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Archive for December 26th, 2006

Bush in Texas to rethink Iraq course

CRAWFORD, Texas – President Bush went to his ranch Tuesday to rethink U.S. involvement in Iraq as his spokesman hailed a Baghdad court’s decision upholding the death sentence for former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Saddam, who was deposed by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, is to be hanged within 30 days.

“Today marks an important milestone in the Iraqi people’s efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law,” deputy White House press secretary Scott Stanzel told reporters aboard Air Force One to Texas, where Bush was to meet this week with his national security team.

Iraq’s highest appeals court on Tuesday upheld the Nov. 5 sentence against Saddam for ordering the killing of 148 Shiites in Dujail in 1982, following an attempt on his life. Chief Judge Aref Shahin said the sentence must be implemented within 30 days, and could be carried out as early as Wednesday.

“Saddam Hussein has received due process and legal rights that he denied the Iraqi people for so long, so this is an important day for the Iraqi people,” Stanzel said.

Bush, saddled with low approval ratings for his handling of Iraq, will host a National Security Council meeting on Thursday at the ranch, but is not expected to make any final decision on what he says will be a new way forward in Iraq.

Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley will attend the meeting.

Stanzel said there could be other National Security Council meetings before the president makes up his mind and delivers a speech to announce his decisions. The speech is expected before the State of the Union address on Jan. 23.

Bush is under mounting pressure to change U.S. involvement in Iraq where violence continued to escalate this month.

On Tuesday, the U.S. military reported that seven more American soldiers had died, pushing the U.S. military death toll for the month to 90. With five days remaining in the month, December is already the second deadliest month for the U.S. military this year, behind the 105 soldiers killed in October.

The latest deaths also brought the number of U.S. military members killed since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003 to at least 2,978 — five more than the number killed in the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Stanzel said Bush continues to question advisers and think through the consequences of various U.S. actions. “Our forces, coalition forces in Iraq are continuing to take the fight to the enemy, and the president will announce a new way forward when he’s comfortable” with his decision, he said.

When the president arrived in Texas, about 50 well-wishers, squinting in the sunshine, welcomed him as he walked down the steps of the plane with Mrs. Bush and her mother, Jenna Welch. The president spent the Christmas holiday with his family at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.

Mrs. Bush gave the president a new blue suit, biking shoes and country singer Sam Moore’s CD titled “Overnight Sensational.” He gave her amber-colored citrine earrings to match the triple-strand citrine necklace he gave her for her birthday.

As part of a family gift name drawing, the Bushes donated mosquito nets in the name of former President George H.W. Bush through Malarianomore.org, a mission set up to urge individuals, organizations and institutions to protect families from malaria.

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Biden vows to fight any Iraq troop boost

WASHINGTON – Sen. Joseph Biden, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he will fight President Bush if the administration decides to send more U.S. troops to Iraq.

Biden, who has his eye on the Democratic presidential nomination, also warned that if congressional Republicans do not join him in speaking out against Bush that they — not Democrats — will suffer in the 2008 elections.

“I just think it’s the absolute wrong strategy,” Biden said Tuesday of an increase in troops.

Bush is scrubbing his options in Iraq, after Republicans lost control of Congress in the Nov. 7 elections and an independent bipartisan panel determined Bush’s plan was dangerously off track. The Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, concluded that the U.S. could pull combat troops out of Iraq by early next year. The few troops left behind would be tasked with advising Iraqi units.

While administration officials say all options remain on the table pending Bush’s final decision to be announced next month, a surge of up to 30,000 troops is widely considered a favored option by Bush.

Biden said he is interested in the study group’s findings and wants to hold a series of hearings on Iraq beginning Jan. 9. Biden said he has asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to testify and she has agreed; the timing of Rice’s testimony, however, is not decided. Rice said she would come to Capitol Hill after Bush announces his new plan in Iraq.

In a conference call with reporters, Biden said the purpose of the hearings would be to generate a bipartisan consensus among lawmakers on Iraq and pressure the president to abandon any talk of surging U.S. forces into Baghdad.

“Even with the surge of troops, in a city of 6 million people you’re talking about a ratio that would still be roughly above one to 100,” Biden said. “It’s bound to draw down support that we need in other parts of Iraq, including Anbar province.”

Biden, taking advantage of the quiet holiday week to generate media attention by holding a telephone press conference and appearing on CBS’ “The Early Show,” said he thinks Republicans will have more to lose in 2008 than Democrats if the violence in Iraq continues and U.S. troops remain committed in such large numbers. There are currently an estimated 140,000 troops in Iraq.

“I think we’ll only have to accept responsibility for the war if we remain silent,” said Biden, who has spoken candidly of his desire to run for president and has made repeated visits in the past year to early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Biden said he delivered this message in a recent meeting at the White House, where he told Bush: “Mr. President this is your war.”

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Bush is bracing for new scrutiny

White House hiring lawyers in expectation of Democratic probes

WASHINGTON- President Bush is bracing for what could be an onslaught of investigations by the new Democratic-led Congress by hiring lawyers to fill key White House posts and preparing to play defense on countless document requests and possible subpoenas.

Bush is moving quickly to fill vacancies within his stable of lawyers, though White House officials say there are no plans to drastically expand the legal staff to deal with a flood of oversight.

“No, at this point, no,” Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said recently. “We’ll have to see what happens.”

Snow rebutted the notion that Bush is casting about for legal advice in the wake of his party’s loss of control of the Congress.

“We don’t have a war room set up where we’re … dialing the 800 numbers of law firms,” he said.

Still, in the days after the elections, the White House announced that Bush had hired two replacements to plug holes in his counsel’s office, including one lawyer, Christopher G. Oprison, who is a specialist in handling white-collar investigations. A third hire was securities law specialist Paul R. Eckert, whose duties include dealing with the Office of the Special Counsel. Bush is in the process of hiring a fourth associate counsel, said Emily A. Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman.

“Obviously, if we do have investigations, we’ll have to make sure we have enough people to be prepared to answer questions that come our way,” Lawrimore said. “As of right now, I wouldn’t say it’s anything special.”

Republicans close to Bush say any such moves would not come until the White House sees how aggressive Democrats are in trying to pry the lid off the inner workings of the administration.

“They just think it’s inevitable that there will be some investigations that will tie up some time and attention,” said Charles Black, a strategist with close ties to the White House. But there’s no panic in the ranks of Bush’s team, he added. “They don’t think they have anything to hide.”

Bush still must do what he can now — before Democrats take over the majority in Congress next month — to prepare, legal specialists say.

“At a time like this, the experienced people in the White House view themselves as in a race they hope to win, of organizing and coordinating their defenses to have them in place in time to slow down or resist oversight before the oversight can get organized,” said Charles Tiefer of the University of Baltimore Law School, a former House counsel and veteran of congressional investigations.

People familiar with the counsel’s office caution against reading too much into the new additions, saying that Bush has yet to go on a hiring spree akin to President Bill Clinton’s when he faced impeachment. But White House officials know of the potential challenges, they said.

“It’s certainly not lost on them that there will be more investigative requests and more things for them to respond to, but I don’t think that you’re going to see any dramatic changes,” said Reginald Brown, a former associate in Bush’s White House counsel’s office who is now in private practice.

Democrats’ stated intention to conduct more rigorous oversight of the Bush administration “simply will mean that [White House officials] need a few more people to manage the paper flow,” Brown said.

Veterans of investigative battles between the White House and Congress predict that Bush ultimately will need to add staff members — or at least borrow some from government agencies — to contend with Democrats with subpoena power on Capitol Hill.

“Like any White House that has to deal with a Congress run by the other party, this White House has to bulk up its staff to deal with the inevitable flood of subpoenas. They’re also going to have to coordinate with lots of friends and supporters,” said Mark Corallo, a former top Republican aide to the House committee that issued more than 1,000 subpoenas to the Clinton camp.

Corallo and Barbara Comstock, another Republican public-relations executive with broad experience in Hill investigations, are launching a crisis-communications firm to serve officials and corporations who, Corallo said, could end up as “drive-by victims” in a new round of probes.

Snow said the firm is “certainly independent of the White House.”

Republican lobbyist David M. Carmen has added an oversight practice to his firm’s menu of services, tapping Frank Silbey, a veteran of congressional investigations, to minister to companies and public figures caught in the web of expected probes.

Democrats are reluctant to reveal their investigative plans, but they have made it plain that they want to conduct more oversight of the Bush administration.

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7 Americans killed in Iraq; 90 in Dec.

BAGHDAD, Iraq – At least 54 Iraqis died Tuesday in bombings, officials said, including a coordinated strike that killed 25 in western Baghdad. Separately, the U.S. military announced the deaths of seven American soldiers, raising the death toll significantly in one of the bloodiest months for the military this year.

The three coordinated car bombs in western Baghdad injured at least 55 people, a doctor at Yarmouk hospital, where the victims were taken, said on condition of anonymity because of safety concerns. The attacks occurred in a mixed Sunni and Shiite neighborhood.

In other attacks, a car bomb exploded near a Sunni mosque in northern Baghdad at the beginning of the evening rush hour, killing 17 people and wounding 35, a doctor at Al-Nuaman hospital said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

A bomb also exploded in a central Baghdad market, killing four people and wounding 15, police said. Two roadside bombs targeted an Iraqi police patrol in an eastern neighborhood of the capital, killing four policemen and injuring 12 people.

In Kirkuk, 180 miles north of the Iraqi capital, a roadside bomb killed three civilians — including an 8-year-old girl — and wounded six other people, police said.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, said seven more American soldiers had died, pushing the U.S. military death toll for the month to 90. With five days remaining in the month, December is already the second deadliest month for the U.S. military this year, behind the 105 soldiers killed in October.

In Washington, White House Deputy Press Secretary Scott Stanzel said Tuesday that President Bush grieves for each member of the armed forces who has died.

“The war on terror is going to be a long struggle,” he said. “We will be fighting violent jihadists for the peace and security of the civilized world for many years to come.”

The latest deaths also brought the number of U.S. military members killed since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003 to at least 2,978 — five more than the number killed in the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

President Bush has said the Iraq war is part of the United States’ post-Sept. 11 approach to threats abroad. Going on the offense against enemies before they could harm Americans meant removing the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, pursuing members of al-Qaida and seeking Saddam Hussein’s ouster in Iraq, Bush has said.

There has been no direct evidence of links between Saddam’s regime and the Sept. 11 attacks. Democratic leaders have said the Bush administration has gotten the U.S. bogged down in Iraq, detracting from efforts against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

The Associated Press count of those U.S. military members killed in Iraq includes at least seven military civilians. Prior to the deaths announced Tuesday, the AP count was 15 higher than the Defense Department’s tally, last updated Friday. At least 2,377 died as a result of hostile action, according to the military’s numbers.

American troops fought gunmen in a Shiite militia stronghold in east Baghdad on Tuesday, witnesses said.

Fighters loyal to the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr engaged in the clashes with U.S. forces in and near Sadr City, an official in al-Sadr’s office said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. There was no immediate word on casualties.

British soldiers were on alert for reprisals a day after they raided a police station in the southern city of Basra, killing seven gunmen in an effort to stop renegade Iraqi officers from executing their prisoners.

“We fully expect more attacks on our bases and on Basra stations, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary,” said Maj. Charlie Burbridge, a military spokesman. “But this is part of a long-term rehabilitation of the Iraqi police service, to make it more effective and more accountable, and ultimately provide better security for the people of Basra.”

After the British stormed the police station, they removed 127 prisoners, who showed evidence of torture, then evacuated the building before blowing it up, he said.

Burbridge had previously said only 76 prisoners were in the station, but later said soldiers miscounted the prisoners because the operation was done under cover of darkness.

Some 800 of the British military’s 7,200 troops in Iraq were involved in the operation, he said.

A spokesman for Iraq’s defense minister said Monday that the Iraqi Interior and Defense ministries approved the Basra operation, but some members of the Basra provincial council were not notified.

“We object to the way the operation was conducted,” council member Hakim al-Maiyahi told The Associated Press. “There was no need to bring in such a huge number of forces and break down the station.”

Burbridge acknowledged the council members’ concerns, but said British officials had alerted the provincial governor, Mohammed al-Waili, who approved the operation.

“He told us it was the right thing — the way forward. He supported our activity,” Burbridge said.

Al-Waili refused to comment on the matter.

Separately, in Cairo, Khaled al-Attiya, deputy speaker of the Iraqi parliament, said Iraq’s neighbors should do more to prevent terrorists from illegally entering Iraq.

“What is happening in Iraq will reflect on its neighbors. Arabs and Muslims should not wait until civil strife” spreads to their countries, al-Attiya said.

Elsewhere, Jordanian Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit said Tuesday that a former Iraqi Cabinet minister who escaped from a Baghdad prison this month had arrived in Jordan on a U.S. plane.

Ayham al-Samaraie, a former minister of electricity with dual U.S. and Iraqi citizenship, had been serving time for corruption when he escaped mid-December.

Lou Fintor, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said the U.S. government was not involved in al-Samaraie’s escape “in any way.” He denied in “unequivocal terms” the claim that al-Samaraie flew out of Iraq on an American plane.

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WASHINGTON: The armed forces, already struggling to meet recruiting goals, are considering expanding the number of noncitizens in the ranks — including disputed proposals to open recruiting stations overseas and put more immigrants on a faster track to U.S. citizenship if they volunteer — according to Pentagon officials.

Foreign citizens’ serving in the U.S. military is a highly charged issue, which could expose the Pentagon to criticism that it is essentially using mercenaries to defend the country. Other analysts voice concern that a large contingent of noncitizens under arms could jeopardize national security or reflect badly on Americans’ willingness to serve in uniform.

The idea of signing up residents who are seeking U.S. citizenship is gaining traction as a way to address a critical need for the Pentagon, while fully absorbing some of the roughly one million immigrants that enter the United States legally each year.

The proposal to induct more noncitizens, which is still largely on the drawing board, has to clear a number of hurdles. So far, the Pentagon has been quiet about specifics, like who would be eligible to join, where the recruiting stations would be, and what the minimum standards might involve, like English proficiency. In the meantime, the Pentagon and the immigration authorities have expanded a program that accelerates citizenship for legal residents who volunteer for the military.

Since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the number of immigrants in uniform who have become U.S. citizens has increased from 750 in 2001 to almost 4,600 last year, according to military statistics.

With severe manpower strains because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a mandate to expand the overall size of the military, the Pentagon is under pressure to consider a variety of proposals involving foreign recruits, according to a military affairs analyst.

“It works as a military idea and it works in the context of American immigration,” said Thomas Donnelly, a military scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a leading proponent of recruiting more foreigners to serve in the military.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grind on, the Pentagon has warned Congress and the White House that the military is stretched “to the breaking point.”

Both President George W. Bush and Robert Gates, his new defense secretary, have acknowledged that the total size of the military must be expanded to help alleviate the strain on ground troops, many of whom have been deployed repeatedly in combat theaters.

Bush said last week that he had ordered Gates to come up with a plan for the first significant increase in ground forces since the end of the Cold War.
That has led Pentagon officials to consider casting a wider net for noncitizens who are already in the United States, said Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, an army spokesman.

Already, the army and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security have “made it easier for green-card holders who do enlist to get their citizenship,” Hilferty said.

Other army officials, who asked not to be identified, said personnel officials were working with Congress and other parts of the government to test the feasibility of going beyond U.S. borders to recruit soldiers and marines.

Currently, Pentagon policy stipulates that only immigrants legally residing in the United States are eligible to enlist. There are currently about 30,000 noncitizens who serve in the U.S. armed forces, making up about 2 percent of the active- duty force, according to statistics from the military and the Council on Foreign Relations. About 100 such noncitizens have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A recent change in U.S. law, however, gave the Pentagon authority to bring immigrants to the United States if it determines it is vital to national security. So far, the Pentagon has not taken advantage of it, but the calls are growing to use this new authority.

Indeed, some top military thinkers believe the United States should go as far as targeting foreigners in their native countries.

“It’s a little dramatic,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a military specialist at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution and another supporter of the proposal. “But if you don’t get some new idea how to do this, we will not be able to achieve an increase” in the size of the armed forces.

“We have already done the standard things to recruit new soldiers, including using more recruiters and new advertising campaigns,” O’Hanlon added.

O’Hanlon and others noted that the country has relied before on sizable numbers of noncitizens to serve in the military — in the Revolutionary War, for example, German and French soldiers served alongside the colonists, and locals were recruited into U.S. ranks to fight insurgents in the Philippines.

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