Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Bailout Rap

Afghan president seeks to move up August election

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday backed off plans for an August election and asked the country's electoral commission to set an earlier date.

The brief statement from Karzai's office offered no new date for a presidential vote, but came after lawmakers said they would not recognize Karzai as president after May 22 - the expiration of his five-year term. The statement said the election commission should follow the Afghan constitution, which calls for elections to be held 30 to 60 days before May 22.

The commission in January said the presidential election would be held Aug. 20, but many members of parliament have said an August vote was not acceptable and that Karzai would be an illegitimate president after May 22.

However, international monitors have said it would be difficult if not impossible to hold valid elections during the March-April timeframe because of security concerns, bad weather and logistical issues like the distribution of ballots.

It was not immediately clear if Karzai's decree was political posturing to counter demands from parliament or if he thought elections would actually be moved up.

Waheed Omer, a government spokesman, said Karzai's decree asks the electoral commission to set a new date "that hopefully adheres to the constitution."

"When the election commission set the date of Aug. 20 for the elections, the president received a letter from parliament asking him to uphold the constitution and also asking the electoral commission to uphold the constitution," Omer said.

"The president had a series of discussions with the Supreme Court and based on those discussions the president has issued a decree asking the electoral commission to uphold the constitution," Omer said.

The head of the election commission, Azizullah Lodin, said in January when he announced the Aug. 22 date that the security situation was not good enough for a spring vote.

Afghanistan continues to be plagued by militant attacks and suicide bombers since a U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban's hard-line Islamist regime from power in 2001. The Taliban insurgency has strengthened in recent years, gaining more control over southern regions, and last year was the deadliest for U.S. troops since the invasion.

Lodin said the commission also agreed to wait for additional international forces expected to arrive in the coming months. President Barack Obama recently announced that 17,000 additional U.S. troops would deploy to Afghanistan this year, and U.S. officials have said they would arrive in time to help secure the election.


No problem, Obama can move the Afghan administration into the White House.

2 months into 2009, US deaths spike in Afghanistan

KABUL (AP) - U.S. deaths in Afghanistan increased threefold during the first two months of 2009 compared with the same period last year, after thousands more troops deployed and commanders ramped up winter operations against an increasingly violent insurgency.

As troops pour into the country and violence rises, another sobering measure has also increased: More Afghan civilians are dying in U.S. and allied operations than at the hands of the Taliban, according to a count by The Associated Press. In the first two months of the year, U.S., NATO or Afghan forces have killed 100 civilians, while militants have killed 60.

President Barack Obama recently announced the deployment of 17,000 additional troops to bolster 38,000 already in the country, increasing the U.S. focus on Afghanistan while a drawdown begins in Iraq. The latest casualty toll among U.S. forces could portend a deadlier year in Afghanistan than the U.S. military has experienced since the Taliban's ouster in 2001.

"I think that because you are going to see that additional engagement, there is a risk of greater additional casualties in the short term, just as there was in Iraq," Obama told the Pentagon Channel on Friday from Camp Lejeune, N.C. "That is something we will have to monitor very carefully."

Twenty-nine U.S. troops died in Afghanistan the first two months of 2009 - compared with eight Americans in the first two months of 2008.

Part of the increase is due to the influx of troops. In early 2008 there were about 27,000 forces in the country, some 10,000 fewer than today.

But U.S. troops are also operating in new, dangerous areas. A brigade of 10th Mountain Division soldiers deployed to two insurgent-heavy provinces outside Kabul in January - Wardak and Logar. And American forces are increasingly operating in Taliban heartland in the south.

"It has a lot to do with the fact that we have a presence in places and going into places and disrupting insurgents in area where they haven't been bothered much," Col. Greg Julian, the top U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan, said Saturday. That, he said, means more battles and more attacks.

American troop deaths occurred at a much higher rate in Afghanistan than in Iraq in January and February. Thirty-one U.S. forces have died in Iraq so far this year, but there are roughly 140,000 American troops in Iraq, more than three times the number in Afghanistan.

The decreasing U.S. death toll in Iraq coincides with an overall decline in violence largely attributed to a cease-fire by anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and a Sunni decision to join forces with the Americans against al-Qaida in Iraq.

Julian said that troops in Afghanistan have "maintained the pressure throughout the winter months" this season, though in previous years there had been a lull.

About a third of the 29 deaths this year were caused by roadside bombs, including an attack in Kandahar province on Tuesday that killed four U.S. troops. Julian said insurgents are using more IEDs and fewer direct attacks because militants die in large numbers when they fight the U.S. head on.

The number of other NATO soldiers killed so far this year has risen as well, but not at the same rate. Last year 13 soldiers from other NATO countries died in January and February, compared with 18 in the first two months of 2009. Of those 18 deaths, 12 were British.

Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. and NATO commander in the country, said he thinks that Taliban militants are "resilient" but not necessarily stronger.

"I'm not with the group that says everything is in a downward spiral, that the Taliban are resurgent and stronger than they were. I think they're very resilient, but I don't necessarily think they're stronger," McKiernan told the Chicago Tribune in an interview published Friday.

"And I do see some measures of progress in this country. Now I'm not going to say everything is going to improve dramatically in 2009, but I think as a military commander, I am not going to be pessimistic about this. I'm going to be glass-is-half-full."

Violence in all categories is up in general so far this year. Militant deaths rose from 129 in early 2008 to 308 in early 2009, according to numbers compiled by The Associated Press based on figures from U.S., NATO and Afghan officials.

Civilian deaths from U.S. and NATO operations have also spiked, despite increasingly emotional pleas from Afghan President Hamid Karzai to address the problem.

Last year the Taliban set off several large suicide bombs in crowded areas, killing around 180 Afghan civilians the first two months of the year, while U.S., NATO or Afghan forces killed fewer than 10.

But the numbers have reversed this year. In the first two months of 2009 some 100 Afghan civilians have been killed by U.S., NATO or Afghan forces, according to the AP count, many during overnight missions by Special Operations Forces. Militants have killed around 60.


British PM hopes for economic pact in Obama talks

LONDON (AP) - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Saturday he will try to forge a global pact to buck the global economic downturn during talks with U.S. President Barack Obama next week.

Brown travels to Washington for a meeting with Obama at the White House on Tuesday and will address a joint session of both houses of Congress on Wednesday.

Writing in London's Sunday Times, editions of which were available on Saturday night, Brown said that all nations should agree to inject cash into their economies, sign up to universal banking reforms and back an overhaul of international institutions.

"I believe there is no challenge so great or so difficult that it cannot be overcome by America, Britain and the world working together," Brown wrote in the opinion piece.

"That is why President Obama and I will discuss this week a global new deal, whose impact can stretch from the villages of Africa to reforming the financial institutions of London and New York - and giving security to the hardworking families in every country."

Britain has invested billions of pounds (dollars) to bail out banks and boost the country's economy, while Obama has had a $787 billion economic stimulus bill passed in the U.S.

Brown will become the first European leader to visit the Obama since he took office. However, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso visited the White House for a meeting on Tuesday.

The British leader said that he sees parallels in Obama's ideals with Britain's vaunted former Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

"Churchill described the joint inheritance of Britain and America as not just a shared history but a shared belief in the great principles of freedom and the rights of man - what Barack Obama has described as the enduring power of our ideals - democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope," Brown wrote.

In a speech to party activists on Saturday, Brown said that Britain may consider sweeping new reforms to the country's banking system.

He said he's considering establishing a wholly publicly owned savings bank and possibly a state-owned investment bank, which would be dedicated to financing innovation.

"Our task must be nothing less than to rebuild a financial system where it has failed and then to create an economy where banks are no longer serving themselves but serving the public of this country," Brown said.


Yeah! More fuel for the fire!!!


Leaving Iraq: Shift to south, exit through desert

BAGHDAD (AP) - The U.S. military map in Iraq in early 2010: Marines are leaving the western desert, Army units are in the former British zone in the south and the overall mission is coalescing around air and logistics hubs in central and northern Iraq.

Meanwhile, commanders will be shifting their attention to helping Iraqi forces take full control of their own security.

The Pentagon has not released the full details of President Barack Obama's plan to end America's combat role in Iraq by Aug. 31 of next year, but the broad contours are taking shape.

Statements from military officials, U.S. government reports and interviews by The Associated Press with Iraqi and U.S. planners offer a wide-angle view of the expected American formation in Iraq when the pullout quickens early next year.

Between 35,000 and 50,000 soldiers are expected to remain in a transition period before all troops must leave by the end of 2011 under a joint pact. In his speech Friday, Obama outlined the roles ahead.

"Training, equipping, and advising Iraqi security forces as long as they remain nonsectarian; conducting targeted counterterrorism missions, and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq," he said at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

There should be little immediate change in the American presence in 2009.

The bulk of the current 138,000 U.S. troops are expected to remain until Iraq's national elections scheduled for late this year. Maintaining security for the balloting is considered a top priority by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, and other high-ranking Pentagon officials.

Then the pullout will accelerate.

The first significant shift could be with the 22,000 Marines in Anbar province, a broad wedge of western desert where insurgents once held sway over key cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi.

The Marines have already tested exit routes through Jordan with plans for a full-scale exodus during the "2010 calendar year," said Terry Moores, deputy assistant chief of staff for logistics for Marine Corps Central Command.

The Marines could possibly leave a small contingent, but expect to turn over military duties to the Army.

The early exit from Anbar carries two important messages.

It's part of Washington's shift of military focus to Afghanistan. Obama plans to send 17,000 more soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan, to join 38,000 already fighting a strengthening Taliban-led insurgency.

Anbar also represents a critical turning point of the nearly six-year-old Iraq war. A U.S.-directed effort in late 2006 began to recruit and fund tribal leaders to join the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgent groups - which were eventually uprooted in Anbar and began to lose their hold in and around Baghdad.

In the south, the U.S. Army is making plans to fill the void left by the departure this spring of 4,000 British troops based outside Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq and a hub of the nation's southern oil fields.

Odierno has said a division headquarters - about 1,000 personnel - plus an undetermined number of troops would be sent to Basra. The transition is expected to begin in late March, and it's likely a U.S. force will remain around Basra until the final pullout in 2011.

Basra is a proving ground for Iraq's ability to handle security on its own. Iraq launched an offensive last year that - with U.S. help - crippled Shiite militia control in parts of the city. But the small British contingent has largely stayed out of direct security operations, leaving it mostly to Iraqi commanders.

During a tour of Basra on Friday, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said some military personnel will remain to train Iraq's navy, but the primary British goal is humanitarian aid and development.

"We will focus upon cultural, economic and educational topics," he told Basra Gov. Mohammed al-Waili.

Northern Iraq, meanwhile, poses the greatest uncertainties for the Pentagon.

Mosul - Iraq's third-biggest city - remains one of the last havens for al-Qaida in Iraq and its streets are among the most dangerous in the country.

On Tuesday, two Iraqi police opened fire during a U.S. military inspection of an Iraqi security unit in Mosul, killing one American soldier and an interpreter. The attack deepened worries of possible infiltration of security forces in the Mosul area.

U.S. combat support for Iraqis is likely to continue - and perhaps expand - in the coming 18 months. It then could become high on the agenda for the counterterrorism missions, which could include ground forces and aerial surveillance.

U.S. troop strength in the Mosul area is relatively light, but there is a U.S. base on the city's edge.

Obama left open the option for more extensive U.S. military backup if needed.

"There will surely be difficult periods and tactical adjustments," he said. "But our enemies should be left with no doubt: This plan gives our military the forces and the flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners, and to succeed."

The northern city of Kirkuk is another potential trouble spot. Tensions between Kurds and Sunni Arabs over control of the city - and center of the northern oil fields - show no signs of easing.

Two bases north of Baghdad will likely take more prominent roles next year.

Balad Air Base, home to more than 20,000 U.S. forces, provides air power, logistics and counterterrorism support, as well as training for Iraqi security forces. Its location - 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Baghdad - offers a rich vantage point for intelligence gathering and analysis across the entire north and specific areas such as the Iranian border.

Another major U.S. air and logistics base in Taji, 12 miles (20 kilometers) north of Baghdad, sits next to Iraq's new supply and logistics hub.

The two sites would be a natural centerpiece for U.S. training and advising of the Iraqi military, Army Brig. Gen. Steven Salazar, the deputy commanding general at Multi-National Security Transition Command, told the AP recently.

Salazar said the Taji National Supply Depot was designed by the Iraqis to be the "top end" of the supply and logistics chain for its security forces.

In Baghdad, the U.S. military is already making changes in anticipation of the first step of the withdrawal timetable: U.S. forces out of major cities by June.

The United States has handed over the Green Zone to the Iraqi government, closed forward operating bases and combat outposts in the city or turned them into smaller stations where U.S. troops work alongside Iraqi security forces.

But Camp Victory, a huge base on the outskirts of Baghdad in a former Saddam palace complex, will continue to serve as the U.S. nerve center in the capital.

A military official with knowledge of the military planning process told the AP that Camp Victory's proximity to many Iraqi government ministries and the Baghdad International Airport make it a prime location for the U.S. military, and one they are not likely to give up anytime soon.

The base also is expected to expand as it absorbs troops pulling out of Baghdad before the June 30 deadline, said another military official. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.


Why Latinos couldn't be the 911 terrorist

1: 8:45 is too early for us to be up.

2: We are always late, we would have missed all four flights.

3: Pretty people on the plane distract us.

4: We would talk loudly and bring attention to ourselves.

5: With food and drinks on the plane, we would forget why we're there.

6: We talk with out hands, therefore we would have to put our weapon down.

7: We would all want to fly the plane.

8: We would argue and start a fight on the plane.

9: We can't keep a secret, we would have told everyone a week before doing it.


10: We would have to put a Puerto Rican flag on the windshield.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Poles give Obama an out on missile shield

If, as is looking more likely, the Obama administration moves to delay or cancel the deployment of a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, one possible diplomatic downside could be the effect on U.S. relations with Poland and the Czech Republic, the two countries that signed agreements with the Bush administrations to host parts of the shield. On a visit to Washington, Poland's Foreign Minister seemed to give Obama a bit of an out on this issue:
“What we would like to be honored is what went along with” the missile-defense system, [Radoslaw] Sikorski, 46, said in an interview yesterday during a visit to Washington that included a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “We paid quite a political price for the agreement, both in terms of internal politics and in our relations with Russia.”
State Department political director William Burns has also indicated that missile defense might be one area where the administration is willing to compromise with Russia and will certainly be on the agenda when Hillary Clinton meets her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov next week. The administration might feel a more productive relationship with Russia is worth some damage to its image in Eastern Europe, but it would be nice if they didn't have to make the choice.
Blog FP

Combat Troops to leave Iraq by August 2010

Pres. Barack Obama was in Camp Lejeune, NC, to announce a plan for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. He announced that combat troops will leave Iraq by August 31, 2010. The President's FY 2010 Budget Request allocates $205.5 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Combat Troops to leave Iraq by August 2010

Pres. Barack Obama was in Camp Lejeune, NC, to announce a plan for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. He announced that combat troops will leave Iraq by August 31, 2010. The President's FY 2010 Budget Request allocates $205.5 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Pakistan opposition chief warns of dangerous chaos

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) - With his supporters rioting for a third day, opposition leader Nawaz Sharif blamed Pakistan's government Friday for the political turmoil set off by a court order barring him from elected office - unrest that he warned could be exploited by Islamic extremists.

Giving his first interview since the ruling Wednesday, Sharif accused President Asif Ali Zardari of "declaring martial law on democracy," a charge echoing the complaints that forced former military ruler Pervez Musharraf to give up the presidency last year.

Sharif's interview with The Associated Press came amid a surge of political squabbling that is sure to distract the government of this nuclear-armed country from grappling with the Taliban and al-Qaida threat spreading from the tribal areas along the frontier with Afghanistan.

Pakistan also is in the middle of a tense time with neighboring India over the deadly militant attack on Mumbai, and Sharif said Zardari's pro-Western government isn't going to be able to face any of its key tasks if it continues to wage political war on him.

"It cannot concentrate on the very big issues we are confronted with," he said. "We have issues going on in the tribal area, we have this big issue in the Swat area, and we have a very ugly situation on our eastern border after the Bombay (Mumbai) killings."

The political uproar set off by the court ruling against Sharif is lining up influential civic groups led by disgruntled lawyers with Sharif's increasingly popular Pakistan Muslim League against Zardari. It's a confrontation that will also feed worries about military intervention, a frequent result of political turmoil in Pakistan.

"I think we are heading for some sort of unfortunate situation," Sharif said at his villa near Lahore, without elaborating. "There are a lot of forces - the militants, the extremists - they are all there to take advantage."

The Supreme Court ruling upheld a ban on Sharif from contesting elections because of a past criminal conviction related to the 1999 military coup that ended his second term as prime minister and put Musharraf in power.

Sharif's brother also was disqualified from continuing as head of the provincial government in Punjab, the nation's biggest and most populous region. Zardari ousted the government there and installed a loyalist as governor.

Other critics have alleged that Zardari influenced the Supreme Court decision to neutralize Sharif and consolidate the power of his own party, which holds a majority in the national Parliament. His supporters deny he had any role in the ruling.

Former President George W. Bush's administration often referred to Sharif's party as more religious than secular. But Sharif insisted in the interview that his party is democratic and eschews the politics of extremism. He said his party was the driving force behind improved relations with India before he was ousted by Musharraf's coup.

Although American officials have expressed no public worries about this week's turmoil, the U.S. representative in the Punjab capital of Lahore visited Sharif's villa within hours of the court decision. Sharif's spokesmen declined to give details of the private meeting, and U.S. officials would not comment.

An experienced operator in Pakistan's hard-fought politics, Sharif already had urged his supporters to take to the streets to press for the return of the Supreme Court chief justice who was removed by Musharraf in 2007.

Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry had questioned the legality of Musharraf's presidency as well as a deal that quashed corruption allegations against Zardari and his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated before last year's elections.

Chaudhry's ouster inspired Pakistan's largely sectarian civic groups to stage months of demonstrations that eventually pressured Musharraf to step down as the United States distanced itself from him.

Sharif predicts a similar outpouring of support from lawyers and other groups to back his party, which is the country's second largest political movement and which worked in an uneasy alliance with Zardari's bloc to push out Musharraf.

After the interview, thousands of Sharif supporters thronged peacefully along Lahore's main boulevard, waving his party's green flags and chanting "Go, Zardari, go!"

Rioting flared elsewhere for a third consecutive day, with police swinging batons and firing tear gas at stone-throwing youths among hundreds of people who blocked the six-lane highway between the capital, Islamabad, and the nearby city of Rawalpindi.

Protesters tore down advertising billboards, smashed street lights and blocked traffic with burning tires.

"If anybody thinks that they can make politics without Nawaz Sharif in this country, he is very much mistaken," said Raja Nasir Mahfoz, a middle-aged man in the crowd.

Paramilitary police carrying assault rifles stood guard along the highway, where traffic was halted for hours, but didn't intervene.

Police official Saqib Sultan said about 10 people were arrested. There were no reports of injuries.

Analysts say the political infighting will probably bog down Pakistan's ruling elite, leaving it unable to focus on improving the conditions for its mainly poor 170 million people.

Debilitating power struggles in the 1990s between Sharif and Zardari's slain wife, Bhutto, helped drive Pakistan to the brink of bankruptcy and paved the way for Musharraf's 1999 coup.

Without referring to his role in the current crisis, Sharif echoed those fears. "Pakistan is facing big problems ... now the pressures are mounting on Pakistan," he said.

Ties between Sharif and Zardari have worsened in recent months. Their shaky alliance foundered soon after Zardari became president, when he reneged on a promise to reinstate the ousted Supreme Court chief justice.

Sharif said there would be no reconciliation with Zardari unless he reinstates Chaudhry.

"It was Mr. Musharraf who declared martial law on the judges, the judiciary and on parliament, and it is now Mr. Zardari who has declared martial law on democracy," Sharif said.

He alleged Zardari did not want to see Chaudhry back in the Supreme Court out of fear he would re-examine the old corruption cases.

"Mr. Zardari's agenda is in contrast with the national agenda," he said.


Chinese e-cigs gain ground amid safety concerns

BEIJING (AP) - With its slim white body and glowing amber tip, it can easily pass as a regular cigarette. It even emits what look like curlicues of white smoke.

The Ruyan V8, which produces a nicotine-infused mist absorbed directly into the lungs, is just one of a rapidly growing array of electronic cigarettes attracting attention in China, the U.S. and elsewhere - and the scrutiny of world health officials.

Marketed as a healthier alternative to smoking and a potential way to kick the habit, the smokeless smokes have been distributed in swag bags at the British film awards and hawked at an international trade show.

Because no burning is involved, makers say there's no hazardous cocktail of cancer-causing chemicals and gases like those produced by a regular cigarette. There's no secondhand smoke, so they can be used in places where cigarettes are banned, the makers say.

Health authorities are questioning those claims.

The World Health Organization issued a statement in September warning there was no evidence to back up contentions that e-cigarettes are a safe substitute for smoking or a way to help smokers quit.

It also said companies should stop marketing them that way, especially since the product may undermine smoking prevention efforts because they look like the real thing and may lure nonsmokers, including children.

"There is not sufficient evidence that (they) are safe products for human consumption," Timothy O'Leary, a communications officer at the WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative in Geneva, said this week.

The laundry list of WHO's concerns includes the lack of conclusive studies and information about e-cigarette contents and their long-term health effects, he said.

Unlike other nicotine-replacement therapies such as patches for slow delivery through the skin, gum or candy for absorption in the mouth, or inhalers and nasal sprays, e-cigarettes have not gone through rigorous testing, O'Leary said.

Nicotine is highly addictive and causes the release of the "feel good" chemical dopamine when it goes to the brain. It also increases heart rate and blood pressure and restricts blood to the heart muscle.

Ruyan - which means "like smoking" - introduced the world's first electronic cigarette in 2004. It has patented its ultrasonic atomizing technology, in which nicotine is dissolved in a cartridge containing propylene glycol, the liquid that is vaporized in smoke machines in nightclubs or theaters and is commonly used as a solvent in food.

When a person takes a drag on the battery-powered cigarette, the solution is pumped through the atomizer and comes out as an ultrafine spray that resembles smoke.

Hong Kong-based Ruyan contends the technology has been illegally copied by Chinese and foreign companies and is embroiled in several lawsuits. It's also battling questions about the safety of its products.

Most sales take place over the Internet, where hundreds of retailers tout their products. Their easy availability, O'Leary warns, "has elevated this to a pressing issue given its unknown safety and efficacy."

Prices range from about $60 to $240. Kits include battery chargers and cartridges that range in flavors (from fruit to menthol) and nicotine levels (from zero - basically a flavored mist - to 16 milligrams, higher than a regular cigarette.) The National Institutes of Health says regular cigarettes contain about 10 milligrams of nicotine.

On its Web site, Gamucci, a London-based manufacturer, features a woman provocatively displaying one of its e-cigs. "They look like, feel like and taste like traditional tobacco, yet they aren't," the blurb reads. "They are a truly healthier and satisfying alternative. Join the revolution today!"

Smoking Everywhere, a Florida-based company, proclaims it "a much better way to smoke!" while a clip on YouTube features an employee of the NJoy brand promoting its e-cigarettes at CES, the international consumer technology trade show.

Online sales make it even more difficult to regulate the industry, which still falls in a gray area in many countries.

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration has "detained and refused" several brands of electronic cigarettes because they were considered unapproved new drugs and could not be legally marketed in the country, said press officer Christopher Kelly.

He did not give more details, but said the determination of whether an e-cig is a drug is made on a case-by-case basis after the agency considers its intended use, labeling and advertising.

In Australia, the sale of electronic cigarettes containing nicotine is banned. In Britain, the products appear to be unregulated and are sold in pubs.

Smoking is tightly woven into the fabric of daily life in Ruyan's home turf of China, the world's largest tobacco market where about 2 trillion cigarettes are sold every year.

Tobacco sales, the biggest source of government revenue, brought in $61 billion in the first 11 months of last year, up 18 percent from 2007, the Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper said.

In a country where the cheapest brands of cigarettes cost about 20 cents a pack, the e-cig is far pricier. Ruyan's V8 costs $240 and includes batteries and 20 cartridges of nicotine solution, roughly the same number of puffs as 20 packs of tobacco cigarettes. The line has expanded to include cigars and pipes crafted from agate and rosewood.

Ruyan is suing a Beijing newspaper for questioning its safety and for claiming in 2006 that its products have more nicotine than regular cigarettes.

Miu Nam, Ruyan's executive director, blames the newspaper for a hit in sales and profits but declined to give details.

"We have to restore consumers' confidence, we have to clean up people's doubts," Miu said.

An operator at the Beijing Times refused to transfer calls seeking comment Friday to managers at the newspaper. A reporter said she had heard of the case but would not give any details.

Some international experts back Ruyan's claims its product is safe.

David Sweanor, an adjunct law professor at Ottawa University and former legal counsel of the Non Smokers Rights Association in Canada, said e-cigs have the potential to save lives.

With smoking, "it's the delivery system that's killing people," Sweanor said. "Anytime you suck smoke into your lungs you're going to do yourself a great deal of damage. Nicotine has some slight risks but they are minor compared to the risk of smoke in cigarettes."

Dr. Murray Laugesen, a New Zealand physician involved in tobacco control for 25 years who was commissioned by Ruyan to test its e-cigs, said he found "very little wrong" with them.

"It looks more like a cigarette and feels more like a cigarette than any other device so far and yet it does not cause the harm," he said. "It's the best substitute so far invented for tobacco cigarettes."

In the U.S, both Philip Morris USA and RJ Reynolds have introduced cigarettes that did not burn tobacco, but the technologies were very different from the e-cigarette. Neither has been successful.

In 2006, Philip Morris USA, test-marketed the Accord, which used a heating unit activated by puffing. RJ Reynolds introduced its cigarette, the Premier, in 1987 and still sells the Eclipse, which heats the tobacco rather than burning it. Sales are "not great," said spokesman David Howard.

Li Honglei, a fast-talking 28-year-old public relations manager in Beijing, has been smoking since he was in his teens and desperately wants to quit. He thinks he may have found his answer in Ruyan.

"I was intrigued by this new technology," said the pudgy, bespectacled Li as he surveyed products displayed in glass cases at Ruyan's brightly-lit shop in the capital. "I heard acupuncture is effective as well, but this method sounds more painless."


Russia: Arms control to top talks with Clinton

MOSCOW (AP) - Russia's foreign minister said Friday he will focus on arms control talks during his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton next week, while Moscow has demonstrated its revived military might by sending a bomber on patrol near Canada and putting a new military radar on duty.

Sergey Lavrov said arms control talks will top the agenda for his meeting with Clinton in Geneva next week. He added that Russia expects the U.S. to form a team of arms-control negotiators quickly.

Russia has welcomed the new U.S. administration's intention to start talks soon on a successor deal to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I, which expires in December. The treaty, signed by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and President George H.W. Bush, contains a comprehensive control and verification mechanism hailed by both Moscow and Washington.

Last week, Lavrov put out a series of demands to Washington in the arms control sphere, signaling that the negotiations will be difficult.

The Kremlin has taken a tough tone with Washington ever since Barack Obama's election. The day after his victory, President Dmitry Medvedev warned that Russia will deploy missiles to its westernmost Kaliningrad region in response to the U.S. missile defense plans.

Medvedev and his mentor and predecessor as Russian president, Vladimir Putin, later said that Russia would only make the move if the U.S. deploys missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. They voiced hope that Obama's administration will scrap the plan, which was a favorite of George W. Bush's administration.

Obama has not said how he intends to proceed, but stressed the system must be cost-effective and proven, and that it should not divert resources from other national security priorities.

Amid a growing strain in Russia-U.S. ties during George W. Bush's presidency, the Kremlin has sought to boost its military and flex muscles worldwide.

Last fall, Russia has sent a naval squadron to the Caribbean where it held joint maneuverers with the Venezuelan navy and made port calls at several countries in a show of force close to the U.S.

Russian strategic bombers also have regularly flown across the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific Oceans since Putin ordered to resume Cold War-style bomber patrols in August 2007 when he still was the Russian president.

Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay said Friday that fighter jets were scrambled to intercept a Russian bomber in the Arctic as it approached Canadian airspace on the eve of Obama's visit to Ottawa last week.

MacKay said the bomber never entered Canadian airspace, adding that the flight was a "strong coincidence."

Russia's Defense Ministry expressed surprise, saying the flight had been conducted in conformity with international norms.

In a separate development Friday, the Russian military announced that it put in service a new early warning radar intended to monitor potential missile threats on Russia's southern flank.

The Russian Space Forces chief, Maj. Gen. Oleg Ostapenko, said in a statement that the new radar, located near the southern city of Armavir, has much higher performance than its Soviet-built predecessors.

The Space Forces said that the new facility, which came online Thursday, will replace two Soviet-built military radars in Ukraine.

Russia ended the lease last year of radars in Ukraine's western city of Mukachevo and the Black Sea port of Sevastopol because of Ukraine's efforts to join NATO, the western military alliance.

The Armavir facility is part of a Russian system of military early warning radars intended to spot missile launches. In 2006, the military commissioned a similar radar in Lekhtusi, near St. Petersburg.

The Soviet Union built a network of military early warning radars on its flanks because of the need to detect incoming missiles as early as possible. After the Soviet collapse, they were left in the newly independent ex-Soviet lands, crippling the Russian military's early warning capability.

Russia's post-Soviet cash shortage has made it difficult for the military to properly maintain other radars on Russian territory.

The nation's windfall oil wealth over the last decade allowed the Kremlin to boost defense spending and start upgrading aging arsenals. But prospects for military modernization look more bleak now that Russia is facing its worst financial crisis in a decade.

On Friday, RIA-Novosti news agency quoted Vice Adm. Anatoly Shlemov as saying that the Russian navy plans to commission at least three new aircraft carriers. Russia now only has one Soviet-built carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which is much smaller than U.S. carriers and has been plagued by mechanical problems and accidents.

Shlemov's statement, however, sounded more like a lobbying effort than a specific government plan.

Earlier this week, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov in charge of weapons industries said that the navy should focus on smaller ships, no bigger than frigates or corvettes.


Sure they are just spreading nukes to Iran, but we should watch it...sure.

Iraqi doctors treat the wounded in Jordan

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) - Ali Mizhir was on his way to a market in Baghdad to buy slippers three years ago when a car bomb exploded nearby, blowing away much of his lower left leg.

The 11-year-old was taken to a hospital, but doctors told his father they would have to amputate. His father refused, arguing the leg could be saved.

After five failed operations in Iraq and Iran, Mizhir and his father turned to a hospital ward in Jordan run by Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders.

"If I had not left Iraq, I would have lost my leg," Mizhir said. "All the doctors that I saw in Iraq wanted to cut it off."

He cannot yet walk, and he has a large gap in his leg where muscle and tissue were torn away. But his doctors are optimistic - they have fitted "tissue expanders" in his leg and hope to reattach the nerves and bones properly in a few months.

Since 2006, the international charity's hospital ward in Amman has been treating civilian victims of Iraq's war who are too severely wounded to be cared for at home.

Its staff, almost entirely Iraqi doctors and nurses who fled their homeland after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, specialize in reconstructive surgeries and have provided free treatment to more than 650 patients.

The ward, in the Red Crescent hospital in the Jordanian capital, costs about $4.5 million a year to run. There are now about 100 patients on a waiting list.

"The difference between working in Baghdad and Jordan is like comparing black and white," said Dr. Nasr Omari, an Iraqi plastic surgeon who works at the Amman hospital.

Iraqi hospitals often lack basic equipment and medicine and are frequently understaffed. And some cases are too complicated to handle in Iraq, the doctors said.

On a recent morning, doctors at the Amman hospital operated on a woman who had been hit in the face by a bullet and a man whose foot was maimed by an explosion.

The facility is the medical charity's most advanced reconstructive surgery unit. There is a similar initiative in Grozny, capital of Russia's restive Chechnya region, and it has more basic surgical operations in Haiti, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka.

"Anything that serves a gap in the Iraq health system is useful," said Dr. Nada Al Ward of the World Health Organization's Jordan office, who works with displaced Iraqis.

"If you need reconstructive or complicated surgeries, most of the time, you will need to travel outside Iraq to get it," she said.

Doctors Without Borders emphasized that the Amman hospital is meant to complement the Iraqi health system, not to replace it. Olivier Maizoue, the charity's head in Jordan, said the hospital might not be needed in five years, if the situation in Iraq continues to stabilize.

Al Ward agreed that Iraq might be able to assume some of the complicated surgeries now being performed elsewhere.

"Iraq had a functioning health system before the conflict," she said. "If the security situation improves, the health system will hopefully spring back."

Most patients are eager to return to Iraq.

Mizhir, now 14, says he misses his friends and wants to return to school. He and his father have been in Jordan so long that Mizhir now has a 2-month-old baby sister who he has never met.

"I would like to go back to Iraq to meet my new sister," Mizhir said. "But that is for the doctors to decide."


US will seek to end Iran's nuclear ambition

UNITED NATIONS (AP) - President Barack Obama's administration will seek to end Iran's nuclear ambition and its support for terrorism, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said Thursday - drawing an immediate rebuke from Iran's envoy.

Ambassador Mohammad Khazee said the statement contained "the same tired, unwarranted and groundless allegations that used to be unjustifiably and futiley repeated by the previous U.S. administration" of President George W. Bush.

Iran has never and will never try to acquire nuclear weapons, Khazee said in a letter to the U.N. Security Council immediately after U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice spoke. He also dismissed the charge that Iran engages in terrorism as "baseless and absurd."

Iran insists it is enriching uranium to produce nuclear energy for civilian purposes, but the U.S. and many European countries accuse Tehran of secretly seeking to build nuclear weapons.

Rice brought up Iran at an open meeting of the Security Council on Iraq, saying the long-term U.S. commitment to Iraq and the reduction of the U.S. military presence there had to be understood "in a larger, regional context" that included Afghanistan, the Middle East and Iran.

The United States "will seek an end to Iran's ambition to acquire an illicit nuclear capacity and its support for terrorism," Rice said, adding that the U.S. will aim to encourage both Iran and Syria to become "constructive regional actors."

The U.S. Mission to the United Nations said Rice had no comment on Khazee's letter.

Rice's comments came as the Obama administration is conducting what she has called "an urgent and early review" of U.S. policy toward Iran.

Obama has signaled a willingness for dialogue with Iran, particularly over its nuclear program. At his inauguration last month, the president said his administration would reach out to rival states, declaring "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded by saying Iran would welcome talks with the United States - but only if there was mutual respect. Iranian officials have said that means the United States would need to stop making "baseless" accusations against the Islamic Republic.

On Wednesday, Iranian state radio said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's choice of Dennis Ross as her special adviser on the Persian Gulf signaled no change in the U.S. stance toward Iran. "Ross strongly backs stepping up sanctions against Iran ... (and) supports profound U.S.-Israeli cooperation to confront Iran's nuclear activities," the broadcast said.(AP) _

Iran's deputy foreign minister for the Americas, Ali Reza Salari, said Thursday he believes there is room for advancement in the nuclear dispute with the United States, but said Iran is getting mixed signals from the Obama administration.

"I think somehow in that domain we are witnessing more rationality in the present U.S. administration. They are not talking with the same tone that existed before," Salari told reporters during a visit to Mexico City. "But still, the signal that is reaching Iran from the United States is not a very clear and proper one. It's a mixed signal."

The latest International Atomic Energy Agency report says Iran now possesses 1,010 kilograms - 2,222 pounds - of low-enriched uranium, raising concern that it now has sufficient uranium and the means to enrich it further to produce both nuclear fuel and the fissile core of nuclear warheads.

In an interview last Friday on National Public Radio, Rice said the IAEA report "confirms what we all had feared and anticipated, which is that Iran remains in pursuit of its nuclear program."


That will be a neat trick even for, The One.

US troops say Iraqis ready for Obama timetable

CAMP SPEICHER, Iraq (AP) - At a sandstorm-battered base near Saddam Hussein's hometown, U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Siwatu Spikes agrees it's nearly about time for combat troops to leave Iraq.

He hopes the Iraqis are ready for it.

It was dinnertime at the sprawling Camp Speicher in north-central Iraq, and Spikes was in the chow hall, glued to one of several wide-screens TVs showing President Barack Obama outlining his plan for withdrawing combat troops by Aug. 31, 2010.

"I like his approach to it because I think we need to start turning over the country to the Iraqis," said Spikes, a 33-year-old Hawaiian serving his third tour here in nearly six years. "I would like to think they are ready. I think we have done a good job training them. Now they need to apply it and sustain it."

"I think they will be OK," he said.

Many U.S. soldiers at the base appeared to echo Obama's message: America's time in Iraq is drawing to a close and Iraqi troops and leaders need to prepare themselves to take charge of their own destiny.

As many as 50,000 noncombat troops will remain in Iraq beyond the August 2010 deadline to advise, train and provide counterterrorism support with all American forces gone by the end of 2011.

Obama's withdrawal schedule, outlined in front of Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., suggests that the bulk of the current U.S. military presence in Iraq of about 138,000 troops will remain for the country's nationwide elections expected later this year.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has said he welcomes the withdrawal and urges that it be done "orderly and responsibly." Obama called al-Maliki with the details of the plan before delivering his speech, White House officials said.

Sunni lawmaker Mustafa al-Hiti also applauded Obama's plan, saying it met "the aspirations of many Iraqis who want to see the occupying troops out of their country."

"We have enough confidence in our security forces and we think that there is no chance for a new round of violence in Iraq," he said.

Other Iraqis, however, said they feared the absence of U.S. combat troops could spur violence anew if Iraqi security forces aren't fully prepared.

"Before leaving Iraq, the U.S. Army should do their best to train and equip the Iraqis so that we can confront the dangers that are threatening the country," said Raji Abbas, a Shiite from the southern city of Najaf, where U.S. forces battled militias in 2004.

At Camp Speicher, Army Col. Walter E. Piatt predicted that security forces in at least one province - Salahuddin in north-central Iraq - will be ready.

Piatt, commander of the U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division out of Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, wants to hand over control for all combat operations in the province of 1.1 million people by this summer.

Iraqis have an estimated 16,000 Army soldiers and 16,000 police officers in the province, said Piatt's spokeswoman, Maj. Cathy Wilkinson.

"It's not the deadline in my mind - they're ready," Piatt told The Associated Press. "The conditions here are ready for us to go to an advisory role. That advisory capacity, as long as it is needed, I strongly feel we should keep it. Because it is what the Iraqis will need."

An estimated 6,000 U.S. troops are based at Camp Speicher, about 85 miles north of Baghdad and near Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.

At the chow hall Friday night, a layer of dust settled over diners and tables alike from one of the worst sandstorms in months raging outside. The cavernous dining hall's walls were covered with college team banners, and flags of U.S. states hung from the ceiling.

Cameras and other personal electronic devices are not allowed inside the mess hall. Before Obama's speech, the military had denied media requests for interviews with U.S. troops about the withdrawal timetable.

A handful of soldiers seemed more interested in a showing of "The Bourne Identity" at the front of the room rather than in Obama's speech.

Not so Staff Sgt. Michael Rosas, 29, from Los Angeles, who worried that Obama's timetable would require troops newly arrived in Iraq for their one-year deployment to stay longer.

"I wonder if we're going to be extended," said Rosas, also out of the Hawaii infantry unit and on his second Iraq tour. "It would be kind of stupid to send a whole new combat force to replace us. It would be a hardship, but it's a hardship of war. It's part of what we signed up for."

Wilkinson, the brigade's spokeswoman, said "there's been absolutely no indication that would happen."

And most troops are eager to go.

Several noted the renewed U.S. military focus in Afghanistan, where Obama just ordered deployments of 17,000 troops by this summer to add to the 38,000 already there. And while threats remain - and are unpredictable - security seems to have largely stabilized in much of Iraq.

"We don't need to be here," said Sgt. Jimmy Johnson, 40, from Radcliff, Ky. He deployed from Fort Benning, Ga., and is in his second tour since 2006. "The job is done. Let soldiers go home. Let soldiers be with their families, loved ones."

Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Urbik, 42, of Sacramento, Calif., said the security mission will "evolve with the Iraqis."

"I have every faith we wouldn't leave if they weren't ready," said Urbik, out of Fort Hood.


Obama Declares War on Investors, Entrepreneurs, Businesses, And More

Let me be very clear on the economics of President Obama’s State of the Union speech and his budget.
He is declaring war on investors, entrepreneurs, small businesses, large corporations, and private-equity and venture-capital funds.

That is the meaning of his anti-growth tax-hike proposals, which make absolutely no sense at all — either for this recession or from the standpoint of expanding our economy’s long-run potential to grow.

Raising the marginal tax rate on successful earners, capital, dividends, and all the private funds is a function of Obama’s left-wing social vision, and a repudiation of his economic-recovery statements. Ditto for his sweeping government-planning-and-spending program, which will wind up raising federal outlays as a share of GDP to at least 30 percent, if not more, over the next 10 years.

This is nearly double the government-spending low-point reached during the late 1990s by the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton administration. While not quite as high as spending levels in Western Europe, we regrettably will be gaining on this statist-planning approach.

Study after study over the past several decades has shown how countries that spend more produce less, while nations that tax less produce more. Obama is doing it wrong on both counts.

And as far as middle-class tax cuts are concerned, Obama’s cap-and-trade program will be a huge across-the-board tax increase on blue-collar workers, including unionized workers. Industrial production is plunging, but new carbon taxes will prevent production from ever recovering. While the country wants more fuel and power, cap-and-trade will deliver less.

The tax hikes will generate lower growth and fewer revenues. Yes, the economy will recover. But Obama’s rosy scenario of 4 percent recovery growth in the out years of his budget is not likely to occur. The combination of easy money from the Fed and below-potential economic growth is a prescription for stagflation. That’s one of the messages of the falling stock market.

Essentially, the Obama economic policies represent a major Democratic party relapse into Great Society social spending and taxing. It is a return to the LBJ/Nixon era, and a move away from the Reagan/Clinton period. House Republicans, fortunately, are 90 days sober, as they are putting up a valiant fight to stop the big-government onslaught and move the GOP back to first principles.

Noteworthy up here on Wall Street, a great many Obama supporters — especially hedge-fund types who voted for “change” — are becoming disillusioned with the performances of Obama and Treasury man Geithner.

There is a growing sense of buyer’s remorse.

Well then, do conservatives dare say: We told you so?


Economy likely suffered deeper contraction

WASHINGTON (AP) - The economy's downhill slide at the end of last year was likely much steeper than the government initially thought and it is probably doing just as poorly now - if not worse - as a relentless slew of negative forces feed on each other, pushing the country deeper into recession.

American consumers - spooked by vanishing jobs, sinking home values and shrinking investment portfolios have cut back. In turn, companies are slashing production and payrolls. Rising foreclosures are aggravating the already stricken housing market, hard-to-get credit has stymied business investment and is crimping the ability of some consumers to make big-ticket purchases.

It's creating a self-perpetuating vicious cycle that is causing the economy to deteriorate at a rapid pace. The country is suffering through the worst housing, credit and financial crises since the 1930s.

The Commerce Department is set to release a report Friday expected to show the economy contracted at a pace of 5.4 percent in the October-to-December quarter. If economists are correct, the updated reading on gross domestic product, or GDP, would show the economy sinking faster than the 3.8 percent annualized decline the government first estimated a month ago. GDP measures the value of all goods and services produced within the United States and is best barometer of the country's economic health.

"The economy kind of fell off a cliff and unleashed all of these negative downward spirals that are feeding on each other and still are," said Bill Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock Financial Services.

The new projected GDP figure - like the old one - would mark the weakest quarterly showing since an annualized drop of 6.4 percent in the first quarter of 1982, when the country was suffering through an intense recession.

Looking ahead to the current January-to-March quarter, economists believe it is also shaping up to be quite weak, with many projecting an annualized drop of 5 percent. Given the dismal state of the jobs market, some economists believe an even sharper decline in first-quarter GDP is possible.

"It doesn't appear as if the free-fall in the economy has slowed down at all," said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group. "So far, there is no net."

Many predict the economy will continue to shrink in the April-to-June quarter - though not as deeply - by around a 1.7 percent pace.

To jolt life back into the economy, President Barack Obama recently signed a $787 billion recovery package of increased government spending and tax cuts. The president also unveiled a $75 billion plan to stem home foreclosures and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said as much as $2 trillion could be plowed into the financial system to jump-start lending.

A massive pullback by consumers is playing a prominent role in the economy's worsening backslide. Businesses are retrenching, too.

That's left companies with bloated inventories of unsold goods, which actually adds to GDP. Some economists think those backlogs weren't as big as the government initially thought in the fourth quarter, which factors into economists' forecasts for a lower GDP reading. Even deeper cutbacks in construction and by businesses in other areas also are expected to play a role weaker forecast.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress earlier this week that the economy is suffering a "severe contraction" and is likely to keep shrinking in the fix six months of this year. But he planted a seed of hope that the recession might end his year if the government managed to prop up the shaky banking system.

Even in the best-case scenario that the recession ends this year and an economic recovery happens next year, unemployment is likely to keep rising.

In part, that's because many analysts think don't think the early stages of any recovery will be vigorous and also because companies won't be inclined to ramp up hiring until they feel confident that any economic rebound will have staying power.

The nation's unemployment rate is now at 7.6 percent, the highest in more than 16 years. The Fed expects the jobless rate to rise to close to 9 percent this year, and probably remain above normal levels of around 5 percent into 2011.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

White House Releases $3.55 Trillion FY2010 budget

Pres. Obama unveiled his $3.55 trillion budget for the fiscal year 2010. There were several news briefings in response to the budget release including, OMB Dir. Peter Orszag, and reaction by the Chairman and ranking members of the Budget committees.

I'm impressed.
Whatever reactions to markets and overall to the rest of us, I think will be positive. Once you chew on it a little and swallow.

Iraq says early US pullout ok if Iraq army equipped

BAGHDAD - The withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 19 months, faster than agreed in a bilateral security pact, will not pose a problem so long as Iraq can equip its forces in that time, an official said Wednesday.

U.S. President Barack Obama is leaning toward a 19-month timetable to pull out of Iraq as violence unleashed by the invasion launched by his predecessor, George W. Bush, in 2003 fades, U.S. officials say.

That is a compromise between a campaign pledge to leave Iraq within 16 months and the wishes of some U.S. commanders who fear withdrawing too early could put Iraq’s security gains at risk.

It is also faster than the end-2011 deadline foreseen in a U.S.-Iraqi security pact hammered out between the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Bush administration.

“We had hoped that the withdrawal would be according to the schedule mentioned in the agreement,” said Brigadier-General Mohammed al-Askari, spokesman for the Iraqi Defence Ministry.

“But even so, if the U.S. president decides to withdraw them in 19 months, with the agreement of the Iraqi government, we will speed up our readiness to be prepared by that time.”

The most important thing, Askari said, was that the withdrawal date should be agreed between the two governments and that Iraq has the time it needs to properly equip its 600,000-strong, largely U.S.-trained security forces.

“Our readiness depends on equipping the Iraqi army. We are pushing hard now and using our relations with different countries to cut the time required to equip the Iraqi army and we are achieving good results,” he added.

An announcement on a U.S. withdrawal is expected by the end of the week, marking a milestone in an unpopular conflict that overshadowed Bush’s presidency and killed tens of thousands.

Iraq needs helicopters
The sectarian slaughter between Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority and once dominant Sunni Muslims has begun to subside.

Nevertheless, suicide and car bomb attacks remain common and tensions are rising between the Shi’ite-led government and minority Kurds in the north. Some U.S. military officers fear the growing security in Iraq could easily be reversed.

Under the security pact, U.S. combat troops must pull out of Iraqi cities by the middle of this year and all U.S. troops must leave the country by the end of 2011.

Even under Obama’s revised schedule, Pentagon officials said some U.S. troops, including about 40,000 devoted to training and mentoring Iraqi forces, would remain through end-2011.

“We will wait and see,” said Ahmed al-Masoudi, spokesman for supporters in the Iraqi parliament of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has called for the 140,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq to leave immediately.

“We’ll see what the reality is on the ground. We don’t believe speeches and rhetoric.”

Askari said the most important piece of equipment needed by the Iraqi armed forces were helicopters. He said good progress had been made in ordering them but he gave no details.

Defence Minister Abdul Qaeder Jassim went to Washington recently where, among other things, he discussed the possible purchase of M-1 Abrams tanks and F-16 fighter jets.

U.S. military officials say around $5 billion in Iraqi orders for weapons, uniforms, logistics and other materiel have already been delivered or are in the pipeline.

Askari said Iraq’s first post-Saddam warship would be delivered by September, to help protect its crucial oil exports, and a second vessel would be delivered in early 2010.

Khaleej Times

Man says he was informant for FBI in Orange County

As federal authorities press their case against a Tustin man accused of lying about ties to Al-Qaeda, they disclosed this week that some evidence came from an informant who infiltrated Orange County mosques and allegedly recorded the defendant discussing jihad, weapons and plans to blow up abandoned buildings.

On Wednesday, a man who claims to be that informant stepped forward, filing court documents saying that he had served as a confidential informant for the FBI from July 2006 to October 2007 to identify and thwart terrorist operations in the Orange County Islamic community.

The claim by Craig Monteilh, a 46-year-old Irvine resident, that he had been sent by the FBI to infiltrate several Orange County mosques could affect the government's case against Ahmadullah Sais Niazi. His allegations highlight recurring issues about the use of informants by law enforcement agencies and have fanned long-held fears by some Muslim leaders about religious profiling.

Monteilh said in interviews that he had alerted the FBI to Niazi after meeting him at the Islamic Center of Irvine in November 2006 and spending eight months with him. Monteilh said he called himself Farouk Al-Aziz and posed as a Syrian-French American in search of his Islamic roots. Monteilh told the FBI that Niazi befriended him and began to lecture him about jihad, gave him lessons in bomb-making and discussed plots to blow up Orange County landmarks.

"He took me under his wing and began to radicalize me," Monteilh said.

The FBI declined to comment on Monteilh's allegations, which could not be independently verified. Niazi's attorney, deputy federal public defender Chase Scolnick, also declined to comment.

But an FBI agent's testimony in the case Tuesday and interviews with Muslim leaders both appeared to bolster some of Monteilh's assertions about his role in the case.

Special Agent Thomas J. Ropel III testified at a bail hearing for Niazi that the defendant had been secretly recorded by an informant while initiating jihadist rhetoric and threatening to blow up abandoned buildings. Ropel did not name Monteilh but testified that the agency's informant was the same man Muslims had reported to the FBI as an extremist. In June 2007, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported Monteilh to the FBI as a possible terrorist, said Hussam Ayloush, the council's executive director in Anaheim.

Ayloush said he was "100% sure" that Monteilh was the informant in question and expressed anger and disappointment that the FBI would infiltrate mosques. He accused officials of trying to entrap innocent Muslims, noting that Monteilh has been convicted of grand theft and forgery in the past. He said Muslims had worked hard to develop a partnership with the FBI -- and had been assured by J. Steven Tidwell, then assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles field office, at an Irvine forum in 2006 that their mosques were not being monitored. Now, Ayloush said, he has doubts about future relations with the FBI.

"This is religious profiling at its worst," Ayloush said about the FBI operation.

The Afghanistan-born Niazi, 34, was arrested last week and is scheduled to be arraigned next month on suspicion of perjury, naturalization fraud, misuse of a passport obtained by fraud and making a false statement to a federal agency. Niazi, who has lived in the United States since 1998 and earned citizenship five years ago, is related by marriage to Amin al-Haq, an Afghan militant who fought the Soviet occupation of the 1980s with a U.S.-backed Islamic resistance force that now is branded an Al Qaeda affiliate. Niazi is accused of failing to disclose those ties during his application for citizenship.

Niazi asserted after his arrest last week that he is an innocent man who is being retaliated against by the FBI for refusing to become an informant.

In Tuesday's bail hearing, Ropel asserted that Niazi was a danger to the community who should be held without bail. But prosecutors offered no testimony regarding the specific plots Monteilh says he told the FBI that he discussed with Niazi, allegedly involving attacks on Orange County shopping centers, military installations and court buildings. Nor was there any testimony about other mosque members allegedly having been involved in those or other terrorist activities, as Monteilh maintains was the case.

Ayloush said he had received numerous complaints from Muslims in 2007 that Monteilh was aggressively promoting terrorist plots and trying to recruit others to join him. Citing such behavior and saying that it made members of the mosque feel threatened, the Islamic Center of Irvine won a temporary restraining order in June 2007 that barred Monteilh from the mosque.

Monteilh filed a petition Wednesday to lift the restraining order, saying that he wanted to clear his name from any suspicion of terrorist activity. He had not contested the original order, he said, because he had been instructed by the FBI not to testify at the hearing. But he said he was speaking out now because the FBI had allegedly violated pledges to remove the restraining order, place him in a witness protection program, give him a final payment of $100,000 and grant other benefits in an exit package.

"Although the FBI has not fulfilled their promises, I am proud to have participated in the War on Terror," Monteilh said in the petition.

Monteilh, burly and bald, said he first began working for the FBI in late 2003 as an informant on white supremacist and narcotics cases after making connections with the Aryan Brotherhood during a prison stint for forgery. In 2006, he alleges, he agreed to infiltrate mosques.

During two weeks of training, Monteilh said in an interview with The Times, he was taught about Islam, Arabic, self-defense and weapons. He said he was outfitted with video and audio recording devices and given specific names of people to monitor. Monteilh said he also was instructed to progress slowly in his embrace of Islam to make his conversion seem natural -- wearing Western clothes initially and then eventually growing a beard and donning an Egyptian robe, shawl and head cap.

In August 2006, Monteilh said, he approached his first target: the Islamic Center of Irvine. There, he alleges, he made his declaration of the Islamic faith known as shahada and, as instructed by his FBI handlers, posed as a serious student of Islam.

Several Muslims began to embrace him, he told the FBI, and by December he was approached by Niazi. The pair dined at an Islamic Chinese restaurant in Anaheim and hit it off after Monteilh pledged that he would do everything he could to protect Muslims from harm by infidels. He described Niazi as highly intelligent, devout, resourceful and scholarly, with a temperate mien overlaying the passion of his cause.

In an interview, Monteilh alleged that he told the FBI that Niazi told him that he had been one of 200 people who greeted Osama Bin Laden in 1996 when he took refuge in Afghanistan after being expelled from Sudan. Niazi called Bin Laden an "angel," Monteilh said -- an assertion that FBI Agent Ropel repeated this week as information gleaned from the agency's informant. Ropel testified Tuesday that Niazi told the informant that it was his "duty to engage in violent jihad."

Over a year, Monteilh further related in an interview, the FBI paid him sums ranging from $2,500 a month to as high as $11,200.

Monteilh said he was cut loose as an informant in fall 2007 because members of the mosque he infiltrated began to suspect that he was working with the FBI.

Kenneth Piernick, a former FBI counter-terrorism official who is a consultant in Virginia, said parsing out what's true and what's not, even from someone deemed to be a reliable informant, can be challenging.

"You don't go talk to choirboys to get information on thugs," said Piernick, who retired from the bureau in 2003.

He said informants can be egotistical, manipulative and dishonest. Those who are getting paid, he said, have been known to "exaggerate information, or even invent it" to keep the money flowing.

Piernick said common reasons for discontinuing an informant include low-quality or unreliable information.

"In other words, he's not worth the effort," Piernick said.


h/t RantBurg

People taking ownership.

Iraq, Kuwait hold highest-level talks since Saddam

BAGHDAD (AP) - Iraq took another step toward healing its rift with Kuwait on Thursday as government leaders welcomed the highest-ranking Kuwaiti envoy since Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion.

The timing of the visit by Kuwait's deputy prime minister, Sheik Mohammed Al Sabah, was symbolic - it came Kuwaitis celebrated the 18th anniversary of the U.S.-led military campaign that drove out Saddam's forces.

But much of tiny Persian Gulf nation was left looted and devastated by the Iraqi occupation, and Kuwait still claims billions of dollars in war reparations. It has refused appeals by Iraq's government to reduce its demands and forgive about $15 billion in Iraqi debt.

There was no mention of the payments in public statements during Thursday's talks, but Iraq's prime minister made a point of denouncing Saddam's aggression.

"We are working on the concepts of security and stability, not the ideas of weapons and dictatorship of the Saddam era," Nouri al-Maliki said after meeting with Sheik Mohammed, who is also Kuwait's foreign minister.

Kuwait and several other mostly Sunni Muslim Arab nations have restored diplomatic ties with Iraq, but they remain wary of the Shiite-led government's relations with the predominantly Shiite Persians of Iran.

The Kuwait News Agency said Mohammed was expected to make another official visit to Baghdad soon with Kuwait's prime minister, Sheik Nasser Al Mohammed Al Sabah. No date was set for that visit.

Ties between Kuwait and Iraq were severed when Saddam invaded. But they resumed relations after Saddam's was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and a Kuwaiti ambassador arrived last fall.

In southern Iraq on Thursday, authorities buried the remains of more than 480 Iraqi soldiers killed in two wars during Saddam's rule.

The ceremony near Basra included the remains of troops from Iraq's 1980-88 war with Iran and the 1991 U.S.-led offensive that ended Iraq's seven-month occupation of Kuwait. The graves included the remains of nearly 250 soldiers returned by Iran last year and more than 60 sent from Saudi Arabia, where some of the 1991 fighting spilled over.

The director of Basra's human rights commission, Mahdi al-Timimi, said the remains of 309 soldiers had been identified. The rest remain unknown. Relatives can ask to exhume a family member's remains for burial in another site.

More than 1 million people died in the Iran-Iraq war and Iraqi soldiers suffered heavy losses in being driven from Kuwait. U.S. warplanes later enforced no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq.

Meanwhile, two Iraqi soldiers were killed and 12 other people - mostly students - wounded in a roadside bombing in Baghdad on Thursday, apparently targeting a military patrol near Baghdad University, police and hospital officials said.

The officials gave the casualty toll on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.

Iraqi security forces have frequently been targeted by extremists seeking to derail security gains. The Iraqis are usually more vulnerable than heavily armored American troops.

A court in the southern city of Nasiriyah imposed death sentences for 28 members of a messianic Shiite cult - Jund al-Samaa, or the Soldiers of Heaven - for attacking police and Shiite pilgrims during major religious observances in January 2008. At least 15 people were killed in the clashes.

The cult, which is considered heretical by mainstream Shiite clerics, seeks to hasten the return of a Shiite saint who followers believe will lead a time of peace and justice.

The court sentenced 18 other members to life in prison.


Obama to Seek New Assault Weapons Ban

The Obama administration will seek to reinstate the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 during the Bush administration, Attorney General Eric Holder said today.

"As President Obama indicated during the campaign, there are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons," Holder told reporters.

Holder said that putting the ban back in place would not only be a positive move by the United States, it would help cut down on the flow of guns going across the border into Mexico, which is struggling with heavy violence among drug cartels along the border.

"I think that will have a positive impact in Mexico, at a minimum." Holder said at a news conference on the arrest of more than 700 people in a drug enforcement crackdown on Mexican drug cartels operating in the U.S.

Mexican government officials have complained that the availability of sophisticated guns from the United States have emboldened drug traffickers to fight over access routes into the U.S.

A State Department travel warning issued Feb. 20, 2009, reflected government concerns about the violence.

"Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades," the warning said. "Large firefights have taken place in many towns and cities across Mexico, but most recently in northern Mexico, including Tijuana, Chihuahua City and Ciudad Juarez."

At the news conference today, Holder described his discussions with his Mexican counterpart about the recent spike in violence.

"I met yesterday with Attorney General Medina Mora of Mexico, and we discussed the unprecedented levels of violence his country is facing because of their enforcement efforts," he said.

Holder declined to offer any time frame for the reimplementation of the assault weapons ban, however.

"It's something, as I said, that the president talked about during the campaign," he said. "There are obviously a number of things that are -- that have been taking up a substantial amount of his time, and so, I'm not sure exactly what the sequencing will be."

In a brief interview with ABC News, Wayne LaPierre, president of the National Rifle Association, said, "I think there are a lot of Democrats on Capitol Hill cringing at Eric Holder's comments right now."

During his confirmation hearing, Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee about other gun control measures the Obama administration may consider.

"I think closing the gun show loophole, the banning of cop-killer bullets and I also think that making the assault weapons ban permanent, would be something that would be permitted under Heller," Holder said, referring to the Supreme Court ruling in Washington, D.C. v. Heller, which asserted the Second Amendment as an individual's right to own a weapon.

The Assault Weapons Ban signed into law by President Clinton in 1994 banned 19 types of semi-automatic military-style guns and ammunition clips with more than 10 rounds.

"A semi-automatic is a quintessential self-defense firearm owned by American citizens in this country," LaPierre said. "I think it is clearly covered under Heller and it's clearly, I think, protected by the Constitution."


Stimulus for the gun industry. I guess those people don't deserve a job. If we really wanted to stem the flow of guns to Mexico we would end the prohibition that fuel the drug trade...

US military weaning Iraq's army from support

TAJI, Iraq (AP) - There was the time the Iraqis spent millions of dollars on ammunition from Romania, only to discover that it was defective or didn't fit their U.S.- or Russian-made weapons. Or when the Iraqis bought portable kitchens which didn't work in the field.

The U.S. military has put in countless hours training Iraqi security forces in battlefield and police tactics.

But the Obama administration's apparent plans to withdraw combat troops by August 2010 - and the remaining servicemen by the end of the following year - has some commanders concerned about something else: Iraq's ability to equip and maintain its own forces.

"They are at the basic level. They can feed themselves. They can fuel themselves. They can arm themselves," said Australian Brig. Gen. David McGahey, who heads the U.S.-led task force aimed at helping the Iraqi armed forces fend for themselves after the eventual pull out.

But "giant gaps" remain in the Iraqi supply system, particularly a shortage of mechanics for vehicle maintenance and repairs, that may take "years and years" to close, he added.

Other challenges, commanders say, is a lack of modern technology to track parts and services. Iraq uses an antiquated paperwork system.

Under the plan President Barack Obama is expected to announce as early as this week, 30,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops - out of an estimated 142,000 currently in Iraq - would remain in the country beyond August 2010 to advise, train and help outfit the Iraqi armed forces.

The complete withdrawal of American forces will apparently take place by December 2011, the period by which the U.S. agreed with Iraq to remove all troops.

The Iraqis had long depended on American logistics and supplies as their main lifeline in the fight against militants and their own struggles to rebuild.

Since late last year, however, the U.S. has stopped fueling and feeding the Iraqis.

"We are not giving them parts. We are not giving them fuel. We are not fixing it for them," said Army Col. Ed Dorman, who works on logistics and supply for Multi-National Corps Iraq.

Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 American commander in Iraq, has given his commanders an April deadline to make sure Iraq's ability to supply its basic needs - fuel, weapons and maintenance - does not impede its ability to roll out on a mission.

To date, there have been no reports that the Iraqi military has been unable to respond to a mission since they began taking care of their basic needs, according to Dorman.

"You may have heard some people say Iraqi logistics is broken. I don't think that's accurate," said Army Brig. Gen. Steven Salazar, the deputy commanding general at Multi-National Security Transition Command.

"It remains under construction."

Salazar said the real challenge for the Iraqi military will be to grow its logistics capabilities along with expansion of its 620,000-member military and police forces.

"From a logistics standpoint, we know there is an awful lot of work to be done," he added.

American officials point to some successes: 500 Iraqis working to refurbishment and retrofit former U.S. Humvees at a supply depot in Taji, about 12 miles north of Baghdad. U.S. contractors are on hand in an advisory role.

"That program tells me it can be done if we get the right supervisor, the right tradesmen," McGahey said.

The Iraqi government has purchased nearly $5 billion in military items from the U.S. since 2006. It also has inquired about another $3.8 billion in military-grade purchases.

But there are glaring shortfalls: purchases of useless equipment - such as the field kitchens and the Romanian ammo - as well as reports of internal corruption.

The costly miscues are blamed on "catalog shopping," buying without examining products or purchasing items without manuals or service contracts, said a U.S. military official familiar with Iraq's logistics practices. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

The more nagging problem, though, appears to be missing money.

The Iraqi army pays its brigade commanders a weekly cash stipend to feed troops. The U.S. military has praised the program for putting money back into Iraqi communities.

But reports have surfaced of some commanders putting dozens of soldiers on leave every week to pocket unspent money.

"They get the same amount of money if they have 25 people there or 50 people there," said the military official.

The Iraqi logistics distribution network is still largely centralized, based on a British colonial system used under Saddam Hussein. By contrast, the U.S. military allows units to order through a regionalized system rather than from one central source.

McGahey said the Americans are not trying to reinvent the Iraqi supply chain.

"There is no silver bullet. What we need to do is understand the way they do it and improve the system by cutting out the inefficiencies and cutting out the corruption," McGahey said.

"Will it evolve like the U.S. system, the Australian system? No. It'll evolve like the Iraqi system."


At some point they have to step up and do their own thing. In this I agree with President Obama, Iraqis need to take ownership of their own problems.

CIA Signals Continuity With Bush Era

WASHINGTON -- The Central Intelligence Agency's new director outlined spy policies Wednesday, including an aggressive campaign in Pakistan, that underscored considerable continuity with the Bush administration.

CIA Director Leon Panetta, in his first meeting with reporters, said the agency will continue to carry out drone attacks on militants in Pakistan. He also said that while CIA interrogations will have new limits, President Barack Obama can still use his wartime powers to authorize harsher techniques if necessary.

Among changes under way at the CIA, the agency is now assembling a daily Economic Intelligence Brief to monitor the global economic slowdown's impact on stability. Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela are facing "serious problems" that threaten their economic stability, Mr. Panetta said.

Mr. Obama moved quickly to set a date for shutting down the Guantanamo Bay prison and to close the CIA's detention network, but the changes to spy operations appear to be on the margins. The main change Mr. Panetta has planned, he said, is to establish "a clear set of ground rules" for interrogations and detainee treatment that are "in line with our ideals."

Mr. Panetta referred to the Predator-drone strikes in Pakistan as "operational efforts,'' to avoid discussing them directly. He said they are "probably the most effective weapon we have to try to disrupt al Qaeda right now.'' Mr. Obama and National Security Adviser James Jones have strongly endorsed their use, he said.

The Obama administration has also shown a reluctance to overturn Bush administration views on certain terrorism-related legal matters. Earlier this month, it backed Bush-era positions that a case against a contractor alleged to have helped with CIA renditions shouldn't go forward because it will reveal "state secrets," and that detainees in Afghanistan don't have the right to challenge their detention in a U.S. court. Coming cases that will provide additional signals include a lawsuit to force the release of Justice Department memos on anti-terrorism policies.

On interrogations, Mr. Panetta said he believes the CIA can be effective if it limits itself to the 19 techniques the military is allowed to use. He said the administration is evaluating the effectiveness of so-called enhanced interrogation tactics such as waterboarding and will make recommendations to the president on what techniques should be allowed. In the interim, only the 19 techniques will be used.

Mr. Panetta clarified his position on renditions, in which the CIA transports detainees to another country. "We are obviously going to seek assurances from that country that their human rights are protected and that they are not mistreated," he said. That position is in line with the stated position of previous administrations, though some detainees who were rendered during the Bush administration say they were tortured.

Mr. Panetta also said he would focus more spy efforts on emerging terrorist hot spots, like Somalia and Yemen, that could become future al Qaeda havens.

Beyond terrorism, Mr. Panetta said the CIA is expanding its analysis of economic conditions around the world. The global economic crisis, he said, "is affecting the stability of the world, and as an intelligence agency, we have to pay attention to that."

The first daily economic brief to the president put together by the CIA went out Wednesday. Mr. Panetta has tapped his top economic analysts to work on it, though he said he may have to bolster his economic team down the line. Republican lawmakers have voiced skepticism about intelligence analysts tackling problems, like economic assessments, that aren't traditionally considered spy work.

Within the agency, Mr. Panetta said he is looking to raise linguistic and cultural fluency. Currently, just 13% of CIA officers and analysts have foreign-language proficiency, he said, adding that his goal is to get the agency on track to reach 100%. He said he will work to improve diversity at the agency, raising the proportion of minorities in the work force to 30% from 22%.


A Quiet Filled With Wariness

BAGHDAD -- Ali Basheer no longer avoids the market, where Shiite militiamen once preyed on Sunnis like him. He no longer instructs his 12-year-old son to lie about his name -- Omar, so clearly Sunni that only a year ago it could have gotten him kidnapped, even killed. And the graffiti outside their house that glorified Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia is scratched out.

But Basheer's fear has not entirely faded: On his wall, he still hangs a large poster of Imam Hussein, one of Shiite Islam's revered figures. He hopes it will win the protection of his Shiite neighbors.

"The situation can erupt at any moment," he explains.

Over the past three years, the lives of the residents of the Baghdad neighborhood of Tobji have closely tracked Iraq's own evolution -- from the throes of sectarian violence to a cautious reawakening ushered in by U.S. strategy, Iraqi political changes and intense security measures. The Mahdi Army has vanished from the streets, replaced by a wary calm, with last month's peaceful provincial elections the latest milestone in Tobji's transformation. Dozens of once-displaced Sunni families have returned to their homes.

But in this mixed enclave, viewed by many as a microcosm of Iraq's diversity, mistrust smolders beneath the surface, even as residents enjoy their new freedoms. The scars of sectarian strife are so deep that some residents say it will take years to return to the Iraq they remember, if ever. Iraq's political constellation is sharply realigning as a result of the elections, so residents are also bracing for new political and intra-sectarian conflicts as the U.S. withdraws.

"They are living together again, but the relationships between Sunnis and Shiites are not quite like before," said Haider al-Minshidawi, 40, a Shiite tribal leader in this neighborhood of cinder-block houses and mazes of narrow streets. "The tensions are still strong."

"The killings have ended in Tobji, but people still want revenge," said Khalid Jamal Hussein, 32, a Sunni pharmacist. "There's been too much bloodshed. Reconciliation will take a generation."

'Life Is Back to Normal'

At first glance, Tobji seems finally at peace.

Hashim Aziz can cut hair again without fear. When the Mahdi Army controlled the enclave, it banned Western-style haircuts, whipping disobedient young men and their barbers. Now, "everybody gets haircuts, any style they want," said Aziz, 53, flashing a smile, as the street outside pulsed with activity. "Life is back to normal."

Haircuts were only one of the ways the militia ruled Tobji, a working-class community of Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians that became a sectarian battlefield after the bombing of a Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra in February 2006. At first, the Mahdi Army was respected, viewed by most Shiites as their defense against Sunni insurgents. The militiamen controlled checkpoints and conducted night patrols.

But soon they demanded protection money and ran extortion rackets, while displacing Sunni families who had lived here for generations. Many fighters ran death squads, refusing to obey a cease-fire order Sadr imposed in August 2007 to improve his movement's image.

By last spring, the militiamen were on the run. Backed by U.S. troops, Iraqi forces were emboldened by government offensives against the militias in the southern city of Basra and in Baghdad's Sadr City district. American and Iraqi troops arrested many militia leaders; others fled Tobji.

One Tobji man, Salam al-Hamrani, a Shiite, was so enraged when militiamen killed his cousin that he formed his own tribal force to push the Mahdi Army out of the neighborhood, residents said.

Today, Tobji feels like a military base. Tan Iraqi armored vehicles are positioned at every entrance. A new police headquarters, circled by 15-foot blast walls, has been built on the edge of the neighborhood. American convoys still patrol virtually every day.

The measures give Azhar Assad enough confidence to stock his liquor cabinet, grow his hair and walk with his girlfriend on the street -- actions punishable as un-Islamic when the Mahdi Army ruled.

"A lot has changed," noted the 24-year-old teacher, who is a member of Iraq's minority Sabian religious community.

At the Jamahir secondary school, deputy principal Abdallah Muhammed no longer worries about Mahdi Army fighters scouring the student body for new recruits or targeting young Sunnis. Four students were killed in recent years. Muhammed, a Sunni, received two death threats; fighters riddled his house with bullets.

"It is impossible for them to come back to control again. The citizens now know who their real enemy is. And the law is strong now," said Muhammed, 49. "The killers are gone forever."

Militia Biding Its Time

Mahdi Army commanders haven't left Tobji. In an industrial section of the enclave, one met with a visitor inside a small mosque. Outside, graffiti on a wall near a railroad track read: "The Mahdi Army is taking a break. We'll be back soon."

Abu Sajjad, slim with a trim mustache, described himself as a "good" Mahdi Army leader who had saved several Sunnis from Shiite death squads. The "bad" ones, he said, came from outside Tobji, after American forces arrested many of the good leaders. About 30 percent of the militia remains in Tobji, he said, waiting for the appropriate time to reemerge.

"The 70 percent who fled are not real Mahdi Army," said Abu Sajjad, who used a nickname because he is still on a wanted list. "They did bad things using the name of the Mahdi Army."

But residents said Abu Sajjad had ordered killings, policed the ban on Western haircuts and forced women to wear head scarves.

Abu Sajjad now considers his biggest enemy to be the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, an influential Shiite political party, and its armed wing, the Badr Organization. "They want to divide Iraq," he said. "They are all with Iran."

Abu Sajjaf is also concerned about the Sunnis in Tobji. He and his men keep watch on returning families, as well as on the Sunni Egheidat section of the neighborhood, where fierce sectarian battles were fought in 2006. Abu Sajjaf still considers many of the residents to be insurgents affiliated with the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political bloc.

"There are Islamic Party sleeper cells, and there are Mahdi Army sleeper cells," said Abu Sajjaf, leaving the mosque. "We keep notes on who the Sunnis are. But we can't do anything. Moqtada Sadr gave us orders to keep down our weapons. We will rise up, if he gives us the orders."

He walked up the street and crossed the railroad tracks. He exchanged greetings with an Egheidat man, and said he had personally intervened to save the man's brother from a Shiite death squad.

After the man left, Abu Sajjad pointed at a concrete warehouse owned by a Sunni but now occupied by a Shiite family. "That's where the Sunnis were taken to get slaughtered," he said matter-of-factly.

"The bad Sunnis," he swiftly added.

A Disintegration of Trust

Eight months ago, Khalil Ibrahim al-Sammarai, 61, returned to Tobji. Ever since, the retired Sunni government official has waited for his son's killers. One, he said, is in Camp Bucca, the American-run prison in southern Iraq. Another is in the custody of the Iraqi security forces. A third, he believes, has been killed.

They were all his neighbors.

"I am going to drink their blood," Sammarai said. "As Arabs, we will not forget our revenge for 40 years."

Three months ago, his 24-year-old son Bakr also returned, after fleeing to Syria. Now, he often visits the Shiite areas of Tobji, not out of comfort, but hate. "Perhaps I will find one of the killers," Bakr said. "If I see one of them, I will kill him."

"Some of the Shiites are good. We can be friends," he continued. "But other Shiites? I avoid them. The picture in Tobji has changed. It's not like what it once was."

"The trust between us has been shaken," his father said.

Minshidawi, the Shiite tribal leader, said Sunni sheiks in the community used to visit his area often, coming over for cups of sweet tea or to give condolences at funerals. No longer. "They are only three streets away, but few people come here now," he said.

Centuries-old tribal customs to settle disputes are faltering. Both Sunni and Shiite leaders report that the payment of blood money is in decline. "The Sunni people don't feel fully secure. Some are afraid to go and press charges against the Shia," said Abu Abdallah al-Jaff, a Kurdish Sunni elder.

Two months ago, the father of one of the men Sammarai believes killed his son offered compensation. Sammarai demanded that the man's son confess to the killing and never return to the neighborhood. The father refused.

Abu Mahtez al-Jenabi, an unemployed Sunni auto mechanic, returned to Tobji three months ago, a broken man. His right arm, drilled with bullets during a drive-by shooting in May 2007, hangs limp. Last week, he saw the Shiite man who he believes ordered the attempted killing.

He avoided him.

"There is a lot of grief inside me, and it will be there for a long time," said Jenabi, a bald man with a silvery mustache.

Yet Jenabi represents the potential for reconciliation in Tobji. Once, he knew three-quarters of Tobji. Today, the only man he socializes with is his neighbor, Abu Haider, who was sitting next to him the day he was shot. Abu Haider is a Shiite.

Jenabi's other neighbors were too afraid of the Mahdi Army to help him. But Abu Haider got him to the hospital.

"Only Abu Haider cares about me," Jenabi said.

The Perils of Politics

Abu Muhammed al-Egheidi, a Sunni imam, should be happy. His congregation at the as-Sahail mosque now numbers 400 during Friday prayers; at the height of Tobji's sectarian war, he was lucky to get 50.

Many of his followers crossed sectarian lines to vote for a coalition backed by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the provincial elections, citing his record of bringing security to the area. Tired of rule by religious parties, they also considered Maliki more secular.

But Egheidi wonders how long Tobji's calm will last. He worries that Maliki's political rivals, especially Shiite religious parties that fear his growing power, will try to undermine his efforts to separate politics from religion and bolster rule of law.

"People are afraid for the future," Egheidi said. Then he predicted: "It's a time bomb. It will explode in a few months."

"Now, it's about who is going to take power between the parties. And politics is a dangerous game."

Most Sunnis are concerned about the U.S. military drawdown, viewing U.S. soldiers as not only their protectors but the power behind Maliki. They also don't trust the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces and worry that Iran will fill the vacuum after U.S. troops leave.

"If the Americans leave here, blood will flow in the river," Egheidi said.

Shiites, too, are concerned. If the heavy American-backed security is lifted, "people will pick up weapons on their own to defend themselves," said Hassan Taher, the Shiite head of the local council. "Then we will be back to square one again."

Minshidawi, the Shiite tribal leader, lives in front of the railroad tracks and near the warehouse where Sunnis were once executed. When asked about the future of his community, he sighed and replied: "If the people get a better life, they might forget the past more easily."