Friday, 24 April 2009

Iraq: Bloodiest Day in a Year

Massive Bombings Point to Widening Violence
by Jason Ditz, April 23, 2009

Today was the deadliest day in a year in Iraq, with two massive bombings killing at least 90 people and suggesting that far from being a handful of isolated incidents, the increase in attacks over recent weeks is a trend which threatens to return the nation to the disastrous levels of violence in recent years.

There have been 33 bombings in Baghdad alone this month, including a high profile strike today against a crowd waiting for Red Crescent food parcels being handed out by the Iraqi national police. US military spokesman Lt. Col Brian Maka, however, tried to downplay the situation, saying “these attacks are an attempt to incite violence, but the Iraqi people have shown that they are rejecting this bankrupt philosophy.”

Though no group has yet taken credit for today’s attacks, both targeted Shi’ites. Shi’ites have taken the brunt of the attacks in recent weeks, an ominous sign as the Shi’ite-led government cautions the massive US-allied Sunni Awakening Council has been infilitrated by both Ba’athists and al-Qaeda. As the Shi’ite death toll rises, it seems only a matter of time before their own militant factions begin to retaliate, resuming the tit-for-tat sectarian violence that killed an enormous portion of the civilian population and made refugees out of even more.

6 NATO oil tankers torched in Pakistan

Peshawar, April 10, 2009.
Six NATO oil-supply tankers have been torched in Pakistan following an attack by local militant armed with guns and petrol bombs.

The predawn assault on Thursday took place in the Chamkani area of Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province, a Press TV correspondent reported.

Fire engulfed the NATO terminal which was filled with at least 50 tankers. Six tankers were destroyed and another seven were damaged in the attack.

NATO forces frequently use the main land routes through Peshawar to ferry supplies meant for troops fighting in war-torn Afghanistan and insurgents are mounting attacks on the lines used by the coalition's vehicles.

Police cordoned off the area and were searching for the gunmen, as five fire brigade vehicles struggle to bring the flames under control.

Iran, Israel ready to go to war

MOSCOW. (Pyotr Goncharov, for RIA Novosti) - On April 18, the London Times reported that "the Israeli military is preparing itself to launch a massive aerial assault on Iran's nuclear facilities within days of being given the go-ahead by its new government."

Several days later, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused Israel of being the "most cruel and racist regime," sparking a scandal at a UN racism conference in Geneva.

At the same time, Israeli websites reported that Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu had met with the Israeli Defense Minister, the Chief of the General Staff and other defense leaders three times during the past week. He was reportedly informed about preparations for an assault at Iran's military facilities and was "pleasantly surprised" at how far these preparations had advanced.

How true can these reports be, and how high is the probability of Israel bombing out Iran's nuclear program?

Israel has always said that it would not allow Iran to advance to a technology level allowing it to create a nuclear bomb. One can understand its logic. While developing its nuclear technology, Iran keeps reminding Israel that it has no right to exist on the political map of the world.

Israel has always seen a "red line" in Iran's nuclear program beyond which Iran would become a direct threat to Israel. As defined by Israeli and European analysts, this "red line" comprises a certain development level of nuclear technology and a deadline, 2010. Therefore, it can be assumed that the media has reported a planned inspection by the new Israeli premier of the country's readiness to liquidate its biggest enemy.

There are several facts pointing in this direction.

Israel and the United States plan to hold a major ballistic missile defense exercise later this year, called Juniper Cobra. The maneuver will jointly test three different American and Israeli missile defense systems.

The Israel Air Force's Air Defense Division, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency and the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) have held the Juniper Cobra exercise for the past five years. The upcoming exercise is planned to be the most complex and extensive yet.

This may also mean that Israel and the U.S. are preparing for 2010, even if only in terms of defense.

Can a military scenario be avoided?

Israel has been living on the assumption that it must not be defeated. The smallest step backward is seen there as tantamount to the demise of the Israeli state.

Meanwhile, Iran has openly declared its ambition to become the regional power. It can attain its goal if it proves that Israel is ineffective as a state.

Why not try to push the enemy towards defeat, especially a military defeat, by forcing him to start a military operation with unpredictable consequences?

The current Tehran leaders have been saying and doing things that are actually forcing Israel to order its aircraft to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. Tehran has announced several nuclear and missile achievements, thereby encouraging the international community to question the "peaceful nature" of its nuclear program.

As a result, the general concern is gradually giving way to the belief that Iran will eventually create a nuclear bomb, or that it is rapidly moving towards this goal. Ahmadinejad said in one of his recent speeches that Iran's nuclear ambition was fuelled by the immorality of the states that have the nuclear technology.

Indeed, this does not describe Iran's nuclear program as peaceful.

There is a definite loser in the Iranian-Israeli confrontation. It is Russia. If a war breaks out now, everyone will blame Russia.

The EU and the United States will blame Russia for failure to convince Tehran to stop its uranium enrichment program, Israel will blame Russia for selling weapons to Iran, and Iran will blame it for failure to deliver the S-300 defense systems.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

For more information in Russian

Thursday, 26 March 2009

US lawmaker: Iranian missile threat exaggerated

Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher is under consideration to be undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, a position that has involved shaping policy on US missile defense plans in Poland and the Czech Republic. As chair of a congressional military appropriations panel, she has been a critic of US long-range missile defense systems.

Her comments came as the Obama administration was reviewing the European missile defense plans, and has signaled to Russia that it is willing to reconsider them, should the threat from Iran recede. Russia has adamantly opposed the European plans, which it believes would undermine its nuclear deterrent and encroach on its interests.

On another defense matter involving Russia, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, told the same conference on missile defense the subject will be at the center of a new set of security talks between Washington and Moscow and could become "a positive political tool" rather than an impediment to better US-Russian relations.

Advocates of the US defense plans for Europe argue that missile defense systems should be deployed urgently to counter Iran, which the United States has estimated could have missiles capable of reaching Europe or America within a decade. Congresswoman Tauscher said the threat has been exaggerated.

She told a conference on missile defense that the United States and allies should first develop and field short-range missile defense systems that could protect forces deployed in combat operations. She said advocates of the European plans "have been running around with their hair on fire."

"The argument that the US would be naked against an Iranian threat unless we deploy the GMD system in Europe is simply not right," she said, referring to the long-range system.

Levin suggested that the United States and Russia should set aside their differences on missile defense and begin cooperating against Iran to make a decisive difference toward weakening Iran as a missile threat and start US-Russian cooperation on defenses against Iranian missiles.

Russia strongly opposes the plan crafted by the Bush administration and under review by the Obama administration to place US missile interceptors in Poland and an associated radar in the Czech Republic. European defense from a long-range Iranian missile attack is the stated purpose.

Levin did not suggest that the Obama administration bargain away the Bush-era plan, although there has been speculation that US President Barack Obama would offer to scrap that plan in return for Russian help in persuading Iran to end its alleged nuclear program.

"Even if we were simply to begin serious discussions on the subject [it] would send a powerful signal to Iran," Levin said. "Iran would face in a dramatic way a growing unity against her pursuit of dangerous nuclear technology."

Later he added, "The bottom line is simple: We have a new opportunity to seek a cooperative approach with Russia on missile defense, and we should seize it. The upside potential of such an effort is huge, a geopolitical game changer. The downside is minimal."

Levin cited two matters the United States and Russia could take up immediately: a previous Russian offer to share data from an early warning radar in Azerbaijan, on Iran's northern border, and a never-executed US-Russian agreement to open a facility in Moscow for sharing missile-related data.

Speaking at the same conference, Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said those who develop US missile defenses must take into account that adversaries are increasingly likely to use means other than traditional ballistic missiles in any attack on US interests.

"Ballistic missiles are about as passe as e-mail," Cartwright said. "Nobody does it anymore." Instead the emerging threat is missiles that can be maneuvered in flight and missiles that remain inside Earth's atmosphere, he said. Thus missile defenses must be flexible and adaptable enough to be useful against a range of threats, he added.

UN expert 'biased' on Israel's Gaza offensive: US

The United States Monday said UN expert Richard Falk was "biased" in calling for an investigation on Israel's January offensive in the Gaza Strip on grounds it could be construed as a war crime.

"Look, we've expressed our concern many times about the special rapporteur's views on dealing with that question," State Department spokesman Robert Wood told a press briefing.

"We've found the rapporteur's views to be anything but fair. We find them to be biased. We've made that very clear," he added.

In a report presented Monday at the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council, UN expert on the Palestinian territories Falk called for a probe to assess if the Israeli forces could differentiate between civilian and military targets in Gaza.

"If it is not possible to do so, then launching the attacks is inherently unlawful, and would seem to constitute a war crime of the greatest magnitude under international law," Falk said in the report.

"On the basis of the preliminary evidence available, there is reason to reach this conclusion," he added, pointing out that attacks were targeted at densely populated areas.

Wood said the United States was aware it could not prevent an investigation, but stressed: "if there are going to be these types of investigations, they need to be non-biased.

"They need to take into account the situations on the ground and the realities on the ground and -- and go from there.

Israel in late December launched a three-week offensive in Gaza which left over 1,300 Palestinians dead and countless of homes destroyed. The offensive was a retaliation for Palestine rocket attacks on Israeli territory.

Falk had focused his report on the legal issues arising from the war, as he had been unable to enter Gaza to assess the human rights situation on the ground.

He attempted a mission in December, but was detained by the Israelis in a facility close to Ben Gurion airport before being expelled the day after.

Falk has been highly critical of Israel's policies against the Palestinians, saying early December that they amounted to a crime against humanity.

Source: AFP American Edition

RIGHTS-US: Detainee Offered Freedom for Silence on Torture

By William Fisher

NEW YORK, Mar 24 (IPS) - A British court ruled Monday that U.S. authorities had asked a Guantanamo Bay detainee to drop allegations of torture in exchange for his freedom.

A ruling by two British High Court judges said the U.S. offered Binyam Mohamed a plea bargain deal in October. Mohamed refused the deal and the U.S. dropped all charges against him later last year.

Mohamed is an Ethiopian who moved to Britain when he was a teenager. He was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and claims he was tortured both there and in Morocco. He was transferred to Guantanamo in 2004. He was finally returned to Britain in late February 2009, with no charges against him.

He is suing the British government, charging that its intelligence services were complicit with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in facilitating his "extraordinary rendition" and torture while in custody.

The court said the plea bargain also asked Mohamed to plead guilty to two charges and agree not to speak publicly about his ordeal.

Zachary Katznelson, legal director of Reprieve, a legal action charity that has represented Mohamed for four years, told IPS, "In Binyam Mohamed’s case, the United States clearly prized secrecy over justice. It simply did not want the truth to get out."

He added, "That has nothing to do with national security, but everything to do with the potential for national embarrassment. If we are to truly combat terrorism, we must use the tools of democracy - openness, fairness, justice - not abandon them, then desperately try to cover up our wrongs."

In their ruling Monday, the British judges revealed how the U.S. government tried to get Mohamed to sign an agreement stating that he had never been tortured, to promise not to speak with the media upon his release, and to plead guilty as a condition of his release back to Britain - all without his lawyers being allowed access to evidence that would help prove his innocence.

This annex of the British ruling was previously kept confidential by the British court because of the U.S. military commission rules, which forbade making the materials public.

The British judges said the U.S. military also wanted Mohamed to assign any rights he might have to compensation to the U.S. government. They insisted that he accept a minimum sentence of 10 years - despite the fact that the U.S. military had not told him what the charges were to be.

Mohamed was also required to waive any claim he might have to seeing any exculpatory evidence identified by the British judges. "If Mr. Mohamed was to ask to see this exculpatory evidence, the ‘deal’ would be off," a Reprieve spokesperson said.

"The facts revealed reflect the way the U.S. government has consistently tried to cover up the truth of Binyam Mohamed’s torture," said Reprieve Director Clive Stafford Smith. "He was being told he would never leave Guantánamo Bay unless he promised never to discuss his torture, and never sue either the Americans or the British to force disclosure of his mistreatment."

During his time in Guantánamo Bay, the U.S. military tried to prosecute him through the military commissions, which were characterised by the British former Lord Justice Johan Steyn as "kangaroo courts."

Reprieve said, "This proposal discussed by the British courts was made by the U.S. military at a time when he was not charged with anything. It also came after a long history of efforts to make Mohamed plead guilty to crimes he insisted that he did not commit."

"He had always been willing to enter a plea of 'no contest' - which essentially means you deny your guilt, but enter a plea because you recognise it is the only way to resolve the case - on the condition that he would be sentenced to time served, and immediately released back to Britain." By early 2009, Reprieve charges, "The U.S. military was still trying to get Mohamed to plead guilty to something - anything - in order to save face. The final ‘offer’ was that this man, originally alleged to be a most dangerous terrorist, should plead guilty and receive a sentence of only ten days in prison, less than one might expect for many driving offences. Mohamed rejected this offer, as he continued to insist that he was not guilty." "Offering a man who is protesting his innocence freedom on the condition that he pleads guilty to something and serves a 10-day sentence is face-saving on an horrific scale," said Reprieve Executive Director Clare Algar. The case has caused a furor in Britain and a problem for the U.S. State Department. Britain’s High Court refused to release seven paragraphs that the court had redacted in an earlier opinion, saying that the redacted material lent credence to the torture allegations by Mohamed. The court said it reached its decision because of what it called a threat from the U.S. to reconsider sharing intelligence with the British.

But, in a highly unusual criticism, the High Court expressed dismay that a democracy "governed by the rule of law" would seek to suppress evidence "relevant to allegations of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, politically embarrassing though it might be."

The court said the George W. Bush administration had made the threat in a letter to the Foreign Office last September. It called on the Barack Obama administration to reverse that position.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has denied that there was any threat from the U.S.

After Mohamed was captured, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft said that he had been complicit with Jose Padilla in a plan to detonate a "dirty bomb" in the United States. Padilla was never charged with this plot, but was convicted on other terrorism-related charges by a federal court in 2007. Last year, the Justice Department said it was dropping the dirty-bomb charges against Mohamed, and last October all charges against him were dropped.

Mohamed is currently appealing a separate U.S. case, on behalf of himself and four other terror suspects. In that case, government lawyers from the Obama administration sought a decision not to reinstate a case that was thrown out by a lower court last year because government lawyers argued successfully that allowing the case to go forward would jeopardise U.S. national security.

In opposing reinstatement of the case, Obama’s lawyers used the same "state secrets" privilege used by Bush lawyers in the original case. The appeals court has not yet ruled in the case, which charges that a subsidiary of the Boeing Company, Jeppesen Dataplan, knowingly provided aircraft and logistical services to facilitate the Central Intelligence Agency’s rendition of Mohamed to overseas prisons.


Sunday, 22 February 2009

US commander warns American troops will be in Afghanistan for years

by Peter Symonds

The top US commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, warned on Wednesday that the huge boost to US troop numbers announced this week would have to continue for years. His comments underscore the fact that the Obama administration is preparing for a dramatic escalation of the war in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan that will inevitably heighten tensions throughout the region, especially in Central Asia.

In a bid to shore up the US-led occupation of Afghanistan, President Obama announced on Tuesday that an additional 17,000 US soldiers would be sent there. McKiernan told the media that the troop buildup was "not a temporary force uplift" and would "need to be sustained for some period of time," adding that he was looking at "the next three to four to five years". The US already has 36,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan, along with about 30,000 other foreign soldiers operating under NATO command.

The latest troop increase will not be the last. McKiernan repeated a previous request for an extra 10,000 in Afghanistan on top of those already announced. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates did not rule out additional US forces, but noted that no additional troops would be sent to Afghanistan until the Obama administration had completed its current strategic review.

At a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Poland, Gates pressed NATO allies for further support for Afghanistan. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned that NATO could not "afford the price of failure in Afghanistan" and urged "all members of the team... to pull closer together and pull harder in 2009". But the commitments made were cosmetic, underlining the continuing deep tensions inside NATO between the US and European powers such as Germany and France.

UK Defence Secretary John Hutton complained that Britain was already doing its share, saying that "the European members of NATO need to do more". Italy promised 500 soldiers. Germany indicated that it may send an additional 600 troops, but to the largely peaceful north of Afghanistan to assist with elections due in August. France committed no extra soldiers. While expressing his disappointment at the lack of extra forces, Gates urged NATO members to contribute economic aid and to the training of Afghan security forces.

The NATO summit highlighted the intersection of the war in Afghanistan with growing rivalry in Central Asia. One day before the meeting, the Kyrgyzstan parliament voted to shut down a key US air base needed to supply US and NATO forces in land-locked Afghanistan. As supply lines through neighbouring Pakistan have come under fierce attack from anti-US insurgents, the Pentagon has been seeking alternative routes through Central Asia.

Russia, however, has made clear that any shipment of US supplies through the region will depend on its support and will involve US concessions, particularly over the positioning of US anti-ballistic missiles in NATO-allied countries in Eastern Europe. Before the decision to shut down the Manus Air Base, Moscow announced a substantial aid package to Kyrgyzstan. At the same time, Russia has permitted some non-military US supplies to pass through Latvia, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan—the first trainload left on Thursday.

The issue is creating divisions within NATO. The US-based think tank Stratfor commented: "The lack of enthusiasm for the Afghanistan surge was matched by growing questions among the Europeans over the military plan itself—both the overarching strategy and the lines of supply. Moreover, the Europeans are anxious to know how and to what extent the US plan involves the Russians." While France and Germany support a rapprochement with Russia, Eastern European countries are opposed to any deal that would weaken US protection against Moscow.

The US confronts a deteriorating military situation in Afghanistan. Commenting on the boost to US troop numbers, General McKiernan said: "What this allows us to do is change the dynamics of the security situation, predominantly in southern Afghanistan, where we are, at best, stalemated." He added: "I have to tell you that 2009 is going to be a tough year."

Other US analysts are less cautious in their warnings. John Nagl, from the Centre for a New American Security, told the British Observer that the number of US soldiers in Afghanistan could eventually rise to 100,000. "The immediate problem is to stop the bleeding. The 30,000 troops is a tourniquet... but that is all we have. If Obama is a two-term president then by the end of his time in office there may only be marine embassy guards in Iraq. But there will still be tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan."

In a detailed statement to a US Congressional committee last week, Anthony Cordesman from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies bluntly warned that "we are losing the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and we have at most two years in which to decisively reverse the situation". He cited military statistics for 2008 pointing to a 33 percent rise in military clashes with insurgents, an increase in roadside bombs of 27 percent and in surface-to-air fire of 67 percent.

Cordesman stressed, however, that such details were secondary to the growing influence of the Taliban and other anti-occupation militias in Afghanistan. He cited in some detail the results of an ABC poll, released this month, which demonstrated falling support in Afghanistan for the occupation, and for its puppet President Hamid Karzai. Just 18 percent supported any increase in US and NATO troops and 44 percent wanted a reduction.

Support for the Taliban was strongest in the south and east of the country, where Pashtun tribes have been subjected to more than seven years of searches, arbitrary detention, military attacks and bombing. Overall, 25 percent of Afghans felt that violent attacks on occupation forces were justified; in the top five high-conflict provinces, the figure rose to 38 percent.

The survey also provided evidence of deteriorating living standards. The proportion of Afghans who characterised their economic opportunities as "very bad" doubled from 17 percent in 2006 to 33 percent. More than half reported an income of less than $US100 a month and 93 percent less than $300. Many registered complaints about fuel prices, lack of electricity, medical care, roads and other infrastructure. Nearly three quarters of respondents were worried about the impact of the global economic crisis.

Far from addressing any of these issues, the surge in US troops in Afghanistan will compound the anger and resentment that is providing a steady stream of recruits to the anti-occupation insurgency. Most of the fresh troops will be assigned to south of the country, where control by US forces and the Karzai government is tenuous, and to the border with Pakistan in an effort to halt the infiltration of Taliban fighters from bases in Pakistan.

The US war in Afghanistan has already spread across the Pakistani border, destabilising the government in Islamabad. The Obama administration has continued US missile strikes from unmanned drones on targets inside Pakistan's tribal areas along the border, killing scores of civilians and inflaming local anger. Proof that at least some of the US drones are operating from a base inside Pakistan will compound the political difficulties facing the government, which has previously disclaimed any knowledge or involvement. The London-based Times and the Pakistani News have both published Google Earth images of three drones parked at the Shamsi air field in southwestern Pakistan.

Under pressure from Washington, the Pakistani army has been fighting a war to suppress anti-US militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Some 120,000 troops have been involved, and more than 1,500 have been killed in the fighting. The army, which has received around $10 billion in US aid, has laid waste to towns and villages, causing hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee. The insurgency has also spread beyond the FATA to areas of the North West Frontier Province, including the Swat Valley, and is even touching on the Punjab, Pakistan's most populous state.

Pakistan announced this week that it had struck a shaky deal with insurgents in the Swat Valley to introduce Islamic Sharia law to the area as part of a ceasefire. Richard Holbrooke, US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the media that the Obama administration was concerned that "the truce does not turn into a surrender". He said he had spoken to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari who had assured him that was "not the case" and described the deal as "an interim arrangement".

US Defence Secretary Gates took a slightly different tack, saying on Friday that the agreement was acceptable if it led to reconciliation and the disarming of the insurgents. He made clear that the US was looking to similar arrangements with sections of the anti-occupation forces in Afghanistan, seeking to replicate the tactic used in Iraq to buy off local tribal leaders and use them against hard-line insurgents. "We have said all along that ultimately some sort of political reconciliation has to be part of the long-term solution in Afghanistan," Gates said.

Washington's neo-colonial occupation of Afghanistan, however, is confronting widespread hostility and a burgeoning armed resistance. Asked about the ability of the US to succeed where the British army in the nineteenth century and the Soviet military in the 1980s had failed, General McKiernan simply said that it was "a very unhealthy comparison". The comparison is perfectly apt. Like the British Raj and the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy, Washington is pursuing a criminal war for the subjugation of Afghanistan and the pursuit of US economic and strategic ambitions in Central Asia. Now, thousands more US soldiers are being sent into a quagmire that shows no signs of ending.