Saturday, November 03, 2007

Thousands return to safer Iraqi capital

Thousands return to safer Iraqi capital - Yahoo! News: "BAGHDAD - In a dramatic turnaround, more than 3,000 Iraqi families driven out of their Baghdad neighborhoods have returned to their homes in the past three months as sectarian violence has dropped, the government said Saturday.

Saad al-Azawi, his wife and four children are among them. They fled to Syria six months ago, leaving behind what had become one of the capital's more dangerous districts — west Baghdad's largely Sunni Khadra region.

The family had been living inside a vicious and bloody turf battle between al-Qaida in Iraq and Mahdi Army militiamen. But Azawi said things began changing, becoming more peaceful, in August when radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army fighters to stand down nationwide.

About the same time, the Khadra neighborhood Awakening Council rose up against brutal al-Qaida control — the imposition of its austere interpretation of Islam, along with the murder and torture of those who would not comply.

The uprising originated in Iraq's west and flowed into the capital. Earlier this year, the Sunni tribes and clans in the vast Anbar province began their own revolt and have successfully rid the largely desert region of al-Qaida control....

[bth: so 50,000 people per month have been leaving throughout this year and now 3000 families or probably 20,000 people or less return. I guess at least its an end of the trend of evacuations and on balance a good indicator of an improved security situation.]

US forces find bomb factory near Baghdad

US forces find bomb factory near Baghdad | Herald Sun: "US TROOPS found a large bomb-making factory just north of Baghdad following a tip-off from a local resident, the military said on Saturday.

The factory was being used to assemble explosively-formed penetrators, the fist-sized bombs that can cut through heavy armour, a statement said.

US commanders say that members of the covert operations arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards have been supplying the exposives and training Shiite militiamen in their use, a charge Tehran strongly denies.

The US military said the bomb-making factory was found in the town of Husseiniyah and contained 10 fully assembled EFPs of various sizes.

Troops also found around 90 copper plates and more than 90kg of C-4 explosive, enough material to make at least 150 EFPs, the statement said.

The US military says EFPs have resulted in the deaths of more than 200 soldiers in Iraq over the past two years but the number found or detonated has dropped from 99 in July to 53 in October.

On Thursday, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Iran had promised the Iraqi government that it would halt the flow of the armour-piercing explosives but questioned whether the pledge was genuine.

"It is my understanding that they have provided such assurances. I don't know whether to believe them,'' Mr Gates told reporters in Washington.

[bth: I don't know if this is the same factory cited last week or a new one. The number of EFPs found seems identical and so does the general description. My guess is that its a second reporting of the first raid.]

Former envoy: U.S. driving Turkey, Iran together

McClatchy Washington Bureau | 11/02/2007 | Former envoy: U.S. driving Turkey, Iran together: "WASHINGTON — The retired general who served as President Bush's special envoy to deal with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) said the United States has failed to keep its promises to Turkey to confront the Kurdish terrorist group, and Turkey may feel that it has no choice but to attack the PKK's sanctuary in northern Iraq.

Retired Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, in a brief interview, declined to say why he stepped down several weeks ago. But published reports have said that he was frustrated by the Bush administration's failure to act against the PKK.

In his first extended comments since his departure, Ralston told McClatchy Newspapers that the United States is unwittingly "driving, strategically, the Turks and the Iranians together" because both nations share concerns about violent Kurdish separatist groups.

"The U.S. government should make good on the commitments they have made to the Turks," Ralston said.

Turkey is a NATO ally of the United States, while the United States and Iran are increasingly in confrontation across a range of issues.

The White House and the U.S. military have appeared leery about opening a new front in the war in Iraq — particularly in generally stable northern Iraq — by launching assaults against the PKK. Neither the U.S.-backed Iraqi government nor the semiautonomous Kurdish Regional Government has shown any inclination to go after the group.

The officer who commands U.S. forces in northern Iraq, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Nixon, last week said he planned to do "absolutely nothing" to curb PKK activities.

Ralston, a vice chairman of the Washington-based Cohen Group, a consulting firm, said the statement was "directly opposite" promises Bush has made to Turkey.

Asked whether the Turkish military would invade northern Iraq, which PKK fighters use to launch attacks into Turkey, Ralston said: "They're going to have to, in the absence of the U.S. doing anything."

Blackwater's Owner Has Spies for Hire

Blackwater's Owner Has Spies for Hire - washingtonpost.com: "First it became a brand name in security for its work in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now it's taking on intelligence.

The Prince Group, the holding company that owns Blackwater Worldwide, has been building an operation that will sniff out intelligence about natural disasters, business-friendly governments, overseas regulations and global political developments for clients in industry and government.

The operation, Total Intelligence Solutions, has assembled a roster of former spooks -- high-ranking figures from agencies such as the CIA and defense intelligence -- that mirrors the slate of former military officials who run Blackwater. Its chairman is Cofer Black, the former head of counterterrorism at CIA known for his leading role in many of the agency's more controversial programs, including the rendition and interrogation of al-Qaeda suspects and the detention of some of them in secret prisons overseas.

Its chief executive is Robert Richer, a former CIA associate deputy director of operations who was heavily involved in running the agency's role in the Iraq war.

Total Intelligence Solutions is one of a growing number of companies that offer intelligence services such as risk analysis to companies and governments. Because of its roster and its ties to owner Erik Prince, the multimillionaire former Navy SEAL, the company's thrust into this world highlights the blurring of lines between government, industry and activities formerly reserved for agents operating in the shadows.

Richer, for instance, once served as the chief of the CIA's Near East division and is said to have ties to King Abdullah of Jordan. The CIA had spent millions helping train Jordan's intelligence service in exchange for information. Now Jordan has hired Blackwater to train its special forces.

"Cofer can open doors," said Richer, who served 22 years at the CIA. "I can open doors. We can generally get in to see who we need to see. We don't help pay bribes. We do everything within the law, but we can deal with the right minister or person."

Total Intel, as the company is known, is bringing "the skills traditionally honed by CIA operatives directly to the board room," Black said. Black had a 28-year career with the CIA.

"They have the skills and background to do anything anyone wants," said RJ Hillhouse, who writes a national security blog called The Spy Who Billed Me. "There's no oversight. They're an independent company offering freelance espionage services. They're rent-a-spies."

[bth: Will they be in to assassination and espionage? In the civil war a contractor was used, the Pinkerton Agency, which successfully overstated the strength of the southern army by a factor of 3 so they'd never be wrong and cause a defeat. Of course the war drug on and on, but then it was good for business. Pinterton agents later became strike breakers and thugs for hire for the best in corporate America. Now today, Exxon and others will have that capability again.]

Bush Attorney General Nominee Gets Boost

Bush Attorney General Nominee Gets Boost - Politics on The Huffington Post: "WASHINGTON — Michael Mukasey drew closer to becoming attorney general Friday after two key Senate Democrats said they would vote for him despite his refusal to say whether waterboarding is torture.

The decision by Sens. Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein to back President Bush's nominee came shortly after the chairman of the committee, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., announced he would vote against Mukasey, a former federal judge.

"This is an extremely difficult decision," Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement, adding that Mukasey "is not my ideal choice."

In announcing her support for Mukasey, Feinstein, D-Calif., said "first and foremost, Michael Mukasey is not Alberto Gonzales," referring to the former attorney general who resigned in September after months of questions about his honesty.

Including Leahy, five of the Judiciary Committee's 10 Democrats had said they would vote against Mukasey's confirmation after the nominee earlier this week refused to say that waterboarding, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning, is torture and therefore illegal.

But with nine Republicans on the panel, Schumer and Feinstein's support for Mukasey virtually guarantees that a majority of the committee will recommend his confirmation when it votes on it next Tuesday....

[bth: disgusting. What are Schumer and Feinstein thinking?]

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Afghanistan at the Brink

Afghanistan at the Brink - New York Times: "Afghanistan is not Iraq. That’s the good news. Decades of war are devastating, but not as crippling as decades of Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian hell. The glint of initiative outweighs fear’s residue in Afghan eyes.

Across this dirt-poor country — think sub-Saharan Africa — small signs of initiative and awakening abound: new carpet-weaving businesses, surging wheat production, just-opened schools, solar panels on mud-brick homes. Growth is more than 8 percent.

Since the Taliban’s fall in 2001, four million Afghan refugees have come home in one of the biggest post-1945 returns of people. About 38 percent of school students are girls, up from zero. Roads, clinics, mine-clearing and several million cellphones are changing Afghan lives.

All this may seem a decent return on about $22 billion of American investment since 2002. A further $5.6 billion is under review for 2008. The strategic aim is a stable Afghanistan that is no longer for rent by terrorists from one-eyed mullahs.

But if Afghanistan is not Iraq, it’s not delivered from war either. Lebanon looks stable by comparison. Like Poland, Afghanistan has suffered the fate of a weak state between powerful neighbors. Unlike Poland, it grows poppy and inhabits a region of explosive volatility.

That’s the bad news.

I heard many assessments of how long Afghanistan will depend on Western military assistance, but Abdul Jabbar Sabit, the attorney general, was bluntest: “The Afghan Army will not be able to defend the country for 10 years, so the international force has to be here for at least a decade.”

He’s realistic. An intense U.S. effort is going into producing a credible 72,000-man Afghan Army by 2009. The number may be met, but the force’s ability to sustain itself and mount large operations will lag. Capt. Sylvain Caron, a Canadian “mentoring” a nascent battalion, said “the cultural change will take 20 years.”

The police are way behind the army. Training has been a disaster. Low salaries, belatedly rising to $100 from $50 a month, have made corruption endemic, particularly in narco-territory. Work on a credible police force has scarcely begun.

“We’re looking at a long-term commitment,” William Wood, the U.S. ambassador, told me. How long? “A number of years.” Like in post-war Germany? “It would just be dishonest to pretend to be able to give you a number.” But, he insisted: “The role of the U.S. military will change.”

Yes, it will recede, but slowly. With Afghanistan at a tipping point, the next U.S. president will face an enduring challenge here of immense proportions. He or she must level with the American people, in a way President Bush never has, about the real burden of an attempt to build two countries from scratch at once. That burden can no longer be borne by military families alone, however much Iraqi extrication is achieved.

For now, unlike in Iraq, the U.S. has real allies here. Peter Struck, the former German defense minister, once said Germany “will also be defended in the Hindu Kush.” But that European conviction is fraying as casualties and violence rise.

The next president will have to fight to maintain NATO solidarity. Huge problems loom. Among them is breaking the growing symbiosis between drug traffickers and the Taliban. Wood described an “exploding drug industry” that “finances the Taliban” and wages “its own assault on institutional government.” The more than $2 billion spent fighting drugs “hasn’t worked,” he conceded.

Other challenges are containing the rampant corruption of governors chosen by President Hamid Karzai, better integrating sometimes contradictory international efforts and limiting the degree to which Pakistan and Iran meddle.

“The insurgents go some places I cannot go,” acknowledged Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the NATO commander in Afghanistan. Wood told me the country “is facing an insurgency that is able to reconstitute itself outside the country.” That’s grave.

As these comments suggest, the Taliban is still substantially made in Pakistan. U.S. efforts to get needed cooperation from its ally have floundered.

All these problems are redoubled by the unpopularity of Bush’s America. Iran sees in Afghanistan another chance to hurt U.S. interests. But it’s not alone. Russia likes that game these days. China is not averse. Within the alliance, the current European view of America as belligerent, simplistic and insensitive to Islam does not foster unity.

Bush is too much part of the problem to solve it. But the cost of failure is unacceptable. Defeat would destroy NATO. It would further destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan. It would propel nuke-seeking Al Qaeda from its Waziristan caves.

Not least, it would take those Afghan girls out of school. A Kabul crash course — and I don’t mean in kite-flying — is in order for all serious White House candidates.

Blog: www.iht.com/passages.

Nicholas D. Kristof is on book leave.

Cheney dresses dog as Darth Vader, report says

The Raw Story | Cheney dresses dog as Darth Vader, report says:... "This morning I was with the vice president. I was asking him what costume he was planning. And he said 'I'm already wearing it.' Then he mumbled something about 'the dark side of the Force,'" Bush quipped.

Cheney himself has repeatedly joked publicly about his portrayal as the black-armored Dark Lord of the Sith, most recently in an October 21 speech to the Washington Institute for Near East policy.

"I've been asked if that nickname bothers me, and the answer is, no. After all, Darth Vader is one of the nicer things I've been called recently," the vice president said....

INTEL DUMP - So you wanna be a counterinsurgent

INTEL DUMP - -#1193694619: "Well then, Abu Muquwama has a reading list for you. He put it together with his colleague "Charlie," another scholar in the field of insurgency and counterinsurgency. I know both, and they're really two of the sharpest people in the field. Their reading list contains a broad list of books, monographs and articles, many available free online. It's a great list, and I'd recommend it for anyone seeking to learn more about small wars from both the insurgent and counterinsurgent's perspective.

I've got a few personal recommendations which overlap slightly with this list:

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence. This is the classic book on how to be an insurgent, written from the perspective of T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, who made his bones advising Saudi irregulars as they harassed the Turks during WWI, eventually capturing Damascus. He later went on to participate in the ill-fated British occupation of Iraq, writing this memoir years later. Of course, it should be noted that Lawrence was advising insurgents, not counterinsurgents, and thus his job was a bit easier than ours today in Mesopotamia. Nonetheless, this book is the gold standard for stories about advising indigenous forces, and a must-read for anyone who wants to understand this kind of war.

The Village, by Bing West. Forty years ago, the Marine Corps improvised a strategy for advising local forces, establishing combat outposts in population centers, and securing the population amidst an insurgency and civil war. The program was called the "Combined Action Platoon" program, and it put squad-sized units of Marines into small villages in Vietnam where they partnered with local police and security forces. The approach worked well, sometimes too well, as this gripping combat narrative illustrates. Another must-read for anyone who wants to understand the essence of advising indigenous forces and counterinsurgency.

A Bright Shining Lie, by Neil Sheehan. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book follows Army Lt. Col. John Paul Vann through his life, focusing on his service as an adviser to the South Vietnamese army in 1962-63, and his later service as a CORDS officer towards the end of the war. Vann was perhaps this nation's finest counterinsurgent, notwithstanding his considerable personal flaws. I found the descriptions of his time as an adviser to be invaluable; they foreshadowed many of the challenges I faced in Iraq as an adviser. But don't just read this book for another story of a combat adviser. Read it to understand how the U.S. military and diplomatic bureaucracy failed to visualize the situation in Vietnam and adapt to it. And read this book to understand the peculiar mix of civilian and military forces we deployed at the war's end, primarily through the CORDS program, which may represent the best approach yet to counterinsurgency.

US Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine, 1860-1941 and US Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine, 1942-1976, by Andrew J. Birtle. These two volumes are the official U.S. Army histories of counterinsurgency from the Civil War forward. But don't think for a moment that their quality suffers because they're published by the government. These are first-rate pieces of scholarship which chronicle the American Army's involvement with small wars during the 19th and 20th Century. Many of the vignettes in this series will seem a bit familiar if you're following current events, because we have a long and bloody history of fighting small wars. The most interesting parts to me involve U.S. efforts to advise indigenous forces in the 20th Century, starting in the Philippines but continuing on in China, Korea, Greece and Indochina. In my opinion, Birtle's work presages where we are today in Iraq and Afghanistan. These two volumes are a "must read" for anyone interested in the field. [PS: Both books are also available from the U.S. Government Printing Office.]

INTEL DUMP - - PT with Iraqi Army

INTEL DUMP - -

From the Desk of Donald Rumsfeld

From the Desk of Donald Rumsfeld . . . - washingtonpost.com: "In a series of internal musings and memos to his staff, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld argued that Muslims avoid "physical labor" and wrote of the need to "keep elevating the threat," "link Iraq to Iran" and develop "bumper sticker statements" to rally public support for an increasingly unpopular war.

The memos, often referred to as "snowflakes," shed light on Rumsfeld's brusque management style and on his efforts to address key challenges during his tenure as Pentagon chief. Spanning from 2002 to shortly after his resignation following the 2006 congressional elections, a sampling of his trademark missives obtained yesterday reveals a defense secretary disdainful of media criticism and driven to reshape public opinion of the Iraq war.

Rumsfeld, whose sometimes abrasive approach often alienated other Cabinet members and White House staff members, produced 20 to 60 snowflakes a day and regularly poured out his thoughts in writing as the basis for developing policy, aides said. The memos are not classified but are marked "for official use only."

In a 2004 memo on the deteriorating situation in Iraq, Rumsfeld concluded that the challenges there are "not unusual." Pessimistic news reports -- "our publics risk falling prey to the argument that all is lost" -- simply result from the wrong standards being applied, he wrote in one of the memos obtained by The Washington Post.

Under siege in April 2006, when a series of retired generals denounced him and called for his resignation in newspaper op-ed pieces, Rumsfeld produced a memo after a conference call with military analysts. "Talk about Somalia, the Philippines, etc. Make the American people realize they are surrounded in the world by violent extremists," he wrote.

People will "rally" to sacrifice, he noted after the meeting. "They are looking for leadership. Sacrifice = Victory."

The meeting also led Rumsfeld to write that he needed a team to help him "go out and push people back, rather than simply defending" Iraq policy and strategy. "I am always on the defense. They say I do it well, but you can't win on the defense," he wrote. "We can't just keep taking hits."

The only man to hold the top Pentagon job twice -- as both the youngest and the oldest defense secretary -- Rumsfeld suggested that the public should know that there will be no "terminal event" in the fight against terrorism like the signing ceremony on the USS Missouri when Japan surrendered to end World War II. "It is going to be a long war," he wrote. "Iraq is only one battleground."

Based on the discussion with military analysts, Rumsfeld tied Iran and Iraq. "Iran is the concern of the American people, and if we fail in Iraq, it will advantage Iran," he wrote in his April 2006 memo.

Rumsfeld declined to comment, but an aide said the points in that memo were Rumsfeld's distillation of the analysts' comments, though he added that the secretary is known for using the term "bumper stickers."

"You are running a story based off of selective quotations and gross mischaracterizations from a handful of memos -- carefully picked from the some 20,000 written while Rumsfeld served as Secretary," Rumsfeld aide Keith Urbahn wrote in an e-mail. "After almost all meetings, he dictated his recollections of what was said for his own records."

$11M Verdict in Funeral Protesters Case

$11M Verdict in Funeral Protesters Case - Politics on The Huffington Post: "BALTIMORE "— Members of a fundamentalist Kansas church ordered to pay nearly $11 million in damages to a grieving father smiled as they walked out of the courtroom, vowing that the verdict would not deter them from protesting at military funerals.

Members promised to picket future funerals with placards bearing such slogans as "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God hates fags."

"Absolutely, don't you understand this was an act in futility?" said Shirley Phelps-Roper, whose father founded the Westboro Baptist Church.

The group believes that U.S. deaths in the Iraq war are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. They say they are entitled to protest at funerals under the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and religion.

Albert Snyder sued the Topeka, Kan., church after a protest last year at the funeral of his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq. He claimed the protests intruded upon what should have been a private ceremony and sullied his memory of the event.

A jury agreed. On Wednesday, the church and three of its leaders _ Fred Phelps and his two daughters, Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis _ were found liable for invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress. Jurors awarded Snyder $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages.

Snyder, of York, Pa., said he hoped other families would consider suing.

"The goal wasn't about the money, it was to set a precedent so other people could do the same thing," he said.

Appearing on NBC's "Today" show Thursday, Sndyer said that while his son was fighting for freedom for Iraqis, "my son did not fight for hate speech.

"And that's basically what it is," he said of the church's protest. "Everybody's under the impression that the First Amendment gives them the right to do anything, say anything any where, any time. And along with the First Amendment also comes responsibility."

Snyder said that on the day of the funeral, he didn't see the protesters or their signs, only the tops of the signs. "But a lot of people at the church did see it," he said. "And it was splattered all over the newspapers the next day."

It's unclear whether Snyder will be able to collect the damages.

The assets of the church and the defendants are less than a million dollars, mainly in homes, cars and retirement accounts, defense attorney Jonathan Katz said. The church has about 75 members and is funded by tithing.

Craig Trebilcock, one of Snyder's lawyers, had asked jurors to question the truthfulness of the defendants' financial documents, one of which show Phelps-Davis having only $306 in the bank. He noted that Phelps-Davis is a practicing attorney, who could afford to travel to spread the church's message.

"Rebekah Phelps-Davis has $306? She must be using Priceline.com. It doesn't make any sense," Trebilcock said.

The attorney had urged jurors to award damages that would send a message to the church: "Do not bring your circus of hate to Maryland again."

Trebilcock later called the verdict "Judgment Day for the Westboro Baptist Church."

"They're always talking about other people's Judgment Day. Well, this is theirs," he said.

Snyder sobbed when he heard the verdict, while members of the church greeted the news with tightlipped smiles.

They are confident the award will be overturned on appeal, Phelps said.

"Oh, it will take about five minutes to get that thing reversed," he said.

Another of Snyder's attorneys, Sean Summers, said he would tirelessly seek payment of the award. "We will chase them forever if it takes that long," he said.

A number of states have passed laws regarding funeral protests, and Congress has passed a law prohibiting such protests at federal cemeteries. Snyder's lawsuit is believed to be the first filed by the family of a fallen serviceman.

[bth: this Westboro Baptist Church members drove all the way from Kansas to Bedford, MA about two years ago to protest our town's middle school. Sixth, seventh and eighth graders met up with these signs and hate mongers under the guise of religion outside school. That these people use a soldier's funeral too get media attention for their hateful message revolts me. That they use God and Jesus as the messenger is disgusting. My hat off the Mr. Snyder for his courage and determination to stop this practice. I really admire him and his family.]

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

 
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Boston Review — No Going Back

Boston Review — Rosen.php: "You have now entered Iraq,” my taxi driver joked. We had in fact just entered Sayida Zeinab, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus. This shrine city, long a destination for Shia pilgrims, had become home to an estimated one million Iraqis seeking refuge in Syria. “Everybody is Iraqi,” laughed another driver after several people he had asked for directions replied in Iraqi Arabic that they did not know. Indeed, walking through the alleys of Sayida Zeinab I felt as though I were in Iraq, except it was safe. After nearly three years in the war-torn country, I had started to fear Iraqi men; all strangers were potential kidnappers.

Along with the refugees, some of Iraq’s institutions have come to Syria too, although, so far, the sectarian violence has not. In one alley I came across the famous Baghdad restaurant “Patchi al Hati.” Patchi is sheep’s head, the meal I dreaded most during my years in Iraq. The restaurant’s owner had fled four months earlier “because of the terrorism and looting,” the chef explained over an immense steaming pot giving off the pungent smell. Anybody with money in Iraq was a target for kidnappers and extortionists. “They heard we were a famous restaurant and thought we were millionaires,” he told me.

In another alley I walked past the field office of one of Iraq’s most important Shia clerics, Ayatollah Kadhim al Haeri. Following the American war that overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime, al Haeri had urged his followers to kill Baathists. Further down the street I found Muqtada al Sadr’s representative’s office, also guarded by security officials. The two Shia clerics had once been close but had fallen out. Al Sadr is now considered the most powerful man in Iraq; his militia, the Madhi Army, controls much of Iraq’s security forces and is largely responsible for sectarian attacks against Sunnis.

Inside the office of the Sadr Martyr, as Muqtada’s office was called (in reference to his father), I attended a recitation on of the story of Karbala. It was the month of Muharram, when Shias commemorate the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammed’s grandson Hussein, slain in 680 in a battle that crystallized the division between Sunni and Shia Islam, a rift violently reopened by the war in Iraq. Dozens of shoes were piled on the stairway, and in a wooden shelf outside a room where men clad in customary Mahdi army garb—black shirts with black head scarves or head bands—sat listening to Sheikh Ali wail the story of Hussein’s bravery and betrayal. The men began to sob, burying their heads in their hands or between their knees. For Sheikh Ali, the story of perfidy and resistance to tyranny was a parable of his community’s current oppression at the hands of Americans and Sunnis. “They are doing the same thing with the poor children and people on the streets,” he cried out. He concluded by asking God to end the American occupation, free their hostages in Baghdad, and pray for the Mahdi Army.

On a different street I found three Sunni friends from Baquba. Firas had been shot a year earlier; his brother had been killed. He and Hamza had fled with their families to Syria one month earlier after Shia militiamen attacked their homes. Ali had been in Syria for a year and a half. In Iraq three of his uncles had been killed in front of his eyes and a cousin had also been murdered. “Because we are Sunnis,” he said, when I asked him why. “My school is gone. My father has no work. I’m never going back.”

Many of the Sunni Iraqis I knew began to feel intimidated in the fall of 2005. Sunni leaders had boycotted elections and by mid 2005 the Iraqi government, dominated by sectarian Shia Islamist parties and their militias, aggressively targeted Sunnis, who suddenly realized they were vulnerable. By early 2007 all my Sunni Iraqi friends were trying to leave Iraq. “Here Sunnis and Shias have no problems,” Firas said. “Everyone who comes to Syria is a peaceful man who wants to make a living for his family.” They all blamed the Americans and the Iraqi government for their plight, and agreed that the Syrians had been good to them.

Unlike many Shia refugees in Syria, mostly men who have come alone in search of work, most of the Sunnis and other Iraqi minorities have fled with their families. Since the spring of 2003 up to three million have fled Iraq, adding to the two or three million Iraqis who had been exiled before the overthrow of Saddam. All together, they compose a vast Iraqi diaspora throughout the Arab world, with the largest numbers in Syria (about 1.7 million) and Jordon (about 750,000). At least another two million are internally displaced, stranded inside Iraq, with many seeking shelter in Kurdistan. Kristele Younes of the Washington, D.C.–based Refugees International, who recently completed a tour of the affected countries, estimates that 50,000 are displaced within Iraq each month and tens of thousands are leaving. Few can imagine returning home.

The international response to the refugee crisis was extremely weak until recently, and it’s not at all clear that it is sufficient now. In June the International Organization for Migration, one of the main American NGOs, issued an appeal for $85 million over two years, but it has not received even half of that amount. The UN, for its part, has significantly expanded its presence in the region. Since 2006 United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) increased its budget from $23 million to $123 million. UNHCR has also issued a common appeal with UNICEF to raise $129 million to fund education for refugees. Other UN agencies have become more active, including the World Food Program. The United States traditionally funds approximately 25 percent of UNHCR appeals across the world. In Iraq it is doing the same, responding to this crisis the way it would to any other. But this is not any other crisis. It is an American-made humanitarian catastrophe. And the presence or absence of U.S. troops committed to a military mission for however many months or years is irrelevant to that problem....

[bth: This lengthy and extraordinary article is worth reading in full whether you agree with its conclusions or not. One question though is that if Arab Sunnis were about 5-6 million one would have to conclude that at least half of them are refugees in Syria and Jordan not counting internally displaced peoples which at 50K per month would mean nearly every Sunni was displaced. These numbers simply do not add up. The refugee problem has to be being overstated or double counted. I'm not minimizing the significance of this problem as it dwarfs the Palestinian displacement of the 1940s, but as a statement of fact, the numbers can't be right. .... Can we make a Sunni enclave in Iraq west of Baghdad, a Kurdish enclave including Mosul and Kirkuk and a Shia rump state including Baghdad south through Basra? ... We need to start looking for gas fields in Anbar as the Sunni rump state that emerges there will need revenue since it seems likely the Shia in Basra will screw their Iraqi brethren rather than help them. What a shame. A waste for all concerned.]

U.S. Military Will Supervise Security Firms in Iraq

U.S. Military Will Supervise Security Firms in Iraq - New York Times: "WASHINGTON"Oct. 30 — All State Department security convoys in Iraq will now fall under military control, the latest step taken by government officials to bring Blackwater Worldwide and other armed contractors under tighter supervision.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates agreed to the measure at a lunch on Tuesday after weeks of tension between their departments over coordination of thousands of gun-carrying contractors operating in the chaos of Iraq.

Mr. Gates appears to have won the bureaucratic tug-of-war, which accelerated after a Sept. 16 shooting in central Baghdad involving guards in a Blackwater convoy who Iraqi investigators say killed 17 Iraqis. Military coordination of contractor convoys will include operations of not only Blackwater, formerly known as Blackwater USA, but also those of dozens of other private firms that guard American diplomats, aid workers and reconstruction crews.

In Iraq, the government approved a draft law to overturn an order imposed by the American occupation authority in 2004 granting the employees of foreign contractors immunity from Iraqi law. Also on Tuesday, the State Department confirmed that some Blackwater employees questioned in connection with the Sept. 16 shooting had been granted a form of immunity in exchange for their statements. However, officials insisted that the immunity was limited and that it did not foreclose the possibility of prosecutions.

Democrats in Congress complained that the State Department appeared to have bungled the Blackwater investigation and said they feared that no one would be held accountable for the Iraqi deaths. “It feels like they’re protecting Blackwater,” said Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat...

[bth: the article fails to address the core issue - what legal structure do they operate under. Reporting to the military is not the same as being hauled in front of a military court of law as a private contractor.]
 
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Has the Surge Reached Its Limits? - TIME

Has the Surge Reached Its Limits? - TIME: "The horrible discovery in Diyala province Monday was disturbing even by the standards of Iraq's running sectarian violence. Iraqi police said they found 20 decapitated bodies dumped near a police station west of Baquba, the capital of Diyala province. That same day a suicide bomber on a bicycle careened into a Baquba police station, killing 29.

The violence was of course nothing new, especially for the Baquba area, which remains the most troubled region in Iraq outside Baghdad. But the bloodshed showed how the success of the surge of U.S. forces in Baghdad and Anbar Province nine months on has perhaps gone as far as it can toward controlling Iraq's violence.

Last week Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the U.S. ground commander in Iraq, sat before reporters with his Iraqi counterpart, Lt. Gen. Abud Qanbar. The two tallied their gains in Baghdad against Sunni extremists and Shi'ite militia fighters over the last nine months. Qanbar ticked off statistics: Car bombs down 65%; civilian deaths from car bombs decreased by 80%; attacks against Iraqi security dropped by 62%. Also, the monthly death toll from sectarian violence nationwide for October is expected to be the lowest since February 2006, when sectarian killings spread rapidly after the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra. Data offered by Iraq's ministries for defense, interior and health show that 285 Iraqis died in sectarian violence in October. At its peak last year, the monthly death toll for sectarian violence in Iraq was nearly 2,000.

"The real indicator of improved security for me is how Iraqi people feel," Odierno said. "And whenever I travel around Baghdad Iraqis tell me how much safer they feel in their neighborhoods."

Odierno even went so far as to say that Baghdad could be entirely under the control of Iraqi security forces in a year. Meanwhile, U.S. forces officially handed the southern city of Karbala over to Iraqi control Monday, a move U.S. officials touted as another positive step. But Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who appeared in Karbala for the handover ceremony, offered perhaps the most clear-eyed observation amid the spate of relatively good news. "Allow me to say that we are late, very late, to reconstruct, to rebuild our forces for reasons that I do not want to mention here," Maliki said.

The unmentioned reasons behind the slow actions of Maliki's government range from deeply ingrained sectarianism in Iraqi security forces to incompetence and graft among government officials. That has left a feeble Iraqi government clearly unable to maintain and further the gains in security made with the help of U.S. surge forces, which are set to dwindle in the months ahead according to the original surge plan.

The prognosis for Iraq, barring a dynamic transformation on the part of the Iraqi government very soon, is grimly apparent. As U.S. forces lessen their presence in the coming months, killings of the kind seen Monday in Diyala will persist there and most likely spread to areas calmed by the increase of U.S. forces. Rising Shi'ite militia unrest in southern Iraq will go on unchecked, leaving the fate of Iraq's richest and most populous territory uncertain. Recently subdued Anbar Province will operate as a kind of Sunni semi-independent emirate, barring any meaningful administration from a central government, much as the northern Kurdish territory already does. And Baghdad will be on edge, watching for signs that the relative calm in the city may be giving way to another wave of violence.

"The government needs to spin up," said U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. "A single word at the time I got here that in my mind distilled modern Iraq was 'fear.' And to a significant degree, you know, fear is still very much part of the scene."


[bth: the kurds are on their own and will have to defend their enclave against Turks and other neighbors. The Sunnis have Anbar. Diyala is up for grabs it seems and the extremists from most factions seem to have gravitated there. Baghdad has essentially been ethnically cleansed and is Shia. Basra is about Shia factions fighting for cash flow from oil exports.]
 
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VOA News - Concern Raised about Possible Closing of Iraq-Turkey Border Crossing

VOA News - Concern Raised about Possible Closing of Iraq-Turkey Border Crossing: "Truck and taxi drivers at the main crossing point of the border between Iraq and Turkey worry it could be closed soon, as the Turkish government threatens a military incursion into northern Iraq. The drivers say they would lose their jobs and that businesses would close on both sides of the border. Deborah Block reports from the northwestern border of Iraq.

Long lines of cargo trucks and taxis slowly wait their turn at the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing into northwestern Iraq. The road is the safest route for trucks carrying everything from fuel to cement.

Turkey's military has been massing at the border, ready to attack rebel bases of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. Ankara says the rebels are carrying out raids into Turkey and recently killed 12 soldiers in an ambush in the southeastern part of the country.

Most of the hundreds of drivers who cross the border each day are ethnic Kurds from both Iraq and Turkey. Many Kurds in Iraq say Turkey is using the PKK as an excuse to attack the northern Kurdistan region of Iraq. They say Ankara fears the political and economic success of the semi-autonomous region will spur Kurds in Turkey to demand their own autonomy.

A Turkish taxi driver was concerned about his future. After Turkey's threatened incursion, he says, business dropped considerably, adding that if Turkey closes the border, the taxi drivers will lose their jobs.

Each side of the border depends on the other. Many Turkish-owned businesses are in nearby Iraqi towns and supply them with a variety of goods. A number of those companies have shut down, recently, because they fear cross-border attacks by Turkey's military.

Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan has threatened sanctions on exports to Iraq to pressure the Iraqi government to strike at the rebels.

A truck driver at the border said sanctions would also hurt Turkey. He added that if Turkey closes the border, it will lose the economy, which depends on this cross-border trade.

An Iraqi man at the border says he helps Turkish companies in northern Iraq translate documents from Turkish into Kurdish. He says it is frustrating trying to get across the border into Turkey.

He says it is difficult to cross the border and that there are long waits at the check points because the guards search everything.

Like many others in northern Iraq, this translator says the border problem between Turkey's government and the rebels should be solved with diplomacy, rather than violence.
 
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Iraqi soldiers rescue kidnapped sheiks

Iraqi soldiers rescue kidnapped sheiks - Los Angeles Times: "BAGHDAD "-- Iraqi soldiers Monday rescued eight tribal sheiks who had been taken hostage a day earlier, killing four kidnappers and arresting six others, an Iraqi military spokesman said.

The Sunni and Shiite sheiks are part of a movement in Diyala province to organize their tribes to fight the Sunni insurgent groups in their region, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, that are attacking the U.S. military and the fledgling Iraqi government

According to initial reports, a group of 10 to 12 sheiks was kidnapped after leaving a meeting with a delegate for Prime Minister Nouri Maliki at the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. Their vehicles had just passed a checkpoint on the outskirts of Baghdad when they were attacked.

One of the sheiks was reportedly found dead near the site of the kidnapping, and the fate of the remaining hostages was not known.

Even as U.S. and Iraqi security forces have reduced violence in Iraq, Diyala remains one of the trouble spots. The U.S. and Iraqi military launched a major operation in June to take the provincial capital, Baqubah, back from Al Qaeda in Iraq's control. Troops have made strides there recruiting people to join the police force, and have captured and killed dozens of insurgents and seized caches of weapons.

Sheiks have been leading the armed resistance to Al Qaeda in Iraq and have become prime targets of the insurgent group. Last month, insurgents killed Sheik Abdul-Sattar abu Risha, a top U.S. ally and leader of the Anbar Salvation Council, which had driven Al Qaeda in Iraq out of Anbar province.

But in the kidnapping case, the U.S. military suspects breakaway Shiite extremist Arkan Hasnawi. Hasnawi was a brigade commander in radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army in northeastern Baghdad, but had splintered off and ignored Sadr's order to cease hostilities for six months, according to the U.S. military.

U.S. military officials cited "intelligence sources" in their suspicion of Hasnawi, but declined requests for interviews to explain how they zeroed in on him. Sadr spokesman Abu Hawra disputed that Hasnawi had been a commander in the Mahdi Army.

Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed Askari would not say whether Hasnawi was among the kidnappers who were captured or killed. He said intelligence reports led the Iraqi soldiers, under the leadership of the U.S. Army commander for east Baghdad, to a farmhouse between the east Baghdad Shiite enclave of Sadr City and the Khan Bani Saad farm region in Diyala province.

Askari said Iraqi soldiers were working to free the other sheiks but did not give details.

Families of the sheiks were still waiting for news of their fates Monday after they received word of the rescue. One family member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said in an interview that he called his father's cellphone, only to have a kidnapper answer the line and utter a vulgar Arabic expression before hanging up.

christian.berthelsen @latimes.com
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Turkey attacks rebel sites inside Iraq

NDTV.com: Turkey attacks rebel sites inside Iraq: "Cobra "attack helicopters blasted suspected Kurdish rebel targets on Tuesday near the southeastern border with Iraq in a second day of fighting in the Mount Cudi area, which has reportedly claimed the lives of three Turkish soldiers and six guerrillas.

As the military pressure continued, the government called a Cabinet meeting for Wednesday to discuss a National Security Council recommendation on possible economic measures against groups supporting the Kurdish rebels, private CNN-Turk and NTV television reported.

State-run Anatolia news agency reported the meeting but not what would be discussed.

Turkey is reportedly considering a string of economic actions against the self-governing Kurdish administration in Iraq's north, where rebels are based.

The region is heavily reliant on Turkish electricity and food imports, as well as Turkish investment in construction works.

The Turkish assault on the mountainside positions in Sirnak province began early on Monday with helicopter rocket attacks.

The Firat news agency, accused by the Turkish government of being a mouthpiece of the Kurdish rebels, said more than 30 Cobras were involved.

Transport helicopters then flew in commando teams and trucks later drove more troops to the area.

Aerial assaults

The fighting went late into the night, and the Cobras resumed their aerial assaults early on Tuesday morning. An AP Television News cameraman saw smoke rising from Mount Cudi in the aftermath.

Three soldiers were killed in the first day of fighting, according to the private Dogan News Agency and Hurriyet newspaper, which published their names.

Six rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, were also killed, the private Cihan news agency reported.

It was not immediately possible to independently verify the casualty reports.

One other soldier was killed on Monday during operations in Tunceli province when he stepped on a land mine believed to have been hidden by the rebels, bringing the total number of people killed by the PKK in the past month to 46, according to government and media reports.

Those casualties included at least 30 Turkish soldiers killed in two ambushes that were the boldest attacks in years and were a major factor in the increasing domestic pressure on Turkey's prime minister to act.

Denouncing PKK

In the latest of the regular patriotic demonstrations that have been held in cities around the country, some 600 motorcyclists held a moment of silence at an Istanbul cemetery, then drove through the city waving Turkish flags and denouncing the PKK.

The United States, Iraq, and other countries have been pressuring Turkey to refrain from a cross-border attack against the PKK.

Such a campaign could derail one of the few stable areas in Iraq, and leave the United States in an awkward position with key allies: NATO-member Turkey, the Baghdad government and the self-governing Iraqi Kurds in the north.

Turkey has threatened to attack, however, unless scores of PKK leaders are extradited from Iraq.

On Thursday and Friday, high-ranking officials are to hold talks before a foreign ministers' meeting about Iraq in Istanbul.

Scheduled to attend are the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the Group of Eight industrialized nations, representatives of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Arab League and the European Union.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to meet with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Friday.

Erdogan then flies to Washington on November 5 to meet with US President George W Bush for a meeting many believe will be key in determining whether Turkey carries out its threats of a cross-border incursion.

Gradual embargo on northern Iraq begins - Turkish Daily News Oct 30, 2007

Gradual embargo on northern Iraq begins - Turkish Daily News Oct 30, 2007: "A gradual economic embargo is being imposed on firms connected to Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and flights to the northern Iraqi city of Arbil have been stopped, said Ercüment Aksoy, the head of the Foreign Economic Relations Council's (DEİK) Turkish-Iraqi Business Committee in an exclusive interview with business daily Referans last week.

The decisions made in the National Security Council (MGK) and the steps taken are positive, according to Aksoy. “The embargo will be against individuals, institutions and sectors who are collaborating with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Turkey does not want to punish the Iraqi people,” he said.

Turkey had a trade volume of $5 billion with Iraq in 2005, and it stands at $1,250 billion for the first six months of this year. A trade volume of $4 to 4.5 billion is aimed for by year end. “It does not matter if our loss amounts to $5 billion or $50 billion. We will do anything for Turkey,” Aksoy said, in response to any possible negative effects of the embargo on trade volume.



A serious game

A serious game of chess is being played in the region and the position of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is very clever, according to Aksoy. “We should play this game very well. The Iraqi people should be told clearly that the target of our operation is the PKK, it would be very good if we do not encounter problems with the Iraqi people,” Aksoy said.

Turkey seriously helped northern Iraq before the war in 2003, Aksoy said, when asked whether an autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq would come as a surprise. Turkey did not even say anything to the taxes collected from trucks at Habur border gate, which amounts to $250 million annually and helped the armies of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Aksoy said. “However, Turkey has became [the bad wolf] again,” he said.



Our aim was integration

Turkey is a gateway of relief for northern Iraq, Aksoy said, when asked whether as a businessman he had met with the Barzani family that controls trade in that region. “Our aim was integration, we want a unitary Iraq in which Baghdad is the center,” Aksoy said, but Barzani refused to support Turkey after the PKK terror increased again, the operations started and Turkey started getting hurt. Income of many families in southeastern Anatolia is from northern Iraq,” Aksoy said, adding that the pain will be borne.

Aksoy did not hear of any Turkish firm in the region, which has withdrawn its personnel and said that the source of the problem is that Turkey could not explain itself well to the Iraqi people. “If even my mother-in-law has doubts, we should think,” he said. Aksoy is married to an Iraqi.



Cutting electricity will not be good

It will not be nice if the Iraqi people say “Turks cut our electricity,” according to Aksoy. “That is why Ankara is not cutting it,” he said. Aksoy said Turkey does not provide all the electricity for Iraq. “It is a system supporting the town of Zaho with 270 megawatts,” Aksoy said.



Who is Ercüment Aksoy?

Born in 1957 in Ankara, Aksoy started his business life at the foreign trade firm Çukurova Dış Ticaret, and founded his own enterprise in 1987. Closely following Iraq since 1983, Aksoy's business relations with Iraq started in Saddam Hussein's period with public bids, and went on after the U.S. intervention in Iraq. Aksoy has offices in Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra. Married to an Iraqi, Aksoy has two daughters. “My wife Reem, daughters Farah and Yasmine are too sad,” Aksoy said, adding that they watch the Arabic TV channels to follow the situation in Iraq. Aksoy's wife's family is still in Iraq. “I was not thinking of chaos that much, but I will continue my investments,” Aksoy said. “We will not detach from Iraq in the future. I make bids for investments,” he said.
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Barzani speaks to The Times: Over the border operation would mean war - Hürriyet

Barzani speaks to The Times: Over the border operation would mean war - Hürriyet: "The The "leader of the regional northern Iraq Kurdish government, Massoud Barzani, commented this weekend that any move by Turkish forces with respect to northern Iraqi land would be considered a declaration of war.

Speaking to the British The Times newspaper sources in Erbil, Barzani noted "Ankara, which is using its problems with the PKK to justify itself, wants actually to blockade the Iraqi Kurds, who are themselves becoming more prosperous and more independent every day."

Barzani was very blunt in his interview with The Times, asserting: "Whether Turkey invades or occupies, either way it means war. If our people, our land, or our interests are attacked, there are no limits left. When that happens, it means everything has been attacked."

Barzani implied in his words this weekend that Ankara might have other reasons behind its stance on the PKK, noting that PKK terror was not a new factor for Turkey. He said "I am about ready to believe that the PKK is just an excuse. Turkey's stance towards the Kurdish region, and its direct and indirect threats towards the region, make me think this. The real target is the Kurdistan region, otherwise why would we even want to get involved in a struggle between Turkey and the PKK?"

[bth: battle lines are being drawn]

ABC News Obtains Text of Blackwater Immunity Deal

ABC News: Exclusive: ABC News Obtains Text of Blackwater Immunity Deal: "ABC "News has learned the exact wording of the immunity deal the State Department granted Blackwater security guards involved in a September shooting incident that left 17 Iraqis dead.

The security guards were given a limited immunity called "use immunity" in exchange for giving sworn statements about their involvement in the Sept. 16 shooting incident.

The wording of the immunity is included at the beginning of the Blackwater guards' sworn statements, which have been obtained by ABC News.

In each of the statements, the guards begin by saying "I understand this statement is being given in furtherance of an official administrative inquiry," and that, "I further understand that neither my statements nor any information or evidence gained by reason of my statements can be used against me in a criminal proceeding, except that if I knowingly and willfully provide false statements or information, I may be criminally prosecuted for that action under 18 United States Code, Section 1001."

The immunity deal was granted in the immediate aftermath of the shooting by State Department officials in Iraq who were under intense pressure to quickly explain what happened in the face of allegations by Iraqi officials that the contractors murdered civilians in cold blood.

News of the immunity deal caught State Department officials in Washington off guard. ...
 
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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

They're like camels - uncongenial, but trustworthy | Amir Taheri - Times Online

They're like camels - uncongenial, but trustworthy | Amir Taheri - Times Online: "The decision by Vince Cable, the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, to boycott the state visit of King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al Saud may win plaudits from the supporters of gesture politics. But gesture politics will not alter the fact that Saudi Arabia is Britain's largest trading partner in the Middle East and the single biggest customer of its arms.

Nor would it change the strategic reality that the kingdom sits atop a quarter of the world's oil reserves or that the West needs Saudi co-operation to uproot the Islamist terror, a monster they both created before becoming its joint victims. The truth is that we need to maintain close ties with the country while encouraging its still tentative, fragile attempts to reform itself.

Saudi Arabia's critics level three key charges against it. The first is that it has used its enormous oil income to finance Islamic groups that, in turn, produce and sustain jihadists in a global campaign of terror. According to this criticism, Saudi largesse produces a system like the Russian matryoshka dolls, in which large Islamic charities act as covers for small well-hidden terrorist outfits.

There is some truth in that charge. During the 1980s the kingdom, in tandem with the United States, helped to finance the Mujahidin in Afghanistan who, in turn, gave birth to terrorist groups from Algeria to the Philippines. Even after the 9/11 attacks, the kingdom refused to close charities with questionable aims.

Disturbingly, some Saudi school textbooks preached militancy and hatred of Christians, Jews and non-believers. However, that begun to change in 2003 when the kingdom itself became the target of attacks by al-Qaeda. Taken by surprise and lacking the personnel and technical means to respond to terrorism, the kingdom had to suffer many deaths before it started to fight back. Since then an estimated 800 al-Qaeda terrorists have been killed or captured and many more put through “retraining courses” designed to deradicalise them and weave them back into normal life.

Over the past four years the Saudi offices of at least 20 groups suspected of terrorism have been closed and their assets seized. (Ironically, some of these groups have transferred to Washington DC.) Saudi Arabia has also started a revision of its schoolbooks that, though not complete, has already done away with some of the most obnoxious texts.

The second charge is that women are treated shoddily — Saudi Arabia, for instance, is the only country where the female of the species is not allowed to drive a car.

This glaring injustice, however, should not hide other facts. For example, that women account for 55 per cent of all those in higher education or that the share of wealth owned by Saudi women is higher than that of women in most EU countries.

The third charge concerns democracy. Today Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country not to have a form of elected parliament. However, that does not mean that Saudi decision-making is less broadly based than it is in, say, Egypt or Syria. While there is no democracy without elections, one could have elections without democracy, as is the case in many other Arab countries. In any case, the kingdom has already taken its first timid steps towards elections by allowing half of the members of municipal councils to be chosen by male voters. There is also talk about extending the system to the Consultative Assembly, an appointed parliament that has grown in power and prestige since its inception in 1993.

The chiaroscuro of Saudi life could be better understood if we remember that the kingdom is not ruled by a monolithic elite. The Royal Family, believed to number more than 10,000, including the more distant members, is as divided on most issues as society at large. Also associated with decision-making are tribal chiefs and business leaders. More recently a number of “councils” have been set up to advise the king on social, cultural, economic and human rights issues. These too are steadily gaining in power and prestige.

A number of professional associations, where the leadership is elected by secret ballot, are also securing a growing say in how the country is governed. An ambitious reform plan for the judiciary is under way with the aim of basing the kingdom's legal system on the values spelt out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

One reason for the slow pace of reform has been the absence of a sizeable middle class to seek political rights that match their economic clout. Until just a decade ago whatever the kingdom had in the form of a middle class was limited to the Hijaz, a cosmopolitan area on the Red Sea with a tradition of relative liberalism. The rest of the kingdom, a country the size of Western Europe, was almost frozen in traditional, often tribal, structures.

However, that, too, is changing with the presence of almost six million foreigners — of which 25,000 are British — compared with a native population of 12 million, as well as the quadrupling of the number of those attending higher education. A new, increasingly wealthy and self-confident middle class is taking shape in all parts of the kingdom, including the long-neglected south, where most jihadists come from. In the years to come, this new middle class is certain to provide the social base for more ambitious reforms.

To be sure, Saudi Arabia is not likely to become a Western-style democracy any time soon. And there is no evidence that a majority of Saudis would want such a system. But the fact remains that the kingdom can and must be pressed to do away with those aspects of its social structure that King Abdullah himself describes as outdated.

As the Arab proverb has it: the camel is not the most congenial of travel companions, but it is the most trustworthy.

[bth: why should westerners be apologists to the Saudis? The thought that women might be able to drive a car much less avoid a stoning. How novel. Nothing like that old time religion to get the blood flowing.]

Studies in hate -Times OnlineMainstream mosques should not be housing radical material

Studies in hate -Times Online: "It is surprising that so little is known about so much of the literature circulating in British mosques. There have been allegations about

extremist material, often focused on imams who do not speak English. So the first academic

survey of such literature makes intriguing reading. It finds inflammatory writings in some of the most respected mosques, about half of them in English. These conclusions demand a shift in the way that this problem is perceived.

Muslim researchers working for the think-tank Policy Exchange have visited almost 100 mosques and other sites, and collected books and pamphlets. They found that about a quarter of these sites house either separatist or extremist material. That the problem is confined to a minority may reflect the concerted attempts by many mosques and seminaries to root out inflammatory readings: they should be congratulated. Yet that quarter includes some of the most

respected and mainstream Muslim inistitutions in Britain, such as the Regent's Park mosque and the East London mosque, whose chairman now heads the Muslim Council of Britain.

Religious texts of almost all faiths include material that is both offensive and troubling. The question is how often such material is cited, and to what end. Few Church of England congregations are nowadays treated to the more brutal passages of the Old Testament. But the authors of this report say that the hate literature they have uncovered is of a wholly different order from that which one would expect to find in mainstream religious institutions of other faiths. That is deeply worrying.

Some of the literature emphasises the need to keep separate from the kuffar (infidels). Some is blatant hate material. “You will not find any confusion in which the Jews did not play a role,” says a text found at the King Fahad Academy in West London. “Their attempt at trying to immerse nations in vice and the spread of fornication.” Other writings denigrate Muslims as well as non-believers. The Islamic Verdicts, found at the East London, London Central and Regent's Park mosques, states that “whoever changes his religion, kill him”. Nor are these unpleasant thoughts buried away. There can be no doubt about the message of Women Who Deserve to Go to Hell, found in both East London and High

Wycombe. It states: “In the beginning of the 20th century, a movement for the freedom of women was launched with the basic objective of driving women towards aberrant ways.”

This torrent of medieval bile is abhorrent.

Britain is a tolerant society of many religions, but to incite religious conflict and misogyny is intolerable. Organisations seeking to represent the spread of Muslim opinion, including the Muslim Council of Britain, must not remain silent on this hatred in their supposedly moderate midst.

The bulk of the material featured in this report seems to be connected with Saudi Arabia: either published and distributed by Saudi institutions, or found in Saudi-funded mosques, or written by members of the Wahhabite religious establishment. King Abdullah's state visit to London has got off to a shaky start after his claims that the British ignored Saudi information about terrorists, and the bizarre boycott by publicity-seeking Liberal Democrats. But he has been a friend to Britain, and is in a battle with Islamist extremism. The Prime Minister must ask him to find a way to halt the export and funding of extremist material that has no place in British society.

[bth: according to this 25% of the mosques in Britain are the focal points of hatred and that those are tied to Saudi institutions. Compare this to the article below regarding the Saudi royal's comments on Britains failure to counteract terrorism. Stunning considering the source of so much of the religious hatred and terrorism.]

Galloway column: Asking too much of too few

McClatchy Washington Bureau | 10/24/2007 | Galloway column: Asking too much of too few: "Although they seem to have faded out of the headlines and been put on the back burner by the politicians in the nation’s capital in recent weeks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grind on, whether we're paying attention or not.

This week, we had a new estimate that those wars ultimately may cost the American taxpayer a whopping $2.7 trillion, all of it added onto a national debt that already tops $9 trillion. That’s a tidy sum for a foreign adventure whose architects thought would be over in six months and mostly paid for by Iraqi oil revenues.

Also this week, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, hit the road to talk to the Army captains and majors who, along with the lieutenants, sergeants and enlisted soldiers, bear the brunt of repeated combat tours in the mountains of Afghanistan and the sands of Iraq.

The admiral got a real earful during stops at Ft. Leavenworth, Kans., and Ft. Sill, Okla., when he asked those line officers what was on their minds.

He told the officers that our military today has an incredible wealth of combat experience at their level after so many officers have pulled two, three and even four tours of hard duty, and that his job is to keep all that experience on duty in the years to come.

The captains and majors told their boss that a policy of repeated combat deployments for 15 months in the war zone with only 12 months, at best, back home simply isn't good enough. Many said the long absences are a threat to their marriages and family life, and that the divorce rate among junior officers is soaring.

Mullen told them he's working to balance things a little better so that after 15 months in combat they'd be guaranteed at least 15 months back home, but even so modest a goal would take time to implement in a force stretched as thin as this one is. Some responded that even that wasn’t good enough; that 24 or even 36 months at home is needed after a combat tour.

The Army reportedly has a shortage of 3,000 captains and majors this year, and recently began offering them bonuses of up to $35,000 if they'd agree to remain on duty for another three years. The shortage was forecast to rise to 6,000 by 2010 as the Army tries to grow by 65,000.

Even with the offer of the cash bonus or free graduate school or their choice of assignments, the exodus of young officers continues to grow at a pace that worries commanders. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point was founded to educate career officers for the Army, and upon graduation each officer owes Uncle Sam five years on active duty. The hope is that most will remain for a full career, and historically just 28.8 percent have opted out after five years.

A total of 35 percent of the West Point Class of 2000 left the Army in 2005; 46 percent of the Class of 2001 left in 2006, and a staggering 58 percent of the Class of 2002 left active duty when their obligation expired this year
.

Those figures are mirrored among officers who are commissioned through university ROTC programs, with attrition rates now at a 30-year high. The Army Reserve reports that the situation is even worse for critical ranks and specialties: The Reserve has only 58 percent of the sergeants first class it needs, 53 percent of the needed captains and 74 percent of needed majors.

It's clear that we're grinding up our seed corn in Iraq and Afghanistan. For much too long, the administration and former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sought to fight their wars on the cheap, without adding desperately needed but expensive manpower to an Army that started with only 486,000 troops on active duty.

By the time the powers that be agreed to begin adding an additional 10,000 per year in a “temporary” increase, on top of the 80,000 it must enlist each year just to replace departing soldiers, getting young men and women to sign up had already become such a serious problem that the Army started paying enlistment bonuses of up to $20,000 for new recruits.

To make the numbers, the Army also has lowered its standards and begun accepting high school dropouts and offering waivers to sign up recruits with criminal records or physical problems and even some who scored in the lowest quarter on the armed services vocational aptitude test.

That's only made more trouble for those captains Adm. Mullen talked to this week. One complained to Mullen that he was forced to spend 80 percent of his time dealing with the 13 “problem children” in his 100-man company.

Mullen told the junior officers that his service dates back to the Vietnam War, and he remembers vividly how our military was broken at the end of that war, and how hard it was to repair the damage. He said he doesn’t want to see the current wars break the force again.

But that's precisely what is happening as troops, families and equipment are ground down by asking too much of too few. Just over half a percent of our 300 million citizens carry the entire burden and make all the sacrifices in an inexcusably unfinished war of necessity in Afghanistan and a costly war of choice in Iraq.

There seemingly is no relief in sight, even after George W. Bush leaves office on January 20, 2009, and that's bad news for our nation and a crying shame if you're wearing the uniform and serving it.

US-IRAQ: Ill-Equipped Soldiers Opt for "Search and Avoid"

US-IRAQ: Ill-Equipped Soldiers Opt for "Search and Avoid": "WATERTOWN New York, Oct 24 (IPS) - Iraq war veterans now stationed at a base here say that morale among U.S. soldiers in the country is so poor, many are simply parking their Humvees and pretending to be on patrol, a practice dubbed "search and avoid" missions.

Phil Aliff is an active duty soldier with the 10th Mountain Division stationed at Fort Drum in upstate New York. He served nearly one year in Iraq from August 2005 to July 2006, in the areas of Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, both west of Baghdad.

"Morale was incredibly low," said Aliff, adding that he joined the military because he was raised in a poor family by a single mother and had few other prospects. "Most men in my platoon in Iraq were just in from combat tours in Afghanistan."

According to Aliff, their mission was to help the Iraqi Army "stand up" in the Abu Ghraib area of western Baghdad, but in fact his platoon was doing all the fighting without support from the Iraqis they were supposedly preparing to take control of the security situation.

"I never heard of an Iraqi unit that was able to operate on their own," said Aliff, who is now a member of the group Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). "The only reason we were replaced by an Iraqi Army unit was for publicity."

Aliff said he participated in roughly 300 patrols. "We were hit by so many roadside bombs we became incredibly demoralised, so we decided the only way we wouldn't be blown up was to avoid driving around all the time."

"So we would go find an open field and park, and call our base every hour to tell them we were searching for weapons caches in the fields and doing weapons patrols and everything was going fine," he said, adding, "All our enlisted people became very disenchanted with our chain of command."

Aliff, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), refused to return to Iraq with his unit, which arrived in Kirkuk two weeks ago. "They've already lost a guy, and they are now fostering the sectarian violence by arming the Sunnis while supporting the Shia politically ... classic divide and conquer."

Aliff told IPS he is set to be discharged by the military next month because they claim his PTSD "is untreatable by their doctors".

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans seeking treatment for PTSD increased nearly 70 percent in the 12 months ending on Jun. 30.

The nearly 50,000 VA-documented PTSD cases greatly exceed the 30,000 military personnel that the Pentagon officially classifies as wounded in both occupations.

VA records show that mental health has become the second-largest area of illness for which veterans of the ongoing occupations are seeking treatment at VA hospitals and clinics. The total number of mental health cases among war veterans increased by 58 percent; from 63,767 on Jun. 30, 2006, to 100,580 on Jun. 30, 2007, according to the VA.

Other active duty Iraq veterans tell similar stories of disobeying orders so as not to be attacked so frequently.

"We'd go to the end of our patrol route and set up on top of a bridge and use it as an over-watch position," Eli Wright, also an active duty soldier with the 10th Mountain Division, told IPS. "We would just sit with our binoculars and observe rather than sweep. We'd call in radio checks every hour and say we were doing sweeps."

Wright added, "It was a common tactic, a lot of people did that. We'd just hang out, listen to music, smoke cigarettes, and pretend."

The 26-year-old medic complained that his unit did not have any armoured Humvees during his time in Iraq, where he was stationed in Ramadi, capital of the volatile Al Anbar province.

"We put sandbags on the floors of our vehicles, which had canvas doors," said Wright, who was in Iraq from September 2003 until September 2004. "By the end of our tour, we were bolting any metal we could find to our Humvees. Everyone was doing this, and we didn't get armoured Humvees in country until after we left."

Other veterans, like 25-year-old Nathan Lewis, who was in Iraq for the invasion of March 2003 until June of that year while serving in the 214th field artillery brigade, complained of lack of training for what they were ordered to do, in addition to not having armoured Humvees for their travels.

"We never got training for a lot of the work we did," he explained. "We had a white phosphorous mortar round that cooked off in the back of one of our trucks, because we loaded that with some other ammo, and we weren't trained how to do it the right way." The "search and avoid" missions appear to have been commonplace around much of Iraq for years now.

Geoff Millard served nine years in the New York Army National Guard, and was in Iraq from October 2004 until October 2005 working for a general at a Tactical Operation Centre.

Millard, also a member of IVAW, said that part of his duties included reporting "significant actions", or SIGACTS, which is how the U.S. military describes an attack on their forces.

"We had units that never called in SIGACTS," Millard, who monitored highly volatile areas like Baquba, Tikrit and Samarra, told IPS. "When I was there two years ago, there were at least five companies that never had SIGACTS. I think 'search and avoids' have been going on there for a long time."

Millard told IPS "search and avoid" missions continue today across Iraq.

"One of my buddies is in Baghdad right now and we email all the time," he explained, "He just told me that nearly each day they pull into a parking lot, drink soda, and shoot at the cans. They pay Iraqi kids to bring them things and spread the word that they are not doing anything and to please just leave them alone."

[bth: this writer spends his time interviewing the malcontents of the unit so I'd be careful to draw any sweeping conclusions from it. Nevertheless it's disturbing at many levels.]

Saudi king chides UK on terrorism

BBC NEWS | UK | Saudi king chides UK on terrorism: "Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has accused Britain of not doing enough to fight international terrorism, which he says could take 20 or 30 years to beat.
He was speaking in a BBC interview ahead of a state visit to the UK - the first by a Saudi monarch for 20 years.

He also said Britain failed to act on information passed by the Saudis which might have averted terrorist attacks. ...

[bth: balls.]

Iraqi Dam Seen In Danger of Deadly Collapse - washingtonpost.com

Iraqi Dam Seen In Danger of Deadly Collapse - washingtonpost.com: "AT THE MOSUL DAM, Iraq -- The largest dam in Iraq is in serious danger of an imminent collapse that could unleash a trillion-gallon wave of water, possibly killing thousands of people and flooding two of the largest cities in the country, according to new assessments by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other U.S. officials.

Even in a country gripped by daily bloodshed, the possibility of a catastrophic failure of the Mosul Dam has alarmed American officials, who have concluded that it could lead to as many as 500,000 civilian deaths by drowning Mosul under 65 feet of water and parts of Baghdad under 15 feet, said Abdulkhalik Thanoon Ayoub, the dam manager. "The Mosul dam is judged to have an unacceptable annual failure probability," in the dry wording of an Army Corps of Engineers draft report.

At the same time, a U.S. reconstruction project to help shore up the dam in northern Iraq has been marred by incompetence and mismanagement, according to Iraqi officials and a report by a U.S. oversight agency to be released Tuesday. The reconstruction project, worth at least $27 million, was not intended to be a permanent solution to the dam's deficiencies.

"In terms of internal erosion potential of the foundation, Mosul Dam is the most dangerous dam in the world," the Army Corps concluded in September 2006, according to the report to be released Tuesday. "If a small problem [at] Mosul Dam occurs, failure is likely."

The effort to prevent a failure of the dam has been complicated by behind-the-scenes wrangling between Iraqi and U.S. officials over the severity of the problem and how much money should be allocated to fix it. The Army Corps has recommended building a second dam downstream as a fail-safe measure, but Iraqi officials have rejected the proposal, arguing that it is unnecessary and too expensive.

The debate has taken place largely out of public view because both Iraqi and U.S. Embassy officials have refused to discuss the details of safety studies -- commissioned by the U.S. government for at least $6 million -- so as not to frighten Iraqi citizens. Portions of the draft report were read to The Washington Post by an Army Corps official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The Post also reviewed an Army Corps PowerPoint presentation on the dam.

"The Army Corps of Engineers determined that the dam presented unacceptable risks," U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, wrote in a May 3 letter to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "Assuming a worst-case scenario, an instantaneous failure of Mosul Dam filled to its maximum operating level could result in a flood wave 20 meters deep at the City of Mosul, which would result in a significant loss of life and property."

Sitting in a picturesque valley 45 miles along the Tigris River north of Mosul, the earthen dam has one fundamental problem: It was built on top of gypsum, which dissolves when it comes into contact with water.

Almost immediately after the dam was completed in the early 1980s, engineers began injecting the dam with grout, a liquefied mixture of cement and other additives. More than 50,000 tons of material have been pumped into the dam since then in a continual effort to prevent the structure, which can hold up to 3 trillion gallons of water, from collapsing.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, American officials began to study risks posed by the dam, which they said were underestimated by Iraqis.

"Iraqi government believes dam is safe," concluded a 32-page PowerPoint presentation prepared by the Army Corps and dated December 2006.

On a tour of the dam on a recent blistering afternoon, Ayoub, the manager, contended that the dam was safe but acknowledged the unusual problems with it.

Seepage from the dam funnels into a gushing stream of water that engineers monitor to determine the severity of the leakage. Twenty-four clanging machines churn 24 hours a day to pump grout deep into the dam's base. And sinkholes form periodically as the gypsum dissolves beneath the structure.

"You cannot find any other dam in the world like this," said Ayoub, a mustachioed man in a dark business suit who has worked at the dam since 1983 and has managed it since 1989.

About two years ago, Ayoub became concerned that the pressure of the water was putting the dam at risk of failure. So he ordered that the dam's water level, which can reach 330 meters above sea level, not exceed 319 meters.

But reports prepared by the Army Corps of Engineers began to raise new alarms.

"Mosul Dam is 'unsafe' in any definition," the PowerPoint presentation said. It added: "Condition continually degrading" and "Failure mode is credible." Under a section labeled "Consequences of Failure," it says: "Mass civilian fatalities."

Ayoub said U.S. officials spoke in person about the dam in even more apocalyptic terms. "They went to the Ministry of Water Resources and told them that the dam could collapse any day," he said.

The report so alarmed the governor of Nineveh province, where the dam is located, that he asked that it be drained of all water immediately, Ayoub said.

Ayoub said he agrees that the most catastrophic collapse of the dam could kill 500,000 people, but he said U.S. officials have not convinced him that the structure is at high risk of collapse. "The Americans may very well be right about the danger," Ayoub said. "I think it is safe enough that my office is in the flood plain."

In an interview Monday night, Abdul Latif Rashid, Iraq's minister of water resources, said that he believed the safety situation was not critical and that he was more inclined to trust his engineers than American reports.

"Is the dam going to collapse tomorrow?" Rashid said. "I can't tell you that. Let us hope that we avoid a disaster and focus now on a solution."

The Army Corps has recommended that a partially constructed dam at Badush, which lies between Mosul Dam and the city, be finished as a stopgap measure in case Mosul Dam collapses.

But Salar Bakir Sami, director general of planning and development at the Water Resources Ministry, said Iraqi government officials do not think it is necessary to spend the estimated $10 billion for such a project. Instead, he said, the ministry planned to spend $300 million to construct a smaller version of the Badush dam that would generate electricity and provide irrigation, but not serve as a safety valve in case Mosul Dam breaks.

Rashid said his top priority is to fix Mosul Dam by building a concrete wall at its foundation that should shore up the design and provide "a permanent solution." He said experts have just discovered cutting-edge technology that would allow such a wall to be built, perhaps with construction starting by next year at a cost of less than $1 billion.

In the report to be released Tuesday, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, a federal oversight agency, found that little of the reconstruction effort led by the U.S. Embassy has succeeded in improving the dam. The office reviewed contracts worth $27 million, but an embassy official said the total cost of the project was $34 million.

The review found that a Turkish company, which was paid $635,000 for a contract awarded 19 months ago to build storage silos for cement, had done so little and such poor-quality work that its project may have to be restarted. One company contracted to design grout-mixing plants instead submitted plans for unusable concrete-mixing plants. High-tech equipment meant to help grouting is gathering dust because it won't work, according to investigators.

Embassy and Army Corps officials noted that it has been difficult to conduct oversight of the project because it is in a dangerous area. They said that contracts with the worst businesses have been terminated and that steps have been taken to ensure better management of the project in the future.

"Our focus is on whether the project that the Corps undertook got carried out and the answer to that question is no," said Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector general. "The expenditures of the money have yielded no benefit yet."

[bth: catastrophic would not begin to explain the consequences of this failure.]

Honey, They Shrunk the Congress - New York Times

Honey, They Shrunk the Congress - New York Times: ..."There "are things Congress can do. It can start by speaking out about the importance of Congressional power the way the administration has talked about deferring to the commander in chief. Congress should pass laws that support its own power — like a bipartisan one that Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, has introduced to nullify the impact of signing statements.

The Senate should refuse to confirm nominees who do not take Congressional power seriously. And Congress should make clear that if the executive branch will not enforce its subpoenas, it will use its own “inherent contempt” powers to do so.

Right now, standing up for Congress may appeal more to Democrats than Republicans. The issue of reining in presidential power is beginning to gain traction among conservatives, however, as they contemplate the possibility of a Democrat — particularly Hillary Clinton — as president.

[bth: this presumes courage from Congress. It is showing none at all.]

Immunity Deal Hampers Blackwater Inquiry

Immunity Deal Hampers Blackwater Inquiry - Politics on The Huffington Post: "WASHINGTON — The State Department promised Blackwater USA bodyguards immunity from prosecution in its investigation of last month's deadly shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians, The Associated Press has learned.

The immunity deal has delayed a criminal inquiry into the Sept. 16 killings and could undermine any effort to prosecute security contractors for their role in the incident that has infuriated the Iraqi government.

"Once you give immunity, you can't take it away," said a senior law enforcement official familiar with the investigation
.

State Department officials declined to confirm or deny that immunity had been granted. One official _ who refused to be quoted by name_ said: "If, in fact, such a decision was made, it was done without any input or authorization from any senior State Department official in Washington."

Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd and FBI spokesman Rich Kolko declined comment.

FBI agents were returning to Washington late Monday from Baghdad, where they have been trying to collect evidence in the Sept. 16 embassy convoy shooting without using statements from Blackwater employees who were given immunity.

Three senior law enforcement officials said all the Blackwater bodyguards involved _ both in the vehicle convoy and in at least two helicopters above _ were given the legal protection as investigators from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security sought to find out what happened. The bureau is an arm of the State Department.

The law enforcement and State Department officials agreed to speak only if they could remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the inquiry into the incident.

The investigative misstep comes in the wake of already-strained relations between the United States and Iraq, which is demanding the right to launch its own prosecution of the Blackwater bodyguards.

Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell declined comment about the U.S. investigation. Based in Moyock, N.C., Blackwater USA is the largest private security firm protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq.

The company has said its Sept. 16 convoy was under attack before it opened fire in west Baghdad's Nisoor Square, killing 17 Iraqis. A follow-up investigation by the Iraqi government, however, concluded that Blackwater's men were unprovoked. No witnesses have been found to contradict that finding.

An initial incident report by U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in Iraq, also indicated "no enemy activity involved" in the Sept. 16 incident. The report says Blackwater guards were traveling against the flow of traffic through a traffic circle when they "engaged five civilian vehicles with small arms fire" at a distance of 50 meters.

The FBI took over the case early this month, officials said, after prosecutors in the Justice Department's criminal division realized it could not bring charges against Blackwater guards based on their statements to the Diplomatic Security investigators.

Officials said the Blackwater bodyguards spoke only after receiving so-called "Garrity" protections, requiring that their statements only be used internally _ and not for criminal prosecutions.

At that point, the Justice Department shifted the investigation to prosecutors in its national security division, sealing the guards' statements and attempting to build a case based on other evidence from a crime scene that was then already two weeks old.

The FBI has re-interviewed some of the Blackwater employees, and one official said Monday that at least several of them have refused to answer questions, citing their constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination. Any statements that the guards give to the FBI could be used to bring criminal charges.

A second official, however, said that not all the guards have cited their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination _ leaving open the possibility for future charges. The official declined to elaborate.

Prosecutors will have to prove that any evidence they use in bringing charges against Blackwater employees was uncovered without using the guards' statements to State Department investigators. They "have to show we got the information independently," one official said.

Garrity protections generally are given to police or other public law enforcement officers, and were extended to the Blackwater guards because they were working on behalf of the U.S. government, one official said. Experts said it's rare for them to be given to all or even most witnesses _ particularly before a suspect is identified.

"You have to be careful," said Michael Horowitz, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan and senior Justice Department official. "You have to understand early on who your serious subjects are in the investigation, and avoid giving these people the protections."

It's not clear why the Diplomatic Security investigators agreed to give immunity to the bodyguards, or who authorized doing so.

Bureau of Diplomatic Security chief Richard Griffin last week announced his resignation, effective Thursday. Senior State Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said his departure was directly related to his oversight of Blackwater contractors.

Tyrrell, the Blackwater spokeswoman, said the company was alerted Oct. 2 that FBI would be taking over the investigation from the State Department. She declined further comment.

On Oct. 3, State Department Sean McCormack said the FBI had been called in to assist Diplomatic Security investigators. A day later, he said the FBI had taken over the probe.

"We, internally and in talking with the FBI, had been thinking about the idea of the FBI leading the investigation for a number of different reasons," McCormack told reporters during an Oct. 4 briefing.

Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ordered a series of measures to boost government oversight of the private guards who protect American diplomats in Iraq. They include increased monitoring and explicit rules on when and how they can use deadly force.

Blackwater's contract with the State Department expires in May and there are questions whether it will remain as the primary contractor for diplomatic bodyguards. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has said his Cabinet is drafting legislation that would force the State Department to replace Blackwater with another security company.

Congress also is expected to investigate the shootings, but a House watchdog committee said it has so far held off, based on a Justice Department request that lawmakers wait until the FBI concludes its inquiry.

[bth: State has screwed the deal up already.]