government’s actions, which it claimed included stationing tanks and armoured vehicles outside the houses of the bloc’s leadership in the heavily-fortified Green Zone, “drives people to want to rid themselves of the strong arm of central power as far as the constitution allows them to.” Provincial authorities in three Sunni-majority provinces in north and west Iraq have all moved take up the option of similar autonomy to that enjoyed by Kurds in north Iraq, drawing an angry response from Maliki.
Key political issues such as reform of the mostly state-run economy and a law to regulate and organise the lucrative energy sector also remain unresolved, to say nothing of an explosive territorial dispute between Arabs and Kurds centred around the northern city of Kirkuk.
Sunday’s completion of the withdrawal brings to a close nearly nine years of the American military stationing troops in Iraq, beginning with a “shock and awe” campaign in 2003 to oust Saddam, which many in Washington believed would see US forces conclude their mission in Iraq within months.
But key decisions taken at the time have since been widely criticised as fuelling what became a bloody Sunni Arab insurgency, in particular dissolving the Iraqi army and purging the civil service of all members of Saddam’s Baath Party, including lower-ranking members.
The insurgency eventually sparked communal bloodshed, particularly after the February 2006 bombing of a Shia shrine in the predominantly Sunni city of Samarra by al Qaeda.
More than 100,000 Iraqis have been reported killed in violence since the invasion, according to British NGO Iraq Body Count.
The bloodshed was only quelled when then-US president George W. Bush ordered a “surge” of American troops to Iraq, and Sunni tribal militias sided with US forces against al Qaeda.
Baghdad and Washington signed a 2008 pact that called for the withdrawal by the end of this year, and in the summer of last year, the US declared a formal end to combat operations while maintaining fewer than 50,000 troops in Iraq.
The US embassy will now retain just 157 US soldiers, for training of Iraqi forces, and a group of Marines to secure the diplomatic mission.
Attacks nationwide, meanwhile, remain common, but violence in Iraq has declined significantly since its peak.
Iraq has a 900,000-strong security force that many believe, while capable of maintaining internal security, lacks the means to defend its borders, airspace and territorial waters.
Some observers also fear a return to bloody sectarianism, doubt the strength of Iraq’s political structures, and feel that Maliki has entrenched his power base to the detriment of the country’s minorities.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Afghans moot Saudi, Turkey for Taliban office

KABUL: Afghan authorities on Thursday named Saudi Arabia or Turkey as the best places to set up a Taliban liaison office abroad to enable peace talks to end a devastating 10-year insurgency.
President Hamid Karzai convened a top level meeting, the outcome of which is not binding, to discuss how to move forward with a peace process derailed by the assassination of his peace envoy, Burhanuddin Rabbani, in September.
The meeting came one day after Afghanistan announced it had recalled its ambassador to Qatar in protest at being left out of talks in which the United States discussed plans for the Taliban to open an address in Qatar.
“The participants of the meeting insisted that the address created for the opposition should be inside Afghanistan,” Karzai’s office said.
“But if the situation does not allow this, the office should be established in an Islamic country, preferably in Saudi Arabia or Turkey.”
The participants also asserted that the fighting and violence against the people of Afghanistan should stop before the peace talks start.
It was also decided in the meeting that no other countries should interfere in this process without the agreement of Islamic republic of Afghanistan. The meeting at the presidential palace involved high-ranking government officials, including the first vice president and foreign minister, former Mujahedeen commanders, members of the peace council, and Rabbani’s son, Salahuddin.
They agreed the Taliban address should be established “for the sole purpose of peace talks,” the statement added.
The US has discussed plans for the Taliban to open an address in Qatar by the end of the year to allow the West to begin formal peace talks.
“The ambassador has been recalled as a protest over why they did not allow the Afghan government into these talks,” a high ranking government official said Wednesday, speaking anonymously.
During a visit to Istanbul last December, Karzai said he would be happy if Turkey could provide a venue for the Taliban to open a representation office “to facilitate reconciliation.”
And in April, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that “Turkey will do its best if such a demand is made.” Turkey is Nato’s sole Muslim-majority member.
The office of the self-styled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan would be the first internationally recognised representation for the Taliban since it was ousted from power by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Toxic alcohol kills 102 in India

Relatives of victims gather at Diamond Harbour hospital, after dozens died and more than a hundred fell sick drinking bootleg liquor in the village of Sangrampur, about 30 km from Kolkata.—AP

KOLKATA: A tainted batch of bootleg liquor killed 102 people and sent dozens more to the hospital in villages outside the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, officials said.
Day laborers and other poor workers began falling ill late Tuesday after drinking the brew that was laced with the toxic methanol around the village of Sangrampur, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Kolkata, according to district magistrate Narayan Swarup Nigam.
”It’s a very sad thing that this has happened. Why don’t the police stop this? I cannot understand? What connection do they have?” said Anwar Hassan Mullah, who brought six people from his village to the hospital. All of them died, Mullah told NDTV news channel.
Police arrested four people in connection with making and distributing the methanol-spiked booze, said police official Surajit Kar Purkayastha. Highly toxic methanol can be used as a fuel, solvent and anti-freeze.
By Thursday morning the death toll had skyrocketed to 102, and dozens more remained hospitalized, Nigam said.
Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of the state of West Bengal, promised a crackdown.

”I want to take strong action against those manufacturing and selling illegal liquor,” she said, according to Press Trust of India. ”But this is a social problem also, and this has to be dealt with socially also along with action.”
The deaths came just days after more than 90 people were killed in a hospital fire in nearby Kolkata that led to the arrest of the facility’s directors for culpable homicide.
The latest tragedy began Tuesday night when groups of poor laborers finished work and bought some cheap homemade booze for about 10 rupees (20 cents) a half liter, less than one-third the price of legal alcohol.
The men were drinking along the roadside near the railway station, when they began vomiting, suffering piercing headaches and frothing at the mouth, Nigam said.
Arman Seikh, 23-years-old, rushed his brother-in-law to the hospital.
”He complained of burning chest and severe stomach pain last night,” he told The Associated Press.
Furious villagers ransacked the illegal alcohol shops. Bootleg liquor kills dozens of people every year in India. In 2009, at least 112 people died from a toxic brew in western India.
Despite religious and cultural taboos against drinking among Indians, 5 per cent —roughly 60 million people, the population of France —are alcoholics.
Two-thirds of the alcohol consumed in the country is illegal hooch made in remote villages or undocumented liquor smuggled in, according to The Lancet.

Ex-Taliban denies reports of Qatar office

KABUL: An ex-Taliban envoy said on Thursday that he had no knowledge of plans by the Afghan insurgents to set up a political office in Qatar, even though media reports billed him as a potential chief of a possible Taliban mission in the tiny Gulf state.
By opening an office, the Taliban would indicate a willingness to talk peace after 10 years of war in Afghanistan and signal their intention to try and find a political solution to an insurgency that has cost the lives of thousands.
Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan, said he was unaware of such an office being planned. A top member of the Afghanistan peace council, ex-Taliban official Arsala Rahmani, said he was also unaware that such an office was about to open.
Their remarks follow reports in an Indian newspaper, The Hindu, quoting unnamed Indian diplomatic sources that said work was being finalized on a Taliban office in Qatar that Zaeef may run.
Zaeef told The Associated Press that he had not heard that plans were being finalized for the office in Qatar or that he was being considered to staff it. ”I’m not aware of that,” Zaeef said.
Afghanistan recalled its ambassador to Qatar on Wednesday, the same day the newspaper published the story, but it is unclear if it is related to the report.
The ministry did not give a reason for recalling Khalid Ahmad Zakaria from the Qatari capital of Doha, but said Kabul values ties with Qatar and that diplomatic communications would continue.
The ministry could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday about whether recalling the ambassador was linked to The Hindu report.
Meanwhile, Rahmani said the peace council, a group of about 70 influential Afghans and former Taliban appointed by President Hamid Karzai to try and reconcile with the insurgents, was busy trying to find a new leader.
”These days we are involved in appointing a new head of the peace council,” said Rahmani, who once served as deputy minister of higher education in the Taliban regime.
The former head of the peace council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated on Sept. 20. Rabbani, a former president of Afghanistan, was killed by a suicide bomber posing as a peace emissary from the Taliban.
After his death, Karzai said informal peace efforts would not resume until the Taliban established an official address.

Mansoor Ijaz submits statement in SC

ISLAMABAD: Mansoor Ijaz, the central character behind the memogate scandal, on Thursday submitted his statement to the Supreme Court, DawnNews reported.
Nine petitions, along with one filed by Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) chief Nawaz Sharif, on memogate are being heard in the apex court.
The petitions had made President Asif Ali Zardari, Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani, Director-General Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Ahmed Shuja Pasha and Husain Haqqani party to the case.
Ijaz was the second person after former ambassador to United States Husain Haqqani to submit his statement before the court.
Haqqani had submitted his reply in the court last Friday.
Sources said Ijaz submitted an 81-page statement through an e-mail. In his statement, Ijaz not only confirmed his meeting with Pasha in London on Oct 22 but also gave details of the meeting, sources said.

French ex-president Chirac convicted in graft trial

PARIS: A judge declared French former president Jacques Chirac guilty on Thursday in a political graft trial that made history by producing the first conviction of a head of state since Nazi collaborator Marshall Philippe Petain in 1945.
In the absence of the 79-year-old who ruled from 1995 until 2007, a judge declared Chirac guilty of misuse of public funds.
Chirac was tried on charges of diverting public money into phantom jobs for political cronies while he was mayor of Paris between 1977 and 1995, a time when he built a new centre-right Gaullist party that launched his successful presidential bid.
The judge was due to announce later what penalty, if any, would be imposed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

US lawmakers target Pakistan aid, Iran central bank

The measure would freeze roughly $700 million in aid to Pakistan pending assurances that Islamabad has taken steps to thwart militants. - Photo by Reuters

WASHINGTON: The US Congress moved Wednesday towards final passage of legislation that freezes some aid to Pakistan, slaps harsh new sanctions on Iran, and embraces indefinite detention of suspected terrorists.
The Republican-led House of Representatives was to approve the $662 billion Defense Authorization bill, which also sets high hurdles for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and the Democratic-held Senate was to quickly follow suit.
US President Barack Obama had threatened to veto an earlier version of the yearly legislation, but has not weighed in since key lawmakers from both chambers worked out a compromise they hoped the White House would accept.
The legislation notably requires that Al-Qaeda fighters who plot or carry out attacks on US targets be held in military, not civilian, custody, subject to a presidential waiver.
The measure exempts US citizens from that fate, but leaves it to the US Supreme Court or future presidents to decide whether US nationals who sign on with Al-Qaeda or affiliated groups may be held indefinitely without trial.
Obama had warned he could reject the original proposal over the required military custody of some suspected extremists, as well as provisions he charged would short-circuit civilian trials for alleged terrorists.
“I just can’t imagine that the president would veto this bill” given the changes made in the House-Senate compromise, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat, said Monday.
Veteran Senator John McCain, the top Republican on Levin’s panel, said the negotiators had met with key aides to Obama, including FBI Director Robert Mueller and top US Treasury Department officials.
“We feel that we were able to satisfy, we hope, most of their concerns,” he said.
The lawmakers strengthened Obama’s ability to waive parts of the detainee provisions and reaffirmed that the custody rules would not hamper ongoing criminal investigations by the FBI or other law enforcement organizations.
And they very slightly diluted the legislation’s tough new sanctions on Iran, which aim to cut off Tehran’s central bank from the global financial system in a bid to force the Islamic republic to freeze its suspect nuclear program.
“It does curtail Iran’s ability to buy and sell petroleum through its central bank and prevents foreign financial institutions that deal with the central bank of Iran from continuing their access to the US financial system,”said McCain.
“They are going to pay a bigger and bigger price should they continue to move towards nuclear weapons,” said Levin.
The measure would freeze roughly $700 million in aid to Pakistan pending assurances that Islamabad has taken steps to thwart militants who use improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against US-led forces in Afghanistan.
“We’ve had some shaky relations lately with Pakistan. We need them, they need us,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, a Republican.
“But one of the things that has bothered me the most in this war in Afghanistan is the loss of life and limb to IEDs.” The measure forbids the transfer of Guantanamo Bay detainees to US soil and sharply restricts moving such prisoners to third countries, steps that critics of the facility say will make it much harder to close down.
The legislation also calls for closer military ties with Georgia, including the sale of weapons that McCain said would help the country, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008, defend itself.
And it included a measure, authored by McCain and Levin, to crack down on counterfeit electronics making their way from China into the Pentagon’s supply chain, hurting the reliability of high-priced US weapons programs.