Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Pentagon denies US test-fired Trident missile

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Pentagton denied Wednesday that the United States test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads during a joint military exercise with Saudi Arabia.

A Western military official in Saudi Arabia, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said a Trident missile was launched Wednesday out in the kingdom. But Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, a Pentagon spokesman, said there was no launch of Trident or any other missile during the exercise, which began last week.

The U.S. has been strengthening missile defenses in allied Arab nations in the Gulf to help counter any potential missile strike from Iran. Like its nuclear work, Iran's missile program is of top concern to Washington and Arab nations wary of Tehran's growing influence in the region.

The Western military official in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, said U.S. Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, head of the Missile Defense Agency, attended the test launch, but a second defense official in the United States said that while O'Reilly was in the region last week, he did not attend a missile launch.


Maybe O's a sunni, maybe not.

Al-Sadr asks backers for input on future Iraq PM

BAGHDAD (AP) - Iraq's political disarray deepened Wednesday when a potential kingmaker withheld his support from both big election winners and said he would ask his supporters to make the choice in a referendum.

Compounding the confusion, the incumbent prime minister refused to abandon his claim of fraud and his demand for a recount.

A coalition led by secular challenger Ayad Allawi, a Shiite who drew on deep Sunni support, eked out a two-seat lead over a mainly Shiite bloc led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in results released last Friday.

That gave a pivotal role to Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite and powerful anti-American cleric. Al-Sadr's hardline, religious Shiite party, which won at least 39 of the 325 parliamentary seats in the March 7 election, has emerged as a key powerbroker whose support will prove crucial in determining whether Allawi's or al-Maliki's bloc will form the next government.

While the Sadrists ostensibly belong to a Shiite religious bloc which has supported al-Maliki in the past, they have a deep-rooted animosity for him after he jailed thousands of their supporters and routed their militias in Basra and eastern Baghdad.

So far they have opposed joining any coalition in which al-Maliki would be the prime minister.

The referendum would give the Sadrist leadership an excuse not to support al-Maliki and openly back another candidate under the guise of following what the people want.

"It's more sort of symbolic and populist and trying to display a measure of strength, and also to say that our position is a reflection of the will of the people," said Michael Hanna, an Iraq analyst with the New York-based Century Foundation.

The poll is also another sign of the young cleric's growing political clout within this Shiite-dominated country, and adds to the Sadrists' appeal among many Iraqis frustrated with a political system in which much of the negotiations and decision-making happens behind closed doors.

A spokesman for al-Sadr, Salah al-Obeidi, said Wednesday that the referendum results would be binding on the party. The voting would be Friday and Saturday at al-Sadr offices, mosques and other sites across the country. Al-Sadr first called for the referendum Tuesday on his Web site.

People taking part in the poll would be allowed to choose from five candidates, including al-Maliki and Allawi and be allowed to write in someone of their choosing. Al-Obeidi said all Iraqis would be allowed to take part in the poll.

Meanwhile, al-Maliki defended his decision to challenge the election results, maintaining it was not an attempt to change the outcome in his favor.

"The aim is not to increase or decrease a seat, but to remove suspicion," the prime minister said at a news conference in Baghdad.

Al-Maliki has vociferously challenged the election and called for a recount. His bloc has submitted legal complaints as well.

The prime minister said his negotiating team has been working to form a coalition but has so far not reached any tangible results. Specifically, he said his coalition had been talking with the religious Shiite Iraqi National Alliance and the Kurds but gave no specifics about what had been discussed and what were the sticking points in the negotiations.

His challenger Allawi, meanwhile, met with Iraq's president, a Kurd, in an effort to shore up Kurdish support he would need to form a government.

Allawi said his bloc had been surprised at the meetings that had taken place in neighboring Iran between various political figures. Some members of the INA, which has ties to Iran, and al-Maliki's State of Law are believed to have traveled to Iran in recent days where al-Sadr, himself, is currently based.

Allawi, who had served as an interim prime minister ahead of the 2005 elections, said his bloc had received no invitation to go to Iran and that he had a delegation go to the Iranian Embassy to discuss the issue on Tuesday.

Allawi said the delegation had been told that Iran is open to all winning blocs, but Allawi said he is concerned about what he described as interference in Iraq's political process.

The U.N. Security Council, meanwhile, called on all political parties to respect Iraq's election results and the choices of the Iraqi people.

The U.N.'s most powerful body also urged the country's political leaders "to avoid inflammatory rhetoric and actions."


Resupply Night Drop - Afghanistan

Sallie Mae to Cut Thousands of Jobs Due to President's Student Loan Overhaul

Powerhouse student loan provider Sallie Mae tells Fox News that as a direct result of President Obama's new student loan overhaul, it will have to start cutting jobs... and soon.

"This legislation will force Sallie Mae to reduce our 8,600 person workforce by 2,500," Conwey Casillas, Vice President of Sallie Mae Public Affairs, told Fox in a statement.

The President was at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria Tuesday to sign student loan changes into law. The new bill includes a provision for the government to begin directly lending to students. The loans will bypass financial institutions which have traditionally provided the loans and, Mr. Obama says, soaked up billions in subsidies.

"Now, it probably won't surprise you to learn that the big banks and financial institutions hired a army of lobbyists to protect the status quo," the President said. "In fact, Sallie Mae, America's biggest student lender, spent more than $3 million on lobbying last year alone."

Indeed, Sallie Mae has been outspoken on the plan, calling it a "government takeover" just last month.

"The student loan provisions buried in the health care legislation intentionally eliminate valuable default prevention services and private sector jobs at a time when our country can least afford to lose them," Casillas told Fox.

But the White House says the provisions will have the opposite effect on jobs, “The Department of Education’s contract for private sector loan servicing requires that the processing be done in the United States. As a result, we are already seeing thousands of loan servicing jobs that had been sent overseas return to this country,” White House Spokesman Tommy Vietor tells Fox.

Sallie Mae had been trying to garner support for an alternative to the Obama plan, which the company said was roundly rejected. "We are profoundly disappointed that a reform plan that would have achieved more savings for students was ignored and now thousands of student loan experts will unnecessarily lose their jobs."

The administration is confident that along with the increasing volume of federal loans will come an increase in jobs to service those loans. “While work at lending institutions will shift as a result of the legislation, the net domestic jobs impact will in all likelihood be positive,” Vietor says.

Mr. Obama says he's merely looking out for those in need, "I didn't stand with the banks and the financial industries in this fight. That's not why I came to Washington. And neither did any of the members of Congress who are here today. We stood with you. We stood with America's students. And together, we finally won that battle."

The President says the move will save billions; money which can be geared to supporting education programs, therefore indirectly creating new jobs.

But the student loan industry says a bipartisan alternative could have saved billions more by tackling the student loan default rate.

Sallie Mae does not know when jobs will start getting slashed, but, Casillas said, "The job loss will start soon."


Texas Town on High Alert as Mexican Town Across Border Braces for Cartel Gun Battle

At least 30 residents of El Porvenir, located about four miles from the Texas border town of Fort Hancock, have crossed into the U.S. and asked for political asylum, telling authorities that they fear for their lives.

Residents of a small Mexican border town under siege by at least one of the country’s most notorious drug cartels are fleeing into a tiny Texas community, which is on high alert and preparing for a surge of illegal immigrants should a street battle break out with another cartel – or if gunmen begin carrying out a threat to start killing the town’s children.

At least 30 residents of El Porvenir, located about four miles from the Texas border town of Fort Hancock, have crossed into the U.S. and asked for political asylum, telling authorities that they fear for their lives. Fort Hancock officials tell that they consider the situation serious.

“We just got word that the cartel has threatened to kill children in schools across the border unless parents paid $5000 pesos,” said Mike Doyle, chief deputy sheriff of Hudspeth County. And that time might come sooner than later. Schools Superintendent Jose Franco said word has spread that everyone in the Mexican town must stay indoors while members of rival cartels prepare for a shootout.

“I may not be working in school that day. I may be working as a medic,” said Franco, who moonlights as an ambulance paramedic.

Franco also confirmed the ransom demand for students across the border, adding that some of his students had already paid the money to be left alone.

According to Doyle, the cartel posted signs in El Porvenir earlier in the month ordering people in the town of 10,000 “to get out or pay with blood.” He said he wasn’t sure of the deadline that was given. “We have heard anywhere from a week to 40 days,” he said.

Since then, Fort Hancock, population 1700, has been in the grip of fear. The school district has seen a rise in the number of enrolled students as families in Mexico send their children to live with relatives on the other side of the border.

The Fort Hancock high school, one secretary said, is preparing for more pupils and holding conferences with law enforcement on how to face the crisis. Franco says contingency plans are being drawn up in case the entire population of El Porvenir flees. “It is what we fear the most,” he said.

Doyle said his office is on “high alert.” So far there has been no violence on the U.S. side of the border, “but I have had a few Fort Hancock residents killed across the border,” he said.

A former law enforcement officer who lives in Fort Hancock and asked not to be named said the siege of El Porvenir is important because the town straddles one of the oldest, least defended smuggling routes on the Mexican border.

“It is one of the key staging areas for the cartel and has no fences," he said. "All they do is wait for shift change at the border posts and walk across. There is no obstruction to crossing the border here.”

And that, he said, “was the most likely cause of the violence 860 yards away.”

He said El Porvenir has been contested for some time, and machine gun fire is often heard coming from the town. “The mayor and his son were recently murdered,” he said. “They even have a pickup truck with a .50 caliber machine gun on top.”

While the problem has been seething for some time, it has finally gotten attention from both Washington and Austin. Last week Texas Gov. Rick Perry ordered a multiagency task force to the area. Rep. Kay Granger, the area congresswoman, pushed through the sale of three helicopters to the Mexican government to monitor the area. And the local sheriff has shifted patrols to the area in the hopes of stemming any violence that might spread across the border.


Moscow fears tide of Black Widows

Russian security services were hunting for more “Black Widows” yesterday amid fears that the women who blew themselves up in the Moscow Metro were part of a 30-strong suicide squad trained by a Chechen terrorist leader.

Agents from the Federal Security Service (FSB) believe that the women were avenging the death of Said Buryatsky, the leading ideologue of the Islamist rebels in the North Caucasus, who was killed this month in Ingushetia. They were trying to establish whether the attack was a one-off response to his death or the start of a suicide bombing campaign that he had prepared before the FSB tracked him down.

Moscow observed a day of mourning as a woman who died in hospital became the bombers’ 39th victim. Police circulated grisly photographs of the facial remains of the Black Widows in an attempt to identify the women who blew themselves up on trains at Lubyanka station, next to the FSB’s headquarters, and at Park Kultury.

Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister, urged security chiefs to drag out “from the bottom of the sewers” those who had planned the bombings, in language that recalled his 1999 pledge to pursue terrorists and “waste them in the outhouse”. He said: “It’s a matter of honour for law enforcement bodies to scrape them from the bottom of the sewers and into the daylight.”

President Medvedev has threatened to destroy the people behind Moscow’s worst terrorist attack for six years. But he also urged officials to improve living conditions in the North Caucasus to draw people away from extremism. “People want a normal and decent life, no matter where they live,” he said.

Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed President, offered a characteristic response in the newspaper Izvestia, writing: “We believe that terrorists must be hunted down; they must be poisoned like rats.”

Buryatsky, a Muslim convert who was born Alexander Tikhomirov, was among six militants killed in an FSB operation in Ingushetia on March 2. The Kremlin described him then as the mastermind behind a bomb attack on the Nevsky Express train between Moscow and St Petersburg that killed 26 and wounded 100 in November.

He was also blamed for the suicide bombing that almost succeeded in assassinating Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, Ingushetia’s President, last June and the attack in August that devastated the main police station in Nazran, the Ingush capital, killing 20 officers.

Kommersant newspaper reported that the FSB believed nine of the thirty bombers trained by Buryatsky had blown themselves up. The rest were still at large, raising fears that more were in Moscow.

Mr Yevkurov ordered security services to check on relatives of militants killed in recent police operations in Ingushetia to establish if any were linked with the Metro attacks. The FSB was also said to be checking lists of relatives of those killed alongside Buryatsky, particularly women.

Dozens of contributors to websites affiliated to al-Qaeda left messages praising the attacks in Moscow. One site opened a special page to “receive congratulations” for the Black Widows who, it said, had “started the dark tunnel attacks in the apostate countries”.

In a sign of the anxiety sweeping Moscow, Christ the Saviour Cathedral was evacuated after a bomb threat. About 100 people were saying prayers for the bomb victims when police cleared the building to hunt for devices before giving the all-clear.

Buryatsky was the right-hand man to Doku Umarov, the self-styled emir of a planned Islamist state stretching across the North Caucasus. Umarov threatened last month that he would soon take the war to Russia, saying: “Blood will no longer be limited to our cities and towns.”

Umarov, 45, fought in both of Chechnya’s separatist wars with Russia in the 1990s and served as its security minister during its brief spell of independence. The security services have repeatedly proclaimed him to have been killed, most recently last June, but he continues to elude them.

He once rejected attacks on civilians but shifted tack recently, saying: “We try to avoid civilian targets but for me there are no civilians in Russia. Why? Because a genocide of our people is being carried out with their consent.”


Muslim Scholars Recast Jihadists' Favorite Fatwa

PARIS (Reuters) - Prominent Muslim scholars have recast a famous medieval fatwa on jihad, arguing the religious edict radical Islamists often cite to justify killing cannot be used in a globalized world that respects faith and civil rights.

A conference in Mardin in southeastern Turkey declared the fatwa by 14th century scholar Ibn Taymiyya rules out militant violence and the medieval Muslim division of the world into a "house of Islam" and "house of unbelief" no longer applies.

Osama bin Laden has quoted Ibn Taymiyya's "Mardin fatwa" repeatedly in his calls for Muslims to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and wage jihad against the United States.

Referring to that historic document, the weekend conference said: "Anyone who seeks support from this fatwa for killing Muslims or non-Muslims has erred in his interpretation.

"It is not for a Muslim individual or a Muslim group to announce and declare war or engage in combative jihad ... on their own," said the declaration issued Sunday in Arabic and later provided to Reuters in English.

The declaration is the latest bid by mainstream scholars to use age-old Muslim texts to refute current-day religious arguments by Islamist groups. A leading Pakistani scholar issued a 600-page fatwa against terrorism in London early this month.

Another declaration in Dubai this month concerned peace in Somalia. Such fatwas may not convince militants, but could help keep undecided Muslims from supporting them, the scholars say.

The Mardin conference gathered 15 leading scholars from countries including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India, Senegal, Kuwait, Iran, Morocco and Indonesia. Among them were Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah of Mauritania and Yemeni Sheikh Habib Ali al-Jifri.


Ibn Taymiyya's Mardin fatwa is a classic text for militants who say it allows Muslims to declare other Muslims infidels and wage war on them. The scholars said this view had to be seen in its historic context of medieval Mongol raids on Muslim lands.

But the scholars said it was actually about overcoming the old view of a world divided into Muslim and non-Muslim spheres and reinterpreting Islam in changing political situations.

The emergence of civil states that guard religious, ethnic and national rights "has necessitated declaring the entire world a place of tolerance and peaceful co-existence between all religious, groups and factions," their declaration said.

Aref Ali Nayed, a Libyan who heads the Dubai theological think-tank Kalam Research and Media, told the conference the great Muslim empires of the past were not a model for a globalized world where borders were increasingly irrelevant.

"We must not be obsessed with an Islam conceived of only geographically and politically," he said.

"Living in the diaspora is often more conducive to healthy and sincere Muslim living. Empires and carved-out 'Islamic states' often make us complacent."

Nayed said Muslims must also understand that "not all types of secularisms are anti-religious." The United States has stayed religious despite its separation of church and state, but some "French Revolution-like secularisms" were anti-religious.

The declaration ended with a call to Muslim scholars for more research to explain the context of medieval fatwas on public issues and show "what is hoped to be gained from a sound and correct understanding of their respective legacies."


EXCLUSIVE: Iran Nuclear Scientist Defects to U.S. In CIA 'Intelligence Coup'

An award-winning Iranian nuclear scientist, who disappeared last year under mysterious circumstances, has defected to the CIA and been resettled in the United States, according to people briefed on the operation by intelligence officials.

The officials were said to have termed the defection of the scientist, Shahram Amiri, "an intelligence coup" in the continuing CIA operation to spy on and undermine Iran's nuclear program.

A spokesperson for the CIA declined to comment. In its declassified annual report to Congress, the CIA said, "Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons though we do not know whether Tehran eventually will decide to produce nuclear weapons."

Amiri, a nuclear physicist in his early 30s, went missing last June three days after arriving in Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage, according to the Iranian government. He worked at Tehran's Malek Ashtar University, which is closely connected to Iran's Revolutionary Guard, according to the Associated Press.

"The significance of the coup will depend on how much the scientist knew in the compartmentalized Iranian nuclear program," said former White House counter-terrorism official Richard Clarke, an ABC News consultant. "Just taking one scientist out of the program will not really disrupt it."

Iran's Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, and other Iranian officials last year blamed the U.S. for "kidnapping" Amiri, but his whereabouts had remained a mystery until now.

According to the people briefed on the intelligence operation, Amiri's disappearance was part of a long-planned CIA operation to get him to defect. The CIA reportedly approached the scientist in Iran through an intermediary who made an offer of resettlement on behalf of the United States.

Since the late 1990s, the CIA has attempted to recruit Iranian scientists and officials through contacts made with relatives living in the United States, according to former U.S. intelligence officials. Case officers have been assigned to conduct hundreds of interviews with Iranian-Americans in the Los Angeles area in particular, the former officials said.

Amiri has been extensively debriefed since his defection by the CIA, according to the people briefed on the situation. They say Amiri helped to confirm U.S. intelligence assessments about the Iranian nuclear program.

In September, President Barack Obama announced the U.S., the United Kingdom and France had evidence that Iran "has been building a covert uranium enrichment facility near Qom for several years."

One Iranian web site reported that Amiri had worked at the Qom facility prior to his defection.

The New York Times reported Saturday that international inspectors and Western intelligence agencies suspect "Tehran is preparing to build more sites in defiance of United Nations demands."

Officials at Iran's mission to the United Nations did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

"The Americans are definitely letting the Iranians know that they are active in going after Iran's nuclear program," said Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American journalist.

A colleague of Amiri's at Tehran University called the disappearance "a disturbing sign" and blamed the Saudis for helping the U.S., according government-approved English-language web site Press TV.

"The Saudi regime has effectively discredited itself and will be seen by those who know what has gone on in the region as being confined to American demands and effectively abiding by American wishes," said Mohammad Marandi, a Tehran University professor, according to the Iranian web site.


US test-fires Trident missile in drill with Saudis

CAIRO -- The United States test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads during a joint military exercise Wednesday with Saudi Arabia, a Western military official said.

The Trident missile launch was carried out in the kingdom, the official said, but he would not give a precise location. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The U.S. has been strengthening missile defenses in allied Arab nations in the Gulf to help counter any potential missile strike from Iran. Like its nuclear work, Iran's missile program is of top concern to Washington and Arab nations wary of Tehran's growing influence in the region.

A defense official in Washington confirmed the missile launch on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. He said, however, that it took place late last week and was part of a demonstration.

The Western military official in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, said U.S. Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, head of the Missile Defense Agency, attended the test launch.

Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited the kingdom to tell Saudi officials that the Obama administration's efforts for diplomatic engagement with Iran had come to naught, and he asked for the influential kingdom's help to win wide backing for biting economic penalties against Tehran over its nuclear program.

Gates also discussed bolstering Saudi air and missile defense capabilities as part of the broader U.S. effort to boost security in the Gulf in the face of Iran's expanding arsenal of ballistic missiles.

The United States has promised to speed up weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies, which have bought billions of dollars worth of American weapons - including missile defense hardware - in recent years.

The U.S. military is trying to reassure Gulf allies by buttressing its defense systems with upgraded Patriot missiles on land and more U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf capable of destroying missiles in flight.

The Patriot missile systems, which originally were deployed in the region to shoot down aircraft, have now been upgraded to hit missiles in flight.

Saudi Arabia has long warned of the potential for a nuclear arms race in the Gulf region if Iran were to gain the bomb. Iran's assurances that its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes such as power generation have failed to ease concerns.

On Monday Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khaled bin Sultan said Saudi and U.S. warplanes will carry out joint exercises soon.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"The ride out of Balad and onto Route Tampa was uneventful. Farms and fields of sunflower stretched out into the darkness.

We were the last truck in the formation. The rearguard for a convoy that needed to be escorted south. I could hear the turbodiesel idling through the static of the headset as we waited to turn onto the MSR.

A streak of red light pierced the night from right to left. Then another followed by a bright flash. Everything ground to a halt. Then confusing flashes of white light up ahead. Voices erupted on the net. A truck had been hit. It wasn't good. And we would be turning back. Two more men lost their lives in the vicinity of the now infamous and deadly Checkpoint 59 Alpha."
Chapter: War

The Afghan New Year

"The Afghan calendar is somewhat different than the standard western calendar. In fact, their whole system of time is different. Some years their celebration of such major holidays as Ramadan and New Year is in the middle of wintertime, other years, right smack dab in the middle of summer. This year, the Afghan new year of 1389 happened to fall in March. And just like Americans, the Afghans like to celebrate!"
270 Days in Afghanistan

Iraqi PM fights to hold power, risks sectarian war

BAGHDAD (AP) - Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's postelection strategy suggests he is prepared for a long and bitter fight to hold on to power, even if it alienates the country's Sunni community and risks new sectarian warfare.

The Iraqi leader is trying all sorts of legal maneuvers to deny victory to his chief opponent, former prime minister Ayad Allawi, whose secular, nationalist bloc won the most parliamentary seats in the March 7 elections and presumably the right to try to form a new government.

Even if al-Maliki sticks with nominally legal measures, he risks serious damage to all the efforts to ease sectarian tensions which had begun to bear fruit three years after the U.S. troop surge. A resurgence of major violence would complicate U.S. plans to withdraw all its forces from Iraq by the end of next year.

The showdown has cast a spotlight on Iraq's judicial process, which some have said is far from independent and often subject to outside pressures. And in such a young democracy with little institutional knowledge or precedent upon which to draw, the constitution and laws passed by parliament are not always clear.

No issue is potentially more explosive than a committee's attempts to disqualify some winning candidates because of ties to Saddam Hussein's regime. Sunnis view the committee, led by a Shiite with ties to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, as nothing other than a group dedicated to purging Sunnis from government.

While al-Maliki does not directly control the committee, he has certainly benefited from its actions and has done little to deter it. At least four candidates targeted by the committee are from Allawi's party list, which includes many Sunnis and won significant voter support from the minority sect. If a court disqualifies enough candidates to tilt the race in al-Maliki's favor, that would be a huge provocation to Sunnis.

Even before the final vote tallies were announced Friday, al-Maliki was maneuvering to put himself in a better position, likely sensing the results were not going his way.

The prime minister went to the Supreme Court on Thursday and asked for a legal definition of what constitutes the largest bloc. The constitution says the coalition with the largest bloc in parliament gets the first crack at forming a government.

Allawi's Iraqiya list has argued that this means their 91 seats - al-Maliki's State of Law list won 89 - give them the first opportunity.

But the court ruled that the largest bloc could also be one created after election day through negotiations, giving al-Maliki time to find new partners and outmaneuver Allawi.

If al-Maliki forms a government with a rival Shiite bloc, excluding Iraqiya entirely, Sunnis could feel disenfranchised, said Meghan L. O'Sullivan, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School and a former deputy national security adviser on Iraq for President George W. Bush.

"The Sunnis perceive that they 'won' this election in the sense that Allawi, who was the person that they put most of their votes and support behind, has the most number of parliamentary seats. So their inability to be in government, or even be given the chance to try to form a government, after they won, could be explosive," O'Sullivan said in an interview posted online by the Council on Foreign Relations.

O'Sullivan said that although al-Maliki and Allawi, both Shiites, share an Arab nationalist outlook and a desire for a more centralized state, personality issues make a governing coalition between their two blocs highly unlikely.

Sunnis, and even many Shiites, also suspect that al-Maliki is not sufficiently independent of Iran.

At a news conference via satellite from Baghdad with reporters at the State Department, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill declined to speculate on whether al-Maliki or Allawi would be able to form a coalition government. He said the prime minister has given no indication that he would not follow the law.

"He has been very clear and very clear with us in private, very clear in public, that he will follow the law," Hill said.

Since the election, the prime minister has called for a manual recount of the vote, attacked the United Nations for not supporting him and angrily challenged the results.

"It's straight power politics," Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "You're seeing somebody who basically wants to retain power. Over time, he's begun to see himself as a leading strong figure who can move Iraq forward."

Al-Maliki's supporters defend the maneuverings as perfectly acceptable under the Iraqi constitution.

"We raised our complaints, our appeals, and we will be loyal to the decision of the courts," said Sami al-Askari, a close confidante of al-Maliki.

Independent observers such as Hussein al-Sahi, a spokesman of The Sun Network, an NGO which monitors Iraqi elections, have defended al-Maliki, saying it's a stretch to say that al-Maliki's decision to consult the court would undermine democracy.

"Al-Maliki is not Saddam who issued laws against international standards," al-Sahi said. "Al-Maliki does not have an absolute power."

But Allawi supporters say the tactics reek of opportunism designed to reverse the will of the people - and that security forces have issued arrest warrants for some of their candidates.

"Obviously the prime minister is trying to find ways to sabotage Iraqiya's clear win," said Maysoun al-Damlouji, a spokeswoman for the Iraqiya bloc. "We are still the largest bloc in parliament."


Health care bill woke a sleeping giant

For many Americans, March 21, 2010, is a date that will live in infamy. Unlike Pearl Harbor or the September 11, 2001, attacks, which offended nearly all Americans, the health care legislation only angered a significant proportion of the population. However, those of us who are outraged are motivated to wage a long fight, and out aims go much further than rolling back this one bill.

The health care legislation represents a culmination of a sequence of unpopular major initiatives from Washington. First, there was Henry Paulson’s massive transfer of wealth from the people most hurt by the financial crisis to some of the people most responsible for it. Next, came the massive, ill-conceived stimulus bill, which was not timely, targeted, or temporary but instead a pure power grab by Washington. Health care legislation is merely the latest straw.

The American people are watching their country being transformed from an exceptional, vibrant free economy to a broken European welfare state, and many of us do not like the direction of change. We may not know exactly what is in the health care legislation (does anyone?), but we know its intent to assert government authority over health insurance. We know that it creates a large entitlement, paid for in large part by unspecified future cuts in Medicare.

Thanks to the projected Medicare cuts, the Congressional Budget Office scores the health care legislation as deficit-reducing relative to current law. However, current law is unsustainable. Medicare spending will have to be cut in the future in order to avoid national bankruptcy. By diverting projected Medicare cuts into a new entitlement, this legislation makes the impending budget crisis in Medicare loom sooner and deeper.

To provide an honest, realistic budget scoring of health care legislation, the law ought to be compared with a baseline for spending that does not bankrupt the country. Such a baseline would specify a much lower path of Medicare spending to begin with. Honest scoring would only treat future cuts in Medicare spending as a valid source for a new entitlement if Medicare had already been cut by enough to put it on a sustainable path.

The public probably does not understand this budgetary legerdemain, but their instinct is to distrust Congress. In this case, the populist instinct is valid, and the elitist contempt for ordinary citizens is quite unjustified.

In fact, I believe that the elites have so mistreated the American people that we should declare that a state of war exists between America and Washington. Our goals in this war must go well beyond the repeal of this year’s health care legislation. Here is a list of additional goals that I would propose:

1. End the current bailouts and prevent future bailouts. Starting immediately, limit the Federal Reserve to holding only Treasury instruments. The Fed needs to go back to being a central bank, not a piggy bank.

2. Cut the pay of civilian Federal workers by 10 percent. The private sector is making painful adaptations to hard times. The government needs to start doing what any other organization would do when its revenues are down.

3. Restructure entitlements so that the future path of spending is sustainable. Congressman Paul Ryan’s “road map” is an example of what an honest budget would look like. If Democrats would prefer higher taxes to such a road map, then those taxes should be explicitly budgeted, rather than pretending that the funds for future benefits are going to appear by magic.

The point here is that health care legislation was just one battle. The overall war is larger. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese Admiral Yamomoto is reported to have said, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” So it should be with us today.


Weasel Zippers: Another Day, Another Hollyweird Idiot: Matthew Modine

Another Day, Another Hollyweird Idiot: Matthew Modine: Why Can’t We Just Sit Down With Bin Laden And Say: Hey Man, Why Are You Mad At Me?

Story Balloon: (About 2 min. in) “Imagine if somebody were to really sit down with Osama Bin Ladin and say, ‘listen man,what is it that you’re so angry at me about that you’re willing to have people strap bombs to themselves, or get inside of airplanes and fly them into buildings.’ That would be the miracle if we can get, sit down and talk to our enemies and find a way for them to hear us.” – Matthew Modine

Mister Ghost says: You can't make this stuff up. Too many drugs and good looking women perhaps. LOL.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Iraq: Seven Years On

"If you read no other blog this week read this one...

Lubna writes:
Now, I want to share with all of you guys some of my own personal experience as a young woman living in Baghdad, may be that’ll give you an inside access to the sometimes very secret and seemingly mysterious world of 'Middle Eastern women'...

So here I am saying it loud and clear : I am an Islamic feminist, my mom ran out of the house when I was 12 and we’ve never heard anything from her ever since, that’s right, she’s not dead, but I refuse to be judged by others according to what my mom did, Allah judges me according to my own actions only-not according to the actions of anyone else even if that anyone else was my mom, so all of you must do the same, all of you must accept me as I am

Seven Years On"

US researchers postulate Israeli tactical nuclear strike on Iran

Scenarios of a potential Israeli attack on Iran - usually without Washington's assent - abound in leading US media in the last 24 hours. They contrast sharply with the impression Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been trying to convey to the public that he and President Barack Obama were of one mind on the Iranian question when they talked at the White House last Tuesday, March 23, but the president wanted more Israeli concessions to get talks restarted with the Palestinians.
debkafile's military sources point in particular to the work of two eminent experts on Iran's nuclear program, Anthony Cordesman and American-Jordanian Abdullah Toqan for the Washington Institute for Strategic Affairs, who report the belief in some American military circles that "…nuclear weapons are the only weapons that can destroy targets deep underground or in tunnels…"
The quote was embodied in a 208-page report published Friday, March 26 under the heading: Options in Dealing with Iran's Nuclear Program.

They explain that because of the limited scale of its air and missile forces, Israel would resort to "using these [nuclear] warheads as a substitute for conventional weapons, given the difficulty its jets would face in reaching Iran for anything more than a one-off sortie."
Our sources note that in July 2009, the two researchers (in a 114-page report) maintained that the Israeli Air Force possessed the aircraft and resources for striking Iran's nuclear facilities. This view disputed the estimates generally current Washington at the time. Then, too, Cordesman and Toqan were of the opinion that it was not necessary to hit scores of targets to cripple Iran's nuclear bomb program: Seven to nine sites would suffice.
Our Iranian sources report that Tehran ran off thousands of copies of that report for distribution among its intelligence and Revolutionary Guards commanders, who were told to study every word, photo and map. Iran's rulers took the work as seriously as though they had scooped a top-secret Israeli plan of operation.

In their latest work, the two researchers find that ""Ballistic missiles or submarine-launched cruise missiles [such as those with which Israeli Dolphin submarines are armed] could serve for Israeli tactical nuclear strikes without interference from Iranian air defenses."
Saturday, March 27, the day after the Cordesman-Toqan paper was published, The New York Times revealed:
"… international inspectors and Western intelligence agencies say they suspect that Tehran is preparing to build [two] more sites," six months after its secret enrichment plant was discovered in Qom.

The report goes on to say: "The most compelling circumstantial evidence… is that while Iran appears to be making new equipment to enrich uranium, that equipment is not showing up in the main plant that inspectors visit regularly [at Natanz or at Qom.]"
Small manufacturing factories spread around Iran to avoid detection and sabotage "are a particular target of American, Israeli and European intelligence agencies," some of which have been penetrated," the report says. Iran "has encountered difficulties in manufacturing centrifuges, the machines that spin at very high speeds to enrich uranium."

Then, Sunday, March 28, The New York Times followed up with proposed scenario, captioned: "Imagining an Israeli Strike on Iran," based on a simulation exercise conducted last December by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Its main point is that if Israel goes ahead with this attack, using a refueling base set up in the Saudi desert without Saudi knowledge, Washington will essentially tell its leaders they have "made a mess," and instruct them "to sit in a corner while the United States tries to clean things up."
The exercise does not indicate how the US will clean things up, whether diplomatically or militarily - or both - or just concentrate on keeping the Gulf oil nations safe from Iranian retaliation.
Iran next defies warnings and fires missiles at Israel, including its nuclear center at Dimona, with minimal damage and casualties - the strategy being "to mount low-level attacks on Israel while portraying the United States as a paper tiger…"

debkafile's sources infer from this simulated war game that the Americans believe that, aside from the confrontation over Iran's nuclear facilities, Israel and Iran will try and use their conflict to manipulate US policy.

The next stage would be for Hizballah to fire up to 100 rockets a day into northern Israel, following which Israel would launch a 48-hour campaign by air and special forces against Lebanon to destroy Hizbalah's military strength.
The games simulators then predict an Iranian attack on the Saudi oil industry center at Dahran with conventional missiles, mining the Strait of Hormuz and damaging US oil shipping.
At that point, Washington will embark on a massive reinforcement of the Gulf region. It is clear that the US will then aim at destroying all Iranian, air, ground and sea targets in and around the Strait of Hormuz to inflict a "significant defeat" on Iran's forces.
The game is projected to end eight days after the initial Israeli strike.

Debka File

Almost guaranteed if the Iraqi Shi'a don't relinquish power.

Russia, UN nuclear agency sign fuel bank deal

VIENNA (AP) - Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency set up the world's first nuclear fuel bank on Monday, in a plan meant to bridge shortages caused by snags in deliveries of low enriched uranium to power reactors.

Once operational, the fuel reserve is meant to encourage countries looking to develop peaceful nuclear programs to depend on outside sources instead of developing uranium enrichment programs. At the same time, it is envisioned only as a stopgap measure in case deliveries that have been contracted for a withheld or delayed, primarily because of political disputes.

Enrichment can produce both fuel and fissile nuclear warhead material. Fears that Iran might be using its enrichment program as a cover to build weapons gave impetus to the idea, signed into life by Russian atomic chief Sergey Kirienko and IAEA head Yukiya Amano.

"The supply from the international uranium enrichment center should be assured, guaranteed and should have no political limitations," Kirienko told reporters after the signing.

He said 30 percent of the envisioned stockpile of 120 tons of low-enriched uranium - equivalent to the load of a 1,000-megawatt reactor - should be ready by year's end at the site in Siberia.


Great, UN nuclear fuel vouchers, For Sale at site near you.

Twin suicide bombings kill 38 in Moscow subway

MOSCOW (AP) - Terror returned to the heart of Russia, with two deadly suicide bombings on the Moscow subway at rush hour, including an attack at the station beneath the headquarters of the secret police.

At least 38 people were killed and more than 60 wounded in Monday morning's blasts, the first such attacks in Moscow in six years.

Russian police have killed several Islamic militant leaders in the North Caucasus recently, including one last week in the Kabardino-Balkariya region, which raised fears of retaliatory strikes and escalating bloodshed by the militants.

As smoke billowed through the subway tunnels not far from the Kremlin and dazed survivors streamed out of the vast transportation system, al-Qaida-affiliated Web sites were abuzz with celebration of the attacks by the two female suicide bombers.

The bombings showed that the beleaguered rebels are still strong enough to inflict harm on an increasingly assertive Russia, and they followed a warning last month from Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov that "the war is coming to their cities."

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who built much of his political capital by directing a fierce war against Chechen separatists a decade ago, promised to track down and kill the organizers of what he called a "disgusting" crime.

"The terrorists will be destroyed," he said on national television.

In a televised meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev, Federal Security Service head Alexander Bortnikov said the remains of the two bombers pointed to a Caucasus connection. "We will continue the fight against terrorism unswervingly and to the end," Medvedev said.

Umarov, the Chechen rebel leader, has relied on al-Qaida's financial support and has several al-Qaida emissaries in his entourage, said Alexander Ignatenko, the head of the independent Moscow-based Institute for Religion and Politics, who has closely followed the Islamic insurgency in the Caucasus.

"Al-Qaida has established a presence in the North Caucasus, like they did in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia and Europe," Ignatenko told The Associated Press. The militants' links with al-Qaida also are recognized by other experts on terrorism.

Militants in the Caucasus have declared the creation of an Islamic state as their top goal. Radical Islamic sects have spread throughout the Caucasus region and parts of Russia as well, with religious schools set up. In Chechnya, Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov has conducted a campaign to impose Islamic values in an effort to blunt the appeal of hard-line Islamic separatists.

Monday's first explosion took place just before 8 a.m. at the Lubyanka station in central Moscow, beneath the notorious headquarters of the Federal Security Service or FSB, the KGB's main successor agency. The FSB is a symbol of power under Putin, a former KGB officer who headed the agency before his election as president in 2000.

About 45 minutes later, a second blast hit the Park Kultury station on the same subway line, which is near renowned Gorky Park. In both cases, the bombs were detonated as the trains pulled into the stations and the doors were opening.

"I was getting off the train when I heard the sound of an explosion and saw clouds of smoke," said Yegor Barbatunov, 29. "The (Park Kultury) station was jammed with people trying to get out, but there was no panic. I saw a young man walking past, blood pouring off his head and neck and trickling to the floor."

Added Alevtina Rogatova, a 23-year-old student who was on the same train: "I smelled burning plastic and heard cries of 'let the wounded through.'"

Amateur video on Russian TV showed wounded and possibly dead commuters on the floor of the smoke-filled Lubyanka station. One video showed gruesome images of dead passengers sprawled inside a mangled subway car and a bloody leg lying on a station platform.

Passengers streamed out of the stations, many crying and making frantic calls on cell phones. The wounded were put on ambulances and helicopters, some with their heads wrapped in bloody bandages, as sirens wailed.

Traffic was paralyzed as large sections of downtown were closed off. Some gypsy cab drivers jacked up their rates for panicky passengers trying to get to work, drawing a harsh rebuke from Orthodox Patriarch Kirill later in the day.

"Any desire to profit on the grief of others brings nothing but grief in return," Patriarch Kirill said after a liturgy.

At 4 p.m., the two subway stations reopened and dozens boarded waiting trains.

"It's really terrifying," said Vasily Vlastinin, 16. "It's become dangerous to ride the metro, but I'll keep taking the metro. You have to get to school, to college, to work somehow."

Both stations had been scrubbed clean. Holes left by shrapnel in the granite were the only reminder of the day's tragic bombings.

The ornate Moscow subway system is the world's second-busiest after Tokyo's, carrying around 7 million passengers on an average workday, and is a key element in running the sprawling and traffic-choked city.

The last confirmed terrorist attack in Moscow was in August 2004, when a suicide bomber blew herself up outside a subway station, killing 10 people. Chechen rebels claimed responsibility.

In February 2004, a suicide bomber from the North Caucasus attacked a subway train during the morning rush hour, killing more than 40 people and wounding more than 100.

Dozens of contributors to three Web sites affiliated with al-Qaida wrote comments in praise of Monday's attacks. One site opened a special page to "receive congratulations" for the Chechen rebels who "started the dark tunnel attacks in the apostate countries," and all wished for God to accept the two women as martyrs.

"Don't forget Russia's crimes of genocide in the Caucasus and Chechnya," said one writer. "The battle has been shifted to the heart of Moscow," another wrote.

Ignatenko said Islamic militants in the Caucasus often recruit women whose relatives were killed by Russian security services.

"They tell them that if they become martyrs, they will join their husbands, brothers and fathers," he said. "And they also persuade them that the Russians as a nation share a collective guilt."

While the Russian army battered Chechen rebels a decade ago, the separatists continue to move through the region's mountains and forests with comparative ease despite security sweeps by federal forces and police under the control of local leaders loyal to the Kremlin.

Rights groups say that abductions, torture and killings of young men suspected of militant links by Russian security forces have helped swell the rebels' ranks.

World leaders, including President Barack Obama, condemned the subway attacks. Obama telephoned Medvedev to convey the condolences of the United States.

New York increased security in its transportation network with officers assigned to subways overnight held in place so they overlapped with the day tour. Special units also were assigned to transit facilities. Washington, D.C., Metro police conducted random inspections of stations and rail yards. Atlanta's public transit system said its police department was increasing the number of officers and patrols in the system.

In London and Madrid, two cities hit by terrorist attacks, officials said there were no immediate plans to tighten security.


Iraqi panel wants to bar 4 elected on winning list

BAGHDAD (AP) - A committee that vets candidates for ties to Saddam Hussein's regime is recommending four people elected to parliament from the winning list of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi be disqualified, an official on the committee said Monday. The challenge risks deepening Iraq's sectarian tensions.

If the courts accept the recommendation, it could alter the outcome of the March 7 vote in which Allawi's secular Shiite-Sunni coalition beat a bloc led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by just two seats.

In particular, that could fuel feelings of disenfranchisement by Iraq's minority Sunnis, many of whom backed Allawi's list and believe the vetting committee is trying to rob them of a victory and tilt the election outcome back to the Shiite-led majority.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Monday that the Justice and Accountability Committee found the four politicians have ties to Saddam's Baath Party. He said the committee was also pushing for the disqualification of two other winning candidates, one from al-Maliki's list and a Kurdish candidate. He would not identify them by name.

Allawi's Iraqiya bloc rejected the step.

"The decisions of the Accountability and Justice Committee are not legal," said Hamid al-Mutlaq, a winning candidate on the Iraqiya list. "Those six winning candidates have the approval of (the election commission) and this decision is a political one, not a legal one."

Al-Mutlaq is the brother of another prominent Sunni politician, Saleh al-Mutlaq, who was one of about 450 candidates barred by the committee from running before the voting. Those barred included Shiites, but Sunnis feel the panel is primarily trying to block them from regaining a political voice they lost with Saddam's overthrow.

The vetting panel, often referred to as the De-Baathification Committee, wanted another 52 candidates blacklisted just days before the voting, but the electoral commission allowed them to run. Out of that group, six candidates won seats.

A decision on whether they'll be part of the legislature now rests with the courts, according to the vetting committee and the independent electoral commission.

What is not clear yet is whether a court ruling in favor of barring the candidates would ultimately change the distribution of seats and possibly deny Allawi's bloc its slim victory and a shot at forming the next government.

One possibility is that instead the affected political coalitions would be allowed to keep their parliament seats and replace the disqualified candidates with other politicians from their lists.

Iraqi courts have already given al-Maliki one victory by siding with his argument that any party leader able to assemble a large enough parliamentary coalition could be chosen to form the new government, rather than just the coalition that won the most seats on March 7.

Because no single group won a majority, an alliance of several groups will have to be forged.

Ahmad Chalabi, the Shiite political leader whose faulty information about weapons of mass destruction was a key justification for the war, was one of the heads of the vetting committee and he won a seat in parliament. He said in an interview with The Associated Press Sunday that he did not think if the candidates were banned it would change the overall outcome.

"The fact is that they got the votes," he said of the candidates.

The De-Baathification process started under the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority that ran the country after the 2003 invasion and was intended to root out Baathists from all levels of government.

The committee's work has been all the more controversial because of its secretive nature. It has not disclosed specific reasons for why the hundreds of candidates were barred. The fact that two of the officials leading the effort were also running for office called into question its motives, critics say.

The U.S. has accused the committee of being influenced by neighboring Shiite power Iran.


Scientists stumped as bee population declines further

The decline in the US bee population, first observed in 2006, is continuing, a phenomenon that still baffles researchers and beekeepers.
Data from the US Department of Agriculture show a 29 percent drop in beehives in 2009, following a 36 percent decline in 2008 and a 32 percent fall in 2007.

This affects not only honey production but around 15 billion dollars worth of crops that depend on bees for pollination.

Scientists call the phenomenon "colony collapse disorder" that has led to the disappearance of millions of adult bees and beehives and occurred elsewhere in the world including in Europe.

Researchers have looked at viruses, parasites, insecticides, malnutrition and other environmental factors but have been unable to pinpoint a specific cause for the population decline.

The rough winter in many parts of the United States will likely accentuate the problem, says Jeff Pettis, lead researcher at Department of Agriculture's Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland.

Winter figures will be published in April. But preliminary estimates already indicate losses of 30 to 50 percent, said David Mendes, president of the American Beekeeping Federation.

"There are a lot of beekeepers who are in trouble" he said.

"Under normal condition you have 10 percent winter losses.. this year there are 30, 40 to 50 percent losses."

He said the phenomenon probably results from a combination of factors but that the increased use of pesticides appears to be a major cause.

"I don't put my bees in Florida because the last couple of years there has been tremendous increase in pesticide use in the orange crop to fight a disease," he said.

"It's a bacterium and the only way to control this disease is to use pesticide... a few years ago they did not use any pesticide at all."

He said that pesticide use "has changed dramatically" and has made beekeeping "more challenging."

Research conducted in 23 US states and Canada and published in the Public Library of Science journal found 121 different pesticides in 887 samples of bees, wax, pollen and other elements of hives, lending credence to the notion of pesticides as a key problem.

Pettis said the finding of pesticide residue is "troubling."

"It might not be the only factor but it's a contributing factor," he said.

The best thing to help bees, he said its "to try to limit habitat destruction," leaving more natural areas in agriculture and in cities such so honey bees can have "a diverse natural environment."

Ironically, he said the problem stems from expansion of agriculture to feed the world. But in destroying bee populations, that can hurt crop production.

"The world population growth is in a sense the reason for pollinators' decline," he said.

"Because we need to produce more and more food to feed the world and we grow crops in larger fields. A growing world means growing more food and to do that we need pollinators. And the fact that the world is continuing to grow is the driving force behind the habitat destruction."


Sunday, March 28, 2010

the state of television news

"This week on Q&A, our guest is David Martin, National Security Correspondent for CBS News. He has covered the State Department and Pentagon since 1993. His stories appear on the CBS Evening News, 60 Minutes, and 48 Hours. He has also written two books,"Best Laid Plans: The Inside Story of America's War Against Terrorism" and "Wilderness of Mirrors" (1980) about the CIA and KGB. "

Air Force works to instill 'warrior culture' in drone crews

Reporting from Washington - As part of an effort to extend the military's "warrior culture" to unmanned planes, the Air Force is overhauling how it trains the crews that operate its rapidly growing fleet of Predators, Reapers and other remotely piloted aircraft.

The changes in training will affect hundreds of personnel who fly the unmanned aircraft remotely over war zones from distant bases and control their powerful cameras and targeting systems.

The effort is part of a move by the Air Force to put as much emphasis on drones as it does on traditional fighters and bombers, officials said.

It also underscores the continuing expansion of the role of unmanned aircraft in the hunt for militants in Afghanistan and the increasing importance of the airmen who operate them.

Each of the MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers are operated by two crew members. One is an Air Force pilot, who flies the craft. The second is a "sensor operator" who controls the plane's camera and its targeting laser, used to guide missiles and bombs.

When the Air Force first began flying armed Predators over Afghanistan, image analysts were in the second seat; they are airmen extensively trained on how to interpret spy satellite pictures.

But after years of flying missions in Afghanistan, senior Air Force officers concluded they had the wrong people in that job. Instead, officials want the second crew member to focus less on interpreting imagery and more on helping fly the plane and strike targets.

"We are rewriting the Air Force's DNA," said Chief Master Sgt. Victor Allen, who is the career field manager for enlisted aviators.

The first group of recruits to receive the revamped training finished this month. The new training is a mix of the technical -- details about the radar, camera and laser systems -- and what Allen calls "infusing the Air Force warrior culture" into the job.

"They need to understand the battle space, they need to understand working with a crew," Allen said. "This is absolutely flying a vehicle, and we want someone dedicated to this duty."

The Air Force in recent years has drastically expanded its investment in unmanned planes. Officials want a fleet of more than 200 unmanned planes, enough to have 65 in the air at one time. To reach that level, under Air Force plane-to-crew ratios, officials said they need about 1,400 pilots and 1,100 sensor operators. The Air Force now has only 317 airmen in the sensor operator field and must train hundreds more.

For recruits, the unique challenge of the unmanned planes is keeping focused on the idea that they are in a war zone, even if they are physically half a world away, flying the planes from a base in the Nevada desert.

"You do not want to feel you are not in the actual fight," said Airman Paul South, 20, of East Smithfield, Pa., a member of the first class of new sensor trainees. "You are in the fight, and you need to realize what is on the line every time you are doing your job."

Before now, sensor operators trained for nine months to learn to interpret video and spy satellite pictures. But experience has shown they do not have time to analyze imagery while the plane is in flight.

The new recruits must train to be part of an air crew, then take a sensor operator course, followed by training in fundamentals of remotely piloted aircraft.

"They are taking us basically from scratch and reshaping us," said Airman Joshua Davidson, 22, of Spokane, Wash., another one of the first recruits.

The Air Force is not eliminating the work of intelligence analysts. New technology being deployed this year will vastly increase the number of video feeds and the demand for imagery analysis. But those experts will be working at other stations, not as part of the team flying the aircraft.

The new career field is appealing to new enlistees who want to feel they are performing a crucial role in current U.S. military operations.

"If you turn on the news any day," South said, "you see something about another airstrike."


Afghanistan Wartime Architecture May 2008

Afghanistan Wartime Architecture Series:

The Same Malcontents, A Different War: Al-Qaeda & Afghanistan

"I've said it before, but when I last returned from combat, the American People were seriously questioning the possibility of losing in Iraq. Many people asked me in all seriousness if things were of an impossible nature, if it was all for naught, if American lives were being wasted. It was the overwhelming nature of their sincerity that forced me to realize that explaining the reality solely to those I knew or came across was insufficient.

A Viet Nam Vet and friend had warned me of the sour mood of our citizenry and apologized to me that he and his brothers had been unable to turn the tide. I had assured him I was mentally prepared, having studied the worst treatment in history of returning Warriors: the Viet Nam Veterans. I was not prepared for sincere belief in partisan political propaganda that had eroded Support for Our Troops and the Mission.

Veterans and Soldiers banded together in organizations such as Vets For Freedom and Vets 4 Victory in tens of thousands to combat the perceptions that the few hundred weak of the "Iraq Veterans" Against the War spoke for anyone other than their own desire for a spotlight."
War on Terror News

Strykers fight enemies abroad, skeptics at home

TACOMA, Wash. -- The Strykers left before dawn and rolled into the land of canals and ditches. The assault began at daybreak. Infantry platoons from Joint Base Lewis-McChord unloaded from their eight-wheeled carriers outside Marjah, Afghanistan, and came under fire as they slogged through soggy fields.

Forty-five Stryker vehicles fanned out. The soldiers inside fired mortars, moved the injured and wounded from the battlefield, monitored the fighting and took aim at enemy positions with the Mobile Gun System.

The troops of 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division pushed the remaining insurgents out of the Trikh Zabur Canal area 12 days later. Less than two weeks after that, the soldiers relinquished authority of the area, boarded their Strykers and returned to their bases throughout southern Afghanistan, as far as 120 miles away.

The Marjah campaign, launched in early February and billed as the largest offensive of the eight-year-old Afghanistan war thus far, was a key test for the Strykers - the 21-ton infantry carriers that were born at Fort Lewis, came of age in Iraq and only since last summer have seen heavy fighting in Afghanistan.

"It would have been difficult to impossible to do the mission we did in Marjah without the Strykers," said Lt. Col. Burton Shields.

He commands the brigade's 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment and led about 400 soldiers during the operation. They secured the area and restricted enemy movement so thousands of Marines could lay siege to Taliban strongholds.

Shields praised the vehicles' network capabilities and the way they move his men across long distances on short notice. He also noted the versatility of the Stryker's multiple designs; nine of the 10 variants were used at Marjah.

Some skeptics, however, have questioned using Strykers in Afghanistan, where the terrain is rougher than that of Iraq and roadside bombs are taking a heavy toll.

Twenty-seven soldiers from 5th Brigade have died inside Strykers since the unit deployed in July, including one blast on Oct. 27 that killed seven soldiers. That bomb, later estimated to contain more than 1,000 pounds of explosives, was the deadliest single attack on Lewis-McChord soldiers in recent memory and prompted Vice President Joe Biden to visit Tacoma for the memorial service.

A noncommissioned officer serving with 5th Brigade told the Washington Times last year that his comrades call the vehicle a "Kevlar coffin." And the brigade, the first Stryker unit sent to South Asia, has formally asked the Army to make the vehicle more resistant to improvised explosive devices.

"The Stryker unit that went into southern Afghanistan ran into some pretty heavy IEDs hundreds of pounds of explosive weight," Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, told lawmakers at a Senate hearing March 3. "It did suffer some significant casualties. We've been working very hard on this over time to increase the survivability of the Stryker."

It was more than 10 years ago that Gen. Eric Shinseki announced the Army's controversial plan to create brigades built around a medium-weight infantry carrier.

Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, delivered a speech in October 1999 in which he said the Cold War-era force needed a versatile alternative that could move quickly into battlefields across the world.

This sparked a debate: Should the new vehicles be on wheels or tracks? How heavy is too heavy? How light is too light?

The Pentagon tapped the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division to become its test brigade. It received its first shipment of vehicles in June 2002, and took them to war 18 months later.

Today, what began as an experiment at Fort Lewis has transformed into seven brigades Army-wide, four of which got their start at the local installation.

It led to a decade-long troop buildup at Fort Lewis, sparked a building boom and pumped millions into the South Sound economy. About 32,000 soldiers now serve at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, up from about 17,000 when the Stryker transformation began.

The Stryker program initially attracted many critics, though most have been silenced after seeing the vehicles' success on the proving grounds of Iraq. The brigades have been sent to the scene of some of the most intense fighting of both wars.

Special Operations Forces, including Lewis-McChord's 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, also have used the vehicle in combat.

Its supporters love the flexibility, speed, offensive posture and range.

"The Stryker just gives stuff no other system can," said Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Huggins of 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, now in Baghdad province. "It's got 360-degree security. It's got lethality. It's got mobility. It's got range. As far as the platform goes, I wouldn't want to be in anything else."

Huggins deployed with 3rd Brigade in 2006-07. That tour saw his unit serve in Mosul, Baghdad and Diyala; whenever one region of the country would flare up, the Strykers were sent in.

In Iraq these days, however, some have questioned why the military doesn't use more non-Stryker vehicles, given the slower pace of combat.

The 4th Brigade deployed to Baghdad with about 320 Strykers, 190 Humvees and 70 Mine Resistant Ambushed Protected (MRAP) vehicles. The latter provides more protection against the blast of a roadside bomb, the most lethal weapon used in Iraq today, but Huggins said soldiers must stay ready to fight, even though violence has ebbed to its lowest levels since the months after the 2003 invasion.

"When I drop that ramp, nine pissed-off dudes come flying out the back," the 44-year-old Honolulu native said. "That's really who brings the fight. You can't do that with a Humvee, and you sure as hell can't do that with an MRAP."

The Stryker program has always had its critics.

Victor O'Reilly, an Irish author who wrote a report panning the vehicle for a congressman before the first Stryker deployment in 2003, still isn't convinced.

He told The News Tribune this month that the brigades' success is a credit to the soldiers and the onboard technology, not the vehicle itself.

O'Reilly listed nine objections to the Stryker, including its vulnerability to roadside bombs, its poor off-road performance, its high price, and military officials selling the system as being suitable for "full-spectrum warfare," which he said is untrue.

"I was, and remain, a critic of the vehicle not because I thought it was hopeless it started life as an entirely adequate armored car but because I felt there were better and more cost-effective alternatives," O'Reilly wrote in an e-mail, "and because the evidence suggested the choice of the Stryker owed more to politics than performance."

The Army originally committed to spend $4 billion on the program, which quickly became a political issue. Whether the new vehicle would be on wheels or treads also was a point of contention. So was whether its size prohibited it from being airlifted quickly into battle.

At one point in 2002, brigade soldiers loaded a Stryker inside a C-130 Hercules transport plane before a crowd of lawmakers and Pentagon brass to prove it could be done.

The Stryker's earliest critics pointed to its vulnerability to rocket-propelled grenades and said it wasn't suitable for urban combat. After its panel armor failed ballistic tests in 2003, O'Reilly said the vehicle still had to prove it could operate after being hit by a first round of enemy gunfire.

Many questions wouldn't be answered until the 3,600 soldiers of 3rd Brigade deployed in December 2003, destined for Samarra, Balad and Mosul.

Since then, the Army has deployed a Stryker brigade to Iraq 10 more times.

The Army plans to add at least one more brigade in the next few years.

The same questions that preceded the Stryker's first Iraq deployments swirled around Lewis-McChord's 5th Brigade last year as it prepared to become the first Stryker unit sent into Afghanistan.

Critics charged that the country's terrain which ranges from steep mountainsides to flat, sandy deserts would prove too much for the Stryker. Supporters pointed to positive results during field testing of the vehicle in harsh landscapes. They cited the Canadian military's successful use of the Light Armored Vehicle III in southern Afghanistan since 2003. (The Stryker design is a modification of the LAV III; both are built by General Dynamics.)

Shields, the commander of 4-23 Infantry, acknowledged that the vehicle doesn't perform as well off roads. His unit began its deployment in mountainous Zabul province, later moved to desert-like Helmand and participated in the Marjah operation, where they battled amid canals and ditches.

"In some of the more restrictive terrain, there are some limitations but that's nothing we didn't know," Shields said. But, he added later, "neither (the MRAP nor the new MRAP all-terrain vehicle) has as good of an off-road performance as the Stryker."

Among the drawbacks, Shields said: An MRAP isn't a fighting vehicle and weighs considerably more than a Stryker; an M-ATV can haul only five soldiers.

Robert Haddick, the managing editor of the influential Small Wars Journal publication, wrote a damning article in November bluntly titled "Why Don't Stryker Brigades Work in Afghanistan?"

Troops should stay off roads and disperse themselves among the greatest number of vehicles to counter the threat of bombs, Haddick wrote. He called the use of the smaller all-terrain vehicle promising.

"An M-ATV carries five soldiers compared with the Stryker's 13 and may have better off-road capability," he wrote. "Compared to the Stryker, M-ATV would disperse soldiers in more vehicles and avoid some of the risks of being on Afghanistan's roads."

The real solution, Haddick concluded, lies not in the proper vehicle but in defeating the bomb network something Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other high-ranking Pentagon officials have vowed to do.

Taliban insurgents have shifted their attacks almost exclusively to the detonation of roadside bombs and land mines. A change in technology to pressure-plated detonators and fertilizer explosives has made production cheaper, attacks harder to defeat and the results deadlier for NATO troops.

All but three of 5th Brigade's 34 reported casualties have come from bombs, both on foot patrols and inside Strykers.

The brigade's vehicles not limited to Strykers have sustained about 50 "catastrophic kills" during the deployment, and the brigade as a whole has had nearly 450 encounters with enemy bombs, according to brigade spokesman Capt. Adam Weece.

The Washington Times published a story in November in which soldiers serving in Kandahar province questioned the use of the Stryker for their mission and nicknamed it the "Kevlar coffin."

A soldier quoted in the story had survived two blasts in six weeks, but his company had lost at least two soldiers in Strykers within a month and his platoon had seen three of its four Strykers destroyed. The frequency and lethality of bomb strikes put soldiers constantly on edge.

An internal Department of the Army memo dated March 2 about Stryker upgrades obtained by The News Tribune makes reference to an operational needs statement requesting "additional survivability enhancements" for their vehicles.

Weece told The News Tribune the needs statement was classified.

"I can tell you that any vehicle or equipment assessment during or following deployment is commonplace, is part of our duty to our comrades, and there is especially a lot of interest to determine Stryker vehicle performance since we are the first unit to bring them to Afghanistan," he wrote in an e-mail.

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, chairs a House armed forces subcommittee with oversight of many of the Pentagon's weapons programs. He said the Stryker is the right infantry carrier for Afghanistan today and into the future.

"I'm still hearing that it is right vehicle," Smith said. "It does have the flexibility and maneuverability they're looking for. That seems to be the judgment of the Army up to this point."

The swift-moving, urban infantry battles that were the norm in the bloodiest years of the Iraq war have all but disappeared. The two Lewis-McChord Stryker brigades now on a yearlong tour there have shifted to missions that largely include meeting with local leaders and training Iraqi soldiers.

Fleets of MRAPs fill parking lots at American military bases across the country. But more than 10 Lewis-McChord soldiers currently deployed to Iraq and interviewed for this story were unanimous in their desire to ride in Strykers.

The Stryker puts soldiers in an offensive posture because four gunners provide 360-degree security, the soldiers said. The MRAP, meanwhile, has one gunner. And while the Stryker is designed to carry infantrymen into a fight, the MRAP is simply designed to transport people.

"The MRAP is designed to survive a blast," said Maj. Eric Lopez, the operations officer for 3rd Brigade. "The Stryker is designed to prevent the blast in the first place."

Most of the Lewis-McChord Stryker troops in Iraq today do their jobs in urban settings, where ambushes can come from any angle. Several soldiers stressed that the sight of Strykers rolling down the street acts as a deterrent.

"No one is scared of a Humvee or an MRAP," said Sgt. Jed Glover, an infantryman with 4th Brigade. "They see a Stryker, and there's a fear factor going on. No other vehicle rolls down the road as fast and as silent and as gunned-up as we do."

The decision to use a particular vehicle Stryker, Humvee or MRAP often depends on the condition of roadways and the request of the Iraqi army unit leading the mission.

Maj. Matthew Holly, the operations officer of 3rd Brigade's 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, acknowledged that the MRAP can handle large blasts better than a Stryker but said MRAPs come under attack more frequently.

Soldiers also panned the MRAP for its size, which makes it too big to fit into some areas, and its high center of gravity, which increases the odds of a rollover.

"The MRAP is a kneejerk reaction to protect people in transit from Point A to Point B," Huggins said. "It is not a fighting platform."

Lt. Col. Joseph Davidson has been assigned to 3rd Brigade since May 2002 and deployed three times to Iraq from Lewis-McChord.

Davidson commands the 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, one of the few units still doing regular offensive and security operations though far fewer than during the worst days of the war. His soldiers work alongside Iraqi and Kurdish forces conducting daily checkpoint operations and about 90 patrols monthly in northern Diyala.

His cavalry squadron uses MRAPs in its security platoon, but that's out of necessity: There aren't enough Strykers for each platoon.

"What you don't want in this counterinsurgency atmosphere is to be put in a defensive position," said Davidson, a Seattle resident. "The unfortunate nature of the MRAP is that it puts you in a defensive posture.


Analysis: Iraqi PM takes risks by challenging vote

CAIRO — The challenge by Iraq's Shiite prime minister to election results that showed him coming in a close second to his chief rival — Sunni-backed Ayad Allawi — is a risky tactic.

If Nouri al-Maliki succeeds in his attempt to block the secular Shiite Allawi from forming a coalition government, it would leave the minority Sunni Arabs seething. That could undermine the credibility of Iraq's nascent democracy and unleash a new bout of sectarian violence just as the U.S. is preparing to pull all its troops out of the country.

Final results of the March 7 election released Friday showed Allawi's Iraqiya coalition winning 91 parliamentary seats thanks to heavy support by Sunnis and al-Maliki's Shiite-led bloc with 89. Neither won an outright majority in the 325-seat parliament but Allawi is entitled to the first shot at forging a ruling coalition.

Al-Maliki, who has led a government dominated by religious Shiites for the past four years, quickly demanded a hand recount of all ballots and adamantly refused to accept the results, even though international observers said the vote was fair and transparent.

"The prime minister must accept the election results and leave his office peacefully," said Mishaan al-Siaidi, a senior Iraqiya candidate. "His rejection of the election results is a rejection of the votes cast by Iraqis and his maneuvering is a maneuver around the will of Iraqis."

Allawi said Saturday he was worried about the growing sectarian rhetoric in Iraq since the election. And in a sign that the tensions may already be spilling over into sectarian violence, several bombs exploded Sunday near a house linked to a prominent Sunni figure who ran for election as part of Allawi's coalition. Five people were killed but the politician survived the bombings in the town of Qaim in western Iraq.

Allawi's victory at the head of a group supported by both Sunnis and Shiites suggested millions of Iraqis are looking for a change from the politics that have been dominated by the two major Islamic sects.

It also showed many are suspicious of Iranian influence. Allawi was widely seen as closer to the region's Arab governments than to neighboring Shiite Iran.

Al-Maliki followed his challenge of the results by seeking court rulings and other maneuvers aimed at securing a second term for himself and maintaining the political dominance of religious Shiite parties. However, those moves could put Iraq at risk of plunging back into the bloodbaths of 2006 and 2007, when thousands of Shiites and Sunnis lost their lives in tit-for-tat attacks.

Most importantly, al-Maliki is now believed to be seeking a merger with the other major Shiite-led bloc — the Iraqi National Alliance with 70 seats — to form the nucleus of a potential coalition government. It is a move that appears designed to perpetuate sectarian politics with the Shiites continuing to dominate the political landscape and the Sunnis left powerless or with token representation.

The INA is dominated by hard-line Shiites with close links to Iran. Foremost among them are supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, a fiery anti-American cleric whose Mahdi Army militia is blamed for much of the sectarian killings in 2006 and 2007.

The alliance between the two major Shiite blocs would be potentially explosive, replicating the makeup of al-Maliki's government and that of his predecessor, the Shiite Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Both men oversaw Iraq during its worst violence since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Iraqi analyst Kadhum al-Muqdadi said such a partnership would disappoint Iraqis who wanted to see change through Allawi.

"It will mean four more years of the same faces, same political situation and same approach," he said.

Al-Maliki also appears to be trying to change the rules of the game in his favor.

According to the constitution, the president asks the bloc with the most seats in parliament to form a government. But before the final results were announced, al-Maliki asked the Supreme Court to define what the largest bloc means.

The ruling, made public the day final results were released, allows a coalition formed after the election through negotiations with other blocs to qualify as the largest bloc. That would appear to give al-Maliki room to nudge out Allawi and is widely seen in Iraq as biased in favor of al-Maliki.

The prime minister also said he would demand that several Iraqiya candidates elected to parliament be disqualified for their suspected ties to Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime, another move that raised the sectarian tensions.

Hundreds of candidates, many of them Sunni and including senior Iraqiya politicians, had already been barred by a Shiite-led committee from running because of their alleged links to Saddam's regime. The move angered the Sunnis who saw it as an attempt to undermine their election prospects.

Iraq's Sunni militants have in the past responded to their community's perceived marginalization by stepping up attacks against Iraqi and U.S. forces as well as Shiite civilians.

With the Americans now busy planning the withdrawal of all combat forces by late summer and the remainder of the current 95,000 troops by the end of 2011, there will be no buffer between the two sides.

Ahmad Chalabi, a senior Shiite politician who has been mentioned as a possible compromise candidate for prime minister, predicted Sunday that the two main Shiite blocs would eventually agree on forming a government, though they have deep differences.

"They were together for a long time in opposition and they were together in government," Chalabi told The Associated Press in an interview. "It's a winning combination."

He said al-Maliki would not necessarily be the prime minister if the merger went ahead.

"I don't think he will jeopardize the entire alliance for personal ambitions."

Such a deal would significantly eat into Allawi's room for maneuver to form the government.


Obama slips into Afghanistan to voice US resolve

KABUL – Under elaborate secrecy, President Barack Obama slipped into Afghanistan on Sunday near the front lines of the increasingly bloody 8-year-old war he is expanding and affirmed America's commitment to destroying al-Qaida and its extremist allies in the land where the 9-11 plot was hatched.

Obama's six-hour visit was conducted entirely under the shroud of nightfall, after Air Force One's unannounced flight from the U.S. Obama defended his decision to escalate the fight, telling troops whose numbers he is tripling that their victory is imperative to America's safety.

His bid to shore up faith in the struggle was aimed both at the troops who cheered him and Americans back home. And, he demanded accountability from Afghan authorities to make good on repeated promises to improve living conditions, rein in corruption and enforce the rule of law to prevent people from joining the insurgency.

"Your services are absolutely necessary, absolutely essential to America's safety and security," the president told a lively crowd of about 2,500 troops and civilians at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul. "Those folks back home are relying on you. We can't forget why we're here."

It was Obama's first trip as president to Afghanistan, where the number of U.S. troops killed has roughly doubled in the first three months of 2010 compared with the same period last year as Washington has added tens of thousands of additional soldiers to reverse the Taliban's momentum.

"We did not choose this war," Obama reminded the troops, recalling the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and warning that al-Qaida was still using the region to plan terrorist strikes against the U.S. and its allies. "We are going to disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al-Qaida and its extremist allies."

Obama had gone Friday afternoon to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., from which unnoticed departures are easier because of its secluded mountain location. The small contingent of White House aides and media brought on the trip were sworn to secrecy. Obama arrived in Kabul just two days after a threatening new audio message from al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, believed to be hiding along the ungoverned border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"If this region slides backwards," Obama told the troops, "if the Taliban retakes this country, al-Qaida can operate with impunity, then more American lives will be at stake, the Afghan people will lose their opportunity for progress and prosperity and the world will be significantly less secure. As long as I'm your commander in chief, I'm not going to let that happen."

That resolve was meant just as surely for stateside citizens as for the people who heard it face to face. Polls find that Americans are divided on the war if, more recently, favorable to Obama's handling of it.

Obama's dark suit was soiled with dust when he stepped off his helicopter at the presidential palace in Kabul. White House officials said Obama, in private talks, wanted to drive home the point that Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Cabinet must do more to battle corruption and cronyism in government.

Karzai "needs to be seized with how important that is," said Jim Jones, Obama's national security adviser. Karzai has raised eyebrows in Washington with recent trips to Iran, China and Pakistan and his welcoming Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Kabul this month.

In public remarks,Obama told Karzai and his cabinet that he was pleased with progress made since their last discussion by secure videoconference on March 15. Obama invited him to visit Washington on May 12. He also praised recent steps in the military campaign against insurgents. But he stressed that Afghans need to see conditions on the ground get better.

"Progress will continue to be made ... but we also want to continue make progress on the civilian front," Obama said, referring to anti-corruption efforts, good governance and adherence to the rule of law. "All of these things end up resulting in an Afghanistan that is more prosperous and more secure."

Karzai promised that his country "would move forward into the future" to eventually take over its own security, and he thanked Obama for the American intervention in his country.

He told Obama he has begun to establish more credible national institutions on corruption and made clear he intends to make ministerial appointments more representative of the multiple ethnic and geographic regions of the country, according to a U.S. account of the meeting.

The White House insisted that Karzai's Cabinet participate in most of the meetings with Obama. The Cabinet includes a number of ministers favored by the U.S., including the heads of finance, interior and defense, whom the Obama administration wants to empower as a way of reducing the influence of presidential cronies. Some talented Afghan administrators have complained that Karzai marginalized them in an attempt to solidify his powers.

"We have to have the strategic rapport with President Karzai and his Cabinet to understand how we are going to succeed his year in reversing the momentum the Taliban and the opposition forces have been able to establish since 2006."

The Afghan government has tried to tackle corruption in the past with little success but Karzai pledged after fraud-marred August elections to rein in graft by making officials declare their assets and giving the country's anti-corruption watchdog more power to go after those accused of misusing their office. This month he gave more powers to an anti-corruption body, including the authority to refer cases to court and act as prosecutor.

Initially, the White House said Karzai had been informed of Obama's impending visit just an hour before his arrival. But Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said later that the Afghan government was told about the trip on Thursday.

At least 945 members of the U.S. military have died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan since the U.S. campaign started in late 2001, according to an Associated Press count.

Obama, speaking to troops in a cavernous tent known as the "clam shell," said, "We know there's going to be some difficult days ahead, there's going to be setbacks. We face a determined enemy, but we also know this: the United States of America does not quit once it starts on something. We will prevail, I am absolutely confident of that."

In December, Obama ordered 30,000 additional forces into the fight against the Taliban. Those new U.S. troops are still arriving and most are expected to be in place by summer, for a full force of roughly 100,000 U.S. troops. There were about 34,000 when Obama took office.


Victory lap