Monday, April 14, 2008

11 Afghan Police Killed in Taliban Attack


KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Taliban insurgents attacked a police checkpoint north of the city early Monday, killing 11 police officers and burning their vehicles before disappearing into the night.

The attack, on the main road between the southern provinces of Kandahar and Oruzgan, where the Taliban remains strong, was another illustration of how weak Afghanistan’s police force remains despite efforts to improve training and upgrade its equipment.

The policeman on watch on the roof was strangled, and was found in a room with two other policemen who had been bound and shot in the head at close range, said Nazar Jan, a policeman on guard at the scene Monday morning. Eight other policemen were found shot dead in the room where they slept, he said. Their bloodied blankets still lay in the room. One policeman escaped and was shot in the feet as he fled, Mr. Jan said.

Mr Jan said he had heard the shooting from his checkpoint, but since it did not last long, he and his colleagues did not think much of it. He did not appear surprised that the Taliban had attacked, saying there were insurgents present in the district, Argandab. The Taliban took the officers’ weapons, he added.

A spokesman for the Taliban, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, claimed responsibility for the attack by telephone. The Interior Ministry confirmed the details in a statement issued in the capital, Kabul.

After their attack the Taliban left for their sanctuaries, and auxiliary police retook the checkpoint, the ministry said, adding that the wounded policeman was out of danger.

The Afghan police continue to bear the brunt of the Taliban insurgency, since they are often posted in small stations and come under attack at night. Eight more police officers were killed in two separate attacks in other areas of southern Afghanistan on Saturday.

In a separate attack Sunday west of Kandahar, two British soldiers were killed in an explosion and two others were wounded, the British Defense Ministry announced in a statement issued in London. The deaths brought to 93 the number of British soldiers killed since 2001. Forty foreign soldiers have died in Afghanistan this year.

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Jakob Kellenberger, said his organization had seen an increase in war wounded since 2006 and through 2007, in particular in a hospital it supports in Kandahar, where, he said, 27 percent of hospital patients are war wounded. During his weeklong visit to Afghanistan he called on all parties in the conflict, including NATO and American military representatives and members of the “armed opposition,” to protect civilians and medical facilities.

Because of the increase in fighting, the Red Cross was concerned that many civilians in remote areas were suffering unseen, and it and is expanding its first aid posts in the southern provinces.

“Our suspicion is that there are a lot of uncovered humanitarian needs related to the conflict in remote areas,” he said. “There must be made a distinction between civilians and those who are participating in the combat,” he said.

Mr. Kellengerger said he always emphasized that attacks should be proportional to the threat, a reference to some of the heavy bombardment NATO and United States forces have used against insurgents, which often results in heavy civilian casualties.

Union Killings Peril Trade Pact With Colombia


BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Lucy Gómez still shudders when speaking of the murder of her brother, Leonidas, a union leader and bank employee who was beaten and stabbed to death here last month. His murder was part of a recent increase in killings of union members in Colombia, with 17 already this year.

“I want those who did this to pay for their crime,” said Ms. Gómez, 37, a seamstress, clutching a faded photograph of her brother, an employee of Citigroup’s Colombian unit who was 42. “But I feel in danger myself,” she said. “This is not a country where one can express such a wish without fear of being eliminated like my brother.”

Ms. Gómez’s fear and similar dread felt by union members and their families have long been features of labor organization during this country’s four-decade civil war. More than 2,500 union members in Colombia have been killed since 1985, with fewer than 100 cases resulting in convictions, according to the National Labor School, a labor research group in Medellín.

Now those killings are emerging as a pressing issue in Washington as Democrats and Republicans battle over a trade deal with Colombia, the Bush administration’s top ally in Latin America.

Colombia’s government is already struggling to recover from the latest salvo in this fight, a vote by House Democrats on Thursday to snub President Bush and indefinitely delay voting on the deal.

Since President Álvaro Uribe’s conservative government took office in 2002, there has been a marked decline in union killings. That has accompanied a broader decline in overall murders and kidnappings as the civil war, between leftist rebels on one side and government forces and right-wing paramilitary groups on the other, has eased somewhat from its peak in the 1990s.

Still, 400 union members have been killed since 2002, and dozens of Mr. Uribe’s supporters in Congress and his former intelligence chief are under investigation for ties to paramilitary death squads, which are classified as terrorists by the United States and responsible for some of the union killings.

Unions were often pulled into Colombia’s war when faced with suspicions among paramilitaries that their ranks had been infiltrated with leftist guerrilla sympathizers. Or sometimes union members suffered simply because they opposed the paramilitaries’ brutal assertion of control over large parts of Colombia.

In recent weeks a new wave of threats has emerged, from groups identifying themselves as a new generation of private armies, against human rights and labor organizers. Many of those organizers have opposed the trade deal, raising the specter of still more anti-union violence to come.

This year, 17 union members have been killed, a rate that suggests a substantial increase in anti-union violence compared with 10 such killings in the same period the year before. Several killings occurred in the days surrounding unusual protest marches against paramilitary forces here last month.

Complicating matters further, leftist guerrillas, who have sought to topple the government in Colombia’s long war, have also made union officials targets for assassination. Union leaders who are in favor of the trade deal, largely from export-oriented industries, have suggested some of the recent killings may have been carried out by factions opposed to stronger trade ties with the United States.

Some supporters of the trade deal are quick to point out that union members are still statistically less likely to be killed than members of the general population. But that ignores geographic and socioeconomic factors — poor rural residents in the country’s war zones bear a disproportionate risk from violence — and it is clear that union officials continue to be specific targets for intimidation and violence.

The case of Leonidas Gómez, Ms. Gómez’s brother, is one of several examples of union officials killed in recent weeks who were involved in organizing rare protest marches last month against paramilitaries. Government investigators here said they were investigating all the recent killings but had not yet identified those responsible.

Carlos Burbano was a vice president in the hospital workers’ union of the municipality of San Vicente del Caguán in southern Colombia who disappeared March 9. His body was found four days later in a garbage dump in an area considered paramilitary territory. Mr. Burbano, who had received threats before from paramilitaries, had been stabbed multiple times and burned with acid.

Like Mr. Burbano, Mr. Gómez, a member of the Bank Workers’ Union here in Bogotá, was an outspoken critic of the paramilitaries. He had also traveled throughout Colombia to speak against the trade deal, which he expected to raise salaries of senior Citigroup executives while eroding the benefits of employees, said Luis Humberto Ortiz, a fellow union official and Citigroup employee.

Mr. Gómez, last seen at a meeting with leftist politicians on the night of March 4, was found dead in his apartment on March 8, with stab wounds and his hands tied behind his back. Missing from his apartment were his laptop computer, U.S.B memory sticks and cash from his pockets, said his sister, Ms. Gómez.

Mr. Gómez’s family and his colleagues from the Bank Workers’ Union said they were convinced that he had been killed because of his union activities. But Maria Isabel Nieto, a vice minister of justice, said in an interview that investigators could not rule out a “crime of passion.”

Such uncertainty surrounds many union killings here, and critics of the unions insist that some of the killings are simple criminal cases rather than political violence. Union leaders say that despite a recent increase in murder convictions in cases involving union deaths, there are still relatively few convictions and that prison terms have been too lenient.

“Colombia has a horrible record of bringing the vast majority of those responsible for these killings to justice,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director for Human Rights Watch.

Some of the killings linger over commercial ties with the United States, Colombia’s largest trading partner. Paramilitaries, for instance, killed three union leaders in 2001 who were employed by Drummond Company, an Alabama coal producer with operations in northern Colombia. A jury in Birmingham, Ala., cleared Drummond last year of claims that it was responsible for the killings.

No one denies that assassinations of union members have dropped significantly from the 1990s, the worst years of Colombia’s war, when more than 200 such killings a year were reported.

In 2007, union killings fell to 39 from 72 the previous year, according to the National Labor School in Medellín. They were expected to decline further this year until the recent spike in killings. (Figures from Colombia’s government are often lower because of methods that refrain from including killings when motives are unclear; so far this year the government has counted 15 union killings compared with 17 documented by labor groups.)

“We must remember that these killings are not a matter of state policy,” Vice President Francisco Santos said in an interview here in March. “On the contrary, we abhor these acts and are doing everything we can to bring the number down as low as possible,” he said, citing an unprecedented increase in prosecutions of union killings in the past year.

For 2008, the government budgeted $45.7 million for protecting people at risk of assassination, of which about a third goes to threatened union members. Under the program, more than 200 unionists have armored cars or bodyguards, and more than 170 union buildings and homes of union members have bulletproofing improvements.

Still, revelations of ties between the private militias and some of Mr. Uribe’s most influential political supporters haunt official efforts to lower union killings. For instance, Jorge Noguera, Mr. Uribe’s former intelligence chief, is under investigation for handing over lists to paramilitaries of union leaders and other left-wing figures who were singled out for assassination.

Widespread ambivalence, bordering at times on hostility, persists in Colombian society over the role of unions. Many Colombians still view unions as redoubts of privilege for union leaders at a time when the private sector is driving an economic boom, through exports of legal commodities like coal and illicit ones like cocaine.

“Why don’t the Democrats worry about Chinese products that take jobs away from Americans or about trade with countries with terrible human rights violations?” asked Rafael Jordán Rueda, 54, a management consultant here. “I’m completely convinced Colombia has become a victim of the struggle for power in the presidential elections in the United States.”

Faced with the delays in Washington, senior government officials here are somewhat more cautious in expressing their shock at the possibility that Colombia might be denied the trade pact. “If the United States takes the rug out from under us, we would look like imbeciles internally and in the region,” Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said in an interview.

El Espectador, an influential weekly newspaper in Bogotá, said in an editorial on Sunday that such a move would be misguided. “Blocking a tool like the free trade agreement, which seeks to foment development, does not seem like the best mechanism for defending Colombian trade unionists,” the editorial said. Instead, the newspaper suggested redirecting American aid to strengthen the Colombian judicial system’s investigations of human rights violations.

Still, for union leaders like Rafael Boada who are living with threats, the focus on political violence is welcomed as part of the debate over the trade pact. Mr. Boada, a bank employee in Bucaramanga in northeastern Colombia, escaped March 7 after two men on a motorcycle shot at him, their bullets lodging in the windshield of his car.

“We are a stigmatized group,” said Mr. Boada, explaining his role in helping to organize last month’s march against paramilitaries. “I am certain this happened because of my union activities.”

Jenny Carolina Gonzalez contributed reporting.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Russia's biggest party seeks Vladimir Putin as leader

By Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's biggest party will ask President Vladimir Putin to become its leader this week at a conference that could provide the final clue in the riddle of who will really run Russia after Putin steps down.

Putin has said he will serve as prime minister once his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, is sworn in as president on May 7. But for many investors the critical questions of how much power Putin will wield and for how long remain unanswered.

If Putin does accept the invitation from the United Russia party to become its leader, it would significantly entrench his power and indicate, some analysts say, that he is planning to use that position to preserve his long-term influence.

Turning down the job could suggest that Putin, after a trial period to make sure 42-year-old Medvedev settles into the Kremlin job, is planning to take a back seat.

The Kremlin has given no indications about whether Putin will lead the party. Putin is expected to attend the second day of the conference, which opens on Monday.

"If Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin headed United Russia, it would be the very best option," Boris Gryzlov, the head of United Russia and the speaker of the lower house of parliament, told a news conference last week.

"Such a proposal (for Putin to head the party) will probably be made at the congress. I could myself make the proposal and that would be the correct way," Gryzlov said.

Putin used a United Russia conference last year to announce he could serve as premier once his presidency, limited by the constitution to two consecutive terms, came to an end.

Putin, 55, is the country's most popular politician after presiding over Russia's longest economic boom for a generation and cementing Kremlin control after the chaos of the 1990s. His critics, a minority in Russia, accuse him of crushing democracy.

Investors want to know what Putin's final role will be after he steps down because they see political stability as key to Russia's booming $1.3 trillion economy.


Kremlin-watchers believe the riddle of what Putin will do next is still not fully solved because the post of prime minister is an awkward one for someone so powerful.

The prime minister is junior to the president, can be sacked at the president's whim and often carries the can for policy failures. Putin filled the post with a series of low-level technocrats all seen as expendable.

Some analysts see United Russia leadership as a way for Putin to preserve long-term influence by moulding the party, closely tied to the Kremlin since its creation, into a powerful political force in its own right.

The president can sack the prime minister but he has to seek the approval of parliament -- controlled by United Russia -- to appoint a new premier. The party has the two thirds majority required to amend the constitution.

Others say the party's influence and unity could dissolve if the new Kremlin administration withdraws its support.

Putin helped found the party, which was designed in the last days of former President Boris Yeltsin's rule to ensure the Kremlin's control of parliament.

Russia's Vedomosti newspaper reported on Friday that Putin could take a leadership role in the party without being a member.

The paper cited unidentified Kremlin and party officials as saying that United Russia was preparing to create the post of "non-member party leader" who would define strategy rather than take part in day-to-day management.

There is a precedent for leadership of a party, rather than any state position, providing the lever of power in Russia. For much of the 20th century, the leader of the Soviet Communist party held sway over all state institutions.

(Editing by Alison Williams)

Iraq and U.S. to pressure Iran with diplomacy, force

By Randall Mikkelsen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iraq is prepared to pressure Iran diplomatically to stop supporting violence, while the United States helps the military effort to halt aid to "surrogate" forces, the White House national security adviser said on Sunday.

However, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said chances of a violent confrontation with Iran were slim.

White House adviser Stephen Hadley said Iran must choose between good relations with Iraq, or its "destabilizing" activities in the country.

"The Iraqi government now understands more clearly what they (the Iranians) are doing. They will put diplomatic pressure to bear on Iran. That's a good thing," Hadley said on the "Fox News Sunday" television show.

"In addition, we will continue to do with Iraqi security forces what we've been doing for some time. We will go after their surrogate operations in Iraq that are killing our forces, killing Iraqi forces.

"We will disrupt their networks by which they move fighters, weapons and funds in and around Iraq. And we will cut off as best we can the flow of fighters, weapons and arms into Iraq," he said.

Washington accuses Iran of stoking violence in its neighbor. Iran denies this and blames the presence of U.S. troops for the bloodshed.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari described Iran as a neighbor that must be treated with respect.

"We are destined to live with them. Really, we need to assume some good faith in dealing with them, trying to ... activate this tripartite dialogue between the United States, Iran and Iraq," Zebari said on CNN's "Late Edition."

Gates, speaking on CBS's "Face the Nation," said Iraqi forces were steadily assuming control of more areas in Iraq, and he cited reports of a backlash among some local Shi'ite leaders in Basra against violent Shi'ite factions.

"I think the chances of us stumbling into a confrontation with Iran are very low. We are concerned about their activities in the south," he said. "But I think that the process that's under way is ... headed in the right direction."

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, called the Iraqi government the main obstacle to ending factional and sectarian violence, and said on "Face the Nation" that an early withdrawal of U.S. troops would force the government to make political decisions needed for peace.

(Editing by Eric Beech)

IAEA: Top Iranian official cancels meeting

VIENNA (AP) — A top Iranian official on Sunday abruptly canceled a meeting with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, dealing a blow to IAEA efforts to investigate alleged attempts by Tehran to make nuclear arms, an agency official said.

The IAEA official, confirming Iranian media reports that Monday's planned meeting was off, told The Associated Press that no reason had been given.

But a senior diplomat had told the AP that IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei likely planned to use the meeting with Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran's nuclear program, to renew a request for more information on allegations Tehran had tried to make atomic arms.

Both the official and the diplomat demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to comment by name on the Iranian nuclear issue.

The diplomat, who follows IAEA attempts to clear up suspicions about Iran's nuclear activities, said the meeting also was likely to have focused on Iran's latest show of defiance of U.N. Security Council demands to suspend uranium enrichment.

Last week Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that his nation was installing thousands of new uranium-enriching centrifuges and testing a much faster version of the device.

Ahmadinejad said scientists were putting 6,000 new centrifuges into place, about twice the current number, and testing a new type that works five times faster.

That would represent a major expansion of uranium enrichment — a process that can produce either fuel for a nuclear reactor or material for a warhead.

Still, others suggested the claims may be exaggerated.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cautioned the claim could not be immediately substantiated, and diplomats close to the IAEA said Iran has exaggerated its progress and experienced problems operating the 3,000 centrifuges already in place. One diplomat said Ahmadinejad's claims of a more advanced centrifuge appeared to allude to a type known as the IR-2, which the agency and Iran said months ago that Iran had begun testing.

The IR-2 is believed to be two-to-three times faster than the centrifuges currently in use, and his claim that the new machine was five times as quick added to the diplomats' skepticism.

In the enrichment process, uranium gas is pumped into a series of centrifuges called "cascades." The gas is spun at supersonic speeds to remove impurities. Enriching at a low level produces nuclear fuel, but at a higher level it can produce the material for a warhead. Iran says it is only interested in the process to generate nuclear power and plans to move toward large-scale uranium enrichment that ultimately will involve 54,000 centrifuges.

The canceled meeting was also consider the first test of whether Iran will truly continue to stonewall the IAEA, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, in its attempt to investigate the alleged military programs after saying earlier this year that such allegations were fabricated.

Iran has denied ever trying to make such weapons. But U.S. intelligence agencies say Tehran experimented with such programs until 2003, and other countries believe it continued past that date.

Suspected weapons-related work outlined in a February presentation to the IAEA's 35-nation board and IAEA reports preceding it include:

• Uranium conversion linked to high explosives testing and designs of a missile re-entry vehicle, all apparently interconnected through involvement of officials and institutions.

• Procurement of so-called "dual use" equipment and experiments that could be used in both civilian and military nuclear programs.

• Iran's possession of a 15-page document outlining how to form uranium metal into the shape of a warhead.

Iran is under three sets of Security Council sanctions for its refusal to suspend enrichment and meet other council demands designed to ease fears its civilian nuclear program is a cover for attempts to make atomic arms.

A cleric, a pol, a warrior

In Iraq, Muqtada Sadr's clout and experience make any effort to subdue him a dangerous strategy.
By Patrick Cockburn

April 12, 2008

The Iraqi government has decided that the moment has come to crush the Mahdi Army and the followers of Muqtada Sadr once and for all. Despite its failure to eliminate his militiamen in Basra at the end of March, the government, with American backing, is determined to try again, according to senior Iraqi officials.

It is a dangerous strategy for both Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and the U.S. Sadr remains one of the most powerful and revered leaders of the Shiite community -- and the Shiites make up 60% of Iraq. What's more, the 34-year-old Sadr is not exactly the mercurial "firebrand" or "renegade" cleric portrayed by journalistic cliche-mongers; rather, he has repeatedly shown himself to be a cautious and experienced political operator.

Ever since he unexpectedly emerged as a central figure in Iraqi politics in the days after the overthrow of the old regime in 2003, Sadr's many enemies have invariably underestimated him and the commitment of his followers. When the U.S. viceroy in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, moved against Sadr in April 2004, he was astonished when the Sadrists took over much of southern Iraq in response. Maliki had a similar experience in March: He demanded that the Mahdi Army militiamen hand over their weapons within three days -- only to see pictures on TV of disaffected troops and police surrendering their guns to the militia instead.

Sadr enjoys such great religious and political authority because he is the scion of the most respected Shiite clerical family in Iraq. His father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, and two of his brothers were killed, presumably by Saddam Hussein's gunmen, in 1999. His cousin and father-in-law, Mohammed Baqir Sadr, a revered Shiite theologian, was executed by the old regime in 1980.

It was Sadeq Sadr who created the Sadrist movement, whose mixture of puritanical Islam, nationalism and social relief appealed to the millions of Shiite poor, impoverished by war and economic sanctions. Although Hussein initially saw Sadeq Sadr as a potential ally, he realized late in the day that he was fostering a dangerous enemy and ordered Sadeq Sadr's assassination.

Muqtada Sadr became so important so fast after the fall of Hussein because he inherited his father's movement -- and it is still the basis of his influence. He only narrowly avoided being killed at the same time as Sadeq Sadr and was held under house arrest, allowed to live only because Iraqi security believed he was no threat.

Living so close to death for so many years helps explain Muqtada Sadr's secretive character. "Even his closest lieutenants sitting beside him do not know what is going on in his head," one of his aides said. Highly intelligent with a quick, nervous manner, he illustrates his words with rapid hand movements in apparent imitation of his father's manner.

Muqtada Sadr created the Mahdi Army in 2003 and rapidly turned it into the most powerful militia in Iraq. Lightly armed and poorly trained, it suffered terrible losses fighting the U.S. Marines in two battles in Najaf in 2004, but the outgunned militiamen did not surrender. The Sadrists have always seen political and social activism as essential to Islamic practice. They criticized the rival Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and the established Shiite clergy for their "quietism" and their failure to actively oppose Hussein (and later, the American occupation).

What makes Sadr different from other Shiite leaders, and gives him credibility among the Shiite masses, is that he opposed the U.S. occupation from the beginning. When the U.S. invasion overthrew Hussein, Sadr said that "the big snake has succeeded the small snake." He pulled his followers out of the Iraqi government in 2006 because Maliki would not condemn the occupation. He also became increasingly reliant on Iran in the face of U.S. hostility.

The once impressive political unity of the Shiite community is now collapsing. Maliki (who is a Shiite) and his small Dawa Party, along with his main ally, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, believe that they can isolate the Sadrists and, with American help, marginalize them before the October provincial elections in which the Sadrists were expected to do well. The long rivalry of the Sadr family and the Hakim family (the founders of the Supreme Islamic Council in 1982) has once again exploded. The U.S. may come to regret taking sides against the Sadrists in this intra-Shiite feud.

Ever since the battles for Najaf four years ago, Sadr has tried to avoid direct military confrontation with U.S. military forces. He has agreed to truces and cease-fires, and two weeks ago, he even called his militiamen off the streets in Baghdad and Basra when they seemed to be winning.

But for the Iraqi government, those clashes were only the first round in a battle to crush the Sadrists as a political and military force. Going by past experience, Sadr will try to arrange a compromise to avoid the destruction of his movement. But if he is forced to fight, the U.S. will face a whole new front in the war in Iraq.

Patrick Cockburn is the Iraq correspondent for the Independent in London and the author of "Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq."

The Petraeus-Crocker Show Gets the Hook


THE night before last week’s Senate hearings on our “progress” in Iraq, a goodly chunk of New York’s media and cultural establishment assembled in the vast lobby of the Museum of Modern Art. There were cocktails; there were waiters wielding platters of hors d’oeuvres; there was a light sprinkling of paparazzi. Then there was a screening. We trooped like schoolchildren to the auditorium to watch a grueling movie about the torture at Abu Ghraib.

Not just any movie, but “Standard Operating Procedure,” the new investigatory documentary by Errol Morris, one of our most original filmmakers. It asks the audience not just to revisit the crimes in graphic detail but to confront in tight close-up those who both perpetrated and photographed them. Because Mr. Morris has a complex view of human nature, he arouses a certain sympathy for his subjects, much as he did at times for Robert McNamara, the former defense secretary, in his Vietnam film, “Fog of War.”

More sympathy, actually. Only a few bad apples at the bottom of the chain of command took the fall for Abu Ghraib. No one above the level of staff sergeant went to jail, and no one remotely in proximity to a secretary of defense has been held officially accountable. John Yoo, the author of the notorious 2003 Justice Department memo rationalizing torture, has happily returned to his tenured position as a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. So when Mr. Morris brings you face to face with Lynndie England — now a worn, dead-eyed semblance of the exuberant, almost pixie-ish miscreant in the Abu Ghraib snapshots — you’re torn.

Ms. England, who is now on parole, concedes that what she and her cohort did was “unusual and weird and wrong,” but adds that “when we first got there, the example was already set.” That reflection doesn’t absolve her of moral responsibility, but, like much in this film, it forces you to look beyond the fixed images of one of the most documented horror stories of our time.

Yet I must confess that, sitting in MoMA, I kept looking beyond the frame of Mr. Morris’s movie as well. While there’s really no right place to watch “Standard Operating Procedure,” the jarring contrast between the film’s subject and the screening’s grandiosity was a particularly glaring illustration of the huge distance that separates most Americans, and not just Manhattan elites, from the battle lines of our country’s five-year war. If Tom Wolfe was not in the audience to chronicle this cognitive dissonance, he should have been.

Mr. Morris’s movie starts fanning out to theaters on April 25. We don’t have to wait until then to know its fate. Sympathetic critics will tell us it’s our civic duty to see it. The usual suspects will try to besmirch Mr. Morris’s patriotism. But none of that will much matter. “Standard Operating Procedure” will reach the director’s avid core audience, but it is likely to be avoided by most everyone else no matter what praise or controversy it whips up.

It would take another column to list all the movies and TV shows about Iraq that have gone belly up at the box office or in Nielsen ratings in the nearly four years since the war’s only breakout commercial success, “Fahrenheit 9/11.” They die regardless of their quality or stand on the war, whether they star Tommy Lee Jones (“In the Valley of Elah”) or Meryl Streep (“Lions for Lambs”) or are produced by Steven Bochco (the FX series “Over There”) or are marketed like Abercrombie & Fitch apparel to the MTV young (“Stop-Loss”).

As The New York Times recently reported, box-office dread has driven one Hollywood distributor to repeatedly postpone the release of “The Lucky Ones,” a highly regarded and sympathetic feature about the war’s veterans, the first made with full Army assistance, even though the word Iraq is never spoken and the sole battle sequence runs 40 seconds. If Iraq had been mentioned in “Knocked Up” or “Superbad,” Judd Apatow’s hilarious hit comedies about young American guys who (like most of their peers) never consider the volunteer Army as an option, they might have flopped too. Iraq is to moviegoers what garlic is to vampires.

This is not merely a showbiz phenomenon but a leading indicator of where our entire culture is right now. It’s not just torture we want to avoid. Most Americans don’t want to hear, see or feel anything about Iraq, whether they support the war or oppose it. They want to look away, period, and have been doing so for some time.

That’s why last week’s testimony by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker was a nonevent beyond Washington. The cable networks duly presented the first day of hearings, but only, it seemed, because the show could be hyped as an “American Idol”-like competition in foreign-policy one-upmanship for the three remaining presidential candidates, all senators. When the hearings migrated to the House the next day, they vanished into the same black media hole where nearly all Iraq news now goes. If the Olympic torch hadn’t provided an excuse to cut away, no doubt any handy weather disturbance would have served instead.

The simple explanation for why we shun the war is that it has gone so badly. But another answer was provided in the hearings by Senator George Voinovich of Ohio, one of the growing number of Republican lawmakers who no longer bothers to hide his exasperation. He put his finger on the collective sense of shame (not to be confused with collective guilt) that has attended America’s Iraq project. “The truth of the matter,” Mr. Voinovich said, is that “we haven’t sacrificed one darn bit in this war, not one. Never been asked to pay for a dime, except for the people that we lost.”

This is how the war planners wanted it, of course. No new taxes, no draft, no photos of coffins, no inconveniences that might compel voters to ask tough questions. This strategy would have worked if the war had been the promised cakewalk. But now it has backfired. A home front that has not been asked to invest directly in a war, that has subcontracted it to a relatively small group of volunteers, can hardly be expected to feel it has a stake in the outcome five stalemated years on.

The original stakes (saving the world from mushroom clouds and an alleged ally of Osama bin Laden) evaporated so far back they seem to belong to another war entirely. What are the stakes we are asked to believe in now? In the largely unwatched House hearings on Wednesday, Representative Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, tried to get at this by asking what some 4,000 “sons and daughters” of America had died for.

The best General Petraeus could muster was a bit of bloodless Beltway-speak — “national interests” — followed by another halfhearted attempt to overstate Iraq’s centrality to the war on Al Qaeda and a future war on Iran. He couldn’t even argue that we’re on a humanitarian mission on behalf of the Iraqi people. That would require him to acknowledge that roughly five million of those people, 60 percent of them children, are now refugees receiving scant help from either our government or Nuri al-Maliki’s. That’s nearly a fifth of the Iraqi population — the equivalent of 60 million Americans — and another source of our shame.

The prevailing verdict on the Petraeus-Crocker show is that it accomplished little beyond certifying President Bush’s intention to kick the can to January 2009 so that the helicopters will vacate the Green Zone on the next president’s watch. That’s true, but by week’s end, I became more convinced than ever that in January we’ll have a new policy that includes serious withdrawals and serious conversations with Mr. Maliki’s pals in Iran, even if John McCain becomes president.

General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker define victory as “sustainable security” in Iraq. But both Colin Powell and Gen. Richard Cody, the Army’s vice chief of staff, said last week that current troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan are unsustainable and are damaging America’s readiness to meet other security threats. And that’s not all that’s unsustainable. An ailing economy can’t keep floating the war’s $3-billion-a-week cost. A Republican president intent on staying the Bush course will find his vetoes unsustainable after the Democrats increase their majorities in Congress in November. No war can be fought indefinitely if the public has irrevocably turned against it.

Mr. McCain says Americans want “victory,” whatever that means today, and yes, they would if it could be won on the terms promised by Mr. Bush five years ago — fast, and with minimal sacrifice. It’s way too late to ask for years of stepped-up sacrifice now in the cause of a highly debatable definition of “national interests.”

This war has lasted so long that Americans, even the bad apples of Abu Ghraib interviewed by Mr. Morris, have had the time to pass through all five of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief over its implosion. Though dead-enders like Mr. McCain may have only gone from denial to anger to bargaining, most others have moved on to depression and acceptance. Unable to even look at the fiasco anymore, the nation is now just waiting for someone to administer the last rites.

Target: Bin Laden

The shaky politics of Pakistan and doubts about Al Qaeda could soon put the terrorist leader in our grasp.

April 13, 2008

Osama bin Laden lives among friends, follows news on satellite television or the Internet and reads books about American foreign policy; this much can be safely inferred from his periodic audio and video statements. His latest topical punditry surfaced just a few weeks ago on jihadi websites when he addressed violence in Gaza and the pope's travels.

Because of his passable grasp of current events, Bin Laden may well understand what many Americans do not: that he is more likely to be killed or captured during the next year or so than at any time since late 2001, when he escaped U.S. warplanes bombing him in eastern Afghanistan, at Tora Bora.

This welcome change in probabilities has almost nothing to do with the Bush administration's counter-terrorism strategy, which remains rudderless and starved of resources because of the war in Iraq. It is a consequence, instead, of dramatic political changes in Pakistan, where Bin Laden is believed to be hiding and where Al Qaeda's local mistakes and the restoration of civilian democracy have combined to make him considerably less safe.

Bin Laden's personal approval rating in Pakistan, as measured by a number of international polls, is plummeting. Beginning last year, Al Qaeda began to support an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings on Pakistani soil; the campaign culminated in the murder of two-time former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December. Before, when Bin Laden targeted the United States and Europe, many Pakistanis saw him as an Islamic folk hero. But although Pakistanis remain deeply skeptical about the United States, they have changed their thinking about Al Qaeda as hundreds of their own innocent civilians have become its victims.

In a poll released in February, Terror Free Tomorrow, a Washington-based nonprofit group, found that Bin Laden's popularity had fallen by half over just six months, to about 24%. In the Northwest Frontier Province, along the Afghan borderlands where he is most likely to be hiding, it fell into single digits. Recent British polling in the most radicalized border areas is less encouraging, but there is no doubt that the general picture in the Northwest Frontier is one of increasing anxiety and resentment toward Al Qaeda.

These souring attitudes are important because, in the past, hunts for terrorists hiding in Pakistan have almost always ended when a disillusioned (and generally greedy) local resident has dropped a dime on the fugitive for reward money. During the 1990s, for example, it took a number of frustrating years until the United States tracked down Mir Amal Kasi, a Pakistani who killed two CIA workers outside the agency's headquarters in 1993. It took about as long to locate Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the architect of the first World Trade Center bombing; colleagues ultimately betrayed both men. Now that a larger number of Pakistanis see Bin Laden as a nihilistic killer, the chances that such a walk-in informant will surface have grown.

So have the odds that the Pakistani government will act on such information. For six years after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration undermined the search for Bin Laden by organizing its alliance with Pakistan in a way that created perverse incentives -- incentives that actually encouraged the Pakistanis not to find him. It did this by providing unquestioning support to the country's military leader, President Pervez Musharraf, and by sending more than 90% of its $10 billion-plus in aid to the Pakistan army or the army-controlled government. Much of this aid is still paid today as direct "rent" for counter-terrorism operations by the army and its principal intelligence branch.

The structure of this U.S.-aid pipeline, set against the decades-long history of on-again, off-again American support for Pakistan, encouraged Pakistan's top military commanders to believe that if Bin Laden were ever captured or killed, the U.S. might reduce its support or even go home. A fugitive Bin Laden became their meal ticket.

Now these incentives have been at least partly reversed. Musharraf's popularity and authority have collapsed in Pakistan following a succession of political blunders. Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who leads the newly elected civilian government behind the scenes, claimed before the national vote in February -- both at home and in Washington -- that the restoration of democracy would be a much more reliable means to defeat terrorism in Pakistan than America's narrow reliance on Musharraf. Zardari's more sophisticated advisors, such as Pakistan's new ambassador at large, Husain Haqqani, a long-time professor at Boston University, understand that this theory of democracy-as-counter-terrorism is viewed with considerable skepticism at the Pentagon and inside Washington's intelligence bureaucracy.

Pakistan's new democratic government should now be motivated to prove its case. Delivering Bin Laden -- which Musharraf's government so conspicuously failed to do -- would be a coup of global proportions for Pakistan's new civilian leaders, and it would bring considerable political and other rewards to Islamabad. It would demonstrate, in the most dramatic way possible, that a democratic government can be as effective a partner in counter-terrorism as the army, if not more so, and by doing this, it would change debate in Washington and Europe about the costs and benefits of investing in democracy in Pakistan.

This new equation of incentives inside Pakistan is highly complex -- for example, the army and the intelligence service have their own institutional interests, and this may lead them to resist entreaties from civilian leaders to step up the hunt for Bin Laden -- but the previous stalemate that governed the hunt, and which led to years of willful and self-conscious passivity in Pakistan's leadership, has at last been broken. Now, at least somebody in Pakistan's government has a good reason to find Bin Laden. And striking at a time when the Al Qaeda leader's local popularity has collapsed reduces the domestic political risks.

Where would they look? All of the best evidence -- the media pipeline that delivers Bin Laden's statements; the circumstantial evidence visible in his videos; fragments of available intelligence reporting and the known history of his movements -- points to Pakistan. Anything, of course, is possible -- perhaps we will discover some day that he was living all along in a suburb of Paris and conducting the most successful deception operation in history. But that seems unlikely.

Within Pakistan, an urban hideaway cannot be ruled out. Other Al Qaeda fugitives, such as Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, have been discovered in Pakistan's cities. But even if Bin Laden has shaved his beard and filled his wardrobe with baggy jeans, he would be taking enormous risks if he set up in a Karachi condo or a Rawalpindi town house.

By far the most likely scenario, as officials have repeatedly suggested, is that he has hunkered down in a secluded, mud-walled tribal compound along the Afghan border. This is territory where he has had many friends for years and where Pakistan's national government today has very little presence. The tribal agencies of North Waziristan and Bajaur seem the most likely sanctuaries. Unfortunately, "narrowing" the search to such vast and remote places along Pakistan's 1,200-mile border with Afghanistan is like narrowing a search to Alaska -- if Alaska's population were deeply hostile to outsiders.

Would it matter much if Bin Laden were killed or caught? Al Qaeda has grown beyond the point where decapitating its leadership would end the organization, but Bin Laden has been a charismatic leader, and if he were killed, the resulting succession struggles might prove problematic for the organization. If he is not captured, silencing his on-air commentary would also be moderately helpful.

But the biggest reason to find him is the same as it has been since November 2001. That month, a video discovered in Afghanistan showed a notably self-satisfied Bin Laden smiling as he described how, on the basis of his engineering studies, he had calculated that fire and explosions from the 9/11 attacks might cause a few interior floors of the Twin Towers to collapse, crushing those inside, but that he had been surprised -- and delighted, as his tone of voice conveyed -- that the World Trade Center buildings had collapsed completely. The simplest principles of justice remain more than ample in this cause.

Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation and a staff writer at the New Yorker, is the author of "The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century." His previous book, "Ghost Wars," won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2005.

Secret Iraqi Deal Shows Problems in Arms Orders


BAGHDAD — An $833 million Iraqi arms deal secretly negotiated with Serbia has underscored Iraq’s continuing problems equipping its armed forces, a process that has long been plagued by corruption and inefficiency.

The deal was struck in September without competitive bidding and it sidestepped anticorruption safeguards, including the approval of senior uniformed Iraqi Army officers and an Iraqi contract approval committee. Instead, it was negotiated by a delegation of 22 high-ranking Iraqi officials, without the knowledge of American commanders or many senior Iraqi leaders.

The deal drew enough criticism that Iraqi officials later limited the purchase to $236 million. And much of that equipment, American commanders said, turned out to be either shoddy or inappropriate for the military’s mission.

An anatomy of the purchase highlights how the Iraqi Army’s administrative abilities — already hampered by sectarian rifts and corruption — are woefully underdeveloped, hindering it in procuring weapons and other essentials in a systematic way. It also shows how an American procurement process set up to help foreign countries navigate the complexity of buying weapons was too slow and unwieldy for wartime needs like Iraq’s, prompting the Iraqis to strike out on their own.

Such weaknesses mean that five years after the American invasion, the 170,000-strong Iraqi military remains under-equipped, spottily supplied and largely reliant on the United States for such basics as communications equipment, weapons and ammunition, raising fresh questions about the Iraqi military’s ability to stand on its own.

Iraq’s defense minister, Abdul Qadir, defended the arms deal, saying he had followed proper contracting protocols and had informed Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki every step of the way.

Nonetheless, American commanders and some Iraqi officials criticized the Serbian arms purchase. Closer monitoring of weapons deals has been a delicate subject since a series of tainted arms purchases totaling $1.3 billion in Iraqi government funds in 2004 and 2005. Lacking electronic banking systems at the time, Iraqi officials paid for second-rate or nonexistent weapons and equipment in cash, using middlemen to ferry duffle bags stuffed with bricks of $100 bills.

That episode brought down the previous defense minister, Hazam Shalan, now a fugitive, and tarnished the reputation of the interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi. American and Iraqi officials said that the loss of so much money and time caused critical delays in the development of the Iraqi Army.

Those with knowledge of the Serbian arms deal said they knew of no specific crimes, but warned that with so little transparency and such poor oversight, problems were likely to emerge, as they did with the 2004 deal.

The Serbian deal called for the purchase of a large number of helicopters, planes, armored personnel carriers, mortar systems, machine guns, body armor, military uniforms and other equipment. It was largely negotiated by Mr. Qadir and the planning minister, Ali Glahil Baban. In response to the criticism, Mr. Qadir said he “froze” purchases of the personnel carriers and some aircraft, reducing the final contract price to $236 million. The deal was signed in March, American military officials said.

“We just want to have a mix of procedures for contracts so we can expedite our acquisition,” Mr. Qadir said, adding that “American timelines for delivery were too far away.”

Despite the criticism, some American advisers said the deal was an essential part of the Iraqi military’s learning curve and a test of the American military’s capacity to balance guidance and restraint.

“We can be very overbearing as a nation, and part of this task is a feel for this task,” said Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, the commander of the Multinational Security Transition Command and the head of America’s security advisory mission in Iraq. “How do I impose myself enough to keep things going but back off enough to let development occur? There is an art to this.”

Diverging Accounts

American military officials and the Iraqi authorities alike point to the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales program as the reason the Serbian arms deal was pursued in the first place. After that, however, their versions of events diverge sharply.

Under the sales program, used by more than 100 allied nations, Pentagon officials serve as intermediaries for government-to-government defense procurements, handling administrative issues, logistics, delivery, maintenance and training. Clients sometimes get the benefit of American economies of scale, American expertise regarding weapons systems and quality control and built-in transparency and corruption safeguards. Defense contractors also benefit to some extent, because the program often channels clients to American companies that produce arms and other equipment.

American officials hoped the program would help Iraq spend more of its own money on defense. Last year, for the first time, Iraqi military expenditures of $7.5 billion surpassed the $5.5 billion in American financing for Iraq’s military. But the program is intended for peacetime, and with protocols spanning hundreds of pages, it is built more for transparency and standardization than for speed.

Beginning in late 2006, the Iraqi government deposited $2.6 billion in an account for Foreign Military Sales procurements. But by September 2007, less than $200 million worth of badly needed equipment had been delivered, and many of those items were stockpiled because of poor distribution and accountability systems. And that, the officials pointed out, was during one of the most violent periods on record.

“The problem with F.M.S. is that it didn’t deliver on time,” a senior Iraqi official said, “and this was used by some in government to say, ‘Look, this is deliberate. The U.S. is trying to keep us unarmed so that we’ll always be in need of the Americans.’ ”

General Dubik, in an interview in his office in the Green Zone, acknowledged, “There was an issue of credibility in our system.”

But there were problems on the Iraqi side as well, American military officers said. A bureaucracy used to functioning under a command economy during the reign of Saddam Hussein had little use for formal procurement protocols and was unaccustomed to such basic practices as writing detailed specifications.

“I mean literally, the Iraqis had some letters of request that said, ‘We want to buy 1,000 trucks,’ ” said Joe Benkert, an assistant defense secretary for global affairs who manages the Foreign Military Sales program.

Some critics, all of them high-ranking Iraqi and American military officials, made the more serious charge that senior Iraqi officials intentionally obstructed American-sponsored procurements because they feared the sales program would prevent them from siphoning off a share of the money. But they offered no independent corroboration.

“The defense minister is playing games,” said an official with Iraq’s Defense Ministry who spoke out because of his concern about corruption, but also spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “He is stopping F.M.S.,” the official said. “Contracts just sat on his desk waiting for approval for six or seven months sometimes.”

American procurement experts were so mystified by some of the delays that they set up a new office to track procurements and found that many of the delays led straight back to Mr. Qadir’s desk. Mr. Qadir denied delaying contracts or making money from them.

After months of delays and an overhaul of the Pentagon procurement bureaucracy, the program increased the value of its delivered equipment to $1 billion by this February. But in the absence of a comprehensive distribution and inventory system in Iraq, much of that equipment remains locked in Iraqi storehouses, American officials said.

Mr. Qadir, who made headlines during a January visit to the United States, when he said Iraq could not take full military responsibility for itself until 2018, blamed the slowness of the Foreign Military Sales program for his decision to deal directly with Serbia. “Foreign Military Sales is a system built to provide weapons systems to a national force in a peaceful time,” he said.

A Deal in the Dark

In an interview in February in his office, Mr. Qadir, a Sunni Arab native of Ramadi, confirmed that the original Serbian deal “exceeded $800 million.”

“The thing is, we did not limit ourselves to any fixed number or fixed price,” he said.

But critics say the deal circumvented fragile anticorruption safeguards. Indeed, at Mr. Qadir’s urging Mr. Maliki abolished the national contracts committee, a mandatory review agency for all government purchases of more than $50 million.

Mr. Maliki also overrode the nation’s Supreme Economic Committee after it expressed concerns that the Serbian deal lacked guarantees of service from the Serbian government.

The deal was also supported by Iraq’s Office of the Commander in Chief, a shadowy group of Shiite advisers to Mr. Maliki that American officials accused last year of leading a purge of Sunni Iraqi Army commanders who had cracked down on Shiite militia leaders.

The same group, which rejected suggestions that it bring in Western advisers, has marginalized senior uniformed officers charged with procurement decisions and kept American officials in the dark about Iraqi financing of arms deals, according to high-ranking American officials familiar with its workings.

“It struck me as bizarre,” said a Western official with knowledge of the security ministries, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be seen as criticizing people he was advising. “You can only explain it in two ways: a desire to avoid oversight and a desire to offer opportunities for graft and corruption.”

A high-ranking Iraqi government official who spoke on condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisals against him and others in his office, said, “We have no confidence in the Iraqi contracting process.”

“I heard about it out of the blue, that the minister of defense took a delegation to Serbia and came back and said that he had signed deals with the Serbian prime minister,” the official said. “Why Serbia? Why not Ukraine? Why not Russia? We just don’t know.”

American military officials did persuade Mr. Qadir to cancel the $200 million purchase of 30 to 40 French-made Puma helicopters, arguing that they were unsuited to Iraq’s harsh climate. The minister also decided against buying armored personnel carriers and Gazelle helicopters.

American and Iraqi military officers also questioned the wisdom of purchasing tens of millions of dollars of nonmilitary crowd control gear — batons, stun guns and plexiglass shields — usually used by police forces, and $76 million worth of mortar systems, which are too imprecise to use against guerrillas. The minister said he still intended to buy the riot control equipment, to handle crowds of Shiite pilgrims, and mortar systems, because the insurgents have them.

Critics of the deal also complained that the arms agreement thwarted the standardization of the Iraqi Army’s hodgepodge of war matériel, which includes firearms from the United States, China, the Balkans, Pakistan and Russia; 150 types of land vehicles; and a United Nations panoply of aircraft.

Iraq Dismisses 1,300 After Basra Offensive


BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government announced Sunday that it had dismissed 1,300 soldiers and policemen for refusing to fight or performing badly during last month’s offensive against Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra.

Maj. Gen. Abdul-Kareem Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said that 500 soldiers and 421 policemen were fired in Basra, including 37 senior police officers up to the rank of Brigadier General. Police officials said the remainder were fired in Kut, where fighting also spread.

“Some of them were sympathetic with these lawbreakers, some refused to battle for political or national or sectarian or religious reasons,” General Khalaf said in Basra.

The dismissals were an implicit admission of failures during the government offensive, which was widely criticized as being poorly planned. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s forces failed to disarm Shiite militias, in particular the Mahdi Army militia loyal to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr. However, they claim to have restored order to the streets, and the nearby ports vital to Iraq’s oil industry.

American officials, who praised the Iraqi forces’ progress in being able to move 6,600 reinforcements south to Basra so quickly, conceded that they had not been fully consulted in advance.

The Basra clashes pitched the country’s two most powerful Shiite forces against each other — the Mahdi Army and the government security forces dominated by Mr. Sadr’s most powerful internal Shiite rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

On April 3, Mr. Maliki promised to dismiss and prosecute the worst offenders among the more than 1,000 who deserted, laid down their weapons or refused to fight against their fellow Shiites and tribesmen. At the time one of his senior officials acknowledged that fear of the militias was a principal factor. “One of the main reasons is that they felt the other party was too strong, and too courageous and they couldn’t confront them,” he said.

Putting further political pressure on Mr. Sadr, Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, said Sunday that the cabinet had agreed on a draft law that would ban any party from taking part in the October provincial elections unless they disband their militias. But it was unclear how much effect any law could have, given that the two dominant Shiite parties in government — the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq — are both closely affiliated with their armed wings.

In Baghdad, the Mahdi Army’s Sadr City stronghold was reported to be quieter on Sunday, after a week of heavy clashes with Iraqi government and American troops.

The Iraqi and American forces have taken control of southern neighborhoods in an effort to deprive the Mahdi Army of areas from which it can fire rockets and mortars at Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone three miles to the west.

Afghan fighting poised to escalate

The arrival of a Marine unit raises hopes that NATO will finally tame the violent south. But many Taliban fighters are returning after a winter lull.
By Laura King
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

April 13, 2008

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — For weeks now, the men in black turbans have been coming. They travel in pairs or small groups, on battered motorbikes or in dusty pickups, materializing out of the desert with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers slung from their shoulders.

With the advent of warmer weather, villagers say, Taliban fighters are filtering back from their winter shelters in Pakistan, ensconcing themselves across Afghanistan's wind-swept south.

"Every day we see more and more of them," said Abdul Karim, a farmer who had sent his family away for safety.

The insurgents aren't the only ones girding for battle.

At the country's main NATO base outside Kandahar, nearly 2,300 U.S. Marines have arrived in the last two months, their presence heralded by the nonstop thunder of transport aircraft and the sprawling tent city springing up on a newly cleared minefield.

The Marine force's final elements arrived days ago and last week began deploying, aiming to bolster British, Canadian and Dutch troops who have been bearing the brunt of fighting in the country's south, considered the conflict's strategic center of gravity.

The conflict in Afghanistan recently has loomed increasingly large in policy debate.

It dominated discussions at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit last month, where President Bush pledged to send more troops and pointedly urged allies to do likewise. Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates heard urgent appeals for reinforcements from U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, who forecast a substantial upsurge in fighting.

In Afghanistan, where presidential elections are due next year, opinion surveys consistently suggest that a solid majority of the population supports the presence of foreign forces. But people don't want them to stay on indefinitely, and an inconclusive spring "fighting season" could try public patience.

The first-time arrival in the south of a large force of Marines, the 24th Expeditionary Unit based in Camp Lejeune, N.C., has provided what commanders say is a much-needed infusion of firepower. The Marines have doubled the coalition's air capacity; Harrier jump jets, lumbering cargo planes and combat helicopters line the freshly laid tarmac.

Just as crucially, commanders say, Marines' deployment may at last give NATO-led troops the muscle and reach to choke off the flow of Taliban fighters and weaponry into neighboring Helmand province, consistently the most violence-racked in Afghanistan. It is the country's epicenter of opium production and narco-trafficking, whose enormous profits help fuel the insurgency.

In this unforgiving environment, British troops, considered to be among the alliance's most effective fighters, have been forced to confine their efforts largely to the province's northern tier, making the south of Helmand, with its plethora of infiltration routes from Pakistan, a likely zone of deployment for the Marines.

Although allied commanders express satisfaction with the battlefield edge the Marines will bring, the Taliban professes unconcern.

"We have heard all about these Americans, and we are waiting -- let them come," said a Taliban field commander, reached by phone in the Panjwai district outside Kandahar. "They will learn what others before them have learned."

The insurgents boast that they will blend tried-and-true methods with deadly refinements. Beaten badly in previous large-scale frontal assaults on NATO-led troops, Taliban fighters vow to harry them with more powerful and sophisticated roadside bombs, unrelenting suicide attacks and methodical targeting of Afghans who are helping the coalition forces.

Coalition commanders are well aware that the Taliban will try to steer the conflict toward small-scale hit-and-run strikes, but say it is they, not the insurgents, who will seize the initiative.

"They definitely don't want to go toe-to-toe with us," said Col. Peter Petronzio, commander of the Marine expeditionary force now operating out of the Kandahar base.

NATO officials like to point out that even during a period of resurgence over the last two years, Taliban fighters have failed to seize substantial population centers or hold large swaths of territory for long.

But it's not clear whether the insurgents want to do so; instead, they rely on the classic guerrilla tactic of scattering when confronted, then reappearing when it suits them.

Many Taliban fighters are essentially part-timers; villagers say the ranks of locally recruited insurgents will swell in coming weeks after the opium poppy crop has been planted.

With fighting seemingly poised to escalate, one major worry for the coalition is civilian casualties, which spiked during combat last spring. At that time, human rights groups charged that Western troops sometimes too readily called in airstrikes when under attack, obliterating village compounds that might not have contained only insurgents, if any.

Coalition commanders, in turn, have expressed continued frustration with what they describe as insurgents' willful endangering of civilians by launching attacks from within their midst, combined with what they say is the common practice of reporting their own battle dead as civilians.

During the winter months, with harsh weather bringing a relative lull in fighting, the coalition has made a concerted effort to hunt down Taliban field commanders, either capturing them or killing them in pinpoint airstrikes. They describe the mid-level to upper leadership ranks as having been decimated by this campaign.

But senior Western military officials acknowledge that many of these leaders have been swiftly replaced, in some cases by younger and even more ruthless commanders.

"It's a new generation we are seeing, capable of the worst kind of atrocities," said Brig. Gen. Carlos Branco, spokesman of the NATO-led force.

Last week, insurgents slaughtered 17 Afghan road workers in neighboring Zabol province. In response, Afghan and coalition forces hunted down and killed two dozen Taliban blamed for the attack, military officials said Saturday.

Part of the Western alliance's overall strategy is to turn more of the fighting and policing over to the long-troubled Afghan security forces.

American trainers believe they are turning a corner. Recruitment, pay and morale are all up, they say. But although Afghan security forces have played a more prominent role in policing and battlefield engagements over the last year, serious problems remain.

For example, Afghan forces are assigned whenever possible for house searches, an intimate and culturally charged encounter that has inflamed resentment when carried out by foreign troops. However, commanders acknowledge that without careful monitoring, looting sometimes occurs during such Afghan-conducted searches.

Moreover, the Taliban find Afghan police a "softer" target than coalition troops and have killed scores in suicide strikes. Senior police officials matter-of-factly say they believe the insurgents have marked them for death.

"The Taliban have warned me so many times to leave this job," said Haji Saifullah, the district police commissioner in Maywand, a district of Kandahar province that borders Helmand and has become an insurgent stronghold. "They want to plant a roadside bomb, or send a suicide bomber, or shoot me," he said. "So far they haven't succeeded."

Longtime observers of the conflict say that even if the insurgents' strength is flagging, a protracted battle probably lies ahead.

"I think the Taliban are not as strong as in the past," said Haji Dad Mohammad, a Kandahar-based former militia leader who sometimes serves as an intermediary between the government and insurgents. "But still, the fighting will go ahead."

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Germans deny deal to train Libyan forces after Jolo crisis

BERLIN (AFP) — German diplomats on Sunday denied a media report that Berlin agreed to help train Libyan security forces in a political pay-off for Tripoli's mediation in a hostage crisis in the Philippines in 2000.

"There was no such deal," diplomatic sources told AFP.

Bild am Sonntag became the second newspaper in two days to link former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder directly to a scandal over secret training allegedly provided by German officers to Libyan security forces.

It said Schroeder and Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi discussed the matter first during a secret meeting in Cairo on 2003 and again at an official summit the following year.

The paper said the deal was meant as a favour to Tripoli in return for its help in securing the release of three Germans who were among 21 western tourists kidnapped by extremists on the Philippine island of Jolo in 2000.

Libya's announcement in 2003 that it was abandoning any quest to acquire nuclear arms was designed to help the north African nation to shake off its pariah status. But Bild said at the time that it was still out of the question for Germany to openly help train Libyan forces.

Germany was shaken Friday by reports that members of the country's anti-terror police had earned extra cash by training Libyan security forces in their spare time.

The regional interior ministry in Duesseldorf subsequently revealed it had ordered police to investigate eight members of the Special Operations Squad (SEK) for suspected of having taken part in clandestine scheme. The officers concerned have been suspended from the elite unit.

A Berlin-based master sergeant in the German army and a former SEK officer, who was suspected of having planned to help train Libyans and contravened official secrecy codes, were also being investigated, the ministry added.

The Berliner Zeitung reported at the weekend that Germany's intelligence service had also been involved in training Libyans, under an accord allegedly signed by Schroeder.

According to the newspaper, the BND had requested not to have its own people directly involved and remained on the sidelines, but had provided know-how to German instructors as recently as last year.

The BND denied the report, saying it had "neither provided training assistance nor was it involved in an advisory or supportive capacity."

Schroeder could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile the news magazine Der Spiegel claimed the German embassy in Tripoli had discussed with the German special police squad details of the training they were providing.

The foreign ministry denied the report on Sunday.

"Investigations by the foreign ministry found that the embassy in Tripoli had in no way supported the activities that are a topic of discussion at the moment," ministry spokesman Martin Jaeger said.

The daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung has reported that German officers were paid up to 15,000 euros (23,500 dollars) for training Libyan counterparts.

Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung has condemned the officers' behaviour, saying: "This should under no circumstances be accepted."

Schroeder was Germany's Social Democrat chancellor between 1998 and 2005.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Bush Says War's Outcome 'Will Merit the Sacrifice'

President and Petraeus Discuss Strategy as the U.S. Death Toll in Iraq Rises to 4,000

By Karen DeYoung and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 25, 2008; A01

As the American military death toll in Iraq reached 4,000, President Bush conferred yesterday with top U.S. officials in Washington and in Baghdad and vowed in a public statement that the outcome of the war "will merit the sacrifice."

Bush held a two-hour videoconference with Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. Petraeus reiterated his plan to halt U.S. troop withdrawals, begun late last fall, at the end of July. At that point, he has said, he will "evaluate" whether Iraqi forces and a reduced number of U.S. troops can maintain the lower levels of violence.

"We have every desire to continue with the withdrawal of forces" at some time after July, one military official said. "The issue will be once we remove over 25 percent of combat power plus other associated units . . . we let the dust settle . . . and look to see where we're at," he said, adding that the evaluation period would probably be at least six weeks. Petraeus has offered no guarantee that conditions will allow further withdrawals before Bush leaves office.

In congressional testimony next month, Petraeus and Crocker are expected to describe continued but slow improvement in military and political conditions, even as recent weeks have seen an increase in suicide bombings, along with Sunday's renewal of rocket attacks on Baghdad's Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and much of the Iraqi government are located.

Among the wounded in four separate attacks were an American military contractor and an embassy employee from Jordan, both of whom remain in serious condition, a U.S. official in Baghdad said. Military officials said the munitions were Iranian-made, fired from northeastern Baghdad by renegade Shiite militia groups.

Late Sunday night, the U.S. command in Baghdad announced that four soldiers had been killed by a makeshift bomb in southern Baghdad, bringing the total number of U.S. troops killed to 4,000 since the war began in March 2003. Dozens of Iraqis were also killed in violence around the country Sunday.

Overall attacks in Iraq have sharply declined in Iraq, but the trend has begun to plateau over the past three months -- car bombings have decreased, but suicide bombings have increased. Military officials said that Petraeus will tell Congress that the withdrawal, which has now reached about 9,000 troops, will continue with three additional brigades to be withdrawn without replacement by July 31.

Although administration officials have said that U.S. troop strength at that point should be about where it was before a "surge" in deployments began last spring -- approximately 130,000 -- the military official said the net number remaining may be larger. "They're in the process now of trying to scrub the numbers," he said of Petraeus's command in Baghdad. "Figuring out boots on the ground is difficult because . . . units come in at different sizes, people have left, people have been wounded."

There are similar difficulties, he said, in determining the "battlefield geometry" that will enable the withdrawal of entire combat brigades. Brigades are seldom deployed intact, and their battalions are often scattered. While one battalion could be withdrawn without replacement, others may have to be replaced by U.S. or Iraqi forces from elsewhere.

During his testimony on April 8 and 9, Petraeus expects to present Congress with firm numbers on how many U.S. troops will leave Iraq and how many will remain by the end of July.

Crocker, who in previous testimony has cautioned against hopes of rapid progress, is expected to describe some political and economic achievements but to say that much work remains. In a mid-March interview with The Washington Post, he described Iraqi political and economic institutions as "like everything else here, still very much under development."

Another senior U.S. diplomat offered positive indicators yesterday, saying that Iraqis are "spending increasingly more money than we are" on reconstruction and some military programs. "We're not starting any new projects and [the Iraqis] are getting incrementally better," he said. Iraq's "Arab neighbors are gradually engaging, although not enough. They're not embracing Maliki the way they ought to," he added, referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

After speaking with Petraeus and Crocker yesterday morning from the White House, Bush attended a briefing by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the State Department on cooperation between military and civilian officials in Iraq and elsewhere. In a statement to reporters, he spoke of the U.S. civilians who have died in Iraq and said: "I will vow so long as I am president to make sure that those lives were not lost in vain."

Bush will attend a similar briefing by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and military leaders today at the Pentagon, but administration officials said they do not expect any new decisions or departures from current policy.

One official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that after months of friction among civilian and military leaders -- including over concerns about overall stress on the military -- there is little debate over the basic Iraq strategy for the next six months. The only real question, he said, is how long the "pause" in withdrawals after July will last.

In Turkey yesterday, Vice President Cheney told ABC News that "there's no reason now to decide what the force level is going to be in December of '08." The criterion, he said, "is how do we make certain we succeed in Iraq? It may be that we can make judgments about reductions down the road. . . . But I don't think [Bush] is likely to want to try to say now what the force level ought to be at the end of the year."

Pakistan Premier Frees Judges

Leader's First Step Defies Musharraf

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 25, 2008; A01

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 24 -- Pakistan's newly elected prime minister ordered the release Monday of top judges who had been under house arrest since last year, a dramatic challenge to the U.S.-backed president, Pervez Musharraf.

Moments after being confirmed as prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani declared, before a raucous Parliament now controlled by the president's opponents, that the judges would be freed immediately. The move was a step toward reinstating the country's once-independent judiciary, whose silencing by Musharraf fueled the opposition's pro-democracy campaign.

Hundreds of jubilant Pakistanis converged on the Islamabad home of the detained former chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, as police began removing barricades and barbed-wire fences. Banging drums, waving flags and shouting, "Go, Musharraf, go!" the crowd massed beneath the balcony of Chaudhry's house and urged him to make his first public address in more than four months.

Chaudhry, who was fired last year when he and other Supreme Court justices refused to accept Musharraf's suspension of the constitution and declaration of emergency, subsequently appeared on the balcony to greet the throng.

"I and my colleagues were unconstitutionally confined under house arrest," said Chaudhry, accompanied by Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court bar association. "I am thankful to the whole nation -- lawyers, civil society, everyone. Your great struggle for the constitution and the rule of law will continue."

Gillani, 55, was a close associate of Benazir Bhutto, the opposition leader who was assassinated in December. After lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to name him prime minister, he strode to the front of the assembly amid boisterous anti-Musharraf chants. He shook hands with Bhutto's tearful son and political heir apparent, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, then struggled for several minutes to be heard as members of Parliament stood and pounded their tables.

"God willing, I assure you as the leader of this house that we will strengthen this institution," Gillani said. "We have spent a long time in opposition. We came here after a long struggle."

Restoration of the judiciary in Pakistan has been at the center of a battle between Musharraf's government and the nation's leading opposition parties. The former chief justice was reinstated by the Supreme Court in July, but Musharraf reversed that decision through an executive order four months later. Chaudhry, his family and five other Supreme Court justices had been under house arrest since November, when Musharraf disbarred about 60 judges to head off potential legal challenges to his rule.

The moves set off a constitutional crisis that prompted a firestorm of protests by lawyers across the country and stoked support for the opposition, which swept to power in February elections.

In addition to ordering the judges' release, Gillani called for a U.N. investigation into the assassination of Bhutto, who was killed Dec. 27 in a gun and bomb attack on her motorcade as she was leaving a political rally in Rawalpindi.

Gillani, who spent five years in prison on corruption charges lodged by Musharraf's government, also demanded a parliamentary resolution to apologize for the 1979 hanging of Bhutto's father, former president and prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Musharraf is scheduled to swear in Gillani as prime minister on Tuesday. Gillani then is expected to start naming cabinet ministers.

Gillani's party, the Pakistan People's Party, and the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif have vowed to pass a resolution to fully reinstate the dismissed judges within 30 days of the formation of the new government. That move could lead to a major confrontation with the president. Musharraf could face charges of treason -- an offense punishable by death -- should the judges be restored.

But Musharraf's attorney general has said the judges can be reinstated only if the constitutional changes introduced by Musharraf last year are repealed. That would require a two-thirds majority vote of the combined National Assembly and Senate.

"This is the beginning of a new era in Pakistan," said Ali Sajid, 45, a university professor who was among the crowd outside Chaudhry's house. "We are excited that the judiciary is free and has been released from the clutches of the United States of America. They should allow us to determine our own future." He said the United States and Britain "have no right to interfere in our politics."

U.S. support for Musharraf in the face of the year-long judicial crisis and growing concerns about Pakistan's involvement in the U.S.-led war on terrorism in the region have provoked sharp discontent, particularly among the country's burgeoning middle class. U.S. officials in recent months have shied away from directly supporting the judges' reinstatement, saying only that the decision to restore the judiciary rests with Parliament.

Musharraf's opponents see the release of the judges as the first step toward the restoration of an independent judiciary and a sound rebuke of U.S. support for his rule of more than eight years.

The judges' release appeared to bring relief to the hundreds of police officers who have stood guard along the road to Chaudhry's home for months. Several officers shook hands with the same protesters at whom they had lobbed tear gas a week ago. Some smiled and laughed as they helped black-coated lawyers pick their way across the small field of barbed wire lining the road.

"The prime minister has given his order and has spoken it on the floor of Parliament," said one officer, who declined to give his name for fear of losing his job. "We all are tired of doing this. We knew it was wrong, but all the same it's a job requirement. We had to follow orders."

New Pakistani Leaders Tell Americans There’s ‘a New Sheriff in Town’


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The top State Department officials responsible for the alliance with Pakistan met leaders of the new government on Tuesday, and received what amounted to a public dressing-down from one of them, as well as the first direct indication that the United States relationship with Pakistan would have to change.

On the day that the new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, was sworn in, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte and the assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, Richard A. Boucher, also met with the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, whom they had embraced as their partner in the campaign against terrorism over the past seven years but whose power is quickly ebbing.

The leader of the second biggest party in the new Parliament, Nawaz Sharif, said after meeting the two American diplomats that it was unacceptable that Pakistan had become a “killing field.”

“If America wants to see itself clean of terrorists, we also want that our villages and towns should not be bombed,” he said at a news conference here. Mr. Sharif, a former prime minister, added he was unable to give Mr. Negroponte “a commitment” on fighting terrorism.

The statements by Mr. Sharif, and the cool body language in the televised portions of his encounter with Mr. Negroponte, were just part of the sea change in Pakistan’s domestic politics that is likely to impose new limits on how Washington fights militants within Pakistan’s borders.

That fight, which has recently included American airstrikes in the lawless tribal areas where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have made sanctuaries, has become widely unpopular, particularly in the last few months as a surge in suicide bombings here has been viewed as retaliation for the American attacks.

Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, also met with the Americans but did not speak to reporters afterward. Husain Haqqani, an adviser who attended the meeting with him, said, though, that the American officials had been given notice that the old ways were over.

“If I can use an American expression, there is a new sheriff in town,” Mr. Haqqani said. “Americans have realized that they have perhaps talked with one man for too long.”

Neither Mr. Negroponte nor Mr. Boucher spoke publicly about the meetings, but the Pakistanis said the Americans expressed willingness to work with the new government.

Mr. Sharif and Mr. Zardari boycotted the swearing-in of Mr. Gillani as prime minister by Mr. Musharraf at the presidential palace, another sign of their determination to sideline Mr. Musharraf.

Distancing himself from Mr. Musharraf, Mr. Gillani, moments after taking the oath of office, said, “We have to give supremacy to the Parliament so that we can jointly take the country out of these crises.”

He later received a call from President Bush offering congratulations. According to Mr. Gillani’s office, Mr. Gillani told Mr. Bush that “Pakistan would continue to fight terrorism in all its forms” but that a “comprehensive approach” was required, “combining a political approach with development programs.”

The new chief of staff of the Pakistan Army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, also seemed to eager to show he was his own man, relieving two generals on Monday who had been close to Mr. Musharraf.

The timing of the American visit was harshly criticized in the Pakistan media for creating the appearance that the United States was trying to dictate policy to a government not even hours old. The two American diplomats met Mr. Sharif as Mr. Musharraf administered the oath of office to Mr. Gillani.

“I don’t think it is a good idea for them to be here on this particular day,” said Zaffar Abbas, the editor of the English-language newspaper Dawn. “Here are the Americans, right here in Islamabad, meeting with senior politicians in the new government, trying to dictate terms.”

An editorial on Tuesday in The News, one of Pakistan’s most-read English dailies, was headlined “Hands Off Please, Uncle Sam.” The Americans should understand, the editorial said, that the newly elected Parliament was now their proper partner, not Mr. Musharraf.

An aide to Mr. Sharif, Ahsan Iqbal, said Mr. Sharif told Mr. Negroponte that the strategy of the partnership against terrorism needed to be reassessed. “Nobody supports terrorism, but there are different ways to counter it,” Mr. Iqbal said.

“Mr. Sharif asked Mr. Negroponte if he thought that using the military was the only solution,” Mr. Iqbal said. “Mr. Negroponte agreed that there are other dimensions that can be adopted.”

Some of those questioning the American visit noted that Pakistan had been an ally of the United States since its independence 60 years ago. Still, they added, many Pakistanis now resented that the campaign against terrorism dominated the relationship.

Washington should learn from the outcomes of the election last month in which Mr. Musharraf’s party was trounced and an alliance of religious parties in the North-West Frontier Province, adjacent to the tribal areas, was also defeated, said Javangir Tareen, the leader of a faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, who was a member of Mr. Musharraf’s early cabinet.

“The people have spoken and rejected the religious parties, and at the same time they have rejected the people who will automatically nod to the United States,” Mr. Tareen said.

An independent analyst on the Pakistani military, Shuja Nawaz, who lives in Washington, said Pakistani officials had told him they discouraged the American diplomats from coming this week.

But the Pakistanis were told that Mr. Negroponte was on a trip that included other already arranged stops and that Tuesday was the only possible day for him. Mr. Nawaz called the visit “ham-handed,” and said it could be seen as Washington wanting to keep acting as the “political godfather behind Musharraf.”

The American Embassy in Islamabad said that the two diplomats would stay in Pakistan until Thursday, and that they would meet other officials on Wednesday, though the embassy declined to identify them.

The changes in the military hierarchy by General Kayani seemed intended to display his independence from Mr. Musharraf, who appointed him chief of the military in December. General Kayani reassigned two of the most important corps commanders, the 11 powerful generals in charge of regional posts: Lt. Gen. Shafaat Ullah Shah, the corps commander of Lahore, Pakistan’s second biggest city; and Lt. Gen. Sajjad Akram, the corps commander at Mangla on the Indian border.

Pentagon Admits Mistaken Shipment of Missile Fuses

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 25, 2008; 2:35 PM

The U.S. Air Force mistakenly shipped fuses that are used in nuclear weapons to Taiwan in 2006, believing the crates contained helicopter batteries, officials at the Pentagon announced this morning.

The error -- undetected by the United States until last week, despite repeated inquiries by Taiwan -- raises questions about how carefully the Pentagon safeguards its weapons systems. It also exposes the United States to criticism from China, a staunch opponent of a militarized Taiwan.

Pentagon officials said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has launched a full investigation. The devices -- which, when attached to a missile, help launch the detonating process -- have been returned to the United States, and President Bush has been briefed.

"There are multiple players; there are multiple parties involved," said Ryan Henry, principal deputy undersecretary of defense policy. "We'll do a thorough investigation, and those who are found responsible will be held accountable."

Among other things, officials will try to determine why no one noticed that the four boxes of components were missing, even though Pentagon policy requires inventory reconciliation every three months. The probe will also focus on whether any other material has been wrongly shipped or cannot be located. An initial evaluation suggests the devices were not tampered with while they were in Taiwan, officials said.

Henry, who called the error "disconcerting," said the government of Taiwan acted "very responsibly," quickly notifying the United States that the four boxes it received in fall 2006 did not appear to contain what had been ordered. However, both he and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne added, more than a year passed before the United States realized what had been shipped and moved to get the fuses back.

"It wasn't until this week that we became aware that they had something akin to a nose-cone assembly," Ryan said. "There were early communications, but we thought we were hearing one thing, and in reality they were saying something different."

Ryan said U.S. officials have notified authorities in Beijing, which considers Taiwan to be part of China and opposes its independence. Neither he nor Wynne answered a reporter who asked how China responded.

"Our policy on Taiwan arm sales has not changed. This specific incident was an error in process only and was not indicative of a policy change," Henry said. "We made an error in execution, and we notified them as soon as we were aware of it."

Wynne described the devices as "the electrical firing mechanism that allows" an intercontinental ballistic missile "to detonate -- just like the fuse on a stick of dynamite." The fuses were manufactured for use on a Minuteman strategic nuclear missile but contain no nuclear materials.

The devices would not work on any other missile system, officials said.

The nose cones, designed for a missile system that dates to the 1960s, were declared excess in March 2005 and shipped to a warehouse on an Air Force base in Wyoming, officials said. It is unclear whether they were placed in a classified storage area or how they were eventually mistaken for crates of batteries.

In response to a question from a reporter, Wynne said the Pentagon is still analyzing whether the shipment violated U.S. law or any treaties regulating arms trade and nuclear weapons policies.

"If there was a violation, we are coming forth with it as soon as we became aware of it," Wynne said. "And if there was something that was amiss, it clearly was not intentional. The United States stands by its treaty obligations."

Iraqi and U.S. Forces Battle Shiite Militia


BAGHDAD — Heavy fighting broke out Tuesday in two of Iraq’s largest cities, as Iraqi ground forces and helicopters mounted a huge operation to break the grip of the Shiite militias controlling Basra, and Iraqi forces clashed with militias in Baghdad. The fighting threatened to destabilize a long-term truce that had helped reduce the level of violence in the five-year-old Iraq war.

The battles, along with indications in recent weeks that militia and insurgent attacks had already been creeping up, raised fears across Iraq that Moktada al-Sadr, the renegade Shiite cleric, could pull out of a cease-fire he declared last summer. If his Mahdi Army militia does step up attacks, that could in turn slow American troop withdrawals.

There were also serious clashes in the southern cities of Kut and Hilla.

In Basra, American and British jets roared through the skies, providing air support for the Iraqi military. A British Army spokesman for southern Iraq, Maj. Tom Holloway, said that while Western forces had not entered Basra, the operation already involved nearly 30,000 Iraqi troops and police forces, with more arriving. “They are clearing the city block by block,” Major Holloway said.

The scale and intensity of the clashes in Baghdad kept many residents home. Schools and shops were closed in many neighborhoods and hundreds of checkpoints appeared; in some neighborhoods they were controlled by the government and in others by militia members.

Barrages of rockets and mortar shells pounded the fortified Green Zone area for the second time in three days. An American military spokesman said there were two minor injuries to civilians in the Green Zone.

Even before the crackdown on militias began on Tuesday, Pentagon statistics on the frequency of militia and insurgent attacks suggested that after major security gains last fall, the conflict had drifted into something of a stalemate. Over all, violence has remained fairly steady over the past several months, but the streets have become tense and much more dangerous again after a period of calm.

It is not clear how responsible the restive Mahdi militia commanders are for stalling progress in the effort to reduce violence. In recent weeks, commanders have protested continuing American and Iraqi raids and detentions of militia members.

If the cease-fire were to unravel, there is little doubt about the mayhem that could be stirred up by Mr. Sadr, who forced the United States military to mount two bloody offensives against his fighters in 2004 as much of the country exploded in violence.

Sadiq al-Rikabi, the prime minister’s political adviser, and other Iraqi officials said that just how the unrest in Baghdad was related to the crackdown in Basra was unknown.

Sadr City, the Baghdad neighborhood that is the center of the Mahdi Army’s power, was sealed off by a cordon of Iraqi troops and what appeared to be several American units. A New York Times photographer who was able to get through the cordon found more layers of checkpoints, each one run by about two dozen heavily armed Mahdi Army fighters clad in tracksuits and T-shirts. Tires burned in the city center, gunfire echoed against shuttered stores, and teams of fighters in pickup trucks moved about brandishing machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

“We are doing this in reaction to the unprovoked military operations against the Mahdi Army,” said a Mahdi commander who identified himself as Abu Mortada. “The U.S., the Iraqi government and Sciri are against us,” he said, referring to a rival Shiite group whose name has changed several times, and is now known as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which has an armed wing called the Badr Organization.

“They are trying to finish us,” the commander said. “They want power for the Iraqi government and Sciri.”

Basra, which until 2005 enjoyed relative peace, has since been riven by power struggles among the Mahdi Army and local Shiite rivals, like the Badr Organization and a militia controlled by the Fadhila political party, a group that split from the Sadr party.

In the weeks leading up to the operation, Iraqi officials indicated that part of the operation would be aimed at the Fadhila groups, which are widely believed to be in control of Basra’s lucrative port operations and other parts of the city. The ports have been plagued by corruption, draining revenue that could flow to the central and local governments. But the operation also threatens the Mahdi Army’s strongholds in Basra.

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government depends on support from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq but is less dependent now on coalitions with the Mahdi Army.

In Basra, Iraq’s most important oil-exporting center, thousands of Iraqi government soldiers and police officers moved into the city around 5 a.m. and engaged in pitched battles with Shiite militia members who have taken over big areas of that city.

The Basra operation, which senior Iraqi officials had been signaling for weeks, is considered so important by the Iraqi government that Mr. Maliki traveled to the city to direct the fighting, several officials said.

Although Sadr officials said the cease-fire was still in effect, on Monday Mr. Sadr called for a nationwide civil disobedience campaign in response to what his followers said was an unwarranted crackdown. Some Mahdi commanders referred to an edict by Mr. Sadr saying their militias had the right of self-defense.

A member of Mr. Sadr’s political party in Basra, Sheik Abdul Sattar al-Bahadli, complained bitterly about the enormous operation, claiming that it was aimed at innocent people in Basra.

“We never witnessed such attacks even under the regime of Saddam Hussein,” Mr. Bahadli said. “Maliki gave orders and said, ‘Erase them.’ ”

But Mr. Maliki said in a statement that the operation was intended to root out “outlaws” who, he said, were working with local confederates inside and outside the government.

“The federal government, pressed by its obligations to support the local government in Basra and support its officials, has decided to restore security and stability and impose the law,” the statement said

An American military official said the American-led coalition forces had provided air transportation for the operation and were keeping “quick reaction forces” on standby.

The official said coalition forces had supported Iraqi security forces in clashes around Sadr City with “special groups” — a term reserved for what American commanders say are Iranian-backed Shiite splinter groups, which include portions of the Mahdi Army.

“A coalition forces helicopter also engaged targets north of Sadr City in support of this operation,” the official said, asserting that despite the fighting, most of Baghdad had been peaceful and that there were still signs of progress on security in most areas of Iraq and its capital.

“We feel that the cease-fire is being honored” by those loyal to Mr. Sadr, the official said. The cease-fire, he said, “is in the best interest of all Iraqis.”

Many places in Baghdad were tense. At a checkpoint downtown, a policeman’s radio crackled with the news of the sniper shooting of a police officer in a nearby neighborhood. “We’ve heard that Sadr has canceled the cease-fire, is this true?” he asked motorists whose car he was searching.

In a statement issued late Tuesday, the military said an American soldier was killed in Baghdad about 5.p.m. No other details were provided.

Witnesses in Basra said jets flew overhead as armored vehicles raced through the city and machine gun and canon fire reverberated through the streets. Civilians took refuge in their homes. Iraqi television showed images of civilian gunmen with grenade launchers taking up positions and ambulances ferrying the wounded to hospitals.

On Tuesday night, after about six hours of silence, armored vehicles and helicopters could again be heard moving through the city, witnesses said. Gunfire and shelling could be heard to the north.

In Baghdad, some areas were deserted as clashes broke out across the city. In downtown Baghdad, checkpoints blocked sparse traffic every 100 yards.

Saeed Ammar, a government employee, said he was standing near policemen in the Huriya neighborhood on Tuesday morning when he was approached by Mahdi Army members. “They told me not to stand near checkpoints. They said, ‘We are waiting for the word from Moktada Sadr to attack the checkpoints — it may come at any moment.’ ”

Despite the armed actions by many Sadr followers, members of Mr. Sadr’s party said the cease-fire was still in effect and called for peaceful civil disobedience. In Najaf, hundreds of followers carrying Korans and olive branches mounted a sit-in, chanting, “No to occupation, no to terrorism.”

Sahar Gani, a teacher, was taking students home along a nearly deserted Baghdad sidewalk. “The security situation is getting worse day by day,” she said. “The city is getting very bad now. We’ve been through this before, so we find it natural. But we don’t know what to do.”

Reporting was contributed by Joao Silva, Anwar J. Ali and Hosham Hussein from Baghdad, and employees of The New York Times from Baghdad, Basra, Hilla, Diwaniya and Kut.