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US to lower flag to end Iraq war December 15, 2011

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President Barack Obama: “You have shown why the US military is the finest fighting force in the history of the world”

The US flag is to be lowered in Baghdad, formally marking the end of US military operations in Iraq after nearly nine years of war.

Most of the 5,500 remaining soldiers have now left Iraq, with security in the hands of the Iraqi authorities.

President Barack Obama, who came to office pledging to bring troops home, said the US left behind a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq”.

Some 4,500 US soldiers and more than 100,000 Iraqis have died in the war.

It has cost the US some $1tr.

Republicans have criticised the pullout citing concerns over Iraq’s stability, but most Americans support the move.

In a speech to troops just returned from Iraq in North Carolina on Wednesday, Mr Obama hailed the “extraordinary achievement” of the military and said they were leaving with “heads held high”.

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It has been a huge logistical exercise winding in the once enormous deployment that pervaded this country.

The last few thousands troops are expected to drain away to the south in the next few days.

The remaining American presence and influence here will now be focused on the enormous US embassy in Baghdad, with as many as 15-16,000 personnel.

A small number of them are military trainers, with several hundred private contractors also helping train up Iraqi security forces.

The two countries have agreed to continue a long-term strategic relationship, but some Iraqis and others in the region believe that the removal of American military power will leave the field wider open to a further spread of influence by Iraq’s powerful neighbour, Iran.

“Everything that American troops have done in Iraq, all the fighting and dying, bleeding and building, training and partnering, has led us to this moment of success,” he said.

“The war in Iraq will soon belong to history, and your service belongs to the ages.”

He said the war had been “a source of great controversy” but that they had helped to build “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people”.

The US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta has arrived in Baghdad for the ceremony, which he said earlier would “mark the end of the combat effort that we’ve made as a country”.

Some 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003. In addition to those who died, nearly 30,000 have been wounded.

Troop numbers peaked at around 170,000 during the height of the so-called surge strategy in 2007, but as of this week only about 5,500 remained. Many of them have already left for bases in Kuwait prior to flying home.

The last combat troops left Iraq in August last year. A small contingent of some 200 soldiers will remain in Iraq as advisers, while some 15,000 US personnel are now based at the US embassy in Baghdad – by far the world’s largest.

‘Ruin and mess’

Some Iraqis have said they fear the consequences of being left to manage their own security.

Baghdad trader Malik Abed said he was grateful to the Americans for ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein, but added: “I think now we are going to be in trouble. Maybe the terrorists will start attacking us again.”

But in the city of Falluja, a former insurgent stronghold which was the scene of major US offensives in 2004, people burned US flags on Wednesday in celebration at the withdrawal.

“No-one trusted their promises, but they said when they came to Iraq they would bring security, stability and would build our country,” Ahmed Aied, a grocer, told Reuters news agency.

“Now they are walking out, leaving behind killings, ruin and mess.”

Concerns have also been voiced in Washington that Iraq lacks robust political structures or an ability to defend its borders.

There are also fears that Iraq could be plunged back into sectarian bloodletting, or be unduly influenced by Iran.

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This is more than a little awkward, intellectually. He [Obama] is papering over the cracks between what he has always thought and what he has to say to the country”

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The conflict, launched by the Bush administration in March 2003, soon became hugely unpopular as claims that Saddam was hiding weapons of mass destruction and supporting al-Qaeda militants turned out to be untrue.

It descended into sectarian conflict, costing tens of thousands of Iraqi lives.

Mr Obama announced in October that all US troops would leave Iraq by the end of 2011, a date previously agreed by former President George W Bush in 2008.

Nonetheless, a recent poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 75% of Americans backed the troop withdrawal.

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Panetta: Troops’ Sacrifices ‘Paying Off’ in Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told American troops in eastern Afghanistan the United States is winning the 10-year-old war against extremists in the country.

Panetta flew to a remote U.S. Military base to present valor award medals to soldiers and offer reassurances the troops are making what he called significant progress in the war against extremists.

“I really think that for all the sacrifice that you are doing, the reality is that it is paying off and that we are moving in the right direction, and we are winning this very tough conflict here in Afghanistan,” he said.

Despite recent high-profile attacks by extremist groups, Panetta said Afghanistan is enjoying the most reduced levels of violence in five years, adding that U.S.-led NATO forces have weakened the Taliban to the point where the group has not conducted a successful attack to regain lost territory.

But Panetta said the mission has yet to be completed and much of eastern Afghanistan remains an area of concern for U.S. forces.

Troubled relations with Pakistan are complicating U.S. efforts to stabilize the region. Washington has accused Pakistan’s security agency of supporting extremists who have launched attacks inside Afghanistan. Pakistan has recently closed off supply routes to U.S. forces following a recent NATO attack on the border that Pakistan says killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Panetta, standing fewer than 60 kilometers from the Pakistani border as he delivered his message, called for Islamabad to do more to bring stability to the region. He described U.S.-Pakistan relations as difficult but necessary and important.

“We are continuing to work with them in the hope that we can establish that kind of relationship,” he said. “We have got to do that because, ultimately, we have got to make sure that if we are going to secure this country, the Pakistanis had better damned well secure their country as well.”

Panetta later met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Afghan leader told reporters the 10-year war has brought overall stability to Afghanistan, but said much needs to be done before the Afghan people can enjoy peace and security.

“With regard to bringing personal security to the Afghan people, we have a journey to make and I hope that journey will be done sooner and successfully,” said Karzai.

The U.S. has begun drawing down its forces in Afghanistan, a process it expects to complete in 2014.

Following his Afghanistan visit, Panetta will stop in Baghdad to mark the end of the eight-year-old U.S. mission in Iraq.

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US condemns Egypt’s military rulers amid exasperation among protesters November 23, 2011

The US has sharply stepped up criticism of Egypt‘s military rulers as Washington grapples once again with how to deal with an authoritarian ally in Cairo responsible for a bloody crackdown against people demanding democratic rights.

After days of refusing to directly blame the Egyptian security forces for the deaths of at least 36 people protesting against the ruling army council’s attempts to draw out the transition to civilian rule, and even after that to retain political powers for the military, the US state department finally pointed the finger on Tuesday.

“We condemn the excessive force used by the police,” said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “We strongly urge the Egyptian government to exercise maximum restraint, to discipline its forces and to protect the universal rights of all Egyptians to peacefully express themselves.”

The US condemnation came amid growing exasperation among protesters in Cairo at equivocal statements from the state department and the White House – which is deciding policy on Egypt – that avoided direct criticism of the military. Many were further angered by the discovery that the tear gas canisters fired against them were manufactured in the US.

Washington’s ambiguous approach echoes its indecision during the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in February, and reflects an array of competing interests that have once again left the administration hesitant and grappling for direction in dealing with an authoritarian ally.

The Obama administration has regarded the Egyptian military as the cornerstone of a controlled transition to civilian rule since Mubarak was forced out after 30 years in power. The US was not unsympathetic to the Egyptian military’s attempts to ensure it maintains a degree of control long after the transition to civilian rule, not least because the army’s manoeuvres were principally at the expense of the Islamist political parties. Analysts say the US regards stability in Egypt as particularly important, in part because of the necessity of maintaining Cairo’s cold peace with Israel.

But the army’s evident attempts to delay the political transition, and to put itself above civilian accountability afterwards, is generating the very unrest the US was trying to avoid. It also undermines Washington’s claims to support democratic transitions in the Arab world.

Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said the US administration now faces the same dilemma it faced in January when the protests began against Mubarak’s rule.

“There is a government in power that the US largely supports. The US was rather pleased with the role of the military originally in the sense that it saw it as a guarantee of stability in a situation in which it did not have any contacts with all the new political forces,” she said. “The role of the military was welcomed by the US government the same as previously the US always accepted the role of Mubarak as a source of stability. Now they’re facing the same dilemma that the government that they have supported is being challenged and they have to decide at which point they are going to start issuing different messages to it. I don’t think they have quite decided.”

Nuland welcomed the Egyptian military’s announcement on Tuesday that next week’s parliamentary elections would be held on time, and that the transition to a fully elected government and a new president would be completed by July. Comments by state department officials suggest the US still strongly favours the military overseeing the transition to democracy, rather than an immediate shift to an appointed civilian administration that Washington fears will be less stable.

But at least some administration officials are wary of the military council, which has at times proved to be as repressive as when it was serving Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Earlier this month, Hillary Clinton made reference to Egypt in a warning against the US backing what are perceived to be stable sympathetic regimes at the cost of democratic reform.

“We do work with many different governments to pursue our interests and to keep Americans safe – and certainly not all of them are democracies,” she told the National Democratic Institute.

“But as the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt made clear, the enduring cooperation we seek will be difficult to sustain without democratic legitimacy and public consent. We cannot have one set of policies to advance security in the here-and-now and another to promote democracy in a long run that never quite arrives.”.

The administration has come under pressure from the Working Group on Egypt, a group of Middle East analysts offering advice to the administration, which has repeatedly warned that the military rulers in Cairo are stalling on democratic change. It called for Congress to set firm conditions to the US’s $1.3bn annual aid to Egypt, including requiring that the Obama administration certify that Egypt has held free and fair elections. The White House has resisted any such pressure.

Ottaway said the problem for the US administration is that if it attempts to pull the rug from under the regime it does not have a fallback option as it did in February.

“What you have had between the United States and Egypt is a convergence so that essentially the US accepted the Mubarak regime the way it was, the same way it accepted the military regime as it was, as long as Egypt kept its side of the deal with Israel and Egypt remained relatively stable,” she said.

“When Mubarak became incapable of maintaining stability, the US government abandoned him. But they had the military to fall back on. This time I don’t think there’s much to fall back on. I think the options for the US are pretty bad.”

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New Greek PM Says Country Is at ‘Crucial Crossroads’ November 10, 2011

Greece’s newly named caretaker prime minister, Lucas Papademos, says his country is at a “crucial crossroads” and it won’t be easy to fix the huge problems facing the Greek economy.

Thursday, Greece’s feuding political leaders named Papademos, a former vice president of the European Central Bank, to be the country’s interim leader until a national election is held, likely next year. Outgoing Prime Minister George Papandreou handed him the responsibility for carrying out Greece’s hugely unpopular austerity measures demanded by its international creditors in exchange for more money to keep the country from defaulting on its debts.

Stressing stability, unity

Papademos, to be sworn in Friday, said “the course will not be easy.” But he said the country’s continued use of the euro currency is a “guarantee of monetary stability” and that Greeks “must all be optimistic about the final result” if they stay united.

The U.S.-educated economist has never run for elected office and is viewed as a non-partisan personality. Analysts say he is well-connected in European capitals.

His appointment came as the European Union voiced new concern about the continent’s economy. Economic affairs commissioner Olli Rehn said “growth has stalled in Europe” and that there is a risk of a new recession.

Risk of recession

The EU predicted economic growth in the 17-nation eurozone would amount to just five-tenths of one percent next year, plunging from an earlier 1.8 percent projection.

With the Greek selection of a new leader, the focus of the European debt crisis again turned to Italy. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has promised to step down after Parliament passes tough austerity measures, appeared Thursday to endorse the man widely seen as his replacement, leading economist Mario Monti.

Focus on Italy

A former European Union commissioner, Monti could be named to head a new government that hopes to implement Italy’s budget-cutting plan aimed at reducing the country’s $2.6 trillion debt.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it is important for Italy, with Europe’s third largest economy, to quickly push through its austerity measures and settle on its political leadership.

In the meantime, Italy’s borrowing costs have soared this week above 7 percent – higher than the rate that forced Greece, Ireland and Portugal to ask for bailout loans. The EU predicted that Italy’s economy will only grow by one-tenth of a percent in 2012.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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US Withdrawal Raises Questions of a Vacuum in Iraq October 22, 2011

Friday’s White House announcement of a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq raises many questions about the future of the country and the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf.

For months, the United States military awaited Iraq’s decision with some anxiety, as expressed by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on a trip to Iraq in July, soon after assuming his post.

“I’d like them to make a decision. Do they want us to stay or don’t they want us to stay? They want to get a minister of defense or don’t get a minister of defense, but dammit, make a decision,” said Panetta.

In the end, that decision was not what some in the U.S. military had wanted.  

For days there had been indications of snags in the negotiations between the U.S. and Iraqi governments, primarily over Iraq’s refusal to grant immunity to U.S. soldiers.

U.S. commanders in Iraq have been saying they believe Iraqi security forces have been trained well enough to defend the country against external threats, but continuing sectarian violence and the threat of Iranian intervention raises questions about the future stability of Iraq.

Anthony Cordesman is a security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He believes the failure of the U.S. and Iraq to reach an agreement on a U.S. troop presence is a troubling development.

“It may be ingenuous or false to present it as a success, but the reality is that it’s not clear any administration could have negotiated the kind of outcome we wanted,” said Cordesman.

The U.S. had hoped to leave several thousand troops behind in a non-combat role, in which they would train and advise Iraqi security forces.  Cordesman said not having thousands of troops stay behind may result in a dangerous power vacuum.

“Now we’re going to have zero, which means there won’t be forces to help maintain checkpoints between Kurds and Arabs. There are not going to be specialized forces to help the Iraqis deal with the kinds of terrorism and insurgent groups they have. We’re not going to have any clear contingency basing structure that will allow us to rapidly deploy if Iraq faced a threat from Iran,” said Cordesman.

U.S. troops have been withdrawing for months and fewer than 40,000 remain in Iraq of the approximately 100,000 that were there at the height of the war. All of them are scheduled to leave the country by the end of the year and return to their home bases.  

A small number of U.S. military personnel is to remain to protect the U.S. embassy.

With a major platform disappearing in the region, analysts say the United States will now have to rethink its posture in the Persian Gulf and how it will reposition its forces to safeguard oil supplies and maintain stability.

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