Nur al-Cubicle

A blog on the current crises in the Middle East and news accounts unpublished by the US press. Daily timeline of events in Iraq as collected from stories and dispatches in the French and Italian media: Le Monde (Paris), Il Corriere della Sera (Milan), La Repubblica (Rome), L'Orient-Le Jour (Beirut) and occasionally from El Mundo (Madrid).

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

3 August 2005 Events in Iraq

04:02 Caracas. The governments of Venezuela and Iran are discussing a plan to build a joint cement plant, officials said. Minister of Basic Industries and Mining Victor Alvarez said Tuesday that the finishing touches are being put on the plan, and the plant will be located in the northeastern state of Monagas. Venezuela is to hold a 51-percent of the joint business, while the Iranian government is to own 49 percent. The US$200 million project is to produce 1 million tons of cement annually, Alvarez told the state-run Bolivarian News Agency.

03:18 Baghdad. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad urged the framers to protect women's rights as a «fundamental requirement for Iraq's progress.» «My focus is to help get a constitution that does this,» Khalilzad told reporters. «Of course, the Iraqis will decide but we will help in any way that we can.» Khalilzad said his government would encourage Iraqi politicians to exclude any constitutional articles that discriminate or limit opportunities for any Iraqi citizens.

02:15 Hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted on unnecessary and overpriced equipment for Iraq's new army at a time when the United States and its allies are struggling to get the force in shape to battle insurgents, Iraqi officials say. Iraqi authorities have opened inquiries into several cases of possible corruption at the Defense Ministry. The ministry official believed behind most of the questionable deals was removed from his job in June and banned from leaving the country. «Corruption is widespread at the ministry. One of the cases alone is worth $226 million (ñ184.96 million). The investigation is still going on,» said legislator Kamal al-Saaidi, a member of the independent Supreme Anti-corruption Commission. Most of the alleged unnecessary purchases were made during the term of interim Prime Minster Ayad Allawi, who took office after occupation authorities turned over sovereignty to Iraqis on June 28, 2004. When new Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi took office in May, an investigation was opened into several alleged cases of corruption. Former National Security Adviser Qassim Dawoud refused to speak about corruption at the ministry, citing the ongoing investigation. Iraqi investigators are probing several weapons and equipment deals engineered by the dismissed official, former procurement officer Ziad Cattan, and other defense officials. One case involves Polish weapons maker Bumar, which signed a $236 million (ñ193 million) contract in December to equip the Iraqi army with helicopters, ambulances, pistols, machine guns and water storage tanks. Added to other deals signed last year, Bumar's contracts with the Iraqi army totaled nearly $300 million (ñ245.52 million). Iraqi officials said that when Iraqi experts traveled to Europe to check on their purchase of the transport choppers, they discovered the aircraft, which cost tens of millions of dollars, were 28 years old and outdated. They refused to take them and returned home empty-handed. A Defense Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the helicopter deal was «canceled after the ministry discovered that the helicopters are not needed at the moment.» In Warsaw, however, a spokeswoman for Bumar denied her company ever provided Iraq with poor-quality helicopters and said that although they were several years old and used, this was at the request of the Iraqi Defense Ministry. Iraqi authorities wanted them at «half the price and wanted to get them quickly,» spokeswoman Roma Sarzynska told The Associated Press. It would have taken the company longer to provide new helicopters, she said. «The Iraqis paid us the full amount of money for the machines, they are in good condition, standing ready to be picked up, but no one seems to want to come to claim them,» Sarzynska said. «In the deal signed with the Iraqis, it was specified that the helicopters were to be built between 1978 and 1992, so the age element of the helicopters was well known in advance.» She said the helicopters were renovated, but when the Iraqi delegation arrived «they unfortunately could not take them back with them to Iraq because they said that they themselves did not have the authority to do so.» Another case involving Cattan was a deal to purchase 7.62 mm bullets, used in machine guns and rifles. Iraqi officials said the bullets should have cost between 4 and 6 cents apiece but the ministry was eventually charged 16 cents per bullet. Jawad al-Maliki, who heads parliament's Security and Defense Committee, said that despite spending huge sums, «we did not see weapons on the ground.» Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the American commander in charge of training and equipping the Iraqi military, declined to comment on the corruption claims, saying it was a matter to be resolved by the Iraqi government. Since U.S. authorities turned over sovereignty last year, Iraqis have obtained weapons three different ways: Procuring them through the auspices of the multinational force command, donations from other countries and purchases by the Defense Ministry. A U.S. military officer who used to work with the Defense Ministry said equipment that could have been useful was not being purchased, such as new armored vehicles or good ammunition. The U.S. official spoke on condition of anonymity because it was an internal Iraqi issue. He said there appeared to be little oversight and accountability in the procurement of equipment. Repeated attempts by The Associated Press to contact Cattan in recent weeks were unsuccessful. However, in a telephone interview in May, he spoke proudly of his efforts to procure equipment. Cattan said that in only six months, he had signed contracts worth $600 million (ñ491 million) and that he headed military delegations to 15 countries including Russia, Poland and Germany. He added that he signed contracts to «buy 500 Humvees, 600 armored personnel carriers from Poland as well as transport planes from Russia and Poland.» Earlier this year, another scandal broke when media reports revealed that Allawi's defense minister, Hazem Shaalan, transferred $500 million (ñ409 million) to a bank account in Lebanon to buy weapons. Ahmad Chalabi, the current deputy prime minister, demanded an investigation into that case. Shaalan left Iraq after a new government was formed and remains abroad. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari recently complained about administrative and financial corruption but also blamed former dictator Saddam Hussein. «Just as a house that is burned down takes time to rebuild, so it will take us time to clean out the culture that Saddam brought to Iraq,» he sai

02:05 Washington. The Defense Department is laying groundwork to start withdrawing troops from Iraq, even as it is weighing the risk that it could move so quickly that Iraqi security forces collapse without U.S. support. The benefits of a U.S. drawdown are clear. Fewer troops probably would mean fewer casualties and less strain on the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, which already are stretched thin. It also would lessen the degree to which the presence of foreign forces fuels an anti-U.S. insurgency. About 138,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq in a war with dwindling popularity among American voters. At best, a U.S. drawdown would begin shortly after elections for a new government in Baghdad, scheduled for December. That assumes two other difficult political milestones are achieved first: drafting a constitution by Aug. 15 and holding a national referendum in mid-October to approve the constitution. It also assumes the insurgency does not get worse, and Iraqi security forces prove themselves ready for combat. If the United States were to withdraw before the Iraqis were ready, the American sacrifices of the past 2½ years could be lost, and President Bush would face pressure to explain why the invasion was worth it. Even though Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has not yet received even a recommendation from commanders when to start a pullout, he has been talking more directly in recent days about the security transition. «Once Iraq is safely in the hands of the Iraqi people, and a government they elected under a new constitution, our troops will be able to come home with the honor they have earned,» Rumsfeld said in a speech prepared for the Dallas Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. Rumsfeld delivered only abbreviated remarks by telephone after his plane had mechanical problems. Noticeably absent from his comments was an assertion that defeating the insurgency is a condition for an American withdrawal. In Rumsfeld's view, shared by top U.S. commanders in Iraq, it must be left to the Iraqis to overcome the insurgency. Likewise, the Iraqis must be prodded to take the lead in other areas of their struggle to rebuild. Among signs that the United States is pressing a faster transition to Iraqi-led security, to open the way for a U.S. withdrawal: _After taking up his post last month as U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad announced creation of a U.S.-Iraq task force to develop a strategy and conditions for transferring the security responsibility from the U.S.-led coalition forces to the Iraqis. «Our common goal is to help Iraq stand on its own feet as quickly as possible,» Khalilzad said, adding that this would allow for a phased U.S. pullout. _Last weekend Iraqi police and a brigade of the 5th Iraqi Army Division formally took full control of an area in Diyala Province, to the northeast of Baghdad, known as Khalis Qadah, replacing a U.S. Army unit. Col. Archie Davis, spokesman for Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the transition was made because the Iraqis had demonstrated proficiency at fighting insurgents without U.S. support. _Mowaffak Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, said Monday that several cities in the more stable south and north had been identified as areas where withdrawal of foreign forces probably could start soon. The cities included Najaf, Karbala, Samawah, Diwaniyah and Nasiriyah in the heavily Shiite Muslim south, and possibly Irbil and Sulaymaniyah in the predominantly Kurdish north. The battle against the insurgency brought another stark reminder Tuesday of the cost in U.S. lives of remaining in Iraq. Military officials announced that seven Marines were killed in action on Monday, pushing the total number of U.S. deaths in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion beyond 1,800. More than 13,700 have been wounded. Iraqis _ both civilians and security forces _ have taken most casualties in recent months as U.S. troops deliberately scaled back their unilateral combat missions to operate more with Iraqi forces. More than 180,000 Iraqi police and army troops have been trained and equipped by U.S. forces. On a visit to Iraq last week, Rumsfeld drew a direct link between American combat deaths and the urgency of getting the Iraqis to complete a constitution by Aug. 15. «We have troops on the ground there. People are getting killed,» Rumsfeld said, adding that «political progress is necessary to defeat the insurgency.

01:44 New York. The next interim report on the scandal-tainted oil-for-food program for Iraq will be released on Aug. 9, a few days later than planned, a U.N.-appointed panel announced on Tuesday.The Independent Inquiry Committee, headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, said in a statement that the survey would "tie up several loose ends from prior reports." Originally this report was to have been released on Friday. A committee spokesman said last week the report would focus on Benon Sevan, the former head of the $67 billion program, and on Alexander Yakovlev, a senior purchasing officer, involved in awarding a series of contracts.

01:15 Thousands of Israelis opposed to the upcoming withdrawal from the Gaza Strip gathered in the town of Sderot for a peaceful protest Tuesday, but settler leaders said they planned to defy a military order and lead their followers on a march to Gaza's settlements. More than 15,000 police and soldiers took up positions in southern Israel to prevent the marchers from reaching Gaza, which has been declared a closed military zone, and sabotaging the pullout scheduled to begin in two weeks. The march, which is scheduled to begin Wednesday, is the settlers' second effort in two weeks to breech the barricades preventing them from getting into the Gush Katif settlement bloc in southern Gaza. If they fall short again, it would be a devastating blow to the protest movement. «Our goal has been stated openly: to go Gush Katif, to our besieged brothers,» Gaza settler leader Avner Shimoni told Channel 2 TV. «It is impossible to stop the masses of Israel who have only one goal, to reach Gush Katif and overturn this cruel decree.» Early Wednesday, police and soldiers blocked a group of women from West Bank settlements, led by veteran activist Daniella Weiss, who circumvented several roadblocks and approached Gaza. Weiss ripped up an order handed her by a policeman and lay on the road. After a tense, noisy confrontation, she and the others were bundled onto a bus and driven away. After days of negotiating with the authorities, settler leaders were given permission to hold their rally Tuesday in Sderot, an Israeli town that borders northern Gaza and has been the frequent target of rocket attacks by Palestinian militants. As the rally in Sderot ended, Palestinian militants fired three homemade rockets toward Sderot. Two of the rockets misfired, landing in a Palestinian area, killing a three-year old boy and wounding nine other people, Palestinian rescue workers said. The third rocket landed in an open field outside Sderot. There were no Israeli casualties. A few minutes later, an explosion was heard outside the Gaza City house of a former Palestinian Cabinet minister, witnesses said. No one was hurt, police said, but they kept reporters away. It was not known who set off the explosion. On Monday, a blast damaged a wall outside the home of the Palestinian Authority's attorney general in Gaza City. The two officials have been picked by the parliament to investigate widespread corruption in the Palestinian Authority. Following the rally, the protesters planned to spend the night in Ofakim _ an Israeli town about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Gaza. Police officials said they reached an agreement with settler leaders that would allow the protesters to stay in Ofakim until Friday, but some settler leaders said they would begin marching Wednesday to Gush Katif. Authorities said 15,000 police and soldiers would form human chains and erect roadblocks throughout the area to stop the march. By the evening, groups of soldiers gathered outside Sderot to prevent anyone from trying to march to Gaza from here. Thousands of protesters wearing shirts and ribbons the orange color of the protest movement _ many of them teenagers and parents with small children _ descended on an open field next to a sports center in the middle of Sderot and posters lashing the pullout were plastered across the town. Buses and cars caused traffic jams as they descended on Sderot. Over the stage hung a sign that said «Mass march to Gush Katif.» It was the same sign over the stage at a rally two weeks ago in the nearby town of Netivot. Police and soldiers prevented those protesters from getting anywhere near Gaza, herding them into the small community of Kfar Maimon, where they stayed for three days in the blistering heat before dispersing. Some of the protesters in Sderot said there was really no chance for them to stop the pullout. «It seems that it is too late,» said Alain Bismuth, 40, from the northern town of Haifa. He said he came simply to show that there are many Israelis opposed to the plan. Others still had hope. «Everything we do changes things,» said Shmuel Lax, 30, of Neve Tsuf. «We are going to be strong and God will help us and hear our prayers and our demonstrations,» hardline lawmaker Benny Elon said. Police had originally said they would limit the crowd to 5,000, but later estimated 10,000 people were at the rally, roughly half the number at the Netivot rally. Israel plans to pull out of all 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four in the West Bank in mid-August, uprooting about 9,000 settlers. The government says more than half of the settlers have agreed to leave voluntarily and expect more to follow before the withdrawal date. But some settler leaders and their supporters plan fierce resistance. More than 200,000 settlers live in other parts of the West Bank, and their leaders fear the Gaza pullout could be the beginning of further withdrawals from land claimed by the Palestinians. Observant Jews believe the West Bank is promised to the Jews in the Bible. On Sunday, the Cabinet will formally vote on the evacuation of the first group of settlements, a government official said. In March, the Cabinet approved the overall withdrawal plan, but agreed to vote again separately before the evacuation of each of four groups of settlements. The pullout is expected to pass easily. Despite the settler protests, Israeli military commanders will meet their Palestinian counterparts on Wednesday to continue efforts to coordinate the withdrawal, the Palestinian Interior Ministry said.

01:48 Washington. Donald Rumsfeld termed "completely absurd" the idea that the London bombings were in reprisal for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


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