US forces mark end of Iraq mission

US forces formally marked the end of their mission in Iraq with a low-key ceremony near Baghdad on Thursday, after nearly nine years of war that began with the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

Troops wait for the arrival of President Barack Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama during a Presidential visit to honor troops returning home from Iraq on December 14, 2011 to Fort Bragg, N.C. America is ending its war in Iraq and all U.S. troops are scheduled to be removed from Iraq by December 31. AFP Photo
Troops wait for the arrival of President Barack Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama during a Presidential visit to honor troops returning home from Iraq on December 14, 2011 to Fort Bragg, N.C. America is ending its war in Iraq and all U.S. troops are scheduled to be removed from Iraq by December 31. AFP Photo

There are a little more than 4,000 US soldiers in Iraq, but they will depart in the coming days, at which point almost no more American troops will remain in a country where there were once nearly 170,000 personnel on more than 500 bases.

The withdrawal ends a war that left tens of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 4,500 American soldiers dead, many more wounded, and 1.75 million Iraqis displaced, after the 2003 US-led invasion unleashed brutal sectarian fighting.

“Your dream of an independent and sovereign Iraq is now reality,” US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said at the symbolic flag-lowering ceremony held near Baghdad’s airport.

“Iraq will be tested in the days ahead — by terrorism and by those who would seek to divide it, by economic and social issues, by the demands of democracy itself,” he said.

But the US “will stand by the Iraqi people as they navigate those challenges.” “This is a time for Iraq to look forward. This is an opportunity for Iraq to forge ahead on a path to security and prosperity,” said Panetta.

“And we undertake this transition today reminding Iraq that it has in the United States a committed friend and partner. We owe it to all of the lives that were sacrificed in this war not to fail.” He described the US withdrawal as “nothing short of miraculous” and “one of the most complex logistical undertakings in US military history.” General Lloyd Austin, the commander United States Forces – Iraq (USF-I), cased the colours at the ceremony, rolling the USF-I flag around its pole and covering it with a camouflage bag.


He noted that “eight years, eight months and 26 days ago, as the assistant division commander for manoeuvre for the 3rd Infantry Division, I gave the order for the lead elements of the division to cross the border” into Iraq.

“I was here when we originally secured this airfield,” he said.

The ceremony was also attended by US ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General James Mattis, the head of the US Central Command, and about 160 US soldiers.

Iraq was represented by military chief of staff Lieutenant General Babaker Zebari and defence ministry spokesman Major General Mohammed al-Askari.

“For over 20 years, Iraq has been a defining part of our professional and personal lives,” said Dempsey.

“We will remember you and those that have gone before — what you risked, what you learned, how you sacrificed… and the fallen comrades for whom we all still grieve.” The ceremony comes a day after hundreds of people in Fallujah marked the impending departure of American forces by burning US flags and shouting slogans in support of the “resistance.” Fallujah, a city of about half a million people west of Baghdad, remains deeply scarred by two American military offensives in 2004, the latter of which is considered one of the fiercest for the United States since Vietnam.

Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, arguing Saddam was endangering the world with weapons of mass destruction programmes.

Saddam was ousted from power and later executed, but such arms were never found.

Obama made his political career by opposing the war. In late 2002, he said he was against “dumb wars” such as Iraq, and rode anti-war fervour to the White House by promising to bring troops home.

The war was launched in March 2003 with a massive “shock and awe” campaign, followed by eight-plus years in which a US-led coalition sought not only had to rebuild the Iraqi military from the ground up, but also to establish a new political system.

Iraq now has a parliament and regular elections, and is ruled by a Shiite-led government that replaced Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime.

The pullout, enshrined in a 2008 bilateral pact, is the latest stage in the changing US role in Iraq, from 2003-2004 when American officials ran the country to 2009 when the United Nations mandate ended, and last summer when Washington officially ended combat operations.




BAGHDAD – Agence France-Presse


Turkey to recall ambassador if France bans genocide

Turkey will recall its ambassador and freeze ties with Paris if French lawmakers approve a bill banning the denial of the genocide regarding the 1915 killings next week, he told AFP on Thursday. 

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (R) speaks with his French counterpart Alain Juppe (L) during a press conference in Ankara on November 18, 2011. AFP
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (R) speaks with his French counterpart Alain Juppe (L) during a press conference in Ankara on November 18, 2011. AFP

“There will be irreparable consequences in all bilateral relations,” ambassador Engin Solakoğlu said, adding he expected to be called back to Ankara for an indefinite period from December 22.

That is when France’s National Assembly is expected to pass a law banning the denial of the 1915 events, which Armenians regard as a deliberate genocide while Turks argue the deaths were results of war, equally damaging both sides.

France, which has a large population of Armenian descent, has recognised the event as a genocide since 2001, but the new law, proposed by a member of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s majority party, has strained ties with Ankara.

“Turkey considers this a hostile act by the French executive,” Solakoğlu told AFP. “All cooperation with the French government, all joint projects, will be frozen.” A Turkish parliamentary delegation, led by its foreign affairs committee chief Volkan Bozkır, is due in Paris on Monday to lobby officials in a last minute bid to head of Thursday’s vote.

If the law is passed as expected, anyone in France who publicy denies calling the events of 1915 as genocide could face a year in jail and a fine of 45,000 euros ($58,000).

Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their people were killed during World War I by forces belonging to Turkey’s former Ottoman Empire. Turkey refuses to call the killings a genocide and says 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians, and at least as many Turks, died in combat or of starvation when Armenians rose up and sided with invading Russian forces.

Sarkozy has called on Turkey to recognise the killings as genocide and in the past promised his country’s large Armenian community the support a law criminalising its denial.

Sarkozy’s government has had tense relations with Ankara on other issues. Paris opposes Turkey’s bid to join the European Union and has worked to block the process within Brussels institutions.


PARIS – Agence France-Presse


8 PKK members killed in clashes in southeast Turkey

Turkish security forces killed eight alleged members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party during clashes in the southeastern province of Bingöl today. 

AA photo
AA photo

Bingöl Gov. Hakan Güvencer said the militants were killed in a clash near Yayladere town of the province.

Güvencer said security forces were conducting an operation on a house where suspected PKK members were hiding when. Security forces called for the residents to surrender, Güvencer said, to which the militants responded by opening fire.

“Eight PKK members, of whom five were women, were killed in the ensuing firefight,” Güvencer said.

Meanwhile, 28 people were arrested for alleged links to the PKK in a separate operation in the Aydıncık town of southern province of Mersin.

Security forces seized 12 kilograms of explosives, 32 bomb mechanisms, 18 hand grenades and five long-range assault rifles.

The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.



BİNGÖL – Anatolia News Agency


Syria army deserters kill 27 soldiers in Deraa: group

Syrian army deserters killed at least 27 soldiers and security force personnel in a series of clashes in the southern province of Deraa at dawn today, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. 

This image from amateur video made available by the Ugarit News group on Monday, Dec. 12, 2011, purports to show security forces in Daraa. AP photo
This image from amateur video made available by the Ugarit News group on Monday, Dec. 12, 2011, purports to show security forces in Daraa. AP photo

The British-based group said the deserters fought forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in two locations in the city of Deraa itself, as well as a checkpoint at a crossroads about 25 km (15 miles) to the east of the city.

It did not say how the clashes broke out, but the high casualties among security forces suggested coordinated strikes by the army rebels, who have escalated their attacks on military targets in recent weeks.

Rami Abdulrahman of the Observatory said in the fighting near Musayfrah, east of Deraa, all 15 personnel at a joint army and security checkpoint were killed.

The United Nations says 5,000 people have been killed in Assad’s crackdown on protests against his rule which erupted in Deraa nine months ago, inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.

The protests have been increasingly overshadowed by the armed insurgency against Assad’s forces. Authorities say armed groups have targeted civilians and security forces since the start of the uprising, killing more than 1,100 soldiers and police.



BEIRUT – Reuters


Russian opposition set for massive rally, tension mounts

Russian authorities are allowing the opposition to hold a massive protest against election fraud, following a violent police crackdown on a series of unsanctioned demonstrations earlier this week, rally organizers said Friday.

The decision to sanction a rally of up to 30,000 on Saturday on a square across the river from the Kremlin appears to be an attempt to avoid the violence that occurred at demonstrations after last Sunday’s parliamentary election.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party won about 50 percent of the vote, barely holding onto its majority in the lower house. But Russia’s opposition parties and observers said that even that result was highly inflated because of vote-rigging, and international monitors also pointed to ballot stuffing.

The post-election protests in Moscow drew thousands and continued for several days in the biggest ever challenge to Putin, reflecting a growing public frustration with his rule that may complicate his bid to reclaim the presidency in March’s vote. The rallies were brutally dispersed by police, who rounded up hundreds of protesters.

The protesters have used the Internet to coordinate their action. Over 30,000 people have already signed up to a Facebook page on Saturday’s protest, and similar rallies are also planned in many cities across Russia to demand an investigation into the alleged vote fraud and call for a new vote.

Ilya Ponomaryov, a lawmaker who is one of the leaders of the Left Front opposition movement, described the protest planned for Saturday as a watershed event similar to massive rallies that helped bring down Communist rule two decades ago.

“We expect it to become the biggest political protest in 20 years,” he said at a news conference.

Putin served two presidential terms from 2000 until 2008, when he shifted into the prime minister’s job to abide by constitutional term limits, but remained the nation’s No. 1 leader. Putin’s decision to swap seats now with his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, has angered many Russians, who fear it will further strengthen authoritarian trends in his policy and lead to political and economic stagnation.

Putin still seems all but certain to win the March election, but he clearly has been taken aback by the tide of public anger. On Thursday, he accused US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of instigating protesters in order to weaken Russia and warned that his government might take an even harder line against those who try to influence Russia’s political process on behalf of a foreign government. Alexander Gorbenko, a deputy mayor of Moscow who has allowed Saturday’s protest, sternly warned its participants Friday that any attempt to hold a march after the rally will be stopped by police.

09 December 2011, Friday / AP, MOSCOW

Turkish president blames EU ‘negligence’ for crisis

European Union “negligence” is to blame for the financial crisis roiling the continent, said Turkey’s president Friday, contrasting the EU’s malaise with his country’s economic and political dynamism.

Turkish President Abdullah Gül delivers a speech at the opening session of the World Policy Conference at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna on Friday, Dec. 9, 2011. (Photo: AA )
Turkish President Abdullah Gül delivers a speech at the opening session of the World Policy Conference at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna on Friday, Dec. 9, 2011. (Photo: AA )

Abdullah Gül also called for a revamping of the UN Security Council, suggesting its permanent members no longer reflected the shift in influence from the postwar equation when the five nuclear powers effectively steered world policy. His comments, to the World Policy Conference’s three-day session, were a restatement of Turkey’s claim to prominence – in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and beyond.

His blunt criticism of the EU – a group Turkey has been prevented from joining mainly due to years of German and French opposition – also suggested that the Turkish government was increasingly disenchanted with the failure of its efforts.

Sentiment has been growing in Ankara to give up on EU membership hopes – fueled by the eurozone’s struggles to get a handle on the immense debts of member countries that threaten the future of their common currency.

Some progress appeared to be made Friday, with the EU saying that 26 of its 27 member countries are open to joining a new treaty tying their finances together to solve the euro crisis. But while Gül wished the EU good luck, his comments brimmed with self-satisfaction as he compared Turkey’s robust economic state to that of some of the European countries most at risk.

“At a time when euro member states are not able to abide by the criteria that they put for themselves, we are at the stage where we can meet those criteria,” he said, noting that Turkey’s budget deficit was at only 2.5 percent – well below the benchmark set for themselves by eurozone nations.

Bluntly accusing EU leadership of bad governance, Gül said that “European Union negligence … paved the way to the current difficult economic situation.” Urging the EU to get its house in order, he warned: “Their decisions will affect all of us.”

“We are witnessing the early days of a new world order,” said Gul. And as economic power shifts, political change must follow, he asserted, saying the UN Security Council must be newly configured to refer greater power-sharing with emerging nations.

“The reform of the United Nations is imperative” to shift away from a Security Council that only “serves the interest of the leading powers,” he said.

Gül said his country is a model for Arab nations that have shaken off dictatorships and proof that Muslim countries can be democratic.

“Turkey is a source of inspiration for them,” he said. “Particularly our approach to religious freedom and secularism … (and) democratic pluralism.

09 December 2011, Friday / AP, VIENNA

Al-Qaeda plotted attack on Turkish Parliament, report says

Suspected al-Qaeda militants who are accused of planning to attack the US Embassy in Ankara had also plotted to target Turkey’s Parliament and a number of churches, according to a report from the Taraf daily on Friday.

In July police carried out an operation targeting an al-Qaeda cell that had received orders from al-Qaeda administrators in Afghanistan. The police operation prevented an attack on the US Embassy. Police apprehended the suspected al-Qaeda members with 700 kilograms of explosives on July 14. Taraf, which claims to have seen the indictment against 11 suspects, reported on Friday that the militants were almost ready to attack the embassy when they were captured in July, just ahead of a visit to Turkey by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

It says police also seized floor plans of Parliament, a list of churches, as well as names and home addresses of church staffers in Ankara. Some 1,500 pounds (700 kilograms) of chemicals were seized along with instructions for making bombs.

The indictment stated that documents found at the militants’ address had labeled Turkey a war zone (dar al-harb) and its statesmen were described as “renegades.” The state system was described as “evil.” One document stated that it is more beneficial to fight against Turkey than against the US or other Western countries.

Police seized documents in the house and found printed dialogues of Internet chats between the militants and senior organization leaders from Afghanistan. These documents advise: “Just stay calm during interrogations, if you ever get caught. Don’t ever accept the allegations. Don’t give any information regarding the organization.”

Militants were captured at a house in Ankara’s Sincan district, where militants had been trained on how to use Kalashnikov rifles, and recorded these trainings on DVDs. The police operation against the al-Qaeda militants first began when a family of an al-Qaeda militant called police and said their son had been kidnapped by the Turkish arm of al-Qaeda.

09 December 2011, Friday / TODAY’S ZAMAN, İSTANBUL

Davutoğlu says Turkey cannot stand by if Syria poses risk to security

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said on Friday that Turkey had no desire to interfere in Syria’s internal affairs, but that it could not stand by if security in the region was put at risk.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu (Photo: Cihan)
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu (Photo: Cihan)

“Turkey has no desire to interfere in anyone’s internal affairs, but if a risk to regional security arises then we do not have the luxury of standing by and looking on,” Davutoğlu told reporters in the Turkish capital, referring to Syria.

Davutoğlu said Turkey had a “responsibility” and the “authority” to tell Damascus “enough” if it was putting Turkey’s security at risk by fighting its own people and forcing people to flee the country.

In addition, Davutoğlu urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to punish his security forces if he is “sincere” in denying that he ordered a violent crackdown on his people. Assad claimed in a rare interview Wednesday that he never ordered the brutal suppression of the uprising and insisted only a “crazy person” would kill his own people. His remarks were an apparent attempt to distance himself from violence that the United Nations says has killed 4,000 people since March.

“If he is sincere he will punish the security forces, and he will accept the Arab League observers and help change the atmosphere,” Davutoğlu said. “He still has the opportunity to do this.”

As one of the latest in a series of moves aimed at pressuring Assad to halt the regime’s crackdown on people, Turkish authorities said Friday that Turkey will also suspend a 2008 free trade agreement with Syria, which will lead to taxes of up to 30 percent on some goods. Syria had already unilaterally suspended the agreement, but Turkey’s Cabinet needed to approve the suspension, so it can also increase taxes.

Customs and Trade Minister Hayati Yazıcı said in Ankara that Turkey is also planning to encourage trucks to favor Iraqi and Jordanian routes for delivering goods to the Middle East, because of the deterioration in relations.

“We are having tensions with Syria,” Yazıcı said. “Of course, our trade is important, but our stance based on humanitarian values is above everything.”

Cargo ships were also planning to bypass Syria, running between Turkey’s Mediterranean port of İskenderun and some Red Sea ports in line with sanctions against Syria.

Meanwhile, tensions have grown on the Turkish-Syrian border where the Syrian army has reportedly deployed tanks as reinforcements.

The reports of reinforcements on the Syrian side of the border, which appeared in the Turkish media, came days after Syrian news agency SANA reported a failed infiltration attempt from Turkey by a group of “35 armed terrorists.” SANA also said some of the enemy wounded escaped over the border and were treated by the Turkish military, a claim denied by Ankara.

Foreign Ministry sources declined to comment on the reports, with one official only saying, “We have [been] following and carefully examining the reports.”

Observers say Turkey would not be surprised to see Syria reinforcing its troops and increasing the number of tanks near the border. This is because Ankara is increasingly aware that Syrian troops find it more and more difficult to suppress unrest as the security situation keeps deteriorating in the country.

On Friday, journalists asked Transportation Minister Binali Yıldırım, who was speaking at an event in İstanbul, about his opinion regarding Syria’s move to close its border gates with Turkey. Yıldırım said that Syria made a unilateral decision.

“Syria had such an increase in transit fees and bureaucracy means “come no more.” Therefore, related ministers and institutions came together in Turkey, and we debated possible measures, and we implemented them,” he said. “Our position is quite clear. Whatever measures we take, we will never allow the suffering of Syrian people. We think Syrian civilians have no fault in that absurd stubbornness. But the [Syrian] regime will see the results of its measures against our country.”

Asked if ties are “completely cut” with the Syrian regime, Yıldırım said:

“Relations would never be cut. You cannot cut your relations with a country with which you share an 833-kilometer border.”

Turkey was once one of Syria’s closest regional allies, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had built a strong rapport with Assad. But as the violence grew worse and Assad ignored Ankara’s advice to halt the crackdown on protesters and make urgent reforms, relations broke down, and Erdoğan has now bluntly told Assad he should quit.

Last week, Turkey followed the Arab League by announcing a list of economic sanctions on Syria it said would target the government, including freezing state assets and imposing a travel ban on officials and suspending financial transactions.

09 December 2011, Friday / TODAY’S ZAMAN, İSTANBUL

Syria ‘shoots itself in foot’

Turkey has been vital to the Syrian economy so Damascus’ current decision to suspend its free trade agreement with Ankara is akin to shooting itself in the foot, Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan said yesterday.

Minister Zafer Çağlayan (L). DHA photo
Minister Zafer Çağlayan (L). DHA photo

“Syria had increased its exports to Turkey by 55 percent last year, now they are shooting themselves in the foot,” he said, referring to Syria’s economic move in the wake of Turkey’s decision to impose sanctions on Damascus for the latter’s crackdown.

“I have watched the decisions Damascus has made with amazement and surprise. The Syrian regime is punishing its own people with its decisions,” Çağlayan said.

Turkey moved to suspend its free trade agreement with Syria only in response to Damascus’ decision to end the pact with Ankara, Çağlayan said. “However I waited three days before signing the decision to suspend the free trade agreement with Syria. However, we saw that Syria would not budge on this decision. Only then did I sign the decision,” said Çağlayan speaking at a conference in the southeastern province of Gaziantep on Dec. 9. Syria, and not Turkey, will be most affected by the suspension of the free trade agreement, Çağlayan said. Exports from Turkey to Syria were still continuing, but there was a dramatic 40 percent decrease in November, he said. Transport Minister Binali Yıldırım said Dec. 9 that 600 to 700 trucks waiting at Turkish border crossings with Syria entered the country after Yıldırım talked to his Syrian counterpart, Anatolia news agency reported. Turkish Customs and Trade Minister Hayati Yazıcı said they submitted a decree on the suspension of the free trade agreement with Syria to the Council of Ministers.




GAZİANTEP – Hürriyet Daily News

Turkey gets EU advice as Croatia gets assent

Ankara and Zagreb look to be heading in opposite directions as the EU doles out advice to former while welcoming the latter to the club

Croatia’s President Ivo Josipovic (L) and Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor sign the EU accession treaty at an EU leaders summit in Brussels Dec 9. REUTERS photo
Croatia’s President Ivo Josipovic (L) and Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor sign the EU accession treaty at an EU leaders summit in Brussels Dec 9. REUTERS photo

Two countries intent on entering the European Union, Croatia and Turkey received contrasting news Dec. 9 from the 27-nation organization. As Zagreb signed its accession treaty with the bloc, Turkey received only mild criticism and advice from the EU despite its half-century wait at the union’s door.

The EU council’s draft conclusion circulated Dec. 9 is likely to disappoint the Turkish government as it includes criticisms on issues including Cyprus and press freedom. Turkey’s accession process is at a standstill despite a robust economic performance that shines compared to many EU countries that have been struggling with a crippling debt crisis. Croatia is set to join the bloc July 1, 2013.

Croatia will be an “active observer” in all EU forums until it becomes a full member 18 months from now, according to EU president Herman Van Rompuy.

Having applied for EU membership in 2003, Croatia became a candidate in early 2004 whereas Turkey first applied to the union back in 1959 when it was called The European Economic Community (EEC). “Today is a historic day for Croatia and the EU. Croatia is set to become the 28th state of the union,” the Associated Press quoted Van Rompuy as saying at the Dec. 9 signing ceremony in Brussels.

“We are finally crossing the threshold of our European home,” said President Ivo Josipovic. Turkish EU Minister Egemen Bağış congratulated Croatia on its membership, but said the EU council applied double standards, “revealing that Turkey and Croatia are not negotiating in equal conditions.” “We wished for Turkey to be in a negotiating process like Croatia, in which the rules do not change in the middle of the game,” said Bağış while still promising to continue the democratization process in Turkey. Meanwhile, Serbia’s recent attempts to ease the tension caused by the minority Serbs in northern Kosovo proved to be unsatisfactory for the EU as the country’s expectations of attaining official candidacy status failed. Van Rompuy said EU leaders decided to postpone making Serbia a candidate for the bloc until their next summit. Van Rompuy urged Belgrade to normalize relations with its former province of Kosovo. The EU council has criticized Turkey on its relations with Greek Cyprus and the state of press freedoms while promising to give full support in the country’s fight against terrorism, according to the draft report. “The Council regrets Turkey’s statements to freeze its relations with the EU Presidency during the second half of 2012 [when Greek Cyprus takes over the rotated head of EU],” said the text.

The EU called on Turkey to improve freedom of expression “especially on the freedom of the media where the large number of legal cases are launched against writers, journalists, academics and human rights defenders, and frequent website bans all raise serious concerns that need to be addressed.” The EU expressed its full solidarity with Turkey in its fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), while adding that Brussels sees it as a terrorist organization. The PKK is listed as a terrorist by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU.