Friday, May 30, 2008

Iraqis rally over US security deal

Tens of thousands of Iraqi Shia have taken to the streets of Baghdad and other cities to protest against a long-term security deal with the US. The rallies after Friday prayers follow a call by Muqtada al-Sadr for weekly protests against the deal that could lead to more US troops and a long-term US presence.

Washington wants the Iraqi government to provide a legal framework for US troops to remain in Iraq beyond the expiration of a UN mandate in December. Officials from the administration of George Bush, the US president, told Al Jazeera they expect to finalise the deal by the end of July.

A statement from al-Sadr's office called the negotiations "a project of humiliation for the Iraqi people".

Sheikh Salah Obaidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr's bloc in parliament, said the call for protests is not a "threat" to the Iraqi government, but a "warning". Al-Sadr, a Shia leader who has the backing of the al-Mahdi Army militia, called for the weekly protests on Tuesday and warned the government against signing the agreement, saying "it is against the interests of the Iraqi people".

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, another leading Shia figure, spoke out against the agreement, saying it would violate Iraq's sovereignty.

Last week, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shia cleric, also reportedly expressed his anger, saying he would not permit the Iraqi government to sign a deal with "US occupiers" as long as he lived.

Via Al Jezeera.


Why is the Bush administration so averse to victory? Once we finally reduce al-Qaeda in Iraq to utter insignificance — and I would be absolutely flabbergasted if that still had not happened by the time the mandate expires in December — our job will be complete. We will be able to withdraw; when we do so, the attacks against our troops will obviously stop, and Iraq will have become as stable as can reasonably be expected for a country in the Middle East. If, however, we do make this deal, then the current fragile peace that exists between the government and the Shia (and, most likely, the Sunni as well) will be broken. If we make the deal, we will have needed to make it; if we do not make it, we will not have needed to make it.

We must withdraw, not only for Iraq, but for us as well. I have calculated that by freeing up all of the troops who are currently deployed in Iraq, and allowing them sufficient time between deployments, we would be able to triple, if not outright quadruple, the size of the Coalition forces in Afghanistan. President Obama will then be able to show Bush what a real surge looks like.

Taliban captures Afghan district

Taliban fighters have captured a remote district in central Afghanistan, taking prisoner the police and administration chiefs, officials and the Taliban have said. The fighters attacked the district of Rashidan in the central province of Ghazni in a night attack, the provincial governor and a Taliban spokesman told the AFP news agency on Friday.

"Last night, Taliban attacked Rashidan district and it fell," Jan Mohammad Mujahed, a provincial police chief, said. Mujahed said the plight of the seized officials was unknown.

'Under control'

Zabihullah Mujahed, a spokesman for the Taliban, confirmed the fighters were in control and said the district chief, acting police chief and eight policemen had been taken prisoner. "They are alive and we have captured them. The district is totally under our control," he said. Rashidan is a small district about 120km southwest of Kabul. Teresa Bo, reporting for Al Jazeera in Afghanistan, said Ghazni - located along a major highway from Kabul, the capital, to the south - is one of the most complicated areas where fighting between Afghan, US and Taliban forces takes place almost every day. She said the Taliban holds power in strategic locations, adding: "Some of the police officers working here say they are afraid they will be the next target. "Security is one of the major concerns for every one in the area; the soldiers know they can be attacked any minute."

Vicious circle

Bo said a vicious cycle of violence continues as the Taliban fights for the control of the country and the US-led coalition struggles between re-construction and war.

The Taliban, in government between 1996 and 2001, last year overran several districts in remote parts of Afghanistan, but in most cases were ejected by government troops and soldiers attached to Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) and a separate US-led military coalition is fighting Taliban militants. Taliban officials say they control a handful of districts, mostly in the south of the country. Nato military force officials said in December that the Taliban held not more than five districts.

Via Al Jezeera.


This is a good example of the media blackout of the war in Afghanistan. I run a blog that is devoted to the War on Terror, and even I didn't know the exact number of districts held (though I knew there were several). I'm going to see if I can figure out which districts they are.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

US ambassador: al-Qaida close to defeat in Iraq

BAGHDAD — The U.S. ambassador to Iraq said Saturday that al-Qaida's network in the country has never been closer to defeat, and he praised Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for his moves to rein in Shiite and Sunni militant groups.

Ryan Crocker's comments came as Iraqi forces have been conducting crackdowns on al-Qaida militants in the northern city of Mosul and on Shiite militiamen in the southern city of Basra. Thousands of Iraqi forces also moved into the Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad last week imposing control for the first time in years.


Al-Qaida fighters or other Sunni insurgents struck back in Mosul on Saturday. A roadside bomb in the city's Sumer neighborhood hit an Iraqi army patrol, destroying a vehicle and killing four soldiers, a police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Near Baqouba — where a U.S. offensive last year targeted al-Qaida in Iraq — gunmen assassinated a member of the local Awakening Council, a U.S.-backed group of Sunni tribesmen who are fighting al-Qaida. The attack occurred in the village of Had, north of Baghdad, police said.

U.S Ambassador Crocker spoke as he visited reconstruction projects in the southern city of Najaf.

"There is important progress for the Iraqi forces in confronting the Sunni and Shiite militias," he said, speaking Arabic to reporters. "The government, the prime minister are showing a clear determination to take on extremist armed elements that challenge the government's authority ... no matter who these elements are."

"You are not going to hear me say that al-Qaida is defeated, but they've never been closer to defeat than they are now," Crocker said.

The U.S. military says attacks have dropped dramatically — down to an average of 41 a day across the country, the lowest rate since 2004 — amid the crackdowns and truces. The U.S. military, backed by Sunni Arab tribal fighters, have scored successes in battling al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents in western parts of the country.

The Mosul sweep aims to dislodge the terror network from its most prominent remaining urban stronghold. The operation has met little opposition, suggesting that many al-Qaida militants fled, intending to regroup elsewhere as they have in past crackdowns.

Via Comcast.


This is good news. Now if Maliki can avoid starting another civil war in the south, things might be looking up.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Osama Comes Out of the Closet

MIR ALI, Pakistan (SNN) - In a surprise move, Osama bin Laden has announced that he and Ayman al-Zawahri plan to wed in one months time. "I am a gay Muslim," he announced in a newly released video, proudly displaying his engagement ring. "I want to show my support for my brothers and sisters in California. Stay strong!"

Seriously, though, you'd think that the folks at As-Sahab would know better than to use such an effeminate color scheme. I realize that this particular tape was intended primarily for an Arab audience, but they must have known that it would reach the West as well, and that it is difficult to terrorize somebody when your communiqués look like advertisements for Mattel's new Jihadi Barbie. They're usually a pretty professional outfit; I'm not sure what went wrong this time.

Regarding the message's actual content, the focus on Palestine is consistent with what appears to be a trend by al-Qaeda to portray itself as a more mainstream terrorist organization, dedicated to defending Muslims from their wicked oppressors, rather than as a bunch of frothing psychopaths out to destroy civilization. I doubt that this represents an actual change in priorities, but the Iraq debacle has forced al-Qaeda to accept that it has a major PR problem. It remains to be seen how effective this rebranding will be.

Hundreds held in Mosul crackdown

About 1,100 people have been arrested during the first four days of an Iraqi military operation in the country's main northern city of Mosul, the defence ministry says.

Major-General Mohammed al-Askari, the ministry spokesman, said on Saturday there had been no clashes or killings during the mission, which is ongoing.

The military said al-Qaeda operatives who had regrouped in the region were the target of the arrests. Al-Askari said 530 of those being held, three of them senior al-Qaeda members, were wanted by the authorities.

He said security forces had recovered 1,400kg of explosives, 45 missiles, 263 mortar bombs and 175 assorted weapons.

Fighters disperse

Iraqi leaders said many of the fighters had fled to nearby areas, where troops were hunting for them. However, the operation is being described as successful in depriving the fighters of their urban stronghold. But the flight of al-Qaeda fighters to nearby areas raises the concern they can regroup elsewhere, as has happened in the past. Yassin Majid, an adviser to Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, said most of the group's leaders had fled to the outskirts of Mosul or to a neighbouring country. He did not name the country, but Mosul is about 96km from the Syrian and Turkish borders. Major-General Mark Hertling, the senior US commander in northern Iraq, whose forces are working with the Iraqi troops in the operation, said he did not believe significant numbers of fighters had escaped. He said Iraqi forces had surrounded the city with barriers and checkpoints controlling entry and exits. "It's been very successful," he told the Associated Press. "I think the combination of the arrests plus the uncovering of a number of weapons caches will reduce the number of attacks in Mosul."

Arms amnesty

On Friday, al-Maliki had announced a 10-day amnesty for those surrendering weaponry, but officials said there had been no response to an offer of cash in exchange for heavy and medium weapons. "Any house in Mosul has the right to have only one small weapon - a pistol or rifle," al-Askari said on Friday.In February, al-Maliki unveiled plans for a campaign against al-Qaeda in Iraq and in March was involved in an assault on Shia militias in the southern city of Basra. This crackdown prompted fighting in other urban areas between the Iraqi army and members of the al-Mahdi Army militia loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shia leader. Hundreds of people have been killed in seven weeks of battles, which saw the US military stepping in to support the Iraqi army. Despite a truce being agreed last Saturday one woman was killed and two children were wounded in overnight violence, medics in the Baghdad district of Sadr City said on Friday.

Via Al Jazeera.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mosul operation enters fourth day

An operation against what Iraqi and US military officials call "al-Qaeda forces" in Mosul has entered its fourth day, amid claims that "indiscriminate arrests" are being conducted in the area.

According to the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), at least 120 former Iraqi army officers have been arrested, as well as students and academics.

The statement released on Wednesday by the AMS comes as Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, arrived in Mosul to "supervise the military operation". The AMS also claims that a number of university professors and students from various areas in Mosul have been detained.

"This ... [operation] clearly indicates that the military campaign has further dimensions than those announced, and that its goal is to crack down on the sons of this governorate [of Mosul] who reject the occupation and its allies, a statement said. "The AMS denounces this brutal operation which aims to liquidate all the city's people who reject the occupiers and their destructive plans."

Deteriorating conditions

Nizar Fahmy, a journalist working in Mosul, told Al Jazeera that the situation on the ground has deteriorated during the operation, to a degree where residents are struggling to obtain basic necessities. The city is under curfew, with only pedestrians allowed out onto the streets during the day. He said: "People have resorted to getting vegetables and fruit from the outskirts of the city - where the first checkpoint leading to Mosul is. "Merchants have been forced to resort to peddling their wares on carts, as they travel to different neighbourhoods." Fahmy also said that security forces have constructed a list of names of so-called "suspects" that are wanted and are conducting house-to house searches based on this list. Al-Qaeda fighters are said to have regrouped in Mosul and the surrounding province of Nineveh after being pushed out of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, and western Anbar province by US and Iraqi forces. It is unclear how long al-Maliki will stay in Mosul, but his visit is similar to his trip to the southern city of Basra in late March when he oversaw a military operation against fighters loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shia leader.

'New phase'

Iraqi security forces backed by the US military launched a "new phase" of operations on Saturday in Nineveh province, which borders Syria and Turkey, the US military said. In February, al-Maliki had announced plans for an operation against al-Qaeda and called on the population to support the security forces to get rid of "terrorists". On Monday, he told parliament his troops had only begun preparatory operations and that a major operation was yet to come. He said: "When this phase of preparation is completed, we will announce the start of the military offensive". Mosul, the capital of Nineveh, 370km north of Baghdad, has been described by the US military as the centre of the fight against al-Qaeda. The city, one of the most dangerous places in the country, has been the scene of many bombings and attacks. On January 23, an explosion at an ammunition dump killed more than 60 people and destroyed dozens of homes. Nineveh's police chief was killed in a suicide bombing when he visited the site of the explosion on the following day.

Via Al Jazeera.


The Association of Muslim Scholars is an influential Sunni group that opposes the occupation and the government through non-violent means. Although it does not object to armed resistance in principle, it does believe that attacks against civilians and sectarian violence are against Islamic law, and is thus no great friend of al-Qaeda.

Monday, May 12, 2008

US drops 9/11 'hijacker' charges

The Pentagon has dropped charges against a man alleged to have been the "20th hijacker" in the September 11 attacks, his US military defence lawyer has said.
Mohammed al-Qahtani, who is being held at a US military jail at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was one of six men facing murder and war crimes charges for their alleged roles in the 2001 attacks.

Bryan Broyles, al-Qahtani's military lawyer, said on Monday that Susan Crawford, the convening authority for military commissions, dismissed the charges against al-Qahtani on Friday.
The charges were dismissed "without prejudice," meaning they could be filed again at some point in the future.

Crawford is proceeding with charges against five other people accused of having a role in the attacks, Broyles said.
Prosecutors are to seek the death penalty for the men if they are found to be guilty.
Military tribunal

Authorities allege al-Qahtani was only prevented from taking part in the attacks because he was denied entry to the US by an immigration official.

The US military said that he had no return ticket and Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker, was waiting for him.

Officials previously said al-Qahtani had been subject to harsh interrogation authorised by Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defence secretary.

The five defendants who are still facing charges include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is alleged to have masterminded the attacks in 2001 that killed nearly 3,000 people.

The five charged men are set to be arraigned before a military tribunal at Guantanamo, where the US holds about 270 men on "suspicion of terrorism" or links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Human rights organisations have criticised the rule that allows US judges to decide whether to allow evidence that may have been obtained under "coercion".

US authorities have acknowledged that Mohammed was "waterboarded" - an interrogation method designed to simulate the sensation of drowning - by CIA interrogators.

Al-Qahtani last year retracted a confession he said he made after he was tortured at Guantanamo.

In a written statement he said was beaten, restrained for long periods in uncomfortable positions, threatened with dogs, exposed to loud music and freezing temperatures and stripped nude in front of female military staff.

Via Al Jazeera.

Friday, May 9, 2008

False Alarm

It wasn't al-Masri after all.

Al Jazeera has more info, if you're interested.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Al Qaeda in Iraq leader reportedly arrested

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- The leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, was arrested in the northern city of Mosul, the Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman said Thursday.

CNN is working to confirm the information.

Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said the arrest of al-Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, was confirmed to him by the Iraqi commander of the province.

"The commander of Ninevah military operations informed me that Iraqi troops captured Abu Hamza al-Muhajir the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq," al-Askari told The Associated Press by telephone.

Al-Masri, an Egyptian militant, took over al Qaeda in Iraq after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed June 7, 2006 in a U.S. airstrike northeast of Baghdad.

The U.S. military in Baghdad said "we are currently checking with Iraqi authorities to confirm the accuracy of this information."

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said that Mosul police "arrested one of al Qaeda's leaders at midnight and during the primary investigations he admitted that he is Abu Hamza Al-Muhajir."

News of the arrest was also reported by Iraqi state television.

The state channel, Iraqiya, said that Minister of Interior Jawad al-Bolani would reward Mosul police for the capture.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khalaf told the station by phone that a source close to the al Qaeda leader informed Mosul police that al-Masri would be at a house in the city's Wadi Hajar area at midnight Wednesday.

"The police raided this house and arrested him. During the primary investigation, he confessed that he is Abu Hamza Al-Muhajir, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. Now a broader investigation of him is being conducted," he said to Iraqiya.

If confirmed, the arrest would represent a major blow to al Qaeda in Iraq, which has been on the run for the past year following an influx of thousands of U.S. troops and a shift in alliances by Sunni tribesmen in western Anbar province, and elsewhere.

The U.S. military considers the organization its number one enemy in Iraq.

He did not have any further details nor did he say when the al Qaeda leader was arrested. According to unconfirmed reports he was caught Thursday evening in the Tayran area in central Mosul, 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad.

Mosul is currently a major battleground for U.S. forces and al Qaeda.

The Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq, last year announced an "Islamic Cabinet" for Iraq and named al-Masri as "minister of war."

U.S. officials said al-Masri joined an extremist group led by al Qaeda's No.2 official in 1982. He joined al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in 1999 and trained as a car bombing expert before traveling to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

According to associates in Afghanistan, al-Masri has been involved in Islamic extremist movements since 1982, when he joined Islamic Jihad, a terror group led by Ayman al-Zawahri, who became bin Laden's chief deputy.

Al-Masri fought with Muslim rebels against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and later ran al Qaeda training camps there.

Via CNN.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Sami al-Hajj arrives in Sudan

Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj has been released from the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay and has arrived in Sudan.

Al-Hajj, who arrived at the airport in the capital Khartoum early on Friday from more than six years in captivity, was carried off the aircraft in a stretcher.

He appeared too weak to talk and was immediately taken to hospital where his wife and son were on their way to meet him.

Sudan's justice minister told Al Jazeera that al-Hajj was a free man and would not be arrested.

Al-Hajj's wife, Asma Ismailov, spoke to Al Jazeera before she travelled to Sudan.

"Now I can think differently, now I can plan my life differently, everything will be fine, God willing," she said.

Two other Sudanese inmates at Guantanamo were freed along with al-Hajj.

The cameraman was seized by Pakistani intelligence officers while travelling near the Afghan border in December 2001.

Despite holding a legitimate visa to work for Al Jazeera's Arabic channel in Afghanistan, he was handed to the US military in January 2002 and sent to Guantanamo Bay.

Al-Hajj, who is originally from Sudan, was held as an "enemy combatant" without ever facing a trial or charges.

He had been on hunger strike since January 7, 2007.

'Element of racism'

David Remes, a lawyer for 17 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, told Al Jazeera that the treatment al-Hajj received "was more horrific than most" and that there was "an element of racism" in the way he was treated.

He said he had been in contact with the lawyer representing al-Hajj and it appeared the cameraman had been "psychologically damaged".

"The Europeans would never receive this treatment," Remes said.

About 280 detainees remain at Guantanamo and the lawyer said European detainees had all been returned to their country, leaving nationalities such as Yemenis - who now constitute one third of the inmate population.

Remes said al-Hajj was being released because the Bush administration "wants to flush as many men out of Guantanamo as quickly as possible … as Guantanamo has become such an international badge of shame".

"Once the Supreme Court said the men could have lawyers the pressure increased [on the US] and condemnation isolated the US administration. Guantanamo was a PR disaster," he said.

"Unfortunately Americans appreciate violations of rights but they have no sympathy for men held at Guantanamo as the [Bush] administration has done such a good job in portraying them as the worst of the worst and as evil doers.

"I've met many prisoners, gotten to appreciate their suffering ... we know them as humans not as worst of worst, we've met their families.

"I've been to Guantanamo and the human dimension of Guantanamo is a story yet to be told," Remes said.

Force fed

Zachary Katznelson, a lawyer from the Reprieve organisation has worked on al-Hajj's case since August 2005 and has visited him 10 times in Guantanamo Bay, the last time just three weeks ago.

"Al-Hajj is remarkably thin, he has been on hunger strike and forcibly fed through his nose while being strapped down, twice a day, for 16 months," he said.

"He looks like an ill man, he has problems with his kidneys, liver, blood in his urine and there are concerns that he may have cancer."

Katznelson said that the cameraman's release was probably motivated by political concerns.

"I think this is part of a larger picture between the United States and Sudan, that they are trying to bring those countries closer together," he said.

"Sudan, one of the primary demands they made to the United States, is if you want to normalise relations with us you have to give something back, and one of the things is the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay."

'Telling the truth'

Martin Mubanga, a former Guantanamo detainee, told Al Jazeera that al-Hajj had refused to be broken by his experience in Guantanamo Bay.

"When I saw him in the last years [of my captivity] he became stronger as he took a stance against the American authorities," he said.

"Basically he was a man of resolve, he refused to be broken because at the end of the day he was telling the truth, he was not a member of al-Qaeda."

Mubanga said that al-Hajj would not believe he was free until he was back on the ground with his son.

"Only then will it probably begin to sink in that he is free, on the plane he'll probably still be thinking he is in a dream, that it is not really happening."

Al Jazeera has been campaigning for al-Hajj's release since his capture more than six years ago.

Al Jazeera concerns

Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera's director-general who is in Khartoum to welcome al-Hajj, criticised the US military for urging him to spy on the operations at the channel.

"We are concerned about the way the Americans dealt with Sami, and we are concerned about the way they could deal with others as well," he said.

"Sami will continue with Al Jazeera, he will continue as a professional person who has done great jobs during his work with Al Jazeera.

"We congratulate his family and all those who knew Sami and loved Sami and worked for this moment."

Via Al Jazeera.