US steering clear of Kurdish fight

WASHINGTON – The top U.S. military commander in northern Iraq said Friday he plans to do “absolutely nothing” to counter Kurdish rebels who are staging deadly cross-border attacks into neighboring Turkey.

It was the most blunt assertion yet by an American official in the last few weeks that U.S. forces should not be involved in the fight. The Bush administration has said repeatedly that the border crisis should be resolved through diplomacy.

Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency reported Turkish airstrikes on suspected rebel positions Friday and Ankara has threatened a large-scale offensive into Iraq if U.S. and Iraqi authorities don’t stop the rebels. On Friday, Iraq and Turkish officials held the latest in a series of diplomatic meetings aimed at ending the standoff.

Asked what the U.S. military was planning to do, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon said: “Absolutely nothing.”

Mixon said it’s not his responsibility, that he’s sent no additional U.S. troops to the border area and he’s not tracking hiding places or logistics activities of rebels from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK.

He also has not seen Kurdish Iraqi authorities move against the rebels either, Mixon told Pentagon reporters by videoconference from a U.S. base near Tikrit in northern Iraq.

“I have not seen any overt action … But those are the types of activities that are managed and coordinated at higher levels than my own,” he said.

Top Defense Department and State Department officials this week said that Iraq’s Kurdish regional government should cut rebel supplies and disrupt rebel movement over the border, adding that Washington is increasingly frustrated by Kurdish inaction.

As Turkey has increased pressure for someone to act, Pentagon officials have said repeatedly that U.S. forces are tied up with the fight against insurgents and al-Qaida elsewhere in Iraq.

Few of the roughly 170,000 U.S. military forces in Iraq are along the border with Turkey. But there is ample air power available.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested this week that airstrikes or major ground assaults by U.S., Turkish, or other forces wouldn’t help much because not enough is known about where the rebels are hiding at a given time.

Asked during a NATO meeting in Europe about the prospects of U.S. military strikes, he said: “Without good intelligence, just sending large numbers of troops across the border or dropping bombs doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.”

Americans also fear that a full-scale battle in the north would destabilize what has been one of the most prosperous and peaceful parts of Iraq in recent years — a region run by Kurds who have some sympathies with the rebels.

Asked if he has detected PKK supply lines running through his area that Iraqi Kurdish authorities could curtail, Mixon said: “That would be speculation … I don’t track the specific locations of the PKK. So you’d have to ask somebody else.”

Mixon would not even talk in general about the PKK’s fighting abilities. He was asked why such a small group of an estimated few thousand guerrillas is considered so effective, tenacious and threatening to Turkey.

“I have no idea,” he said. “You’ll have to ask somebody in the Turkish government.”

Does he think he has any responsibility to try to avoid a Turkish incursion into the north?

“I have not been given any requirements or any responsibility for that,” he said.

But if terrorists are operating in his region, he was asked, why not get involved?

“Let me put it to you very clearly,” he answered. The provincial Kurdish authorities have their own Peshmerga militia, Mixon and, “it’s their responsibility” in three northern provinces of Iraq.

He said no one has specifically told him to ignore the rebel problem, “but I hadn’t been given instructions to do anything about it, either.”

If he were ordered to do something, would he have enough U.S. troops?

“That’s a hypothetical question,” Mixon replied. “I haven’t studied it.

“I haven’t been given any instructions that would even vaguely resemble what you just mentioned,” the general said. “So I don’t see any sense in talking about it.”

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Afghan leader: Cut back on airstrikes

KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan President Hamid Karzai is calling for the U.S. and NATO to cut back on airstrikes in the battle against Taliban and al-Qaida militants, saying too many civilians have been killed.

Karzai said that six years after the U.S.-led invasion the Afghan people “cannot comprehend as to why there is still a need for air power.”

“The United States and the coalition forces are not (killing civilians) deliberately. The United States is here to help the Afghan people,” Karzai told the U.S. news program “60 Minutes” for a story scheduled to air Sunday night.

Asked if he wants the use of airstrikes curtailed, Karzai replies, “Absolutely. Oh, yes, in clear words and I want to repeat that, (there are) alternatives to the use of air force.”

At least 700 civilians have died because of insurgency-related violence this year, and about half of those deaths were caused by U.S. or NATO military action, often because of airstrikes hitting civilian homes, according to an Associated Press tally based on numbers from Afghan and Western officials.

The use of airpower is key to the U.S. and NATO fight against insurgents because of Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain and the sheer size of the country. U.S. and NATO officials say Taliban fighters frequently attack their soldiers from civilian homes that the insurgents have commandeered.

But such deaths incite resentment against U.S. forces and have sparked several anti-U.S. and anti-NATO demonstrations this year. Karzai has pleaded repeatedly with Western forces to do all they can to prevent such deaths, and he broke down in tears during a public speech earlier this year after recounting the deaths of Afghan children from airstrikes.

Lt. Col. David Accetta, a spokesman for the U.S. military, said he was not aware of any formal request by the Afghan government for the U.S. to curtail the use of air power.

Air power “is part of the way that a modern military force conducts operations,” he said. “We take every precaution possible to mitigate the potential for collateral damage and non-combatant casualties.”

Maj. Charles Anthony, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, said he was also not aware of any request to cut back the use of air assets. He said procedures were in place to “ensure that we absolutely minimize the risk to civilians.”

Violence in Afghanistan this year has been the deadliest since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. More than 5,200 people have died because of insurgency-related violence, according to the AP count.

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Many Europe banks already cut Iran ties

GENEVA – Britain applauded a U.S. decision Thursday to target Iran with banking sanctions, but many European financial institutions already curbed ties with Tehran and analysts said it wasn’t clear whether others would rush to take similar steps.

In the broadest U.S. unilateral penalties on Iran since 1979, the Bush administration slapped sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, three of the largest Iranian banks and other organizations and individuals.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson called on “responsible banks and companies around the world” to end relationships with the three banks and companies and affiliates of the Guards.

In London, officials at Britain’s Treasury and Financial Services Authority said they were consulting with each other on the matter. “We endorse the U.S. administration’s efforts to apply further pressure on the Iranian regime,” Prime Minister Gordon Brown‘s office said.

Brown had said Wednesday that Britain was prepared to lead the way in pushing for a third round of U.N. sanctions on Iran for defying a Security Council demand that it suspend uranium enrichment, and also would support tougher European Union measures.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, in a letter to EU counterparts earlier this month, urged them to consider new sanctions that could target companies, “particularly in the banking sector.”

European banks, many of which have big operations in the United States, tend to maintain that they act on the basis of their own or United Nations decisions, and it wasn’t immediately clear how much tightening could still be done as a result of the new U.S. measures.

The two largest German banks, Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, said they had withdrawn from the Iranian market — but for business reasons, not as a result of political pressure.

UBS AG, Switzerland‘s largest bank, said it announced in 2005 that it would stop all business with Iran. Spokesman Serge Steiner said the decision applied to individuals, companies or state institutions and was based on the bank’s own economic and risk analysis.

Credit Suisse Group, the second-largest Swiss bank, said it decided at the same time not to enter into any new business based in certain countries, including Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Syria, spokeswoman Esther Gerster said.

“We have terminated existing relationships with corporate clients domiciled in those countries as much as possible. Therefore, it doesn’t change very much for us,” Gerster said of the U.S. move.

Cubillas Ding, a banking analyst with consulting group Celent in London, said European governments and banks want to decide on sanctions for themselves and not be seen as simply following the U.S. lead.

At the same time, Ding said, they want to avoid appearing to be failing to counter activities that could promote terrorism or threaten global security.

“Even if banks do not trumpet a philosophical reason whether or not to cut ties, they can still do it based on economic and high-risk basis. I think it is a delicate rope to walk on,” Ding said. “I would be surprised if there is a big rush immediately to follow suit.”

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US imposes new sanctions on Iran

The US has stepped up its sanctions on Iran for “supporting terrorists” and pursuing nuclear activities. The new measures target the finances of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and three state-owned banks.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the moves were part of “a comprehensive policy to confront the threatening behaviour of the Iranians”.

The sanctions were backed by Britain, but a top Iranian MP dismissed them as a “strategic mistake”.

The US declared the Revolutionary Guards a “proliferator of weapons of mass destruction”, a reference to ballistic missiles they are allegedly developing, while their elite overseas operations arm, the Quds Force, was singled out as a “supporter of terrorism”.

The US has repeatedly accused Iran of destabilising Iraq and Afghanistan, blaming the Revolutionary Guards for supplying and training insurgents.

‘Proliferator’

Ms Rice said: “Unfortunately the Iranian government continues to spurn our offer of open negotiations, instead threatening peace and security by pursuing nuclear technologies that can lead to a nuclear weapon, building dangerous ballistic missiles, supporting Shia militants in Iraq and terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and denying the existence of a fellow member of the United Nations, threatening to wipe Israel off the map.”

Under Executive Order 13382, US authorities will be able to freeze the assets of, and prohibit any US citizen or organisation from doing business with the Revolutionary Guards.

Iran’s ministry of defence, which controls the country’s defence industry, three Iranian banks, and several companies owned by the Guards will also be designated.

“These actions will help to protect the international financial system from the illicit activities of the Iranian government,” Ms Rice said.

Analysts said it was not clear how big an effect the sanctions would have, since the Guards probably had very limited assets in the US. However, they said the move might discourage other countries from dealing with the Iranian institutions.

The Guards’ Quds Force was singled out after being accused by US officials of supplying powerful roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades to Shia militants in Iraq.

Thought to have 15,000 troops, it is responsible for conducting covert missions overseas and for forging relationships with other Shia groups.

“The Quds Force controls the policy for Iraq,” the top US military commander in Iraq, Gen David Petraeus, said earlier this month. “There should be no confusion about that.”

Dominant force

Iranian MP Kazem Jalali, spokesman for parliament’s foreign affairs and security commission, said the US was interfering in internal Iranian affairs.

“This will make the wall of distrust between Iran and the United States higher every day and will close down dialogue,” he told the AFP news agency.

The Revolutionary Guards force was set up shortly after the 1979 Iranian revolution to defend the country’s Islamic system, and to provide a counterweight to the regular armed forces.

It has since become the dominant military force in Iran, with past members including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a number of his cabinet ministers.

It is estimated to have 125,000 active members, and boasts its own ground forces, navy and air force, and controls Iran’s strategic weapons.

It also controls the paramilitary Basij Resistance Force and the powerful bonyads, or charitable foundations, which run a considerable part of the Iranian economy.

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Czech Govt. supports US missile defense

PRAGUE, Czech Republic – The Czech government firmly favors hosting a U.S. missile defense site but believes it will take longer to negotiate a deal than U.S. officials had hoped, a senior Czech official said Tuesday.

Tomas Pojar, deputy minister of foreign affairs, told U.S. reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Robert Gates that his government’s support is based not only on a shared worry about future missile threats but also a “moral, historical” sense of appreciation for American support for Czech democracy.

He also stressed that Prague does not intend to rush a deal, and he predicted that it will be difficult to win approval in parliament.

“I think it’s going to take a few more months” than the U.S. timetable, which calls for completing negotiations by the end of the year and winning parliamentary approval next spring, Pojar said in an interview over breakfast at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs while Gates was meeting with President Vaclav Klaus.

Pojar said he takes little stock in public opinion polls that show a majority of Czechs oppose having a U.S. missile defense site on their territory.

Gates later held talks with Defense Minister Vlasta Parkanova and was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek as well as with members of parliament with a range of views on missile defense.

The Pentagon wants to install 10 interceptor rockets in Poland which, when linked to a proposed tracking radar in the Czech Republic and to other elements of the existing U.S. missile defense system based in the United States, could defend all of Europe against a long-range missile fired from the Middle East.
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Two sailors killed in Bahrain

bahrain soldier

MANAMA (Reuters) – Two American sailors were shot dead and one was critically wounded at the U.S. navy base in Bahrain, but there were no indications of a terrorist attack, the navy said on Monday.

The shootings took place at about 5 a.m. (10:00 p.m. EDT Sunday), the navy said in a statement, adding that initial reports indicated the incident only involved U.S. military personnel.

“Two sailors were pronounced dead at the scene and the third was taken to local hospital for treatment. There are no indications of terrorism or a base intrusion,” the navy said.

The navy gave no explanation for the shootings, which took place in the base’s barracks, and said the names of the sailors were being withheld.

Further details were not immediately available, and an investigation was being conducted into the incident.

Bahrain is the home of the U.S. navy’s fifth fleet, which patrols Gulf waters, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean.

About 3,000 U.S. personnel, not including the crews of visiting ships, live and work on the heavily guarded base. Staff generally keep a low profile in the tiny Gulf Arab kingdom of about 750,000 people.

Source: Reuters

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