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September 14, 2008

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US and NATO Deaths in Afganistan Outnumber Iraq

June 30, 2008


Militants killed more U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan in June than in Iraq for the second straight month, a grim milestone capping a run of headline-grabbing insurgent attacks that analysts say underscore the Taliban’s growing strength.

The fundamentalist militia in June staged a sophisticated jailbreak that freed 886 prisoners, then briefly infiltrated a strategic valley outside Kandahar. Last week, a Pentagon report forecast the Taliban would maintain or increase its pace of attacks, which are already up 40 percent this year from 2007 where U.S. troops operate along the Pakistan border.

Some observers say the insurgency has gained dangerous momentum. And while June also saw the international community meet in Paris to pledge $21 billion in aid, an Afghanistan expert at New York University warns that there is still no strategy to turn that commitment into success.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has noted that more international troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq in May, the first time that had happened. While that trend – now two months old – is in part due to falling violence in Iraq, it also reflects rising violence in Afghanistan.

At least 45 international troops – including at least 27 U.S. forces and 13 British – died in Afghanistan in June, the deadliest month since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban, according to an Associated Press count.

In Iraq, at least 31 international soldiers died in June: 29 U.S. troops and one each from the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan. There are 144,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 4,000 British forces in additional to small contingents from several other nations.

The 40-nation international coalition is much broader in Afghanistan, where only about half of the 65,000 international troops are American.

That record number of international troops means that more soldiers are exposed to danger than ever before. But Taliban attacks are becoming increasingly complex, and in June, increasingly deadly.

A gun and bomb attack last week in Ghazni province blasted a U.S. Humvee into smoldering ruins, killing three U.S. soldiers and an Afghan interpreter. It was the fourth attack of the month against troops that killed four people. No single attack had killed more than three international troops since August 2007.

“I think possibly we’ve reached a turning point,” said Mustafa Alani, the director of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center. “Insurgents now are more active, more organized, and the political environment, whether in Pakistan or Afghanistan, favors insurgent activities.”

U.S. commanders have blamed Pakistani efforts to negotiate peace deals for the spike in cross-border attacks, though an initial deal with militants has begun to fray and security forces recently launched a limited crackdown in the semiautonomous tribal belt where the Taliban and al-Qaida operate with increasing freedom.

For a moment in mid-June, Afghanistan’s future shimmered brightly. World leaders gathered in Paris to pledge more than $21 billion in aid, and Afghan officials unveiled a development strategy that envisions peace by 2020.

But the very next day, the massive and flawlessly executed assault on the prison in Kandahar – the Taliban’s spiritual home – drew grudging respect even from Western officials.

U.S. Ambassador William Wood said violence is up because Taliban fighters are increasingly using terrorist tactics that cause higher tolls, but that there’s no indication fighters can hold territory. He said June had “some very good news and a couple cases of bad news.”

“The very good news was Paris. There were more nations represented, contributing more than ever before,” Wood told the AP.

The scramble after the jailbreak to push the Taliban back from the nearby Arghandab valley was the other big plus, Wood said. The Afghan army sent more than 1,000 troops to Kandahar in two days.

“Although Arghandab got major press for being a Taliban attack, the real news in Arghandab was that the Afghans themselves led the counterattack, deployed very rapidly and chased the Taliban away,” Wood said.

The worst news, Wood said, was the prison break, and the possible involvement of al-Qaida.

“The Taliban is not known for that level of complex operation, and others who have bases in the tribal areas are,” he said.

Alani agreed: “The old Taliban could not do such an operation, so we are talking about a new Taliban, possibly al-Qaida giving them the experience to carry out this operation.”

Days after the prison attack, an angry President Hamid Karzai threatened to send Afghan troops after Taliban leaders in Pakistan, marking a new low in Afghan-Pakistan relations.

Contributing to the increased death toll is an increase in sophistication of attacks. U.S. Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, the top commander of U.S. forces here, said this month that militant attacks are becoming more complex – such as gunfire from multiple angles plus a roadside bomb. Insurgents are using more explosives, he said.

Mark Laity, the top NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, said troops are taking the fight to insurgents in remote areas and putting themselves in harm’s way. One or two events can disproportionally affect the monthly death toll, he said.

“Sometimes it is just circumstance,” Laity said. “For instance you can hit an IED and walk away or not, and what has happened this month is that there’s been one or two instances that there’s been multiple deaths.”

The AP count found that some 580 people died in insurgent violence in June, including around 440 militants, 34 civilians and 44 Afghan security forces. More than 2,100 people have died in violence this year, according to the AP count, which is based on figures from Afghan, U.S. and NATO officials.

Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at NYU, said the Paris conference shows a strong international commitment to Afghanistan, but he said there is still no strategy for longterm success.

“Let’s focus on the essentials: creating a secure environment for Afghanistan and Pakistan to address their problems and for the international community to eliminate al-Qaida’s safe haven,” Rubin said. “We haven’t been getting there, and we are not getting closer, pledges or no pledges.”

Written by Jason Straziuso

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Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


30 Thousand Troops Going to Iraq

June 28, 2008

The Pentagon is preparing to order approximately 30,000 troops to Iraq early next year in a move that would allow the U.S. to maintain 15 combat brigades in the country through 2009, according to sources via the Associated Press. This deployments would replace troops currently there. This could all change quickly though is Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, decides in the fall to further reduce troop levels in Iraq.

Several officials familiar with the deployments spoke on condition of anonymity because the orders have not yet been made public.

According to the officials, three active-duty Army brigade combat teams, one Army National Guard brigade and two Marine regimental combat teams are being notified that they are being sent to Iraq in early 2009. Officials would not release the specific units involved because the soldiers and Marines and their families have not all been told except the Army National Guard unit who were told last October that they should be prepared to deploy to Iraq early in 2009. They are the 56th Brigade Combat Team, 28th Infantry Division from the Pennsylvania National Guard which is a large brigade with heavily armored Stryker vehicles.

Overall, there are about 146,000 forces in Iraq, and that number is expected to dip to about 142,000 by mid-July when that last unit is all out. That total is at least 7,000 more than the number of troops in Iraq before the buildup began early last year.

Petraeus told Congress in May that he is likely to recommend further troop reductions in Iraq, but he did not provide any details. If he decides in the Fall that fewer brigades will be needed in Iraq during the next year, there is the chance that brigades could simply be directed to the war in Afghanistan instead.

There is a broad consensus that more troops are needed in Afghanistan, to both train the security forces and fight the insurgents. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Bush, earlier this year, told NATO allies that they would increase troop levels in Afghanistan in 2009 in response to the growing violence.

Overall, as seems to be the plan of the current administration and its potential Republican successor, the war is not ending, the occupation is not ceasing, and troops are not coming home.

iNPLACENEWS


Standoff in Iraq Is NOT Just About Oil or Unwanted US Presence,

June 21, 2008


The decisive battle of the Iraq war is shaping up – not in the streets of Baghdad but in the halls of government where the future of America’s role across the region is on the line.

American and Iraqi officials have expressed new resolve to hammer out far-reaching deals that would allow U.S. forces to remain on bases across Iraq once the U.N. mandate expires at year’s end.

The stakes in the talks are enormous.

The outcome will shape not just Iraq for years to come – but, more important, America’s strategic position all across the oil-rich Persian Gulf at a time when Iran’s influence is growing. The U.S. maintains substantial air and naval forces elsewhere in the Gulf but few ground troops except in Iraq.

A pact also would assure Arab allies that Iraq would not fall under domination by Iran, which is pressuring the Iraqis to refuse any deal that keeps U.S. soldiers here.

But critics in the United States fear it will tie the hands of the next president when millions of Americans are anxious to bring troops home. Many Iraqis, in turn, worry the deal will allow American domination of their country for decades.

With so much in the balance, the Iraqi government said Wednesday that both Washington and Baghdad recognize the need to finish the talks by July’s end “to avoid any legal vacuum that may arise.”

That came only days after it seemed the deal was dead. But Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the prospects for an accord had brightened because of new U.S. flexibility after meetings in Washington.

The White House said President Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki discussed the talks Thursday via secured video teleconference and affirmed their commitment to completing the deal.

Nevertheless, the two sides remain far apart on core issues, including the number of bases where the United States will have a presence, and U.S. demands for immunity from Iraqi law for American soldiers and contractors.

Other obstacles include U.S. authority to detain suspects, fight battles without Iraqi permission and control of the country’s airspace.

Iraq’s parliament must sign off on the deal by year’s end – and approval is by no means certain.

Opposition to the initial U.S. demands brought together rival Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders who all complain the deal would leave real power in American hands.

The oil minister, who is close to the country’s powerful Shiite clerical leadership, told the British newspaper The Guardian this week that Iraq will demand the right to veto any U.S. military operation.

But American commanders believe they need such sweeping powers to protect U.S. soldiers in a combat zone.

Publicly, U.S. officials have expressed confidence they can find language that will satisfy the Iraqis on all major issues. But the negotiations are taking place against the backdrop of war and intense power struggles among rival ethnic groups in Iraq – each with its own agenda.

The U.S. operates scores of bases throughout the country, including the sprawling Camp Victory headquarters in Baghdad, Asad air base in western Iraq and the giant air facility at Balad, a 16-square-mile installation about 60 miles north of the capital that houses tens of thousands of American troops, contractors and U.S. government civilians.

It’s still unclear how many of the facilities Washington would want to keep.

If all else fails, the two sides could go back to the U.N. Security Council and seek an extension of the mandate allowing troops in Iraq.

But that could prove politically embarrassing – and difficult – in the waning days of the Bush administration or the early days of the new U.S. presidency.

The current standoff has its roots in events last August when leaders of Iraq’s rival factions – facing enormous U.S. pressure to resolve their differences – signed a declaration of unity.

It included a statement that Iraq’s government wanted a long-term security relationship with the United States apart from U.N. mandates, which Iraq has long wanted to end.

A few months later, Bush and al-Maliki signed a statement of principles to negotiate two agreements – a broad security framework and a second deal spelling out the rules for the U.S. military presence.

Talks began in March but Iraqi officials were outraged over the initial U.S. demands – especially immunity for U.S. soldiers and security contractors.

The American draft also included no firm commitment to defend Iraq from foreign invasion – which would require U.S. Senate approval – nor a timetable for the departure of American troops, according to Iraqi officials. U.S. officials have released few details.

After Iraqi negotiators briefed lawmakers last month, politicians from all walks paraded in front of microphones to denounce the U.S. proposals.

Some commentators likened the U.S. position to the Iraqi-British treaty of 1930, which gave Britain virtual control of the country and is widely seen here as a humiliation.

Shiite lawmaker Haidar al-Abadi, speaking for al-Maliki’s party, said June 4 that “negotiations are at a standstill, and the Iraqi side is studying its options.” A week later al-Maliki himself said talks had reached a “dead-end.”

Aides scrambled to clarify that al-Maliki did not mean negotiations were over. But his comments reflected Iraq’s resolve not to accept an agreement short of major Iraqi demands.

“We could not give amnesty to a soldier carrying arms on our soil,” al-Maliki said then.

Such comments reflect each Iraqi faction’s need to publicly defend Iraq’s rights, amid the country’s intense political rivalry.

Some Sunni groups, for example, privately favor a continued American presence as a counterweight to Iran’s influence among Shiites. Yet several leading Sunni politicians signed a letter to Congress insisting on a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal – in part to needle al-Maliki on an nationalistic issue.

Shiite parties, in turn, believe the agreement would shore up American support for al-Maliki ahead of parliamentary elections next year – a goal they seek. But Shiite leaders are also anxious to take over full control of their country.

Meanwhile, recent Iraqi military successes against al-Qaida in Mosul and Shiite extremists in the south have convinced some Shiite politicians they don’t really need America.

“Iraq has another option that it may use,” al-Maliki said recently. “The Iraqi government, if it wants, has the right to demand that the U.N. terminate the presence of international forces on Iraqi sovereign soil.”

This story is originally posted at AssociatedPress.com

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Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


Green Beret Electrocuted To Death in Iraq

May 28, 2008

A highly decorated Green Beret, Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth died a painful death in Iraq this year. He died not on the battlefield. He died in what should have been one of the safest spots in Iraq: on a U.S. base, in his bathroom.

The water pump was not properly grounded, and when he turned on the shower, a jolt of electricity shot through his body and electrocuted him January 2.

The next day, Cheryl Harris was informed of his death. A mother of three sons serving in Iraq, she had feared such news might come one day.

“I did ask exactly, ‘How did Ryan die? What happened to him?’ And he had told me that Ryan was electrocuted,” she said.

Her reaction was disbelief. “I truly couldn’t believe he would be electrocuted … in the shower,” she said.

Maseth, 24, was not the first. At least 12 U.S. troops have been electrocuted in since the start of the war in 2003, according to military and government officials. mom describe horror, heartbreak over son’s electrocution »

In fact, the Army issued a bulletin in 2004 warning that electrocution was “growing at an alarming rate.” It said five soldiers died that year by electrocution, with improper grounding the likely culprit in each case.

The Army bulletin detailed one soldier’s death in a shower — eerily similar to Maseth’s case — that said he was found “lying on a shower room floor with burn marks on his body.”

Maseth’s mother says the Army was not immediately forthcoming with details about her son’s death.

At one point, she says, the Army told her he had a small appliance with him in the shower on his base, a former palace complex near the Baghdad airport.

“It just created so much doubt, and I know Ryan, I know Ryan, I know how he was trained, I know that he would not have been in a shower with a small appliance and electrocuted himself,” she said.

The Army refused to answer CNN’s questions about the case, citing pending litigation by Maseth’s family.

Maseth’s mother says she pressed the military for answers, eventually uncovering more details about her son’s electrocution. The surging current left burn marks across his body, even singeing his hair. Army reports show that he probably suffered a long, painful death.

Fellow soldiers had to break down the door to help, said Patrick Cavanaugh, an attorney for Maseth’s parents.

“When they kicked down the door, they smelled burning hair, and they rushed over, saw Sgt. Maseth lying there unconscious, and one of the rescuers himself was shocked electrically and sustained a fairly good jolt because the water and the pipes were still electrified,” Cavanaugh said.

Army documents obtained by CNN show that U.S.-paid contractor Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) inspected the building and found serious electrical problems a full 11 months before Maseth was electrocuted.

KBR noted “several safety issues concerning the improper grounding of electrical devices.” But KBR’s contract did not cover “fixing potential hazards.” It covered repairing items only after they broke down.

Only after Maseth died did the Army issue an emergency order for KBR to finally fix the electrical problems, and that order was carried out soon thereafter.

In an internal e-mail obtained by CNN, a Navy captain admits that the Army should have known “the extent of the severity of the electrical problems.” The e-mail then says the reason the Army did not know was because KBR’s inspections were never reviewed by a “qualified government employee.”

Larraine McGee is the mother of Sgt. Christopher Everett, another soldier electrocuted in Iraq.

“The impression I got was that this was the first time that it had happened,” McGee said.

Her son was cleaning a Humvee on his Iraqi base with a power washer that was not properly grounded in 2005.

“I thought Chris was the first and that because of that, they were going to correct the problem, and it wasn’t going to happen again,” she said.

When she learned of Maseth’s electrocution, she was stunned.

“It makes me very angry, because there is no reason for this to be going on,” said McGee.

The electrocution of soldiers is prompting anger in Washington.

“How did this happen?” asked Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight Committee.

Waxman has called for an investigation. “Why wasn’t it corrected when we had the first signs that people were dying from electrocutions?”

In a statement to CNN, the U.S. Department of Defense said it “considers this to be a serious issue and has referred it to the DoD Inspector General’s office for action.”

The Defense Department said that there are nearly 40,000 structures and housing units in the Iraqi theater and that “we believe there was adequate oversight of the KBR contractors.”

“In the past 12 months, KBR performed over 2 million service or work order repairs across the theater,” the Defense Department said.

It went on to say that the Pentagon has “no information” that personnel with Defense Contract Management Agency, which handles the KBR contract, was aware of the 2004 Army bulletin or that they “failed to take appropriate action in response to unsafe conditions brought to our attention.”

The Defense Department inspector general’s office said it could not comment on the new investigation at this time.

KBR declined a CNN interview, but in an e-mail the company said it found “no evidence of a link between the work it has been tasked to perform and the reported electrocutions.”

The Defense Contract Management Agency declined to answer CNN’s questions.

Harris says she will continue to fight to make sure other soldiers don’t die similar deaths.
“I’m not going to sit around quietly,” she said. “I want the answers surrounding Ryan’s death — the accountability. And even further, I want to make sure that our troops are taken care of that are left on the ground … [so] they don’t have to wake up and worry about taking a shower and electrocution.”

Original article found @ CNN.com

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