Every dismissive assumption made about al-Qaeda before September 11 was wrong. So is the assumption that it is in any way receding today: it is still the most dangerous international security threat to both the Western and Islamic worlds.
Osama bin Laden has not been driven underground or lost touch with his followers. Al-Qaeda is using the internet extensively to communicate with its supporters and to further its aim of creating new bases from which to organise terrorist attacks.
Suggestions that it may have morphed into some kind of "ideological" or "inspirational" organisation that merely encourages copycat groups of young Muslims to emulate its greatest "achievements", are contradicted by its leadership's steady stream of instructions to followers.
The group's second-in-command, the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, put out 15 major speeches last year on audio or videotape. He dealt in detail with how al-Qaeda should prepare to take power in Iraq after the US has left, fight in Somalia and mount new attacks in Europe. This is not someone who has lost touch with his base.
In 2007, al-Qaeda will continue to develop its original aims of trying to defeat the West, carry out regime change in the Muslim world and increase its armies of supporters worldwide, to hasten the advent of its dream of a worldwide caliphate – Muslim state – ruled by al-Qaeda.
It has become a major threat to both Afghanistan and Pakistan once again, but also has a powerful presence in Iraq, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Sudan – not to mention its cells on the European mainland.
Its main task is to train, organise and motivate armies of terrorists and fighters to capture and hold territory. In Iraq it started from scratch after the 2003 US-led invasion and now attracts volunteers from around the world to become suicide bombers. Iraq has become both a training ground and a recruitment poster.
In Afghanistan the Taliban and al-Qaeda had to flee to Pakistan after September 11, 2001. Now the Taliban are back, able to mobilise 8,000 soldiers, in a resurgence overseen by fewer than 100 hardcore Arab al-Qaeda militants, according to US and British intelligence.
This core has rebuilt a global network, capable of training British and French Muslims and of sending trainees to hone their skills in Iraq.
The Taliban are turning Pakistan's border provinces into logistic and training hubs for al-Qaeda.
Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf long ago gave up chasing down bin Laden, while his intelligence services allow the Taliban to raise money, buy arms and recruit fighters. The bomb attack by British Muslims on the London Underground in July 2005 and the airports alarm this year had their origins in Pakistan.
MI5's director general, Eliza Manningham-Buller, says that of the 1,600 militants and 200 networks it is monitoring, a "substantial" number have connections to Pakistan.
But the most carefully nurtured al-Qaeda cells are in Europe. Al-Qaeda knows that one blast in Paris or London is worth 10 in Riyadh or Delhi. The aim is to recruit estranged Muslim youth, the product of three decades of failed integrationist policies by European governments.
If any single individual is responsible for the continuing expansion of al-Qaeda, it is President Bush. America's failed policies in the Middle East and Afghanistan, its failure to rebuild either Iraq or Afghanistan after invading them, and its support for Israel's roles in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories, have created unprecedented anger in the Muslim world.
In Somalia America is compounding its disastrous support for the warlords by backing Ethiopia in driving out of Mogadishu the Islamists who took over.
Today, the danger of a civilisational war – between Shia and Sunni within the Islamic world, and between the West and the Islamic world – grows ever closer.
Ahmed Rashid is the author of Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (Yale University Press, £16.95)
It is worth mentionning that despite these violent flare-ups normal day-to-day
life in Basra is pretty tolerable for the locals, and getting better
(especially when compared to Bagdad). And we are still remarkably popular
in most areas. People will smile, wave, and return greetings; this morning
I was offered a kebab by a street vendor despite having no money to pay for
The sight of Saddam Hussein en route to his execution yesterday, revealed in footage released by the Iraqi government, will have disturbed many who watched it. It is difficult to witness a 69-year-old man stumbling at dawn towards the hangman's noose, in the full awareness of his own imminent death, without an instinctive awakening of human sympathy.
That human sympathy, however, was precisely the quality that was lacking in Saddam Hussein, the cruellest of dictators during the three decades in which he commanded Iraq. Where he glimpsed vulnerability, he responded with brutality. Surveillance of Iraqi citizens was all-pervasive, and torture and state murder were rife.
Saddam's most notorious acts of bloodshed, such as the Halabja massacre of 1988, in which he dropped chemical weapons on an Iraqi Kurdish village, killing 5,000 civilians and maiming 10,000 more, were merely the most flagrant manifestations of a ruthless code that systematically terrorised and polluted everyday life in Iraq. His Ba'ath party may have been predominantly Sunni, but he was the fierce enemy of any Sunni who valued freedom of speech and political expression.
Since the fall of Saddam, however, the ordinary citizens of Iraq have been forced to endure a different and more extrovert style of hell at the hands of insurgents. Once, Saddam's henchmen delivered death to opponents in hidden torture cells. Now it is doled out by suicide bombers and car bombs in crowded market places and police recruiting offices.
Only the most grossly naive of onlookers could imagine that the execution of Saddam Hussein in itself will bring peace to Iraq: the massive car bomb that exploded yesterday in the Shia city of Kufa, killing 30 people, has already dashed any such expectations. The conflagration of sectarian violence is presently raging beyond the control of both the Iraqi government and the Coalition troops.
What the demise of Saddam may do in the long term, however, is to sow a necessary seed of separation between those Sunni insurgents who have remained loyal to the notion of Saddam's Ba'athist regime, and those who are religious extremists seeking an Islamic caliphate in Iraq.
Yesterday's execution has definitively robbed the former group of a symbolic figurehead and any hope of a recognisable Ba'athist revival: if such insurgents could be coaxed down a political path in the future, the Iraqi government would be freed to concentrate its efforts upon containing foreign jihadists and religious fanatics.
may seem a distant prospect, as Sunni and Shia gunmen and bombers
continue to write their grim political dialogue in the blood of their
fellow Iraqi citizens. But the death of a dictator, coinciding with the
birth of a new year, may yet open up a tiny chink of hope.
The phone-video of Saddam's hanging has not exactly helped matters. Impossible to know the percentage of conspiracy to cock-up, though the motives of those making the greatest fuss about it are equally obscure. The current leaders of Iraq are only in their posts because they have been talked into it by others and serve in spite of their probable personal preference to retire and abandon the whole mess. But they are there and need the support of all.
The full article, of which this is just
the end, can be read at http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/article2125419.ece
It requires genuine vision and statesmanship to pull the Middle East from its death spiral. The elements of a possible solution are there if the will exists to postulate an alternative to the politics of fear, bigotry and hatred.
The first step must be the recognition that the solution to the Iraq crisis must be generated first internally, and then, importantly, at the regional level. The two are linked and the successful resolution of one would lead to the other.
No foreign power, no matter how benevolent, should be allowed to dictate the terms of a possible historic and stable settlement in the Middle East. No other region of the world would tolerate such a wanton interference in its affairs.
That is not to say that due consideration should not be given to the legitimate interests of the great powers in the area, but the future of the area should not be held hostage to their designs and exclusive interests.
Secondly, the basis of a settlement must take into account the fact that the forces that have been unleashed by the invasion of Iraq must be acknowledged and accommodated. These forces, in turn, must accept limits to their demands and claims. That would apply, in particular, to the Shias and the Kurds, the two communities who have been seen to have gained from the invasion of Iraq.
Thirdly, the Sunni Arab community must become convinced that its loss of undivided power will not lead to marginalisation and discrimination. A mechanism must be found to allow the Sunni Arabs to monitor and regulate and, if need be, correct, any signs of discrimination that may emerge in the new Iraqi state.
Fourthly, the existing states surrounding Iraq feel deeply threatened by the changes there. That needs to be recognised and treated in any lasting deal for Iraq and the area.
A way has to be found for introducing Iran and Turkey into a new security structure for the Middle East that would take into account their legitimate concerns, fears and interests. It is far better that these countries are seen to be part of a stable order for the area rather than as outsiders who need to be confronted and challenged.
The Iraqi government that has arisen as a result of the admittedly flawed political process must be accepted as a sovereign and responsible government. No settlement can possibly succeed if its starting point is the illegitimacy of the Iraqi government or one that considers it expendable.
A Brighter Future
The end state of this process would be three interlinked outcomes. The first would be a decentralised Iraqi state with new regional governing authorities with wide powers and resources.
Devolution of power must be fair, well planned, and executed with equitable revenue-distribution. Federal institutions would have to act as adjudicators between regions. Security must be decentralised until such time as confidence between the communities is re-established.
The second essential outcome would be a treaty that would establish a confederation or constellation of states of the Middle East, initially including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. The main aim of the confederation would be to establish a number of conventions and supra-regional bodies that would have the effect of acting as guarantors of civil, minority and community rights.
The existence of such institutions can go a long way towards removing the anxiety disadvantaged groups feel when confronted with the radical changes sweeping the area. The gradual build up of such supra-national institutions in the proposed confederation may also expand to cover an increased degree of economic integration and harmonisation.
That may include a regional development body which would help establish and fund common energy and infrastructure policies. Lastly, an indispensable end outcome is a regional security pact that would group the countries of the Arab Middle East with Iran and Turkey, at first in some form of anti-terrorism pact, but later a broader framework for discussing and resolving major security issues that impinge on the area as a whole.
That would also provide the forum for combating the spread of virulent ideologies and sectarian hatreds and provide the basis for peacefully containing and resolving the alarm that some countries feel from the apparent expansion of Iranian influence in the area.
The Importance of the US
It was the US that launched this phase of the interminable Middle East crisis, by invading Iraq and assuming direct authority over it. Whatever project it had for Iraq has vanished, a victim of inappropriate or incoherent policies, and the violent upending of Iraq's power structures.
Nevertheless, the US is still the most powerful actor in the Iraq crisis, and its decisions can sway the direction and the manner in which events could unfold.
In other areas of the world, the US has used its immense influence and power to cement regional security and economic associations. There is no reason why the regional associations being mooted in conjunction with a decentralised Iraqi state, could not play an equally important part in resolving the Iraqi crisis and dispersing the dangerous clouds threatening the region.
The Iraqi proposals
1 Iraq government calls for regional security conference including Iraq's neighbours to produce an agreement/treaty on non-intervention and combating terrorism. Signatory states will be responsible to set of markers for commitments.
Purpose: To reduce/eliminate neighbouring countries' support for insurgents, terrorists and militias.
2 Iraq government calls for preparatory conference on a Middle-Eastern Confederation of States that will examine proposals on economic, trade and investment union. Proposals will be presented for a convention on civil, human and minority rights in the Near East, with a supreme court/tribunal with enforcement powers.
Purpose: To increase regional economic integration and provide minorities in signatory countries with supra-national protection.
3 Iraq government calls for an international conference on Iraq that would include Iraq, its regional neighbours, Egypt, the UAE, the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China that would aim to produce a treaty guaranteeing:
a. Iraq's frontiers.
b. The broad principles of Iraq's constitutional arrangements.
c. Establishing international force to replace the multi-national force over 12 to 18 months. Appointing international co-ordinator to oversee treaty implementation.
Purpose: To arrange for the gradual and orderly withdrawal of American troops, ensure that Iraq develops along constitutional lines, confirm Iraq and its neighbours' common frontiers.
4 Iraq government will introduce changes to government by creating two statuary bodies with autonomous financing and independent boards:
a. A reconstruction and development council run by Iraqi
professionals and technocrats with World Bank/UN support.
b. A security council which will oversee professional ministries of defence, interior, intelligence and national security.
Purpose: To remove the reconstruction and development programme from incompetent hands and transfer them to an apolitical, professional and independent body. Also to remove the oversight, command and control over the security ministries from politicised party control to an independent, professional and accountable body.
5 The entire peace plan, its preamble and its details must be put before the Iraqi parliament for its approval.
Ali A Allawi was Minister of Trade and Minister of Defence in the
Iraqi Governing Council Cabinet (2003-2004). He was in the Transitional
National Assembly, and Minister of Finance, Transitional National
Government of Iraq (2005-2006). His book, 'The Occupation of Iraq
- Winning the War, Losing the Peace' will be published in March
By LAUREN FRAYER and SHAFIKA MATTAR, Associated Press Writers, 07 01 2007
But the two condemned men still await death as Iraqi officials decide how to avoid the kind of outcry that followed Saddam's hanging on Dec. 30.
Also on Sunday, the U.S. military announced the deaths of five more American troops and at least 14 Iraqis died in bombings and shootings.Saddam's half brother and former intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim and the former head of 's Revolutionary Court, Awad Hamed al-Bandar, were sentenced to hang. They were convicted along with Saddam of involvement in the killings of nearly 150 Shiites in the town of Dujail after a 1982 assassination attempt there against Saddam.
Their executions were postponed, however, until after the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha which ended five days ago.
Authorities also decided to give Saddam his own "special day," National Security adviser Mouwaffak al-Rubaie said at the time of his execution.
One of Saddam's lawyers who met the deposed leader in his final days told The Associated Press over the weekend that Saddam expected to be put to death and considered it "the most beautiful end" he could have.
Now Iraqi officials must decide how to carry out a second round of executions in the face of worldwide criticism over their handling of Saddam's death. In the final moments of his life, Saddam was taunted by some of those present in the execution chamber as he stood with a noose around his neck.British Prime Minister criticized the way in which Saddam was executed, his office said Sunday.
"He believes that the manner of the execution was completely wrong, but that should not lead us to forget the crimes that Saddam Hussein committed, including the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis," a spokeswoman for Blair's office said on condition of anonymity in line with policy.
Blair's likely successor, Treasury chief Gordon Brown, said Saturday that the taunting of Saddam during his execution and the release of an illicitly recorded cell phone video was "deplorable" and "completely unacceptable."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered an inquiry into the emergence of the unofficial video, on which Saddam is heard exchanging insults with his executioners and shown dying on the gallows.
In Amman, Jordan's Parliament also denounced the execution and asked God to bless Saddam's soul. The speaker of the lower house said Saddam's execution ignored the feelings of Muslims and Arabs because it came just before the start of the religious festival of Eid al-Adha.
While waiting for their own postponed executions, Ibrahim and al-Bandar have been mourning Saddam, their lawyer Issam Ghazawi told the AP. He said he met with the men individually on Wednesday in Baghdad, where they are in U.S. custody.
The lawyer said U.S. officials had told the pair their deaths were imminent on the day of Saddam's execution.
Ghazawi said Ibrahim told him the Americans took him and al-Bandar from their cells on the day of Saddam's hanging and brought them to an office inside the prison at about 1 a.m. They asked them to collect their belongings because they intended to execute them at dawn — the same time Saddam was put to death.
Ghazawi said the two men were also told to write out their wills. They were returned to their cells nine hours later.
The lawyer said he has had no contact with the men since Wednesday, and had no information on when they would be hanged.
Jaafar al-Mousawi, the chief prosecutor in the Dujail case, said Sunday that the time for al-Bandar and Ibrahim's executions "will be determined by the government." Sami al-Askari, an adviser to al-Maliki, declined to give reasons for the delay and said only that "no date has been made yet" for their hangings.
Al-Bandar told Ghazawi that he "wished to have been executed with President Saddam," the lawyer said. Ibrahim "was in the worst condition. He kept crying over the death of his brother and said it was a great loss for the family and the Arab world," Ghazawi said.Ghazawi, who served on Saddam's defense team during the last two years and says he has power of attorney for Ibrahim and al-Bandar, urged that their death sentences be overturned. The United has also pleaded for a stay of execution for the two.
"Their execution should be commuted under such circumstances because of the psychological pain they endured as they waited to hang," Ghazawi said.
Meanwhile, Ahmed Saddiq, a Tunisian member of Saddam's defense team, said that during a Dec. 26 meeting with Saddam when he was still in U.S. custody, the former president appeared reconciled to his death.
"He constantly said the strongest, most likely hypothesis — and the one that he expected — was that he was going to be executed," Saddiq told the AP in Tunis. "He didn't stop saying, 'Don't panic. I'm ready for this moment and, after all, it would be the most beautiful end I could have.'"
Saddiq also said Saddam gave his lawyers a poem "of tenderness, of love" that he wrote to his wife, who lives in Qatar.
At one point, Saddam told his lawyers: "'I am still capable of love, of being sentimental and attentive. That's my right. It's there perhaps the other face of Saddam Hussein that you don't know,'" Saddiq said.
In other developments, the U.S. military said three airmen were killed in Baghdad Sunday by a car bomb, a soldier was killed by small arms fire in Baghdad a day earlier, and another soldier died in combat in western Anbar province on Friday. A British soldier also died in a traffic accident.
At least 14 Iraqis died Sunday in bombings and shootings, including three Sunni Muslim shopkeepers gunned down in a busy marketplace and a Shiite cleric and his son killed en route to a mosque, police said. Twenty-three bodies turned up in hospitals and morgues around the country, officials said.
A new battle for Iraq's capital was under way with Iraqi forces mired in gunfights with insurgents and U.S. helicopters hovering over an area where some 30 people died in fighting the previous night.
The fighting is part of a military operation announced Saturday by the prime minister and intended to quell sectarian violence.
Iraq's parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the government's highest-ranking Sunni official, said Sunday he objected to the new plan for "legal reasons," and said parliament must vote on it.
Associated Press Writer Bouazza Ben Bouazza contributed to this story from Tunis, Tunisia.
By Claudia Parsons Jan 07 2007
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The Iraqi government plans to bring in troop reinforcements to take part in a major security plan for Baghdad but a U.S. general said on Sunday the key to success would be a balanced approach rather than sheer force.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced a major security plan for Baghdad on Saturday, vowing to crush illegal armed groups "regardless of sect or politics" -- suggesting he may be ready to tackle militias loyal to his fellow Shi'ites, as demanded by Washington and the once dominant Sunni minority.Sectarian violence is killing hundreds of people a week, mostly in Baghdad, and securing the capital is seen as crucial to stopping 's descent into full-scale civil war.
But, as the deaths of five more Americans were announced in Iraq, the new Democratic Congress warned it make give any such suggestion a tough ride compared to Bush's Republican allies.
Nancy Pelosi, new speaker of the House of Representatives, said the previous, Republican-controlled Congress had given Bush a "blank cheque." She and the Democratic Senate majority leader wrote to Bush last week urging him to begin a withdrawal from Iraq.
Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, the new commander of U.S. combat troops in Iraq, said a previous U.S. operation launched in August to secure Baghdad had flaws.
"We were able to clear the areas. We were not able to hold the areas," he told reporters. "You have to go after both Shia and Sunni neighborhoods and 'Together Forward' was focused mostly on Sunni neighborhoods and we've got to do both."
"We have to have a balanced approach about going after both Shia and Sunni extremists," he said.
Odierno said U.S. commanders had also "overestimated the availability of Iraqi security forces" in the earlier operation and said U.S. troops would also remain in neighborhoods to ensure Iraqi forces did not pursue their own sectarian agendas.
Sami al-Askari, an adviser to Maliki, said two brigades from northern Iraq, comprising mostly Kurdish soldiers, and one from the mainly Shi'ite south, would be sent to Baghdad to help implement the plan. Iraqi brigades number around 1,200 soldiers.
The plan foresees Iraqi forces taking responsibility for inner Baghdad while U.S. forces will be in charge of the surrounding areas, Askari said. Odierno said that he hoped U.S. troops could be mainly on the outskirts by summer.
Askari said the government was determined to crack down on militia infiltration of the armed forces.
"It takes time because it's not an easy task ... (but) without it the people will not trust the security forces."
Home to more than one Iraqi in four and with a rich mix of communities, Baghdad has seen heavy bloodshed and tens of thousands of people have fled their homes in fear of attacks.
Police found 17 death squad victims around Baghdad on Sunday. An interior ministry source reported attacks in several Sunni neighborhoods on Sunday, though it was not immediately clear who was responsible or whether there were any casualties.
Washington has identified the Mehdi Army militia of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr as the biggest threat to security.
Sadr, whose supporters played a key role in Maliki's appointment as a compromise prime minister in April, denies supporting violence. Maliki has repeatedly rejected criticism that he has not confronted the Mehdi Army before now, saying the Shi'ite armed groups can be tamed through political dialogue.
Odierno said U.S. forces would leave dealing with Sadr to Iraqi authorities. "I'm not sure we take him down," he said.
"There are some extreme elements (of the Mehdi Army) ... and we will go after them. I will allow the government to decide whether (Sadr) is part of it or not. He is currently working within the political system."
Several hundred people demonstrated on Sunday in the Mehdi Army stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad, angry at what they said was a U.S. raid there on Saturday night. The U.S. military said it had no information on reports of such a raid.
Odierno said he believed 80 percent of militia fighters could be integrated into the regular security forces, while a hard core of 20 percent needed to be captured or killed.
In its first official comment on the air strikes, the Pentagon said a raid was carried out on Sunday but declined to say if it had hit its target.
The US has long said al-Qaeda suspects linked to the 1998 US embassy bombings in East Africa took refuge in Somalia.
At least 19 people were killed in US air raids, local Somali elders say.
Fresh air raids were reported near the town of Afmadow on Monday and Tuesday, but it is not clear if these were carried out by the US, or by Ethiopian forces which back the transitional Somali government.
The air strikes are taking place days after the Union of Islamic Courts, which had taken control of much of central and southern Somalia during the past six months, was routed by soldiers from Ethiopia and Somalia's government.
Latest reports from Mogadishu say unknown assailants have fired rocket propelled grenades at a building housing Ethiopian troops and Somali government forces.
Two explosions were heard, followed by a brief but heavy exchange of automatic gunfire.
'No safe haven'
The US air strikes were carried out by an Air Force AC-130, a heavily armed gunship that has detection equipment and can work under the cover of darkness.
|| The US has a right to bombard
terrorist suspects who attacked its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania
Somali interim president
"This administration continues to go after al-Qaeda," he said.
"We are interested in going after those who have perpetrated acts of violence against Americans, including bombings of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania."
Somalia's interim President, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, said the US had the right to bomb those who had attacked its embassies.
But Italy - the former colonial power in central and southern Somalia - condemned the US strikes.
Italian Foreign minister Massimo d'Alema said Rome opposed "unilateral initiatives that could spark new tensions".
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed "concern" that the air strikes could lead to an escalation of hostilities
"We understand in the debate there's a lot of skepticism and a lot of skepticism about where the war is going, skepticism about whether or not the Iraqi government will really step up this time," Rice told CBS news during a round of television interviews Thursday.
"But I've talked to these Iraqi leaders. And they know the consequences personally and for their country and they are ready to take on this challenge," she said.[AFP - Olivier Knox]
She said UK troops were successfully quelling violence in British-controlled Basra, and there was no intention "at the present time" to send more.
But she said reports that 3,000 troops would leave by May were "speculation".
Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell has warned the extra US troops might worsen the situation in the south.
And he called for a phased withdrawal, referring to what he said was an old military saying that "you should not reinforce failure".
On Wednesday, US President George Bush announced extra US troops to fight alongside Iraqi unit to end violence in Baghdad, and Anbar province - where he said al-Qaeda terrorists were planning to take control.
'A difficult situation'
But he said the US commitment to Iraq was "not open-ended", and that he expected the government in Baghdad to fulfil its own promises.
Asked for her reaction, Mrs Beckett said it showed both President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki were "determined to try to come to grips with what is unquestionably a difficult situation in, particularly in Baghdad.
|| We are dealing with the
security situation in Basra, it's not our intention at the present time
to send more troops
"We welcome that and we hope that the joint effort to resolve this very difficult security situation which is undermining efforts to put other things right in Iraq will indeed succeed."
But she said UK forces were already engaged in a similar operation in the southern city of Basra.
"We are dealing with the security situation in Basra, it's not our intention at the present time to send more troops," she said.
She said she was "not aware" of any suggestions British troops might be redeployed to help secure Baghdad.
And she said a Daily Telegraph report that there were plans to send nearly 3,000 British troops home by the end of May was "speculation".
"We are under way with the process of handover as the security situation improves. We will make our judgements and our decisions depending on the progress of those events...The Telegraph may speculate about timing and so on, but it does depend on how things go in Basra."
Shadow foreign secretary William Hague said he was not convinced about the US plan, saying previous attempts to secure Baghdad that way had failed.
He told the BBC the long-term presence of US troops in Iraq fuelled the insurgency, and he would have preferred more emphasis on training up and equipping Iraqi forces to take on more security.
"I hope, like Margaret Beckett, that this is successful. But I'm very sceptical about it and I would have liked to have seen from President Bush a package more closely modelled on the Baker/Hamilton report," he said.
For the Lib Dems Sir Menzies said the plans were a "last ditch...go-it-alone" effort, as President Bush had apparently rejected suggestions he should engage with Iran and Syria to help stabilise Iraq.
Sir Menzies said strategy in Iraq had been a failure , and asked about the Telegraph report, said: "We will believe that when we see it. But if that's part of a phased withdrawal then that's obviously something that has to be welcomed."
On Wednesday he warned Mr Blair there could be "displacement of terrorist activity from Baghdad to Basra", when the extra US troops arrive.
In the US senior Democrats, whose party recently took control of both houses of Congress, have criticised the plan.
From 1530 GMT Mrs Beckett and Defence Secretary Des Brown will be grilled on Iraq by MPs on the Defence and Foreign Affairs committees.
It was a chastened US president who addressed his fellow countrymen on Iraq on Wednesday, a president who accepted responsibility for mistakes made, called the situation "unacceptable" and ordered an about-turn on pretty much every aspect of operations. The US military is now being called upon to fight the battle for Baghdad all over again, in circumstances that are infinitely more complex than they were the first time around.
In its grave tone and subdued staging, this was a broadcast whose sombreness rivalled the low points of the Nixon and Carter presidencies. From a commander-in-chief whose cheery outlook has twice contributed to his electoral appeal, the dark mood was doubly shocking. Alluding, perhaps, to his arrogant "mission accomplished" speech from the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, George W Bush warned that victory would not look like the victories of the past: "There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship."
The question, of course, is whether the United States can achieve anything approaching victory in Iraq at all. Violence is now endemic. The country is awash with weapons. Society is fractured along ethnic and religious lines several times over. There may be an elected government in Baghdad, but it, too, is splintered, and its authority does not extend much further than the heavily fortified "green zone".
The military push, or "surge", that Mr Bush has ordered almost guarantees that things in Iraq will get worse, perhaps much worse, before they have the slightest chance of getting better. More likely, the new plan will run out of time, money, manpower, or all three. It has, though, one key advantage for Mr Bush compared with the so-called Baker plan and the more gradualist alternatives on offer: he cannot - yet - be accused of cutting and running, and the blame for failure will be spread around.
The military operations Mr Bush proposes were presented as an Iraqi-inspired plan: US and Iraqi forces are supposed to be jointly responsible for restoring and maintaining order. The Iraqi government, for its part, has undertaken to pass legislation on sharing oil revenues, create jobs and modify the de-Baathification programme to foster national reconciliation. US support, Mr Bush made clear, was contingent on the Iraqi government fulfilling its part of the deal.
Mr Bush threatened moves against Syrian and Iranian interests if these countries interfered in any way - in other words, they too would become scapegoats for failure. But it is the Democrat-controlled Congress that Mr Bush really skewered. By presenting failure in the apocalyptic light he did - as a "disaster" for the US and a threat to the very survival of its allies in the Middle East - Mr Bush has made it exceptionally hard for Congress to reject a request for more funds. Those voting "No" would risk accusations that they are undermining US security - the old patriotic card again.
Yesterday, the new Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, completed the administration's volte-face by announcing that he wanted to boost the US military by more than 90,000. The light and agile force favoured by Donald Rumsfeld - the force that conquered Iraq, but proved incapable of holding it - is now, it seems, recognised as just another mistake, to be consigned to the same oblivion as Mr Bush's premature triumphalism.
In an effort to explain why he dismissed the Baker plan so comprehensively, Mr Bush offered this. "To step back now," he said, "would force a collapse of the Iraqi government, tear that country apart, and result in mass killings on an unimaginable scale." As an admission of the catastrophe that the US invasion has inflicted on Iraq, this summary could hardly be bettered.
By LOLITA C. BALDOR, Associated Press Writer
"I believe that together these moves will give the Iraqis and Americans the best chance of success," said McCain, R-Ariz., a leading presidential contender for 2008.
McCain also took a shot at Democrats who say the United States must bring some troops home within four to six months.
"I believe these individuals have a responsibility to tell us what they believe are the consequences" of such a move would be, including civil war, he said.
On his first visit to Britain since taking office last month, Gates held talks with Prime Minister Tony Blair and Defence Minister Des Browne.
"Britain is our most important international partner in both Iraq and Afghanistan," Gates said.
London has said it supports Bush's new Iraq plan. But it does not plan to add to its contingent of some 7,100 troops in Iraq, based in the Shi'ite-dominated south.
Britain plans to reduce its force in Iraq by "a matter of thousands" this year, Browne has said.
Speaking to reporters during a break in their talks, the new Pentagon chief said he and Browne had already discussed Iraq and would move onto Afghanistan, where U.S. and British troops form part of a NATO force battling Taliban militants.
Gates plans to visit Afghanistan in the coming days and he has said he wants to ensure progress there is not put at risk by the hardline Taliban Islamists.
"What do we need to do to sustain the gains that we've enjoyed? How can we prevent the Taliban from coming back? We have some information that they are planning a spring offensive," a senior U.S. defence official said on Sunday.
U.S. officials say they have information suggesting the Taliban are planning a campaign to build on their resurgence in 2006.
Last year was the bloodiest in Afghanistan since U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban government in response to the September 11 attacks on the United States. More than 4,000 people died in the violence.
Fighting in Afghanistan often subsides in winter months only
to resume when the snows melt.
Gates will ask military commanders when he visits Afghanistan whether they have adequate troops and other resources to counter any offensive, the official said.
The United States has around 20,000 troops in Afghanistan, Britain has some 5,000.
Bush asked Gates, a former CIA chief, to replace Donald Rumsfeld after the president's Republican party lost control of the U.S. Congress in November elections. The defeat was driven in large measure by voter anger over the Iraq war.
By Haitham Haddadin
"We expressed our desire to see the president's plan to reinforce American military presence in Baghdad as a vehicle ... to stabilize Baghdad and prevent Iraq sliding into this ugly war, this civil war," Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad al-Salem al-Sabah told a joint news conference with Rice, who is on a regional tour to marshal support for Bush's plans.
Rice admitted the plan was unlikely to end violence quickly.
"Violent people will always be able to kill innocent people and so, even with the new security plan, ... there is still going to be violence," Rice told reporters.
The United States earlier won Saudi backing for the plan, but Washington's Gulf ally said success depended on Baghdad tackling sectarian strife driving the country toward civil war.Many Arab countries, including heavyweight Saudi Arabia, fear the plan announced by to stabilize Iraq would lead to an early departure of U.S. troops from Iraq, leaving the violence-ravaged country moving toward civil war that might spill beyond Iraq's borders.
"We agree fully with the goals set by the new strategy, which in our view are the goals that -- if implemented -- would solve the problems that face Iraq," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told a joint news conference in Riyadh.
But he said the Iraqi government needed to play its part, and that Shi'ite militias had to be disbanded and the U.S.-backed constitution, seen as pro-Shi'ite, revised.
"(The government) must deal with the issue of militias.
"Implementation (of U.S. strategy) requires a positive response by the Iraqis themselves to these goals ... Other countries can help, but the main responsibility in taking decisions rests on the Iraqis," he said.
The U.S. administration has been urging Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to play a greater role in backing Iraq.
Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, fears an early U.S. troop withdrawal would solidify Shi'ite power and leave minority Sunnis at the mercy of Shi'ite militias.
Rice acknowledged the Saudi concern about militias but raised the issue of Saudi debt relief for Iraq, which Washington says would be a big help.
"We will continue to work with the Iraqi government to make sure networks running dangerous militias are stopped," Rice said.The Saudi minister rejected suggestions that Saudi Arabia would use oil as a political tool to pressure over its policies in the region.
Washington and Riyadh accuse Shi'ite power Iran of backing militia violence in Iraq. U.S. forces are holding five Iranians after raiding an Iranian government office in northern Iraq last week -- the second such operation in Iraq in the past few weeks.
A Saudi official said on Monday Iran had asked Saudi Arabia to help ease tensions between the Islamic Republic and the United States, but an Iranian foreign ministry official was quoted on Tuesday as denying any request for mediation. Rice and Prince Saudi also played down such talk.
"There is no need for mediation," Prince Saud said, but added: "Iran is a neighbor of Saudi Arabia, so obviously we hope to avoid any conflict."
Rice said on Monday she would bring Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas together soon for informal talks on how to set up a Palestinian state.
A senior U.S. official said the meeting would be held in three to four weeks, probably in the Middle East.
Arab states are anxious for Washington to renew efforts to find a solution to the historical conflict, which they say is the underlying cause of the region's political problems.
By KIM GAMEL, Associated Press Writer 16 Jan 07
Attacks in Baghdad — including the university explosion, blasts at a marketplace for used motorcycles and a drive-by shooting — killed more than 100 people in a spasm of violence ahead of a promised drive by the Iraqi government and U.S. forces to secure the capital.On Monday, the Iraqi government hanged two of 's henchmen in an execution that left many of the ousted leader's fellow Sunni Muslims seething after one of the accused, the ousted leader's half brother, was decapitated on the gallows.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Tuesday's violence was the work of those seeking revenge for the executions, calling those responsible "a desperate group of terrorists and Saddamists."The military said four U.S. soldiers with Task Force Lightning were killed Monday in the northwestern province of Ninevah, home to the city of Mosul, which has seen a recent increase in violence. The deaths raised to at least 3,026 members of the U.S. military who have died since the war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
In Baghdad, the deadliest attacks took place in primarily Shiite neighborhoods and appeared to be the work of Sunnis, who largely make up the insurgency targeting the Iraqi government and U.S. forces.
Raad Abbas, a 26-year-old wounded in the attack at the motorcycle market that killed 13, said he went to the market because the city had been quieter over the past two weeks.
"Shortly after midday, I heard an explosion. Motorcycles were flying in the air, people were falling dead and wounded," he said from his hospital bed.
As the curious gathered to look at the aftermath of the first explosion — a bomb attached to a motorcycle — a suicide car bomber drove into the crowd and blew up his vehicle. The attack appeared to target the mainly Shiite neighborhood near the market but also was near the Sheik al-Gailani shrine, one of the holiest Sunni locations in the capital.
The bombing near Al-Mustansiriya University took place as students were boarding minivans waiting outside the building to take them home, police said. Some police said the explosion was caused by a suicide car bomber and others said two of the minivans blew up as students were boarding.
Taqi al-Moussawi, dean of the university — one of Iraq's most prestigious — told state-run al-Iraqiya TV there were two explosions. He said a suicide attacker was later discovered with the apparent aim of targeting students as they fled but the attacker's explosives belt was detonated before students got close to him. He also said the students belonged to all religions, sects and ethnic groups.
"The terrorists want to stop education. ... those students had nothing to do with politics. They only came to the university to learn," he said.
About 45 minutes after the university attack, gunmen in a minivan and on two motorcycles opened fire on an outdoor market in a mainly Shiite neighborhood in nearby section of eastern Baghdad, police said. At least 11 people were killed.
Gianni Magazzeni, the chief of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq in Baghdad, said 34,452 civilians were killed — an average of 94 per day — and 36,685 were wounded last year in sectarian violence.
The Iraqi Health Ministry did not comment on the U.N. report, which was based on information released by the Iraqi government and hospitals. The government has disputed previous figures released by the U.N. as "inaccurate and exaggerated."
Iraqi government figures announced in early January put last year's civilian death toll at 12,357. Magazzeni said the U.N. figures were compiled from information obtained through the Iraqi Health Ministry, hospitals across the country and the Medico-Legal Institute in Baghdad.
According to the U.N. report women were particularly vulnerable to violence, but it said an accurate female mortality rate was difficult to obtain because female corpses are usually abandoned at the morgue because of fears the family's honor would be damaged. More than 140 of the bodies were unclaimed and buried in Najaf in November and December alone, according to the report.
Bodies of victims of sectarian violence often go unclaimed at the morgue due to security concerns or because the family cannot find them. Agreements are in place to allow unidentified remains to be buried in the Shiite holy city.
The U.N. report also said that 30,842 people were detained in the country as of Dec. 31, including 14,534 in detention facilities run by U.S.-led multinational forces.
It pointed to killings targeting police, who are seen by insurgents as collaborating with the U.S. effort in Iraq. The report said the Interior Ministry had reported on Dec. 24 that 12,000 police officers had been killed since the war started in 2003.
The report also painted a grim picture for other sectors of Iraqi society, saying the violence has disrupted education by forcing schools and universities to close as well as sending professionals fleeing from the country. At least 470,094 people throughout Iraq have been forced to leave their homes since the bombing in Samarra, according to the report.
In Monday's execution, a thickset Barzan Ibrahim plunged through the trap door and was beheaded by the jerk of the thick rope at the end of his fall, in the same execution chamber where Saddam was hanged a little over two weeks earlier.
Dozens of people, mostly schoolchildren, read Quranic verses at the graves near Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, as mourning continued for Ibrahim, Saddam's half brother and former intelligence chief, and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court under Saddam.
Some 150 youths also staged a demonstration, chanting "down with the pro-Iranian government" and "glory to Barzan," and hundreds later assembled for a memorial service, but it was calmer than the day before when at least 3,000 angry Sunnis assembled for the burials in nearby Ouj
Mrs Clinton, a likely candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, recently visited both countries.
She joins other senior US politicians in opposing the president's plans to send 21,500 extra troops to Iraq.
The Democrats, who control Congress, have promised to hold non-binding votes on George W Bush's strategy.
Democratic Senators Joe Biden and Carl Levin, together with Republican Chuck Hagel, have introduced a resolution opposing the plan.
"I will do everything I can to stop the president's policy as he outlined it Wednesday night," said Sen Hagel, a potential 2008 presidential candidate.
Correspondents say that Republicans will find themselves in a difficult position: they must either opt to stay loyal to Mr Bush and risk angering voters disillusioned by the war or go against the party line.
Meanwhile Madeleine Albright, US secretary of state under Democratic President Bill Clinton, described the Bush strategy as less a statement of policy than a prayer.
"It was not about reality. It was about hope. But hope is not a strategy. Iraqis will continue to act in their own best interests as they perceive them and we must act in ours," she told a hearing at the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
Senator Clinton, who was on her third trip to Iraq, said she was against increasing US troops there.
"I am opposed to this escalation," Mrs Clinton told CBS News.
"I am for putting more troops in Afghanistan," she said, describing Afghanistan as one of the "great missed opportunities".
US forces should be boosted there before an expected spring offensive by the Taleban, she said.
Senator Clinton said she wanted the US government to impose conditions on funding for Iraq's military and economic reconstruction to force Iraq into achieving certain political goals.
She also criticised the failure of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's government to stem the growing civil conflict between Sunnis and Shias.
Mrs Clinton's comments come a day after the race for the Democratic nomination in the 2008 presidential election hotted up with Senator Barack Obama announcing he had formed an exploratory committee which would allow him to raise money and hire staff for a campaign.
Mr Obama, who was elected to the Senate in 2004, has consistently opposed the war in Iraq.
Another Democratic presidential hopeful, Senator Christopher Dodd, is pushing for legislation that would require President Bush to get congressional approval before he could send additional troops to Iraq.
He argues that the mission in Iraq has changed dramatically since Congress gave Mr Bush broad authority to conduct the Iraq war in October 2002, a measure Mr Dodd himself supported.
In the House of Representatives, three Democrats, Lynn Woolsey, Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters, have introduced a bill calling for the full withdrawal of US forces from Iraq within six months.
They see it as a comprehensive alternative to the Bush administration's new Iraq strategy.
For his part, Mr Bush has been trying to garner support for his Iraq plans strategy, which includes the "surge" force of 21,500 troops.
He has repeatedly said that withdrawing troops from Iraq would amount to failure.
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A U.S. military helicopter went down northeast of Baghdad on Saturday, killing all 13 people aboard, the military said in a statement.
"A U.S. forces helicopter went down northeast of Baghdad this afternoon. Emergency Coalition Forces responded and secured the scene. Thirteen passengers and crewmembers were aboard the aircraft and all were killed," it said.
By BETH FOUHY, Associated Press Writer
Eighty-eight people died and 160 were injured in a double car bombing at a second-hand clothes market in Baghdad.
A further 12 died in a bomb and mortar attack in the nearby city of Baquba, while Iraqi police found 29 bodies in and around the capital.
The attacks came as the first of over 21,000 extra US troops arrived in Baghdad on a mission to boost security.
The 3,200 troops are the advance guard of an increase ordered by President George W Bush earlier this month.
Choked with traffic
The first big attack on Monday came in the Haraj market, which sells second-hand clothing and DVDs, shortly after midday (0900 GMT). Columns of thick smoke immediately covered the area.
One unconfirmed account of the attacks said that a bomb in a parked car was followed seconds later by a suicide bomber ploughing his car into the terrified crowd.
At least 12 vehicles were set ablaze, said a photographer for the AFP news agency at the scene.
He said there were so many victims that the wounded were piled up alongside the dead on wooden market carts.
Bodies could be seen covered in blue sheeting outside a Baghdad mortuary, while doctors at al-Kindi Hospital worked frantically to save the lives of the badly injured.
Relatives of the dead could be seen crying and weeping nearby.
The BBC's Mike Wooldridge in Baghdad says the market is popular with the many Baghdad residents on low incomes.
It is also a busy transport junction, and was choked with traffic at the time, he added.
At about 1700 (1400 GMT) there was a second attack, this time on a market near the town of Baquba, north-east of Baghdad.
Police said a bomb went off, followed by a mortar attack, leaving at least 12 civilians dead and 26 injured.
Lieutenant Ahmed Mohammed told AFP the bomb was hidden in a vegetable cart and exploded as people shopped late in the day at Khalis market.
Five minutes later further carnage was wrought in the shape of an incoming missile.
Elsewhere, a teacher was killed in west Baghdad and at least one woman died in a mortar attack in the south of the city.
Late in the day, police confirmed that they had found 29 unidentified bodies with gunshot wounds.
The attacks are seen as highlighting the challenges faced by US forces as they prepare to try to rein in the Sunni and Shia fighters who have been carrying out deadly tit-for-tat attacks.
Previous attempts to stop the killings in the capital have failed, in part, analysts say, because coalition and Iraqi troops have not stayed in an area once insurgents have been cleared.
Under the new plans, once an area is taken, the extra US troops will stay behind, backing up Iraqi forces to hold the area.
Doubts, however, remain as to whether there will be enough extra troops to stabilise a city of more than six million people, while among Baghdad residents there are fears the presence of the troops will simply inspire more violence.
US troops have suffered significant losses in recent days. On Saturday, 25 soldiers were killed - one of the worst days for the US army since the invasion.
The violence near Najaf was blamed on a previously unknown group, the Soldiers of Heaven. A government spokesman said its leader was among those killed.
Three Iraqis and two US troops also died. Fighting had largely ended by Monday morning, reports said.
Police patrolled the area and frisked residents at gunpoint.
Sunday's fighting occurred in the Zarqa area, north of the holy city of Najaf.
The BBC's Mike Wooldridge in Baghdad says as yet there is no independent confirmation of the scale of casualties and there is still uncertainty about the group.
........our platoons continue
to patrol near and far in order to deter the enemy mortar and rocket teams,
the patrol commanders tirelessly searching for new routes and manoeuvres to
surprise them. It has been noted that part-time media celebrity Lt *****
******'s wild sense of optimism also extends to his route selection: he
seemed almost surprised that his 2-tonne armour-clad Land Rover should bog
into what, on the map, seemed like a perfectly good stream. But, in true
form, X platoon managed to come out on top as, despite this taking place in
a village supposedly sympathetic to the insurgents, the locals who emerged
from their houses were all friendly and keen to help, even offering free
Coke and, after a bit of chatting-up, information on the bad guys.
Separately, a Washington-based think-tank says Iraq is rapidly sliding deeper into civil war.
The Brookings Institution says the fighting is likely to spill over into neighbouring countries, resulting in mass deaths, serious disruption of Gulf oil supplies and a drastic decline in US influence in the region.
By LAURIE KELLMAN, Associated Press Writer 4 minutes ago
"The police training system has not gone well," former Rep. Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the bipartisan commission, said in remarks prepared for delivery Wednesday to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was joined in his statements by another member of the study group, Edwin Meese III, who was attorney general during the Reagan administration.
The U.S. erred by first assigning the task of shaping the judicial system in a largely lawless country to the State Department and private contractors who "did not have the expertise or the manpower to get the job done," Hamilton and Meese said in testimony obtained by The Associated Press.
In 2004, the mission was assigned to the Defense Department, which devoted more money to the task. But department officials also were insufficiently trained for the job, Hamilton and Meese said.
As a result, Iraq has little if any on-the-street law enforcement personnel or a functioning judicial system free of corruption, they said.
Justice Department officials, they said, should lead the work of transforming the system. Police executives and supervisors should replace the military police personnel now assigned.And the should expand its investigative and forensic training in Iraq, Hamilton and Meese told the panel.
The recommendations about the Iraqi judicial system were included in the Iraq Study Group's report last year, but got little attention. Hamilton and Meese said Wednesday that unless the U.S. helps create a capable, trained professional police force and functioning criminal justice system, "ordinary Iraqis will not live in peace and will not have confidence in their new government."
"Long-term security depends as much on the Iraqi police and judicial system as the Iraqi Army," they testified.The hearing comes as lawmakers increasingly line up against 's escalation of the unpopular war in Iraq, many citing the findings of the Iraq Study Group as they urge an end to U.S. involvement there.
"We went with the hope and expectation that what we would see in Iraq was some coordinated effort to have political solutions, to relieve the civil strife and violence there, and diplomatic efforts to bring stability to the region," Pelosi, D-Calif., said. "We saw no evidence of either, sadly."
Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid informed Bush on Tuesday that they supported his idea for a bipartisan group to advise him on the war on terror. Bush pitched the idea as a way to strengthen his relationship with Congress and gather regular input from lawmakers.
Pelosi and Reid jointly called Bush to take up the offer, said Dana Perino, deputy White House press secretary. The first meeting will be next week, probably at the White House, although the date and attendees have not been set, Perino said.
By Darren Staples
Detectives said the suspected conspirators were arrested in dawn raids at addresses across the city of Birmingham in central England on "suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism."
A number of streets were sealed off in Birmingham, Britain's second largest city and one of its most ethnically diverse with a large Muslim population.
Security services believe a terrorist attack is highly likely and Britain, hit by an attack on public transport in 2005 that killed 52 people, is on its second highest alert level.
Last year the head of MI5, Britain's domestic spy service, said that about 30 terrorism plots were being worked on and agents were monitoring around 1,600 suspects.
Media reports, citing unnamed sources, said police and MI5 had stopped a major terrorist plot in the latter stages of planning, or near fruition, which involved the kidnapping of an individual, although not a high-profile figure.
"As a precautionary measure we will have an enhanced police presence at these locations," West Midlands police said in a statement, adding there was no "specific threat" to the area.
Sky TV, which said it knew the target's identity, a man in his 20s, quoted sources as saying the intent was to mimic the abductions and beheadings of Westerners carried out by militants in Iraq and post a video of the killing on the Internet.
Such a murder would be similar to the fate of Briton Ken Bigley, who was kidnapped and later beheaded by al Qaeda's then leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2004.
Neither the police nor the government would confirm the reports. The Home Office issued a statement saying the arrests were part of a nationwide operation.
"This operation is a reminder of the real and serious nature of the terrorist threat we face," the Home Office said.
A police source told Reuters the suspected plot would not have caused mass casualties, but would have involved a new terrorism tactic.
"It wasn't a mass Tube (underground train) or plane-type thing," the source said.
On July 7, 2005, Britain suffered its worst peacetime attack when four British Islamist suicide bombers killed 52 people on three underground trains and a bus.
In August last year, detectives said they had foiled a suspected plot to blow up transatlantic airliners bound for the United States using liquid explosives.
By Mark Trevelyan
"Insurgents and jihadists have proved adept at conducting successful information campaigns that reach a global audience and foment violence elsewhere," the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said.
"But Western militaries have shown insufficient capability in their own attempts to carry out information and psychological operations, its annual report, "The Military Balance," said.
The IISS said it was not enough for Western armies to distribute leaflets telling the local population "we are here to help" or to put out the message that "life is getting better."
"In reality, life may not be getting better and in the eyes of the target audience the military presence could be contributing to the problem," it said.In Afghanistan, frequent announcements by forces of how many local fighters they had killed could be counter-productive because, for the Taliban, "death is a form of victory."
"Using 'body count' as a measure of effect has a very different impact within the area of operations than it does with a home audience," the report said.
"The psychological effect at home is one of military success and may generate political support. In the theater of operations the opposite may be true, with every publicly announced kill delivering more willing recruits to the cause."
LACK OF COHERENCE
The IISS said more attention needed to be paid to finding out what really mattered to the local population, and using cultural and psychological understanding to undermine support for insurgent movements.
"Units being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are not being provided with the training to enable them to have a real, positive psychological impact on the population in their area of operations," it said.
The IISS particularly criticized a "lack of coherence" among the NATO countries operating in Afghanistan on how to wage information and psychological (PSYOPS) operations.
It said NATO was facing its sternest challenge there, as the unexpected intensity of the Taliban insurgency exposed an overall shortage of troops and inadequacy of some countries' equipment.
"The success or failure of its operation in Afghanistan is likely to shape the future of NATO," the report said.
The hope for the alliance was for a winter lull in insurgent activity that would bring some improved security and economic progress in the south, where British, Canadian, U.S. and Dutch troops are based.
"However, it is likely that the Taliban, too, see this as a possible turning point and with the majority of NATO member states unwilling to provide more troops to reinforce those already deployed, this winter is a crucial period for the alliance," the IISS said.
By KATHERINE SHRADER, Associated Press Writer
"I do not see anything so far in the report that suggests the president's new plan is a winning strategy that protects America's national interest," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada.
Yet top Bush administration officials said the intelligence assessment reinforced their view that the United States cannot leave Iraq. At a news conference, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he knew no one on Capitol Hill who believed that leaving the country in chaos "would have anything other than very serious and negative consequences for the United States and for the region."
Indeed, the report suggested that a pullout of U.S. troops could draw Iraq's neighbors into the violence.
Friday's newly declassified portions of a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq concluded that Iraq's security situation is likely to get worse over the next 18 months unless the slide toward sectarian polarization and a weakening government is halted. Security forces — particularly the police — will be "hard-pressed" to handle their new responsibilities because of divisions that are tearing apart Iraqi society, the assessment said.
Any further negative event such as the assassination of a religious leader could hasten deterioration, it said. "The challenges facing Iraqis are daunting."
Gates said the extra troops that Iraq promised to send into Baghdad as part of a new U.S.-Iraqi military buildup are arriving in insufficient numbers. His outgoing commander in Baghdad, Gen. George Casey, has said the arriving Iraqi units have only 55 to 65 percent of their intended troops.
"Fifty-five percent probably isn't good enough," Gates said.
The problems facing Iraqi security forces are as basic as ensuring that troops can feed their families. The Iraqi government pays troops' salaries in cash, forcing them to return home to deposit their earnings. That, Gates said, increases absentee levels.
The intelligence assessment painted a picture of a country hanging in the balance.
Top U.S. intelligence analysts found that even if violence diminishes, Iraqi leaders will find major difficulties in reconciling differences among various sects. The analysts attributed it to a "winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene."
Knowing the findings were likely to become public, intelligence analysts stepped gingerly around one of the most politically charged questions of the Iraq debate: Is the country in the midst of a civil war?
The analysts found the term "civil war" doesn't entirely capture the complex situation in Iraq. In addition to Shiites fighting Sunnis, the country is also facing attacks on U.S. and coalition forces and struggles within ethnic and religious sects.
Yet the estimate said the term "civil war" does reflect key elements of the conflict: the hardening of sectarian identities, changes in the nature of the violence and the geographic displacement of significant segments of the population.Bush's national security adviser, , agreed with the pessimistic outlook of the report and its characterization of the civil strife. But Hadley continued the White House's practice of refusing to adopt the term "civil war."
"We need to get across the complexities of the situation we face in Iraq and what is our strategy to deal with that," he said, "and simple labels don't do that."
On Thursday, Bush was briefed on the conclusions of the full 90-page classified document. The administration decided to declassify most of the material in the key findings, spanning just over three pages. It marked a new way of handling politically sensitive National Intelligence Estimates, which normally become public only after leaks.
The bleak analysis prodded even some Republicans to criticize Bush. The estimate "makes clear that we cannot continue the same stubborn strategy that has brought us to this point in Iraq," said Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.The report comes as the administration grows more worried about the role of in Iraq and the region. Among other moves, the administration is sending a second aircraft carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf region.
Gates said the carrier group is meant to underscore to friends and adversaries alike that the U.S. considers the Persian Gulf vital to its national interests. "We are not planning for a war with Iran," he said.
He acknowledged the United States is trying to counter Iran's role in providing so-called "explosively formed projectiles" — so lethal that they can take out an Abrams tank. He said these and other improvised explosive devices account for 70 percent of U.S. causalities in Iraq.The intelligence estimate highlighted Iran's role in providing weapons and 's inadequate border security measures. But analysts concluded that these actions aren't likely to be a major driver of Iraq's violence, which will sustain itself even without outside influence.
The spy agencies saved some of their most dire warnings for the consequences of a sudden U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Lawmakers are considering resolutions opposing Bush's plan to send 21,500 additional troops to the region.
If there is a quick withdrawal, analysts said, Iraqi security forces will not be able to survive and neighboring countries may become increasingly involved in the conflict. Al-Qaida in Iraq would also attempt to use the Sunni-dominated Anbar province of western Iraq as a base for attacks inside and outside the country, the report said. And spiraling violence, especially in the northern Kurdish areas, could prompt Turkey to act militarily.
The situation isn't without hope, the estimate found. The analysts concluded that some positive developments could — analysts stressed "could" — help reverse current trends. They include broader acceptance of the Sunni minority in the central government and concessions on the part of Shiites and Kurds to make more room for Sunni participation.
Associated Press writer Jennifer Loven contributed to this report.
Police say the vehicle blew up in al-Sadriya district as people bought food ahead of a night-time curfew.
By Dean Yates Sun Feb 4, 2:55 PM ET
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A U.S.-Iraqi campaign to stabilize Baghdad will begin soon and the offensive against militants will be on a scale never seen during four years of war, American officers said on Sunday.
Briefing a small group of foreign reporters, three American colonels who are senior advisers to the Iraqi army and police in Baghdad said a command center overseeing the crackdown would be activated on Monday.
"The expectation is the plan will be implemented soon thereafter," Colonel Doug Heckman, senior adviser to the 9th Iraqi Army division, said at a U.S. military base in Baghdad.
"It's going to be an operation unlike anything this city has seen. It's a multiple order magnitude of difference, not just a 30 percent, I mean a couple hundred percent," he added, referring to previous offensives that failed to stem bloodshed.
The plan will involve U.S. and Iraqi forces sweeping the capital's neighborhoods for militants and illegal weapons and then holding cleared areas. But some analysts fear that as in previous crackdowns, militants will simply melt away and wait them out, or strike in areas where they are not deployed.All three officers sought to talk up the ability of 's forces to perform better than in previous crackdowns.
Their comments came a day after a suicide truck bomb killed 135 people in a mainly Shi'ite area of Baghdad, the single biggest bombing since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.The joint offensive is seen as a last-ditch effort to halt all-out civil war between minority Sunni Arabs and politically dominant majority Shi'ites. is sending 21,500 reinforcements, most earmarked for the Baghdad offensive.
Critics of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki say an offensive last summer failed because the Iraqi army committed too few troops and because he was reluctant to confront the Mehdi Army of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The firebrand cleric is a key political ally of Maliki.
Asked if the Mehdi Army's stronghold in Sadr City would be cleaned out, Heckman acknowledged the political sensitivity but said all options were open.
"If we feel we need to clear Sadr City to bring stability, we will do that. Are there restrictions that will not allow us to do that? Right now there are not," Heckman said.Maliki has vowed the crackdown will tackle militants across the sectarian divide. The has said the Mehdi Army poses a greater threat to peace in Iraq than Sunni Islamist al-Qaeda.
The Baghdad command center that will begin operations on Monday will be headed by an Iraqi general. However, U.S. troops will not take orders from Iraqi officers.
Colonel Chip Lewis, senior adviser to a national police division in Baghdad, said the Iraqi security forces were more confident than they were before the last offensive. At that time, some Iraqi units did not show up.
Heckman said the offensive would gradually build up.
There was anecdotal evidence some militias had sought to melt away ahead of the campaign, the officers added.
"The end of the summer is when we should see some concrete results and be able to say is this working or not," Heckman said. That would be around September.
One problem that bedeviled last summer's offensive was the reluctance of Iraqi soldiers in the regionally recruited army to be deployed in the capital, far from their homes and families.
This time soldiers will get pay bonuses to come to Baghdad and will be given a finite tour of duty, so they know their deployment will not be open-ended, the American officers said.
Another difference would be the establishment of what the officers called joint security stations, which will be set up in nine Baghdad districts and where Iraqi and American troops will live and patrol side-by-side.
a letter to U.S. troops in Iraq, Petraeus said "in the end,
Iraqis will decide the outcome of this struggle. Our task is to help
them gain the time they need to save their
country." Indeed (see Between Iraq and a Hard Place para
1). Now he tells us (see below).
The trouble is most
of the Iraqis needed to save the country have had to leave, because
Donald Rumsfeld did not have the slightest idea of what he was up
against, in spite of the fact that Saddam Hussein warned him clearly of
one danger and Osama Bin Laden of another, and many other people of the
third, namely the Sunni-Shia built-up resentment which if deliberatly
exploited, rather than dealt with by a reconciliation process within a
secure environment would lead to violent attacks by one on the other.
The Americans under Rumsfeld walked headlong into all 3 separate
quagmires, any one of which would have been a nightmare.
[While on the
subject of Osama, the leaked report from French Special Forces that the
US didn't want him killed or even arrested is entirely credible. Think
it through, guys; just think it through. Handy to know where he is of
course....but not much use if he's dead or in gaol.
By LAUREN FRAYER, Associated Press Writer
Gen. David Petraeus took command of the 135,000-strong U.S. force, declaring "we will have to share the burdens and move forward together. If we can do that and if we can help the people of Iraq, the prospects of success are good.
"Failing that, Iraq will be doomed to continued violence and civil strife."Standing under a crystal chandelier that spanned 30 feet of the ceiling in one of 's former palaces, Petraeus said the task before him was "exceedingly challenging."
"The stakes are very high. The way ahead will be hard, and there undoubtedly will be many tough days. But as I recently told members of the U.S. Senate, hard is not hopeless."
Petraeus, who has served two previous tours in Iraq, takes over from Gen. George Casey who becomes Army chief of staff.
In a letter to U.S. troops in Iraq, Petraeus said "in the end, Iraqis will decide the outcome of this struggle. Our task is to help them gain the time they need to save their country."The change in command was part of 's overhaul of Iraq policy that includes deployment, by the end of May, of 21,500 additional American forces in Iraq, most of them in Baghdad.
"Our job in the months ahead ... will be to improve security so that the Iraqi government can resolve the tough issues it faces, and so that the economy and basic services can be improved," Petraeus said. "These tasks are achievable. This mission is doable."The Princeton-educated general takes command at a time when the Bush administration has focused on as a key factor in the turmoil in Iraq.
National security officials in Washington and Iraq have worked for weeks on a presentation intended to provide evidence of what they say are Iran's meddlesome and deadly activities. U.S. officials in Baghdad scheduled a briefing for reporters Sunday.
On Friday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters that serial numbers and other markings linked the Iranians to explosives used by insurgents in Iraq. His comments were among the Bush administration's first public assertions about evidence the military has collected.
The U.S. military on Saturday announced three more American soldiers had died in an explosion in volatile Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. The blast occurred as Task Force Lightning soldiers searched for a weapons cache near Baqouba. U.S. and Iraqi forces have battled Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias in Diyala for months.
The deaths raised to 36 the number of Americans killed in Iraq so far this month. At least 3,120 members have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Dozens of Shiites and a handful of Sunnis gathered Saturday for the reopening of a Sunni mosque in Baghdad's Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City. Local officials said they hoped to encourage members of the displaced Sunni minority to return to the district as part of reconciliation efforts.
A Sunni cleric led a joint prayer under the mosque's blue mosaic dome and beige minaret. Interior Ministry commandos stood guard outside.
Sadr City is the headquarters of the Mahdi Army, the militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The fighters are blamed for much of the sectarian killing that has targeted minority Sunnis in a year of revenge killings after al-Qaida in Iraq bombers destroyed an important Shiite shrine north of Baghdad.
"The Sadr movement is working to consolidate national unity and today's handover is proof of our intentions," Sadrist lawmaker Nassar al-Rubaie said. "We will work to bring back the deported Sunnis families to the city and to return other Sunni mosques."
Militia members are keeping a low profile and trying to improve their image as U.S. and Iraqi forces launch a security sweep that the Shiite-led government has promised would not spare Shiite militiamen or Sunni insurgents.
At the ceremony marking the change of command, Petraeus sat alongside Casey and Army Gen. John Abizaid, the outgoing Central Command chief. A U.S. Army band of the 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, played the U.S. and Iraqi national anthems before the presentation of the flags.
Also in attendance were U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie and Iraqi Lt. Gen. Aboud Gambar, commander of Iraqi troops in the Baghdad security operation.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was absent.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and his two deputies met Petraeus on Friday and discussed the security plan and "appropriate ways to reach security and stability and annihilate terrorism," a government statement said.
Before the change of command, outgoing Iraq commander Casey said he was confident Iraqis would be ready to take control of their own security by the end of this year, but acknowledged progress was slower in Baghdad than the rest of the country.
"It's no secret that sectarian violence ... has changed the dynamics of what Iraqis must face here on the ground. But when Iraqis want something to happen, it happens," he told reporters.
Casey said failure in Iraq would be tied to the people's inability to put the past behind them.
"We liberated them from 35 years of tyranny but we can't liberate them from the fears and the prejudices that grew in those 35 years," he said. "I think they'll get past it, but if they don't, it'll be difficult."
Casey said he felt "a little numb" about leaving Iraq after 2 1/2 years.
"But I go away with great feeling of pride because we've laid the foundation for Iraq's ultimate success.
"Everything's not as I would have expected it to be or wanted it to be on my way out, but that's kind of the way things are," the departing general said.
Casey said he was still too close to the situation to evaluate his tenure but said he had a sense of where criticism could arise.
"The main point people will debate is whether I relied too much on Iraqi forces to carry the security load and too little on coalition forces," he said. "But I'm certainly not ready to say that's a mistake. I'll let history judge that."
By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA, Associated Press Writer
Addressing the nation on behalf of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Lt. Gen. Abboud Gambar also said Baghdad's nighttime curfew would be expanded by an hour and permits allowing civilians to carry weapons in public would be suspended during all of the operation, which he suggested could last weeks.
Gambar's announcement came hours after a suicide truck bomber struck a government warehouse in a mainly Shiite Muslim neighborhood of the capital, killing at least 15 people and wounding 27, according to police and hospital officials. A parked car bomb also exploded near a bakery in another Shiite area, killing four people and wounding four, police said.
The general did not say when the borders would close, but another official said it was expected within two days. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, added that the borders would only partly reopen after the 72-hour closing.
The United States has long charged that Iran and Syria let extremists use their territory to slip into Iraq to attack U.S. and Iraqi forces as well as civilians.
Iraqi authorities have routinely echoed the U.S. charges against Syria, but they rarely make that claim regarding Iran, with which Iraq's Shiite-led government has close relations.
Gambar said Baghdad's nighttime curfew would be extended by one hour when the security drive kicks off fully, running from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.The U.S. military announced last week that the clampdown had already begun, although Iraqis have seen little evidence of that. has committed 21,500 more Americans to the operation, which is expected to involve a total of 90,000 Iraqi and U.S. soldiers.
The campaign is widely seen as possibly the U.S. military's final attempt to calm the city. It will be the third attempt by U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies to end violence in Baghdad since al-Maliki took office last May.
Gamber said he would report to al-Maliki weekly to discuss progress in the operation.
His address suggested Iraqi authorities plan to exercise wide powers while waging the crackdown. A criminal court, for example, will hold emergency hearings on cases such as murder, theft, rape, kidnapping, damaging public property and the possession and transfer of arms and ammunition, he said.Gambar, a Shiite and a veteran of the 1991 when he served in 's army, said security forces also plan to monitor mail, parcels, telegrams and wireless communication devices during the operation.
He said security forces would try to avoid intruding in places of worship, but added that they would do so in "cases of extreme emergencies when it is feared that these places pose a threat to the lives of citizens or if they are used for unlawful purposes." U.S. and Iraqi authorities have often said Sunni Arab insurgents use mosques to store arms or fire at troops.
Tuesday's suicide truck bombing was the latest in a series of attacks since Bush and al-Maliki announced more than a month ago that they would launch the security crackdown.
Witnesses said the suicide bomber drove his explosives-laden truck into cars parked on a street as people were entering a Trade Ministry office that administers ration cards for the area.
The office and warehouses storing sugar and other rationed foodstuffs are next to the private College of Economic Sciences, but it was closed for midterm so no students were among the casualties, police said.
In other violence, the U.S. military announced that an American soldier died in combat Sunday in volatile Anbar province, west of Baghdad, raising to 42 the number of American personnel killed this month.
Iraqi police reported finding 28 bullet-riddled bodies showing signs of torture, apparent victims of sectarian death squads. Most of the bodies turned up in Baghdad.
By BRIAN MURPHY, Associated Press Writer 23 minutes ago
BAGHDAD, Iraq - As a military offensive seeks to bring Baghdad from the brink of anarchy, a top Iraqi security officer tried Friday to measure its early stages using the grim logic of a place with daily bloodshed: by counting the bodies arriving at the morgue.
A total of 10 corpses were collected off the streets — apparently all victims of the city's lawless jumble of gang justice and sectarian payback. The daily body tally recently has often been 40 or more, excluding major bombings, said Brig. Gen. Qassim Moussawi.
This was the basis for an upbeat message by Moussawi, a spokesman for the joint U.S.-Iraqi security sweep that began this week and has so far faced limited resistance. But his American counterparts remain much more guarded.
"I would say that it is way too early to establish any trends," said Lt. Col. Chris Garver, a U.S. military spokesman. "We've just started to focus our operations. We have months to go to see if we are going to succeed or not."
The contrasting outlooks cut across the entire mission, dubbed Operation Law and Order, which seeks to reclaim the streets. Powerful militias and freelance vigilantes have carved Baghdad into fiefdoms and made even daily errands a gamble that could end with a car bombing or gunfire.
The Iraqis are eager to show clear progress to boost the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. U.S. commanders, however, are approaching the neighbor-by-neighbor sweep as a methodical campaign without quick victories — learning from past mistakes of pouring through an area, only to find that militiamen simply went underground and returned after American forces left.
"We are just at the beginning stages," reminded Garver.
But evidence of the offensive against militants appeared around the country.Borders to and have been temporarily sealed in attempts to foil suspected supply routes. In Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, U.S. forces are under sharply escalating attacks from Sunni Muslim insurgents — suggesting that some groups have shifted from Baghdad to other areas to sidestep the crackdown in the capital.
But doubt was cast on another reported blow to al-Qaida in Iraq.
The Interior Ministry said that leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, was wounded and an aide killed Thursday in a clash with Iraqi forces near Balad, north of Baghdad.Garver, the U.S. military spokesman, later said the had no information that al-Masri was hit. The al-Masri deputy reported killed, identified as Abu Abdullah al-Majemaai, was detained last week and remains in jail, said an Iraqi army officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the information.
Iraqi security officials also said 34 armed men belonging to a messianic Shiite cult were detained near Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.
The Soldiers of Heaven, or Jund al-Samaa, cult was involved in a fierce gunbattle last month with Iraqi forces who accused it of planning to kill Shiite clerics and others in a bid to force the return of the "Hidden Imam" — a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who disappeared as a child in the 9th century. Shiites believe he will return one day to bring justice.
In mosques Friday, some Muslim clerics supported the general goals of the military push to calm Baghdad. But others used the weekly prayers to denounce the American troop buildup in Baghdad.
Political leaders, too, quarreled over the widening security sweeps — reflecting starkly opposing perspectives among Iraq's two Muslim groups.The majority Shiites have generally favored the campaign as a way to neutralize Sunni militant groups, blamed for waves of recent car bombings. Sunnis — who enjoyed a privileged position under — believe Shiite factions will use the military push to try to cement controls of key areas in Baghdad.
Sunni lawmaker Dhafir Al-Ani said on Al-Arabiya television that the Baghdad security plan had lost the "element of surprise" because it was announced long in advance, giving Shiite militiamen time to flee to Iran. He also claimed Shiite militias had provided security forces with some of the names on their wanted list.
But a Shiite lawmaker, Hadi Al-Amiri, backed the U.S.-Iraqi crackdown as a way to "target all those who cause the Iraqi bloodshed."
In Geneva, the International Organization for Migration offered a bleak picture of Iraqis trying to escape the violence and insecurity. Nearly 18,000 people have left their homes in the past three weeks in central and southern Iraq — some fleeing for the borders and others taking shelter in makeshift housing.
As many as 1 million Iraqis could flee their homes this year unless the unrest is brought under control, said a report by the 120-nation agency. An estimated 1.4 million Iraqis have already left their homes.
"The numbers of people that are being displaced are increasing every day," said Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the group. "The security situation is not improving. It's not changing."
In other developments:• The Pentagon said it is sending an Army division headquarters staff of about 1,000 soldiers to Baghdad three months ahead of schedule, a move intended to improve the Army's ability to command and control the thousands of extra combat troops that has ordered to Iraq.
• Iraq's Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, told the Arabic language daily Al-Hayat that Sunni insurgents who are "honorable and genuine" must be given the chance to join the political process now that the United States is eager to pull its troops from Iraq. He said U.S. and Iraqi representatives must negotiate "with the participation of the resistance" after "America has failed to run the country."
A British military spokeswoman said UK forces had secured checkpoints as part of the Iraqi-led operation to support the country's new security plan.
This follows reports that radical Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr and many of his supporters have fled to Iran.
The spokeswoman said the aim was "to halt smuggling and contain criminal and rogue militia operations".
She added two nearby border crossings had been closed for 72 hours, after instructions from the Iraqi government.
Mr Sadr and key figures from his Mehdi Army, which has been identified by the US military as one of the key threats to law and order in Baghdad, have reportedly already crossed the frontier.
Codenamed Operation Troy, the mission began at 0600 local time (0300 GMT) on Thursday and involved British troops, Iraqi police and the Department of Border Enforcement, BBC News has been told.
It will continue for three days.
Troops from 19 Light Brigade assisted with the "lockdown", assisting Iraqi police in the task of checking every vehicle on the eight routes into and out of the city.
British military spokesman Maj David Gell said the move was linked with a security crackdown that began on Wednesday.
|| We see this as another step
along the way towards the Iraqi authorities taking responsibility for
the security of Basra
Capt Ollie Pile
He told BBC News: "This is part of the same operation.
"Specifically in our area, in Basra, it will involve vehicle checkpoints, security operations that involve overt patrolling, enhanced point-of-entry security and patrols supported by coalition air assets if required."
Capt Ollie Pile of the 19th Light Brigade told BBC News forces involved in the move, codenamed Operation Troy, had been led by 2,000 Iraqi troops and included 1,200 British soldiers.
He added eight main routes into city were now subject to vehicle checkpoints, with all traffic stopped and searched.
Boat patrols are also in operation along waterways , with the Royal Marines searching traffic along the Shatt Al Arab waterway.
Security patrols are also in force within the city.
Capt Pile said the purpose of the move was to prevent the movement of weapons and munitions.
He added: "We see this as another step along the way towards the Iraqi authorities taking responsibility for the security of Basra."
Of the four provinces round Basra, two have already been handed over to Iraqi security.
The Iraqi and US security crackdown has already seen the closure of crossing points to Iran and Syria. Three to Syria and four to Iran will reopen after 72 hours, but others will close indefinitely.
Weapons permits have been suspended in Baghdad to all but Iraqi and US forces and registered security companies, the capital's nightly curfew extended by an hour and stop-and-search powers increased.
He said Iraqi forces were "in control of frontline security in the city".
Asked about reports he would announce within weeks an effective halving of UK troop number in Iraq, he told the BBC's Sunday AM show: "Let's wait and see."
The idea had always been to scale down UK troop numbers as Iraqis took over security and policing, he added.
|| Iraqi soldiers are
taking the lead on patrols in Basra
Blair on Iraq
Asked about reports he would announce cuts to UK troops in Iraq, he told the BBC's Sunday AM: "Let's wait and see."
The operation was intended to put Iraqi forces in "the main frontline control of security within the city", he said.
UK troops are still heavily involved in Basra but increasingly in a supporting role, with Iraqis taking the lead.
|| It's actually been successful as
an operation and as a result of that
there's reconstruction that's come in behind it and we've been able to
make real progress
The idea had always been to scale down UK troop numbers as Iraqis "scaled up" their capabilities in terms of security and policing, he said.
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told MPs last month that the prime minister would make a statement to the House of Commons when the operation was completed.
During that Commons debate on Iraq she said the operation was going well, but did not put any timescale on its conclusion beyond saying this "spring".
Defence sources have said the plan was to hand over frontline security to Iraqi forces and then withdraw UK forces to a base outside Basra.
There has been speculation their numbers could be as much as halved, although Mrs Beckett said it would be up to military chiefs to decide how many would be needed to be kept to support the Iraqi forces.
|| The Iraqi forces will be taking
on these extremists for a long time to
come but on the other hand there is real progress and we don't want to
get in the way of that progress
And Mr Blair urged caution over Sunday newspaper reports that UK troop numbers in Iraq could be halved.
But he said: "It is absolutely true, as we have said for months, that as the Iraqis are more capable down in Basra of taking control of their own security we will scale down.
"But you've got to make sure you have sufficient forces in support and in reserve to be able to help the Iraqis if a particular problem arises."
He added: "The issue is the operation that we have been conducting in Basra is now complete and that operation has specifically been to put the Iraqi forces in the main frontline control of security within the city.
"It's actually been successful as an operation and as a result of that there's reconstruction that's come in behind it and we've been able to make real progress."
Asked if the Americans, who are sending in extra troops, were "entirely happy" with the UK's plans, Mr Blair said they were.
He said the situation was different in the two different areas, with no Sunni insurgency or al-Qaeda suicide attacks in the Basra area.
He also said sectarian violence in Basra had fallen "enormously", and the number of murders had fallen to 30 in December.
He added: "As we go through the city and we are able to put in reconstruction money and development money there's a lot of change going on there.
"It will still be a tough thing to do and the Iraqi forces will be taking on these extremists for a long time to come but on the other hand there is real progress and we don't want to get in the way of that progress."
During the interview the prime minister rejected suggestions he should bear responsibility for ongoing violence in Iraq, although he said he felt a "deep sense of responsibility" for bringing it to an end.
He said sectarian tensions and violence were not created by "some planning error" by the coalition.
"Of course I am devastated by the numbers of people who have died in Iraq, but it's not British and American troops that are killing them.
"They are being killed by people who are deliberately using terrorism to try to stop the country getting on its feet.
"It's not a question of being culpable. I feel a deep sense of responsibility for putting the situation right."
By BRIAN MURPHY, Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Insurgents exploded a truck carrying chlorine gas canisters Wednesday — the second such "dirty" chemical attack in two days — while a U.S. official said ground fire apparently forced the downing of a Black Hawk helicopter. All nine aboard the aircraft were rescued.
The attacks offer a sweeping narrative on evolving tactics by Sunni insurgents who have proved remarkably adaptable.
Military officials worry extremists may have recently gained more access to firepower such as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft rockets and heavy machine guns — and more expertise to use them. The Black Hawk would be at least the eighth U.S. helicopter to crash or be taken down by hostile fire in the past month.
The gas cloud in Baghdad, meanwhile, suggests possible new and coordinated strategies by bombers trying to unleash toxic — and potentially deadly — materials. "Terrorists are using dirty means," said Brig. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, an Iraqi military spokesman.
Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman, said initial reports indicated the chopper was brought down by "small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades" north of Baghdad, but gave no further details. All nine aboard were taken away on a rescue helicopter, he said.
In Baghdad, a pickup truck carrying chlorine gas cylinders was blown apart, killing at least five people and sending more than 55 to hospitals gasping for breath and rubbing stinging eyes, police said.
On Tuesday, a bomb planted on a chlorine tanker left more than 150 villagers stricken north of the capital. More than 60 were still under medical care on Wednesday. Chlorine causes respiratory trouble and skin irritation in low levels and possible death with heavy exposure.In Washington, two officials said the tactic has been used at least three times since Jan. 28, when a truck carrying explosives and a chlorine tank blew up in Anbar province. More than a dozen people were reported killed.
A third Pentagon official said the United States has been concerned about Iraqi militants' ability to get weapons like chlorine bombs and use them effectively. But the official cautioned that chlorine bombs are just one threat on a long list of possible attacks that Iraqi fighters may try to carry out.
It was unclear whether the confluence of new insurgent tactics — attacking isolated combat posts, targeting helicopters more intensely and using chlorine bombs — was coincidental or in response to the U.S. troop increase.
W. Patrick Lang, a former official at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the insurgents are always "seeking to achieve higher levels of effectiveness" and these new tactics are part of the normal "evolution of sophistication."
Lang said trucks filled with chlorine gas are "really quite deadly" because the gas is potent and spreads easily.
Some authorities believe militants could be trying to maximize the panic from their attacks by adding chlorine or other noxious substances.
"It is an indication of maliciousness, a desire to injure and kill innocent people in the vicinity," said Garver, who also predicted militants may begin to launch similar attacks because of the widespread mayhem caused by this week's chlorine clouds.
"If there is a particular success, we'll see copycats. ... They certainly pay attention to what they think is successful," he said.In Najaf, meanwhile, a suicide car bomber killed at least 13 at a police checkpoint. The attack fit a pattern that's believed to drive much of 's recent violence: Sunni militants seeking to provoke majority Shiites into a full-blown sectarian conflict that would leave Washington's plans in ruins.
It was the first major bombing in more than six months in Najaf, an important Shiite pilgrimage site 100 miles south of Baghdad and also the headquarters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the Mahdi Army militia.
The Najaf blast hit while streets were filled with morning shoppers. At least seven of the victims were police and the rest civilians near a checkpoint — part of the city's security cordon that includes Mahdi Army militiamen, who battled U.S. forces in the area in 2004.
More than 40 people were wounded in the blast, which sent body parts and blood over a wide boulevard. Crews stuffed limbs and bits of flesh into cardboard boxes.
In Baghdad, another Mahdi Army center was hit. A car bombing in the teeming Sadr City district killed at least three.
More than 10 people died in blasts across Baghdad — adding to the more than 100 victims of bombings in attacks in and around the capital since Sunday. The toll cast a long shadow over authorities marking the first week of the U.S.-Iraqi security sweeps.
Moussawi, the Iraqi military spokesman, said the campaign to reclaim control of the city "has achieved very important goals despite the expected criminal reactions."
"God willing, the plan will continue to uproot terrorists and outlaws across Baghdad and other areas," he told a news conference. He added that 42 "terrorists" have been killed in the sweeps and more than 250 suspected militants arrested, but gave further details.
An American military spokesman, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, told a news conference that U.S. and Iraqi forces were focusing on "belts" of extremist activity in Baghdad and suggested talks are ongoing over when and how to move into Sadr City.
It is believed that al-Sadr has ordered his forces not to challenge the security operation up to this point.
"Anytime you can find a political solution instead of a military one it is better," Caldwell said.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq may soon be shrinking.British Prime Minister said about 1,600 troops will leave Iraq in the coming months if Iraqi forces can secure the southern part of the country. Currently, Britain has about 7,100 soldiers in Iraq. Denmark also announced it would withdraw its 460-member contingent from southern Iraq by August, and Lithuania is "seriously considering" bring home its 53 troops.
The British decision, however, is not likely to seriously shift the power balance in Iraq. The British are stations in the mostly Shiite south and are not directly involved in the sectarian struggles in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.
A U.S. Marine was killed in fighting in the volatile Anbar province and a soldier was killed by gunfire in a neighborhood of Baghdad, the military said Wednesday.
The Marine was killed Tuesday during combat operations in the insurgent stronghold. The soldier was hit by small arms fire in a northern district of Baghdad on Tuesday, a statement said without giving further details.
At least 3,149 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
"The scale of al Qaeda's ambitions towards attacking the UK and the number of UK extremists prepared to participate in attacks are even greater than we had previously judged," the Sunday Telegraph quoted the document as saying.
Britain suffered its worst peacetime attack in July 2005 when four British Islamists blew themselves up on London's transport network, killing 52 commuters and wounding hundreds.
The report said Afghanistan, where more British troops are expected to be sent shortly, was the top location for terrorists planning jihad or holy struggle against the West.
It said al Qaeda was "resilient and effective" in Iraq while its operating environment and financial position in Pakistan had improved.
A spokesman for Scotland Yard's counter-terrorism unit said: "The threat is real and genuine as events of recent months and years have demonstrated."
He declined to comment specifically on the report.
A spokeswoman for the Home Office said the department did not comment on leaked reports. "The threat level is as it was," she said.
Eliza Manningham-Buller, head of intelligence agency MI5, said in November that Muslim extremists were plotting at least 30 major terrorist attacks in Britain and the threats might involve chemical and nuclear devices.
She said young British Muslims were being groomed to become suicide bombers and her agents were tracking some 1,600 suspects, most of whom were British-born and linked to al Qaeda in Pakistan.
By KATHERINE SHRADER, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - More must be done to go after al-Qaida, which is trying to establish training camps and other operations in some of Pakistan's most ungoverned territory, the new U.S. spy chief said Tuesday."It's something we're very worried about and very concerned about," Mike McConnell told the in a hearing on global threats.
Musharraf has insisted his forces have already "done the maximum" possible against extremists in their territory, and he said other allies also shoulder responsibility in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.But U.S. officials have grown increasingly concerned about intelligence suggesting the Taliban and al-Qaida plan a spring offensive against allied forces in neighboring .
They are also worried about the autonomy of al-Qaida and Taliban operatives in Pakistan after the government signed a peace deal with the tribal leaders of the region, North Waziristan, in September.
In that agreement, tribal elders promised to respect the supremacy of the Pakistani government and curtail attacks in Afghanistan. In return, Musharraf gave back some of the tribes' weapons, released some prisoners and withdrew from posts inside North Waziristan.
At Tuesday's hearing, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the tribes have not abided by most of the agreement's terms. And McConnell said U.S. intelligence believes al-Qaida's training and related capabilities increased as a result of the deal.
Lawmakers were skeptical, too.
"Long-term prospects for eliminating the Taliban threat appear dim so long as the sanctuary remains in Pakistan, and there are no encouraging signs that Pakistan is eliminating it," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich.
In his first month as national intelligence director, McConnell said he's been briefed about al-Qaida's efforts to reconstitute itself in Pakistan's northwest frontier.
He said the group does not have the thousands of fighters, training in multiple camps, as they did in Afghanistan before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. "That's gone," he said.
But McConnell said U.S. intelligence believes al-Qaida still has volunteers committed to carrying out "heinous attacks" akin to Sept. 11, 2001. And while three-quarters of al-Qaida's leaders have been taken out, they have been replaced by equally committed jihadists. The upside: McConnell said the new generation doesn't have as much experience.
Pressuring al-Qaida is not without its risks for Musharraf, who faces an election this fall. McConnell acknowledged that efforts to pursue the terror group must be balanced with the desire to keep Musharraf — a moderate and a U.S. ally — in charge of Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal.The testimony from Maples and McConnell was part of the Senate panel's annual review of global threats, including the latest assessments on , and .
_Iraqi troops are taking the lead in securing parts of their country, but much work remains to improve the number and quality of those forces. "They are better today than they were a year ago, but they are still not where we need them to be," McConnell said.
Maples said two of the three brigades promised by Iraq have moved into Baghdad as part of the new security plan, but he acknowledged that those units have only 43 percent to 82 percent of their intended troops, according to ranges he has seen.
_On Iran, McConnell said that the regime could develop a nuclear weapon early in the next decade, but it will more likely take the country's scientists until 2015. But it's not clear whether the country will have a delivery system at the same time.
_Maples said the United States is seeing North Korea take initial steps to comply with the Feb. 13 agreement on its nuclear program, including inspection of its plutonium-producing Yongbyon nuclear facility. But there are other steps to which the U.S. will have to pay close attention, he said.
McConnell's top adviser on North Korea, Joseph DeTrani, said the U.S. continues to insist that North Korea declare all of its nuclear programs. But he backtracked a bit from a previous U.S. view of analysts, who had "high confidence" that North Korea was buying material for a uranium production program.
Now, he said, the U.S. believes the program exists "at the
[SEE North_Korea.html ]
By Arshad Mohammed - Analysis Wed Feb 28, 5:24 PM ET
"I think that it's an acknowledgment of reality. It's in effect a move toward a foreign policy less based on ideal outcomes and more based on realistic possibility," said James Dobbins of the Rand Corporation, a former top U.S. diplomat.
"It's long been the view of most area experts that one isn't going to be able to stabilize Iraq unless one secures a modicum of support from the neighboring states," Dobbins added. "They simply have too much access, too much influence and too much at stake themselves in Iraq's future to be ignored."In a surprise move, U.S. Secretary of State on Tuesday used testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee to announce that the United States would attend two Iraqi-convened conferences on how to stabilize the country.
The first meeting will bring together working-level officials in Baghdad on March 10 and the second, involving ministers, may be held as early as April. A U.S. official said this meeting could take place in Istanbul.
Syria's official news agency has said it will attend the March meeting while Iran is considering the invitation.
While the State Department and White House denied they had changed policy, the decision marked a shift from months during which the Bush administration had been cool to the idea of more direct, high-level engagement with Iran and Syria.
The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran but the two have had contacts in group settings. It has diplomatic relations with Syria but withdrew the U.S. ambassador in 2005 and has resisted senior-level contacts.
Some analysts suggested the change was prompted by pressure from Democrats, who now control Congress and the administration's purse strings, as well as from Saudi Arabia, which has taken a much more active role in regional diplomacy.
"It's not an accident that (she) made the announcement at an appropriations committee hearing. The administration needs Congress on its side and Congress is very, very skeptical of the administration's strategy," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the CSIS think tank in Washington.
"You have these two things coming together -- the Hill pressure and the Saudi pressure and the administration sensed that it doesn't cost you anything to be in a multilateral meeting. It won't go anywhere, so why not?" he said.
The United States has insisted that before it would engage in talks Iran must first suspend uranium enrichment, which can be used to produce fuel for nuclear power plants and atomic bombs.Iran says its nuclear program is for power generation and has refused to suspend uranium enrichment despite the passage of one sanctions resolution in December and the threat of another.
Rice, in recent months, has argued that Iran was bound to demand concessions on the nuclear issue if the United States were to engage it over Iraq, a trade-off she had rejected.
Analysts said that the administration had been conflicted about whether, and how, to deal with the Iranians for years.
In a sign this tension may not have been resolved, the State Department carefully refused to rule out the possibility of bilateral talks with the Iranians at the Iraq conferences while the White House flatly excluded it.
"The administration is under tremendous pressure ... to at least show that it is trying to do more on the diplomatic front to bring about a better outcome in Iraq," said Derek Chollet, another CSIS analyst. "What remains to be seen is how seriously they are going to take these talks."
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Susan Cornwell)
"The biggest problem is among some young officers," saidMajor-General Patrick Cordingley, now retired, who commanded the 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats, in the 1991 Gulf War. "They have done a couple of tours, and to some extent the glamour has gone out of it. They want to meet someone and get married, or they have young wives, and want a more settled family life. The short interval between tours is very disruptive."I wonder if the task is being taken seriously. I would not recommend anyone seeking 'glamour' to take on such a serious and deadly duty, or to do it for the money.
"A member of Britain's special forces told me recently that in 2006, he had been on operations something like 269 days out of 365," said Adam Holloway, Conservative MP for Gravesham and a member of the Commons defence committee.
"People like him have been incredibly busy ever since the build-up to the Iraq war more than four years ago, but they can't do it forever. Not surprisingly, his marriage has cracked up."
The past fortnight has seen a rush of announcements which emphasise the far-flung nature of Britain's military commitments since the start of the century. Tony Blair - who had earlier stayed away from a Commons debate on Iraq - told Parliament that the long-awaited withdrawal from the south of the country would begin with the departure of 1,600 troops this spring. A day and a half later, Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, announced that 1,400 more troops would be sent to southern Afghanistan, where British forces had to fight desperately last summer to avoid being overwhelmed by the Taliban.
Mr Holloway, a former army officer, said his old regiment, the Grenadier Guards, was in the process of returning from Shaibah logistics base, once the centre of British operations in southern Iraq, which is due to be handed over to Iraqi forces by the end of this month. But the regiment had already been told that it would be sent to Afghanistan in six months, underlining the extent to which Britain's front-line forces are being stretched.
It was against this background that Mr Browne's next announcement - that Britain would pull out more than 600 peacekeeping troops from Bosnia - was viewed. The soldiers, mainly from the Welsh Guards, will leave the Balkan state by the end of April. If even a contingent of this size could not be spared, it appeared that the demands on Britain's armed forces were becoming unsustainable. One officer countered this, however, saying: "Bosnia has been known for some time as a 'sunshine and skiing' tour. The country is a lot more stable than it used to be."
Indeed, the British drawdown was part of a general reduction of peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, where Mr Browne said there were indications of "a security situation approaching normality". But Louise Heywood, head of the British armed forces programme at the Royal United Services Institute, the military think-tank, said the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan made fewer British soldiers available for UN "blue helmet" peacekeeping operations.
"I would say that we are stretched as far as we can go," said Ms Heywood, a serving Territorial Army officer. "But it is not so much a question of troop numbers as of capabilities. If you put boots on the ground, you need Chinook helicopters and armoured vehicles to make them capable of doing the job."
This is where the strains became most visible during the intense fighting last year in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, where the majority of Britain's 6,000 troops are stationed, and where most reinforcements will go. In many places it was too dangerous to send in road convoys, and the small contingent of Chinook and Merlin helicopter pilots was stretched to the limit to resupply and reinforce beleaguered troops in places such as Musa Qala, Now Zad and Sangin, often under fire. Britain sought civilian helicopters to free military helicopters for front-line duties, and took away the only Chinook in the Falklands for use in Afghanistan.
Along with the extra troops for Afghanistan, Mr Browne announced that four Sea King helicopters, another C-130 Hercules aircraft and four more Harrier GR9 jump-jets, which provide close air support, would be deployed. The Hercules fleet in particular is a vital link in the transport chain, but the hand-to-mouth nature of much of the Ministry of Defence's operational spending was highlighted last week by the BBC's discovery that of the 48 Hercules aircraft flown by the RAF, only seven have so far been fitted with explosive-suppressant foam that prevents an aircraft blowing up if its fuel tanks are hit by ground fire.
An inquiry into the deaths of 10 servicemen in Iraq two years ago, when a Hercules was shot down, said they might have lived if the aircraft had had the foam. The MoD has promised that the entire fleet will have the foam by the end of the year, but so crucial are C-130s in Iraq and Afghanistan that it is difficult to take them away for a refit. Nigel Gilbert, a former Hercules pilot quoted by the BBC, said the delay means that 50 or 60 people could be lost in another such incident.
Similar rows over spending priorities have accompanied the gradual replacement of vulnerable "snatch" Land Rovers by Bulldog armoured vehicles. Last week, however, Mr Browne addressed another grievance: forces' pay. While other public service workers are being squeezed, the lowest-paid soldiers will see their pay rise by 9.2 per cent, more than £100 a month. On top of the tax-free £2,240 operational allowance announced in October, the "separation allowance" for being deployed away from home longer than 10 days will go up by 3.3 per cent. Higher ranks will be less well-rewarded, with a salary increase for major-generals and above of only 2 per cent.
But pay is by no means the most important factor in recruitment or retention of soldiers. According to the MoD, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not harmed recruitment; in November the National Accounting Office (NAO) reported that the Army had an overall "manning balance", though there were shortages in many specialised fields, such as mine disposal.
It is among such specialists, including special forces, that "overstretch" affects military personnel most acutely. Demand in Iraq and Afghanistan means they are deployed more often, and for longer, than is considered desirable. That makes them more likely to quit: an NAO survey of men and women who had recently left the forces found nearly half had done so because of the impact of service on family life. Other factors were too many deployments (28 per cent); quality of equipment (32 per cent); and a feeling of not being valued (33 per cent).
"The biggest problem is among some young officers," saidMajor-General Patrick Cordingley, now retired, who commanded the 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats, in the 1991 Gulf War. "They have done a couple of tours, and to some extent the glamour has gone out of it. They want to meet someone and get married, or they have young wives, and want a more settled family life. The short interval between tours is very disruptive."
The most damaging impact on the Army, he added, was to training. "There should be two years between tours, 12 months of which is spent in training. People say, 'Surely they can train on operations?' but that's wrong. Bad practices creep in, which could be dangerous in the future. How long can this kind of pressure be sustained, before we see harmful effects from lack of training? A couple of years at the most."
The pullout from Iraq is slower than military commanders would wish, but even if it was completed by October, as the Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell recently demanded, it would not ease the pressures.
"Everyone tells me that we need at least 5,000 more troops in southern Afghanistan," said General Cordingley. He is among several commanders, both serving and retired, who believe the only solution in the longer term is an expansion of the Army from its present strength of just under 105,000.
"We need an army of about 120,000, including a lot more infantry soldiers," he said.
Rifleman who gave his life for £15,000 a year
Rifleman Daniel Coffey: killed in a roadside ambush:
The family of Rifleman Daniel Coffey, who died in Iraq last week, have labelled the war "stupid" and "needless".
Rifleman "Beaney" Coffey, of 2nd Battalion, the Rifles, died from injuries sustained while protecting colleagues from an ambush on Tuesday. He was providing top cover for his patrol vehicle on its way back to the Shatt al-Arab hotel when it came under small-arms fire. He was just 21. His mother, Sally Prowse, who was in hospital for a knee operation, received a text from her son shortly before he died. In it Rifleman Coffey said: "Text me cos I am in Iraq but how are you now? Feeling better? Message me when you can ok. Dan"
David Godfrey said his grandson's death made him question why British troops are in Iraq: "What has been gained? The answer is nothing. This war should not be happening. It is a mess." The soldier's father, Nigel Coffey, told The Independent on Sunday: "We want people to know how we feel. My boy was killed in a stupid war that I don't agree with."
Rifleman Coffey was on his second tour in Iraq. The Exeter-born soldier called home last Saturday to say he would be back in three weeks. "The boy meant everything to me. He was my life," his father said.
The soldier's death, which takes the total number of British servicemen killed in action in Iraq since 2003 to 103, occurred in a week when it was announced that the lowest ranks would receive a 9.2 per cent pay rise, taking basic pay to between £15,577 and £26,664 a year.
The General who may break ranks for £900,000
General Sir Mike Jackson, who retired as head of the Army last summer, was reported last week to have been paid close to £900,000 for his memoirs, due to be published in September. For that sum he will be under pressure to be very outspoken.
Despite his robust reputation - commanding the Nato move into Kosovo in 1999, he told US General Wesley Clark that he was "not going to start World War III for you" when ordered to prevent Russian troops taking control of Pristina airport - Sir Mike was criticised for not facing up to Tony Blair over Iraq. Nor was he heard to complain publicly about "overstretch", as his successor, General Sir Richard Dannatt, did so spectacularly last October.
Sir Mike took over as Chief of the General Staff on the eve of the Iraq war, and unquestionably knows every detail of the flawed build-up, as well as the failures that followed the military victory.
An inquest into the death of Sergeant Steven Roberts, killed when he was ordered to hand over his body armour to another soldier, heard a tape that Sgt Roberts recorded three days before his death, accusing Sir Mike of telling "a blatant lie" when he said British troops were ready for war in Iraq. Will the general shed any further light on issues such as these?
Although he has criticised the MoD since his retirement, it was in somewhat convoluted terms. In Michael Cockerell's current BBC series on Mr Blair, Sir Mike appears quite sympathetic to the Prime Minister's "frustrating" position as junior partner in the Iraq coalition.
* - Figure includes troops deployed in Iraq
Since the end of the war in April 2003, they have been helping to restore essential infrastructure and services and provide security.
UK forces are largely based in the south of the country, mainly in Basra.
Although Basra is regarded as being more peaceful than the volatile capital Baghdad, a recent upsurge in violence has put British forces at the front line more often.
Prime Minister Tony Blair said in February 2007 that some 1,600 troops would be withdrawn within the next few months.
The announcement followed the completion of Operation Sinbad which was designed to put Iraqis in charge of Basra's security.
The withdrawal will bring the total number of troops to 5,500, with hopes that another 500 will leave by late summer.
But Mr Blair stressed Britain's commitment would be maintained as long as it was needed, with remaining personnel staying into 2008 to give back-up, training and to secure borders.
The UK plans to have some 7,700 troops stationed in Afghanistan by summer 2007.
Most of them will be stationed in the volatile southern province of Helmand, where UK forces have been fighting the Taleban.
Nato commanders have said they need more soldiers to tackle an expected spring offensive by the Taleban.
British troops were part of the Nato effort to rebuild the country's infrastructure, following a US-led invasion in October 2001.
Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) mission will number about 15,000 soldiers when it reaches its peak.
More than 600 troops, mostly Welsh guards, will leave Bosnia-Hecegovina because of the improved security situation, the UK government announced on 1 March 2007.
That will leave a small number of staff officers, who will remain to help provide stability.
A European Union-led force, Eufor, is responsible for safeguarding peace and stability following the inter-ethnic war of 1992-95, in which about 250,000 people died.
A small deployment remains in Kosovo, helping to provide stability following the end of the conflict of the late 1990s.
The province is administered by the UN, which is working to reconcile the majority ethnic Albanians and the Serb minority.
In March 2005, extra British troops were sent to the province at the request of Nato following renewed tension.
The Ministry of Defence is involved in supporting a wide range of United Nations missions in countries around the world.
About 300 British troops are deployed as part of the UN operations, in countries including Sierra Leone, Cyprus, Congo, Sudan, Liberia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Georgia.
According to the MoD earlier this year: "The mission of the armed forces in Northern Ireland is to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland in the defeat of terrorism and the maintenance of Public Order in order to assist Her Majesty's government's objective of returning Northern Ireland to normality."
Although much smaller than its deployment in Germany at the height of the Cold War, the UK retains about 22,500 troops in the country - its largest overseas contingent by far. Some 7,200 personnel based in Germany are currently deployed in Iraq.
Germany provides an important base for training and many of the troops are involved in the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, of which Britain is the lead nation.
Although Cyprus has been an independent republic since the 1960s, Britain retains two areas of sovereign territory on the island which it uses as bases for 3,100 troops.
Covering 98 square miles, the bases are used to give the UK a foothold at a strategic point in the Mediterranean.
In particular, the MoD describes RAF Akrotiri as "an important staging post for military aircraft".
Nearly 25 years after the end of the Falklands War, Britain retains a strong presence on the islands, with more than 1,000 troops stationed there.
While the status of the British Overseas Territory is still disputed by Argentina, the personnel are also involved in tasks including road building and mine clearance.
The British troops there are linked to the UK by regular flights to RAF Brize Norton and a six-weekly cargo ship from the MoD.
Considered an important base in the Mediterranean, Gibraltar is home to more than 560 British troops.
The MoD says the Rock is "well situated to observe shipping channels through the straits and it could dominate the western entrance to the Mediterranean in time of war".
The British territory of Diego Garcia, in the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean, has been a military base since the island was leased to the US in the 1970s.
About 40 British personnel are stationed at the base at any one time.
Late last year, a small force was deployed to Ivory Coast to evacuate British citizens as violence flared.
Such "one-off" operations often fall to the military, requiring the rapid deployment of personnel.
Other overseas deployments include training, exchanges and "loans" to armed forces in countries like Belize, Brunei, Canada, Kenya, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
By LOLITA C. BALDOR, Associated Press Writer
Faced with a military buildup in Iraq that could drag into next year,officials are trying to identify enough units to keep up to 20 brigade combat teams in Iraq. A brigade usually has about 3,500 troops.
The likely result will be extending the deployments of brigades scheduled to come home at the end of the summer, and sending others earlier than scheduled.Final decisions — which have not yet been made — would come as Congress is considering ways to force to wind down the war, despite his vow that he would veto such legislation.
In the freshest indication of the relentless demands for troops in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, commander of coalition forces in the north, told reporters Friday that his troops have picked up the pace of their attacks on the enemy in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad.
"Could I use more forces? No question about it," Mixon said, adding that he had asked for more.
The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, said a day earlier that it was likely that additional U.S. forces will be shifted to areas outside the capital where militants are regrouping, including Diyala. The region has become an increasingly important staging ground for militant groups, including al-Qaida in Iraq.
"There have been about 30 percent more offensive actions and attacks. Many of those are initiated by us; some are initiated by them," Petraeus said from a military base outside of Tikrit. "I am cautiously optimistic that in the next 30 to 60 days that we're going to see some significant differences in the security situation in Diyala."
If not, he said, he'll go back and ask for still more support.
Petraeus said Thursday that the U.S. buildup in Iraq would need to be sustained "for some time well beyond the summer" to garner the needed results.
Maintaining increased troop levels, said military officials, will require troops to return for what could be their second or third tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, and force military leaders to juggle the schedules to give soldiers a full 12 months at home before returning to battle.
The officials would speak only on condition of anonymity, because no final decisions have been made and no formal requests for the forces have come from commanders in Iraq. But they said it is beginning to appear likely that Petraeus will ask to maintain much of the buildup at least through the end of the year, and possibly into 2008.
One official said planners are scrambling to figure out what combination of units and schedules can be fashioned that could give Petraeus what he wants and have the least negative impact on the troops.
The complex scheduling must identify which units would have been home for 12 months and be trained and ready to go, plus whether the needed equipment would be available and what impact a schedule change has on other plans for the equipment or troops months down the road.
Combat troops, meanwhile, are coming to realize that the Pentagon can't fulfill its commitment to give soldiers two years at home for every year they spend deployed.
At Fort Drum, N.Y., the 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division is already training for a return to Iraq this summer. The brigade, which spent a year in Iraq and got home last summer, is not yet on any official list of units scheduled to deploy, but it's likely to go in late summer.
"It's prudent planning for us to be prepared to go back in a year," said Fort Drum spokesman Ben Abel.
Military officials also acknowledge that units scheduled to come home later this summer — such as the 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division — could be forced to extend their tours by up to 120 days to maintain the Baghdad security buildup.
Initially, the Bush plan called for sending 21,500 extra U.S. combat troops to Iraq — mainly to Baghdad — with the last of five brigades arriving by June. So far two of the brigades have arrived in Iraq. The latest estimates indicate that up 7,000 support troops may also be needed, including more than 2,000 military police.
Associated Press Writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report
On the Net:
Defense Department: http://www.defenselink.mil
By Mariam Karouny
Maliki said Iraq needed its neighbors' support to stem Shi'ite-Sunni sectarian violence spilling over to other countries in the region.
Two mortar rounds crashed near the conference building shortly after talks began, and a suicide car bomber killed six Iraqi soldiers and wounded about 20 others in another day of violence in the capital.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said at the end of the meeting the talks had achieved good results and that U.S. and Iranian delegates did engage in discussions but only about their relations in Iraq.
"The meeting was constructive and positive in fact in its atmosphere and the composition," Zebari told a news conference. "The issues discussed in the meeting were totally focused on Iraq's security and stability."The U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said U.S. Secretary would attend a planned ministerial meeting of regional and world powers on Iraq expected to be held in Istanbul in April.
He said he talked directly to Iranian delegates as well as in a group setting but the top Iranian official said he had no one-to-one talks with U.S. officials during the meeting.The conference brought together mid-level officials from Iraq's neighbors, the permanent members -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- and Arab countries.
"There were no one-to-one meetings, everything was in the framework of the meeting," Abbas Araghchi, Iran's deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs, told a news conference. "There were no direct talks between us and the Americans." He described the discussions as constructive.
He called on U.S. troops to withdraw from the country, saying they were fuelling a cycle of violence.
"FORCES OF TERROR"Iraq called the meeting to rally regional support to stop the sectarian violence threatening to tear the country apart, has killed tens of thousands and driven some 2 million abroad since a U.S.-led invasion four years ago toppled .
In his opening speech, Maliki said all those with a stake in peace of the Middle East should stand firm against terrorism in Iraq.
"We call on all to take moral responsibility by adopting a strong and clear stance against terrorism in Iraq and cooperate in stamping out forces of terror," Maliki said.
"Confronting terrorism means halting any form of financial support and media or religious backing, as well as logistical support and the flow of arms and men who transform themselves into bombs that kill our children, women and elders, and destroy our mosques and churches," he added.
Washington has accused Iran and Syria of fomenting violence in Iraq, charges both countries deny. Security officials in the region say Sunni extremists from neighboring Saudi Arabia and Syria are also entering Iraq.
Iran is a key ally of the Shi'ite majority in Iraq, while Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states have been traditional allies of the Sunni minority.
Khalilzad urged Iraq's neighbors to do more to stop the flow of fighters, weapons and sectarian propaganda contributing to the violence, saying the future of Iraq and the Middle East was the defining issue of the moment.
"No country represented at the table would benefit from a disintegrated Iraq; indeed, all would suffer badly," he said.
Besides finding ways to stop the killings in Iraq, the meeting was a rare opportunity for old foes the United States, Iran and Syria to sit at the same table.
Washington, which has no diplomatic relations with Iran, has had contacts with Iranian officials in group settings, including as recently as September, but has resisted bilateral talks.
The United States has diplomatic relations with Syria but withdrew its ambassador to Damascus in early 2005 and has not had high-level contacts for the past two years.
Iranian delegates demanded the release of several Iranians captured by U.S. forces in Iraq in recent months, while U.S. diplomats urged all countries present to work harder to support the political process in Iraq, a source at the talks said.
It also coincided with a major security operation launched by the Maliki government to crack down on sectarian militias and death squads.
By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Tomas Young was 22 years old and working as a waiter for a Kansas City-area eatery in 2001 when attacks on the World Trade Center spurred him to a patriotic act."I wanted to go to to exact some retribution on the people who attacked us," said Young, who joined the Army days after the September 11 attacks.
As Congress and the Bush administration wrangle over how and when to bring an end to the U.S. war in Iraq, war supporters are also active. They describe opponents as "leftist propagandists" hurting military morale and undermining the U.S. mission.
Both sides are writing letters, lobbying Congress and holding rallies. On the March 17-18 weekend they will march on Washington to mark the fourth anniversary of the invasion.
The anti-war movement has yet to reach the scale of the Vietnam War protests of the 1960s and 1970s. Most fledgling Iraq war activists say they are speaking out because the war is affecting so many soldiers' family members and friends.
GROWING MEMBERSHIPGroups such as Military Families Speak Out and Families of the Fallen for Change, founded by parents of soldiers sent to Iraq, say they have been adding members rapidly, particularly since announced in January plans to send thousands of additional troops to Iraq.
"The ongoing death and destruction and wrong direction that this war is leading in is causing more and more military families to speak out and say bring the troops home now," said Nancy Lessin, stepmother of a U.S. soldier and co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, which has 3,300 members.
Rebecca Davis of Brewer, Maine, is also a military mom, with three sons who have served in Iraq. She has formed "Military Families Voice of Victory" with a counter view.
"Everybody in the world worries that their son or daughter needs to be safe. ... But you don't try to pull them out because their job is too hard," she said. "We want to see them succeed."
Soldiers themselves, both active-duty and veterans, are increasingly engaging in the debate.
More than 1,700 active duty, reserve, and guard service members have signed a petition to Congress called "An Appeal for Redress," started last year to urge a "prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq."
On the flip side, at least 1,500 soldiers are supporting an "Appeal for Courage" asking Congress to "fully support our mission in Iraq and halt any calls for retreat."
Jason Nichols, a navy lieutenant stationed in Baghdad, said he started the petition last month.
"We feel premature calls for withdrawal hurt our mission and increase our risk," Nichols said.
TAKING STANDS ON BOTH SIDES
Other soldiers and former soldiers also are taking stands. One group, Iraq Veterans Against the War, has been touring U.S. cities warning young people of the dangers of joining the military, and a group called Move America Forward launched on Thursday its own cross-country caravan in support of the war with the slogan "These Colors Don't Run."
Gathering of Eagles, another group supporting the war, is planning its own protests in Washington March 17.
Karen Cunningham, assistant professor of applied conflict management at Kent State University, said people who typically stay away from politics are being spurred to action as deaths, injuries and questions about the war mount.
"People are now speaking up, forming groups, getting involved ... who might not normally have been involved in these sorts of things," Cunningham said. "That tends to happen as things hit closer to home."
According to a new Zogby International poll, an estimated 45 percent of Americans know someone affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ten percent said their family has been personally affected by the death or injury of a soldier.
For Meghan Geshel, 26, the war hit home in December when her husband of five years was deployed to Iraq. She is not sure when their 2-year-old will see her father again.
"We never should have gone into Iraq," said Geshel, who plans to pass out anti-war buttons and pamphlets at a protest rally this month. "The world is more dangerous today because of the mistakes we've made in Iraq. I'm trying to do my part to make things safer for my family and the world."
By Mariam Karouny Sun Mar 11, 10:09 AM ET
The pilgrims had been returning from the holy city of Kerbala, south of Baghdad, where millions gathered over the weekend for a major Shi'ite ritual despite attacks by suspected Sunni Arab insurgents that have killed scores.
A suicide bomber blew himself up on a minibus, killing 10 people and wounding eight, in northeastern Baghdad near the Shi'ite militia stronghold Sadr City police said.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki urged regional and world powers at a conference in Baghdad on Saturday to do all they could to help end sectarian violence which threatens to plunge Iraq into all-out civil war and spread over the region.Saturday's meeting was a rare opportunity for Washington and its adversaries Tehran and Damascus to sit together at the same table. Washington accuses and Shi'ite, non-Arab of supporting militants in Iraq, a charge they deny.
Iran said on Sunday it backed any efforts to quell violence in Iraq and described the regional meeting as a "good step."
"We support any efforts that will bring Iraq out of its current problems ... and help the Iraqi security. Iran will be the first supporter of this plan," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said.
Syrian state-controlled newspapers said Damascus supported a "political solution" to end violence in Iraq.
By ROBERT H. REID, Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD - With violence down in Baghdad, U.S. troops will fan out into communities on the rim of the capital to shut down car bomb factories, which remain a threat despite a recent drop in execution-style killings in the city, the U.S. military said Monday.
At least 55 people have been killed by bombs in Baghdad over the last three days, including three security guards who died Monday in a blast targeting an Agriculture Ministry convoy.
Chief U.S. spokesman Maj. Gen. William C. Caldwell said most of the car bombs and improvised explosive devices — the military's term for roadside bombs — are believed to be assembled in makeshift factories in towns just outside the capital.
"And that's where the greater presence of these forces will go," Caldwell said without elaborating or giving a timeframe.
U.S. officers have said Baghdad, a city of about 6 million, cannot be secured without extending the security operation into communities that control major highways into the capital. Many Sunni and Shiite extremists are believed to have withdrawn to those outlying areas since the U.S.-led security crackdown began in Baghdad on Feb. 14.
Late Monday, thunderous explosions could be heard from the south of the city, and Arab television stations said U.S. forces were shelling two mostly Sunni districts near the Dora neighborhood — the scene of several bombardments in recent weeks.
At a news conference, Caldwell said U.S. and Iraqi troops have destroyed "two or three" car bomb factories since the Baghdad security operation began.
But that has not stopped the bombers.
On Sunday, an explosives-laden car rammed a flatbed truck packed with Shiite pilgrims, killing 32 people in the mostly Shiite neighborhood of Karradah. The day before, 20 people died in a car bombing about 300 yards from a joint U.S.-Iraqi security station in Sadr City, stronghold of the Mahdi Army of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Hundreds of Shiites turned out Monday for funerals of victims of Sunday's blast. They marched alongside 10 caskets placed on top of minivans, beating their chests and shouting, "There is no God but Allah."
One man sat atop a minivan, his head lowered, holding the photograph of a victim.
The blast that hit the Agriculture Ministry convoy occurred in the southeastern Baghdad district of Zayouna, killing three security guards and wounding one, officials said.
An Iraqi-U.S. patrol was targeted Monday by two roadside bombs detonated about 150 feet apart in western Baghdad, wounding two civilians, police said. It was not clear if any soldiers were injured.
The security crackdown has seen a decline in execution-style killings, random shootings and rocket attacks, in large part because Shiite political parties have been successful in convincing Shiite militias to pull fighters off the streets to avoid a showdown with American troops.
On Monday, police found nine bullet-riddled bodies in Baghdad — apparent victims of Sunni-Shiite reprisal killings. Before the security crackdown, the daily count was running above 50.
However, Sunni extremists have continued their car bombings and suicide attacks, apparently seeking to draw Shiite gunmen back into the streets. That would provoke an armed confrontation between the Americans and the Shiite militias, which drove tens of thousands of Sunnis from the city during last year's sectarian bloodletting.
Despite recent improvements in security, the bombings have proven frustrating for many residents after nearly four years of explosions, shootings, kidnappings and sectarian murders. Each blast brings fresh complaints that the security crackdown has not ended the carnage.
At the news conference, Caldwell urged the public to be patient. He said only two of the five U.S. Army brigades earmarked for the crackdown are operating in the city and a third is beginning to arrive in Kuwait.
"But the buildup will continue through the spring time, and it will be late May before all the forces are here in the Baghdad area," he said.
During a meeting Monday with provincial governors, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said extremists would flee to the hinterlands "as we put pressure on the terrorist organizations in Baghdad."
"Some of these gangs fled to the provinces and have become active recently, targeting innocent people and committing random murders," al-Maliki said. "So the role of security services in the provinces is very important. The government is ready to offer the necessary help. We are beginning to confront terrorism, and we must continue to do so."
Outside the capital, a suicide car bomber detonated explosives near an Iraqi checkpoint in Ramadi, killing himself and wounding 15 people, mostly civilians, the U.S. military said. Iraqi troops opened fire and disabled the vehicle far enough from the checkpoint to prevent more casualties, the military said.
Police in Wasit province, southeast of Baghdad, recovered five bodies from the Tigris River, two of them decapitated, officials said. One of the bodies was a woman wearing a gold necklace and earrings who had been shot in the head, police said.In northern , gunmen assassinated the director of a government irrigation project, police reported. A mortar shell also exploded at the headquarters of President Jalal Talabani's Kurdish party in Mosul, wounding four guards.
13 Mar 2007
By: Alex Thomson
Iraqi premier Nuri al-Maliki today met tribal leaders and officials on his first visit to Ramadi, in Iraq's Sunni heartland.
Iraq's Shi'ite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, this morning began his first visit to the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency.
is meeting tribal leaders, local government officials and commanders of
Iraqi and US security forces in the western city of Ramadi, the capital
of the Anbar province, 68 miles west of Baghdad.
His key meeting will be with Sheik Abdul Sattar, the man who is leading an extraordinary tribal war against al-Qaida, which has controlled the province for the last three years.
Channel 4 News has gained unprecedented access to the region and its key players.
One soldier pleaded guilty to a single charge at the start of the latest case before all the charges that were subject to trial were thrown out. The panel acquitted the final two soldiers of neglect of duty on Tuesday.
Lawyers representing soldiers and victims attacked the handling of the case.
"The outcome is a travesty. It gives the victims nothing," said Phil Shiner, who represents victims. "It may be too late now to find out who really killed Baha Musa. It is not too late to learn the lessons from this incident."
Gilbert Blades, who represented one of the accused, said the case should never have reached trial after one soldier pleaded guilty, and blamed the government for pushing for it.
"They've come unstuck every time they've dealt with this sort of case," he said.
Two earlier courts martial in separate cases of prisoners' deaths also collapsed without convictions after running for months and costing millions of pounds.
Musa, a 26-year-old father of two, died in British custody in September 2003 after receiving 93 separate injuries as one of a group of 10 Iraqis subjected to two days of fierce beatings.
Surviving victims said they could not identify their attackers because they were kept hooded during the abuse.
Corporal Donald Payne, who was restraining Musa when he died, pleaded guilty to abusing prisoners under a new war crimes law, becoming Britain's first war criminal.
Judge Stuart McKinnon threw out a manslaughter charge against Payne and all charges against four others, including commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Jorge Mendonca, the most senior officer to face a court martial in modern times.
On Tuesday the panel cleared the final two defendants, Major Michael Peebles and Warrant Officer Mark Davies, of neglecting their duties.
"CLOSING OF THE RANKS"
The judge said there was no evidence the soldiers being prosecuted were actually those who administered the beatings. He blamed a "more or less obvious closing of the ranks" for the failure of the guilty to be identified.
McKinnon also said he had thrown out the case against Mendonca because evidence showed that the headquarters above him had approved the illegal abuse.
Prisoners were kept in "stress positions" and hooded for long periods to "condition" them for interrogations, practices which Britain considers illegal.
"It is now effectively common ground that brigade did indeed sanction the use of hooding and stress positions," McKinnon said. "That obviously contributed to the favourable result for Colonel Mendonca."
The Ministry of Defence said in a statement it would examine the "serious implications" of the trial and learn any necessary lessons. A spokesman declined to comment on the allegation that commanders had approved the abuse.
|| By Andrew North
BBC News, Baghdad
CALM BUT STRANGE
It was an incongruous sight - out of kilter with any of the usual images of this place.
An American soldier on his own contentedly munching an ice-cream on a Baghdad street.
We were spending a few days with his unit, one of the "surge" units sent in by US President George W Bush for the new security plan.
But it is one illustration of the strange atmosphere here right now, a month after the security got going.
Much of Baghdad is noticeably calmer, but this is strange, because no-one is quite sure yet what it means and whether they can believe it.
A month ago, we were being woken every morning in the part of the city where we live by mortar and gunfire, which then carried on through the day.
Now I hear those sounds only every few days.
The number of attacks in the city itself is down.
The daily count of corpses retrieved from rubbish tips, roadsides and the river Tigris - most of them victims of sectarian death squads - has more than halved.
"More people are going out," said Jassem, the owner of the shop where the American bought his ice-cream.
"They're still scared, but they feel safer than they did a few weeks ago. We just hope it will last."
That, of course, is the question.
Even though some pro-war commentators in the US are already jumping on these positive signs to attack the anti-war lobby, the reality is that it is far too early to say.
There are plenty of reasons for caution. Many of the insurgents and militia fighters are simply lying low.
While the violence may have dropped off in the city, it has risen in the volatile mixed areas bordering Baghdad.
And as the rash of dreadful bombings aimed at Shia pilgrims last week showed, some groups are as determined as ever to commit mass casualty attacks.
They still see sparking a civil war as one of their best hopes of bringing down the government.
Over the past four years, it is the pessimists who have usually been right here, not the optimists. So Iraqis are hoping for the best, but still in their minds ready for the worst.
'HEARTS AND MINDS' SOLDIERING
The security plan has meant a change of tactics by the Americans.
They are doing more foot patrols and setting up more and smaller bases around Baghdad.
To some extent, they are copying the so-called "ink blot" strategy British forces have tried against the Taleban in southern Afghanistan, although with at times controversial results.
The idea is that from these bases, security will gradually spread outwards - like an ink blot - and join up other improving areas.
In the British model, the remote bases are known as platoon houses.
The equivalent in Baghdad are "combat outposts" in local neighbourhoods. Iraqi police and army troops are also being deployed there.
But as the British have found, these smaller bases are more vulnerable to attack.
And if in defending them, civilians in the vicinity are killed and injured, any benefits of having the local presence are likely to be cancelled out.
In one sensitive town, where the British base came under constant fire, commanders eventually negotiated a pullout.
One reason for the relative quiet in parts of Baghdad right now may well be because insurgents are simply watching these newly emerging bases and US tactics, working out how to respond.
Patrolling on foot, or dismounted, as the Americans call it, is similarly risky.
But in some parts of Baghdad, US troops are now doing this every day.
We joined a unit from the 82nd Airborne Division as they patrolled through Kadhimiyah, one of the few Shia areas of north-west Baghdad - an area that has often been hit by attacks from Sunni insurgents in the past.
"The best way to establish a rapport with the locals in this area is to walk around and talk to them," said their commander, Capt David Bruais.
"Just driving around, staying in vehicles all the time, really doesn't cut it."
That is what most Iraqis here are used to seeing - Americans peering out at them in dark shades from heavily armoured vehicles, sirens blaring, gunners shouting at traffic to get out of the way - because of fears passing cars may be suicide bombers.
People in Kadhimiyah were still getting used to seeing his men on the streets, he admitted. "The dismounted really is something new for this area."
While there were suspicious and sullen faces, the soldiers also received a welcome from many people as they picked their way through the narrow lanes around the golden-domed mosque complex at the heart of Kadhimiyah, Baghdad's most important Shia shrine.
"It is good to see the Americans," a man selling shoes told me. "We don't want them to stay forever, but if they can bring back security that is good."
But this kind of "hearts and minds" soldiering does not come naturally to some of the troops.
It was rare to hear them offering simple and easily-learned Arabic greetings such as "asalaam aleikum".
Literally it means "peace be upon you" and it is a commonplace way of addressing someone. Those that did got an immediate response.
The soldier working with the unit's interpreter was engaging people in conversation. But many of his comrades walked on with little acknowledgement of those around them.
Something else that has become clear from the time we spent with US troops in recent months is how exhausted many are.
Meeting soldiers or marines on their fourth tour is no longer unusual.
"We've had enough of this place," one soldier said to me wearily. That is something you hear all the time.
But in his case, it was hardly surprising. His unit is one of those that had been "turned round".
Just two weeks after getting home to the US after an eight-month tour, they had been sent back again, as part of Mr Bush's "surge" plan. Now they have no idea when they will be going home.
They will follow their orders. As another soldier said: "We can't complain too much, we signed up for this."
But this is an army that is tired.
'EVERYONE HATES US'
"I was leaving the base to visit my family," the translator said.
"There were men at the gate in a car. They opened fire. I was on a motorbike, so I managed to get away. But I was hit in the leg."
He pulled up a trouser leg to show me the scar as we sat talking with some of his colleagues at an American base.
|| I don't know where the happy
It is an all too common story. Few people are more at risk here than Iraqis who choose to work with American troops.
Translators are top of the hit list for insurgents and militias alike.
They are seen as collaborators, the communications link between Iraqis and the occupiers.
But they are essential to US operations here - with few soldiers having much Arabic or knowledge of local customs, translators are the ears and even eyes for many units, particularly in urban areas.
The US military employs thousands across the country.
The rewards are salaries far above the Iraqi average - although still well below Western levels - but set against a very high chance of being killed.
Many have been killed by snipers, who pick them out from the American soldiers.
Even though they mostly wear the same uniforms, the masks they wear to cover their faces still give them away.
In the most dangerous parts of Baghdad, they often stay inside vehicles such is the risk.
Many translators now feel trapped in jobs they took on two or three years ago, never expecting the situation to get so bad.
"We can't do anything else now," said Ali, the man who had escaped on his motorbike. "Everybody hates us, the insurgents, the militia, other Iraqis.
"I'm like a thief when I visit my family," said his friend Nuri. "I can only go out at night. No-one knows when I am coming."
He was moved to Baghdad from another base by the Americans, after his face was shown on a local television news report. "The next day I received a death threat. We left the same day."
Some no longer see their families at all, terrified that they will be targeted too.
"We lie to our friends about what we do," Ali continued. "We tell them we are working in the north or south with contractors. But here we are, just a few miles away from our families."
After criticism it was being hard-hearted in restricting the number of visas it was granting to Iraqis, the US government recently announced an increase in the quota to 7,000 per year.
Priority is reportedly being given to people who have worked with the US government.
But they still have to apply. And that is not easy from inside a big, isolated American base, when travelling outside may get them killed.
"I don't know where the happy door is," said a grim-faced Ali.
(NB: Names in this last piece have been changed.)
DAMASCUS, 14 MARCH
In Beirut there were bright blue gusty skies; in Riyadh the brilliant sunlight bleached the landscape, sucking colour from wherever it may have been hiding.
But now in Damascus the sky alternates between a cool blue and a leaden grey; early in the morning light rain spits down on the souk.
And, just as the weather has turned, so has the purpose of Javier Solana's trip.
In Lebanon and Saudi Arabia he was in listening mode. Now he has come to tell the Syrians what they need to do if they want to end the isolation of their country.
Inside the surprisingly small Foreign Ministry, the camera crews are led inside in batches of five. All the while Mr Solana chats and banters. It all takes some time
It is not entirely clear why all the stations need their own shots. "They are," says one foreign embassy observer, "all controlled by the government."
Mr Solana sits opposite the Syrian foreign minister, on either side sit the various deputies and press officers. In the middle of everything, watching over the proceedings, is the standard colour portrait of the President Bashar al-Assad.
President Assad would have been an ophthalmologist but was instead thrust into the curious role of hereditary president of what is nominally a republic.
His portrait is pretty much everywhere - in every government office, in most open spaces, as you arrive at the airport, as you leave the airport. He looks very young to be a dictator, but then, no one has ever said there is a minimum age requirement.
It is when we get to one of the presidential palaces, way up in the hills, well away from the grime and traffic of Damascus, that some of the style of the presidency becomes clear.
Immaculately manicured gardens surround the palace; a kilometre-long drive, perfectly straight, leads up to a huge stone portico. Inside, a vast hallway stretches off into the distance, bisected by a red carpet. White marble is the order of the day.
A guard shushes bystanders off the carpet; it is for Mr Solana, not low-life journalists. But when, rather than sully it with my shabby brogues, I leap across it, the guard breaks out into a broad subversive grin, the kind of grin that may be bad news for dictatorships.
When Mr Solana and the president do the pre-meeting publicity shot, the banter is painfully forced.
"Where have you been before here?" asks the president. "Lebanon," replies Mr Solana, tactfully omitting any reference to the killing of Rafik Hariri - widely believed to have been at the instigation of the Syrian authorities - or the subsequent expulsion of the Syrian armed forces.
President Assad nods, looking more and more like the gawky teenager he must have been just a few years ago. And then it is time for a one-on-one between the two men.
Judging by the pre-meeting briefings - and the difference in the men's ages - you rather expect to overhear Mr Solana giving President Assad a good telling off, or the president promising that he will do better in the future. But international diplomacy is not like that.
The one-on-one lasts an hour and then Mr Solana makes the long walk down the ludicrous hallway and out into the grey Damascene day.
At the airport the farewell news conference descends into some good old-fashioned Middle East mayhem when the sound system takes on a life of its own.
The Syrian foreign minister, perhaps a little unused to the rough and tumble of accountable government, is unable to project his voice beyond his lectern and so a pack of journalists wheel and jostle to perch their microphones.
Mr Solana looks bemused. His beefy bodyguard looks alarmed. His spokeswoman looks like she is going to cry, or laugh, or both.
Then it is over; Mr Solana's jet is in the sky. Most on board are heading for home. But not Mr Solana. Instead, he is off to Nuremberg for another conference, another set of briefing notes, another hotel room.
RIYADH, 13 MARCH
There is no stopping Javier Solana.
Almost as soon as the EU policy chief's jet has taxied to a halt beside the bulk of Riyadh airport's Royal terminal, he is gone, whisked away into the hot night in a fleet of cars, on his way to brief ambassadors from EU countries.
Meanwhile the journalists who trail somewhat bleary-eyed in his wake are led through the silent terminal. It is too late to go to a restaurant, so the cars head for the diplomatic quarter.
Concrete blocks form a chicane which the vehicles have to snake through under the eyes of armed guards. A pick-up truck with a machine gun mounted on the back lurks under a tree.
Nearly every diplomat in Riyadh lives and works in this heavily protected area, where pink and white flowers bloom in the shadow of car-blocking concrete barriers.
It is nicer than Baghdad's Green Zone - a lot nicer - but there are uncomfortable parallels.
As the journalists stumble tie-less into the German ambassador's residence, there is Mr Solana, first bellowing into a mobile phone, then briefing nearly two dozen senior diplomats on progress so far, and plans for the next couple of days.
As the second day of the trip breaks there is a highly unusual lull.
The minister for internal security has cancelled a meeting and Mr Solana will spend an entire morning without getting in and out of convoys or making comments to the waiting media.
Suddenly lost for things to do, the journalists head for the sights of Riyadh. This is not a long trip.
On one side of the large empty square is a modern mosque; on another is the headquarters of the religious police, its upstairs windows heavily shuttered, those on the ground floor, mirrored.
Outside two sets of fountains rise out of the paving stones.
This, our guide informs us, is where criminals are beheaded after Friday prayers, in front of large crowds fresh from the mosque.
The machines selling soft drinks seem more than a little incongruous.
By early afternoon we are back on track. Mr Solana has a meeting with the Saudi foreign minister. Then there is a pause before an audience with the king.
The waiting takes place in the government guesthouse where visiting leaders stay.
"Guest house" gives the wrong impression. It is a six-storey government-owned hotel, with gilt-laden decor from the late 1970s, tinkling fountains and bad coffee.
Mr Solana's companions snooze on the not-very-comfortable sofas.
He of course does no such thing, but instead finds the only journalist in the Middle East who has not interviewed him in the last two days and gives him an interview.
The pause lengthens into a tedious wait.
But such is Saudi Arabia's new-found diplomatic prominence that South African President Thabo Mbeki just happens to be passing through with four ministers and 60 businessmen. There is an impromptu photo call with Mr Solana.
Then there is an unscheduled dinner with Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, who is dropping in for a chat with the Saudis.
Just as everyone is hunkering down for a long wait for the call to the palace, it comes.
There is the now routine scramble for cars, the weaving convoy in the packed Riyadh highways and then the palace.
The air outside is cloyingly sweet, heavy with smell of the flowers from the gardens that surround the huge building.
Inside there is a handshake and what one diplomat describes as "bilateral flattery". After half an hour or so Mr Solana is on his way out, smiling broadly.
The cars start up, exhaust fumes mingle with the thick odour of flowers, and another leg of the Middle East trip draws to a close.
RIYADH, 12 MARCH
Javier Solana is either on a cocktail of exotic stimulants or he has been cloned so that one version sleeps while the other is the EU's foreign policy chief, with some elaborate late-night swap every couple of days.
Things kick off at a military airport just outside Brussels.
It is just after dawn when the Belgian Air Force jet lifts off. The jet is one of those toys that some small boys - and nearly all grown men dream about.
It seats 12; there is a lot of wood and carpet; the lavatory has a cushioned cover.
Best of all, there is a table in the back of the cabin that unfolds from beneath the seats and then lifts electronically from the floor to seat height. Top Gear meets James Bond.
In the front sits Javier Solana, Marc Otte, the EU's Middle East envoy, and Mr Solana's spokeswoman, Christina Gallach - the only person in the world to work harder than Mr Solana.
For much of the flight they labour, yellow highlighters in hand, over piles of policy and position papers.
An attempt is being made to carve order out of the intricate mess that is the modern Middle East. On board the jet, there is a sense of calm, of purpose. And then we arrive in Beirut.
It is everything you have seen on the news. At least, it appears to be.
It is a little difficult to tell - because the seven or eight car convoy is being driven at around 110km/h (70mph) through the city streets, swerving from lane to lane, forcing other road users off the highway.
So there are snatched glimpses of pockmarked buildings, of posters of the murdered former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, of a rather large number of startled pedestrians.
But most of all there are the outstretched arms of the police outriders making the hand signal that is grossly offensive in some parts of the Middle East, that in others is the sign that you very much appreciate your meal - but here I am pretty sure it is an indication that the recipient should get out of the way and wait. Now.
This is a strange way to see a city.
Either Mr Solana's visit is a big deal or it is a slow news day. By the time his convoy screeches up to see Nabih Berri, the Hezbollah-aligned Speaker of parliament, there are more than two dozen camera crews waiting.
They duly wait for the entirely anodyne comment to emerge from Mr Solana - it could have been about the decor, it did not really matter - before there is another screeching convoy ride to the prime minister's Serail, or palace.
Mr Solana is whisked away, the last thing seen of him being a rather startled face in a wildly overcrowded lift.
In the grand inner courtyard of the Serail the SUVs of various ambassadors sit, whilst heavily built, shaven-headed bodyguards fiddle with their earpieces.
There is a whiff - just the slightest whiff - of Baghdad.
Mr Solana goes five or six rounds with the local press corps - which is notably more women than men - and then there is another insane drive around Beirut to pay homage to Rafik Hariri.
What was once his home is now a shrine; huge colour photographs of him hang on the walls or are perched on easels. In what must be the world's largest living room Mr Solana chats with Mr Hariri's son, Saad.
And then, after another quick word to the press, the convoy pelts to the airport. There is time to squeeze in one more interview - does the man never stop? - and then the jet is in the air.
As the sun sets in the distance, Javier Solana prepares for his next round of meetings, his spokeswoman's leopard-skin print coat draped over his legs for warmth.
He has also admitted providing financial support for attacks on British targets in Turkey.The admissions came in the transcript of a military hearing at the U.S. detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, released on Wednesday.
"I was responsible for the 9/11 Operation, from A to Z," Mohammed,
speaking through a personal representative, said according to the
transcript of the hearing on Saturday at the U.S. military's Guantanamo
Bay prison camp in Cuba.
by Jay Deshmukh Fri Mar 16, 2:30 PM ET
BAGHDAD (AFP) - Shiite protesters Friday demanded the removal of a US military base from Sadr City in east Baghdad as US commanders reported a surge of attacks on troops in a province near the capital.
More than a thousand unarmed but angry Shiites spilled out of mosques after Friday prayers to demand the base be removed from their Sadr City bastion, in the first sign of Shiite opposition to a new security plan.
The protests came a day after one of Sadr City's two mayors who negotiated with the Americans and welcomed the creation of the fortified base was shot and wounded by unidentified gunmen. A policeman travelling with him was killed."No, no to America. No, no to . No, no to Satan," the protesters chanted, their voices reverberating across the vast slum district in east Baghdad, a stronghold of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
US and Iraqi forces have been setting up joint security stations across Baghdad as part of the new plan to rein in the violence in Baghdad, including in Sadr city where US troops in 2004 fought bitter street battles with Sadr's black clad militias.
Since the crackdown began on February 14, however, the militia fighters have melted away offering no resistance.
But since the attack on the mayor, tension has begun to rise and a tract distributed among the crowds by Sadr's office denounced what it described as "bases for the occupier on the lands of Sadr City."Sadr himself was not present -- the US military believes he has gone to ground in Iraq's Shiite neighbour -- but supporters carried his portrait and read out a statement he had apparently sent to them.
"The occupiers wanted to distort the reputation of the city and issued propaganda saying there are talks and cooperation between you and them. I am confident that you regard them as your enemy," he said.
"Don't surrender to them. You are their betters," he added.
More then 90,000 Iraqi and US troops have been deployed around Baghdad as part of Operation Fardh al-Qanoon (Imposing Law), an ambitious plan to regain control of the city and quell sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites.
Since it was formally launched there has been little of the anticipated resistance and the city's murder rate is down sharply, although Sunni insurgents have continued to detonate car bombs almost daily.
But as Baghdad witnesses a lull in violence, its neighbouring province Diyala has begun to experience a surge of attacks on security forces.
Colonel David W. Sutherland from 3rd Brigade Combat team, 1st Cavalry Division in Diyala, said indirect fire attacks -- mortars and rockets -- against troops rose to 98 in February 2007 from 28 in July, direct fire attacks rose to 153 from 90, while at the same time sectarian attacks fell significantly.
"In July, 124 murders were reported and in February, 16 murders were reported. Sectarian violence has fallen by 70 percent," he said, stressing the reduction of sectarian attacks in the confessionally divided province.
Speaking to reporters in Baghdad by video conference from the provincial capital of Baquba, Sutherland said the attacks are being carried out by Al-Qaeda, rogue militias and Sunni insurgent groups.
"Terrorists are trying to disrupt operations of coalition forces and taking the fight off innocent civilians to security forces," he said.
In the face of the rising number of attacks, the US military recently boosted its troop strength in Diyala by despatching a battalion from the Stryker Brigade -- infantry equipped with 17-tonne armoured cars.Meanwhile, five people were reported killed in on Friday, including two policemen who died in a roadside bomb attack against their patrol in Iraq's oil city of Kirkuk.
A civilian was also killed when insurgents fired mortars at a Sunni mosque in Baghdad.
The US military also announced deaths of two more soldiers taking its losses since the March 2003 invasion to 3,211.
By LARA JAKES JORDAN, Associated Press Writer
Asked about the alert notice, the FBI's Rich Kolko said "there are no threats, no plots and no history leading us to believe there is any reason for concern," although law enforcement agencies around the country were asked to watch out for kids' safety.The bulletin, parts of which were read to The Associated Press, did not say how often foreign extremists have sought to acquire licenses to drive school buses, or where. It was sent Friday as part of what officials said was a routine FBI and Department advisory to local law enforcement.
It noted "recent suspicious activity" by foreigners who either drive school buses or are licensed to drive them, according to a counterterror official who read parts of the document to The Associated Press.
Foreigners under recent investigation include "some with ties to extremist groups" who have been able to "purchase buses and acquire licenses," the bulletin says.
But Homeland Security and the FBI "have no information indicating these individuals are involved in a terrorist plot against the homeland," it says. The memo also notes: "Most attempts by foreign nationals in the United States to acquire school bus licenses to drive them are legitimate."
Kolko said the bulletin was sent merely as an educational tool to help local police identify and respond to any suspicious activity.
It was not immediately clear whether the extremists intended to do with the school buses. One counterterror official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said it was likely that the foreigners investigated were merely employed as bus drivers, and did not intend to use them as part of any terror plot.
By ANNE FLAHERTY, Associated Press Writer 9 minutes ago
With more than 3,200 U.S. troops dead and still no clear way out, the political landscape could not be more different.
Public support for the war has fallen to its lowest levels. Republicans have lost control of Congress because of voters' angst over the conflict. Even the president has acknowledged the tactical approach to the war must change.
The debate on whether to launch a pre-emptive attack against a nation has given way to this question: How soon should U.S. troops leave?
"The war that we the Congress authorized the president to engage in is different than the one we're in today," acknowledged GOP Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Florida, an ardent Bush supporter whose seat Democrats are targeting in the 2008 elections.
With sectarian attacks on the rise in Iraq, "I think we have to have a very serious appraisal of how you conduct yourself in that type of situation," Young said.
Young is not alone in questioning whether the U.S. is on the right track. Bush's critics and supporters alike say the four years of violence and the death toll has led to soul-searching over how far Congress should go to intervene in a war that has gone badly.
White House officials and many legal experts contend the Constitution gives the president supreme authority on foreign policy matters and control of the armed forces, whereas Congress' clearest option is to cut off money.
Democrats, reluctant to restrict that money for fear of being accused of abandoning the troops, are considering laws that would set a deadline for the war.
If these bills pass, Bush is expected to veto the legislation or ignore it.
But how much longer the president can hold out is uncertain. His Jan. 10 announcement that he planned to send in 21,500 more combat troops found support among most Republicans. Yet even they say the clock is ticking.
"If this current strategy doesn't work, the options aren't good," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. If the violence continues, "you're going to see more and more people suggest we've got to do something different."
Such skepticism was rare in 2003 when the bombing began. Members of Congress lined up in support of the U.S.-led invasion; many were Democrats who did not want to appear reluctant to prevent another potential Sept. 11 attack.Among those who voted in favor of the war are some of Bush's chief critics, including Democratic presidential contenders , the former North Carolina senator, and Sen. , D-N.Y.
Since then, public sentiment toward the war has changed dramatically. Almost three-fourths of people in the U.S. supported the war when it began in March 2003, while one-fourth opposed it, according to Gallup polling at the time.
Last month, AP-Ipsos polling found that not quite four in 10 people surveyed agreed with the decision to go to war and six in 10 opposed — the same levels of support found by a recent Gallup poll.The inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq did not help in maintaining support for the war. The claim that possessed such weapons was a main justification the administration used for the war.
Military officials agree that the task of easing that bloodshed is best accomplished by Iraqi security forces, once they become capable.Other blows to the once-popular war effort were revelations of American forces abusing Iraqi prisoners at and the massacre of Iraqi civilians at Haditha. Most recently there have been reports of substandard care of wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
One political marker was last October when Virginia Sen. John Warner declared the war was "drifting sideways." A prominent Republican on military issues, Warner stood beside Bush in 2002 as the president signed into law the congressional authorization for the war.
But four years later, upon returning from a trip to Iraq, Warner said he had lost confidence that the Iraqi government was making progress and worried that sectarian violence had consumed Baghdad.
After the elections, Warner proposed a congressional resolution stating opposition to the president's plan to augment force levels. The resolution drowned amid partisan bickering and was never voted on, but it attracted enough Republican support to worry the White House that it was losing its support base.
In another sign of the changing times, news of al-Qaida member Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's confession that he masterminded Sept. 11 and plotted some 30 other attacks quickly gave way to another development. House Democrats won their first vote on a war spending bill that would demand the president pull troops out of Iraq before September 2008.
As that confrontation looms in the full House, Bush's supporters say they will continue to review their options to bring troops home.
Young says regardless of everything that has happened, he is not thinking of abandoning his president. But when asked if the war is winnable, Young's response was more one of optimism than anything else.
"It has to be" winnable, he said. "We can't let terrorists continue to threaten the United States."
By SAMEER N. YACOUB, Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD - March 17 - Three suicide bombers driving chlorine-laden trucks struck in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Anbar province, killing two policemen and forcing about 350 Iraqi civilians and six U.S. troops to seek treatment for exposure to the gas, the military said Saturday.The attacks came after back-to-back bombings last month released chlorine gas, prompting the U.S. military to warn that insurgents are adopting new tactics in a campaign to spread panic.
Just after 4 p.m. Friday, a driver detonated explosives in a pickup truck northeast of Ramadi, wounding one U.S. service member and one Iraqi civilian, the military said in a statement.
That was followed by a similar explosion about two hours later involving a dump truck south of Fallujah in Amiriyah that killed two policemen and left as many as 100 residents showing signs of chlorine exposure, with symptoms ranging from minor skin and lung irritations to vomiting, the military said.
A doctor, Mohammed Fuad, said many of the wounded were having difficulty breathing and their faces had a blue tinge.
Less than 10 miles away, another suicide bomber detonated a dump truck containing a 200-gallon chlorine tank rigged with explosives at 7:13 p.m., also south of Fallujah in the Albu Issa tribal region, the military said. U.S. forces responded to the attack and found about 250 local civilians, including seven children, suffering from symptoms related to chlorine exposure, according to the statement.
Insurgents have staged four other chlorine attacks since Jan. 28, when a suicide bomber driving a dump truck filled with explosives and a chlorine tank struck a quick reaction force and Iraqi police in Ramadi, killing 16 people.
The most recent attack occurred Feb. 21 in Baghdad, killing five people and sending more than 55 to hospitals, a day after a bomb planted on a chlorine tanker left more than 150 villagers stricken near Taji, 12 miles north of the capital.
A suicide car bombing in Ramadi involving chlorine also killed two Iraqi security forces wounded 16 other people, including 13 civilians on Feb. 19, the military said in a previously unannounced attack.
The military also said last month that they found a car bomb factory near Fallujah with about 65 propane tanks and ordinary chemicals it believed the insurgents were going to try to mix with explosives. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the chief U.S. military spokesman, called it a "crude attempt to raise the terror level."
Chlorine gas in low exposure irritates the respiratory system, eyes and skin, and death is possible with heavy exposure.
The strikes carried the hallmarks of an increasingly violent struggle for control of Anbar — a center for anti-U.S. guerrillas since the uprising in Fallujah in 2004 that galvanized the insurgency.
U.S. military envoys and pro-government leaders have worked hard to sway clan chiefs and other influential Anbar figures to turn against the militants, who include foreign jihadists fighting under the banner of al-Qaida in Iraq. The extremists have fought back with targeted killings and bombings against fellow Sunnis.
Bombings and shootings targeted police patrols elsewhere in Iraq, killing five policemen, including two who died after a suicide car bomber struck the checkpoint they were manning near a Sunni mosque in western Baghdad.
In all, at least 22 people were killed or found dead in Iraq, including five civilians shot to death in separate attacks in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad.
A U.S. soldier also was shot to death in fighting in the provincial capital of Baqouba, the military said, raising to at least 3,209 American service members who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Meanwhile, an aide said Sadr City Mayor Rahim al-Darraji was still in the hospital after being wounded in an assassination attempt on Thursday but his condition was improving.
"He is getting better. God willing, he will leave the hospital as soon as possible," said the aide, who referred to himself as Abu Zahraa and declined to give more details.
Al-Darraji has been involved in negotiations with U.S. and Iraqi government officials seeking to persuade the Shiite militias to tamp down the violence against Sunnis, but the efforts have created tension in the ranks of Shiite militiamen and some blamed the assault — which also killed two bodyguards — on a faction unhappy about cooperation with the U.S. military, a local Mahdi Army commander said Friday.
Further signaling resurgent anger and opposition to the U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown in the militia stronghold of Sadr City, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr decried U.S. forces as occupiers Friday and called on his followers to "shout 'No, No America!'"Thousands of Shiites flooded from the mosque where al-Sadr's statement was read by a preacher at Friday prayers, spilling into the streets of the Sadr City slum to protest the two-week-old American military presence there. The U.S. military says al-Sadr has gone to .
American military leaders had credited al-Sadr — who was said to have ordered his Mahdi Army militia to put away its weapons and not confront U.S. and Iraqi troops — for the relatively effortless start of security patrols and raids in the Shiite slum, a no-go zone for U.S. forces until about two weeks ago.
Al-Sadr's message on the Muslim day of prayer and rest could signal a shift in his willingness to absorb the perceived indignity of the U.S. troop presence and wait out the security plan. Or it could have been nothing more than a reminder to his followers that he was watching carefully and was still their leader.
"We have often seen differing political views or differing statements coming out of many of the political organizations here in Iraq, not just the Sadr bloc or al-Sadr's organization," U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said. "As we've said, we are, if anything, cautiously optimistic, but it's still very early."
Less than 40% of those polled said things were good in their lives, compared to 71% two years ago.
However, a majority of those questioned said that, despite daily violence, they did not believe Iraq was in a state of civil war.
More than 2,000 people took part in the BBC/ABC News poll.
There are also regional differences, with pessimism most keenly felt across central Iraq, including Baghdad, where Sunni Arabs are most numerous.
But despite their differences, 58% overall said they wanted Iraq to remain a unified country. Almost all said they did not want Iraqi to be broken up along sectarian lines.
The poll produced conflicting views on the role of the US and its allies.
Only 18% said they had confidence in US and coalition troops, and 51% said they thought attacks on coalition forces were justified.
However, only 35% said foreign troops should leave Iraq now. A further 63% said they should go only after security has improved.
The poll was commissioned by the BBC, ABC News, ARD German TV and USA Today. It was conducted by D3 Systems.
The findings contrast sharply with those of a similar poll in 2005, a year when elections were taking place.
Asked now whether they thought reconstruction efforts in Iraq had been effective, some 67% said they felt they had not.
And just 38% said the situation in the country was better than before the 2003 war, while 50% said it was worse.
Many said the quality of their lives was deteriorating, with a particularly high proportion (88%) saying electricity and fuel supplies were poor.
READ THE FINDINGS
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Security remains a serious concern, with only 26% saying they felt safe in their own neighbourhoods.
More than half of those polled said that they have not gone to markets or crowded areas and often stayed at home in order to avoid trouble.
Many said they often stopped their children from going to school.
Ethnic differences were particularly evident in attitudes towards the execution of Saddam Hussein, who was a Sunni leader in a predominantly Shia state.
WAS US RIGHT TO INVADE IRAQ?
Of Sunni Arabs questioned, more than 95% said they regarded the manner of his death as inappropriate and unlikely to help the cause of reconciliation.
Shias predominantly took the opposite view - 82% said the manner of death was appropriate.
But considerably fewer - 62% - thought his execution would lead to reconciliation.
A large number of Sunnis, 48%, said they thought Iraq should have a strong leader in five years' time, compared to 46% who said they wanted a democracy.
Only 11% of Shias sought a strong leader, with 52% calling for democracy and 37% for an Islamic state.
BBC News website world affairs correspondent
This latest survey of Iraqi opinion is a reminder to policy-makers in Washington, London and Baghdad of the strength of opposition to the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.
That level of hostility is what lies behind the unrest and what has led to the US reinforcement in Baghdad.
However, the administration might take some heart from the finding that people are not actually calling in overwhelming numbers for an immediate withdrawal. Those who want foreign troops to go immediately are still in a minority, though a growing one (35% compared with 26% in 2005). Most want the Americans to (somehow) restore security first.
And most Iraqis disapprove (by 88% to 12%) of attacks on Iraqi security forces.
The figures therefore do lend some support for the US belief that there is still a window open for stabilisation.
And Iraqis are still showing resilience, with substantial support for democracy (though down from 57% in 2005 to 43% now). However, many are interested in a "strong leader", appointed "for life" (34% compared to 26% last time). And there is still support for a unified Iraq, though with the Shias wanting far more regional devolution.
More worrying is the drop in optimism (from 64% in 2005 to 45% now), probably to be expected, and the sharp divisions between Shia and Sunnis.
|| The elite in Washington is
deeply pessimistic and only Bush and his colleagues are holding on
Reader in International Politics at London University
Sunnis are far more alienated, pessimistic and hostile. The figures are not a shock of course but they do show why the Americans are pressing the Iraqi government to take steps towards reconciliation.
Toby Dodge, Reader in International Politics at London University, believes the survey is useful.
"Given the restrictions on reporting in Iraq, it is invaluable to have a scientific, rigorous and detailed account of what Iraqis are thinking across the country," he said.
"The counter-intuitive optimism last time can be explained by the fact that it was an election year. That optimism has collapsed because the hoped-for results were not delivered but the pessimism is mildly expressed. Iraqis are accepting that it won't get much better any time soon."
Poll 'out of date'
Leading Shia politician Dr Humam Hamada, chairman of the Iraqi parliament's foreign affairs committee, has said he thinks the poll findings are out of date.
"Since this poll was taken the new security plan has been put into place and there is now hope not pessimism," he said on a visit to London as part of a committee delegation.
"The death rates are down and there are indications that the people recognise that there is a strong government and law and order. They are coming forward with information.
"There has been tribal co-operation against the al Qaeda terrorists, who have fabricated this war. This shows that the Iraqi people can co-exist. In addition, we have taken steps towards reconciliation."
'Desire for freedom'
However, a Sunni member of the delegation, Professor Selman al-Jumpily, indicated that he did not think the insurgency had been "fabricated".
"There is a popular rejection of foreign forces," he said.
"This is maybe more intense in the Sunni areas. I think the percentage may be correct. The rejection is both military and political. In political circles there is the desire for a free Iraq.
"We remember that Iraq was given its independence in 1932 and the same feeling of dignity is still with us."
The members of the delegation were united in their view that they did not want Iraq to split up - reflecting the poll findings.
Despite their unease about the presence of the foreign troops, they did not call for their withdrawal or even a timetable for departure.
"We need troops at key points and if more foreign troops are needed then they should be sent," Dr Hamoudi said.
"Any withdrawal is in the hands of the Iraqi government. It will be decided. A timetable for withdrawal is not in the interests of the Iraqi people."
The findings are unlikely to have much effect on the political debate in Washington. That is determined by the success or otherwise of the security campaign.
According to Toby Dodge, who gave evidence to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, the mood there is "heading towards cut-and-run."
"The elite in Washington is deeply pessimistic and only Bush and his colleagues are holding on," he said.
However, the Bush administration might still be encouraged by some of the findings - on Iraqi unity, on faith in democracy - though the verdict on the latest security operation, with its "surge" of US forces into Baghdad, remains out.
The opposition Democrats in the US Senate, by contrast, have tried and failed to pass legislation that would force President Bush to set a timetable for leaving Iraq.
Iraqi resilience showed through when the meeting with Dr Hamoudi and his delegation ended with an invitation:
"You must come to Iraq. It will be the centre of peace and prosperity in the region. It will be a focus for understanding not struggle."
|| Mr Hashemi said talks should be held with
anyone bar al-Qaeda
Five Iraqi policemen were also wounded in the battles, which went on for several hours.
Elsewhere, five insurgents died in a US raid on a bomb-making factory north of Baghdad, US military officials said.
The latest violence came as Iraq's vice-president called for talks with insurgents to try to restore peace.
In an interview with the BBC, Tareq al-Hashemi said he believed there was "no way but to talk to everybody" with the exception of al-Qaeda.
Mr Hashemi, a Sunni, has personal experience of Iraq's violence. Last year his sister and two of his brothers were killed.
But he said the only way for Iraq to make progress is for negotiations to take place.
Apart from al-Qaeda, which Mr Hashemi said was "not very much willing in fact to talk to anybody", all parties "should be invited, should be called to sit down around the table to discuss their fears, their reservations".
A multitude of different groups are reckoned to be behind the violence in Iraq, which claims the lives of hundreds of people every month.
They range from Sunni al-Qaeda sympathisers attacking foreign troops and bombing Shia marketplaces, to Shia militias killing Sunni civilians and forcing them to leave their homes.
In a joint operation, Iraqi and US forces battled groups of al-Qaeda militants for more than five hours near the Sunni stronghold of Falluja on Tuesday.
The Associated Press news agency said US warplanes were involved in the clashes in Amiriyah, west of Baghdad.
Meanwhile five militants were killed in a US raid on a bomb factory near Taji, about 20km (nine miles) north of Baghdad, the US military said.
Officials said ground forces carrying out the raid were confronted by armed men, sparking a gun-battle.
They said the coalition forces captured three militants in the operation.
The military said several large barrels filled with explosive material were uncovered in the raid.
The factory and vehicles, weapons and ammunition found at the scene were destroyed in an air strike, it said.
The latest violence comes as the Iraq conflict enters its fifth year, with Iraqi and coalition forces continuing to try to end the insurgency across the country.
By KIM GAMEL, Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD - A suicide bomber driving a truck with explosives hidden under bricks destroyed a police station Saturday in Baghdad — the largest in a series of insurgent strikes against the American-led security crackdown. At least 47 people died in the attacks, including 20 at the police station.
The bomber bypassed tight security to get within 25 yards of the station by blending in with other trucks coming and going as part of a construction project, detonating his explosives after reaching the main gate. Police said half of those killed were policemen; 28 people were wounded.
"We did not suspect the suicide truck, and he easily reached the
main gate where he detonated his truck. Suddenly there was a big
explosion and part of the building collapsed," said police Cpl. Hussam
Ali, who saw the blast from a nearby guard post. "We were very
cautious, but this time we were taken by surprise. The insurgents are
inventing new methods to hurt us." http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070324/ap_on_re_mi_ea/iraq
By SINAN SALAHEDDIN, Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD - Shiite militants and police enraged by massive truck bombings in Tal Afar went on a revenge spree against Sunni residents in the northwestern town Wednesday, killing as many as 60 people, officials said.
The gunmen roamed Sunni neighborhoods in the city through the night, shooting at residents and homes, according to police and a local Sunni politician.
Witnesses said relatives of the Shiite victims in the truck bombings broke into the Sunni homes and killed the men inside or dragged them out and shot them in the streets.
Ali al-Talafari, a Sunni member of the local Turkomen Front Party, said the Iraqi army had arrested 18 policemen accused of being involved after they were identified by the Sunni families targeted. But he said the attackers included Shiite militiamen.
He said more than 60 Sunnis had been killed, but a senior hospital official in Tal Afar put the death toll at 45, with four wounded.
The hospital official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, said the victims were men between the ages of 15 and 60, and they were killed with a shot to the back of the head.
Police said earlier dozens of Sunnis were killed or wounded, but they had no precise figures, and communications problems made it difficult to reach them for an update.
Army troops later moved into the Sunni areas to stop the violence and a curfew was slapped on the entire town, according to Wathiq al-Hamdani, the provincial police chief and his head of operations, Brig. Abdul-Karim al-Jibouri.
"The situation is under control now," said al-Hamdani. "The local Tal Afar police have been confined to their bases and policemen from Mosul are moving there to replace them."
Tal Afar, located 260 miles northwest of Baghdad, is in the province of Ninevah, of which Mosul is the capital. It is a mainly Turkomen city with some 60 percent of its residents adhering to Shiite Islam and the rest mostly Sunnis.
The violence came a day after two truck bombs shattered markets in the city, killing at least 63 people and wounding dozens in the second assault in four days. After Tuesday's bombings, suspected Sunni insurgents tried to ambush ambulances carrying the injured out of the northwestern city but were driven off by police gunfire, Iraqi authorities said.The carnage was the worst bloodshed in a surge of violence across as militants on both sides of the sectarian divide apparently have fled to other parts of the country to avoid a U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown, raising tensions outside the capital.
But even though U.S. and Iraqi forces put up sand barriers around Tal Afar to limit access, the city has suffered frequent insurgent attacks.
The hard-line Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars said 50 people were killed in the rampage and said it was evidence "of the clear plot and coordination between the militias and the governmental forces of interior and defense."
Meanwhile, suicide bombers detonated explosives on trucks carrying highly toxic chlorine in Fallujah, wounding about 15 U.S. and Iraqi security forces, the American military said. The military said the attackers were blocked by Iraqi army soldiers and police from setting off the bombs at the Fallujah government center.
The chlorine gas attack was the eighth launched since Jan. 28, when a suicide bomber driving a dump truck filled with explosives and a chlorine tank struck a quick-reaction force and Iraqi police in Ramadi, killing 16 people.
A parked car bomb struck a market in the predominantly Shiite city of Mahaweel, 35 miles south of Baghdad, killing at least four people and wounding 16.
Elsewhere, hundreds of Iraqis detained in the U.S.-led security crackdown in Baghdad are being held in two detention centers designed to hold at most a few dozen people, The New York Times reported Wednesday, citing an Iraqi monitoring group.
The report said 705 people were packed into an area built for 75 at one of the detention centers, in the town of Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad. The other center, on Muthana Air Base, held 272 people, including two women and four boys, in a space designed to hold about 50.
Officials from the monitoring group said they did not know the sectarian composition of the detainee populations.
The president described this as a positive response to the six-week-old Iraqi-US security push in Baghdad.
He was speaking after receiving the new US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who expressed hope for progress towards stability and prosperity.
Many of the bombings in the country are blamed on Sunni insurgents.
Meanwhile, there are conflicting reports about the number of people who were killed in two suicide truck bomb attacks in the northern town of Tal Afar on Tuesday.
THE MEHDI ARMY
But the figure was disputed by the mayor of the town, and dismissed by the US, which said the official count was 83 dead.
Iraqi spokesman Brig Abdul Kareem Khalaf explained the delay in raising the death toll, saying 100 homes had been destroyed in the main blast.
"It took us a while to recover all the bodies from underneath the rubble of the homes... what did they achieve by using two tonnes of explosive to kill and wound 500 in a residential area?"
The bomb attacks sparked a series of reprisals, apparently by Shia policemen, in which dozens of Sunni men were taken from their homes and shot dead.
Reuters agency said vehicle and suicide bombings had killed 400 people in Shia areas across the country in the past week.
Analysts say the bombing campaign has continued largely unabated since the Baghdad security crackdown began. Reprisals by Shia militias on Sunnis, however, have reportedly fallen.
"People now are co-operating with government forces against terrorism as part of the security plan," Mr Talabani said.
"Not to mention the fact that the Mehdi Army has become inactive.
"Apparently the instructions of brother Moqtada Sadr have been effective, whereby there are no longer complaints by brother Sunni Arabs about attacks against them like before."
By BASSEM MROUE, Associated Press Writer
The U.S. military reported the deaths of five soldiers around Baghdad. And a U.S. Army helicopter went down south of the capital, but all nine aboard survived, officials said.
The four British deaths — the biggest loss of life for British forces in more than four months — came as 15 British sailors and marines arrived home 13 days after they were seized by Iran off the Iraqi coast and held captive.
"Just as we rejoice at the return of our 15 service personnel, so today we are also grieving and mourning for the loss of our soldiers in Basra," Blair said.
"It is far too early to say that the particular terrorist act that killed our forces was an act committed by terrorists that were backed by any elements of the Iranian regime," he said. "But the general picture, as I said before, is that there are elements at least of the Iranian regime that backing, financing, arming, supporting terrorism in Iraq."
The British patrol struck a roadside bomb and was hit by small-arms fire about 2 a.m. in the Hayaniyah district in western Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, British military spokeswoman Capt. Katie Brown said.
A Kuwaiti civilian interpreter was also killed and a British soldier was seriously wounded, Brown said.
The explosion left a crater three feet deep. Hours after the attack, the helmet of a British soldier lay in the street alongside dozens of spent shells.
Police said the British patrol was en route from detaining 1st Lt. Haidar al-Jazaeri of the Interior Ministry's Major Crimes unit. The police would not say why al-Jazaeri had been detained.
The deaths raised to 140 the number of British forces who have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion, with 109 killed in combat.
Four British forces were killed Nov. 12 in an attack on a Multinational Forces boat patrol on the Shatt Al-Arab waterway in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. Ten Britons died in the Jan. 30, 2006, crash of a Hercules transport plane north of Baghdad.
Blair has announced that Britain will withdraw about 1,600 troops in the next few months and hopes to make other cuts to its 7,100-strong contingent by late summer.
The U.S. helicopter was the ninth to go down in Iraq this year, raising concern among the military that insurgents are using more sophisticated weapons or have figured out how to use the old arms in new and effective ways.
The U.S. military issued only a brief statement saying the helicopter went down and that the incident was under investigation.
An Iraqi army official said it was a Black Hawk that had gone down after it came under fire about 7:30 a.m. near the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Latifiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad.
The Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, said U.S. forces had cordoned off the site, which was in a rural area. He said the militants apparently were using anti-aircraft heavy machine guns.
Latifiyah is part of the area dubbed the "Triangle of Death" because of frequent insurgent attacks.
The last helicopter incident occurred on March 1, when an OH-58 Kiowa made a hard landing in northern Iraq, leaving its two crew members wounded. A week earlier, ground fire forced down a Black Hawk north of Baghdad. Black Hawks are commonly used by the military for transportation in Iraq to avoid the dangers of roadside bombs and ambushes.
The U.S. military said its five soldiers were killed in three separate attacks in the Baghdad area, where thousands of American forces have taken to the streets with their Iraqi counterparts as part of the operation to quell sectarian violence in the city of 6 million.
A roadside bomb Wednesday killed two soldiers and wounded three others in southern Baghdad, while another blast north of the capital killed two soldiers and wounded one, the military said. The fifth soldier was killed Tuesday by small-arms fire while on patrol in a predominantly Shiite part of eastern Baghdad, the military said.
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell has expressed disappointment at the high level of violence in Iraq despite a drop in the overall death toll in Baghdad during the U.S.-Iraqi security sweep, now in its eighth week. The Iraqi government said it was extending the operation to confront spreading violence elsewhere.
In other violence, gunmen ambushed a prison checkpoint southwest of the northern city of, killing 10 policemen, the officials said.
The Iraqi government said Wednesday that it was extending the security crackdown to Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said parts of the city were completely under the control of militants.
A car bomb also struck a Sunni Muslim television station in Baghdad, killing its assistant director and wounding 12 others, according to the Iraqi Islamic Party, which owns the station.
Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack, but members of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party have been targeted before by suspected insurgents because they have joined the U.S.-backed political process.
Shortly after the blast, the station went off the air, although a photo of a mosque with readings from the Quran appeared after a while.
Police said the bomb was in a small truck used to collect garbage.Also Thursday, police in west Baghdad found the bullet-riddled body of Khamael Muhsin, a famous TV news anchor during 's rule, security officials said. She was kidnapped two days ago.
In Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad, police reported finding the bullet-riddled bodies of 20 men who were abducted at a checkpoint Wednesday, apparent victims of sectarian death squads.
They were named as: Second Lieutenant Joanna Yorke Dyer from the Intelligence Corps attached to the 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment; Corporal Kris O'Neill and Private Eleanor Dlugosz from the Royal Army Medical Corps; and Kingsman Adam James Smith from 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment.
A civilian translator also died in the bomb blast, which targeted a Warrior patrol. A fifth soldier was "very seriously injured".
Second Lt Dyer, 24, was described as "talented and energetic" by her Commanding Officer of Lieutenant Colonel Mark Kenyon.
"Her enthusiasm was boundless and her contribution to our operations, even within a few short weeks, was invaluable," he said.
Pte Dlugosz, 19, from Southampton, was "held in high regard by all who knew her", the MoD said. Her troop commander, 2nd Lieutenant Vinny Ramshaw, described her as a "strong and morally courageous young woman".
Cpl O'Neill was described by the MoD as an "experienced and confident medic, with an unflappable nature".
His squadron commander, Major Phil Carter, said: " Whatever he was doing he would give it 110% and make sure it was right."
Kingsman Smith, 19, from Liverpool, was talented and had a "bright future", the MoD said.
His commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Kenyon, said: "He showed all the qualities of a reconnaissance soldier, dependable, determined and a real team player."
The Ministry of Defence said the serviceman was injured in the al-Ashar district.
He was taken to Basra Palace for treatment before being flown by helicopter to a field hospital at Basra Air Station but died later of his injuries.
Kingsman Wilson, from Workington, Cumbria, was wounded as he checked the roadside ahead for explosive devices. He leaves behind a wife and son.
His commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Kenyon MBE, said: "Selfless, committed and always ready to look on the bright side, he will be sorely missed."
By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA, Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD - A suicide bomber blew himself up in the Iraqi parliament cafeteria Thursday, killing at least eight people — including three lawmakers — and wounding dozens in a stunning assault in the heart of the heavily fortified, U.S.-protected Green Zone.
A news video camera captured the moment of the blast: a flash and an orange ball of fire causing a startled parliament member who was being interviewed to duck, and then the smoky, dust-filled aftermath of confusion and shouting. The video was shot by Alhurra, a U.S. government-funded Arab-language channel.
The explosion came hours after a suicide truck bomb exploded on a major bridge in Baghdad, collapsing the steel structure and sending cars tumbling into the Tigris River, police and witnesses said. At least 10 people were killed.The parliament bombing was believed to be the deadliest attack in the Green Zone, the enclave that houses 's leadership as well as the U.S. Embassy, and is secured by American and Iraqi checkpoints.
Security officials at parliament, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information, said they believed the bomber was a bodyguard of a Sunni member of parliament who was not among the dead. They would not name the member of parliament.
The officials also said two satchel bombs were found near the cafeteria. A U.S. bomb squad took the explosives away and detonated them without incident.strongly condemned the attack, saying: "My message to the Iraqi government is `We stand with you.'"
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told The Associated Press that eight people were killed in the attack, which witness accounts indicated was carried out by a suicide bomber.
Iraqi officials said the bomber struck the cafeteria while several lawmakers were eating lunch, and at least three of them — two Sunnis and a Shiite — were killed. State television said 30 people were wounded.
"We don't know at this point who it was. We do know in the past that suicide vests have been used predominantly by al-Qaida," Caldwell said.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh suggested that those behind the attack might work in the building.
"There are some groups that work in politics during the day and do things other than politics at night," he told Alhurra.
The Alhurra video showed the blast, with startled lawmaker Jalaluddin al-Saghir, who is also a Muslim imam, ducking for cover. It then showed the immediate aftermath: People screamed for help in a smoky hallway, with one man was slumped over, covered in dust, motionless. A woman kneeled over what appeared to be a wounded or dead man near a table. The camera then focused on a bloody, severed leg.
TV cameras and videotapes belonging to a crew sending footage to Western networks were confiscated and apparently handed over to U.S. authorities.
After the blast, security guards sealed the building and no one — including lawmakers — was allowed to enter or leave.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said no Americans were hurt.
The bombing came amid the two-month-old security crackdown in Baghdad, which has sought to restore stability in the capital so that the government of Iraq can take key political steps by June 30 or face a withdrawal of American support."We know that there is a security problem in Baghdad," added Secretary of State , speaking at the State Department. "This is still early in the process and I don't think anyone expected that there wouldn't be counterefforts by terrorists to undermine the security presence."
The dead lawmakers were identified by colleagues as Mohammed Awad of the Sunni National Dialogue Front, Taha al-Liheibi of the Sunni Accordance Front and Niamah al-Mayahi of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance bloc. A female lawmaker of the Sunni National Dialogue Front was wounded, according to her party leader.
Mohammed Abu Bakr, who heads the parliament's media department, and other lawmakers said they saw the suspected bomber's body amid the ghastly scene.
"I saw two legs in the middle of the cafeteria and none of those killed or wounded lost their legs — which means they must be the legs of the suicide attacker," he said.
Earlier in the day, security officials used dogs to check people entering the building in a rare precaution — apparently concerned that an attack might take place.
A security scanner for pedestrians at the entrance to the Green Zone near the parliament building was not working, and people were searched only by hand and had to pass through metal detectors, Abu Bakr said.
The brazen bombing was the clearest evidence yet that militants can penetrate even the most secure locations. Masses of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers are on the streets in the ninth week of a security crackdown in the capital, and security measures inside the Green Zone have been significantly hardened.
The U.S. military reported April 1 that two suicide vests were found in the Green Zone, also home to the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government. A rocket attack last month killed two Americans, a soldier and a contractor. A few days earlier, a rocket hit within 100 yards of a building where U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was holding a news conference. No one was hurt.
Ban said Thursday's attack "attempted to undermine one of the country's sovereign institutions," and he urged Iraqis to come together in unity to work for peace, said U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe.
Khalaf al-Ilyan, one of three leaders of the Iraqi Accordance Front, said the attack "underlines the failure of the government's security plan."
"The plan is 100 percent a failure. It's a complete flop. The explosion means that instability and lack of security has reached the Green Zone, which the government boasts is heavily fortified," said al-Ilyan, who is in Jordan recovering from knee surgery.
Hadi al-Amiri, head of the parliament's security and defense committee, said the blast shook the building just after legislators ended their main meeting and broke into smaller committees.
"A few brothers (fellow lawmakers) happened to be in the cafeteria at the time of the explosion," al-Amiri told Al-Arabiya television. "But had they been able to place this bomb inside the meeting hall, it would have been a catastrophe."
Hours after the bombing, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh and other Iraqi officials met with the commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and decided to put the Interior Ministry in charge of security at parliament, al-Dabbagh said. The building was previously guarded by a private security company, he said.
Petraeus also said the U.S. military extended condolences to those "martyred" in the bombing.
New U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker called the attack a "heinous act of terrorism."
"This cowardly attack is an attempt to undermine the efforts of all who are working to build a peaceful, unified, and stable Iraq. It will not succeed," he said.
Attacks in the Green Zone are rare. The worst previous known assault occurred Oct. 14, 2004, when a blast at a market and a popular cafe killed six people — the first bombing in the sprawling region.
On Nov. 25, 2004, a mortar attack inside the zone killed four employees of a British security firm and wounded at least 12. On Jan. 29, 2005, insurgents hit the U.S. Embassy compound with a rocket, killing two Americans — a civilian and a sailor — on the eve of landmark elections. Four other Americans were wounded.
In addition to killing 10 people, Thursday's bombing of the al-Sarafiya bridge wounded 26, hospital officials said, and police were trying to rescue as many as 20 people whose cars plummeted off the span.
Waves lapped against twisted girders as patrol boats searched for survivors and U.S. helicopters flew overhead. Scuba divers donned flippers and waded in from the riverbanks.
Farhan al-Sudani, a 34-year-old Shiite businessman who lives near the bridge, said the blast woke him at dawn.
"A huge explosion shook our house and I thought it would demolish our house. Me and my wife jumped immediately from our bed, grabbed our three kids and took them outside," he said.
The al-Sarafiya bridge connected two northern Baghdad neighborhoods — Waziriyah, a mostly Sunni enclave, and Utafiyah, a Shiite area.
Police blamed the attack on a suicide truck bomber. AP Television News video showed the bridge broken in two places — perhaps the result of two blasts.
The al-Sarafiya bridge is believed to be at least 75 years old, built by the British in the early part of the 20th century.
"It is one of Baghdad's monuments. This is really damaging for Iraq. We are losing a lot of our history every day," said Ahmed Abdul-Karim, who lives nearby.
Before the bridge was destroyed, nine spans over the Tigris linked western and eastern Baghdad.
The river now serves as a de facto dividing line between the mostly Shiite east and the largely Sunni west of the city, a reality of more than a year of sectarian fighting that has forced Sunnis to flee neighborhoods where they were a minority and likewise for Shiites.
Baghdad's neighborhoods had been very mixed before the war but hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced since then as militants from both Muslim sects have sought to cleanse their neighborhoods of rivals.
There have been unconfirmed reports for months that Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida in Iraq were planning a campaign to blow up the bridges.
Also Thursday, the U.S. military said its troops killed two suspected insurgents and captured 17 in raids across the country.
By Dean Yates and Paul Tait
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Car bombs killed nearly 170 people in Baghdad on Wednesday in the deadliest attacks in the city since U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a security crackdown aimed at halting the country's slide into civil war.
One car bomb alone in the mainly Shi'ite Sadriya neighborhood killed 118 people and wounded 139, police said.
"The street was transformed into a swimming pool of blood," Ahmed Hameed, a shopkeeper near the scene, told Reuters.The apparently coordinated attacks -- there were five within a short space of time -- occurred hours after Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said would take security control of the whole country from foreign forces by the end of the year.
Maliki is under growing pressure to say when foreign soldiers will leave, but the attacks in mainly Shi'ite areas of Baghdad underscored the huge challenges for Iraq's security forces in taking charge of overall security from more than 150,000 U.S. and British troops.
The bombings wounded more than 200 people.
"I saw dozens of dead bodies. Some people were burned alive inside minibuses. Nobody could reach them after the explosion," said a Reuters witness at Sadriya, describing scenes of mayhem at an intersection where the bomb exploded near a market.
"There were pieces of flesh all over the place. Women were screaming and shouting for their loved ones who died," said the witness who did not wish to be identified, adding many of the dead were women and children.
One man waving his arms in the air screamed hysterically: "Where's Maliki? Let him come and see what is happening here."
U.S. and Iraqi forces began deploying thousands more troops onto Baghdad's streets in February.
Sectarian death squads killings have declined, but car bombs are much harder to stop, U.S. military officials say.
The bombings could inflame sectarian passions in Baghdad, especially among the Mehdi Army militia of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which has kept a low profile so far during the Baghdad security offensive.
Sunni Islamist al Qaeda is blamed for most of the major bombings targeting Shi'ites in Iraq and there are fears the Mehdi Army may take to the streets to retaliate.
The attacks came several hours after Maliki again appealed for reconciliation between majority Shi'ites and once-dominant minority Sunni Arabs who form the backbone of the insurgency.
"There is no magic solution to put out the fire of sectarian sedition that some are trying to set up, especially al Qaeda," Maliki said in a speech made on his behalf before the attacks.
"Sunnis are not the enemy of the Shi'ites and Shi'ites are not the enemy of Sunnis."
Sadr withdrew his six ministers from Maliki's cabinet on Monday to press for a pull-out timetable for U.S. troops.
EPICENTRE OF VIOLENCE
Among the other attacks on Wednesday, police said a suicide car bomber killed 35 people at a checkpoint in Sadr City, stronghold of the firebrand cleric Sadr. A third car bomb attack in the capital killed 10 people, police said.
At Sadriya, a thick, dark plume of smoke rose at the scene of the bombing. Fire fighters rushed to put out flames on burning bodies, while rescue workers tried to retrieve bodies from the blackened hulks of cars.
The Sadriya bombing was the highest death toll in a single attack in Baghdad since a truck bomb killed 135 people and wounded 305 in the same area on February 3.
Baghdad has been the epicenter of violence in Iraq since suspected Sunni al Qaeda militants blew up a holy Shi'ite shrine in the city of Samarra in February 2006.
In a speech at a ceremony marking the handover of southern Maysan province from British to Iraqi control, Maliki said three provinces in the autonomous Kurdistan region would be next, followed by Kerbala and Wasit provinces.
Then it would be province by province until a full transfer had been completed by the end of the year," Maliki said in the speech, read by National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie.
Maysan is the fourth of Iraq's 18 provinces to be handed to Iraqi security forces, joining Muthanna, Najaf and Dhi Qar, all predominantly Shi'ite and relatively calm regions in the south.
Maliki says Iraq's security forces will only take back control from foreign forces when ready.
(With additional reporting by Ross Colvin in Amara, Aseel Kami, Ibon Villelabeitia and Yara Bayoumy in Baghdad)
"We have got political paralysis and, at the same time, a drawing back of responsibility," he told Today.
"I can't remember the last time I heard a senior... minister on your programme defending the policy in Iraq," he said.
Tony Blair has previously rejected any suggestion he has avoided debate about Iraq, saying it has been raised and debated many times in the Commons.
On Wednesday nearly 200 people died in a string of attacks in Baghdad, despite a US security "surge" in the capital.
'War on terror'
Sir Menzies told the BBC Radio 4 programme senior figures, like Cabinet minister Hilary Benn, had distanced themselves from the phrase "war on terror".
And he said comments by former minister Helen Liddell - now the British high commissioner in Australia - that Iraq had never been part of the "war on terror" appeared to "undermine the whole philosophy the prime minister has used".
|| I accepted a moral obligation,
but that moral obligation cannot be open-ended
Sir Menzies Campbell
The bombings on Wednesday come after thousands of extra US troops were sent to Baghdad to bolster Iraqi forces.
Dr Zuhair al Nahar, on behalf of Iraq's ruling Dawa Party, told the BBC the US security operation had produced "excellent results so far", but was only at the beginning and would probably take until the end of the year.
'Cut and run'
But Sir Menzies, who in January called for British troops to be withdrawn by October, said his optimism was not justified.
He repeated calls for British troops to be withdrawn, but said that could now not be achieved by October.
Asked whether it was right to "cut and run", Sir Menzies said: "I accepted a moral obligation, but that moral obligation cannot be open-ended and we have a moral obligation to our own young men and women."
He added: "It is four years since the military action ceased and in that time we have committed a lot of money, we have committed a lot of fine young men and women and lost more than 140 of them.
"There is a point at which we can no longer justify that degree of commitment."
Wednesday's attacks, among the deadliest in four years, happened as the British formally handed over the southern province of Maysan to the Iraqi authorities.
It is the fourth of 18 provinces to come under Iraqi control - Iraq's prime minister Nouri Maliki has said Iraqi forces would take control of security across the country by the end of the year.
British troop numbers are being scaled down from about 7,000 troops stationed in southern Iraq around Basra to about 5,000 by late summer.
By LAUREN FRAYER, Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD - The American ambassador said Monday the U.S. would "respect the wishes" of the Iraqi government after the prime minister ordered a halt to construction of a three-mile wall separating a Sunni enclave from surrounding Shiite areas in Baghdad.
Any plan to build "gated communities" to protect Baghdad neighborhoods from sectarian attacks was in doubt after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said during a visit to Sunni-led Arab countries that he did not want the 12-foot-high wall in Azamiyah to be seen as dividing the capital's sects.
However, confusion persisted about whether the plan would continue in some form: The chief Iraqi military spokesman said Monday the prime minister was responding to exaggerated reports about the barrier.
"We will continue to construct the security barriers in the Azamiyah neighborhood. This is a technical issue," Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said. "Setting up barriers is one thing and building barriers is another. These are moveable barriers that can be removed."
Al-Moussawi noted similar walls were in place elsewhere in the capital — including in other residential neighborhoods — and criticized the media for focusing on Azamiyah.
"It's exaggerated by the media. We expected this reaction by some weak-minded people," he said.
But hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Azamiyah to oppose what they called "a big prison."
"The main aim of these barriers is to protect civilians and to guarantee that security forces are in control and prevent terrorists from moving between areas," al-Moussawi said.
The U.S. military announced last week that it was building a three-mile long concrete wall in Azamiyah, a Sunni stronghold whose residents have often been the victims of retaliatory mortar attacks by Shiite militants following bombings usually blamed on Sunni insurgents.
But al-Maliki ordered construction halted on Sunday and U.S. officials said that the plans could change.
"Obviously we will respect the wishes of the government and the prime minister," U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said Monday.
He said the barrier was aimed at protecting Azamiyah, not segregating it. Sunni leaders and residents of the neighborhood, however, complain that it is a form of discrimination that would isolate the community.
"There are other methods to protect neighborhoods," al-Maliki said Sunday in his first public comments on the issue, "but I should point out that the goal was not to separate, but to protect."
"This wall reminds us of other walls that we reject, so I've ordered it to stop and to find other means of protection for the neighborhoods," he added during a televised live news conference during a state visit to Cairo, Egypt.
Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman, indicated that there may have been a miscommunication.
"Discussions on a local level may not have been conveyed to the highest levels of the Iraqi government," Garver said.
The latest confusion reflected a lack of coordination between al-Maliki's government and the U.S. military even as they have touted their partnership in a nearly 10-week security effort to pacify Baghdad.
The Shiite leader is on a regional tour seeking support for his government among mostly Sunni Arab nations. His comments about the barrier may have been aimed at appeasing them and Sunnis at home, despite his assurances to the Americans that there would be no political influence over tactical decisions.
"Whether the prime minister saw this plan or not, I don't know. With him in Cairo, it complicates things," Garver said.
Al-Maliki has countered U.S. plans in the past. In October, U.S. forces pulled down roadblocks around Baghdad's Shiite slum of Sadr City hours after al-Maliki gave the order. At the time, the prime minister was said to have feared violence among members of the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia that is headquartered in Sadr City and loyal to the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Meanwhile, bombings killed at least 46 people and wounded more than 100, authorities said, including a suicide attack that killed at least 19 near a restaurant outside Ramadi. A parked car bomb also exploded outside the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, killing one civilian.
A U.S. soldier was killed Monday when a roadside bomb exploded near him in Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, the military said. A British soldier was shot to death while on patrol in the southern city of Basra, officials said.
In Azamiyah, hundreds of demonstrators gathered on Monday, shouting slogans and carrying banners saying the concrete barrier would make them prisoners of their own neighborhood and an easier target for terrorists.
Signs read: "Separation wall is a big prison for Azamiyah citizens" and "Azamiyah children want to see Baghdad without walls." No violence was reported.
Dawood al-Azami, deputy director of the Azamiyah city council, said a questionnaire that was handed out in the area on Sunday indicated that 90 percent of the respondents strongly oppose the barrier.
Crocker, who replaced Zalmay Khalilzad as U.S. ambassador, urged Iraqi legislators to pass key legislation that it is hoped will help bring minority Sunnis into the political process, saying "these months ahead are going to be critical."
He said the security plan was important but its main purpose was to "buy time for what ultimately has to be a set of political understandings among Iraqis.
Crocker said the intention of the barrier in Azamiyah as well as those constructed around markets in the capital is "to try and identify where the fault lines are and where avenues of attack lie and set up the barriers literally to prevent those attacks."
"It is in no one's intention or thinking that this is going to be a permanent state of affairs," he added.
He said his view was "not popular", but the "large part of the Western world" which blamed George Bush was wrong.
"This is a very deep-rooted problem right round the world... if we don't fight it it's going to come after us," the prime minister told the BBC.
His comments came ahead of the first meeting of a new terrorism committee.
The committee, which brings together intelligence agency representatives, police and ministers, was set up as part of Home Office reforms.
|| You have these outside
terrorists coming in and linking up with internal extremists and
causing this carnage.
It is intended to streamline the approach to security threats.
Speaking about terrorism on BBC Breakfast, Mr Blair said: "We have to fight it whether it's in Iraq of Afghanistan or anywhere else."
Mr Blair acknowledged the situation in Iraq was "hugely difficult".
"It's difficult because you have external elements - al-Qaeda up near Baghdad, and Iranian-backed elements down in Basra - who are deliberately creating the problem."
He said it was not true that Saddam Hussein "was a kind of lid" on sectarian violence which "poured out" once the dictator was toppled.
"If you talk to ordinary Iraqis - whether they are Sunni or Shia - they want to live together. You have these outside terrorists coming in and linking up with internal extremists and causing this carnage."
He also said it was wrong, as "a large part of the Western world" says to blame President Bush for terrorism.
The new ministerial committee, expected to meet monthly, will be backed by a new Office for Security and Counter-terrorism (OSC), which will meet weekly and be chaired by the Home Secretary.
Part of the OSC's role is to provide a forum for the intelligence agencies to pass on information to the police and other relevant bodies.
AL-QAEDA leaders in Iraq are planning the first “large-scale” terrorist attacks on Britain and other western targets with the help of supporters in Iran, according to a leaked intelligence report.
Spy chiefs warn that one operative had said he was planning an attack on “a par with Hiroshima and Nagasaki” in an attempt to “shake the Roman throne”, a reference to the West.
Another plot could be timed to coincide with Tony Blair stepping down as prime minister, an event described by Al-Qaeda planners as a “change in the head of the company”.
The report, produced earlier this month and seen by The Sunday Times, appears to provide evidence that Al-Qaeda is active in Iran and has ambitions far beyond the improvised attacks it has been waging against British and American soldiers in Iraq.[an error occurred while processing this directive]
There is no evidence of a formal relationship between Al-Qaeda, a Sunni group, and the Shi’ite regime of President Mah-moud Ahmadinejad, but experts suggest that Iran’s leaders may be turning a blind eye to the terrorist organisation’s activities.
The intelligence report also makes it clear that senior Al-Qaeda figures in the region have been in recent contact with operatives in Britain.
It follows revelations last year that up to 150 Britons had travelled to Iraq to fight as part of Al-Qaeda’s “foreign legion”. A number are thought to have returned to the UK, after receiving terrorist training, to form sleeper cells.
The report was compiled by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) - based at MI5’s London headquarters - and provides a quarterly review of the international terror threat to Britain. It draws a distinction between Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda’s core leadership, who are thought to be hiding on the Afghan-Pakistan border, and affiliated organisations elsewhere.
The document states: “While networks linked to AQ [Al-Qaeda] Core pose the greatest threat to the UK, the intelligence during this quarter has highlighted the potential threat from other areas, particularly AQI [Al-Qaeda in Iraq].”
The report continues: “Recent reporting has described AQI’s Kurdish network in Iran planning what we believe may be a large-scale attack against a western target.
“A member of this network is reportedly involved in an operation which he believes requires AQ Core authorisation. He claims the operation will be on ‘a par with Hiroshima and Naga-saki’ and will ‘shake the Roman throne’. We assess that this operation is most likely to be a large-scale, mass casualty attack against the West.”
The report says there is “no indication” this attack would specifically target Britain, “although we are aware that AQI . . . networks are active in the UK”.
Analysts believe the reference to Hiroshima and Naga-saki, where more than 200,000 people died in nuclear attacks on Japan at the end of the second world war, is unlikely to be a literal boast.
“It could be just a reference to a huge explosion,” said a counter-terrorist source. “They [Al-Qaeda] have got to do something soon that is radical otherwise they start losing credibility.”
Despite aspiring to a nuclear capability, Al-Qaeda is not thought to have acquired weapons grade material. However, several plots involving “dirty bombs” - conventional explosive devices surrounded by radioactive material - have been foiled.
Last year Al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq called on nuclear scientists to apply their knowledge of biological and radiological weapons to “the field of jihad”.
Details of a separate plot to attack Britain, “ideally” before Blair steps down this summer, were contained in a letter written by Abdul al-Hadi al-Iraqi, an Iraqi Kurd and senior Al-Qaeda commander.
According to the JTAC document, Hadi “stressed the need to take care to ensure that the attack was successful and on a large scale”. The plan was to be relayed to an Iran-based Al-Qaeda facilitator.
The Home Office declined to comment.
By DAVID ESPO, AP Special Correspondent
The 51-46 Senate vote was largely along party lines, and like House passage a day earlier it underscored that the war's congressional opponents are far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a Bush veto.
Democrats marked Thursday's final passage with a news conference during which they repeatedly urged Bush to reconsider his veto threat. "This bill for the first time gives the president of the United States an exit strategy" from Iraq, said Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin.
The legislation is "in keeping with what the American people want," added Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
The White House was unmoved. "The president's determined to win in Iraq. I think the bill that they sent us today is mission defeated," said deputy press secretary Dana Perino. "This bill is dead before arrival."
Given that standoff, Republicans and Democrats alike already were maneuvering for position on a follow-up bill.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the just-passed legislation as "political posturing" by Democrats that deserves the veto it will receive. "The solution is simple: Take out the surrender date, take out the pork and get the funds to our troops," he said.The bill would provide $124.2 billion, more than $90 billion of which would go for the wars in Iraq and . Democrats added billions more for domestic programs, and while most of the debate focused on the troop withdrawal issue, some of the extra spending also has drawn Bush's criticism.
The day's developments amounted to a landmark of sorts.
The vote occurred nearly four years after Bush stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier before a banner that read "Mission Accomplished" — and 113 days after Democrats took power in Congress and vowed to change course in a war that has cost the lives of more than 3,300 U.S. troops.
During Vietnam, a longer and far deadlier war for U.S. forces, Congress went years before it was able to agree on legislation significantly challenging presidential war policy.
In the current case, any veto override attempt would occur in the House, and even Democrats concede they lack the votes to prevail.
With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at his side, Reid said Democrats hoped to have a follow-up war-funding bill ready for the president's signature by June 1. Despite administration claims to the contrary, he said that was soon enough to prevent serious disruption in military operations.
Several Democratic officials have said they expect the next measure will jettison the withdrawal timetable, a concession to Bush. At the same time, they say they hope to include standards for the Iraqi government to meet on issues such as expanding democratic participation and allocating oil resources.
Bush and congressional Republicans, eager to signal the public that they do not support an open-ended commitment to Iraq, have both embraced these so-called benchmarks. Unlike Democrats, they generally oppose using benchmarks to require specific actions, such as troop withdrawals.
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, said at a news conference that the purpose of benchmarks should be to "see how the Iraqi government is doing," rather than to establish deadlines for a troop withdrawal.
Opinion on the issue covered a wide spectrum. "The only good measure that exists in Iraq now is body counts, and that's not a very good measure," said Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a moderate Democrat.Congress acted as the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, said at a news conference that the U.S. mission "may get harder before it gets easier."
Less than three months after Bush announced an increase in troop strength and a shift in tactics, Petraeus said improvements were evident in both Baghdad and the Anbar Province in western Iraq. At the same time, he said the accomplishments "have not come without sacrifice" and that greater American losses have resulted from increased car bombings and suicide attacks, plus the greater concentration of U.S. troops among the Iraqi population.
There were no surprises in the Senate vote, in which 48 Democrats and one independent joined Republicans Gordon Smith of Oregon and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska in supporting the bill. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who typically votes with the Democrats, sided with 45 Republicans in opposition.
In a clear warning to the White House, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, opposed the legislation but issued a statement saying her patience with the war was limited.
"If the president's new strategy does not demonstrate significant results by August, then Congress should consider all options including a redefinition of our mission and a gradual but significant withdrawal of our troops next year," she said. Like Hagel and Smith, Collins is coming up on a 2008 re-election campaign.
Democrats have long argued that Republicans must choose between a politically unpopular war on the one hand and a president of their own party on the other.
The legislation requires a troop withdrawal to begin July 1 if Bush cannot certify that the Iraqi government is making progress in disarming militias, reducing sectarian violence and forging political agreements, otherwise by Oct. 1.
While the beginning of a withdrawal is mandated, the balance of the pullback is merely advisory, to take place by April 1, 2008.
Troops could remain after that date to conduct counterterrorism missions, protect U.S. facilities and personnel and train Iraqi security forces.
The war aside, Democrats included more than $10 billion in the
legislation that Bush did not ask for. Included was $3.5 billion for
the victims of Hurricane Katrina; $2.3 billion for homeland security
and smaller amounts for rural schools, firefighting, children's health
care and other programs.
By LOLITA C. BALDOR, Associated Press Writer
Speaking as the Senate was passing legislation to start bringing home U.S. forces in October, Gen. David Petraeus said the war will require "an enormous commitment" by the United States.
And he said that while some sectarian killings have dropped by two-thirds in recent months, the overall level of violence in Iraq has remained largely the same.Petraeus also gave new details on what he called "exceedingly unhelpful activities" by , including links to a terrorist cell that planned and carried out the abduction and murder of five U.S. soldiers in Karbala in January.
He said U.S. troops found a 22-page document on a computer during a raid last month that outlined details of that Jan. 20 sneak attack on the provincial headquarters in Karbala. Brothers Qais al-Khazaali and Laith al-Khazaali were detained in connection with the attack.
Petraeus said the Khazaali network "is directly connected to the Iranian Quds Force, received money, training, arms, ammunition and at some points in time even advice and assistance and direction."
However, he said there is no direct evidence yet that Iranians were involved specifically in the Karbala incident.
In an hourlong, wide-ranging discussion of conditions in Iraq, Petraeus called the war "the most complex and challenging I have ever seen."
And he painted a somber picture of the coming months, even as members of Congress decried the war as a failed mission and promised to continue a push to set benchmarks for progress and a timetable to begin pulling U.S. troops out.
"I think there is the very real possibility that there's going to be more combat action and that, therefore, there could be more casualties," Petraeus said. "When you're expanding your forces' presence, when you are going into areas that have been very lightly populated with coalition forces in the past, that there is going to be more action."The four-star general, picked by to oversee the recent buildup of American forces, also cited some progress in the two months since the troop increase began. He said sectarian killings have declined — aided by construction of walls around some neighborhoods — while a number of markets are reviving, amusement parks are busy and some Iraqis are returning to their homes.
"I am well aware that the sense of gradual progress and achievement we feel on the ground in many areas in Iraq is often eclipsed by the sensational attacks that overshadow our daily accomplishments," Petraeus said, conceding there is "vastly more work to be done across the board."
While he would not predict troops levels into the fall or comment directly on the legislation Congress passed Thursday, his comments made clear that his war plan did not include a significant reduction of U.S. forces anytime soon.
"This effort may get harder before it gets easier," said Petraeus, calling the situation "exceedingly complex and very tough."
Asked how many troops he thought would have to remain in Iraq — and for how long — to finish the job, Petraeus said, "I wouldn't try to truly anticipate what level might be some years down the road." However, he noted historical precedents to long U.S. peacekeeping missions.
"It is an endeavor that clearly is going to require enormous commitment and commitment over time," he said, adding that he didn't want to predict how many troops might be involved or when.Acknowledging the divide between Congress and the administration, Petraeus said the Washington clock on the war is moving rapidly, reflecting public frustration and impatience. But the Baghdad clock is moving slower — prompting and administration officials to press the Iraqi government to pick up speed on political reconciliation and other improvements.
He said he gave a memo to Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Wednesday, outlining how the U.S. should measure progress in Iraq in the coming months. Commanders have said they will give Defense Secretary Robert Gates an assessment on the military buildup in early September.
Petraeus said the draft proposes evaluating four areas: security, economics, politics and governance, and the rule of law. The specifics, he said, include progress by the Iraqi security forces, how well the Iraqi government is spending its budget on capital improvements and construction, whether banks are reopening, progress on key legislation, and development of the justice system and detention facilities.
Despite the disappointing pace, Petraeus said he believes Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other leaders "are committed to achieving more in this area in the months ahead." He said the fledgling government faces difficult hurdles as it struggles to pull together Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders into a national unity effort.
On a positive note, he cited improving conditions in the turbulent Anbar province in western Iraq, noting it had been "assessed as lost six months ago."
By Yara Bayoumy
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A year ago, Iraq's Anbar was the most dangerous province for U.S. troops. Al Qaeda had dug in across the vast desert region. Iraqis were afraid to leave their homes in the local capital Ramadi, where insurgents held sway.
Then last summer Sunni tribal leader Sheikh Abdulsattar Abu Risha gathered his fellow tribal chiefs together and created a police force to try to restore security.
Under the umbrella of the Anbar Salvation Council, Abu Risha says his initiative is showing early signs of success, with recruitment putting some 20,000 police on the streets of the Sunni-dominated province.
"The situation (in Anbar) was unbearable before, people were tortured, shot dead, bodies littered the streets. We couldn't even leave our homes to bury the dead," Abu Risha told Reuters from Ramadi by a crackly satellite phone.
Abu Risha's initiative -- partly in response to Sunni Islamist al Qaeda's indiscriminate killing of civilians in Anbar -- has revived 15 large police stations that now come under the control of the provincial police chief.
Now, while car bombings still plague Anbar, and especially Ramadi, their number has fallen, U.S. military officials said.And for the first time in three years, U.S. military deaths in the insurgent stronghold stretching across western number fewer than in Baghdad, where a new security crackdown began in February with additional troops.
This week police arrested 30 insurgents, including members of al Qaeda, and seized three cars rigged with bombs near Ramadi, 110 km (68 miles) west of Baghdad, police said.
"The number of attacks and incidents across the entire province has dropped significantly," said Brigadier-General Mark Gurganus, the U.S. Marine commander in charge of ground operations in Anbar, without giving details.
After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Sunni Arab insurgents and al Qaeda turned Anbar into a safe haven, and suddenly traditionally minded Sunni leaders, scholars and religious imams found themselves vulnerable targets.
By 2006, most police stations had been destroyed.
But the U.S. military now points to Anbar as a positive development in the four-year-old war in Iraq.
At a news conference in Washington on Thursday, the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, hailed Abu Risha and other Sunni tribal leaders.
He said the Sunni Arab tribes were "helping transform Anbar province and other areas from being assessed as lost as little as six months ago to being relatively heartening."
"V" FOR VICTORY
The changes have been noticeable in Ramadi.
More people are shopping at outdoor markets. Students are returning to schools.
Patrols in blue-and-white police vehicles with machine guns mounted on the top rumble along Ramadi's streets.
Police said when they first started patrolling the streets, residents threw flowers at them.
"God protect you. God save you," a woman dressed in a black abaya yelled at a passing patrol last week. A young boy signaled the 'v' sign for victory at the patrol.
About 200 young men from Abu Risha's tribe first signed up as police recruits last year and, after two months of basic training in Amman, they took to the streets.
"I joined the police force so that we can protect ourselves, and defend our tribes from the terrorist groups and al Qaeda," said Nizar Mahmoud, 30.
Abu Risha said life had improved but there was more to do.
"The Americans kind of failed in crushing this area. But we know where the (insurgents) hide," he said. "Once we've got more weapons, we'll continue with the crushing."
"I wish they would stand side by side with the Iraqi people rather than taking positions that could be catastrophic for the Iraqis, because of their differences with the Republicans," said Hassan al-Sinaid.
On Thursday, Congress adopted a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq when the US Senate voted 51 to 46 to approve the 124-billion-dollar war-funding bill passed a day earlier by the House of Representatives.The bill provides the military with funds for operations in Iraq and , but requires it to begin withdrawing forces from Iraq in October and sets a non-binding target date of next March 31 to complete the drawdown.
Sinaid, a Shiite lawmaker from Maliki's Dawa party and close counsellor to the prime minister, said the Democrats were being misled by media reports as to the true situation in Iraq.
He told AFP that he thought the vote was "a political one, and reflects the political differences inside the United States... They (the Democrats) listen to the media which is almost in opposition to the will of the Iraqis.
"I think they should get realistic studies of whether Iraqi forces are ready to replace American troops," said Sinaid, adding that joint committees should be formed to assess the efficiency of Iraqi forces.
"Any Iraqi would be happy to see them (US troops) leaving, but it should be done in a way that ensures good security," he stressed.
Sinaid blasted the Democrats for calling the violence in Iraq a civil war, saying they were "captives of the media and opinion polls."
"They talk about a civil war. I think this is unrealistic. There is no civil war in Iraq, nor is there a sectarian one. What we have is a war of terror unleashed by Al-Qaeda and the loyalists of the former regime," he insisted.
US troops are in the middle of a massive "surge" operation launched on February 14 to quell bloodshed in Baghdad and the western Anbar province, partly by flooding in 28,000 extra American troops.
Fri Apr 27, 11:37 AM ET
The Pentagon would not say when he was captured.
Some security analysts previously said the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan captured al-Hadi in 2001, but the Defense Department on Friday accused him of providing leadership and reconnaissance support in attacks on U.S. forces as late as 2003.
One U.S. government official said al-Hadi was captured by the CIA, but another said he was first in military custody and given to the CIA for interrogation.
With al-Hadi, the Pentagon is now holding 15 men it considers "high-value detainees" -- a classification that indicates U.S. officials believe the capture had a significant effect on al Qaeda operations and the prisoner is capable of providing high-quality intelligence.
The Pentagon has not scheduled initial administrative proceedings for al-Hadi at Guantanamo, the U.S. naval base in Cuba where the United States runs a prison camp for foreign terrorism suspects.
Hearings there have yielded admissions by some of detainees of involvement in attacks against the United States, including the September 11 hijacked plane attacks on New York and Washington.According to a U.S. government summary on al-Hadi, the detainee was "known and trusted" by al Qaeda leader .
He was a long-time trainer at one of al Qaeda' training camps and had ties to extremist groups allied with al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to the U.S. intelligence summary.
Foreign nationals were among 172 terror suspects held in a series of raids, the interior ministry said on state TV.
Large amounts of weapons and $32.4m (£16.21m) in cash were also seized.
The Saudi authorities have been battling al-Qaeda since a wave of bombings and shootings rocked the kingdom in 2003.
The attacks in 2003 and since have claimed the lives of nearly 300 security personnel, militants and Saudi and foreign civilians.
BBC Middle East analyst Roger Hardy says the Saudis periodically claim to have crushed the insurgency but although they have shut down part of the network the persistence of the attacks suggests the problem is deep-rooted.
The Saudi authorities said the fresh plots it had foiled were at an advanced stage.
"Some [militants] have begun training on the use of weapons, and some were sent to other countries to study aviation in preparation to use them to carry out terrorist operations inside the kingdom," a ministry statement read out on state TV channel al-Ekhbaria said.
Some of the military targets were outside the kingdom, it added, without specifying where.
The station broadcast footage of various types of weapons, including plastic explosives, ammunition cartridges, handguns and rifles wrapped in plastic sheeting, which were said to have been buried in the desert.
Interior ministry spokesman Gen Mansur al-Turki said the suspects were "linked to foreign elements... not necessarily directly to al-Qaeda, but you know, there are many al-Qaeda and terrorism activities going on".
"The deviant group... takes advantage of trouble spots outside the kingdom in planning, recruitment and training," Gen Turki said, apparently referring to Iraq.
He added: "Some individuals were training to fly to carry out terrorist attacks... Some of the cells arrested planned to target oil installations and refineries."
Gen Turki said there were also plans to attack a prison and release the inmates.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi himself, has called for attacks against the oil-rich kingdom because of its close ties to the West.
Our correspondent, Roger Hardy, says many ordinary Saudis are appalled by the group's violent methods but some of the disaffected young or from part of the powerful Wahhabi religious establishment have offered support.
Most of the 19 al-Qaeda militants who carried out the suicide plane attacks in the US in September 2001 were Saudis.
By THOMAS WAGNER, Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD - U.S. forces fired an artillery barrage in southern Baghdad Sunday morning, rocking the capital with loud explosions, while the death toll from a suicide car bomb attack in the Shiite holy city of Karbala rose to 68.
The blasts in Baghdad came a day after the U.S. military announced the deaths of nine American troops, including four killed in separate roadside bombings south of Baghdad and five in fighting in Anbar province, a Sunni insurgent stronghold west of the capital.
The size and the pattern of the explosions, which began after 9 a.m. and lasted for at least 15 minutes, suggested they were directed at Sunni militant neighborhoods along the city's southern rim. Such blasts have been heard in the evenings but are rare at that time of day.In a brief statement to The Associated Press, the U.S. military said it fired the artillery from a forward operating base near 's Rasheed military base southeast of Baghdad, but provided no other details.
Iraqis in the southern region of the city said American and Iraqi forces had stepped up their operations in the Dora area of southern Baghdad starting Saturday night.
Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad confirmed Sunday that his government will attend a major regional conference on Iraq set for this week in Egypt, the Iraqi prime minister's office said.
A statement from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office said Ahmadinejad telephoned the Iraqi leader and told him Tehran would participate in the meeting Thursday and Friday in the resort of Sharm El-Sheik.
The call was made as top Iranian envoy Ali Larijani flew to Baghdad for talks with Iraqi leaders.In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said Larijani would discuss the conference with Iraqi government officials as has "some questions and ambiguities about the agenda."
Authorities in northern Iraq imposed an indefinite curfew in the Sunni stronghold of Samarra after leaflets signed by rival insurgent groups threatened policemen if they did not quit their jobs and promised to target any oil company that wants to explore in the area.
The warnings to the policemen were signed by al-Qaida in Iraq and threatened to destroy their houses if they didn't comply.
Leaflets signed by a separate insurgent umbrella group calling itself the Mujahedeen of Samarra warned against oil exploration in the area and were posted on the walls of mosques in central Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
The blast in Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, took place about 7 p.m. Saturday in a crowded commercial area about 200 yards from the shrines of Imam Abbas and Imam Hussein, major Shiite saints. The shrines, some of the country's most sacred, were not damaged, police said.
Police first thought the explosion was caused by a parked car bomb, but Ghalib al-Daami, a Karbala provincial council member, said Sunday it was a suicide car bomber in the busy commercial center.
Residents on Sunday gathered around the large crater left in the road by the bomb, and pools of water left by firefighters fighting the blaze were still tinged red with blood.
Salim Kazim, the spokesman for Karbala health directorate, said the casualty figures had risen to 68 dead after some of the wounded died and more bodies were found on the roofs of buildings or in the rubble, and 178 were wounded.
As police maintained a vehicle ban in the city, 50 miles south of Baghdad, people began digging through the rubble of damaged shops.
"The explosion was so powerful that it threw me up into the air," said Haidar Ismail, one of the many patients lying in overcrowded rooms at Imam Hussein Hospital with bandages covering their wounds and burns.
Saturday's attack was the second car bomb to strike the city's central area in two weeks. On April 14, 47 people were killed and 224 were wounded in a car bombing in the same area.
Ghalib al-Daami, a provincial council member who oversees security matters, said the bomber detonated his payload about 200 yards from the Imam Abbas shrine, which with the others draws thousands of Shiite pilgrims from Iran and other countries. That suggested the attack was aimed at killing as many Shiite worshippers as possible.
"I did not expect this explosion because I thought the place was well protected by the police," said Qassim Hassan, a clothing merchant who was injured. "I demand a trial for the people in charge of the security in Karbala."
Speaking from a hospital bed, Hassan said his brother and a cousin were still missing. "I regret that I voted for those traitors who only care about their posts, not the people who voted for them," he said.
The U.S. military has warned that such bombings were intended to provoke retaliatory violence by Shiite militias, whose members have largely complied with political pressure to avoid confrontations with Americans during the U.S. troop buildup.
In other developments Sunday:
• Two roadside bombs exploded in separate areas in a predominantly Shiite area in southeastern Baghdad, killing three civilians and wounding nine, police said.
• Gunmen seriously wounded Amal al-Moudares, one of Iraq's best known radio and television journalists, in an attack near her home in Baghdad, police said.
• The Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group of Sunni militants that includes al-Qaida in Iraq, claimed responsibility for a suicide truck bombing Friday in the western city of Hit, saying it was targeting the police chief. The attack killed nine Iraqi security forces and six civilians, although police chief Hamid Ibrahim al-Numrawi and his family were unharmed.
• In a statement posted on a militant web site, al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb Thursday that killed 10 Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint in Khalis, a longtime flashpoint city 50 miles northeast of Baghdad.
By AUDREY McAVOY, Associated Press Writer
SCHOFIELD BARRACKS, Hawaii - The Army's new chief of staff says he wants to accelerate by two years a plan to increase the nation's active-duty soldiers by 65,000.
The Army has set 2012 as its target date for a force expansion to 547,000 troops, but Gen. George Casey said Saturday that he has told his staff to have the soldiers ready earlier.
"I said that's too long. Go back and tell me what it would take to get it done faster," he said in an interview with The Associated Press during a stop in Hawaii.Casey became the Army's chief of staff on April 12 after serving as the top U.S. commander in for two-and-a-half years. He visited Hawaii for a few days in a Pacific region tour to talk with soldiers and their families. He next heads to Japan, and Alaska.
Casey said his staff has submitted a proposal for the accelerated timeline but that he has yet to approve the plan. He said the Army was stretched and would remain that way until the additional troops were trained and equipped.
Casey told a group of soldiers' spouses that one of his tasks is to try to limit the impact of the strain on soldiers and their families.
"We live in a difficult period for the Army because the demand for our forces exceeds the supply," he said.
A woman in the group asked Casey if her husband's deployments would stop getting longer. She said they used to last for six months in the 1990s but then started lasting nine months and 12 months. Two weeks ago, she heard the Army's announcement that deployments would be extended as long as 15 months.
"Do you honestly foresee this spiral, in effect, stopping?" she asked.
Casey said the Army wants to keep deployments to 15 months, but "I cannot look at you in the eye and guarantee that it would not go beyond."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January said he was recommending to the president that the Army boost its active-duty soldiers by 65,000 to 547,000. Casey said about 35,000 of those additional soldiers are already in place.
Gates also recommended that the Marine Corps increase its active-duty force by 27,000 to 202,000.
By MATTHEW LEE, Associated Press Writer
Altogether, 40 percent more people were killed by increasingly lethal means around the globe.
The report partly attributes the higher casualty figures to a 25-percent jump in the number of nonvehicular suicide bombings targeting large crowds. That overwhelmed a 12-percent dip in suicide attacks involving vehicles.
In Iraq, the use of chemical weapons, seen for the first time in a November 23, 2006 attack in Sadr City, also "signaled a dangerous strategic shift in tactics," it says.
With the rise in fatalities, the number of injuries from terrorist attacks also rose, by 54 percent, between 2005 and 2006, with a doubling in the number wounded in Iraq over the period, according to the department's Country Reports on Terrorism 2006.
The numbers were compiled by the National Counterterrorism Center and refer to deaths and injuries sustained by "noncombatants," with significant increases in attacks targeting children, educators and journalists.
"By far the largest number of reported terrorist incidents occurred in the Near East and South Asia," says the 335-page report, referring to the regions where Iraq and Afghanistan are located.
"These two regions also were the locations for 90 percent of all the 290 high-casualty attacks that killed 10 or more people," says the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press ahead of its official release.
The report says 6,600, or 45 percent, of the attacks took place in Iraq, killing about 13,000 people, or 65 percent of the worldwide total of terrorist-related deaths in 2006. Kidnappings by terrorists soared 300 percent in Iraq over 2005.
Afghanistan had 749 strikes in 2006, a 50-percent rise from 2005 when 491 attacks were tallied, according to the report.
However, it also details a surge in Africa, where 65 percent more attacks, 420 compared to 253 in 2005, were counted last year, largely due to turmoil in or near Sudan, including Darfur, and Nigeria where oil facilities and workers have been targeted.
As in previous years, the 2006 report identifies Iran as the "most active state sponsor" of terror, accusing the Islamic Republic of helping plan and foment attacks to destabilize Iraq and derail Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard has been "linked to armor-piercing explosives that resulted in the deaths of coalition forces" and has helped, along with Lebanon's radical Hezbollah movement, train Iraqi extremists to build bombs, the report says.Although the designation of Iran is not new, it appears in the report that is being released as Secretary of State prepares to attend a conference of Iraq's neighbors, at which she has not ruled out a meeting with Iran's foreign minister.
The report says that terrorists continue to rely mainly on conventional weapons in their attacks, but noted no let up in an alarming trend toward more sophisticated and better planned and coordinated strikes.
For instance, while the number of bombings increased by 30 percent between 2005 and 2006, the death tolls from these incidents rose by 39 percent and the number of injuries rose by 45 percent, it says.
The report attributes the higher casualty figures to a 25-percent jump in the number of non-vehicular suicide bombings targeting large crowds that more than made up for a slight 12-percent dip in suicide attacks involving vehicles.
Of the 58,000 people killed or wounded in terrorist attacks around the world in 2006, more than 50 percent were Muslims, the report, says with government officials, police and security guards accounting for a large proportion, the report says.
The number of child casualties from terrorist attacks soared by more than 80 percent between 2005 and 2006 to more than 1,800, while incidents involving educators were up more than 45 percent and those involving journalists up 20 percent, the report says.
Twenty-eight U.S. citizens were killed and 27 wounded in terrorist incidents in 2006, most of them in Iraq, where eight of the 12 Americans kidnapped by terrorists last year were taken captive, it says.
By HAMID AHMED, Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD - Nearly 4,000 American soldiers pour into Baghdad this week, the fourth of five brigades being sent to strengthen an 11-week-old crackdown aimed at quelling sectarian violence, the U.S. military said Wednesday.
But while the U.S. and Iraqi militaries moved to complete an increase of forces in the capital, bombings, shootings and mortar attacks left at least 47 people dead across the country.The developments came on the eve of an international conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik in a bid to boost world economic and diplomatic support for and reduce the tide of sectarian violence and terrorism there.
Rice said the history of troubled relations between Iraq and its neighbors predates the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, but said Middle East states should understand the risk they face from a failed Iraq.
"Iraq is at the center of either a stable Middle East or an unstable Middle East, and we should therefore all align our policies in ways that contribute to stability," Rice said.
The U.S. military said Wednesday that the fourth of five brigades being sent to help Iraqi security forces as part of the crackdown had arrived this week.
The 4th Brigade, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team from Fort Lewis, Wash., which includes about 3,700 soldiers, will be deployed in the Baghdad area and in northern Iraq, the military said. Officials want the rest in place by June, for a total in Iraq of 160,000.
U.S. military spokesman Rear Adm. Mark Fox said Wednesday that Iraqi and U.S. forces now have 57 joint security stations and combat outposts in the Baghdad area and that "while the security situation remains exceedingly challenging, we've seen some encouraging signs of progress."
"We continue to see a reduced total number of sectarian incidents in comparison to before the Baghdad security operation, including murders and kidnappings," Fox told reporters in Baghdad. But he said car bomb attacks have increased, including some with very high casualties.
When complete, the Baghdad security operation will include about 28,000 additional U.S. forces, including 20,500 combat soldiers and about 8,000 service members involved in support services such as intelligence, military police and logistics.
Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, an Iraqi military spokesman, said most of the crackdown's operations were taking place in volatile areas outside Baghdad, including the Sunni cities of Mahmoudiyah and Madain.
Al-Moussawi said insurgent operations had dropped significantly in Baghdad as the groups had fled to other areas.
"Next week will witness more military operations in both halves of Baghdad," he said, referring to the two sides of the Tigris River that divides Baghdad. "Almost all our military operations are now taking place on Baghdad's outskirts."
But violence persisted Wednesday.
The deadliest attacks included a suicide car bombing that killed at least nine people in Baghdad's Sadr City, and a roadside bombing of a minibus that killed at least eight people south of the capital. At least 19 bullet-riddled bodies — apparent victims of so-called sectarian death squads — also were found, including 10 in the northeastern city of Baqouba.The security efforts come as is engaged in a fierce debate with the Democratic-led Congress over the war. Bush vetoed legislation to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq in a historic showdown with Congress over whether the unpopular and costly war should end or escalate.
The measure would require the first U.S. combat troops to be withdrawn by Oct. 1 with a goal of a complete pullout six months later.
Democrats accused Bush of ignoring Americans' desire to stop the war, which has claimed the lives of more than 3,350 members of the military.
Ismail Qassim, a 41-year-old Shiite electricity ministry employee in Baghdad, welcomed the veto.
"In spite of all the problems Iraq is facing because of the American presence, there is some need for them at least for one more year because of the sectarian strife in Iraq and corruption in the security services," he said.
Sameer Hussein, a 22-year-old Sunni college student in Baghdad, said he wanted the U.S. forces to withdraw but didn't think they ever would.
"Even if they will withdraw they will leave permanent military
bases in Iraq and that is something Iraqi people will reject," he said.
By CHARLES BABINGTON, Associated Press Writer
"Make no mistake, Democrats are committed to ending this war," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said outside the White House. "We hope to do so in unison with the president of the United States."
Bush showed he also has little appetite for backing down on what he wants in war funding legislation — namely, no strings on the military effort in Iraq.
"I am confident that with goodwill on both sides that we can move beyond political statements and agree on a bill that gives our troops the funds and flexibility to do the job that we asked them to do," he said in a speech in Washington before The Associated General Contractors of America.
Congressional leaders from both parties, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., went to the White House to discuss follow-up war funding legislation, a day after Bush vetoed the first version because it would require U.S. combat troops to begin withdrawing by Oct. 1. Reid and Pelosi sat stone-faced on either side of the president as Bush made a brief statement before their talks began.
"Yesterday was a day that highlighted differences," the president said. "Today is the day where we can work together to find common ground."
He added: "I'm confident we can reach agreement."
That seemed a tall order.
The meeting, delayed by the override vote but slated to last an hour, broke up after only about 30 minutes. And both Republican and Democratic leaders came out not to declare progress but only to promise to work toward it.
"We really didn't discuss the deal," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"The president understands that there is a separate unit of government that he has to deal with, called the Congress," Reid said.Negotiations were to start immediately, with Bush directing White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, national security adviser and budget director Rob Portman to represent him on Capitol Hill.
"We've figured out the process in terms of how we're going to begin to move forward — that's progress," insisted House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.
The 222-203 vote in the House fell far short of the necessary two-thirds majority. Voting to override Bush's veto were 220 Democrats and two Republicans. Voting to sustain the veto were 196 Republicans and seven Democrats.
"The president has turned a tin ear to the wishes of the American people," Pelosi said during the hour-long debate beforehand. "The president wants a blank check. The Congress will not give it to him."
Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., said politicians should not make military decisions.
"Now is not the time for the United States to back down in its war on terror," Lewis said.
Negotiations for a new spending bill could prove difficult. Both parties agree it should include benchmarks for progress in Iraq, but many Democrats insist they be tied to timelines for U.S. troop withdrawals if they are unmet. Bush and his congressional allies say such links are unacceptable.
Pelosi had told reporters Wednesday: "Benchmarks are important, but they have to have teeth in order to be effective."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said before the vote that he hopes to have a new bill passed in the House in two weeks, with a final measure sent to the president before Memorial Day.
"We're not going to leave our troops in harm's way ... without the resources they need," said Hoyer, D-Md.
Hoyer would not speculate on exactly what the bill might look like, but said he anticipates a minimum-wage increase will be part of it. He said the bill should fund combat through Sept. 30 as Bush has requested, casting doubt that Democratic leaders will adopt a proposal by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., to fund the war two or three months at a time.
The situation has Democratic lawmakers in a difficult position. Because they control the House and Senate, the pressure is mainly on them to craft a bill that Bush will sign, and thus avoid accusations that they failed to finance troops in a time of war.
The party's most liberal members, especially in the House, say they will vote against money for continuing the war if there's no binding language on troop drawdowns. The bill Bush rejected also contained a goal of a complete pullout by next spring.
"I think the Democrats are in a box," Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in an interview. "We're pretty resolute on our side. We are not going to tie this funding to any type of withdrawal deadline or any type of redeployment deadline."
Some Democrats believe the GOP solidarity will crack over time, noting that polls show heavy public support for a withdrawal plan.
Numerous possible compromises are being floated on Capitol Hill, all involving some combination of benchmarks. Some would require Bush to certify monthly that the Iraqi government is fully cooperating with U.S. efforts in several areas, such as giving troops the authority to pursue extremists.
The key impasse in Congress is whether to require redeployments of U.S. troops if the benchmarks are not met.
Under one proposal being floated, unmet benchmarks would cause some U.S. troops to be removed from especially violent regions such as Baghdad. They would redeploy to places in Iraq where they presumably could fight terrorists but avoid the worst centers of Sunni-Shia conflict.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., the House's fourth-ranking Democratic leader, conceded Democrats have yet to figure out where they will find the votes to tie benchmarks to redeployments.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri suggested tying benchmarks to continued U.S. nonmilitary aid to Iraq instead. But that is an idea that many Democrats consider too weak.
By ANNE FLAHERTY, Associated Press Writer
"If they go off on vacation for two months while our troops fight — that would be the outrage of outrages," said Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn.
The Iraq parliament's recess, starting this July, would likely come without Baghdad politicians reaching agreements considered key to easing sectarian tensions. Examples include regulating distribution of the country's oil wealth and reversing measures that have excluded many Sunnis from jobs and government positions because of Baath party membership.Talk of the adjournment comes amid a heated debate in Congress on the pullout of U.S. troops in Iraq. this week vetoed $124.2 billion legislation ordering troops to begin leaving Oct. 1. Failing on Wednesday to gain a two-thirds majority needed to override the veto, Democrats were expected to begin negotiations Thursday with top White House aides on the next step.
Numerous possible compromises are being floated on Capitol Hill, all involving some combination of benchmarks. The key impasse, however, is whether to require redeployments of U.S. troops if the benchmarks are not met.
Democrats contend that initiating troop withdrawals will pressure Iraqis into making the necessary political compromises. Republicans say the Iraqis could still refuse to work together and the consequence would be a blood bath.
The only area of agreement between the two sides is that the Iraqis are testing their patience.
"That is not acceptable," Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said of a two-month recess. "An action of that consequence would send a very bad signal to the world that they don't have the resolve that matches the resolve of the brave troops that are fighting in the battle today."
Added Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb: "I certainly hope they're not going to take any sort of recess when the question is whether they're going to make any progress."
Republicans and Democrats themselves remain gridlocked on how far to go to force Bush's hand on the war. When asked about progress made on bipartisan cooperation in Congress, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., declared to reporters Wednesday there had been "discussions about talking" but nothing more.
Congress leaves for four weeks each August and takes a week off, sometimes more, around prominent holidays. Lawmakers frequently adjourn for the August recess without reaching agreements on important legislation.
However, sectarian violence continues to rage in Iraq. In one particularly devastating attack, a bomb struck the Sadriyah market last month, killing more than 120 people and wounding more than 140 more.
More than 3,350 U.S. troops have died in Iraq. April was the deadliest month for the military this year.
The violence in Iraq and lack of structure in the new government are partly to blame for the slow political progress. For example, getting a quorum among Iraqi politicians can be difficult because a number of top Sunni legislators do not spend much time in Baghdad due to security reasons. Parliament leaders are also still struggling to impose party discipline among their rank-and-file members.
The Iraqis have been able to reach consensus in some areas, but not necessarily ones that would calm sectarian violence.
On Monday — the same day Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., issued a statement urging the Iraqi politicians to reconsider their summer break — the Iraqi parliament called for a ban on U.S. troops near a holy Shiite Muslim shrine. Protests were led by the radical anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc after U.S. and Iraqi troops conducted a raid near the shrine.
by Jay Deshmukh
"We consider this conference in Sharm el-Sheikh to be an international show of support for Iraq, and the main aim of the International Compact is to rebuild a unified, democratic and federal Iraq and to distribute its wealth fairly," Maliki said in his opening remarks.
Foreign ministers and top diplomats from more than 50 countries gathered in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to launch the the International Compact with Iraq (ICI), a five-year plan aimed at stabilising war-torn Iraq.
The document includes a raft of measures to give fresh impetus to Iraq's economy, improve governance and offer financial assistance, in a process key players hope will bolster reconciliation between warring communities.
"We call on all participating countries to cancel Iraq's debt in order to allow it to begin the building and development and to fix the destroyed infrastructure," Maliki said.
Iraq's Finance Minister Bayan Jabr Solagh told AFP before the conference kicked off he expected countries including Saudi Arabia and Egypt to write off up to 40-50 billion dollars of debt at the meeting.
"Your support will allow the national unity government to continue dedicating itself to the political process and democracy," Maliki told participants.
The meeting was seen as the biggest diplomatic push to solve Iraq's many woes since the US-led invasion in March 2003 and Rice urged broad and sustained support for the new initiative.
"Today's Compact meeting is an historic event, but we all know it is the beginning of a process and not an end in itself," she said.
"This process will grow and strengthen as more countries and organisations commit to supporting Iraq, so we must all work to expand international participation in this compact," she added.
On her way to the conference, Rice said the onus was on Iraq's neighbours to show their commitment to ending violence, warning that their own stability was at stake.
Completing a shift in US policy, Rice was expected to hold rare meetings with Syria and Iran, two of Iraq's neighbours which Washington has repeatedly accused of supporting the Sunni insurgency and Shiite militias respectively.
A senior US state department official told reporters on condition of anonymity that Rice would meet Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem later Thursday.
The last high-ranking US official to hold talks with Syrian officials was then deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, who travelled to Damascus in January 2005.
Speculation also abounded over a possible Rice meeting with her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki.
The two are expected to attend consultations together but it remained unclear whether they would engage in deep bilateral talks, which would mark the first high level talks meeting since diplomatic relations broke off in 1980.
On her way to Egypt, Rice indicated that she would also be ready to discuss issues other than Iraq with the Iranian foreign minister, including the standoff over the Islamic republic's nuclear programme.
"I think I could handle any question as asked," she said.Key points of the ICI plan include new laws on oil revenue sharing and on the return to public life of members of the late 's regime.
Friday's meetings are expected to bring together Iraq's neighbours in a bid to step up cooperation on security issues, such as cross-border smuggling of weapons and militants.The conference comes against the backdrop of an intense battle between US 's administration and the Democrat-dominated Congress over the war in Iraq.
On Tuesday, Bush dashed the hopes of some of Iraq's neighbours for a firm timetable for the withdrawal of US troops by vetoing a bill setting a start date for a pullout.
By KIM GAMEL, Associated Press Writer
Al-Qaida in Iraq branded the country's Sunni vice president a "criminal" for participating in the U.S.-backed government, and a suicide bomber Saturday struck army recruits west of Baghdad, killing at least 15 people in another warning to Sunnis not to cooperate with the Shiite leadership.
The suicide attack in the mostly Sunni town of Abu Ghraib was the deadliest in a series of attacks that left at least 74 people dead nationwide.
The verbal attack on Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi was purportedly delivered by al-Qaida leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, in an audiotape posted on an extremist Web site only days after Iraqi authorities claimed he had been killed.
During the 21-minute speech, the al-Qaida leader criticized al-Hashemi as "this criminal" who "relentlessly calls" for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq. Al-Hashemi has resisted calls by fellow Sunni leaders to quit the Shiite-dominated government.
The speaker also denied any clashes between al-Qaida and other "jihadist groups or our blessed tribes," saying reports to the contrary by U.S. and Iraqi authorities were only "lies and a desperate attempt to drive a wedge within the ranks of the jihadists."
Iraqi officials announced this week that al-Masri had been killed in an internal fight among al-Qaida members; they could not produce a body and U.S. officials said they could not confirm the report.
The audiotape — the first word from al-Masri since his reported death — was posted on a militant Web site and appeared to be a clear warning to Sunnis against cooperating with the Shiite-dominated government.
Hours later, a video was released showing Osama bin Laden's deputy mocking the nearly 3-month-old Baghdad security plan, recounting the Apr. 12 suicide bombing at the Iraqi parliament cafeteria in the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, when a bomber slipped through security and blew himself up amid lunching lawmakers, killing one Sunni legislator.
The attack cast heavy doubt about progress in the latest U.S.-Iraqi bid to clamp off violence in the capital. Iraq's al-Qaida front group claimed responsibility for the bombing.
"And lest Bush worry, I congratulate him on the success of his security plan, and I invite him on the occasion for a glass of juice, but in the cafeteria of the Iraqi parliament in the middle of the Green Zone," Ayman al-Zawahri said, according to the Washington-based SITE Institute, which monitors militant statements.
Al-Zawahri also blamed Iraq's Shiite-Sunni violence on "individuals and groups in Iraq who do not want the coalition forces to leave" but claimed al-Qaida fighters in Iraq were "nearing closer to victory over their enemy, despite this sectarian fighting" that has convulsed the country.
No group claimed responsibility for the Abu Ghraib attack, which occurred when a bomber walked into an Iraqi army recruiting center in the predominantly Sunni town and blew himself up amid a crowd of recruits, police said. The dead included 10 recruits and five soldiers, officials said. Another 22 people were wounded.
Iraqi security forces are frequently targeted by Sunni insurgents who accuse them of collaborating with U.S.-led efforts to stabilize the country.
U.S. officials say a growing number of Sunni tribes are turning against al-Qaida, particularly in the western Anbar province, as they are repelled by the group's brutality and religious extremism.
The military has blamed the terror network for a series of recent car bombs and suicide attacks that have killed hundreds despite stepped up security in the capital.
Elsewhere, a suicide car bomber tore through a police station in western Baghdad, killing a policeman. The bullet-riddled bodies of five policemen dressed in civilian clothes were found late Friday in a deserted field north of Baghdad, with identity documents showing they were from the Sunni city of Ramadi.
At least 50 other Iraqi civilians were killed or found dead on Saturday, including three youths who died in a mortar attack while they were playing soccer in a southern Shiite enclave in Baghdad and two people killed when a bomb hidden under a car exploded in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Karradah in the center of the capital.
The bodies of 29 people who were apparently shot to death by so-called sectarian death squads also were found in Baghdad and other cities, including that of a Sunni surgeon who had been kidnapped three days ago in the northern city of Mosul
Sen. Olympia Snowe (news, bio, voting record), R-Maine, on a trip to Baghdad with other lawmakers, said Saturday that she is not convinced that the Iraqi leaders have a sense of urgency about achieving political reconciliation. She said she told Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the country's most powerful Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, that the Iraqi parliament should refrain from taking a recess this summer.
"As we are doing the military surge, we should have a political surge by the government," Snowe said on a conference call with reporters. "They (U.S. troops) should not be on the front lines while the parliament is at recess for two months."
Snowe said al-Hakim told her no decision had been made but he expected parliament to cut short its recess.
By ROBERT H. REID and ANNE FLAHERTY, Associated Press Writers
A string of heavy losses from powerful roadside bombs has raised new questions about the vulnerability of the Stryker, the Army's troop-carrying vehicle hailed by supporters as the key to a leaner, more mobile force.
Since the Strykers went into action in violent Diyala province north of Baghdad two months ago, losses of the vehicles have been rising steadily, U.S. officials said.
A single infantry company in Diyala lost five Strykers this month in less than a week, according to soldiers familiar with the losses, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to release the information. The overall number of Strykers lost recently is classified.
In one of the biggest hits, six American soldiers and a journalist were killed when a huge bomb exploded beneath their Stryker on May 6. It was the biggest one-day loss for the battalion in more than two years.
"We went for several months with no losses and were very proud of that," a senior Army official said in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment publicly. "Since then, there have been quite a few Stryker losses."
"They are learning how to defeat them," the Army official said of Iraqi insurgents.
The Army introduced the $11 billion, eight-wheeled Stryker in 1999 as the cornerstone of a ground force of the future — hoping to create faster, more agile armored units than tank-equipped units, but with more firepower and protection than light-infantry units.
But the Army and the Marines are already looking for something different that can survive big roadside bombs — the main threat to soldiers in Iraq — meaning the Stryker's high-profile status as the Army's "next generation" vehicle may be short-lived.
"It is indeed an open question if the Stryker is right for this type of warfare," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior analyst with the Brookings Institution. "I am inclined to think that the concept works better for peacekeeping. But based on data the Army has made available to date, it's hard to be sure."
Supporters of the Strykers, which have been used in Iraq since late 2003, say the vehicles that carry two crew members and 11 infantrymen offer mobility, firepower and comfort.
Lighter and faster than tracked vehicles like tanks, each Stryker can rush soldiers quickly to a fight, enabling commanders to maintain security over a wide area with relatively fewer troops. Humvees can carry only four soldiers — and are more vulnerable to bombs even when their armor is upgraded.
"I love Strykers," said Spc. Christopher Hagen, based in Baqouba. "With Strykers, you're mobile, you're fast. You can get anywhere anytime. They bring a lot of troops to the fight."
But some analysts have long questioned the wisdom of moving away from more heavily armored tracked vehicles like tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles to wheeled transports, like the Stryker.
They say that is especially true in Iraq, where powerful bombs — not rocket-propelled grenades or small arms fire — are the main threat.
"The Stryker vehicle was conceived at a time when the Army was more concerned about mobility and agility than it was about protection," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst from the Lexington Institute. "Stryker was the answer to that need."
The Stryker's vulnerabilities have become increasingly apparent since a battalion of about 700 soldiers and nearly 100 Stryker vehicles from the Army's 2nd Infantry Division was sent to Diyala province in March to bolster an infantry brigade struggling to restore order there.
Trouble started as soon as the Strykers arrived in Baqouba, the provincial capital of Diyala.
U.S. commanders ordered the vehicles into Baqouba's streets at dawn the day after they arrived. The hope was that the large, menacing vehicles — armed with a heavy machine gun and a 105mm cannon — would intimidate insurgents and reassure local residents.
Instead, insurgents hammered the Strykers with automatic weapons fire, rocket-propelled grenades and a network of roadside bombs. By the end of that first day, one American soldier was dead, 12 were wounded and two Strykers were destroyed.
A few days before the May 6 attack that killed the six soldiers and a Russian journalist, troops scrambled out of another damaged Stryker and took cover in a house while they watched the vehicle burn. Several of them were injured but none seriously.
Losses have since mounted.
A few days after the May 6 blast, two Strykers were hit by bombs, and one soldier was killed and another was seriously wounded.
Lt. Col. Bruce Antonio, who commands a Stryker battalion in Diyala, said he and soldiers still have confidence in the Strykers and noted they had survived many bombs, which the military calls improvised explosive device or IEDs.
But Antonio said some insurgents had found "the right mix of explosives and IED positioning to inflict severe damage on the vehicle." He also noted that tanks had also proved vulnerable too.
The insurgents also apparently are becoming better at hiding the devices — the IED that killed the six soldiers and the journalist was believed hidden in a sewer line. To add potency, insurgents surrounded the device with cement to channel the blast force up into the tank, according to soldiers familiar with the investigation.
Supporters of the Strykers say all that proves that it's the lethality of bombs in Iraq — not the Strykers themselves — that are the problem: The bombs are now so powerful that even Abrams main battle tanks are vulnerable to some of them.
"I'm not sure if it's any reflection on the (Stryker) but rather on how things are getting worse" in Iraq, according to a senior Democratic congressional staffer who tracks Army programs, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
Stryker soldiers said that when they were based in Mosul in the north, roadside bombs weren't so big — often, little more than pipe bombs. In Baqouba, the bombs are bigger and buried deeper, making them difficult to detect.
"With what we got hit with the other day, it wouldn't have mattered what we were in," said Spc. John Pearce, speaking of the May 6 bomb. "We were going to take casualties, regardless."
Either way, the Army and Marine Corps already are pushing for new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPS, whose V-shaped hulls are designed to deflect bomb blasts outward, rather than through the vehicle.
The Pentagon has requested nearly 7,800 of the new vehicles at a cost of $8.4 billion and is considering ordering thousands more to give soldiers better protection.
Such moves, however, serve only to reinforce the views of critics, who believe the Army opted for a vehicle that was useful in Balkan peacekeeping or other "low threat" missions but is inadequate in so-called "asymmetric warfare," where a weaker opponent devises simple tools to exploit a strong opponent's weak points.
"As long as the Stryker-equipped light infantry was used ... against lightly armed insurgents, there was no problem," said retired Col. Douglas Macgregor, who writes on defense issues.
"Now, they are being tossed into the urban battle where only tracked armor can survive."
Reid reported from Baghdad and Flaherty from Washington. Associated Press reporters Todd Pitman in Diyala in Iraq and Pauline Jelinek in Washington also contributed to this report.
By RAVI NESSMAN, Associated Press Writer
An al-Qaida front group announced Sunday it had captured American soldiers in a deadly attack the day before, as thousands of U.S. troops searched insurgent areas south of Baghdad for their three missing comrades.
The statement came on one of the deadliest days in the country in recent weeks, with at least 124 people killed or found dead. A suicide truck bomb tore through the offices of a Kurdish political party in northern Iraq, killing 50 people, and a car bombing in a crowded Baghdad market killed another 17.
Troops surrounded the town of Youssifiyah and told residents over loudspeakers to stay inside, residents said. They then methodically searched the houses, focusing on possible secret chambers under the floors where the soldiers might be hidden, residents said. The soldiers marked each searched house with a white piece of cloth.
Soldiers also searched cars entering and leaving the town, writing "searched" on the side of each vehicle they had inspected. Several people were arrested, witnesses said.
The Islamic State in Iraq offered no proof for its claim that it was behind the attack Saturday in Mahmoudiya that also killed four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi translator. But the Sunni area known as the "triangle of death" is a longtime al-Qaida stronghold.
If the claim proves true, it would mark one of the most brazen attacks by the umbrella Sunni insurgent group against U.S. forces here.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, spokesman for the U.S. military, said 4,000 U.S. troops backed by aircraft and intelligence units were scouring the farming area as the military made "every effort available to find our missing soldiers."
President Bush was also getting regular updates on the missing soldiers, said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council in Washington.
The early morning attack on two U.S. military vehicles outside of Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, left the bodies of the four U.S. soldiers and their translator badly burned.
Caldwell said the bodies of the interpreter and three of the slain soldiers had been identified, but the military was still working to identify the fifth.
Later Sunday, the Islamic State of Iraq posted a brief message on a militant Web site saying it was responsible for the attack and held an unspecified number of U.S. soldiers. The group promised more details later.
The Islamic State is a coalition of eight insurgent groups. Late last month, it named a 10-member "Cabinet" complete with a "war minister," an apparent attempt to present the Sunni coalition as an alternative to the U.S.-backed, Shiite-led administration of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
U.S. military officials said they had no indication of who was behind Saturday's attack.
"It's difficult to verify anything that al-Qaida in Iraq would say because they lie," said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a military spokesman. However, "it would not surprise us if it were al-Qaida behind this, because we've seen this type of attack, this type of tactic, before."
Insurgents also launched attacks across the country Sunday, with a suicide bomber in northern Iraq slamming a truck into local offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which is headed by Massoud Barzani, leader of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
Cars were charred and crushed by the blast in Makhmur, a town with a substantial Kurdish population just south of the autonomous Kurdish-controlled areas.
At least 50 people were killed and 115 were wounded, including the city's mayor, Abdul Rahman Delaf, who also is a prominent Kurdish writer, and the director of the KDP office, said Ziryan Othman, the health minister of the Kurdish regional government.
"Makhmur is an open, peaceful area, and al-Qaida is trying to destabilize it by causing fighting between Arabs and Kurds," said Qassim Amin, who son and daughter — who both work for the party — were injured.
The attack was the second suicide bombing in Kurdish areas in five days. On Wednesday, a suicide truck bomber devastated the security headquarters in Irbil — the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region and one of Iraq's most peaceful cities — killing at least 15 people and wounding more than 100. The Islamic State of Iraq also claimed responsibility for that blast.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, a parked car exploded near the popular Sadriyah market in the center of the city Sunday, killing at least 17 people and wounding 46, police said. AP Television News footage showed a crater in the ground filled with debris, splintered wood, metal and a tire.
"I saw pools of blood and charred pieces of flesh," said Firas Fhadil, the owner of a nearby electrical appliances shop.
Market workers used fruit carts to evacuate the casualties, because road closures made it difficult for ambulances to reach the area, he said.
Sadriyah has been hit by several blasts usually blamed on Sunni insurgents, who are suspected of targeting commercial areas to kill large numbers of people and derail the Baghdad security crackdown that began 12 weeks ago.
On April 18, 127 people were killed in a car bombing in the same area — one of four bombings that day that killed a total of 183 people.
With violence on the rise, Caldwell announced that an additional 3,000 forces have been sent to Diyala province, a province northeast of Baghdad and scene of recent sharp fighting.
Last week, the top U.S. commander in the north, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, said he didn't have enough troops to restore order in Diyala.
On Sunday, Iraqi gunmen drove into the Diyala capital of Baqouba, pulled two handcuffed men out of the trunk and shot and killed them, police and witnesses said.
"This is the destiny of traitors," the gunmen yelled. Three other civilians also were killed execution-style in a market in the city center, police said.
(This version CORRECTS RECASTS to correct number of killed for day to 124 from 137, after recounting deaths from across country; ADDS attack Wednesday in Irbil, corrects it was five days ago, sted four. Minor edits to trim. AP Video. AP Video.)
|| By Andrew North
BBC News, Baghdad
"For the first time, I am really thinking we will have to leave."
The words of Ali, a friend of mine, recently.
He told me how members of Moqtada Sadr's Mehdi militia had recently come knocking at his apartment building.
They demanded one of his neighbours give up his flat. They needed it as a safe house, in case US forces came looking for them.
The neighbour was cornered, my friend said. He made excuses. "So you don't like the Mehdi," the militia men responded. The man was terrified my, friend said. What could he do?
|| Every day when I go to work, I
have this feeling I will not see them (family) again
Baghdad office worker
It is all getting too close, he said.
The other day, he rushed home from work to move his family out, because a firefight had broken out nearby.
"We have gunbattles in the area every two or three days now."
Ali is like many Iraqis. He was happy to see Saddam Hussein overthrown.
And in many respects life has got much better for him and his family - primarily because he earns far more than he used to as a doctor.
The extra cash has made it worth hanging on, despite the constant chaos and violence, the lack of basic services like electricity.
He doesn't want me to say what he does now - or his real name - to protect his identity.
NO POWER, NO WATER
Talking of electricity, many parts of west Baghdad have not had power or running water for a month now.
Petrol queues are also more common again. The line at the nearest petrol station to our house often stretches several hundred metres.
The unluckiest can spend several days trying to fill their cars, eking out the last few drops in the tank. But each time they reach the front of the line, the petrol station runs out and they have to start again.
All this Ali has borne with a weary sigh.
It depresses him, but he always clung to a hope the situation would eventually turn.
He thought that turn might have come as the US and Iraqi security campaign got under way in February, as the first of the extra thousands of troops began to flow onto the streets.
For a few weeks, the city seemed safer. Many other Baghdadis said the same.
Roll forward to today, and the militia - supposedly one of the main targets of the plan - appears as strong as ever in his area. They are openly running checkpoints again, he says, although they keep weapons concealed.
The talk now in Baghdad is of how a new "Golden Unit" of the Mehdi is operating, trying to impose more discipline on the rag-tag movement, reining in some of the rogue elements beyond his control.
How significant this is remains unclear - these rogue elements have taken much of the blame for the widespread sectarian killings of Sunnis - but it is another sign of how quickly this and other armed groups adapt.
Many in Baghdad see what's going on now as a waiting game - waiting for the Americans to leave.
They hear how opposition to the war in the US has hardened. So, too, do the various Shia militias and Sunni insurgent groups.
A US withdrawal at some point in the next couple of years is therefore starting to look very possible and some are preparing, making sure they are in position.
This is why what hope Ali had is fast running out.
For several others I know, it already has - one of them an academic who I've written about here before.
She has now fled to Syria, adding to an already calamitous brain drain from Iraq since the US and British invasion.
Much as he dislikes them, Ali admits the militiamen are still seen as the last defence against al-Qaeda car bombers who have targeted Shia districts relentlessly.
The extremist Sunni group has again caught the Americans off guard.
As the security plan got under way, it was the Shia militias who were the number-one target.
But as the bombing onslaught got worse, US commanders had to do another about-turn and go after al-Qaeda all over again.
It is under massive pressure now, with almost constant US raids.
But like a Hydra, it keeps coming back - testament to its organisation and funding.
Facing opposition from many tribes in its former stronghold of Anbar province, it has developed new roots in the capital.
Through a mixture of coercion and financial inducements, many residents in the mainly Sunni districts of western Baghdad say it has actually managed to tighten its grip there in the past few months.
As soon as one local al-Qaeda amir or prince is killed or detained, another takes his place.
Ali has seen this change himself.
To get to his home, he now has to take a circuitous route to bypass a neighbouring Sunni area regarded as being totally under al-Qaeda's sway.
"We used to go there sometimes to buy food," he says. "I would never go there now."
He can see the graffiti though, at the edge of the neighbourhood.
"Long live al-Qaeda", it says. And "Death to the rejectionists" - the term Sunni extremists use to describe Shias.
America and Britain's overthrow of Saddam Hussein got rid of one kind of fear.
It has been replaced by another - but a much more unpredictable kind, which flows from chaos and turmoil and myriad armed groups who have carved out their own mini-states across Baghdad.
An office colleague was describing his fear every time his wife goes out just to buy groceries from a nearby shop.
"I ring her constantly. I am too terrified to let her or my children out most of the time. Every day when I go to work, I have this feeling I will not see them again."
Another colleague lives in another area under Shia militia control.
That control now means residents have to obey a Taleban-style moral and behaviour code.
In local cafes, the militia men have outlawed popular games such as dominoes and cards. They say they are against Islam.
Children playing on electronic games are told to put them away.
These are the ordinary stories of ordinary people trying to go about their life. It is a life that becomes ever more restricted and terrifying.
He told servicemen and women at the British HQ in Basra, southern Iraq, that they were doing "brilliant" work.
Minutes later, two mortars exploded, rocking the building - which typically receives two such attacks a day.
Earlier, Mr Blair also brushed aside mortar attacks on Baghdad's Green Zone just as he arrived. He hailed "signs of change and progress" in Iraq.
Both the Basra headquarters and Green Zone occupy large areas and come under frequent attack.
|| Plainly the security situation
remains very difficult but on the other
hand there are real signs of change and progress also
No-one is believed to have been hurt in the Basra attack on Saturday, and officials stressed that Mr Blair was not in any danger - but it is thought at least one person was injured in the Baghdad explosions.
BBC defence correspondent Paul Wood, who has been travelling with the prime minister, said the Basra headquarters received "two or three big impacts", which caused its windows to rattle.
"It was not a near miss but still it is a very telling example for the prime minister of the danger facing the troops and ordinary Iraqis," he said.
Mr Blair began his unannounced visit to Iraq in Baghdad on Saturday morning, later moving on to Basra.
In Basra, Mr Blair told troops: "This will be my last chance to say thank you for the work that you have done here."
"You have done it and you have done it absolutely brilliantly."
Mr Blair said some people questioned why troops were in Iraq, but he said what they were doing was "of importance to the future of not just Iraq but the rest of the world".
Mr Blair also chatted to groups of servicemen and women over cups of tea, to hear about the problems and challenges they faced.
Referring to kick-off time at Wembley, he joked: "I'm under strict instructions to wind everything up before the Cup final begins."
After receiving further detailed military briefings from UK commanders at the HQ, Mr Blair was due to fly back to London.
Speaking in Baghdad before moving on to Basra, Mr Blair insisted that things were improving in Iraq - in spite of the mortar attacks.
After talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, he told a news conference: "There are mortar attacks and terrorist attacks happening every day, that's the reality.
"The question is, what are we going to do in the face of these attacks?
"The answer is, we don't give in to them. The very purpose of the attacks, the suicide bombs, the mortars aimed in here, is so that you will carry nothing but that on your news and won't actually talk about the progress that's happening here."
He added: "Plainly the security situation remains very difficult but on the other hand there are real signs of change and progress also."
Mr Blair appeared irritated at repeated news conference questions about levels of violence.
He asked one reporter: "Why don't you listen to what the person who is the president of Iraq says about Iraq. They are not saying there's no violence or terrorism in Iraq but they are saying there's also change."
Mr Blair insisted he had "no regrets whatsoever" about removing Saddam.
And he warned Iran "has got to understand it can't support terrorism".
Earlier on Saturday, former US President Jimmy Carter criticised the UK prime minister for his "blind" support of the war in Iraq.
Mr Carter told the BBC the UK's "almost undeviating" support for "the ill-advised policies of President George W Bush in Iraq had been a major tragedy for the world".
Mr Brown, who will succeed Tony Blair as prime minister in June, joined six deputy leadership contenders at the event in Coventry.
As he described his humility at being elected Labour leader, a woman shouted "Gordon Brown, get the troops out".
Mr Brown said Iraq had been a "very divisive issue" but he believed the right decisions had been taken.
|| I take my responsibility as a
member of the Cabinet for the collective decisions that we made
Shortly after the woman was removed, Mr Brown addressed the issue of Iraq, saying he would be going himself to assess the situation.
He added: "I don't think we should deny the fact that it's been a very difficult issue and it's also been one where public opinion has effectively been divided.
"I take my responsibility as a member of the Cabinet for the collective decisions that we made, and I believe they were the right decisions, but we're at a new stage now".
The Sunday Telegraph reported earlier that US President George Bush has been told to expect relations to cool with Britain over Iraq when Mr Brown takes over, and to expect an announcement on troop withdrawal.
Mr Brown said the government was working with the people of Iraq to enable them to run their own security, but did not place a timescale on when British involvement might end.
Outside the event at Warwick University, a group of about 60 Stop The War Coalition members staged a noisy protest and handed out a petition.
|| No spinning, no briefing, no
backbiting, no Brownites, no Blairites
The event in Coventry also saw the six deputy leadership candidates, Peter Hain, Hazel Blears, Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn, Harriet Harman and Jon Cruddas make speeches and answer questions.
Topics up for debate included Iraq, anti-social behaviour and the National Health Service.
And they were asked what the one issue was that Labour needed to tackle, in order to win the next general election.
Mr Cruddas said "people's insecurities at work" needed to be addressed as well as "chronic abuses amongst landlords and criminal gangs".
Housing was top of the agenda for Mr Benn, who said more homes needed to be built if a "big, big problem" was to be avoided.
Mr Hain said that inequality was "the biggest challenge we face as a government".
And Mr Johnson said the party's focus should be social mobility. It is harder now, he said, to escape the shackles of a deprived upbringing in the UK "than in practically any other country in the world".
Ms Blears said people wanted "a better job, better home, better education, certainly a better future for the next generation".
Ms Harman said Labour had to "win back the trust and the confidence of the British people".
Many of the candidates hailed party unity as one of the most important aspect of the job of deputy leader.
Ms Blears said: "We have a fabulous opportunity over the next two years ... to have a united, strong, confident Labour Party with no Brownites, no Blairites and to celebrate the achievements we have made."
The sentiment was echoed by Mr Benn who said there was "no place for factionism" in the party.
Ms Harman added: "It's not just about policies, it's about how we implement them.
"No spinning, no briefing, no backbiting, no Brownites, no Blairites."
By ROBERT H. REID, Associated Press Writer
Bombings killed seven U.S. soldiers in Baghdad and a southern city, the U.S. military said Sunday, and the country's Sunni vice president spoke out against a proposed oil law, clouding the future of a key benchmark for assuring continued U.S. support for the government.
Six of the soldiers were killed Saturday in a bombing in western Baghdad, the military said in a statement. Their interpreter was also killed.
The other soldier died in a blast Saturday in Diwaniyah, a mostly Shiite city 80 miles south of the capital where radical Shiite militias operate. Two soldiers were wounded in that attack, the military said.
Those deaths brought the number of American troops killed in Iraq since Friday to at least 15 — eight of them in Baghdad. So far, at least 71 U.S. forces have died in Iraq this month — most of them from bombs.
Elsewhere, several explosions were heard from the area around the Green Zone in central Baghdad, but it was unclear if any were inside the U.S.-controlled area, which has increasingly come under mortar and rocket fire. The American military referred questions about the explosions to the U.S. Embassy, which did not respond.
In recent months, U.S. officials have been stepping up pressure on Iraq's religiously and ethnically based parties to reach agreements on a range of political and economic initiatives to encourage national reconciliation and bring an end to the fighting.
Progress in meeting those benchmarks is considered crucial to continued U.S. support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government at a time when Democrats in Congress are pressing for an end to the war. Those benchmarks include enactment of a new law to manage the country's vast oil wealth and distribute revenues among the various groups.
But prospects for quick approval received a setback Sunday when the country's Sunni vice president told reporters in Jordan that the proposed legislation gives too many concessions to foreign oil companies.
"We disagree with the production sharing agreement," Tariq al-Hashemi told reporters on the sidelines of an international conference hosted by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum. "We want foreign oil companies, and we have to lure them into Iraq to learn from their expertise and acquire their technology, but we shouldn't give them big privileges."
The bill also faces opposition from the Kurds, who have demanded greater control of oil fields in Kurdish areas. Kurdish parties control 58 of the 275 parliament seats.
Iraq's Cabinet signed off on the oil bill in February and sent it to parliament, a move that the Bush administration hailed as a major sign of political progress in Iraq. But parliament has yet to consider the legislation.
Al-Hashemi is among three leaders of a Sunni bloc that controls 44 seats. Together, the Kurds and the Sunnis have enough legislative muscle to delay passage of the measure, which is likely to draw opposition from some Shiite lawmakers, too.
In another political setback, the leader of Iraq's largest Shiite party, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, has been diagnosed with lung cancer and was headed to Iran for treatment, party officials said Sunday. Al-Hakim's absence is likely to create disarray in his Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq — a Shiite party the U.S. is counting on to push through benchmark reforms.
News of al-Hakim's diagnosis came only hours after another top Iraqi leader, President Jalal Talabani, flew to the U.S. for a medical checkup. The 73-year-old Kurdish leader was hospitalized in Jordan three months ago after collapsing.
Talabani has played an important role in trying to bridge the gap between Sunni Arabs and Shiites, and his absence is also likely to complicate efforts to forge national unity.
In the latest violence, at least 55 people were killed or found dead Sunday, including 24 people found slain execution-style in Baghdad. Nineteen of them were recovered in western areas of Baghdad, where the U.S.-led security crackdown has failed so far to halt sectarian death squads.
A suicide bomber exploded a tanker truck near an Iraqi police checkpoint outside a market west of Baghdad, killing at least two officers and injuring nine people, police said. Police said they suspected chlorine gas was used in the attack in a town just outside the turbulent city of Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad. But the U.S. military said it had no reports chlorine was used.
A bomb planted under a parked car exploded near a Shiite mosque in the central Baghdad neighborhood of Bab al-Sharji, police said. The blast killed two civilians, wounded 10 and damaged nearby houses and the mosque, police said.
Several hours later, a mortar shell landed in a commercial area in central Baghdad, killing one person and wounding three, police said.
Also Sunday, a U.S. spokesman said troops killed a Shiite extremist believed to have masterminded a brazen January attack in Karbala in which four U.S. soldiers were killed.
Azhar al-Duleimi was killed Friday in a raid in north Baghdad, Maj. Gen., William Caldwell told CNN's "Late Edition." Caldwell said U.S. troops had been pursuing al-Duleimi "relentlessly" since the Jan. 20 attack, in which English-speaking gunmen wearing U.S. military uniforms and carrying American weapons attacked a joint military command headquarters in Karbala.
The attackers killed one soldier and abducted four others, later shooting them all to death.
"You know, anybody who kidnaps an American soldier and murders them, we're going to continue to hunt down. And that's exactly what we've been doing with this guy," Caldwell said of al-Duleimi.
Caldwell spoke as thousands of soldiers continue their search for three comrades abducted in a May 12 ambush south of Baghdad. Four other U.S. soldiers and one Iraqi were killed.
Meanwhile, two U.S. Republican senators said Sunday at the conference in Jordan that the U.S. has evidence Iran sent weapons and trainers to instruct militants in Iraq to carry out terror attacks there.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (news, bio, voting record) of Utah told a panel discussion on Iraq's future that during a trip last week to Iraq, he saw "evidence that Iran was supplying weapons and bomb-making components to Iraqi terrorists."
A former Iranian government official, who was on the same panel as Hatch, denied the claims, saying his country was falling prey to a "barrage of accusations" from the U.S. since the Islamic revolution in 1979.
"Iraq is already so full of arms that it doesn't need arms from Iran," said hard-liner Mohammed J.A. Larijani, a former deputy foreign minister and brother to Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani.
But Sen. Gordon Smith (news, bio, voting record) of Oregon told the same panel he saw "confiscated Iranian weapons" and captured Iranians who confessed to a mission to train Iraqi extremists in military tactics.
Neither senator elaborated on their claims.
By DAVID ESPO, AP Special Correspondent
Bowing to President Bush, the Democratic-controlled Congress grudgingly approved fresh billions for the Iraq war Thursday night, minus the troop withdrawal timeline that drew his earlier veto.
"The Iraqi government needs to show real progress in return for America's continued support and sacrifice," said the commander in chief, and he warned that August could prove to be a bloody month for U.S. troops in Baghdad's murderous neighborhoods.
The Senate's 80-14 vote to send the legislation to the president came less than two hours after the House gave its approval on a margin of 280-142. In both cases, Republicans supplied the bulk of the support, an oddity in an era of Democratic control.
Democrats in both houses coupled their concession with pledges to challenge Bush's his policies anew — and force Republicans to choose over and over between the president and public sentiment on the unpopular war. "This debate will go on," vowed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (news, bio, voting record).
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (news, bio, voting record) of Nevada was even more emphatic. "Senate Democrats will not stop our efforts to change the course of this war until either enough Republicans join with us to reject President Bush's failed policy or we get a new president," he said.
But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (news, bio, voting record) of Kentucky cautioned against more of the same. "I want to make it clear ... that if all funding bills are going to be this partisan and contentious, it will be a very long year," he said.
From the White House to the Capitol, the day's events closed out one chapter in an epic struggle pitting Congress against the president over a war that has claimed the lives of more than 3,400 U.S. troops.
Democratic presidential politics played a role, as Sen. Barack Obama (news, bio, voting record) of Illinois, then Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, cast votes against the legislation, which was strongly opposed by anti-war activists.
In the House, Republican leader John Boehner (news, bio, voting record) of Ohio choked back tears as he stirred memories of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "After 3,000 of our fellow citizens died at the hands of these terrorists, when are we going to take them on? When are we going to defeat them," he asked.
The legislation includes nearly $95 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through Sept. 30. In addition to jettisoning their plan for a troop withdrawal timeline, Democrats abandoned attempts to require the Pentagon to adhere to troop training, readiness and rest requirements unless Bush waived them.
The bill establishes a series of goals for the Iraqi government to meet as it strives to build a democratic country able to defend its own borders. Continued U.S. reconstruction aid would be conditioned on progress toward the so-called benchmarks, although Bush retains the authority to order that the funds be spent regardless of how the Baghdad government performs.
In exchange for providing the war money on Bush's terms, Democrats won White House approval for about $17 billion in spending above what the administration originally sought. Roughly $8 billion of that was for domestic programs from hurricane relief to farm aid to low-income children's health coverage.
Democrats also won a top priority — the first minimum wage increase in more than a decade. The current federal wage floor of $5.15 an hour will go to $7.25 in three installments of 70 cents.
Five months after taking power, Democrats also insisted on a variety of provisions to aid milk producers, American and Continental Airlines and rural counties hurt by the falloff in revenues from timber harvested on federal lands.
Republican concern about the war was evident, although the rank and file voted with few exceptions for the funds.
"It seems to me it's time for them (the Iraqis) to show what is their ability and professionalism to step up," said Sen. John Warner (news, bio, voting record), R-Va. He said if conditions do not improve by mid-July, the president should reconsider his strategy.
Democratic divisions were on display, vividly so when Reid voted for the war money after Pelosi opposed it.
In a highly unusual maneuver, House Democratic leaders crafted a procedure that allowed their rank and file to oppose money for the war, then step aside so Republicans could advance it. There were 194 Republicans in favor, as well as 86 Democrats, three members of the leadership among them. Pelosi and 139 other Democrats voted against the measure, as did two Republicans.
Moments earlier, the House voted 348-73 to include a separate package of domestic spending that Bush had once resisted.
After months of struggle with the White House, Democrats took credit for forcing Republicans to begin changing course. At the same time, they emphasized their distaste for enabling the money to advance.
"I hate this agreement," said Rep. David Obey (news, bio, voting record), D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who played a key role in talks with the White House that yielded the measure.
He voted against the money, but Sen. Carl Levin (news, bio, voting record), D-Mich., no less an opponent of the conflict, cast a different vote.
"I cannot vote ... to stop funding for our troops who are in harm's way," said Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I simply cannot and I will not do that. It is not the proper way that we can bring this war to an end."
After the previous bruising veto battle, Democratic leaders said they hoped to clear the bill for Bush's signature by this Memorial Day weekend. The president rejected an earlier measure, objecting to a troop withdrawal timetable, and the House failed to override his objection.
Reflecting unhappiness among conservatives in his own party, Bush said he would have preferred less domestic spending than the bill contained. "But, still, by voting for this bill members of both parties can show our troops and the Iraqis and the enemy that our country will support our servicemen and women in harm's way," he said at a Rose Garden news conference.
One of the most vocal war critics in Congress readily agreed. "This is not a game. They run out of money next week," said Rep. John Murtha (news, bio, voting record) of Pennsylvania, whose speech opposing Bush's Iraq policy more than a year ago was a turning point in the debate.
Mr Sadr, who appeared in Iraq for the first time in months at Friday prayers, said his followers would co-operate with Sunnis against US occupation.
A senior aide told the BBC Mr Sadr had met moderate Sunni groups, aiming to forge a "united and democratic Iraq".
Iraq's vice-president called Mr Sadr's statement "quite encouraging".
Tarek al-Hashemi described Mr Sadr as "number one... the most influential leader" and said he would welcome a new approach to Sunni-Shia relations.
Speaking in the city of Kufa, Mr Sadr blamed foreign troops for Iraq's problems, and said Sunnis and Shias alike should oppose their continued presence in the country.
|| I am ready to cooperate with
[Sunnis] at all levels - this is my hand I stretch out to them
"In unity is strength, and in division weakness. We say to them, welcome at any time.
"I am ready to cooperate with them at all levels. This is my hand I stretch out to them - in so doing, I seek only God's satisfaction."
A senior political aide to Mr Sadr, Abd al-Mahdi al-Mutairi, told the BBC how the cleric's organisation was now seeking a compromise with moderate Sunnis.
He said Sadrist representatives met a group called the Anbar Awakening Council with the aim of preventing "sectarian sedition".
"We signed with them a pledge charter which we hope will be the nucleus of future agreements with other brothers, whether Sunni, Kurdish or otherwise."
Mr Sadr's followers have not always preached peace and co-operation.
His Mehdi Army, a Shia militia responsible for some of the sectarian killings in Iraq, has become one of the targets of the US-led surge.
But when the US began its security drive in Baghdad in February, Mr Sadr ordered his militants off the streets to avoid confrontation.
And during his recent absence from Iraq on security grounds, Mr Sadr withdrew six ministers loyal to him from the Iraqi cabinet, in an effort to press Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to set a timetable for a US troop withdrawal.
In a characteristically fiery sermon in Kufa, Mr Sadr led the 6,000 worshippers in the mosque in chanting: "No, no for Satan. No, no for America. No, no for the occupation. No, no for Israel."
However, the cleric urged his followers to use peaceful means of opposition.
The cleric's brand of nationalism and populism has made him a popular figure among Iraq's Shia Muslims, but it is not clear why he has chosen this moment to return.
Moqtada Sadr is one of the most important players in Iraq's complex sectarian and political mosaic, says the BBC's security correspondent Rob Watson.
One theory for his return is a desire to re-assert control over his militia, which is reported to be increasingly fragmented.
Mr Sadr may also see a chance to strengthen his position in the absence of his great Shia rival Abdul Aziz Hakim, who has left Iraq for medical treatment, our correspondent says.
One senior US official described Mr Sadr as a highly unstable 33-year-old whose own aides often find hard to predict.
By SINAN SALAHEDDIN, Associated Press Writer
A day after radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr resurfaced to end nearly four months in hiding and demand U.S. troops leave Iraq, American forces raided his Sadr City stronghold and killed five suspected militia fighters in air strikes Saturday.
U.S. and Iraqi forces called in the air strikes after a raid in which they captured a "suspected terrorist cell leader," the U.S. military said in statement.
The statement claimed the captured man was "the suspected leader in a secret cell terrorist network known for facilitating the transport of weapons and explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, from Iran to Iraq, as well as bringing militants from Iraq to Iran for terrorist training."
EFP's are deadly roadside bombs that hurl a fist-size slug of molten copper that penetrates armor, a weapon that has been highly effective against American forces over the past year.
The militia fighters were killed in air strikes on nine cars that were seen positioning themselves to attack American forces after the raid, the military said.
Al-Sadr's reappearance in the fourth month of the U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown on Baghdad and environs was expected to complicate the mission to crack down on violence and broker political compromise in the country.
Hours after the cleric spoke in at a key Shiite shrine in Kufa, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, the notorious leader of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in the city of Basra was killed in a shootout as British and Iraq troops tried to arrest him, police and the British military said, further inflaming tensions in the Shiite areas of southern Iraq.
The U.S. military also announced the deaths of eight U.S. soldiers and one Marine, putting May on pace to be one of the deadliest months for U.S. forces here in years.
Al-Sadr went underground — reportedly in Iran — at the start of the U.S.-led security crackdown on Baghdad 14 weeks ago. He also had ordered his militia off the streets to prevent conflict with U.S. forces.
His return to the Shiite holy city of Najaf appeared to be an effort by the 33-year-old firebrand cleric to regain control over his militia, which had begun fragmenting, and to take advantage of the illness of a Shiite rival. There also had been some indication that his absence from the national arena was costing him political support.
Al-Sadr drove in a long motorcade from Najaf to its sister city of Kufa to deliver an anti-American sermon to 6,000 chanting supporters at the main mosque.
While the call for a U.S. pullout was nothing new, al-Sadr also peppered his speech with nationalist overtones, criticizing the government for not providing services, appealing to his followers not to fight with Iraqi security forces and reaching out to Sunnis.
"To our Iraqi Sunni brothers, I say that the occupation sows dissension among us and that strength is unity and division is weakness," he said. "I'm ready to cooperate with them in all fields."
Al-Sadr did not address his reasons for returning.
However, during his time in absentia his militia appeared to have split into a faction calling itself the "noble Mahdi Army" and more extremist elements that it accuses of killing innocent Sunnis and embezzling funds. Some members of the more moderate faction were even willing to provide the U.S. military with information on their rivals in an effort to purge the militia.
In addition to trying to rein in the force, Al-Sadr is also believed to be honing plans to consolidate political gains and foster ties with Iran — and possibly trying to capitalize on the illness of Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer and went to Iran for treatment.
Al-Sadr's associates say his strategy rests in part on his belief that Washington will soon start reducing troop strength, leaving behind a hole in Iraq's security and political power structure that he can fill. He also believes al-Maliki's government may soon collapse because of its failure to improve security, services and the economy, they say.
The Mahdi Army received a blow when its Basra leader, Wissam al-Waili, 23, also known as Abu Qadir, was shot and killed along with his brother and two aides during a gunbattle with British and Iraqi troops, police and the British military said.
The battle began about 4 p.m. during a raid to arrest al-Waili in Jumhoriyah, a middle class, residential area in central Basra, police said. Al-Waili and his three companions opened fire and were killed when the troops shot back, police said.
Late Friday and into the early hours of Saturday, Mahdi Army loyalists surrounded a police station after hitting it with mortar fire, a top Basra police official said. He claimed that British helicopters responded and fired on a house near the police station to drive away the attackers.
A second top police officer said two British forces and an Iraqi policeman were wounded. He said five Mahdi Army fighters were killed and 15 wounded. Both police officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
The Ministry of Defense in London said a handful of militants was in the area and that there was a small number of casualties from "indirect fire," military terminology for mortar or rocket attacks. The ministry did not confirm the reported intervention by British helicopters.
AP employees in Kufa and Basra contributed to this report.
By Ross Colvin
U.S. and British forces battled Mehdi Army fighters in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra after their leader, Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, made a rare public appearance and called on U.S. troops to get out of Iraq.
Five gunmen were killed in an air strike during a pre-dawn raid on Saturday in the cleric's Sadr City stronghold in Baghdad to capture a militant leader suspected of ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the U.S. military said in a statement.
In the southern oil hub of Basra, the British military said "a number" of militia fighters were killed in an air strike overnight after Mehdi Army militia fighters attacked British troops with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machineguns.
The attacks were believed to be in retaliation for the killing of the top Mehdi Army commander in the city on Friday by British-backed Iraqi special forces, British military spokesman Major David Gell said in a statement.
A Reuters reporter saw eight caskets at a funeral for those killed in Basra. A hospital official said 22 others had been wounded. Residents said a helicopter had attacked a group of civilians protesting against the death of the Mehdi Army leader.
The fighting came a day after Sadr appeared in public for the first time in months and repeated his demand for a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal. U.S. officials say he has been in hiding in Iran, but his aides say he never left Iraq.
Some analysts and U.S. military officials have speculated that Sadr had come back to reassert his authority over his militia, which some say has begun fragmenting.
On Friday, Sadr sought to portray himself as a nationalist leader, offering to work with minority Sunnis, calling on his militiamen to stop fighting Iraqi forces, and criticizing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government for failing to deliver security and basic services.
His return comes ahead of rare talks between the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq on Monday on how to stabilize the country. The United States accuses Iran of fuelling sectarian violence with its support for Shi'ite militias such as Sadr's Mehdi Army. Tehran denies the charge.
"CALM BUT TENSE"
The U.S. military said the militant leader detained in the Sadr City raid was "suspected of ... acting as a proxy for an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps officer."
The military detained five Iranians in Iraq in February and accused them of being members of the Revolutionary Guards Qods Force. Tehran says they are diplomats and wants them released.
The five suspected gunmen were killed when an air strike hit a column of nine vehicles that were positioning themselves to ambush U.S. and Iraqi troops, the military said in a statement.
But residents and police said the cars had been queuing at a petrol station. A Reuters reporter counted at least 11 burnt-out vehicles about 1 km from the station. Lengthy petrol queues are common in Iraq.
"A plane came and started bombing the cars queuing for petrol and the hospital," said a guard at Habibiya maternity hospital, which was also hit in the attack.
Police said two people were killed and five wounded.
"The individual detained ... is believed to be the suspected leader in a secret cell terrorist network for facilitating the transport of weapons and explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, from Iran to Iraq as well as bringing militants from Iraq to Iran for terrorist training," the U.S. military said.
In Basra, the British military described the situation as calm but tense on Saturday after overnight fighting.
Gell said British forces had responded "robustly" to attacks on their positions, using "a number of appropriate and proportional assets ... including a low-flying aircraft."
British troops have stepped up operations against Shi'ite militias in Basra recently as they prepare to hand it over to Iraqi security forces. Britain is preparing to reduce its 7,000-strong force to about 5,500 within the next few weeks.
(Additional reporting by Mussab Al-Khairalla and Paul Tait
and Aref Mohammed in Basra)
Those abducted include four bodyguards from security company GardaWorld and a finance expert.
Witnesses and sources told the BBC that the kidnappers wore police uniforms and arrived in up to 40 police vehicles.
The UK foreign office says it is in contact with Iraqi officials on the issue and PM Tony Blair said "We will do everything we possibly can to help".
The British government convened an emergency meeting of its Cobra crisis management committee on Tuesday afternoon.
Also on Tuesday, Baghdad was shaken by a bus explosion which killed at least 23 people and injured about 55, and a car bomb which killed at least 17 people, hurt at least 36 and destroyed a Shia mosque.
The US military also announced that 10 of its soldiers were killed in Iraq on Monday, including two in a helicopter crash.
At least 112 US troops have been killed so far in May, making it the deadliest month this year.
There are conflicting reports about exactly how Tuesday's abduction took place.
Witnesses said it was carried out by what appeared to be a police unit.
The street was sealed off at both ends and the kidnappers, in police camouflage uniforms, walked straight past guards at the finance ministry building on Palestine Street, the witnesses said.
A police source told the BBC that dozens of police vehicles were used in the operation.
The BBC's Paul Wood in Baghdad says that if such reports are true, it could point to the involvement of a renegade police unit, possibly special commandos.
While it has been possible in the past for criminals or militants to hire police uniforms and vehicles, he says, the scale of this operation suggests real police involvement.
It is well known that the Iraqi police are heavily infiltrated by militia groups, leading to split loyalties and corruption, our correspondent says.
GardaWorld security agency - a Canadian-owned firm largely staffed by British former service personnel - has confirmed that four its staff were among those taken.
GardaWorld is one of the biggest suppliers of private security in Iraq, and is thought to have hundreds of staff in the country.
It was not clear what job GardaWorld's client was doing in Baghdad.
American management consultancy BearingPoint said it had been told that one of its employees was among those captured.
The BBC's security correspondent, Frank Gardner, says a British crisis team, including police hostage negotiators, members of the secret intelligence service, and regional experts, is being assembled to establish lines of communication with the kidnappers.
About 200 foreigners of many different nationalities have been kidnapped in Iraq over the past four years, though the number has fallen dramatically since a few years ago.
This is thought to be the first time Westerners have been abducted from a government facility.
Correspondents say hopes for the captives' future depends on who is holding them.
The Sunni al-Qaeda has a record of killing captives, while if it is a Shia group, there may be scope for political negotiation, our correspondent in Baghdad says.
If it is a criminal group, then GardaWorld can expect a ransom demand, he says. The British government itself has a declared position of not paying ransoms.
By RAVI NESSMAN, Associated Press Writer2 hours, 34 minutes ago
Hundreds of Iraqi and U.S. troops cordoned off sections of Baghdad's Sadr City slum Wednesday and conducted a series of raids after five British citizens were abducted from a nearby government building, police and residents said.
British Embassy officials held ongoing talks Wednesday with Iraqi officials to discuss the situation, Britain's Foreign Office said. Britain's COBRA crisis committee was also to meet for the second day.
The five men were pulled out of a Finance Ministry office by about 40 heavily armed men in police uniforms in broad daylight Tuesday and driven in a convoy of 19 four-wheel-drive vehicles toward Sadr City, according to Iraqi officials in the Interior and Finance ministries.
A senior Iraqi official said the radical Shiite Mahdi Army militia was suspected in the attack.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said officials were doing all they could to secure the "swift and safe return" of the five.
"This is clearly a very distressing time for all concerned," she said, arriving at a Group of Eight meeting in Potsdam, Germany.
Foreign Office officials are "offering help and assistance to the next of kin" of the Britons, Beckett said.
"It is not helpful at this stage to speculate on what might have happened," she said. "We are working closely with the Iraqi authorities to establish the facts and doing all we can to secure their swift and safe return."
Soon after the abduction, Iraqi forces established a special battalion of Iraqi soldiers and police to search for the men, said Brig. Gen. Qassim al Musawi, an Iraqi army spokesman.
"We are conducting search operations near the site where the abduction took place," he said. "Maybe today or in the coming few days, we will find them with the help of secret intelligence."
Residents of Sadr City said hundreds of U.S. and Iraqi troops sealed off areas of the Shiite neighborhood overnight and carried out a series of arrest raids that lasted until dawn. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals for speaking to the Western media.
The U.S. military said it had arrested five suspected militants and one suspected leader of a militant cell during early morning raids in Sadr City. Those arrested were believed to be part of a cell that smuggled weapons in from Iran and sent militants to Iran for training, the statement said.
The statement did not link the raid to the missing men.
Two civilians were killed and four others injured in crossfire from gunbattles that broke out in one of the raids, police said. The civilians had been sleeping on their roofs in a traditional Iraqi custom to escape the brutal heat, police said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The U.S. military, responding to a query from The Associated Press, said in an e-mail that it had conducted two raids in Sadr City but that no shots were fired.
A roadside bomb that apparently targeted a passing police patrol in Sadr City, missed and killed one civilian and wounded four others, police said.
In other violence, several mortar rounds apparently targeting an American military base in the restive city of Fallujah missed their mark and landed instead on a courthouse and in a residential neighborhood, killing nine civilians and wounding 15 others, according to police and Dr. Anas al-Rawi, of Fallujah General Hospital.
A police commander's convoy was struck by a roadside bomb in the town of Hamzah, south of Baghdad, killing two guards and injuring two others, a police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals for talking to the media.
Gunmen in three cars ambushed three soldiers who had stopped to drink orange juice in the center of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, and stole the nearly $396,000 in salaries they were transporting to their unit, an army official said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The three soldiers were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the theft, the official said.
The U.S. military said 10 American soldiers were killed in roadside bombings and a helicopter crash Monday, making May — with at least 113 fatalities so far — the third deadliest month of the war for U.S. troops.
The Islamic state of Iraq, an al-Qaida front group, claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter in a statement posted on a militant Web site. The claim could not be independently verified. The military did not say if the helicopter was shot down or had mechanical problems.
Attacks on Iraqis raged on as well. Police and morgue officials contacted by the AP reported at least 120 people killed or found dead. All of the officials refused to allow use of their names fearing they could be targeted by militants.
Police said two car bombers hit neighborhoods on opposite sides of the Tigris River on Tuesday, killing 40 people and wounding more than 100 others. A Shiite mosque was destroyed in the second of the two attacks, in the Amil neighborhood in west Baghdad.
Hours after the British were abducted, Joe Gavaghan, a spokesman for Montreal-based security firm GardaWorld, confirmed that four of its security workers and one client were kidnapped. All four GardaWorld workers are British citizens, he said, declining to provide more details.
A spokesman for BearingPoint, a McLean, Va.-based management consulting firm, said one of the company's employees, apparently the client referred to by Gavaghan, was among those abducted.
If the kidnappings are the work of the Mahdi Army, as asserted by several Iraqi officials, they could be retaliation for the killing by British forces last week of the militia's commander in Basra.
Canon Andrew White, the Anglican vicar of Baghdad, who lives in the Garda World compound and is involved in efforts to free the men, said it's "a strong possibility" the kidnapping was a retaliation for the killing.
"We have been in contact with (the Mahdi Army) and are doing our best to try and continue that contact throughout the day," he told BBC radio.
The raid was reminiscent of an attack by the Shiite militiamen, dressed as Interior Ministry commandos, who stormed a Higher Education Ministry office Nov. 14 and seized as many as 200 people. Dozens of those kidnap victims have never been found.
Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said the abduction Tuesday was carried out by men wearing police uniforms who showed up at the Finance Ministry data collection facility in 19 four-wheel drive vehicles of the type used by police. He said the band of kidnappers sped off across the Army Canal to the east. Sadr City, the Shiite Mahdi Army stronghold, is directly east of the Canal.
"We are pursuing this case very vigorously, first to release them, secondly to establish the truth of what happened, who was responsible," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told BBC radio on Wednesday.
Zebari said that the government has long believed that its security forces were infiltrated by militia members.
"The number of people who were involved in the operation — to seal off the building, to set roadblocks, to get into the building with such confidence — (means they) must have some connection," he said.
Associated Press reporter Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed reporting from Baghdad and AP reporter David Stringer contributed reporting from London.
By BUSHRA JUHI, Associated Press Writer
Carloads of attackers descended on a police chief's house northeast of Baghdad at dawn Friday, killing the official's wife, two brothers and 11 guards, and kidnapping three of his grown children, Diyala provincial police reported.
The attack, which came when the police chief was not at home, was one of the boldest and bloodiest in months of stepped-up violence around the city of Baqouba, where al-Qaida in Iraq and affiliated groups have been fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces and local insurgents who have turned against al-Qaida.
Elsewhere in northern Iraq, two suicide bombers struck a Shiite mosque and a nearby police station near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and more than 25 people were killed or wounded, police said.
The simultaneous suicide explosions occurred about 2 p.m. in the predominantly Shiite town of Dakok, about 28 miles south of Kirkuk, police Brig. Gen. Burhan Taieb Taha said.
He gave the casualty toll as more than 25 people but said he could not immediately provide a breakdown of how many were killed and how many were wounded amid the chaos.
The two men detonated their explosives vests near a Shiite mosque as Friday prayers were being held, as well as a nearby police station, Taha said.
Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, is the center of Iraq's northern oil fields.
Ethnic tensions have risen in the area as Kurds seek to incorporate the city into their self-governing region in northern Iraq. They won a major concession in March when they pressured the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into approving plans to move thousands of Arabs out of Kirkuk and resettle them elsewhere.
In southern Iraq on Friday morning, a parked minibus exploded at a bus terminal in the town of Qurnah, and a hospital director said at least 16 people were killed and 32 wounded.
The continuing violence came a day after the four-year U.S. military death toll in Iraq passed the 3,500 mark, after a soldier was reported killed in a roadside bombing in Baghdad.
The U.S. fatality rate has risen as reinforced troops have gone more on the offensive against insurgents in Baghdad and surrounding areas, such as Diyala, in a new security crackdown aimed at restoring more order to central Iraq.
Despite that campaign, Iraq's bombings, shootings, mortar attacks and execution-style killings left at least 63 Iraqis dead nationwide Thursday. They included 32 unidentified men who were handcuffed, blindfolded and shot to death in Baghdad — apparent victims of so-called sectarian death squads usually run by Shiite militias, such as the Mahdi Army.
Diyala provincial police said the dawn attackers outside Baqouba, who arrived in "many cars," also abducted two sons and a daughter of police chief Col. Ali Dilayan al-Jorani, head of central Baqouba's Balda police station. The children were described as young men and a young woman, but their ages weren't immediately available.
Al-Jorani's two slain brothers were serving as guards at the house, in Kanaan town northwest of the city of Baqouba, which is 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
The bodies of some guards, many of whom were also al-Jorani relatives, were found on a nearby road, apparently after being seized at the house, police said.
A witness to the Qurnah bombing, taxi driver Salim Abdul-Hussein, 35, said the blast damaged the bus terminal and many cars and surrounding shops, striking an area crowded each morning with farmers coming to town to shop and sell their produce and animals in Qurnah, 225 miles south of Baghdad.
Maj. Gen. Mohammed Hammadi, police chief in Basra, the provincial capital 60 miles to the south, said a minibus loaded with rockets, ammunition, C4 explosives and benzene blew up and caused a nearby car to explode in flames — leading to an early report of two car bombs.
Police cordoned off the area and arrested two Egyptian suspects, he said.
At Qurnah hospital, director Ali Qassim told The Associated Press by telephone the hospital had received 16 bodies from the explosions and 32 wounded.
In other violence, unknown gunmen speeding by in the northern city of Kirkuk shot and killed a soldier, Adnan Mahmoud, as he drove with his 2-year-old daughter around 6:30 a.m. Friday. The child also was killed, said police Capt. Jassim Abdullah.
In Baghdad, U.S. Army artillery fired at least nine rounds Friday morning into a Sunni Muslim-dominated farming area in the city's southwestern sections of Arab Jibor and Albu Aitha, police reported. A police officer, who asked anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to media, said the shelling targeted "selective areas" where Sunni militants were active.
In another development Thursday, the radical Shiite Muslim leader Muqtada al-Sadr, in a rare televised interview, blamed the United States for Iraq's woes, often referring to it as "the occupier" and accusing it of being behind the sectarian violence, the growing schism between Iraq's majority Shiites and once-dominant Sunni Arabs, and economic hardships.
"We are now facing a brutal Western assault against Islam," he said on Iraqi state television. "This agenda must be countered with a cultural resistance."
Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this story.
By Dean Yates Reuters - 12:30 BST
The U.S. military deployed 10,000 soldiers backed by attack helicopters in an offensive against al Qaeda north of Baghdad on Tuesday, in one of the biggest operations since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In the capital, a car bomb killed 60 people and wounded at least 80 near the Shi'ite Khilani mosque in the city centre, police said. Rescuers could be seen dragging bodies from the mosque, which was badly damaged.
The explosion followed a relatively quiet period in Baghdad after a four-day curfew was imposed last week in the wake of an attack on a revered Shi'ite shrine in the city of Samarra.
The U.S. military said 22 militants were killed in the early hours of the offensive against al Qaeda around the city of Baquba in Diyala province, a stronghold of the group.
"The end state is to destroy the al Qaeda influences in this province and eliminate their threat against the people," Brigadier-General Mick Bednarek, deputy commanding general, operations, 25th Infantry Division, said in a statement.
"That is the number one, bottom-line, up-front, in-your-face, task and purpose."
U.S. military commanders said they were taking advantage of the completion of a build-up of American forces in Iraq under a crackdown in Baghdad that began four months ago. The crackdown has forced many militants to move to areas around the capital.
The statement said about 10,000 soldiers, backed by attack helicopters, close air support and armored fighting vehicles were taking part in Operation Arrowhead Ripper.
It did not say how long the offensive would last. But it coincides with smaller operations launched in recent days against al Qaeda in Iraq targets around Baghdad.
"It's certainly one of the largest since the end of ground operations in 2003," U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Garver told Reuters when asked to describe the significance of the operation.
Residents in Baquba, capital of Diyala, said heavy and continual explosions had been echoing around the city since before dawn. Baquba, 65 km (40 miles) north of Baghdad, was under total curfew, they added.
The U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and President George W. Bush have both called al Qaeda "public enemy number one" in Iraq.
U.S. officials say the group is trying to tip Iraq into full-scale sectarian civil war with a wave of car bomb attacks and other acts of violence.
The operation comes just days after the U.S. military said it had completed its troop build-up in Iraq to 160,000 soldiers.
Nearly 28,000 additional troops have been sent, mainly to Baghdad but also to western Anbar province to try to haul Iraq back from the brink of civil war. The crackdown has prompted many militants to migrate from Baghdad into Diyala.
(Additional reporting by Paul Tait and Alister Bull)
By LAUREN FRAYER, Associated Press Writer 13:30 BST
A truck bomb struck a Shiite mosque Tuesday in central Baghdad, killing 75 people and wounding more than 200, even as about 10,000 U.S. soldiers northeast of the capital used heavily armored Stryker and Bradley fighting vehicles to battle their way into an al-Qaida sanctuary.
The troops, under cover of attack helicopters, killed at least 22 insurgents in the offensive, the U.S. military said.
The thunderous explosion at the Khillani mosque in the capital's commercial area of Sinak sent smoke billowing over concrete buildings. On Sunday, officials lifted a curfew aimed at preventing retaliatory violence after last week's bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra.
Gunfire erupted shortly after the blast, which a police officer said went off near the Khillani mosque in the commercial area of Sinak.
A police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, said the car that exploded was parked in a lot near the mosque and it damaged the outer wall of the building.
Police and hospital officials said at least 75 people were killed and 204 were wounded, adding that the toll could rise as bodies were pulled from the debris.
The mosque's imam, Sheik Saleh al-Haidari, said it was a truck bomb and the explosion hit worshippers as they were leaving afternoon prayers.
"This attack was planned and carried out by sick souls, damaging the mosque's outer wall and collapsing my office and the room above it," al-Haidari told The Associated Press by telephone.
"There are number of bodies being pulled from the rubble and a number of worshippers were killed or injured," he said, adding that he was not inside the mosque when the blast occurred.
AP Television News video showed a huge pile of rubble where the wall used to be, but its turquoise dome was intact.
The raids, dubbed "Operation Arrowhead Ripper," took place in Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province, and involved air assaults under the cover of darkness, the military said. The operation was still in its opening stages, it said.
The commander of Iraqi military operations in Diyala, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim al-Rubaie, said handcuffs, swords and electricity cables — apparently used as torture implements — had been seized from militant safe houses in the area.
The operation was part of new U.S. and Iraqi attacks on Baghdad's northern and southern flanks, which military officials said were aimed at clearing out Sunni insurgents, al-Qaida fighters and Shiite militiamen who had fled the capital and Anbar during a four-month-old security operation.
A top U.S. military official said American forces were taking advantage of the arrival of the final brigade of 30,000 additional U.S. troops to open the concerted attacks.
"We are going into the areas that have been sanctuaries of al-Qaida and other extremists to take them on and weed them out, to help get the areas clear and to really take on al-Qaida," the senior official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the operation. "Those are areas in the belts around Baghdad, some parts in Anbar province and specifically Diyala province."
Al-Qaida has proven to be an extremely agile foe for U.S. and Iraqi forces, as shown by its ability to transfer major operations to Baqouba from Anbar province, the sprawling desert region in western Iraq. There is no guarantee that driving the organization out of current sanctuaries would prevent it from migrating to other regions to continue the fight.
In recent months, the verdant orange and palm groves of Diyala have become one of the most fiercely contested regions in Iraq. The province is a tangle of Shiite and Sunni villages that has played into the hands of al-Qaida and allied militants who have melted into the tense region and sought to inflame existing sectarian troubles.
Al-Qaida has conducted public killings in the Baqouba main square and otherwise sought to enforce an extreme Taliban-style Islamic code. The terror organization's actions in the province have caused some Sunni militants, al-Qaida's natural allies, to turn their guns on the group with U.S. assistance and blessing. Some militant Shiites are likewise joining government forces in a bid to oust the foreign fighters and Muslim extremists.
Separately, the U.S. military announced the death of an American soldier in Baghdad. The soldier was killed by small arms fire during combat in an eastern section of the capital, a military statement said. No other soldiers were wounded in the attack, which took place Monday, it said.
The death brought to at least 3,528 the number of U.S. military personnel who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an AP count. The figure includes seven military civilians. At least 2,889 died as a result of hostile action, according to the military's numbers.
In southern Iraq, police and hospital officials said the death toll reached 30 in clashes that continued into a second day between Mahdi Army fighters and Iraqi security forces in Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad.
Some 150 people were wounded, authorities said. The officials, who declined to be identified because they feared retribution, said most of the casualties were police officers or militiamen.
Nine mortar shells were launched early Tuesday at police headquarters in the town, and three policemen were injured, police said.
Two civilians were wounded in another round of shelling in a residential area nearby, police said.
A curfew was imposed on Nasiriyah on Monday, and remained in effect a day later.
Iranian-made rockets were seized in raids in central Nasiriyah, police said.
A day earlier, the U.S. military said at least 20 people were killed by coalition airstrikes in Amarah, another southern city known as a Mahdi Army stronghold. Iraqi officials said 36 people died in fighting that erupted as British and Iraqi forces conducted house-to-house searches.
The U.S. said the fighting involved members of a terror network that imports deadly armor-piercing weapons made in Iran known as "explosively formed penetrators," or EFPs. They also were suspected of bringing militants from Iraq to Iran for terror training, it added.
In other violence, a roadside bomb killed the head of a Shiite tribe and two people traveling with him near Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, police said.
Associated Press writers Hamid Ahmed and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.
By KIM GAMEL, Associated Press Writer
The U.S. command announced Thursday the deaths of 14 more American troops, most killed in powerful roadside bombs in Baghdad. Thick, black smoke rose from the heavily fortified Green Zone after a mortar barrage as militants struck back despite a massive military offensive.
But as always, attacks claimed far more Iraqi lives.
A suicide truck bombing outside the Sulaiman Bek city hall in a predominantly Sunni area of northern Iraq killed at least 17 people, including the mayor, and wounded 66, officials said. Blame fell on al-Qaida, which has targeted government officials it accuses of collaborating with U.S. forces and the Iraqi government by participating in the political process.
"The enemy's going to push back, he's going to try and make us look unsuccessful," military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said. "We have said it's going to be a long, tough fight over the summer, this is part of that long, tough fight."
At least 15 servicemen have been killed since Tuesday, including 12 in a series of attacks beginning Wednesday. The military had previously announced one of the deaths.
The deadliest attack was a roadside bomb that struck a convoy in northeastern Baghdad on Thursday, killing five U.S. soldiers, three Iraqi civilians and one Iraqi interpreter, the military said. About 12:30 p.m. the same day, a rocket-propelled grenade struck a vehicle in northern Baghdad, killing one soldier and wounding three others.
The U.S. military has sought to seize the momentum against al-Qaida and other militants with the arrival in Iraq of some 30,000 additional troops. It has launched several large-scale operations.
But the military has also faced a series of recent attacks on U.S. forces who are more vulnerable as they increasingly take to the streets and remote outposts, and the bombs appear to be growing more powerful. Some U.S. soldiers have reported a recent increase in the use of rocket-propelled grenades.
Garver said one of the aims of the latest offensives was to deprive militants of their safe havens where they have been able to assemble huge quantities of explosives.
"We have seen in some instances the enemy having the ability to build a bigger bomb in the areas that we have not habitually operated in because they've got more time to do that," he said. "We're looking to take that ability to build a bigger bomb away from the enemy."
The latest U.S. deaths raised to at least 3,545 the number of American troops who have died since the war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Besides the deaths on Thursday, another powerful roadside bomb killed four U.S. soldiers and wounded another in western Baghdad, and two Marines died in fighting in Anbar province, to the west of the capital.
Southwest of Baghdad, two soldiers were killed and four were wounded Tuesday when explosions struck near their vehicle, the military said.
North of the capital in Diyala province, thousands of U.S. troops have been engaged in an offensive against al-Qaida in Iraq that began Monday.
Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim al-Rubaie, an Iraqi army officer in Diyala, said U.S. and Iraqi forces conducted military operations on the areas of Jurf al Milih and the northern part of the market in the provincial capital, Baqouba.
"We are doing well," he said.
There were some missteps, however. An American airstrike aimed at a booby-trapped house in Baqouba missed its target and "accidentally hit" another structure, wounding 11 civilians on Wednesday, the U.S. military said, adding that it was investigating the incident.
Just outside Diyala's border and about 100 miles north of the capital lies Sulaiman Bek, where the truck bombing took place.
Iraqi commander Maj. Gen. Anwar Hama Amin blamed al-Qaida for the suicide attack and said the terror group was targeting the city's mayor, Abdullah al-Bayati. The mayor died later of his wounds, said Police Col. Abbas Mohammad, who provided the casualty count.
Thamir Mohammed, a 28-year-old newlywed, said he was on his way to city hall to get a new ration card when the blast knocked him off his feet.
"I was walking in the street heading to the city hall when a truck drove up and parked outside. The driver got out and was just outside the truck when the explosion took place," Mohammed said.
The force of the blast caused the ceiling to collapse in a small store near the municipal building as the store's 58-year-old owner, Saleh Mohammed, was pouring water into an air cooler.
Mohammed, who was wounded, said the explosion could prove a turning point in the relatively peaceful area.
"We do not work with the government or with al-Qaida," Mohammed said from his hospital bed. "But this explosion will force us to take sides either with the government or with al-Qaida because there is no point in being killed while we are doing nothing. The innocent people are targeted like this because they are doing nothing."
In the southern Shiite holy city of Najaf, thousands of protesters waved Iraqi flags and black-and-green Shiite banners with slogans such as "Death to al-Qaida."
They were showing unity following a bombing last week that brought down the twin minarets of the revered Askariya mosque in Samarra. An earlier bombing, in February 2006, destroyed the same mosque's golden dome and set in motion an unrelenting cycle of retaliatory sectarian bloodletting.
Sectarian violence persisted with at least 48 people killed or found dead in attacks nationwide, including 21 bullet-riddled bodies showing signs of torture — the apparent victims of so-called death squads usually run by Shiite militias.
At the Najaf rally, Ammar al-Hakim — whose father, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of Iraq's largest Shiite political party, is in Iran for cancer treatment — called for unity among all religious sects and criticized a U.S.-Iraqi security plan in Baghdad and surrounding areas, which is now in its fifth month.
"The security situation in Baghdad, Diyala and other areas shows that the security plan needs revision and development in order to achieve greater results," al-Hakim said.
In the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, which houses the U.S. and British embassies and major Iraqi government headquarters, was struck anew by apparent mortar barrages in the morning and in the evening.
At least one mortar round struck a parking lot used by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his security detail, an official from his office said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information. The U.S. Embassy confirmed rounds of indirect fire, the military term for rockets or mortars, but said it did not have information about casualties.
The attacks raised fresh concerns about the thousands of Americans who live and work in the heavily fortified area in central Baghdad.
Associated Press writer Yahya Barzanji contributed to this story from Kirkuk, Iraq.
By Alister BullFri Jun 22, 1:53 PM ET
Thousands of U.S. soldiers on the offensive north of Baghdad are facing fierce resistance from hundreds of al Qaeda militants who are ready to fight to the death, an American general said on Friday.
The militants are making their stand in and around the Iraqi city of Baquba, 65 km (40 miles) north of Baghdad, where the U.S. military on Tuesday launched one of its biggest operations since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
"It is house to house, block to block, street to street, sewer to sewer," said Brigadier-General Mick Bednarek, commander of Operation Arrowhead Ripper in Iraq's Diyala province.
Not far from Baquba, U.S. attack helicopters killed 17 suspected al Qaeda gunmen on the outskirts of the town of Khalis early on Friday, the U.S. military said.
The military said those killed were armed and had been acting suspiciously around an Iraqi police patrol. That brings to 68 the number of militants killed so far in the operation.
A top U.S. commander suggested it could be spring before Iraqi forces were ready to take responsibility for areas cleared by U.S. troops in Arrowhead Ripper and other operations taking place around Baghdad as part of a broader offensive.
"I think if everything goes the way it's going now, there's a potential that by the spring we would be able to reduce forces and Iraqi security forces could take over," Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno said.
Odierno, the top commander for day-to-day operations in Iraq, told Pentagon reporters by videolink that Iraqi forces might be ready sooner but it was hard to predict exactly when.
U.S. officials accuse Sunni Islamist al Qaeda of using car bombings and other violence to try to tip Iraq into full-scale sectarian civil war. A suicide truck bomb blamed on al Qaeda killed 87 people outside a Shi'ite mosque in Baghdad on Tuesday.
Bednarek estimated several hundred al Qaeda militants were at Baquba and it would be a long and dangerous job for U.S. forces to flush them out.
"They will not go any further. They will fight to the death," Bednarek told Reuters and another news agency.
"There have been houses that were used by al Qaeda as safe houses ... their entire structures rigged with massive explosives."
Baquba is the capital of Diyala province. The region has long been an al Qaeda hotbed, but attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces have soared here since a four-month-old U.S.-led security crackdown in Baghdad and operations elsewhere prompted many al Qaeda militants and other gunmen to seek sanctuary in Diyala.
The campaign is part of a broader offensive involving tens of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers pushing on with simultaneous operations in Baghdad, and to the south and west of the capital.
Tough fighting is expected over the next 45-60 days, U.S. military officials have said, sketching a rough timeline for the combined operations.
Bednarek said U.S. forces were making some grisly discoveries as they scoured Baquba.
He said residents led soldiers to a house in the western part of the city that appeared to have been used to hold, torment and kill hostages. Soldiers destroyed it.
"When you walk into a room and you see blood trails, you see saws, you see drills, knives, in addition to weapons, that is not normal," Bednarek said.
U.S. military commanders have said the combined operations were taking advantage of the completion of a build-up of American forces in Iraq to 156,000 soldiers.
President George W. Bush has sent 28,000 extra troops mainly to Baghdad to help curb sectarian bloodshed and buy time for Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to reach a political accommodation with disaffected minority Sunni Arabs, who are locked in a cycle of violence with majority Shi'ite Muslims.
U.S. casualties have been light so far, given the scope of the offensive in Diyala, with one soldier killed, although in Baghdad roadside bombs are exacting a heavy toll.
Bednarek said the fight against al Qaeda in Diyala also involved local Sunni Arabs who opposed the United States but who wanted to end al Qaeda domination of their communities.
He said this included fighters from the 1920 Revolution Brigade, a large Sunni Arab insurgent group that has fallen out with al Qaeda over its indiscriminate killing of civilians.
(Additional reporting by Paul Tait in Baghdad and Andrew Gray in Washington)
By Ross Colvin Reuters
Saddam Hussein's cousin, widely known as "Chemical Ali," was sentenced on Sunday to hang for masterminding a genocidal military campaign that used poison gas against Iraq's Kurds in the 1980s.
Ali Hassan al-Majeed, looking frail and wearing traditional Arab robes, stood silently as the judge read the verdict. As he was escorted from the Baghdad courtroom, he said: "Thanks be to God."
"This is judgment day for the aggressors against the Kurdish people," said Namiq Horamy, as he handed out sweets to colleagues in Kurdistan's Ministry of Martyrs, which looks after victims of the campaign.
Majeed, whose very name once sparked fear among Iraqis, directed a military campaign against the Kurdish north in which chemical weapons were used, villages demolished, agricultural lands destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed.
The court also sentenced to death Saddam's defense minister, Sultan Hashim, and a former military commander for their roles in the campaign. Two other commanders received life in prison. Charges were dropped against the former governor of Mosul.
Saddam was the seventh defendant, until his execution in December in a separate trial for crimes against humanity.
Kurds have long sought justice for the so-called Anfal or "Spoils of War" campaign that has left lasting scars on their mountainous region. Prosecutors say up to 180,000 people were killed in the seven-month "scorched-earth" operation in 1988.
In a packed visitors gallery overlooking the court, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd, and leaders of the largely autonomous Kurdish region watched the verdict being delivered. A witness described their reaction as one of "quiet satisfaction."
Kurds are a powerful political force in post-Saddam Iraq. They have the presidency and ministers in Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet and Kurdistan enjoys a large degree of autonomy from Baghdad.
"As soon as I heard Ali Hassan al-Majeed and Sultan Hashim had received the death sentence I was ecstatic and I began to scream. But the bigger joy would be to see Majeed executed in Kurdistan," said Shaheen Mahmoud, a Kurdish civil servant, in the northern city of Sulaimaniya.
The International Center for Transitional Justice, a New-York based legal rights groups, said while the trial was a historic day for Kurds it was marred by political interference and fell short of international fair trial standards.
Those convicted can appeal against the verdicts.
Majeed was viewed as Saddam's main enforcer, a man with a reputation for brutality who was used by the president to crush dissent. He also played a leading role in stamping out a Shi'ite rebellion in the south after the 1991 Gulf War.
During Anfal, thousands of villages were bombed and razed. Thousands of villagers were deported, many executed. Mustard gas and nerve agents were used to clear villages, earning Majeed his grim nickname "Chemical Ali."
"You issued orders to troops to use all weapons including chemical weapons that killed thousands, displaced thousands and detained many who later died of hunger, torture and diseases. Many disappeared," judge Mohammed al-Uraibi told Majeed.
"You committed crimes against humanity ... You committed genocide. There are enough documents against you."
Majeed, now in his mid-60s, admitted during the trial he ordered troops to execute Kurds who ignored orders to leave their villages but not to the use of poison gas.
The defendants have said Anfal had legitimate military targets -- Kurdish guerrillas who had sided with Iran during the last stage of the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war.
"We defended Iraq and we were not criminals," said Hussein Rashid, the Iraqi army's former deputy commander of operations, interrupting the judge as he read the verdict. He was also sentenced to death.
Historians say Saddam sought to make an example of the rebellious Kurds, who make up 20 percent of the population, to deter opponents of his regime and show them what happened to those who defied his authority.
(additional reporting by Shamal Aqrawi in Arbil)
By Paul Tait Reuters Mon Jun 25, 1:28 PM ET
A suicide bomber killed six Iraqi tribal leaders opposed to al Qaeda when he blew himself up at a busy Baghdad hotel, in one of four attacks on Monday that killed 50 people in all, police said.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said the hotel attack was in retaliation against Sunni Arab tribal leaders who had joined U.S. and Iraqi forces to fight al Qaeda because they were tired of its killing of Iraqis.
"The terrorists committed this crime to cover their defeats in Anbar and Diyala provinces at the hands of our military forces and the sons of the tribes," Maliki said in a statement.
In the northern oil city of Baiji, 27 people including 13 policemen were killed when a suicide bomber rammed a fuel tanker into protective walls outside a police headquarters, police said. They said 62 people were wounded.
The bombings came as tens of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi forces pressed ahead with offensives, in Baghdad and other areas including volatile Diyala province, to deny al Qaeda militants sanctuary in farmlands and towns.
Police said a bomber wearing a vest packed with explosives blew himself up in the lobby of the al-Mansour Hotel in Baghdad, where Sunni Arab tribal leaders from western Anbar province who supported the fight against al Qaeda had gathered.
The U.S. military and Iraqi police said six tribal sheikhs were among the dead.
Police said Fassal al-Igoud, a former Anbar governor, was the most prominent of the tribal leaders killed. The number of Sunni sheikhs killed could rise since some bodies had not yet been identified.
Some Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar have joined forces to form U.S.-backed provincial police units to fight al Qaeda, prompting a power struggle in the vast desert region.
Al-Iraqiya state television said one of its television show hosts was also killed.
The blast largely gutted the lobby in the high-rise hotel, which is home to some foreign diplomats and international news organizations.
Broken grey plaster and wiring hung from what was left of the lobby's ceiling. Two legs stuck out from under a pink sheet covering one corpse. Yellow sheets covered other objects which also appeared to be corpses.
"It was a huge explosion, the whole building shook for a few seconds," one witness said of the midday blast.
Another witness said he had seen seven charred bodies and pools of blood on the debris-littered lobby floor.
Police said 12 people were killed and 18 wounded. The U.S. military put the death toll at eight.
In the northern city of Mosul, a parked car bomb blew up in a residential area, killing three people and wounding 40.
Police also said eight people died when a suicide car bomber struck outside the governor's office in the southern Shi'ite city of Hilla.
U.S. and Iraqi officials blame most car bomb attacks in Iraq on al Qaeda. Monday's blasts came after a relative lull in the number of such attacks in the past week. A car bomb killed 87 people at a Shi'ite mosque in central Baghdad on June 19.
Tens of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops are taking part in "Operation Phantom Thunder," one of the biggest offensives by U.S. and Iraqi forces against al Qaeda in Iraq since the U.S.- led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in March 2003.
"We have killed a heck of a lot of al Qaeda, probably less than 100 hard-core fighters," said Brigadier-General Mick Bednarek, commander of an offensive in Baquba, the capital of Diyala and an al Qaeda stronghold.
The offensives are an attempt to buy time for Maliki's Shi'ite-led government to reach a political accommodation with disaffected minority Sunni Arabs.
(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami, Waleed Ibrahim, Mussab Al-Khairalla, Dean Yates, Ross Colvin and Alister Bull in Baghdad)
by Stephen Collinson
President George W. Bush's fragile political firewall against Iraq war critics was under siege Tuesday, after two Republican senators broke cover and called for changes in US strategy.
Senator Richard Lugar, a reluctant rebel and foreign policy expert, sent reverberations through Washington by warning the US plan to surge nearly 30,000 troops into the country would not work.
Fellow Republican George Voinovich, who like Lugar has resisted Democratic attempts to curtail Bush's war powers, meanwhile recommended a disengagement from Iraq as the White House warned of a "very difficult summer" for US troops.
Lugar said the United States had vital interests in Iraq, which included stemming Iranian influence, preventing terrorists from using the country as a launch-pad and maintaining stability and US prestige in the Middle East.
But while warning against a total troop withdrawal, the Indiana senator said, "in my judgment, the surge strategy is not an effective means of protecting these interests."
"Its prospects for success are too dependent on the actions of others who do not share our agenda. It relies on military power to achieve goals that it cannot achieve."
Voinovich, from Ohio, which has borne a heavy price in US combat deaths in Iraq, wrote to Bush to urge him to sketch a new war strategy.
"I submit to you respectfully that we must begin to develop a comprehensive plan for our countrys gradual military disengagement from Iraq and a corresponding increase in responsibility to the Iraqi government and its regional neighbors," he wrote.
"We must not abandon our mission, but we must begin a transition where the Iraqi government and its neighbors play a larger role in stabilizing Iraq."
White House spokesman Tony Snow downplayed Lugar's intervention, saying it was important to give the surge strategy time to succeed.
"Dick Lugar is a serious guy, so obviously you take it seriously. But on the other hand, again, he voted against the surge," Snow said.
But Lugar's and Voinovich's comments hinted at a softening of Republican backing used by Bush as a bulwark against attempts by the Democratic-led Congress to end the war.
Democratic Senate leaders, lacking the 60 votes needed to force Bush's hand, argue Congress will only have a decisive impact when Republicans desert the president on the war.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid Tuesday seized on Lugar's remarks, as he mustered his party for a new assault on Bush's war powers.
"When we finally end this war, and the history books are written, I believe that senator Lugar's words yesterday could be remembered as a turning point," he said.
"But that will depend on whether more Republicans will take the courageous first step that senator Lugar took last night."
Eyes are now on another veteran Republican, Senator John Warner -- as respected on military matters as Lugar is on foreign policy -- who may have the power to fracture Bush's Senate support base on the war.
Warner has expressed reservations over the Iraq war strategy, with legislation requiring Bush to report to Congress on developments there, but has not broken publicly with the White House so far.
In May, the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, also predicted a sea-change in Iraq policy.
"I think the handwriting is on the wall that we are going in a different direction in the fall, and I expect the president himself to lead it."
Democrats are setting new snares for Republicans in the run-up to September, when the US commander in Iraq General David Petraeus and US ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker are due to brief Congress on the surge strategy.
Seventy-four US troops have died in Iraq this month alone, as the total death toll since the 2003 invasion has hit 3,551, according to an AFP count based on Pentagon figures.
Snow warned of a grim medium-term outlook.
"Let's make no mistake about it, it's likely to be a very difficult summer, terrorists are going to do their very best to try to create very spectacular acts of terror," he said.
Copyright © 2007 Agence France Presse. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AFP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Agence France Presse.
by Phil Hazlewood - AFP
British police on Friday defused a car bomb composed of gas cylinders, petrol and nails in London's entertainment district, sparking a security probe into possible international links, including Iraq.
Amid widespread disruption in the capital, new Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned the alert was a fresh warning of the threat faced by Britain, which soon marks the second anniversary of suicide attacks which killed 52 people.
The head of Scotland Yard's counter-terrorism unit Peter Clarke would not speculate on who was behind the bomb, found near a nightclub.
But he said: "Even at this stage it is obvious that if this device had detonated, there could have been significant injury or loss of life."
Clarke said police had no warning of an attack but said there were some similarities with "previous plots".
"Nightclubs have been named by terrorists as potential targets," he said.
Members of an Islamist-inspired gang were jailed for life earlier this year after plotting to attack a number of high-profile British targets, including London's Ministry of Sound nightclub.
A security source quoted by Britain's Press Association news agency said it was "entirely possible" the incident had overseas links as insurgents in Iraq had used similar methods.
"There are various things: it is outside a nightclub, it is a vehicle-borne device, it is close to the anniversary of the July 7 attacks. But we are keeping an open mind."
New Home Secretary Jacqui Smith -- less than 24 hours into the role -- said after meeting Brown in Downing Street: "We are currently facing the most serious and sustained threat to our security from international terrorism.
"This latest incident reinforces the need for the public to remain vigilant and alert to the threat that we face at all times."
Smith earlier chaired a meeting of the government's emergency contigencies committee "COBRA" and reported to Brown's senior ministers at an extended cabinet meeting.
Clarke said an ambulance crew treating a person at the "Tiger, Tiger" nightclub on The Haymarket street called in police explosives experts after noticing a metallic Mercedes car giving off smoke, at about 1:00 am.
Inside, the officer said, they found "significant quantities" of petrol and a "large number" of nails.
Police sources said there was as much as 60 litres of petrol on the back seat of the car and in the boot (trunk).
As the car was taken away for forensic examination, Brown -- who took over as prime minister from Tony Blair Wednesday -- said the incident was a reminder of the "serious and continuous" security threat facing Britain.
A hunt was under way for the driver with detectives expected to scour footage from closed circuit television cameras in streets surrounding the busy Haymarket, which is a haven for tourists, theatre-goers and revellers.
Cameras used to recognise car number plates for London's traffic congestion charge would also be able to trace the route of the vehicle into the capital. Michael Clarke, professor of defence at King's College London, said: "They will find out about this very quickly.
"Any car coming into central London would be on a lot of surveillance footage. Also nobody can make a bomb without leaving behind a lot of DNA."
The alert came ahead of the second anniversary of the July 7, 2005 attacks in London that killed 56 people, including four Islamist suicide bombers.
Britain has been on the second highest level of security alert -- "severe" -- since the British Islamist extremist bombers detonated homemade bombs on three Underground trains and a bus two years ago.
Two of the bombers justified the actions because of Britain's involvement in Iraq, where three British soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb attack Thursday.
The domestic intelligence service MI5 said a "severe" threat level means there is a "serious and sustained threat from international terrorism to the UK and UK interests overseas", particularly from Al-Qaeda.
But an intelligence source quoted by the Press Association said "all options" were being considered, including dissident Irish republican groups oppposed to the Northern Irish peace process.
European governments have been on increased anti-terrorist alert in recent months. Asked about the London bomb, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that "the alert level in France is high".
Police closed a busy street in central London on Friday and were examining a suspicious vehicle there, a spokeswoman said.
"I can confirm police are attending a suspicious vehicle in Park Lane," she said. Park Lane is one of the most prestigious roads in central London.
Earlier on Friday, police said they had found a bomb in a
car in another area of central London.
By LEE KEATH, Associated Press Writer
A new video by al-Qaida's deputy leader Thursday left no doubt about what the terror network claims is at stake in Iraq — describing it as a centerpiece of its anti-American fight and insisting the Iraqi insurgency is under its direct leadership.
But the proclamations by Ayman al-Zawahri carried another unintended message: reflecting the current troubles confronting the Sunni extremists in Iraq, experts said.
The Islamic State of Iraq, the insurgent umbrella group that is claimed by al-Qaida, has faced ideological criticism from some militants, and rival armed groups have even joined U.S. battles against it. A U.S.-led offensive northwest of Baghdad — in one of the Islamic State's strongholds — may have temporarily disrupted and scattered insurgent forces.
"Some of the developments suggest that it (the Islamic State) is more fragile than it was before," said Bruce Hoffman, a Washington-based terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. think tank.
Al-Zawahri "is trying to replenish the Islamic State brand," he said. "It's time to reassert its viability, but how connected to reality that is, is another issue."
In the unusually long video — at just over an hour and a half — al-Zawahri depicted the Islamic State of Iraq as a vanguard for fighting off the U.S. military and eventually establishing a "caliphate" of Islamic rule across the region.
"The Islamic State of Iraq is set up in Iraq, the mujahedeen (holy warriors) celebrate it in the streets of Iraq, the people demonstrate in support of it," al-Zawahri said, "pledges of allegiance to it are declared in the mosques of Baghdad."
He called on Muslims around the world to "support this blessed fledgling mujahid garrison state with funds, manpower, opinion, information and expertise."
But al-Qaida in Iraq — the group that claims allegiance to Osama bin Laden's goals — has been put on the defensive. Some Sunni insurgent groups have publicly split with it, distancing themselves from its bomb attacks on Iraqi civilians and accusing al-Qaida of trying to strong-arm their members into joining.
One influential faction, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, has openly helped U.S. forces in new offensives against al-Qaida in and around Baghdad, and some Sunni tribes have turned against it in western Anbar province.
U.S. forces have focused on al-Qaida-linked fighters in their security clampdowns in Baghdad and so-called "belts" around the city in recent weeks. That has brought an increase in American casualties, but insurgent and militia attacks appear to have fallen.
Still, bloodshed can hit at any time. A car bomb Thursday killed 17 people and wounded 28 when it blasted a photographers' shop in a Shiite part of Baghdad, where a bride and groom were inside getting their wedding photos taken as their relatives and friends waited outside, said an official at the nearest police station.
The bride and groom were among the wounded, with minor injuries, said an official at the hospital where the victims were taken. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
North of Baghdad, insurgents attacked an Iraqi police convoy, killing five policemen. Other police in the convoy then opened fire, killing six civilian passers-by, said a police official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
In his video, al-Zawahri did not mention last week's failed car bombing attempts in Britain, which British authorities are investigating for al-Qaida links. That suggested the video, posted Thursday on an Islamic militant Web site, was made before the alerts in London and the airport attack in Glasgow.
But Hoffman said the timing of its release suggested al-Zawahri wanted to use the London attacks to call attention to al-Qaida and portray it as at the head of the global jihad.
The al-Qaida No. 2 laid out a strategy, saying in the near-term militants should target U.S. and Israeli interests "everywhere" in retaliation for "attacks on the Islamic nation" in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
The long-term strategy calls for "diligent work to change these corrupt and corrupting (Arab) regimes." He said Muslims should "rush to the fields of jihad" in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia "to defeat the enemies of the Islamic nation" and for "training to prepare for the next jihad."
Al-Qaida's declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq last year was a dramatic move aimed at staking out its leadership of Iraq's insurgency. Allying itself with several smaller Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups, it presented the Islamic State as an alternative government within Iraq, claiming to hold territory.
Although groups inspired by al-Qaida have been behind some of the most shocking attacks of the four-year Iraq war — including some against Shiite holy sites — most experts say the fighters comprise only a small part of an insurgency dominated by Iraqi Sunnis.
"The tapes always pretend that everyone is in the al-Qaida column," said Brian Jenkins, a writer and commentator on global terrorism.
He said the al-Qaida leadership's "greatest fear is irrelevance."
Even their declaration of the Islamic State quickly met resistance. Some Islamic extremist clerics in the Arab world said it was too soon to declare an Islamic state because the qualifications were not yet met.
Al-Zawahri dismissed those who refuse to recognize the Islamic State "because it lacks the necessary qualifications" even while he acknowledged it had made unspecified mistakes.
He urged critics to work with the Islamic State "even if we see in it shortcomings," and said Islamic State leaders should "open their hearts" to consultations. "The mujahedeen are not innocent of deficiency, error and slips," he said. "The mujahedeen must solve their problems among themselves."
Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute, which monitors terrorist-related activity around the world, said she didn't have "any doubt" that al-Qaida in Iraq is linked to bin Laden's network.
"It surely seems today that al-Qaida in Iraq is a branch of al-Qaida's leadership in Afghanistan-Pakistan," she said.
In other attacks around Iraq on Thursday, two American soldiers were killed and two were wounded by a roadside bombing in south Baghdad, the U.S. military said. It said the bomb was an explosively formed penetrator — a type of weapon which the Americans say is provided to Shiite extremists by the Iranians. Iran denies the allegation
By YAHYA BARZANJI, Associated Press Writer
A suicide truck bomber blasted a Shiite town north of Baghdad on Saturday, killing more than 100 people, police said, in a sign Sunni insurgents are pulling away from a U.S. offensive around the capital to attack where security is thinner.
The marketplace devastation underlined a hard reality in Iraq: There are not enough forces to protect everywhere. U.S. troops, already increased by 28,000 this year, are focused on bringing calm to Baghdad, while the Iraqi military and police remain overstretched and undertrained.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, told The Associated Press he expected Sunni extremists to try to "pull off a variety of sensational attacks and grab the headlines to create a `mini-Tet.'"
He was referring to the 1968 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Tet offensive that undermined public support for the Vietnam War in the United States.
The U.S. military on Saturday also reported that eight American service members were killed in fighting in Baghdad and western Anbar province over two days, reflecting the increased U.S. casualties that have come with the new offensives. A British soldier was killed in fighting with Shiite militias overnight in the southern city of Basra.
In Saturday's attack — among the deadliest this year in Iraq — the truck detonation ripped through the market in the farming town of Armili at around 8:30 am, as crowds had gathered for morning shopping.
It demolished several dozen old mud-brick homes and shops, burying dozens of people under the rubble, and set cars on fire, survivors said.
While residents and police dug through the wreckage for hours, victims were ferried in farmers' pickup trucks 30 miles to the nearest hospital, in Tuz Khormato.
Weeping and screaming relatives searched Tuz Khormato's hospital frantically for word of loved ones. Ali Hussein read the names of victims being moved further north to Kirkuk for treatment. "My cousin died in the explosion, but I don't know the fate of my brother," he said in tears.
Abdullah Jabara, deputy governor of Salahuddin province where the town is located, told Iraqi state television that 115 died — nearly three-quarters of them women, children and elderly — and blamed al-Qaida. Police gave a similar death toll, along with more than 200 wounded, though Tuz Khormato's police chief, Col. Abbas Mohammed Amin, put the toll at 150 dead.
The attack's location suggested it was carried out by Sunni extremists fleeing the three-week old U.S. offensive centered at the city of Baqouba, 60 miles to the south on Baghdad's northern doorstep. The sweep aims to uproot al-Qaida militants and Sunni insurgents using the area to stage car bomb attacks in the capital.
But U.S. commanders acknowledge that many insurgents fled Baqouba before the assault, and they may have found easier ground for attacks further north.
"Because of the recent American military operations, terrorists found a good hideout in Salahuddin province, especially in the outskirts areas in which there isn't enough number of military forces there," said Ahmed al-Jubouri, an aide of the provincial governor.
Armili, 100 miles north of Baghdad, is a town of 26,000, mostly Shiites from Iraq's Turkoman ethnic minority. Residents say tensions are constantly high with Sunni Arabs who dominate the surrounding villages. Iraqi security presence is scant in the remote region, near the border with neighboring Diyala province.
"The number of Iraqi police and army in this area is too low. This is a farming area with a lot of empty areas, so it's neglected. There's not even much presence of government officials," said Haytham Khalaf, 37, an Amirli resident whose niece was injured. He accused local Sunnis of helping al-Qaida set up a presence there.
Extremists hit a similarly isolated location hours before the Armili blast. Friday night, a suicide car bomber hit a funeral tent in the Kurdish Sunni village of Zargosh, about 75 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing 22 people.
The U.S. military may be forced to tolerate attacks further north as they focus on pacifying Baghdad and its surroundings, hoping that calm in the capital will give the government time to take key political steps. Washington is pressing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to pass measures to encourage Sunni Arabs to turn away from support of the insurgency to back the government.
Attacks have fallen in recent weeks in much of Baghdad. Still, a suicide car bomber blasted an Iraqi army patrol in an eastern commercial district of the capital, killing five soldiers and a civilian, police said.
Roadside bombings killed five U.S. soldiers in Baghdad on Friday and another on Thursday, the U.S. military said in its latest statements on U.S. casualties. Two Marines were killed in fighting Friday in western Anbar province, it said.
Dozens of Sunni Muslim sheiks and tribal leaders met Saturday in the western city of Ramadi, pledging to fight terrorism and restore peace to Anbar province — for years the heart of the insurgency.
Among them were members of the Anbar Awakening, which was formed in April by more than 200 Sunni sheiks whose followers are now cooperating with U.S. forces against al-Qaida and other insurgents. The meeting also called for the release of security detainees who had not been convicted of crimes and for a bigger role for their group in representing Sunni interests.
In the far south of Iraq, British troops came under heavy attack by militants in Basra, killing one soldier and wounding three, the British military said Saturday.
Britain has withdrawn hundreds of troops from Iraq, leaving a force of around 5,500 based mainly on the fringes of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad. British bases come under frequent mortar attacks from Shiite militias. The U.S. currently has about 155,000 troops in Iraq.
AP correspondent Robert H. Reid in Baqouba contributed to this report.
By ANNE FLAHERTY, Associated Press Writer
As the Senate debates taking a new course in Iraq, President Bush's national security adviser scheduled a meeting with more than a dozen Republican senators in a bid to shore up eroding support for the war.
Stephen Hadley was to visit Capitol Hill on Wednesday — one of many such forays in recent days — as the White House finalized a 23-page progress report on Iraq that concludes the government in Baghdad has made little progress in meeting reform goals laid down by Bush and Congress.
Iraq's inability to pass laws considered key to national cohesion and economic recovery or achieve other major milestones has prompted a backlash by Bush's one-time staunch political defenders.
At least 10 Republicans in recent weeks have said the U.S. should start reducing the military's role in Iraq, with the latest challenge to the president's Iraq strategy coming Tuesday from Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
"Simply put, our troops have been doing a great job, but the Iraqi government has not," Dole, R-N.C., said. "Our commitment in Iraq is not indefinite, nor should the Iraqi government perceive it to be. It is my firm hope and belief that we can start bringing our troops home in 2008."
Up to 20 GOP senators were invited to the meeting with Hadley to discuss the war.
Earlier this year, Congress passed a 2007 war spending bill that identified 18 benchmarks for political, security and economic reforms. The list was based on promises made by the Iraqi government when Bush decided to send in 30,000 additional U.S. troops.
The legislation required Bush to certify by July 15 and again on Sept. 15 that Baghdad was making significant strides in meeting the benchmarks. If he cannot, U.S. aid dollars must be cut, according to the law.
The law allows Bush to waive the requirement to cut funding.
Based on that list, the administration is likely to argue some progress has been made in reducing the level of sectarian violence and militia control. Iraq also has established several, but not all, of the needed joint neighborhood security stations in Baghdad, as well as increased the number of capable Iraqi security units.
But the report also is expected to concede that several major goals have not been met: Iraqi laws to allocate oil and gas resources and revenue, and to address amnesty for former Baath Party members.
Bush is not expected to withhold aid from the Iraqis.
The report comes as the Senate and House prepare to vote on Democratic legislation that would order combat to end by April 30, 2008, with troop withdrawals starting in 120 days.
Bush said Tuesday he would veto such legislation. He also said he would not rethink his military strategy until at least September, when the top military commander delivers a progress report on the troop buildup.
"That's what the American people expect. They expect for military people to come back and tell us how the military operations are going," Bush said. "And that's the way I'm going to play it as commander in chief."
Skeptical Republicans mostly agree they will oppose the Democratic proposal, and it is expected to fail. But these GOP members say they want to see legislation that would require U.S. troops no longer conduct combat missions, and focus on border control and counterterrorism efforts instead.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she wants to "leave it up to the military on the timing of the drawdown of the troops." But "by changing the mission, you're paving the way for a significant but gradual drawdown of our troops."
A Senate vote is expected next week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she will call for a vote on a similar measure by the end of this week.
By KATHERINE SHRADER and MATTHEW LEE, Associated Press Writers
U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded al-Qaida has rebuilt its operating capability to a level not seen since just before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, The Associated Press has learned.
The conclusion suggests that the network that launched the most devastating terror attack on the United States has been able to regroup along the Afghan-Pakistani border despite nearly six years of bombings, war and other tactics aimed at crippling it.
Still, numerous government officials say they know of no specific, credible threat of a new attack on U.S. soil.
A counterterrorism official familiar with a five-page summary of the new government threat assessment called it a stark appraisal to be discussed at the White House on Thursday as part of a broader meeting on an upcoming National Intelligence Estimate.
The official and others spoke on condition of anonymity because the secret report remains classified.
Counterterrorism analysts produced the document, titled "Al-Qaida better positioned to strike the West." The document focuses on the terror group's safe haven in Pakistan and makes a range of observations about the threat posed to the United States and its allies, officials said.
Al-Qaida is "considerably operationally stronger than a year ago" and has "regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001," the official said, paraphrasing the report's conclusions. "They are showing greater and greater ability to plan attacks in Europe and the United States."
The group also has created "the most robust training program since 2001, with an interest in using European operatives," the official quoted the report as saying.
At the same time, this official said, the report speaks of "significant gaps in intelligence" so U.S. authorities may be ignorant of potential or planned attacks.
John Kringen, who heads the CIA's analysis directorate, echoed the concerns about al-Qaida's resurgence during testimony and conversations with reporters at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday.
"They seem to be fairly well settled into the safe haven and the ungoverned spaces of Pakistan," Kringen testified. "We see more training. We see more money. We see more communications. We see that activity rising."
The threat assessment comes as the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies prepare a National Intelligence Estimate focusing on threats to the United States. A senior intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity while the high-level analysis was being finalized, said the document has been in the works for roughly two years.
Kringen and aides to National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell would not comment on the details of that analysis. "Preparation of the estimate is not a response to any specific threat," McConnell's spokesman Ross Feinstein said, adding that it would probably be ready for distribution this summer.
Counterterrorism officials have been increasingly concerned about al-Qaida's recent operations. This week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he had a "gut feeling" that the United States faced a heightened risk of attack this summer.
Kringen said he wouldn't attach a summer time frame to the concern. In studying the threat, he said he begins with the premise that al-Qaida would consider attacking the U.S. a "home run hit" and that the easiest way to get into the United States would be through Europe.
The new threat assessment puts particular focus on Pakistan, as did Kringen.
"Sooner or later you have to quit permitting them to have a safe haven" along the Afghan-Pakistani border, he told the House committee. "At the end of the day, when we have had success, it is when you've been able to get them worried about who was informing on them, get them worried about who was coming after them."
Several European countries — among them Britain, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands — are also highlighted in the threat assessment partly because they have arrangements with the Pakistani government that allow their citizens easier access to Pakistan than others, according to the counterterrorism official.
This is more troubling because all four are part of the U.S. visa waiver program, and their citizens can enter the United States without additional security scrutiny, the official said.
The report also notes that al-Qaida has increased its public statements, although analysts stressed that those video and audio messages aren't reliable indicators of the actions the group may take.
The Bush administration has repeatedly cited al-Qaida as a key justification for continuing the fight in Iraq.
"The No. 1 enemy in Iraq is al-Qaida," White House press secretary Tony Snow said Wednesday. "Al-Qaida continues to be the chief organizer of mayhem within Iraq, the chief organization for killing innocent Iraqis."
The findings could bolster the president's hand at a moment when support on Capitol Hill for the war is eroding and the administration is struggling to defend its decision for a military buildup in Iraq. A progress report that the White House is releasing to Congress this week is expected to indicate scant progress on the political and military benchmarks set for Iraq.
The threat assessment says that al-Qaida stepped up efforts to "improve its core operational capability" in late 2004 but did not succeed until December of 2006 after the Pakistani government signed a peace agreement with tribal leaders that effectively removed government military presence from the northwest frontier with Afghanistan.
The agreement allows Taliban and al-Qaida operatives to move across the border with impunity and establish and run training centers, the report says, according to the official.
It also says that al-Qaida is particularly interested in building up the numbers in its middle ranks, or operational positions, so there is not as great a lag in attacks when such people are killed.
"Being No. 3 in al-Qaida is a bad job. We regularly get to the No. 3 person," Tom Fingar, the top U.S. intelligence analyst, told the House panel.
The counterterror official said the report does not focus on al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, his whereabouts or his role in the terrorist network. Officials say al-Qaida has become more like a "family-oriented" mob organization with leadership roles in cells and other groups being handed from father to son, or cousin to uncle.
Yet bin Laden's whereabouts are still of great interest to intelligence agencies. Although he has not been heard from for some time, Kringen said officials believe he is still alive and living under the protection of tribal leaders in the border area.
Armed Services Committee members expressed frustration that more was not being done to get bin Laden and tamp down activity in the tribal areas. The senior intelligence analysts tried to portray the difficulty of operating in the area despite a $25 million bounty on the head of bin Laden and his top deputy.
"They are in an environment that is more hostile to us than it is to al-Qaida," Fingar said.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Office of the Director of National Intelligence: http://www.dni.gov/
By CALVIN WOODWARD, Associated Press Writer
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, said Monday he's "extremely doubtful" that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will be able to secure the country and allow American forces to leave any time soon.
"There is no chance that the Iraqi forces could take over at any time, or certainly by the first of the year," Hamilton said in a nationally broadcast interview. "All of the support efforts, logistical and medical and so forth, they are not close to being able to meet," Hamilton said.
"The most important is inclusivity," he added. "That is making sure that you include all elements of Iraqi society in the government," he said. "They're not close at all. The president gave them a satisfactory rating. But all they've done is create a committee" to work on a host of legislative issues aimed at completing the transition from the Saddam Hussein era.
"I am extremely doubtful about it. He's had quite a bit of time now. He's known exactly what he's had to do. He hasn't done it. His rhetoric is pretty good. His performance is pretty bad," Hamilton said in an interview with on NBC's "Today" show.
The former Democratic congressman from Indiana, long a major player in foreign affairs issues, was interviewed on the same day that al-Maliki told NBC News in an interview that he now believes Iraqi forces will be ready to secure the country on their own by the end of the year.
Hamilton's comments also came at a time when, at home in the United States unity within the Republican Party on Iraq is frayed, although holding up so far. But more pressure is being applied in this area as lawmakers from both the Republican and Democratic parties float proposals in the Senate to get U.S. troops out of Iraq soon.
Democrats will try again this week to set a deadline for the reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq.
On the GOP side, two moderate Republicans with respected foreign policy credentials have proposed their own hurry-up initiative, winning a polite but clear rejection from the White House.
President Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said "No" when asked Sunday whether Bush could live with the proposal by Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Richard Lugar of Indiana.
He said the administration's "very orderly process" for reviewing its Iraq plans, keyed on a mid-September appraisal of progress, should be allowed to play out without preconditions.
"They've done a useful service in indicating the kinds of things that we should be thinking about," Hadley said of the senators. "But the time to begin that process is September."
The Senate's Democratic leadership also is cool to the Warner-Lugar proposal, but for different reasons. Democrats favor tougher steps to restrict Bush's options, but need more Republicans to peel away from Bush before they can prevail.
The two GOP senators said nothing in their proposal would bind Bush to a withdrawal timetable or throw the September review off track. But it does suggest patience is running thin with Bush's course of action even among some Republicans who have been behind him.
"The president will have to make some changes and I'm confident the president will do so," Warner said.
Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, a presidential contender, predicted enough Republicans would defect from the White House line on Iraq in the months ahead to enable the Democratic majority to overcome delaying tactics in the Senate and ultimately override any Bush veto.
Democrats are coordinating a week of maneuvering that will call to account the small but growing number of wavering Republicans.
One Democratic measure last week, which sought to influence troop deployments, fell four votes short of the 60 needed to advance.
Lugar and Warner said their proposal asks that Bush start thinking now about different options and seek to boost diplomacy. They cited an over-stretched military and growing terrorist threats around the world.
But that does not mean an abandonment of a U.S. presence in Iraq, they said.
"This nation of ours has got to remain in that area," Warner said, pointing to the United States' "vital security interests" involving Middle East oil and relations with Israel.
Hadley appeared on ABC's "This Week," "Fox News Sunday," CBS' "Face the Nation" and CNN's "Late Edition." Warner spoke on ABC; Biden on CNN.
By ROBERT H. REID, Associated Press Writer
The U.S. command announced on Wednesday the arrest of an al-Qaida leader it said served as the link between the organization's command in Iraq and Osama bin Laden's inner circle, enabling it to wield considerable influence over the Iraqi group.
The announcement was made as the White House steps up efforts to link the war in Iraq to the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, with a growing number of Americans opposing the Iraq conflict. Some independent analysts question the extent of al-Qaida's role in Iraq.
Khaled Abdul-Fattah Dawoud Mahmoud al-Mashhadani was the highest-ranking Iraqi in the al-Qaida in Iraq leadership when he was captured July 4 in Mosul, U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner said.
Bergner told reporters that al-Mashhadani carried messages from bin Laden, and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, to the Egyptian-born head of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri.
"There is a clear connection between al-Qaida in Iraq and al-Qaida senior leadership outside Iraq," Bergner said.
He said al-Mashhadani had told interrogators that al-Qaida's global leadership provides "directions, they continue to provide a focus for operations" and "they continue to flow foreign fighters into Iraq, foreign terrorists."
The relationship between bin Laden and the al-Qaida in Iraq leadership has long been the subject of debate. Some private analysts believe the foreign-based leadership plays a minor role in day-to-day operations.
Analysts have also questioned U.S. military assertions that al-Qaida in Iraq is the main threat to U.S. forces here.
Former Pentagon analyst Anthony Cordesman quoted a background brief by U.S. military experts in Iraq this month that said al-Qaida in Iraq was responsible for only 15 percent of the attacks here in the first half of 2007.
Even before al-Mashhadani's arrest, U.S. military officials have insisted that links exist between the local al-Qaida group and the bin Laden clique. From time to time, officials have released captured letters indicating a flow of policy instructions to the group's commanders in Iraq.
Although numerous armed groups operate here, al-Qaida in Iraq's signature attacks — high-profile truck bombings against civilian targets — were largely responsible for unleashing the wave of sectarian slaughter last year that transformed the character of the conflict, U.S. officials say.
"What we've learned from not just from the capture of al-Mashhadani but from other al-Qaida operatives is that there is a flow of strategic directions of prioritization, of messaging and other guidance that comes from al-Qaida senior leadership to the al-Qaida in Iraq leadership," Bergner said.
Al-Qaida in Iraq was proclaimed in 2004 by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He led a group called Tawhid and Jihad, responsible for the beheading of several foreign hostages, whose final moments were captured on videotapes provided to Arab television stations.
Al-Zarqawi posted Web statements declaring his allegiance to bin Laden and began using the name of al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Diyala province in June 2006 and was replaced by al-Masri.
Although al-Qaida in Iraq's rank-and-file are mostly Iraqis, the Iraqi group's top leadership is dominated by foreigners, Bergner said. That includes al-Masri, who joined an al-Qaida forerunner in Egypt in the 1980s and later helped train fighters who drove the Soviet army from Afghanistan.
Pointing to the foreign influence within al-Qaida in Iraq could undermine support for the organization among nationalistically minded Iraqis, including some in insurgent groups that have broken with al-Qaida.
In an effort to give al-Qaida an Iraqi face, Bergner said al-Mashhadani and al-Masri established a front organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq, which the general described as "a virtual organization in cyberspace."
In Web postings, the Islamic State of Iraq has identified its leader as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, a name indicating Iraqi origin, with the Egyptian al-Masri as minister of war. There are no known photos of al-Baghdadi.
Bergner said al-Mashhadani had told interrogators that al-Baghdadi is a "fictional role" created by al-Masri and that an actor with an Iraqi accent is used for audio recordings of speeches posted on the Web.
"In his words, the Islamic State of Iraq is a front organization that masks the foreign influence and leadership within al-Qaida in Iraq in an attempt to put an Iraqi face on the leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq," Bergner said.
Proclamation of the Islamic State is widely seen as a blunder by al-Qaida because it alienated independently minded insurgent groups that opposed the religious zealots' goal of an Islamic caliphate.
Fearing they would be marginalized by al-Qaida, Sunni sheiks and insurgent leaders began turning against the terror movement, in some cases cooperating with U.S. forces, notably in Anbar province.
Also Wednesday, the U.S. military said three American soldiers were killed the day before in separate bombings in the capital. Two were killed in west Baghdad and another died in east Baghdad, the military said.
Four other Americans were wounded in the east Baghdad blast, the command said. Two insurgents responsible for the attack were identified, engaged and killed, the statement added.
At least 12 people were killed Wednesday in a series of bombings in mostly Shiite areas of eastern Baghdad. Seven of them died in two back-to-back bombings near a gas station in the Amin district, police said.
Eight civilians were killed when gunmen opened fire in the city of Khalis, a Shiite enclave in a mostly Sunni area 50 miles north of Baghdad, police said.
All the police spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release the information.
By BEN FELLER, Associated Press Writer
President Bush, trying to justify the Iraq war, cited intelligence reports Tuesday he said showed a link between al-Qaida's operation in Iraq and the terror group that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Democrats dismissed Bush's argument.
"The merger between al-Qaida and its Iraqi affiliate is an alliance of killers and that is why the finest military in the world is on their trail," Bush said at Charleston Air Force Base, a launching point for cargo and military personnel headed to Iraq.
Citing security details he declassified for his speech, Bush described al-Qaida's burgeoning operation in Iraq as a direct threat to the United States. Bush accused critics in Congress of misleading the American public by suggesting otherwise.
"That's like watching a man walk into a bank with a mask and a gun and saying, 'He's probably just there to cash a check,'" Bush told troops at Charleston Air Force Base.
Bush is up against highly skeptical audiences with 18 months left in office. The public has largely lost faith in the war, Congress is weighing ways to end it, and international partners have fading memories of the 2001 attacks against the U.S. Six years later, terrorist leader Osama bin Laden remains at large.
"The president's claim that the war in Iraq is protecting us from al-Qaida is as misguided and dangerous as the conclusions that drove us to Iraq in the first place," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "The fact is that our continued flawed strategy in Iraq is emboldening and unifying al-Qaida, both in that country and elsewhere."
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said Bush "is trying to scare the American people into believing that al-Qaida is the rationale for continuing the war in Iraq." But Kerry said Bush presented no new evidence to back that up, and added: "The president is picking the wrong rationale for this war. Al-Qaida is not the principal killer of American forces in Iraq."
In broad strokes, Bush linked the Iraq war to an event that Americans remember deeply — the Sept. 11 attacks, not the sectarian strife among Iraqis, which has caused some to question U.S. military involvement.
Al-Qaida, led by Osama bin Laden, orchestrated the terrorist strikes on the United States by turning hijacked airplanes into killing machines. Now a fresh intelligence estimate warns that the United States is in a heightened threat environment, mainly from al-Qaida. The terror group is seizing upon its affiliate, al-Qaida in Iraq, to recruit members and organize attacks, the report found.
"I've presented intelligence that clearly establishes this connection," Bush said after spelling out details of foreign ties and leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq.
Al-Qaida had no active cells in Iraq when the U.S. invaded in March 2003, and its operation there is much larger now than before the war, U.S. intelligence officers say. The war itself has turned into a valuable recruiting tool for al-Qaida, senior intelligence officials concede. Bush denied that the war triggered al-Qaida's operations in Iraq.
Bush cited intelligence that:
_Al-Qaida in Iraq was founded not by an Iraqi but by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had deep relations with al-Qaida leaders. The president said Zarqawi, who was killed by U.S. forces last year, set up operations with terrorist associates in Iraq long before U.S.-led forces arrived, and that in the violence and instability following Saddam Hussein's fall, was able to expand the "size, scope and lethality" of his operation. Zarqawi formally joined al-Qaida in 2004 and pledged allegiance to bin Laden, he said.
_The merger gave al-Qaida senior leadership "a foothold in Iraq to extend its geographic presence and to plot external operations and to tout the centrality of the jihad in Iraq to solicit direct monetary support elsewhere."
By STEVEN R. HURST, Associated Press Writer
Iraq's power grid is on the brink of collapse because of insurgent sabotage, rising demand, fuel shortages and provinces that are unplugging local power stations from the national grid, officials said Saturday.
Electricity Ministry spokesman Aziz al-Shimari said power generation nationally is only meeting half the demand, and there had been four nationwide blackouts over the past two days. The shortages across the country are the worst since the summer of 2003, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, he said.
Power supplies in Baghdad have been sporadic all summer and now are down to just a few hours a day, if that. The water supply in the capital has also been severely curtailed by power blackouts and cuts that have affected pumping and filtration stations.
Karbala province south of Baghdad has been without power for three days, causing water mains to go dry in the provincial capital, the Shiite holy city of Karbala.
"We no longer need television documentaries about the Stone Age. We are actually living in it. We are in constant danger because of the filthy water and rotten food we are having," said Hazim Obeid, who sells clothing at a stall in the Karbala market.
Electricity shortages are a perennial problem in Iraq, even though it sits atop one of the world's largest crude oil reserves. The national power grid became decrepit under Saddam Hussein because his regime was under U.N. sanctions after the Gulf War and had trouble buying spare parts or equipment to upgrade the system.
The power problems are only adding to the misery of Iraqis, already suffering from the effects of more than four years of war and sectarian violence. Outages make life almost unbearable in the summer months, when average daily temperatures reach between 110 and 120 degrees.
One of the biggest problems facing the national grid is the move by provinces to disconnect their power plants from the system, reducing the overall amount of electricity being generated for the entire country. Provinces say they have no choice because they are not getting as much electricity in return for what they produce, mainly because the capital requires so much power.
"Many southern provinces such as Basra, Diwaniyah, Nassiriyah, Babil have disconnected their power plants from the national grid. Northern provinces, including Kurdistan, are doing the same," al-Shimari said. "We have absolutely no control over some areas in the south," he added.
"The national grid will collapse if the provinces do not abide by rules regarding their share of electricity. Everybody will lose and there will be no electricity winner," al-Shimari said.
He complained that the central government was unable to do anything about provincial power stations pulling out of the national system, or the fact some provinces were failing to take themselves off the supply grid once they had consumed their daily ration of electricity.
Najaf provincial spokesman Ahmed Deibel confirmed to The Associated Press Sunday that the gas turbine generator there had been removed from the national grid. He said the plant produced 50 megawatts while the province needed at least 200 megawatts.
"What we produce is not enough even for us. We disconnected it from the national grid three days ago because the people in Baghdad were getting too much, leaving little electricity for Najaf," he said.
Compounding the problem, al-Shimari said there are 17 high-tension lines running into Baghdad but only two were operational. The rest had been sabotaged.
"What makes Baghdad the worst place in the country is that most of the lines leading into the capital have been destroyed. That is compounded by the fact that Baghdad has limited generating capacity," al-Shimari said.
"When we fix a line, the insurgents attack it the next day," he added.
Fuel shortages are also a major problem. In Karbala, provincial spokesman Ghalib al-Daami said a 50-megawatt power station had been shut down because of a lack of fuel, causing the entire province to be without water and electricity for the past three days.
He said sewage was seeping above ground in nearly half the provincial capital because pump trucks used to clean septic tanks have been unable to operate due to gasoline shortages. The sewage was causing a health threat to citizens and contaminating crops in the region.
Many people who normally would rely on small home generators for electricity can't afford to buy fuel. Gasoline prices have shot up to nearly $5 a gallon, Karbala residents say, a price that puts the fuel out of range for all but the wealthy.
"We wait for the sunset to enjoy some coolness," said Qassim Hussein, a 31-year-old day laborer in Karbala. "The people are fed-up. There is no water, no electricity, there is nothing, but death. I've even had more trouble with my wife these last three days. Everybody is on edge."
Iraq has the world's third-largest proven oil reserves, behind Saudi Arabia and Iran. But oil production has been hampered by insurgent and saboteur attacks, ranging from bombing pipelines to siphoning off oil. The attacks have cost the country billions of dollars since the 2003 U.S. invasion. Dilapidated infrastructure has also hindered refining, forcing Iraq to import large amounts of kerosene and other oil products.
The electricity problems come as leaders are trying to deal with a political crisis that erupted when the country's largest bloc of Sunni political parties withdrew from the government.
President Bush called Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Vice President Adel Abdel-Mahdi to urge them to try to preserve political unity in the country, where the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is under a stiff challenge from rival political forces and insurgents.
Talabani, a Kurd, and Abdel-Mahdi, a Shiite, provided few details of the conversations in statements released by their offices. But both men have been involved in trying to solve the crisis.
Elsewhere, the U.S. military announced the death of a Marine during combat Thursday in Iraq's western Anbar province.
The U.S. military also issued a statement saying its forces killed four suspects and captured 33 others Saturday in raids in northern Iraq and along the Tigris River Valley.
In northern Iraq, a prison riot was brought under control two days after it broke out when Iraqi guards prepared to move inmates into an isolation unit and U.S. soldiers surrounded the facility.
The riot at Badoosh prison outside Mosul, about 220 miles northwest of Baghdad, involved nearly 65 inmates. Iraqi guards killed one inmate who was trying to escape from the prison yard and wounded two others inside the prison, the U.S. military said in a statement.
The U.S. military said American troops did not fire any rounds during the disturbance and no U.S. or Iraqi troops were wounded.
Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.
By SAMEER N. YACOUB, Associated Press WriterMon Aug 6, 4:33 PM ET
Iraq's political crisis worsened Monday as five more ministers announced a boycott of Cabinet meetings — leaving the embattled prime minister's unity government with no members affiliated with Sunni political factions.
Meanwhile, a suicide bomber killed at least 28 people in a northern city, including 19 children, some playing hopscotch and marbles in front of their homes. And the American military reported five new U.S. deaths: Four soldiers were killed in a combat explosion in restive Diyala province north of the capital Monday, and a soldier was killed and two were wounded during fighting in eastern Baghdad on Sunday.
The new cracks in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government appeared even as U.S. military officials sounded cautious notes of progress on security, citing strides against insurgents linked to al-Qaida in Iraq but also new threats from Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
Despite the new U.S. accusations of Iranian meddling, the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors met Monday for their third round of talks in just over two months. A U.S. embassy spokesman called the talks between U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, "frank and serious."
But it was al-Maliki's troubles that seized the most attention.
The Cabinet boycott of five ministers loyal to former Iraqi leader Ayad Allawi left the government, at least temporarily, without participants where were members of the Sunni political apparatus — a deep blow to the prime minister's attempt to craft reconciliation among the country's majority Shiites and minority Sunnis and Kurds.
The defense minister is from a Sunni background but has no political ties and was chosen by al-Maliki.
The Allawi bloc, a mixture of Sunnis and Shiites, cited al-Maliki's failure to respond to its demands for political reform. The top Sunni political bloc already had pulled its six ministers from the 40-member Cabinet of al-Maliki, a Shiite, last week.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who has been trying to broker the Sunni bloc's return in a bid to hold the government together, met Monday with Crocker and a White House envoy.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States was working well with the al-Maliki government, but he did not give the kind of enthusiastic endorsement that President Bush and his aides once did.
"There's a very healthy political debate that is going on in Iraq, and that is good," McCormack said. "It's going to be for them (the Iraqi people) to make the judgments about whether or not that government is performing."
Lawmaker Hussam al-Azawi, of the bloc loyal to Allawi, said the boycott began with Monday's Cabinet meeting. The ministers intend to continue overseeing their ministries.
"We demanded broader political participation by all Iraqis to achieve real national reconciliation ... and an end to sectarian favoritism," al-Azawi said.
Meanwhile, Iraqi authorities girded for a major Shiite pilgrimage later this week in Baghdad with plans to tighten security.
Sunni insurgents often target such gatherings. And this particular annual march, to commemorate the eighth-century death of a key Shiite saint, was struck by tragedy in 2005, when thousands of Shiite pilgrims, panicked by rumors of a suicide bomber, broke into a stampede on a bridge, killing 1,000.
Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, an Iraqi military spokesman for Baghdad, said the government was considering a driving ban during the march this week, but had not made a decision.
However, Iraqi security forces will intensify checkpoints and marchers will be banned from carrying weapons, cell phones or even bags, he said.
In Tal Afar to the north, officials slapped an immediate curfew on the religiously mixed city after a suicide bomber slammed his truck into a crowded Shiite neighborhood. The blast killed at least 28 people, including at least 19 children, according to Brig. Gen. Najim Abdullah, who said the dump truck was filled with explosives and covered with a layer of gravel.
The powerful Monday morning blast caused houses to collapse as many families were getting ready for the day ahead, and officials said the death toll could rise.
Several residents said boys and girls were playing hopscotch and marbles outside the houses at the time of the explosion.
"This is an ugly crime. I cannot understand how the insurgents did not think about these children," said one man, Kahlil Atta, a wedding photographer in the city.
Tal Afar, which was cited by Bush last March as a success story after major military operations against insurgents, has been the frequent site of Sunni extremist attacks in the past year.
Elsewhere, 60 decomposing bodies were found in a mainly Sunni area that had been under the control of al-Qaida in Iraq west of Baqouba, according to a Diyala police official. The U.S. military said it had no information about any discovery.
At least 53 other people were killed or found dead elsewhere in Iraq, according to police. Those included the bodies of five soldiers who had been ambushed by gunmen while on their way home for vacation north of Tikrit.
All Iraqi police officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information.
The Iranian talks come as the U.S. military steps up accusations that Tehran is arming and training Shiite militants to attack American forces in Iraq.
Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the U.S. second-in-command, said Sunday that rogue Shiite militiamen with Iranian weapons and training launched 73 percent of the attacks that killed or wounded American forces last month in Baghdad, nearly double the figure six months earlier.
Tehran has denied U.S. allegations that it is fueling violence in Iraq.
On Monday, the Iranian delegation criticized what it called America's "suspicious" security approach toward Iraq, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency. It called for "a change in the broad policies and approach of the U.S."
Associated Press writer Kim Gamel in Baghdad contributed to this report.
By Patrick Worsnip and Evelyn Leopold
The Security Council voted on Friday to give the United Nations an expanded political role in Iraq, promoting reconciliation between its rival factions and dialogue with neighboring countries.
The 15-nation council unanimously approved a U.S.-British resolution boosting the responsibilities of the four-year-old U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, or UNAMI, whose existing mandate expired on Friday.
U.S. and British officials have denied that their aim is to offload Iraq's political problems onto the United Nations, then pull their forces out. But they want the U.N. to take a shot at peace, especially in recruiting help from neighboring nations.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has initiated a compact for Iraq with regional states that sets benchmarks for Baghdad in exchange for debt forgiveness and other aid.
As architect of the resolution, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the unanimous approval showed "a new page had been turned in regard to the Security Council's role in Iraq," a reference to the council's refusal to approve the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
"This resolution underscores the widespread belief that what happens in Iraq has strategic implications not only for the region, but for the entire world," he said.
Khalilzad said he hoped the world body would convene meetings among political factions "and propose bridging formulas," as well as make sure Baghdad's neighbors "assist the Iraqis in overcoming their difficulties."
The United Nations has had a muted political role in Iraq for the past few years. The resolution gives it a larger mandate to lead efforts in uniting Iraq's feuding factions.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari made clear in a letter to Ban, however, that any U.N. action needed "prior consent" of the Iraqi government.
Ban, in answer to questions, emphasized "promoting and encouraging political facilitation and dialogue among different factions and ethnic religious groups" as U.N. duties.
Pakistani Ashraf Qazi ends his term in Iraq as chief U.N. envoy later this year, but a replacement has not been named. Khalilzad said Staffan De Mistura, a Swedish national who last served in Lebanon for the world body, was "the likely person to be selected" but the decision was up to Ban.
Another candidate is Radu Onofrei, a former Romanian envoy to several Middle East nations, U.N. officials said.
Some major Iraqi players, like top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, were willing to talk to the United Nations, but not the United States or Britain, Khalilzad, formerly U.S. envoy to Baghdad, said earlier.
Coincidentally, the new mandate will come amid a fresh political crisis in Iraq, with nearly half the Cabinet having quit, or boycotting meetings.
The expanded role also is expected to require an increase in U.N. international staff in Baghdad, who currently number about 50 in the fortified Green Zone diplomatic compound.
Fresh in the minds of U.N. staff is the explosion that destroyed the U.N. office in Baghdad on August 19, 2003, and killed 22 people, including mission chief Sergio Vieira de Mello. The blast led to a temporary withdrawal of U.N. staff.
Ban has asked for approval of $130 million to fortify the U.N. headquarters in the Green Zone. He is expected to ask for more funds to beef up the living quarters for U.N. staff, struck by a rocket two weeks ago, U.N. officials said.
While Ban endorsed the U.N. role expansion at a meeting last month with U.S. President George W. Bush, some U.N. rank-and-file staff are concerned that safety issues have not been fully addressed.
On Tuesday, the U.N. Staff Union called on Ban not to deploy any more people to Iraq and to withdraw those now there.
The resolution's new mandate asks UNAMI to "advise, support and assist" Iraqis on "advancing their inclusive, political dialogue and national reconciliation," reviewing their constitution, fixing internal boundaries and staging a census.
The mission would promote talks between Iraq and its neighbors on border security, energy and refugees, assist the return of millions who have fled the violence, coordinate reconstruction and aid, and help promote economic reform.
By Sue Pleming Fri Aug 10, 2:55 PM ET
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Talk about whether Iraq's government will survive is taboo among U.S. officials, but experts and diplomats say the hobbled coalition is in big trouble and the betting is it won't last.
Nearly half of Prime Minister's Cabinet members have quit or are boycotting meetings at a time when the Bush administration is under pressure to show Congress that Iraq's warring factions are reconciling.
The State Department's key players responsible for Iraq policy declined interviews on the strength of Iraq's government, but U.S. officials have made it clear that Washington backs Maliki and that talk of a collapse of his government is unhelpful.
"Prime Minister Maliki has our full support. In view of the urgency and seriousness of the issues that he and his partners in leadership are confronting, efforts to undermine or obstruct him are dangerous and unwelcome," said Philip Reeker, public affairs counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Diplomats and experts say the fate of Maliki's government remains in question despite the Bush administration's support.
"With all these defections and boycotts of Cabinet meetings, it would seem that the wheels are coming off the cart," said an Arab diplomat.
Former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel said it would be a "disaster" fortroop surge strategy if Maliki's government collapsed and would weaken his case to Congress, which expects a report next month from the U.S. commander in Iraq, .
"No matter how many numbers General Petraeus can come up with, if the government is falling apart, the American people will see that the strategy has failed on the political side," said Riedel, now with the Brookings Institution.
"It's no wonder the administration does not want to talk about it. It is a nightmare for them."
MEMORANDUM OF MISTRUST
While the White House is reluctant to publicly criticize Maliki, U.S. mistrust was exposed last November when a leaked memorandum from National Security Advisercast doubt on the Shi'ite politician's ability to reconcile Iraq's Shia, Kurd and Sunni groups.
"The reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action," wrote Hadley.
A senior Bush administration official, who declined to be named, said nine months later there was still dissatisfaction with Maliki but talk had not turned to who might replace him.
"The question is what would that (new government) be and how long would it take," said the official, adding that it had taken months to cobble together Maliki's coalition.
If Maliki's government did collapse, the aim would be to emphasize a "unity of purpose" among the key parties and find a way to demonstrate that, the official said.
Iraq expert Olga Oliker of the RAND Corporation said attempts by Washington to seek out a new Iraqi leader would backfire.
"To be a colonial puppet master you need a much stronger understanding and subtle knowledge of the culture and history than the U.S. has demonstrated over the past few years in Iraq," Oliker said.
Maliki's government was so "dysfunctional" to begin with that its fall might not have a huge impact, former State Department Iraq analyst Wayne White said.
"Governance in Iraq is broken, and it is highly questionable whether Maliki's fall would mean all that much. Would his fall make matters worse? Yes. But I don't think his remaining in office would create a situation all that much better," said White, who left the State Department in 2005 and is at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
By CHARLES J. HANLEY and ARIEL DAVID, Associated Press Writers
In a hidden corner of Rome's busy Fiumicino Airport, police dug quietly through a traveler's checked baggage, looking for smuggled drugs. What they found instead was a catalog of weapons, a clue to something bigger.
Their discovery led anti-Mafia investigators down a monthslong trail of telephone and e-mail intercepts, into the midst of a huge black-market transaction, as Iraqi and Italian partners haggled over shipping more than 100,000 Russian-made automatic weapons into the bloodbath of Iraq.
As the secretive, $40 million deal neared completion, Italian authorities moved in, making arrests and breaking it up. But key questions remain unanswered.
For one thing, The Associated Press has learned that Iraqi government officials were involved in the deal, apparently without the knowledge of the U.S. Baghdad command — a departure from the usual pattern of U.S.-overseen arms purchases.
Why these officials resorted to "black" channels and where the weapons were headed is unclear.
The purchase would merely have been the most spectacular example of how Iraq has become a magnet for arms traffickers and a place of vanishing weapons stockpiles and uncontrolled gun markets since the 2003 U.S. invasion and the onset of civil war.
Some guns the U.S. bought for Iraq's police and army are unaccounted for, possibly fallen into the hands of insurgents or sectarian militias. Meanwhile, the planned replacement of the army's AK-47s with U.S.-made M-16s may throw more assault rifles onto the black market. And the weapons free-for-all apparently is spilling over borders: Turkey and Iran complain U.S.-supplied guns are flowing from Iraq to anti-government militants on their soil.
Iraqi middlemen in the Italian deal, in intercepted e-mails, claimed the arrangement had official American approval. A U.S. spokesman in Baghdad denied that.
"Iraqi officials did not make MNSTC-I aware that they were making purchases," Lt. Col. Daniel Williams of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I), which oversees arming and training of the Iraqi police and army, told the AP.
Operation Parabellum, the investigation led by Dario Razzi, anti-Mafia prosecutor in this central Italian city, began in 2005 as a routine investigation into drug trafficking by organized-crime figures, branched out into an inquiry into arms dealing with Libya, and then widened to Iraq.
Court documents obtained by the AP show that Razzi's break came early last year when police monitoring one of the drug suspects covertly opened his luggage as he left on a flight to Libya. Instead of the expected drugs, they found helmets, bulletproof vests and the weapons catalog.
Tapping telephones, monitoring e-mails, Razzi's investigators followed the trail to a group of Italian businessmen, otherwise unrelated to the drug probe, who were working to sell arms to Libya and, by late 2006, to Iraq as well, through offshore companies they set up in Malta and Cyprus.
Four Italians have been arrested and are awaiting court indictment for allegedly creating a criminal association and alleged arms trafficking — trading in weapons without a government license. A fifth Italian is being sought in Africa. In addition, 13 other Italians were arrested on drug charges.
In the documents, Razzi describes it as "strange" that the U.S.-supported Iraqi government would seek such weapons via the black market.
Investigators say the prospect of an Iraq deal was raised last November, when an Iraqi-owned trading firm e-mailed Massimo Bettinotti, 39, owner of the Malta-based MIR Ltd., about whether MIR could supply 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 10,000 machine guns "to the Iraqi Interior Ministry," adding that "this deal is approved by America and Iraq."
The go-between — the Al-Handal General Trading Co. in Dubai — apparently had communicated with Bettinotti earlier about buying night visors and had been told MIR could also procure weapons.
Al-Handal has figured in questionable dealings before, having been identified by U.S. investigators three years ago as a "front company" in Iraq's Oil-for-Food scandal.
The Interior Ministry's need at that point for such a massive weapons shipment is unclear. The U.S. training command had already reported it would arm all Interior Ministry police by the end of 2006 through its own three-year-old program, which as of July 26 has bought 701,000 weapons for the Iraqi army and police with $237 million in U.S. government funds.
Negotiations on the deal progressed quickly in e-mail exchanges between the Italians and Iraqi middlemen of the al-Handal company and its parent al-Thuraya Group. But at times the discussion turned murky and nervous.
The Iraqis alternately indicated the Interior Ministry or "security ministries" would be the end users. At one point, a worried Bettinotti e-mailed, "We prefer to speak about this deal face to face and not by e-mail."
The Italians sent several offers of various types and quantities of rifles, with photos included. The negotiating focused on the source of the weapons: The Iraqi middlemen said their buyer insisted they be Russian-made, but the Italians wanted to sell AK-47s made in China, where they had better contacts.
"We are in a hurry with this deal," an impatient Waleed Noori al-Handal, Jordan-based general manager of the Iraqi firm, wrote the Italians on Nov. 13 in one of the e-mails seen by AP.
He added, in apparent allusion to the shipment's clandestine nature, "You mustn't worry if it's a problem to import these goods directly into Iraq. We can bring the product to another country and then transfer it to Iraq."
By December, the Italians, having found a Bulgarian broker, were offering Russian-made goods: 50,000 AKM rifles, an improved version of the AK-47; 50,000 AKMS rifles, the same gun with folding stock; and 5,000 PKM machine guns.
The Iraqis quibbled over the asking price, $39.7 million, but seemed satisfied. The Italians were set for a $6.6 million profit, the court documents show, and were already discussing air transport for the weapons. At this point prosecutor Razzi acted, seeking an arrest warrant from a Perugia court.
"The negotiation with Iraq is developing very quickly," he wrote the judge.
On Feb. 12, in seven locations across Italy, police arrested the 17 men, including the four alleged arms traffickers: Bettinotti; Gianluca Squarzolo, 39, the man whose luggage had yielded the original clue; Ermete Moretti, 55, and Serafino Rossi, 64. If convicted, they could be sentenced to up to 12 years in prison.
The at-large fifth man, Vittorio Dordi, 42, was believed to be in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he apparently is involved in the diamond trade. Italian authorities were seeking information on him from the African country.
In the parallel Libya case, the Italians allegedly paid two Libyan Defense Ministry officials about $500,000 in kickbacks to speed that transaction for Chinese-made assault rifles. It isn't known whether such bribes were a factor in the Iraq deal. No Libyans or Iraqis are known to have been detained in connection with the cases.
Al-Handal's operations have caught investigators' notice before. In 1996-2003, the company was involved as a broker in the kickback scandal known as Oil for Food, the CIA says.
In that program, Iraq under U.N. economic sanctions bought food and other necessities with U.N.-supervised oil revenues. Foreign companies, often through intermediaries, surreptitiously kicked back payments to officials of Saddam Hussein's Iraqi government in exchange for such supply contracts.
Those Iraqi middlemen also engaged in "misrepresenting the origin or final destination of goods," said the 2004 report of the CIA's Iraq Survey Group, which investigated both Iraq's defunct advanced weapons programs and Oil for Food.
That report also alleged that during this period Al-Handal General Trading, from its bases in Dubai and Jordan, secretly moved unspecified "equipment" into Iraq that was forbidden by the U.N. sanctions.
Reached at his office in Amman, Jordan, Waleed Noori al-Handal denied the family firm had done anything wrong in the Italian arms case.
"We don't have anything to hide," he told the AP.
Citing the names of "friends" in top U.S. military ranks in Iraq, al-Handal said his company has fulfilled scores of supply and service contracts for the U.S. occupation. Asked why he claimed U.S. approval for the abortive Italian weapons purchase, he said he had a document from the U.S. Army "that says, 'We allow al-Thuraya Group to do all kinds of business.'"
In Baghdad, the Interior Ministry wouldn't discuss the AK-47 transaction on the record. But a senior ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity, acknowledged it had sought the weapons through al-Handal.
Asked about the irregular channels used, he said the ministry "doesn't ask the supplier how these weapons are obtained."
Although this official refused to discuss details, he said "most" of the 105,000 weapons were meant for police in Iraq's western province of Anbar. That statement raised questions, however, since Pentagon reports list only 161,000 trained police across all 18 of Iraq's provinces, and say the ministry has been issued 169,280 AK-47s, 167,789 pistols and 16,398 machine guns for them and 28,000 border police.
A July 26 Pentagon report said 20,847 other AK-47s purchased for the Interior Ministry have not yet been delivered. Iraqi officials complain that the U.S. supply of equipment, from bullets to uniforms, has been slow.
A Pentagon report in June may have touched on another possible destination for weapons obtained via secretive channels, noting that "militia infiltration of local police remains a significant problem." Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq's civil war have long been known to find cover and weapons within the Interior Ministry.
In fact, in a further sign of poor controls on the flow of arms into Iraq, a July 31 audit report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the U.S. command's books don't contain records on 190,000 AK-47s and other weapons, more than half those issued in 2004-2005 to Iraqi forces. This makes it difficult to trace weapons that may be passed on to militias or insurgents.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, has described the Interior Ministry's accounting of police equipment as unreliable.
Here in Italy, Razzi expressed puzzlement at the Iraqi officials' circumvention of U.S. supply routes.
"It seems strange that a pro-Western government, supported by the U.S. Army and other NATO countries on its own territory, would seek Russian or Chinese weapons through questionable channels," the anti-Mafia prosecutor wrote in seeking the arrest warrant that short-circuited the complex deal.
Four suicide bombers hit a Kurdish Yazidi community in northwest Iraq on Tuesday, killing at least 175 people and wounding 200 others, the Iraqi military said.
The bombs tore through communities near Qahataniya, 75 miles west of Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, according to Iraq Army Capt. Mohammed Ahmed and Abdul-Rahman al-Shimiri, the top government official in the area.
The attack was the deadliest in Iraq since 215 people were killed Nov. 23 when mortar rounds and five car bombs devastated a Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City.
Dhakil Qassim, mayor of Sinjar, a town near where the attacks occurred, said al-Qaida in Iraq was behind the attack, citing what he said were Kurdish government intelligence reports.
|| Mr Bush called for
more time to complete the task in Iraq Bush speaks on Iraq
"The price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens," he told war veterans in Missouri.
Mr Bush said the Vietnam War had taught the need for US patience over Iraq.
His speech comes amid an apparent rift with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, but Mr Bush said Mr Maliki was a "good man with a difficult job".
Hours earlier, Mr Maliki called recent US criticism of his work "discourteous".
The White House was swift to respond, saying in a statement that Mr Bush still believes that Mr Maliki is the right person to lead Iraq.
THE VIETNAM WAR
Ran from 1959-1975
Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) defeated US-backed Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam)
Estimated four million Vietnamese civilians killed
1.1 million communist fighters killed
200-250,000 South Vietnamese troops killed
58,200 US troops killed or missing in action
Mr Bush began his speech at the annual convention for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) group, in Kansas City, by flagging up US successes in staying the distance in other conflicts - particularly in turning Japan from an enemy into a key ally.
"The ideals and interests that led America to help the Japanese turn defeat into democracy are the same that lead us to remain engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq," Mr Bush said.
"The defence strategy that refused to hand the South Koreans over to a totalitarian neighbour helped raise up an Asian Tiger that is a model for developing countries across the world, including the Middle East."
Legacy of defeat
Mr Bush compared current calls for withdrawal from Iraq with what happened at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
"Many argued that if we pulled out, there would be no consequences for the Vietnamese people," Mr Bush said. "The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be.
"Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens," Mr Bush said, mentioning reprisals against US allies in Vietnam, the displacement of Vietnamese refugees and the massacres in Cambodia under Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.
He warned that in Iraq there was the added danger that a US withdrawal would signal victory for al-Qaeda, emboldening its leaders and drawing in new recruits.
BBC world affairs correspondent Nick Childs says Mr Bush's speech will fuel the controversy over whether he is drawing the right or wrong lessons from history.
|| We care for our people and our
constitution and can find friends elsewhere
Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki
Opinion polls suggest that many Americans clearly do not see the stakes or the struggle in the same way, our correspondent says.
Mr Bush is pressing home these broad themes even more forcefully than before because he faces a very specific short-term political problem, with less than 18 months left as president.
Whether his successor will see things in the same ideological and historic terms is, at the very least, open to question, our correspondent adds.
In other news in Iraq:
'Seeking friends elsewhere'
Mr Bush's speech came as Mr Maliki was moved to defend his administration in the face of US criticism.
"No-one has the right to place timetables" on the Iraqi government's performance Mr Maliki said, blaming the US presidential election campaign for many of the negative comments being made.
After Mr Bush's latest address, in which he praised the Iraqi prime minister, a spokesman for Mr Maliki said they welcomed the president's comments:
"His speech yesterday was a bit ambiguous and confusing, but he clarified things in his speech today," the spokesman told the BBC.
"Mr Maliki said in Syria that he agrees with President Bush that the people of Iraq have the final say in changing their government. So our reaction is positive."
On Tuesday, Mr Bush had appeared to distance himself from Mr Maliki's government for the first time.
Mr Bush said the people of Iraq had made a great step towards reconciliation. However he added that there was "a certain level of frustration with the leadership" of Mr Maliki and that his government now had to perform.
By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA, Associated Press Writer
Iraq's beleaguered prime minister on Sunday lashed out at Democrats who have called for his ouster, saying Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Carl Levin need to "come to their senses."
Nouri al-Maliki, who is fighting to hold his government together, issued a series of stinging ripostes against a variety of foreign officials who recently have spoken negatively about his leadership. But those directed at Democrats Clinton, of New York, and Levin, of Michigan, were the most strident.
"There are American officials who consider Iraq as if it were one of their villages, for example Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin. They should come to their senses," al-Maliki said at a news conference.
Al-Maliki launched the verbal counteroffensive in the final days before the American commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are due in Washington to report to Congress on progress in Iraq since the introduction of 30,000 more America troops.
The Shiite prime minister said a negative report by Petraeus would not cause him to change course, although he said he expected that the U.S. general would "be supportive of the government and will disappoint the politicians who are relying on it" to be negative.
Al-Maliki appeared stung by the recent series of critical statements about his government, including one from President Bush, who said he was frustrated that al-Maliki had failed to make progress on political benchmarks. Crocker has said the lack of movement had been "highly disappointing," and both Levin and Clinton have called for al-Maliki's ouster.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Sunday that al-Maliki's government "is still pretty much a disaster" despite some progress made.
"It's a democratically elected government, and I don't think we can dictate to them," McConnell said. Nonetheless, McConnell said, senators from both parties agree the Shiite prime minister has been "a huge disappointment."
Based on the sacrifices of U.S. troops, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., agreed that the U.S. government should demand more.
"I think we have a right to be critical of a government that is not doing what a government must do: protect its own people, make difficult decisions that in the long run provide for the safety and security of the Iraqi people," Reed said. "I think the criticism is fair."
McConnell and Reed spoke on "Fox News Sunday."
Last week Sen. John Warner, R-Va.,said the United States should order a token withdrawal of forces by Christmas. The former chairman of the Armed Services Committee said such a move would show al-Maliki that Washington was serious about progress on reconciliation among the country's religious sects and ethnic groups.
Warner and Levin traveled to Iraq together earlier this month as part of the multitude of congressional delegations who are visiting the country before the expected heated debate on Capitol Hill about U.S. troop levels and plans for a withdrawal.
Separately, a Kurdish security official said a U.S. helicopter attacked two Kurdish police outposts on Sunday, killing four policemen and wounding eight. The U.S. military said it was investigating the report.
Jabar Yawer, spokesman for the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, said two police vehicles also were destroyed in the airstrike 65 miles northeast of Baghdad and he believed the attack was mistaken friendly fire.
"We demand American troops to give an explanation for the U.S. airstrike against a police station," the Kurdish Interior Minister said in a statement. "The U.S. troops should take care to understand what troops are deployed in the border areas."
Al-Maliki also criticized some U.S. military actions.
"Concerning American raids on Shula (a northern Shiite neighborhood) and Sadr City (the Shiite slum enclave in east Baghdad). There were big mistakes committed in these operations. The terrorist himself should be targeted not his family," he said "We will not allow the detaining of innocent people."
Two nights ago the U.S. military raided the Shula neighborhood and said it killed eight "terrorists" who had attacked an American patrol from rooftops. Some Iraqis reported many civilians were killed and wounded.
American forces also are routinely raiding Sadr City, often calling in helicopter fire. The U.S. says it targets only Shiite militia fighters. Iraqi officials regularly report civilians killed.
In Samarra, the U.S. military said it dropped a 500-pound precision bomb on a house on Sunday after a group of 30 masked men who fought American troops escaped into the structure. City police and hospital officials said seven civilians, including five children, were killed.
Meanwhile, waves of Shiite pilgrims descended on Karbala on Sunday for a festival marking the birth of the 9th century Hidden Imam. A woman making the 50-mile trek from Baghdad was shot to death by men in a passing car, according to Baghdad police officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
More than a million Shiite faithful from throughout the world were expected to converge on the Shiite holy city for the celebrations, which reach their high point late Tuesday and early Wednesday. The Shabaniyah festival marks the birth of Mohammed al-Mahdi, the 12th and last Shiite imam who disappeared in the 9th century.
Religious Shiites refer to al-Mahdi as the "Hidden Imam," believing he was spared death and will return to Earth to bring peace and justice.
In the past, Sunni religious extremists, including al-Qaida in Iraq, have launched massive attacks against pilgrims during Shiite celebrations, which have drawn huge crowds since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime.
Last March, about 340 people were killed in a weeklong wave of bombings and shootings, most of them Shiite pilgrims en route to Karbala.
To prevent a repeat, Iraqi authorities Saturday banned motorcycles, bicycles and horse-drawn wagons from the streets of Baghdad indefinitely. Earlier in the day, state television announced that the ban applied to all vehicles, including cars and trucks.
Later, the chief military spokesman for Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Mousawi, said cars and trucks would be allowed but other forms of transport that could slip into smaller places were banned until further notice.
All vehicles were banned from the Karbala city center and each pilgrim entering the district was subjected to a security pat-down.
"I was hesitant to come because I feared a terrorist attack, but when I saw these strict security I felt safe," said Haji Sabeeh Raheem, a 61-year-old pilgrim from Najaf, another Shiite holy city to the south.
By DAVID RISING, Associated Press Writer
Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has ordered a six-month suspension of activities by his Mahdi Army militia in order to reorganize the force, and it will no longer attack U.S. and coalition troops, aides said Wednesday.
The aide, Sheik Hazim al-Araji, said on Iraqi state television that the goal was to "rehabilitate" the organization, which has reportedly broken into factions, some of which the U.S. maintains are trained and supplied by Iran.
"We declare the freezing of the Mahdi Army without exception in order to rehabilitate it in a way that will safeguard its ideological image within a maximum period of six months starting from the day this statement is issued," al-Araji said, reading from a statement by al-Sadr.
In Najaf, al-Sadr's spokesman said the order also means the Mahdi Army will no longer launch attacks against U.S. and other coalition forces.
"It also includes suspending the taking up of arms against occupiers as well as others," Ahmed al-Shaibani told reporters.
Asked if Mahdi militiamen would defend themselves against provocations, he replied: "We will deal with it when it happens."
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
BAGHDAD (AP) — Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has ordered a six-month suspension of activities by his Mahdi Army militia in order to reorganize the force, an aide said Wednesday.
The aide, Sheik Hazim al-Araji, said on Iraqi state television that the goal was to "rehabilitate" the organization, which has reportedly broken into factions, some of which the U.S. maintains are trained and supplied by Iran.
"We declare the freezing of the Mahdi Army without exception in order to rehabilitate it in a way that will safeguard its ideological image within a maximum period of six months starting from the day this statement is issued," al-Araji said, reading from a statement by al-Sadr.
The order was issued after two days of bloody clashes in the Shiite holy city of Karbala that claimed at least 52 lives. Iraqi security officials blamed Mahdi militiamen for attacking mosque guards, some of whom are linked to the rival Badr Brigade militia.
A spokesman for al-Sadr, Ahmed al-Shaibani, denied the Mahdi Army was involved in the Karbala fighting. Al-Sadr called for an independent inquiry into the clashes and urged his supporters to cooperate with the authorities "to calm the situation down," al-Shaibani said.
Tensions have been rising in southern Iraq as rival Shiite groups maneuver for power, especially in the oil-rich area around Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.
Al-Sadr organized the Mahdi Army shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Since then the Mahdi Army has become the most active and feared armed Shiite group, blamed by the U.S. for driving thousands of Sunnis from their homes in retaliation for Sunni extremist attacks on Shiite civilians.
The Mahdi Army launched two major uprisings against U.S. and coalition forces in 2004. Since then, the Americans have differentiated between the mainstream Sadrist organization and what they term "rogue" elements within the force that have staged numerous deadly attacks against U.S. forces in Baghdad and elsewhere.
Authorities in Karbala locked down access to the city of Karbala on Wednesday after the fierce clashes between the rival Shiite militias that forced an end to a massive religious festival.
Security was heightened in other Shiite areas to prevent clashes from spreading.
Following two days of clashes, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, rushed to Karbala to meet with local officials trying to restore order and move the hordes of pilgrims who had descended on the city for the festival.
The Karbala office of al-Maliki's Dawa Party was firebombed during the melee.
Sporadic gunbattles raged Wednesday near two shrines protected by the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, although violence was tapering off.
Clashes began late Monday but escalated dramatically the following day when gunmen believed from the Mahdi Army began firing on security forces and the Badr guards, according to security officials.
A pro-Sadr member of the Karbala city council, Ahmed al-Husseini, blamed the violence on pro-Iranian groups among security forces that guard the Karbala shrines.
The fighting forced authorities to cut short the annual Shabaniya festival, which drew an estimated 1 million people from across the Shiite world.
Despite an order to clear the city center, an Al-Arabiya television correspondent on the scene reported there remained an "intensive deployment" of Mahdi Army men, waving guns in the air.
A Sadrist member of the Karbala Provincial Council, Hamed Kanoush, was detained by Iraqi security forces and members of al-Sadr's movement threatened to attack the governor's office if he was not released, according to another councilman, speaking on condition of anonymity out of security concerns.
At least 52 people were killed and 300 others injured, according to the director general of the health department in nearby Najaf who spoke on condition of anonymity. Sixty wounded people were brought to a hospital in Najaf, 45 miles southeast of Karbala, because the Karbala hospitals couldn't handle the volume of wounded, he said.
A city council member in Karbala, however, reported 38 dead and 231 injured in the fighting.
The Defense Ministry said al-Maliki had ordered the dismissal of the top army commander in the area — Maj. Gen. Salih Khazaal al-Maliki — and an investigation into his conduct.
Al-Maliki's office said security forces had sealed the city off, allowing only residents to enter, in another effort to restore order.
The clashes appeared to be part of a power struggle among Shiite groups in the sect's southern Iraqi heartland, which includes the bulk of the country's vast oil wealth.
Gunfights also broke out Tuesday between Mahdi militiamen and followers of the Supreme Council in at least two Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and in Kut, about 100 miles southeast of the capital, police said.
On Wednesday authorities imposed a curfew on the Shiite city of Hilla. Security forces also sealed off several Shiite areas of Baghdad.
Elsewhere, an American soldier died Wednesday from wounds suffered the day before in fighting near the northern city of Kirkuk, the U.S. military announced.
The trouble started in Karbala late Monday as tens of thousands of Shiites were streaming into the city for Shabaniyah, marking the birth of Mohammed al-Mahdi, the 12th Shiite imam who disappeared in the 9th century. Devout Shiites believe he will return to Earth to restore peace and harmony.
Scuffles broke out between police and pilgrims as the crowd tried to push through the security checkpoints near the Imam al-Hussein mosque, the focal point of the celebrations. At least five people were killed, police said.
Early Tuesday, crowds of angry pilgrims chanting religious slogans surged through the streets, attacking police and mosque guards, witnesses said. Two ambulances were set ablaze, sending a huge column of black smoke over the city.
Gunmen appeared, firing automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars at security forces and sending panicked pilgrims fleeing the area, police and witnesses said.
Some rounds struck fuel tanks on the roofs of three small hotels, setting them ablaze, police said.
With the situation spiraling out of control, police ordered pilgrims out of the center of the city, effectively canceling the celebrations which were to reach their climax Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military said U.S. and Iraqi special forces had captured a suspected commander of a rogue element of the Mahdi Army that targets Iraqi citizens for kidnappings and killings.
The man, whose name was not released, was picked up on Monday in Baghdad and is also suspected of attacks targeting Iraqi and U.S. forces, the military said in a statement.
Elsewhere, U.S. forces killed two terrorist suspects and detained 22 others in several raids around the country. The two were killed in an area south of Baghdad in an operation targeting al-Qaida in Iraq leaders.
Associated Press reporters in Karbala contributed to this report but their names were withheld for their safety.
In a Daily Telegraph interview, former chief of the general staff, Gen Sir Mike Jackson, added that US strategy had been "short-sighted".
He said former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was "one of the most responsible for the current situation".
The US Department of Defence said: "Divergent viewpoints are a hallmark of open, democratic societies."
Sir Mike told the Daily Telegraph that Mr Rumsfeld's claim that US forces "don't do nation-building" was "nonsensical".
|| We should have kept the Iraqi
security services in being
Gen Sir Mike Jackson
He criticised the decision to hand control of planning the administration of Iraq after the war to the Pentagon.
He also described the disbanding of the Iraqi army and security forces after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as "very short-sighted".
"We should have kept the Iraqi security services in being and put them under the command of the coalition," he said.
The Telegraph reports that in Sir Mike's autobiography Soldier, which is being serialised in the paper, he said the US approach to fighting global terrorism was "inadequate" as it focused on military power rather than diplomacy and nation-building.
In the book, Sir Mike also said Mr Rumsfeld had refused to deploy enough troops to uphold law and order in Iraq and had rejected plans for administering Iraq drawn up by the US State Department, the paper says.
The criticism comes as the US military said an order from radical Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to his Mahdi army militia to freeze operations for six months would allow coalition forces to concentrate their attentions on al-Qaeda.
A US statement said the instruction would mean fewer kidnappings, killings and attacks.
Sir Mike, who is now retired, also defended the record of British troops in Iraq after claims by US officials that UK forces had failed.
He said: "What has happened in the south, as throughout the rest of Iraq, was that primary responsibility for security would be handed to the Iraqis once the Iraqi authorities and the coalition were satisfied that their state of training and development was appropriate.
"In the south we had responsibility for four provinces. Three of these have been handed over in accordance with that strategy. It remains just in Basra for that to happen."
His comments follow a series of critical remarks from US officials about the British attitude towards Iraq.
'Strain on operation'
US military adviser Gen Jack Keane said last week that American commanders had expressed "frustration" over the prospect of UK withdrawal.
|| What Gen Jackson has said is
absolutely correct... it goes to the very
heart of the lack of real planning for post-war Iraq
Sir Menzies Campbell,
Liberal Democrat leader
BBC defence correspondent Paul Wood said Sir Mike's comments may put further strain on the British-US operation in Iraq.
Sir Mike's criticisms were backed by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Conservative foreign secretary and defence secretary.
Sir Malcolm told the BBC: "I think one of the most fundamental criticisms is not just that Rumsfeld was incompetent - which he was - but it was actually his boss, George Bush, who actually made the extraordinary decision to put the Pentagon and Rumsfeld in control of political nation-building after the actual war ended."
A spokeswoman for the US State Department said she would not comment on Sir Mike's views.
A US Department of Defence spokesman said: "Divergent viewpoints are a hallmark of open, democratic societies and that tradition is part of the military culture and ethos."
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said Sir Mike's remarks reinforced his view that British troops should leave Iraq as soon as is practically possible.
He added: "What Gen Jackson has said is absolutely correct.
"It goes to the very heart of the lack of real planning for post-war Iraq."
Last week, Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote to Mr Campbell, rejecting the Lib Dem leader's call for a timetable for withdrawing UK troops.
Maj Gen Tim Cross, who was the most senior UK officer involved in post-war planning, told the Sunday Mirror US policy was "fatally flawed".
Maj Gen Cross said: "We were all very concerned about the lack of detail that had gone into the post-war plan."
His comments came after Gen Sir Mike Jackson, head of the Army during the invasion, told the Daily Telegraph US policy was "intellectually bankrupt".
The Ministry of Defence played down the comments by Sir Mike, now retired, saying he was entitled to express his opinion on his former job.
'Lack of detail'
Maj Gen Cross, also retired, said he had raised serious concerns about potential post-war problems in Iraq with the then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
But he said Mr Rumsfeld "dismissed" or "ignored" the warnings.
"Right from the very beginning we were all very concerned about the lack of detail that had gone into the post-war plan and there is no doubt that Rumsfeld was at the heart of that process," he said.
|| There is no doubt that with
hindsight the US post-war plan was fatally flawed and many of us sensed
that at the time
Maj Gen Tim Cross
"I had lunch with Rumsfeld in February in Washington - before the invasion in March 2003 - and raised concerns about the need to internationalise the reconstruction of Iraq and work closely with the United Nations."
Maj Gen Cross, 59, who was deputy head of the coalition's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, said he also raised concerns over the number of troops available to maintain security in Iraq.
"He didn't want to hear that message," he said. "The US had already convinced themselves that following the invasion Iraq would emerge reasonably quickly as a stable democracy."
He added: "There is no doubt that with hindsight the US post-war plan was fatally flawed and many of us sensed that at the time."
In an interview published on Saturday, Sir Mike told the Telegraph that a claim by Mr Rumsfeld's that US forces "don't do nation-building" was "nonsensical".
He criticised the decision to hand control of planning the administration of Iraq after the war to the Pentagon.
|| We should have kept the Iraqi
security services in being
Gen Sir Mike Jackson
He also described the disbanding of the Iraqi army and security forces after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as "very short-sighted".
"We should have kept the Iraqi security services in being and put them under the command of the coalition," he said.
Politicians from across the spectrum have come out in support of Sir Mike's comments, made ahead of the serialisation of his autobiography in the Telegraph.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Conservative former foreign secretary and defence secretary, told the BBC that Mr Rumsfeld was "incompetent".
However, John Bolton, former US Ambassador to the UN, told BBC Radio 4's PM programme that Sir Mike had "read into a version of history that simply is not supported by the evidence".
"And I can see where he'd have a parochial view from the military perspective. I don't think he saw some of the larger political debates.
"I'm not saying that we got it right in Washington because I've made my own criticisms. His just happen to be way off the mark, very simplistic, I think in a sense limited by the role that he had."
He said it was important to know whether Sir Mike had raised his concerns when he first had them.
The Telegraph also reports that, in his autobiography, Sir Mike says the US approach to fighting global terrorism was "inadequate" as it focused on military power rather than diplomacy and nation-building.
The US Department of Defence said: "Divergent viewpoints are a hallmark of open, democratic societies."
A spokeswoman for the US State Department said she would not comment on Sir Mike's views.
His comments follow a series of critical remarks from US officials about the British attitude towards Iraq.
BBC defence correspondent Paul Wood said Sir Mike's comments may put further strain on the British-US operation in Iraq.
BASRA (Reuters) - British troops were quitting the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Sunday night in another step towards handing over the province to Iraqi control and paving the way for an eventual withdrawal of British forces from Iraq.
A British Ministry of Defence source in London said troops were pulling out of Basra Palace, which was built for Saddam Hussein, in the city centre and withdrawing to the vast British airbase on the outskirts of the city.
"The troops are coming out," the source said.
British military officials in Basra declined to comment but a source at the Iraqi Ministry of Defence in the city said Iraqi troops were now inside the palace.
One Reuters witness said he could see helicopters taking off and landing at the palace.
The withdrawal means the end of a British presence in the volatile city for the first time since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
It is part of plans to transfer security control of Basra province, expected before the end of the year.
The Sunday Times reported on Sunday that Britain was preparing to hand over control of Basra province to the Iraqi army as early as next month.
British forces, however, will remain in an "overwatch role" and continue training Iraqi security forces as well as guard key land supply routes from neighbouring Kuwait. Britain has already handed over three other provinces in southern Iraq.
Some 500 troops had been based at the palace, which was bombarded daily by mortar and rocket fire.
The withdrawal from the palace will lead to the reduction in the number of British soldiers in Iraq to about 5,000. All are based at the airbase, which is also attacked daily.
Attacks on British troops by Shi'ite militias have surged -- 41 British soldiers have been killed in southern Iraq this year, the highest number of casualties suffered by the British since the first year of the war.
Basra, Iraq's second largest city, is strategically vital as the hub of southern oil fields that produce nearly all of the government's revenue, and the centre of imports and exports through the Gulf.
It has witnessed a turf war between rival Shi'ite groups, including supporters of fiery cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and smaller Fadhila party, mainly for political supremacy and control of illegal oil traffic.
While residents say there is now a fragile calm between the rival groups, there are fears that the British withdrawal will be accompanied by an upsurge in factional violence.
In Baghdad, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki responded to critics in the U.S. Congress, saying his government had kept Iraq from plunging into sectarian civil war.
Maliki told a news conference his critics had crossed what he called a "reasonable line" and were encouraging militants trying to destabilise Iraq.
Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Hillary Clinton and other U.S. lawmakers have called for Iraq's parliament to replace Maliki, a Shi'ite Islamist.
"They do not realise the size of the disaster that Iraq has passed through and the big role of this government, a government of national unity. The most important achievement is it stopped a sectarian and civil war," Maliki said.
His comments came just over a week before U.S. President George W. Bush's top officials in Iraq present pivotal reports on the country's security and political situation.
Maliki said he did not want to prejudge the testimony by U.S. commander, General David Petraeus, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, which is to be delivered to Congress on September 10.
He is under mounting pressure from officials in Washington to show progress towards reconciling warring majority Shi'ite Muslims and minority Sunni Arabs.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed since the bombing of a revered Shi'ite shrine in the town of Samarra in February 2006 unleashed a wave of sectarian bloodshed that pushed the country to the brink of all-out civil war.
Democrats in Congress have criticised Bush's Iraq policy and along with some senior Republicans have called for U.S. troops to begin pulling out as soon as possible.
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in London)
The discussions were held at a secret location in Finland over the weekend.
They were chaired by Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, and former South African government minister Roelf Meyer.
DUP Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson was also involved in the four days of discussions.
Mr Donaldson rejected any suggestion the talks had been manipulated by the US or British governments.
"This was a private initiative very much in the background, so I'm not in any way concerned that there's been manipulation here," he said.
"The Iraqis themselves were anxious that they should do this, that they should get help from South Africa and Northern Ireland and that there should be no involvement from the coalition governments."
Mr McGuinness said that while the situations in South Africa, Ireland and Iraq were different, there were also key lessons to be learned.
"The important lesson to learn is that if people are serious about bringing about peace in their country, that can only be done through an inclusive negotiating process," he said.
The seminar was attended by about 30 representatives of Iraq's warring Shia and Sunni Arab factions.
The faction leaders have agreed to consult further on a series of recommendations, labelled the Helsinki agreement.
The 12 points contain clear echoes of Senator George Mitchell's principles on non-violence and democracy which paved the way towards the Good Friday Agreement.
Aside from promising to resolve political differences peacefully, the agreement commits the Iraqi parties to consider the creation of a disarmament commission, and the formation of a group to deal with the legacy of Iraq's past.
They also seek an end to international and regional interference in Iraq's affairs.
The significance of this agreement will now depend on whether the principles drawn up in Finland make any difference on the ground once the Iraqi participants return home.
Besides Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and the Lagan Valley MP, other local participants included the former Stormont Assembly Speaker, Lord Alderdice, and the loyalist Billy Hutchinson.
The former IRA hunger striker and Sinn Fein official Leo Green took part, as did the public relations consultant Quintin Oliver who masterminded the Yes campaign during the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement.
South African participants also included the ANC leader Mac Maharaj.
The seminar has been organised by the Crisis Management Initiative, an organisation headed by the former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari who served as an independent inspector of IRA arms dumps.
Sir David Manning said the former prime minister had not committed to the war at George Bush's ranch in 2002.
But he told the New Statesman the way the post-war situation was handled had been a failure.
In March 2003 Mr Blair won Parliament's backing to send British troops to war - despite a rebellion by 139 Labour MPs.
In the interview Sir David, who is soon to step down as British ambassador to Washington, denied Mr Blair had already committed to war nearly a year before.
He said Mr Blair "was always in favour of regime change, but that did not mean he always wanted regime change through military means.
"He must have known it might come to military action, but I have always believed he hoped and probably believed there was a way of getting there by using the UN to put pressure on Saddam.
|| I don't think anybody can see
that the immediate post-war situation was anything other than a failure
Sir David Manning
"I don't think he ever wanted to go by the military route."
He added: "He didn't talk to me as a prime minister saying to me: 'I've made up my mind...we're going to war with Iraq'."
He also said Mr Blair had believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and had not fabricated concerns to justify the policy of going to war.
Sir David said Mr Blair may have put too much weight on assurances from the US that plans for post-war Iraq had been drawn up by Colin Powell's State Department, when in fact he was sidelined by Donald Rumsfeld.
Within weeks of the fall of Saddam Hussein there were serious concerns about the way the US was handling the occupation, he told the magazine.
"I don't think anybody can see that the immediate post-war situation was anything other than a failure," he said.
"We had hoped that rapidly the situation would stabilise, that it would be possible to introduce reconciliation, get the economy moving quickly and rebuild society.
"Did it happen quickly? No, we failed. We were over-optimistic."
Mr Blair was succeeded by Gordon Brown in June. As prime minister he faced criticism from within his own party over his policy in Iraq, but always strongly defended his interventionist foreign policy.
By SAMEER N. YACOUB, Associated Press Writer
The most prominent figure in a U.S.-backed revolt of Sunni sheiks against al-Qaida in Iraq was killed Thursday by a bomb planted near his home in Anbar province, 10 days after he met with President Bush, police and tribal leaders said.
Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha was leader of the Anbar Salvation Council, also known as the Anbar Awakening — an alliance of clans backing the Iraqi government and U.S. forces.
Officials said his assassination would be a huge setback for U.S. efforts in Iraq, because it sends a message to others who are cooperating with coalition forces or thinking about cooperating against al-Qaida.
Abu Risha and two of his bodyguards were killed by a roadside bomb planted near the tribal leader's home in Ramadi, Anbar's provincial capital, said Col. Tareq Youssef, supervisor of Anbar police.
A spokesman for Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, confirmed the report.
"It is confirmed that the sheik and two of his bodyguards were killed today near or outside his home," Col. Steven Boylan said in an e-mail from Washington, where Petraeus testified before Congress this week on recent successes in Anbar province.
No group claimed responsibility for the assassination but suspicion fell on al-Qaida in Iraq, which U.S. officials say has suffered devastating setbacks in Anbar thanks to Abu Risha and his fellow sheiks. It's unclear how his death would affect U.S. efforts to organize Sunnis against the terrorist network.
Abu Risha was among a group of tribal leaders who met with Bush on Sept. 3 at al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province.
It was not the first time that Abu Risha has been targeted. A suicide bomber tried and failed to kill him on Feb. 19. That same day, gunmen ambushed a minivan on the main highway from Baghdad to Anbar and killed all 13 passengers who were accused of opposing al-Qaida in Iraq.
In June, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the lobby of Baghdad's Mansour Hotel during a meeting of U.S.-linked Sunni tribal leaders, killing 13 people and wounding 27. Among those killed was the former governor of Anbar and sheik of the al-Bu Nimir tribe, Fassal al-Guood — a key ally of Abu Risha. A day later, al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack.
"It is a major blow to the council, but we are determined to strike back and continue our work," said Sheik Jubeir Rashid, a senior member of Abu Risha's group. "Such an attack was expected, but it will not deter us."
He said the bombing took place at 3:30 p.m. as Abu Risha was returning home.
A Ramadi police officer said Abu Risha had received a group of poor people at his home earlier in the day, as a gesture of charity marking the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The officer, speaking on condition of anonymity out of security concerns, said authorities believed the bomb was planted by one of the visitors.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said that after the first blast that killed Abu Risha, a car bomb exploded nearby.
"The car bomb had been rigged just in case the roadside bomb missed his convoy," Khalaf said. There were no casualties from the car bomb, he added.
After the bombing, police announced a state of emergency in Ramadi and set up additional checkpoints throughout the city, Rashid said.
Anbar police were investigating the attack, and the Interior Ministry would send a committee to assist, Khalaf added.
A senior member of Abu Risha's group, Sheik Jubeir Rashid, called the assassination a "criminal act" and blamed al-Qaida.
"It is a major blow to the council, but we are determined to strike back and continue our work," Rashid said. "Such an attack was expected, but it will not deter us."
The Interior Ministry swiftly ordered plans for a monument built to honor Abu Risha as a "martyr," Khalaf said. It would be build either at the explosion site, or at the center of Ramadi, he said.
The company provides security to all US state department employees in Iraq.
It had been ordered by the Iraqi government to halt operations while a joint US-Iraqi inquiry was held.
A US embassy spokeswoman said the decision to allow Blackwater to resume work had been taken in consultation with the Iraqi government.
The spokeswoman, Mirembe Nantongo, said Blackwater operations would be limited to essential missions only outside Baghdad's heavily-fortified Green Zone.
A separate Iraqi interior ministry investigation has found that Blackwater was "100% guilty" of the incident in which 11 Iraqi civilians were killed.
BLACKWATER USA FACTS
Founded in 1997 by a former US Navy Seal
Headquarters in North Carolina
One of at least 28 private security companies in Iraq
Employs 744 US citizens, 231 third-country nationals, and 12 Iraqis to protect US state department in Iraq
Provided protection for former CPA head Paul Bremer
Four employees killed by mob in Falluja in March 2004
Blackwater says its guards acted in self-defence, but this has been disputed by Iraqi eyewitnesses.
The interior ministry report, based on testimony from witnesses, concluded that Blackwater guards in Baghdad's Nisour Square started shooting after two mortar rounds landed nearby.
"They started shooting randomly from four positions in the square, killing 11 civilians and injuring 12 others," said interior ministry spokesman Maj Gen Abdul-Karim Khalaf.
"The first one who was killed was a driver who failed to stop and then his wife," Maj Gen Khalaf said.
The report also calls for the lifting of legal immunity for foreign security companies operating in Iraq.
The US embassy said it would not comment on the Iraqi report while its own investigation is under way.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has described the shooting as a "criminal act" and vowed not to tolerate it.
By David Clarke - Reuters
The United Nations wants probes to determine whether private security contractors in Iraq have committed war crimes and for governments to ensure that the rule of law is applied, U.N. officials said on Thursday.
The killing of 17 Iraqis in a shooting involving U.S. security firm Blackwater last month has created tensions between Baghdad and Washington and sparked calls for tighter controls on private contractors, who are immune from prosecution in Iraq.
Ivana Vuco, the U.N.'s senior human rights officer in Iraq, told a news conference that private security contractors were still subject to international humanitarian law and that meant there were specific consequences for any breach.
"Investigations as to whether or not crimes against humanity, war crimes, are being committed and obviously the consequences of that is something that we will be paying attention to and advocating for," she told a news conference.
Iraq says there are more than 180 mainly U.S. and European security companies in the country, with estimates of the number of private contractors ranging from 25,000 to 48,000.
Many Iraqis see security companies as little more than private armies which act with impunity. Iraqi authorities have accused Blackwater of "deliberately killing" the 17 Iraqis in last month's shooting, but the security firm says its guards responded lawfully to a threat against a convoy it was guarding.
This week two women were shot dead when their vehicle ventured too close to an armed convoy. The Australian-owned, Dubai-based security firm Unity Resources Group said the vehicle had ignored warnings to stop and its guards then opened fire.
"Definitely we will keep driving that point home time and again so different groups do not feel above the law in treating the populace," said Said Arikat, U.N. mission spokesman in Iraq.
In its latest human rights report, covering the period April through June, the United Nations also stressed that the crisis caused by the displacement of Iraqis was getting worse.
The U.N. estimates there are some 2.2 million Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries. Inside Iraq, the number of people displaced by violence since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 is also put at more than 2 million.
"It really is the critical point," said Arikat, who visited a camp in southern Iraq recently. "It is one of the most appalling places for human beings to be anywhere.
"It is shameful and the international community needs to address this issue. It is past urgent," he said.
ATTACK ON US BASE
A rocket or mortar attack on a major U.S. military base in Baghdad on Wednesday night killed two members of the U.S.-led coalition forces and wounded 38 others, the U.S. military said on Thursday.
A Western security contractor at the Camp Victory military base had said he heard nine mortar rounds being fired and four explosions inside the perimeter after dusk on Wednesday.
The number of casualties is the highest in months from an attack on Victory, the U.S. military's sprawling headquarters near Baghdad airport.
Such attacks on the base are relatively rare compared to other U.S. facilities, given its size and location.
In a statement, the military said two "third country nationals," foreign civilian contractors, had also been wounded.
It gave no details on the nationalities of any of the victims. Besides U.S. troops, small numbers of soldiers from other countries are based at Camp Victory.
(Additional reporting by Dean Yates)
by Maxim Kniazkov
The White House insisted that progress was being made in Iraq after a former top US commander there assailed its strategy and lamented that the war was "a nightmare with no end in sight."
Retired Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez delivered a scathing assessment of the management of the war as he denounced US political leaders as "incompetent," "inept" and "derelict in the performance of their duty."
"There is no question that America is living a nightmare with no end in sight," said Sanchez on Friday, addressing a meeting of military correspondents and editors in Arlington, a Virginia suburb of Washington.
He blasted President George W. Bush's "surge" strategy which calls for maintaining more than 160,000 US troops in Iraq until the end of the year in the hope of reducing sectarian violence and bringing political stability.
The strategy has since been adjusted, with the current plan calling for the withdrawal of about 21,500 combat troops by next July to bring the total to the "pre-surge" level of 130,000 servicemen.
But Sanchez said he did not believe these changes would prove effective.
"Continued manipulations and adjustments to our military strategy will not achieve victory," he said. "The best we can do with this flawed approach is stave off defeat."
Reacting to his comments, the White House evoked a September report to Congress by the current US military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker. They painted a difficult situation that they said was nevertheless marked by gradual improvements.
"We appreciate his service to the country," White House spokesman Trey Bohn told AFP, of Sanchez.
"As General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have said, there is more work to be done, but progress is being made in Iraq. And that's what we are focused on now."
Born into a poor family in southern Texas, Sanchez rose through the ranks of the US military to become the highest-ranking Hispanic in the US Army.
In 1991, he served as a battalion commander during Operation Desert Storm, a US-led allied operation to drive Iraqi forces from occupied Kuwait.
He became commander of coalition forces in Iraq in June 2003, after the US-led invasion, and served in that capacity for a year.
Sanchez retired from the military in November 2006, part of the fallout from a scandal over abuse of detainees by US military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.
He now has harsh words about the US war strategy, even suggesting that civilian leaders would have been court-martialed had they been in the military.
"There is nothing going on today in Washington that would give us hope," he said in his speech.
He said US political leaders from both parties have been too often consumed by partisan grandstanding and political struggles that, as he put it, at times have "endangered the lives of our sons and daughters on the battlefield."
"There has been a glaring, unfortunate display of incompetent strategic leadership within our national leaders," Sanchez said. "In my profession, these type of leaders would immediately be relieved or court-martialed."
"The administration, Congress and the entire inter-agency, especially the Department of State, must shoulder the responsibility for this catastrophic failure and the American people must hold them accountable," he added.
For all his criticism, Sanchez essentially agreed with Bush's position that a precipitous US military withdrawal from Iraq would plunge the country and, possibly the whole region, into chaos.
He argued that some level of US military presence in Iraq would be necessary "for the foreseeable future."
By DANIEL WOOLLS, Associated Press Writer
One of the accused masterminds of the 2004 Madrid terror bombings was acquitted of all charges Wednesday by a Spanish court in the culmination to a politically divisive trial over Europe's worst Islamic militant terror attack.
Four lead defendants were found guilty of murder and other charges, each handed sentences that stretched into the thousands of years in the attacks on four packed commuter trains heading into Madrid from working-class neighborhoods during the morning rush hour of March 11.
Twenty-eight people were charged in the day of carnage, which was etched in Spain's collective memory and became known simply as 11-M, much like the term 9-11 in the U.S.
Fourteen other people were found guilty of lesser charges such as belonging to a terrorist group. Seven other lesser suspects were acquitted on all charges.
Alleged mastermind Rabei Osman, a 35-year-old Egyptian, was accused of bragging during a wiretapped phone conversation that the attacks, which killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,800, were his idea.
Osman was in jail in Italy on other terrorism charges and planned to watch Wednesday's session via video conference.
Judge Javier Gomez Bermudez read out the verdicts in a hushed courtroom, with gun-toting police and bomb-sniffing dogs on guard outside.
Most of the suspects are young Muslim men of North African origin accused of acting out of allegiance to al-Qaida to avenge the presence of Spanish troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, although Spanish investigators say they did so without a direct order or financing from Osama bin Laden's terror network.
The defendants — whose five-month trial ended in July — also include nine Spaniards, including one woman charged with supplying stolen dynamite used in the string of rapid-fire explosions. All 28 insisted they were innocent.
Prosecutors were seeking sentences of up to 38,976 years each for the eight lead defendants — 30 years for each of the people killed in the attacks, 18 years for each of the wounded, plus more time for other terrorism-related charges. But the most time any can spend in jail is 40 years. Spain has no death penalty or life imprisonment.
Seven suspected ringleaders of the attacks — including the operational chief and an ideologue — blew themselves up in a safe house outside Madrid three weeks after the massacre as special forces who tracked them via cell phone traffic moved in to arrest them.
Conservatives in power at the time of the attacks initially blamed Basque separatists, even as evidence of Islamic involvement emerged. This led to charges of a cover-up to deflect attention away from the government's support of the Iraq war, and in elections three days after the bombings the conservatives lost to the opposition Socialists.
By LAUREN FRAYER, Associated Press Writer
Nearly 6,000 Sunni Arab residents joined a security pact with American forces Wednesday in what U.S. officers described as a critical step in plugging the remaining escape routes for extremists flushed from former strongholds.
The new alliance — called the single largest volunteer mobilization since the war began — covers the "last gateway" for groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq seeking new havens in northern Iraq, U.S. military officials said.
U.S. commanders have tried to build a ring around insurgents who fled military offensives launched earlier this year in the western Anbar province and later into Baghdad and surrounding areas. In many places, the U.S.-led battles were given key help from tribal militias — mainly Sunnis — that had turned against al-Qaida and other groups.
Extremists have sought new footholds in northern areas once loyal to Saddam Hussein's Baath party as the U.S.-led gains have mounted across central regions. But their ability to strike near the capital remains.
A woman wearing an explosive-rigged belt blew herself up near an American patrol near Baqouba, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, the military announced Wednesday. The blast on Tuesday — a rare attack by a female suicide bomber — wounded seven U.S. troops and five Iraqis, the statement said.
The ceremony to pledge the 6,000 new fighters was presided over by a dozen sheiks — each draped in black robes trimmed with gold braiding — who signed the contract on behalf of tribesmen at a small U.S. outpost in north-central Iraq.
For about $275 a month — nearly the salary for the typical Iraqi policeman — the tribesmen will man about 200 security checkpoints beginning Dec. 7, supplementing hundreds of Iraqi forces already in the area.
About 77,000 Iraqis nationwide, mostly Sunnis, have broken with the insurgents and joined U.S.-backed self-defense groups.
Those groups have played a major role in the lull in violence: 648 Iraqi civilians have been killed or found dead in November to date, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press. This compares with 2,155 in May as the so-called "surge" of nearly 30,000 additional American troops gained momentum.
U.S. troop deaths in Iraq also have dropped sharply. So far this month, the military has reported 35 deaths — including an American soldier killed Wednesday in western Baghdad — compared with 38 in October. In June, 101 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq.
Village mayors and others who signed Wednesday's agreement say about 200 militants have sought refuge in the area, about 30 miles southwest of Kirkuk on the edge of northern Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Hawija is a predominantly Sunni Arab cluster of villages which has long been an insurgent flashpoint.
The recently arrived militants have waged a campaign of killing and intimidation to try to establish a new base, said Sheikh Khalaf Ali Issa, mayor of Zaab village.
"They killed 476 of my citizens, and I will not let them continue their killing," Issa said.
With the help of the new Sunni allies, "the Hawija area will be an obstacle to militants, rather than a pathway for them," said Maj. Sean Wilson, with the Army's 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. "They're another set of eyes that we needed in this critical area."
By defeating militants in Hawija, U.S. and Iraqi leaders hope to keep them away from Kirkuk, an ethnically diverse city that is also the hub of Iraq's northern oil fields.
"They want to go north into Kirkuk and wreak havoc there, and that's exactly what we're trying to avoid," Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, the top U.S. commander in northern Iraq, told The Associated Press this week.
Kurds often consider Kirkuk part of their ancestral homeland and often refer to the city as the "Kurdish Jerusalem." Saddam, however, relocated tens of thousands of pro-regime Arabs to the city in the 1980s and 1990s under his "Arabization" policy.
The Iraqi government has begun resettling some of those Arabs to their home regions, making room for thousands of Kurds who have gradually returned to Kirkuk since Saddam's ouster.
Tension has been rising over the city's status — whether it will join the semi-autonomous Kurdish region or continue being governed by Baghdad.
"Hawija is the gateway through which all our communities — Kurdish, Turkomen and Arab alike — can become unsafe," said Abu Saif al-Jabouri, mayor of al-Multaqa village north of Kirkuk. "Do I love my neighbor in Hawija? That question no longer matters. I must work to help him, because his safety helps me."
In Baghdad, a bus convoy arrived carrying hundreds of refugees home from Syria. The buses, funded by the Iraqi government, left Damascus on Tuesday as part of a plan to speed the return of the estimated 2.2 million Iraqis who have fled to neighboring Syria and Jordan.
Also Wednesday, an Iraqi journalist Dhia al-Kawaz who said 11 members of his family — two sisters, their husbands and their seven children — were killed in their Baghdad home challenged the government's denial of the deaths.
The Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, insisted that the deaths — reportedly Sunday in a northern neighborhood of Baghdad known to be a Shiite militia stronghold — never took place.
Al-Kawaz, who has lived outside Iraq for 20 years, told Al-Jazeera television: "I ask the spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh to let all of my family appear on TV."
The media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders earlier this week condemned the attack and said Iraqi police at a nearby checkpoint failed to intervene. Following al-Dabbagh's statement, the organization said it was "astounded and angry to discover" that the claim allegedly was false.
By Peter Graff and Waleed Ibrahim
Iraq must take advantage of improved security and enact laws aimed at national reconciliation or risk a resumption of sectarian bloodshed, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said on Sunday.
Violence has fallen sharply over the past few months in Iraq after Washington deployed an additional 30,000 troops. But Iraqi leaders have so far made scant progress passing laws aimed at reconciling majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Arabs.
Political tensions also escalated in recent days after the largest Sunni Arab bloc walked out of parliament to protest what it said was the house arrest of their leader, Adnan al-Dulaimi. The bloc called off the boycott on Sunday when Dulaimi was allowed to leave his house for the first time in three days.
"The security surge has delivered significant results," Negroponte told a news conference in Baghdad at the end of a six-day tour of Iraq.
"Now progress on political reconciliation, including key national legislation as well as economic advances, is needed to consolidate the gains. If progress is not made on these fronts we risk falling back toward the more violent habits of the past."
With attacks at their lowest levels in nearly two years, attention has focused on whether the Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki can reach an accommodation with disaffected Sunni Arabs.
In a sign of the sectarian divide, the Sunni Arab Accordance Front called the boycott of parliament after Dulaimi was confined to his house following the arrest of his son and dozens of bodyguards on suspicion of links to a car bomb.
But Dulaimi was escorted from home on Sunday by National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie and brought to a hotel in the heavily fortified "Green Zone" government and diplomatic compound, where he called an end to the boycott.
"Since this house arrest has been lifted, the Accordance Front will return to sessions of parliament," he told an Iraqi television station.
Dulaimi's daughter Asmaa al-Dulaimi, also a member of parliament, told Reuters her father had agreed to stay at the hotel opposite the parliament building until Thursday.
She said Rubaie had promised in that time to complete an investigation into the affair, which began last week when Iraqi police and soldiers chased suspected gunmen into Dulaimi's office compound. They found a car bomb nearby, and U.S. forces said one of Dulaimi's bodyguards had the key to the vehicle.
Dulaimi's bloc has been a heavy critic of Maliki's government and pulled its members from a national unity cabinet in August, saying Sunni Arabs were being marginalized.
Negroponte declined to comment on the Dulaimi affair but said he was optimistic Iraq would achieve political reconciliation. Skeptics should bear in mind the recent improvements in security, he said.
His thoughts were echoed by the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno.
"They have not accomplished what we would like them to do. They're probably not doing it as quickly as we'd like. But they are starting to take steps," Odierno said during an interview on CNN's Late Edition.
The main laws Washington wants passed include measures to reform a law banning former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party holding office, agreeing how to equitably share Iraq's oil wealth and setting a date for provincial elections.
The lack of legislative progress contrasts with the gains made on the security front.
Government figures released at the end of last week showed 537 civilians were killed in November, a fall of 29 percent from October and the lowest since before sectarian violence exploded following an attack on a Shi'ite shrine in February 2006.
Apart from the impact of beefed-up U.S. troop numbers, military commanders credit the reduced violence to the growth of informal neighborhood police units and a ceasefire by the Mehdi Army militia of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
(Additional reporting by Alaa Shahine)
A Foreign Office spokesman said the tape would "add to the distress of the men's families and friends".
In the film, dated 18 November, the kidnappers say they will kill one of the men as a "first warning" unless UK forces leave Iraq within 10 days.
The five men were seized on 29 May from Baghdad's finance ministry building by gunmen disguised as police officers.
They are being held by a militia group calling itself the Islamic Shia Resistance in Iraq.
|| No matter what the cause,
hostage taking can never be justified
Foreign Office spokesman
The tape, which the Foreign Office is studying, is in Arabic and was broadcast on Al-Arabiya television on Tuesday.
The Britons - four guards and a computer expert - were initially taken to a Shia suburb after being seized.
Consular officials had remained in regular contact with the families of the men, the spokesman added.
In the tape, filmed in front of an "Islamic Shia Resistance in Iraq" flag, one of the men gives his name, says he has been held for 173 days and adds that "no-one seems to care".
The kidnappers say the UK should "withdraw all the thieves and the gangs that they have brought with them to plunder and squander our wealth and resources, and to return what they have stolen".
|| We miss them so much and want
them to come home to us so that our
families can be complete again and our children no longer have to
endure the pain of missing their fathers
Earlier statement from families
It warns that if the UK does not meet its demands, "this hostage will be executed on day number 10 as a first warning, then other details that you will not like will be made public".
The Foreign Office spokesman said: "No matter what the cause, hostage-taking can never be justified.
"We again call on those holding the men to release them unconditionally."
BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner said that, up until now, the Foreign Office has not wanted to discuss the kidnapping because officials do not want anything to get in the way of their negotiations through third parties to get the men released.
In September, the families of the five men urged their captors to end their "torment" of being separated from "ordinary family men".
The statement continued: "They are sons, fathers and brothers who were working to support us - their families.
"We miss them so much and want them to come home to us so that our families can be complete again and our children no longer have to endure the pain of missing their fathers."
Cdr John McDowall will take over from Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke as national co-ordinator of terrorist investigations.
He will also lead the Metropolitan Police's counter-terrorism unit SO15.
Commissioner Sir Ian Blair said the £125,000-a-year job "was one of the most demanding posts in UK policing".
Sir Ian said the job was "hugely challenging", but Londoners should be "reassured" that Cdr McDowall had the knowledge and experience needed to do it.
Met Police Authority chair Len Duvall said Cdr McDowall was chosen for "his display of operation leadership".
Born in 1957, Cdr McDowall joined the Met in 1980. He has served as deputy to the national co-ordinator of terrorist investigations since January 2005.
He told the recent health and safety trial into Mr de Menezes death that he still thinks every day about what could have been done differently in that case.
By HASSANE MEFTAHI, Associated Press Writer Dec 11th 2007
Car bombs exploded minutes apart Tuesday in central Algiers, heavily damaging U.N. offices and partly ripping the facade off a government building. At least 22 people were killed, including U.N. workers, and scores were wounded, officials said.
Suspicions quickly focused on militants affiliated with al-Qaida, which claimed responsibility for attacking the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in 2003.
The two bombs exploded around 9:30 a.m., and one had deliberately targeted United Nations offices, according to the head of the U.N. refugee agency in Geneva. The other bomb struck outside Algeria's Constitutional Council, said Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni.
He said 22 people were killed and 177 people were wounded. Hospital and rescue officials reported the death toll at 45, and one doctor said it was as high as 60.
U.N. spokeswoman Maria Okabe said in New York that five U.N. employees were believed to be among the dead. Ron Redmond, chief spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, said only two UNHCR staff members — both drivers from Algeria — were killed, and that more than a dozen workers were injured, one seriously. All missing employees were accounted for, he added.
A national official at the civil protection agency who spoke on condition of anonymity said earlier that 45 people were killed. A doctor at one Algiers hospital who said he was in contact with staff at other area hospitals put the death toll at 60.
UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres "said he has no doubt that the U.N. was targeted," according to Redmond. He added that "it is a very small street that just separates a U.N. compound, and it happened right there."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the bombings.
"This is just unacceptable," said a somber Ban, who was on Indonesia's resort island of Bali for a U.N. climate conference. "I would like to condemn it in the strongest terms. It cannot be justified in any circumstances."
The Bush administration added its denunciation.
"We condemn this attack on the United Nations office by these enemies of humanity who attack the innocent. The United States stands with the people of Algeria, as well as the United Nations as they deal with this senseless violence," said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
Zerhouni said the attacks were caused by car bombs, with the one at the U.N. offices seemingly driven by a suicide bomber.
"An attack like this is among the easiest actions to carry out. I have always said that we are not safe from these sorts of attacks," he told reporters.
The U.N. offices are in the upscale Hydra neighborhood of Algiers, which houses many foreign embassies and has a substantial foreign population. One damaged U.N. building appeared to have collapsed in on itself, spilling its insides into a street littered with the soot-covered remains of parked cars crunched by the force of the blast.
The blast at the Constitutional Council, which rules on the constitutionality of laws and oversees elections, ripped chunks off the white facade of the new building, exposing the red brick underneath, and left a hip-deep crater in the road.
Some victims had been riding a school bus, the official APS news agency said, and the remains of an orange bus were outside the Constitutional Council building.
Mohammed Faci, 23, told AP Television News that was in a different bus that was jolted by the blast and he broke his arm.
"It was horror," Faci said, describing the pandemonium following the explosion that gutted the other bus. "I'm glad I wasn't in that first one."
Al-Qaida has called for attacks on French and Spanish interests in North Africa. Osama bin Laden's chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, in September called for jihad in North Africa to "cleanse (it) of the children of France and Spain."
Tuesday's date — Dec. 11 — could point to an Islamic terrorism link. Al-Qaida has struck on the 11th in several countries, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa claimed responsibility for attacks on April 11 that hit the Algerian prime minister's office and a police station, killing 33 people.
Dec. 11 has another meaning for Algerians. On that date in 1960, pro-independence demonstrations were held in Algeria against colonial ruler France. The Constitutional Council is located on December 11, 1960, Boulevard.
It was not immediately clear why the U.N. might have been targeted.
Anne Giudicelli, a former French diplomat specializing in the Middle East who runs the Paris-based consultancy Terrorisc, said the attacks appeared to have the "clear signature" of al-Qaida-affiliated groups — in the choice of targets and use of car bombings, and in the fact that they were simultaneous.
"They attacked ... neighborhoods where there is plenty of security, which is a way to show their strength in the war with security services," she said. "Each side is counting their points. There is a very clear escalation, it's a way of saying, 'We are stronger than you thought we were.'"
Algeria has been battling Islamic insurgents since the early 1990s, when the army canceled the second round of the country's first multiparty elections, stepping in to prevent likely victory by an Islamic fundamentalist party.
Islamist armed groups then turned to force to overthrow the government, with up to 200,000 people killed in the ensuing violence.
The past year has seen a series of bombings against state targets, many of them suicide attacks.
Recent bombings have been claimed by al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa. That was the name adopted in January after the remnants of the insurgency, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, or GSPC, formally linked with al-Qaida.
Once focused on toppling the Algerian government, the group has now turned its sights to international holy war and the fight against Western interests. French counterterrorism officials say it is drawing members from across North Africa.
A Sept. 6 attack during President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's visit to the eastern city of Batna killed 22 people, and a suicide bombing two days later on a coast guard barracks in the town of Dellys left at least 28 dead.
Associated Press writers Alexander G. Higgins and Bradley S. Klapper in Geneva, Angela Doland, Jenny Barchfield and John Leicester in Paris, and John Heilprin at the United Nations contributed to this report.
By ROBERT H. REID, Associated Press Writer
One of al-Qaida's top figures, Abu Laith al-Libi, has been killed in Pakistan, an Islamist Web site announced Thursday. Pakistani officials and residents said a dozen people, including seven Arabs, died in a missile strike in northwestern Pakistan near the Afghan border.
Al-Libi was believed to be the key link between the Taliban and al-Qaida and was blamed for masterminding the bombing an American base while Vice President Dick Cheney was visiting Afghanistan last year. He was listed among the Americans' 12 most-wanted men with a bounty of $200,000 on his head.
Pakistani officials denied any knowledge of al-Libi's death. The killing of such a major al-Qaida figure is likely to embarrass President Pervez Musharraf, who has repeatedly said he would not sanction U.S. military action against al-Qaida members believed to be regrouping in the lawless area near the Afghan border.
A Web site that frequently carries announcements from militant groups said al-Libi had been "martyred with a group of his brothers in the land of Muslim Pakistan" but gave no further details.
However, Pakistani intelligence officials and residents said a missile struck a compound late Monday or early Tuesday about 2 1/2 miles from the Pakistani town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, killing 12 people, including seven Arabs as well as Pakistanis and Central Asians.
Residents said they could hear U.S. Predator drones flying in the area shortly before the explosion, which destroyed the compound.
The Pakistani newspaper Dawn said the victims were buried in a local cemetery.
Rumors spread Thursday in the border area that al-Libi or his deputy died in the missile strike. But Pakistan's Interior Ministry spokesman, Javed Iqbal Cheema, insisted authorities had "no information" indicating al-Libi was dead.
One intelligence official in the area, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the bodies of those killed were badly mangled by the force of the explosion and it was difficult to identify them. The official estimated 12 people were killed, including Arabs, Turkomen from Central Asia and local Taliban members.
In Washington, a Western official said that "it appears at this point that al-Libi has met his demise," but declined to talk about the circumstances. "It was a major success in taking one of the top terrorists in the world off the street," the official said. He added that the death occurred "within the last few days."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he did not "have anything definitive" to say on reports of al-Libi's death.
The Libyan-born al-Libi was among the most high-profile figures in al-Qaida after its leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri.
In spring 2007, al-Qaida's media wing, Al-Sahab, released a video interview with a bearded man identified as al-Libi. In it, he accuses Shiite Muslims of fighting alongside American forces in Iraq, and claimed that mujahedeen would crush foreign troops in Afghanistan.
The U.S. says al-Libi was likely behind the February 2007 bombing at the U.S. base at Bagram in Afghanistan during a visit by Cheney. The attack killed 23 people but Cheney was deep inside the sprawling base and was not hurt.
The bombing added to the impression that Western forces and the shaky government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai are vulnerable to assault by Taliban and al-Qaida militants.
Al-Libi also led an al-Qaida training camp and appeared in a number of al-Qaida Internet videos.
He was known to maintain close ties with tribes living on the Pakistani side of the mountainous border, where U.S. officials believe al-Qaida has been regrouping.
A Pakistani intelligence official said that al-Libi was based near Mir Ali until late 2003 when he moved back into Afghanistan to take charge of al-Qaida operations on both sides of the border area. But he retained links with North Waziristan, the official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Mir Ali is the second-biggest town in North Waziristan and has a strong presence of foreign militants, mostly Uzbeks with links to al-Qaida who fled to Pakistan's tribal regions after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001.
The U.S. has in the past sought to kill top al-Qaida leaders but with limited success.
Al-Zawahri, al-Qaida's second-in-command, was the target of a U.S. airstrike in Pakistan near the Afghan border on Jan. 13, 2006, but he was not at the site of the attack. Pakistan condemned the missile strike that killed at least 17 people in the village of Damadola in the Bajur tribal area, about four miles inside Pakistan.
Pakistani security officials said four top operatives were believed to be killed in that strike. The officials said the operatives included Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, who the U.S. Justice Department called an explosives and poisons expert; Abu Obaidah al-Masri, the al-Qaida chief responsible for attacks on U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan; and Abdul Rehman al-Maghribi, a Moroccan and relative of al-Zawahri, possibly his son-in-law.
Some of the officials also said a fourth man, Khalid Habib, the al-Qaida operations chief along the Afghan-Pakistan border, was believed to be dead.
Associated Press correspondents Paul Schemm in Cairo, Fisnik Abrashi in Kabul, Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan contributed to this report.
Bush on Monday
canceled a civilian nuclear cooperation deal with
By BRETT J. BLACKLEDGE and EILEEN SULLIVAN, Associated Press Writers
The United States remains "dangerously vulnerable" to chemical, biological and nuclear attacks seven years after 9/11, a forthcoming independent study concludes. And a House Democrats' report says the Bush administration has missed one opportunity after another to improve the nation's security.
The recent political rupture between Russia and the U.S. only makes matters worse, said Lee Hamilton, the former Indiana Democratic congressman who helped lead the 9/11 Commission and now chairs the independent group's latest study.
Efforts to reduce access to nuclear technology and bomb-making materials have slowed, thousands of U.S. chemical plants remain unprotected, and the U.S. government continues to oppose strengthening an international treaty to prevent bioterrorism, according to the report produced by the bipartisan Partnership for a Secure America.
The group includes leaders of the disbanded 9/11 Commission, the bipartisan panel that investigated government missteps before the 2001 terror attacks on the United States.
"The threat of a new, major terrorist attack on the United States is still very real," concludes the report to be released Wednesday, the same day a congressional commission will hold a hearing in New York on nuclear and biological terrorism threats.
"A nuclear, chemical or biological weapon in the hands of terrorists remains the single greatest threat to our nation. While progress has been made in securing these weapons and materials, we are still dangerously vulnerable," the report said.
Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, had harsher criticism of the Bush administration's efforts. Their report, written by the staffs of the House Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs committees, found little or no progress across the board on national security initiatives.
"The Bush administration has not delivered on a myriad of critical homeland and national security mandates," the Democrats' report states. That report was being released Tuesday.
"The administration has just failed to act in so many ways," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. "Let's say that we've been fortunate that we have not been attacked" since 2001, said Thompson, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee.
The independent report focuses narrowly on weapons of mass destruction.
The report and supporting studies describe the failure of international cooperation to prevent terrorists from obtaining weapons of mass destruction, which they call a major problem. Many countries continue to ignore a United Nations mandate to prevent the spread of weapons; the ability of many countries to monitor potential bioterrorism is "essentially nonexistent," and dangerous chemical weapons stockpiles remain in some countries, including Russia and Libya, the report said.
Russia has been a significant player in U.S. efforts to secure nuclear weapons and to eliminate inventories of chemical weapons in the former Soviet region. That cooperation could be jeopardized as the two countries face off over the Russian invasion of Georgia and concerns about a U.S. missile defense base in Poland, Hamilton said.
Bush on Monday Bush on canceled a civilian nuclear cooperation deal with Russia.
"The things we do to penalize Russia will make it more difficult for us to deal with Russia on other matters," Hamilton said.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said he hasn't seen the report. But he said there have been a number of successes in recent years, including negotiations to dismantle North Korea's nuclear program and Libya's agreement to end its nuclear and chemical weapons program.
"We have been engaged multilaterally with a number of countries to deal with this issue of weapons of mass destruction," Wood said.
Wood said he also has not seen the Democrats' report. "I fundamentally reject the charge that the administration has made the world less safe from terrorism," he said.
House Democrats also blasted Bush policy in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia as damaging to national security. U.S. efforts to combat terrorists in Pakistan have suffered because of "unyielding support for a military dictator"; Iraq has drained resources from the fight in Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia continues to serve "as a major source of terrorist activity," the Democrats' report states.
The independent study, however, did credit the Bush administration with progress in a number of areas. It cited improved U.S. port security, reduction of military chemical stockpiles, increased U.S. funding for securing nuclear weapons sites in Russia and new international programs aimed at preventing crimes involving biological weapons.