Iraq: Oil prices may drag budget lower

BAGHDAD – Iraq’s parliament pushed back voting Saturday on this year’s budget and could be forced to make further cuts because of falling oil prices.

The latest delay in trying to ratify the current $64 billion budget proposal highlights the financial squeeze facing Iraq as declining oil revenues cut into reconstruction plans such as new roads and improved utilities — which the Shiite-led government hopes to use as showcases in national elections later this year.

The pinch has also brought calls by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for proposals to diversify Iraq’s oil-dependent economy with expansion of agriculture and other trade. But Iraq’s plans for this year have been dragged down along with the price of oil, which is now less than $45 a barrel after hitting highs last summer of $150 a barrel.

A Sunni lawmaker, Ayad al-Samarraie, predicted the budget will face more trimming after several previous cuts from its original $79 billion. The current budget is based on a $50 a barrel projection.

“We don’t expect that oil will reach this price,” said al-Samarraie, a member of the chamber’s financial committee.

He urged lawmakers to take a comprehensive look at all spending, suggesting that more money go to electricity and other public projects at the expense of deeper cuts in other areas.

Shatha al-Mousawi, the Shiite member of the finance committee, called for possible sharp reductions in the National Security Adviser office, which was established shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. She said it has 377 employees and suggested cutting it to just 16.

“The studies and reports show that the falling oil prices will continue for two or three years,” she said.

It was unclear when the budget could eventually come for a vote.

Army Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command, told The Associated Press that the budget crisis would force Iraq to make some very difficult decisions about how to grow its security forces.

“They are many, many hard decisions that they are going to have to make,” he said.

He said U.S. military advisers have been making recommendations to the Iraqi security officials on possible ways to deal with the shrunken budget. An example, Helmick said, could be reducing the number of Abrams tanks sought by Iraqi forces.

He said essential services such as Iraqi police and military payroll, electricity and water could not be cut.

In Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, Iraqi forces arrested 11 suspected insurgents including the so-called “oil minister” of the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq, a purported political faction linked to al-Qaida in Iraq.

An Interior Ministry statement said Ali Mahmoud Mohammed and 10 other suspected insurgents were arrested in a raid in a Diyala village. No other details were given.

An al-Qaida front group announced the formation of an “Islamic Cabinet” in April 2007 in a bid to challenge the Iraqi government. The Cabinet purportedly includes the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq as “war minister.”

Iraqi authorities accuse Mohammed of hijacking oil tanker trucks, kidnapping and killing the drivers and blowing up oil pipelines.

In Baghdad, the head of the Iraqi High Tribunal said a mid-April trial date is planned for the first war crimes trial of Iraqis since the U.S.-led invasion.

Two members of Saddam’s former Baath Party are accused of executing two British soldiers taken captive by a mob in southern Iraq in 2003. The exact trial date has not been set, said Aref al-Shaheen, the head of the Iraqi High Tribunal, which was set up to hear the cases against members of Saddam’s regime.

The trials of Saddam and others have been under charges of crimes against humanity.

“It is the first case of war crimes … The two wounded soldiers were killed instead of given medical treatment,” said al-Shaheen.

At least 15 U.S. troops died in Iraq in February, including 12 who were killed in combat, according to an Associated Press tally. That compared with nine U.S. combat deaths in January.

A report from Iraq’s Interior and Health ministries said 211 civilians were killed and 437 wounded in February — compared with 138 killed and 303 wounded in January. The figures were given by officials from the ministries who spoke in condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.


Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub, Sinan Salaheddin and Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report

source :


Leaving Iraq: Shift to south, exit through desert

BAGHDAD – The U.S. military map in Iraq in early 2010: Marines are leaving the western desert, Army units are in the former British zone in the south and the overall mission is coalescing around air and logistics hubs in central and northern Iraq.

Meanwhile, commanders will be shifting their attention to helping Iraqi forces take full control of their own security.

The Pentagon has not released the full details of President Barack Obama‘s plan to end America’s combat role in Iraq by Aug. 31 of next year, but the broad contours are taking shape.

Statements from military officials, U.S. government reports and interviews by The Associated Press with Iraqi and U.S. planners offer a wide-angle view of the expected American formation in Iraq when the pullout quickens early next year.

Between 35,000 and 50,000 soldiers are expected to remain in a transition period before all troops must leave by the end of 2011 under a joint pact. In his speech Friday, Obama outlined the roles ahead.

“Training, equipping, and advising Iraqi security forces as long as they remain nonsectarian; conducting targeted counterterrorism missions, and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq,” he said at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

There should be little immediate change in the American presence in 2009.

The bulk of the current 138,000 U.S. troops are expected to remain until Iraq’s national elections scheduled for late this year. Maintaining security for the balloting is considered a top priority by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, and other high-ranking Pentagon officials.

Then the pullout will accelerate.

The first significant shift could be with the 22,000 Marines in Anbar province, a broad wedge of western desert where insurgents once held sway over key cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi.

The Marines have already tested exit routes through Jordan with plans for a full-scale exodus during the “2010 calendar year,” said Terry Moores, deputy assistant chief of staff for logistics for Marine Corps Central Command.

The Marines could possibly leave a small contingent, but expect to turn over military duties to the Army.

The early exit from Anbar carries two important messages.

It’s part of Washington’s shift of military focus to Afghanistan. Obama plans to send 17,000 more soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan, to join 38,000 already fighting a strengthening Taliban-led insurgency.

Anbar also represents a critical turning point of the nearly six-year-old Iraq war. A U.S.-directed effort in late 2006 began to recruit and fund tribal leaders to join the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgent groups — which were eventually uprooted in Anbar and began to lose their hold in and around Baghdad.

In the south, the U.S. Army is making plans to fill the void left by the departure this spring of 4,000 British troops based outside Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq and a hub of the nation’s southern oil fields.

Odierno has said a division headquarters — about 1,000 personnel — plus an undetermined number of troops would be sent to Basra. The transition is expected to begin in late March, and it’s likely a U.S. force will remain around Basra until the final pullout in 2011.

Basra is a proving ground for Iraq’s ability to handle security on its own. Iraq launched an offensive last year that — with U.S. help — crippled Shiite militia control in parts of the city. But the small British contingent has largely stayed out of direct security operations, leaving it mostly to Iraqi commanders.

During a tour of Basra on Friday, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said some military personnel will remain to train Iraq’s navy, but the primary British goal is humanitarian aid and development.

“We will focus upon cultural, economic and educational topics,” he told Basra Gov. Mohammed al-Waili.

Northern Iraq, meanwhile, poses the greatest uncertainties for the Pentagon.

Mosul — Iraq’s third-biggest city — remains one of the last havens for al-Qaida in Iraq and its streets are among the most dangerous in the country.

On Tuesday, two Iraqi police opened fire during a U.S. military inspection of an Iraqi security unit in Mosul, killing one American soldier and an interpreter. The attack deepened worries of possible infiltration of security forces in the Mosul area.

U.S. combat support for Iraqis is likely to continue — and perhaps expand — in the coming 18 months. It then could become high on the agenda for the counterterrorism missions, which could include ground forces and aerial surveillance.

U.S. troop strength in the Mosul area is relatively light, but there is a U.S. base on the city’s edge.

Obama left open the option for more extensive U.S. military backup if needed.

“There will surely be difficult periods and tactical adjustments,” he said. “But our enemies should be left with no doubt: This plan gives our military the forces and the flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners, and to succeed.”

The northern city of Kirkuk is another potential trouble spot. Tensions between Kurds and Sunni Arabs over control of the city — and center of the northern oil fields — show no signs of easing.

Two bases north of Baghdad will likely take more prominent roles next year.

Balad Air Base, home to more than 20,000 U.S. forces, provides air power, logistics and counterterrorism support, as well as training for Iraqi security forces. Its location — 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Baghdad — offers a rich vantage point for intelligence gathering and analysis across the entire north and specific areas such as the Iranian border.

Another major U.S. air and logistics base in Taji, 12 miles (20 kilometers) north of Baghdad, sits next to Iraq’s new supply and logistics hub.

The two sites would be a natural centerpiece for U.S. training and advising of the Iraqi military, Army Brig. Gen. Steven Salazar, the deputy commanding general at Multi-National Security Transition Command, told the AP recently.

Salazar said the Taji National Supply Depot was designed by the Iraqis to be the “top end” of the supply and logistics chain for its security forces.

In Baghdad, the U.S. military is already making changes in anticipation of the first step of the withdrawal timetable: U.S. forces out of major cities by June.

The United States has handed over the Green Zone to the Iraqi government, closed forward operating bases and combat outposts in the city or turned them into smaller stations where U.S. troops work alongside Iraqi security forces.

But Camp Victory, a huge base on the outskirts of Baghdad in a former Saddam palace complex, will continue to serve as the U.S. nerve center in the capital.

A military official with knowledge of the military planning process told the AP that Camp Victory’s proximity to many Iraqi government ministries and the Baghdad International Airport make it a prime location for the U.S. military, and one they are not likely to give up anytime soon.

The base also is expected to expand as it absorbs troops pulling out of Baghdad before the June 30 deadline, said another military official. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

source :

War tours strain US military readiness

WASHINGTON: Strained by repeated war tours, persistent terrorist threats and instability around the globe, there is a significant risk the U.S. military may not be able to respond quickly and fully to new crises, a classified Pentagon assessment has concluded.

This is the third year that the risk level has been set at “significant” _ despite improved security conditions in Iraq and plans to cut U.S. troop levels there. Senior military officials spoke about the report on condition of anonymity because it is a classified document.

The risk assessment, drawn up by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, paints a broad picture of the security threats and hot spots around the world and the U.S. military’s ability to deal with them. Mullen has delivered it to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The assessment is prepared every year and routinely delivered to Congress with the budget. Because the threat is rated as significant, Gates will send an accompanying report to Congress outlining what the military is doing to address the risks. That report has not yet been finished.

source :

German FM on surprise visit to Iraq

BAGHDAD: German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier flew in on a surprise trip to Iraq on Tuesday, in the first such visit for more than 20 years ago, Iraqi officials said.

Steinmeier is due to meet President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki during his trip, which comes exactly a week after a surprise mission by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Like France, Germany was an opponent of the US-led invasion of 2003, which toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. Steinmeier was chief of staff to then-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder when the war broke out. Steinmeier was also expected to open a German consulate in Arbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan in the north of the country, according to the Kurdish press.

source :

OPEC should cut oil supply, if demand slow: Iraq

DOHA: OPEC should look to reduce oil supply further if demand is insufficient to absorb supplies, Iraq’s oil minister said on Tuesday.

“If there is not sufficient demand for OPEC crude we will have to consider a reduction,” Oil Minister Hussainal-Shahristani told reporters on the sidelines of a conference. OPEC, supplier of more than a third of the world’s oil, has raced to cut supply to match falling demand from a slowing global economy. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries next meets in March to discuss supply.

Shahristani said earlier this month he expected OPEC to reduce supply targets at the March meeting. The group pledged cutting 4.2 million barrels per day (bpd) since September had stabilized the market, he said on Tuesday. “After our previous decision, it has not kept slowing down, “Shahristani said.

U.S. crude has fallen by more than $110 from its July peak to trade at under $37 a barrel on Tuesday. Oil has mostly traded in a $35 to $45 range since December.

source :

Turkish bombs kill Kurdish rebels in Iraq

ANKARA: Turkey’s state-run news agency says 13 Kurdish rebels were killed in northern Iraq during Turkish bombing last week.

The Anatolia news agency said Friday that the aerial attack also caused heavy damage to a Kurdish rebel camp. The report cited unnamed security officials and could not be independently confirmed. Military officials were not immediately available for comment. It was the latest of a series of Turkish strikes against rebel hideouts in northern Iraq.

Rebels have staged hit-and-run attacks on Turkish targets from there for decades in a fight for autonomy in Turkey’s southeast. Turkey launched several aerial attacks and one major ground operation against rebel bases across the border with Iraq early last year.

source :

Turkish bombs kill 13 Kurdish rebels in Iraq

BAGHDAD: Turkish armed forces killed 13 Kurdish PKK rebels during an air strike last week in northern Iraq, the state-run news agency Anatolian reported on Friday. The air strike also badly damaged a PKK operations and logistics base, according to Anatolian. Kurdish separatist fighters use northern Iraq’s autonomous northern region as a base to launch attacks on targets in southeastern Turkey, and Turkish forces have frequently retaliated with air and artillery strikes. In early 2008, Turkey sent thousands of troops across the border in an attempt to flush out the PKK guerrillas and end their cross-border attacks. Ankara, like the European Union and United States, calls the PKK a terrorist organisation. Around 40,000 people have been killed since 1984, when the PKK took up arms with a view to establishing an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey. source :

Iraq sorts out pensions for Saddam’s officer cadre

BAGHDAD: Army officers who served under ousted dictator Saddam Hussein can return to claim pensions in Iraq and some of lower rank may be able to find employment again in the armed forces, a military spokesman said on Monday.

Many of the leaders of the army under Saddam fled the country after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, fearing they would be arrested or hunted down as members of the once-dominant and iron-fisted Baath party.

Most of the officer cadre under Saddam was Sunni Arab Muslims, while majority Shi’ite Muslims ruling Iraq now. Defence Ministry spokesman Major-General Mohammed al-Askari said the government wanted to sort out once and for all who may be entitled to a pension as an ex-military member and so was reaching out to former officers abroad. “We formed a committee in Amman, and also decided to do so in Sanaa, Egypt, Dubai and Damascus. We want former officers to fill in forms so we can create a database of those who want to come back or who want to collect pensions,” Askari said.

source :

Gunmen kill family, including women, child in Iraq

BAGHDAD: Gunmen shot dead nine members of a family, six of them women and a child, in an overnight raid on their home in Iraq’s volatile northern Diyala province, police said.

The attackers then abducted two other family members, a man and woman, from the house in a village of near the town of Balad Ruz, 90 km (55 miles) north of Baghdad.

Diyala is still one of Iraq’s most violent provinces, a place where Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and other militant groups still roam despite repeated attempts to stamp them out.

Police did not know who was behind the attack or why the family, all Arabs from the Sunni sect, were targeted.

source :