More U.S. troops for Afghanistan; Christians wary in Iraq

By DANIEL GRAEBER, UPI Correspondent   |   April 2, 2009 at 3:39 PM   |   0 comments

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More troops to Afghanistan?

Considerations for the deployment of an additional 10,000 U.S. combat forces to Afghanistan were met with skepticism by ranking Republicans in Washington.

Lawmakers grilled defense officials before the Senate Armed Services Committee as U.S. President Barack Obama rolled out his new strategy for efforts in Afghanistan.

Obama last week announced a major new strategy for Afghanistan that includes additional troops and trainers, a renewed focus on al-Qaida and non-military aid to Pakistan.

Obama may decide as early as this fall to send an additional 10,000 troops to Afghanistan on top of the billions in aid to Pakistan. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, however, questioned the move as the Pakistani commitment to securing its western neighbor wavers, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., questioned Pakistani motives in the volatile tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan, while U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the top general at U.S. Central Command, stressed that the Pakistanis may have other motives.

"Many Pakistani leaders remain focused on India as Pakistan's principal threat, and some may even continue to regard Islamist extremist groups as a potential strategic asset," Petraeus said.

A growing number of critics say the troop commitment in Obama's Afghan strategy may fall short of that needed to control the growing insurgency in southern Afghanistan. Pentagon officials said, however, the additional 10,000 troops would go to a new American headquarters in the south before the end of the year.


Group touts Afghan mine clearing

International groups cleared mines from thousands of acres of land in Afghanistan, though the threat continues to undermine progress, officials said.

Mohammed Haider Reza, program director of the Mine Action Coordination Center of Afghanistan, said the land mines contaminating the country are a constant threat to reconstruction efforts in the embattled nation.

"We want to move forward and become a strong and peaceful nation," he wrote. "However, the years of conflict have left many scars on our country and people that will take time and effort to heal."

Mine abatement efforts in 2008 resulted in the destruction of 2.5 million pieces of explosive ordnance, 84,000 anti-personnel mines and around 900 anti-tank mines from the Afghan landscape.

This effort, Reza notes, cleared more than 12,000 acres of land from mines and nearly 28,000 acres of battlefield.

This effort contributed to the increase in available power in Kabul as open land clears room for development projects. Reza noted additional operations near the Aynak copper mine south of Kabul would be a boon to the Afghan economy and provide jobs for the surrounding community.

"We know that being free from the threat of mines is now achievable," he said. "We cannot afford to neglect mine action if we truly desire a peaceful and prosperous country for ourselves and our children."

The International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance is Saturday.


Brits train Afghan troops in south

Troops with the Afghan army trained alongside British forces for future roles in securing the volatile southern province of Helmand.

A combat support group of about 350 Afghan troops underwent artillery, engineering and reconnaissance training to support the 3/205 brigade in the Afghan National Army.

Maj. Jim Hill with a British Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team said it was vital that Afghan forces learn conventional support techniques, the British Ministry of Defense reports.

"To be truly effective, the ANA need to be able to support their own operations, in the key areas of offensive support, combat engineering and reconnaissance," he said.

With international security forces taking the lead to control the growing insurgency in Helmand, Hill stressed the importance of autonomous Afghan forces.

Afghan troops conducted basic gunnery skills, preventative maintenance skills and indirect-fire procedures alongside their British counterparts.

Meanwhile, officers with the British Royal Engineers trained Afghans on mine awareness and disposal techniques.

"The ANA have worked very hard to master these skills, and it has been most rewarding for the mentors from these specialized areas to see the improvement in ANA capability," Hill said.


Iraqi Christians wary of security

The Christian community in Iraq is fearful of the security environment once U.S. military forces diminish their presence in the country, church officials said.

Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk Louis Sako expressed hope that the Christian minority in Iraq would be able to stand strong amid mounting tragedies facing the community, the Catholic News Agency reports.

"Under Saddam's regime, we had security but no freedom," he said. "Today we have freedom, but the problem is security."

Christians in Iraq faced a spate of targeted attacks last year in the north of Iraq, where much of the community is concentrated. More than 700 Christians were killed in the past five years, including Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, who was assassinated in Mosul in 2008.

As a result, much of the Christian community in Iraq has fled to Syria and other countries in the region to escape persecution.

"Some 200,000 Christians have left the country," Sako said. "This is a tragedy for us."

Despite the security challenges, Sako expressed confidence his community could reach out to their Muslim counterparts in order to live securely in Iraq.

"We have many problems, but we also have great hope. We are not afraid, but rather we want to be able to live together with the Muslims in Iraq in peace," he said.


PMOI faces pressure to leave Iraq

The Iranian dissident group People's Mujahedin of Iran faces mounting pressure from Iranian and Iraqi leaders to vacate their enclave in Iraq's Diyala province.

Around 4,000 members of the PMOI reside at Camp Ashraf in Diyala province near the Iranian border. The group is part of a wider opposition movement that seeks regime change in Iran.

Despite gains in Europe, several nations consider the PMOI a terrorist group for its past violent action against Iran and others. Saddam Hussein allegedly used the group as a paramilitary force to conduct operations against Iranian agents.

The group faces increased pressure from Iraqi officials to leave the country, notably from national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Baghdad was reluctant to face the repercussions of hosting a known terrorist group on its soil, a sentiment echoed by many leaders in Baghdad, the Iraqi political site Niqash.org reports.

Some Iraqi figures, like Sunni leader Saleh Mutlaq, have expressed their support for the group. Karim Yaqoubi with the Shiite Fadhila Party, an eristic group with no ties to Iran, said the PMOI poses no threat and should remain in Iraq.

Leaders of the group have made repeated appeals to the international community on the grounds of humanitarian and safety concerns, but the fate of the PMOI in Iraq remains in limbo.


U.N. lauded for reconstruction in Iraq

Reconstruction projects in Iraq spearheaded by the United Nations made significant contributions to recovery efforts in Iraq, a report suggests.

A report by the Norwegian monitoring group Scanteam reviewed U.N. reconstruction projects funded by the International Reconstruction Fund Facility for Iraq. The report gave 80 percent of the U.N. projects their highest ratings, "acceptable" or "satisfactory," the United Nations reports.

"The U.N. was able to deliver despite the poor security situation through our close working relationship with government, civil society and local partners," said David Shearer, U.N. Resident Coordinator for Iraq.

Shearer said the light-footprint approach of the U.N. team in Iraq contributed to its ability to make progress despite six years of war.

The Scanteam report said only 2 percent of the U.N. projects surpassed their estimated costs. Shearer, however, said that while security improvements in Iraq were promising for reconstruction efforts, declining investments and the global recession made for challenges ahead.

"A coordinated development effort is more vital now than ever to consolidate Iraq's recovery," he said.

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(dgraeber@upi.com)

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