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  • WASHINGTON, December 4, 2008: On the campaign trail, Senator Barack Obama offered a pledge that electrified and motivated his liberal base, vowing to "end the war" in Iraq.

    But as he moves closer to the White House, President-elect Obama is making it clearer than ever that tens of thousands of American troops will be left behind in Iraq, even if he can make good on his campaign promise to pull all combat forces out within 16 months.

    "I said that I would remove our combat troops from Iraq in 16 months, with the understanding that it might be necessary - likely to be necessary - to maintain a residual force to provide potential training, logistical support, to protect our civilians in Iraq," the Illinois Democrat said this week as he introduced his national security team.

    Publicly at least, Obama has not set a firm number for that "residual force," a phrase certain to become central to the debate on the way ahead in Iraq, though one of his national security advisers, Richard Danzig, said during the campaign that it could amount to 30,000 to 55,000 troops. Nor has Obama laid out a timetable beyond 16 months for troop drawdowns or suggested when he believes a time might come for a declaration that the war is over.

    In the meantime, military planners are drawing up tentative schedules aimed at meeting both Obama's goal for withdrawing combat troops, with a target of May 2010, and the December 31, 2011, date for sending the rest of American troops home that is spelled out in the new agreement between the United States and the Iraqi government.

    That status-of-forces agreement remains subject to change, by mutual agreement, and U.S. Army planners acknowledge privately that they are examining projections that could see the number of Americans hovering between 30,000 and 50,000 - and some say as high as 70,000 - for a substantial time even beyond 2011.

    As U.S. combat forces decline in numbers and more provinces are turned over to Iraqi control, these military planners say, those security forces will remain reliant on significant numbers of Americans for training, supplies, logistics, intelligence and transportation for a long time to come.

    There always was a tension, if not a bit of a contradiction, in the two parts of Obama's campaign platform to "end the war" by withdrawing all combat troops by May 2010. To be sure, Obama was careful to say that the drawdowns he was promising included only combat troops. But supporters who keyed on the language of ending the war might be forgiven if they thought that would mean bringing home all of the troops.

    Planners at the Pentagon say that it is possible that Obama's goal could be accomplished at least in part by relabeling some units, so that those currently counted as combat troops could be "re-missioned," their efforts redefined as training and support for the Iraqis.

    In Iraq today, there are 15 brigades defined as combat forces in this debate, with one on its way home. But the overall number of troops on the ground is more than 50 brigade equivalents, for a total of 146,000 troops, including service and support personnel.

    Even now, after the departure of the five "surge" brigades that President George W. Bush sent to Iraq in January 2006, the overall number of troops in Iraq remains higher than when Bush ordered the troop increase, owing to the number of support and service personnel remaining.

    At his news conference in Chicago on Monday, Obama emphasized his willingness to listen to the advice from senior officers and that of his new national security team, which includes Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the first Pentagon chief in history asked to continue serving under a newly elected president; Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and, as national security adviser, General James Jones, the retired four-star Marine officer who served as NATO's supreme commander.

    Since the election, Obama has held unannounced consultations with both Gates and Mullen, described by Obama aides and Pentagon officials as having focused less on tactics and operations and more on broad, strategic views for U.S. national security. Obama telephoned Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, according to the Obama transition office.

    To date, there has been no significant criticism from the anti-war left of the Democratic Party of the prospect that Obama will keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq for at least several years.

    At the Pentagon and the military headquarters in Iraq, the response to the statements this week from Obama and his national security team has been one of relief; the words sounded to them like he would take a measured approach on the question of troop levels.

    "I believe that 16 months is the right time frame, but, as I've said consistently, I will listen to the recommendations of my commanders," Obama said at the news conference Monday. "And my No.1 priority is making sure that our troops remain safe in this transition phase, and that the Iraqi people are well served by a government that is taking on increased responsibility for its own security."

    An apparent evolution of Obama's thinking can be heard in contrast to comments he made in July, when he called a news conference to lay out his Iraq policy in unambiguous terms.

    "I intend to end this war," he said then. "My first day in office I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war - responsibly, deliberately, but decisively." And in a news conference that month in Amman, Obama acknowledged that the American troop increase had bolstered Iraqi security but declared that he would not hesitate to overrule American commanders and redirect troops to Afghanistan.

    Gates, speaking at the Pentagon on Tuesday, one day after he appeared with Obama for the announcement of the new national security team, made clear that the direction of troop levels now had been decided, with the only decisions remaining on how fast and how low.

    "And so the question is, how do we do this in a responsible way?" Gates said. "And nobody wants to put at risk the gains that have been achieved, with so much sacrifice, on the part of our soldiers and the Iraqis, at this point."


    • BAGHDAD, December 5, 2008 -- Iraqi police say another mass grave has been found in a former Sunni insurgent stronghold north of Baghdad.

      Thursday’s discovery raises to 81 the number of bodies unearthed over the past week in Diyala province.

      Two Iraqi police officers say 25 bodies have been found in the Albu Tuoma area - a Sunni area near the Shiite enclave of Khalis.

      The officers say civilian clothes and Iraqi security forces’ uniforms have been found among the remains. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information.

      Mass graves have been turning up with increasing frequency as American and Iraqi military operations have cleared former militant strongholds, allowing troops to step up patrols in previous no-go zones.


      • BAGHDAD, December 5, 2008 (Reuters) - Iraq's oil minister on Friday again denounced oil contracts signed by Kurdish authorities with foreign firms as illegal, signalling that a bitter feud over oil in the semi autonomous northern region is far from over.

        "We are in serious discussions with the (Kurdish Regional Government) about several issues, but the position on the contracts that were signed without the approval of the central government remains unchanged," Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani said during an energy conference in Baghdad.

        "Those contracts (have no) standing with Iraqi law."

        His comments are the latest sign that the U.S-backed government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and officials in Arbil, the Kurdish capital, are loathe to back down as they vie for control of considerable oil resources in Iraqi Kurdistan.

        The Kurdish region, which has enjoyed defacto autonomy since 1991, has signed several oil contracts, but cannot export any oil without permission from Baghdad to use pipelines that run to neighbouring Turkey.

        Resolution appeared close at hand last month when the Oil Ministry announced an initial agreement that would allow 100,000 barrels per day of exports from Kurdistan's Tawke oilfield, where Norwegian oil firm DNO holds a concession.

        A second oilfield, Taq Taq, would bring Kurdish oil exports through Turkey to 250,000 barrels per day by the end of next year, Kurdish officials have said.

        Yet since then officials have sparred over whether Kurdistan will need to alter existing contracts.

        Shahristani said that when Kurdish contracts were amended to the extent that they became acceptable "and recognized by the government of Iraq, then the oil could be exported."

        Kurdish-Arab feuding has also held up passage of a national oil law that is seen as a centrepiece of rebuilding Iraq's economy and attracting major foreign investment.

        Iraq has the world's third largest oil reserves, but production has been hobbled by years of sanctions and under-investment, in addition to widespread destruction and bloodshed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

        Iraq is now in the process of seeking major contracts for oil and gas fields in several bidding rounds.

        As global oil prices plummet, Iraq's plans for spending billions on reconstruction and economic development in the coming years are thrust into doubt.

        Shahristani said Iraq is seeking to boost oil exports from an average of 1.7 million barrels per day in October.

        "The Ministry of Oil is doing its utmost to increase production as fast as we can and that's why we have gone to the first bid round and we will be going to the second in a very short time," he said.


        • ANKARA, Turkey, December 5, 2008: Turkey's military says its air force has attacked Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq.

          It says the jets bombed Iraq's Qandil mountains on Friday. The military believes that is where Kurdish rebel leaders are hiding and Kurdish insurgents are training.

          As usual, the military did not say whether the attack resulted in casualties.

          On Monday, Turkey's air force bombed Kurdish rebel targets in Iraq's Zap region, close to the Turkish border.

          The Kurdistan Workers' Party has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey's southeast since 1984.

          This year Turkey has launched several air force attacks and one major ground operation against rebel bases across the border with Iraq.


          • WASHINGTON, December 5, 2008 -- Five Blackwater Worldwide security guards have been indicted and a sixth was negotiating a plea with prosecutors for a 2007 shooting that left 17 Iraqis dead and became an anti-American rallying cry for insurgents, people close to the case said Friday.

            Prosecutors obtained the indictment late Thursday and had it put under seal until it is made public, perhaps as early as Monday. All who discussed the case did so on condition of anonymity because the matters remain sealed.

            Six guards have been under investigation since a convoy of heavily armed Blackwater contractors opened fire in a crowded Baghdad intersection on Sept. 16, 2007. Witnesses say the shooting was unprovoked but Blackwater, hired by the State Department to guard U.S. diplomats, says its guards were ambushed by insurgents while responding to a car bombing.

            Young children were among the victims and the shooting strained relations between the U.S. and Iraq. Following the shooting, Blackwater became the subject of congressional hearings in Washington and insurgent propaganda videos in Iraq.

            The exact charges in the indictment were unclear, but the Justice Department has been considering manslaughter and assault charges against the guards for weeks. Prosecutors have also been considering bringing charges under a law, passed as part of a 1988 drug bill, that carries a mandatory 30-year prison sentence for using a machine gun in a crime of violence.

            One of the six guards has been negotiating to reduce the charges against him in return for cooperation. If completed, such a deal could provide prosecutors with a key witness against the other five guards. Others in the convoy have already testified before a federal grand jury about the shooting.

            Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd declined comment.

            Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell declined to comment.

            Regardless of the charges they bring, prosecutors will have a tough fight. The law is unclear on whether contractors can be charged in the U.S., or anywhere, for crimes committed overseas. The indictment sends the message that the Justice Department believes contractors do not operate with legal impunity in war zones.

            Based at a sprawling compound in Moyock, North Carolina, Blackwater itself is not a target of the FBI investigation. Company officials have cooperated with the investigation and say their guards did nothing wrong.

            To prosecute, authorities must argue that the guards can be charged under a law meant to cover soldiers and military contractors. Since Blackwater works for the State Department, not the military, it's unclear whether that law applies to its guards.

            Further complicating the case, the State Department granted all the Blackwater guards limited immunity in exchange for their sworn statements shortly after the shooting. Prosecutors will need to show that they did not rely on those statements in building their case.


            • Corinne Reilly:

              December 5, 2008 -- It was hard to see exactly what was happening from the back seat of the beat-up armored Mercedes that was taking me to Baghdad International Airport . Through the dirty, 2-inch-thick windows I could make out four Iraqi soldiers standing on the side of the road, locked together in one big hug. I'd been watching them for a few minutes, along with my driver, Suhaib, and McClatchy's British security adviser, Kevin. Why are they hugging? I wondered.

              After seven weeks in Iraq , I was less than two hours from leaving the country. Whatever was happening outside had stopped traffic, and I was wondering whether it would make me miss my flight to Amman, Jordan .

              One of the soldiers broke from the hug and turned toward the traffic. He was crying. They were all crying. Kevin phoned a friend who runs the airport's security.

              "It was a suicide bomber a few hours ago," he reported after he hung up. "Two Iraqi soldiers killed."

              By the time we passed, the bodies and the wreckage had been cleared, but the mourners lingered. Just before we were allowed to move, two Iraqi men in civilian clothes appeared. One joined in the hugging. The other dropped to the ground, and we watched him rock back and forth in the dust with his face in his hands. "Probably relatives of the dead," Kevin speculated.

              I saw a lot of people cry while I was in Iraq , but I think of the hugging soldiers and the rocking civilian most often. Maybe it was the strangeness of seeing uniformed soldiers in tears. Maybe it's because they're the last sad scene I saw before I flew away. Or maybe it's the way they made me feel: guilty, because I got to leave.

              Whatever the reasons, I'm glad that I think about them, glad that their grief is my last remembrance of Iraq . Because for all the stories of reduced violence and political and social successes there, Iraq remains, for the most part, a devastated country.

              It's OK to revel in what's been achieved, but only for a moment. Because the real story of Iraq , the one that deserves thoughtful attention, is about everything that's still left to accomplish there.

              In the few weeks that I've been home, I've had countless conversations about Iraq . The questions people ask me are usually the same: "Do they want us there?" "What's it really like on the ground?"

              On my flight back to California , the man sitting next to me wanted to know whether the U.S. is winning.

              "No one in the media will just call it like they see it," he complained. "Are we winning or aren't we?" Both his question and his insistence annoyed me. I tried to explain that the yes-or-no answer he wanted doesn't exist.

              Has violence dropped dramatically across Iraq ? Yes, by at least 75 percent since the height of the bloodshed in 2007, according to most estimates. Is the U.S. moving closer to a time when it can safely exit Iraq ? Most agree that it is. But is Iraq a stable democracy? Or stable at all? No. Will it be someday? Maybe.

              And within those battles, there are other struggles to consider. Roughly half of Iraqis who want to work can't find jobs. About as many don't have reliable access to safe drinking water. Millions of children don't attend school.

              Millions of families who fled their neighborhoods because of violence still haven't gone home; much of Iraq remains segregated, with Sunni and Shiite Muslims still hesitant to mix. Poverty and electricity shortages are widespread, health care is out of reach for many, and corruption and incompetence are rampant in the government ministries that are supposed to be remedying all these problems.

              One Iraqi lawmaker, Mahdi al Hafedh, explained it to me this way: "With many of the problems facing our people, we don't even know how bad they are because the government lacks the capacity to properly assess and measure them. So it's hard to imagine how we will begin to fix it all."

              As much as anything, these struggles will determine Iraq's future. They complicate armed fights and aggravate the political instability, and all of that makes it hard for me to imagine a time in the near future when Iraqi families won't be called to bombing sites to cry.

              I asked a lot of the Iraqis I interviewed what they think their country's future holds. Some wouldn't even venture a guess.

              The answers I did get varied widely, but none was very optimistic. The insurgents and the militias are behaving only so the Americans will leave, some people speculated. They're saving their energy for after the U.S. withdraws, they said. Most Iraqis agreed that the religious, sectarian, ethnic and political tensions that have underlain the violence have been suppressed, but by no means purged.

              "It feels so much safer than a year ago," a young man, Hussam Abdul Hammed , told me on the last day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan . "But still I am afraid to really trust the improvements."

              U.S. officials in Iraq also seemed unconvinced that the progress is permanent.

              One afternoon in late October, I was eating lunch at a cafeteria at Camp Cropper , a U.S. base near the Baghdad airport . A few higher-ranking Americans were sitting with me.

              "So where do you live?" asked one of them, a brigadier general who was trying to make polite conversation. I said that I lived in a hotel in Baghdad's Karrada district with some other Western reporters.

              "What's Karrada? Is that in the IZ?" he asked, referring to the International Zone , a heavily protected, walled-off section of the capital that houses the U.S. Embassy and most nonmilitary American officials who are living in Iraq.

              "Karrada is a neighborhood," I answered.

              "A neighborhood in the IZ?" he responded, his forehead scrunched in confusion.

              "No," I said. "A neighborhood out in Baghdad."

              "Wow," the general said. He seemed to disapprove. "That's a risky choice."

              This was one of the many differences I observed between what U.S. officials said publicly about Iraq and what they admitted privately.

              I saw their distrust of the improvements in the way they operated, too. Civilian officials still don't leave secured areas without heavy protection from the military or private contractors, and visits to Iraq by high-ranking Americans still go unannounced until the last minute for fear that they'll inspire attacks or assassination plots.

              Once when I was returning to the IZ with a State Department official after covering a trial, I was stunned as the convoy of private security contractors that transported us tore through the streets of Baghdad , forcing Iraqis off the road and barreling over medians to avoid traffic and return us to safety as quickly as possible.

              I wondered whether there was some nearby threat I didn't see. Were we being followed? Had shots been fired in the distance that I didn't hear?

              No, the State Department official explained. This is how they always drive.

              For all the pessimism and doubt, however, many Iraqis I spoke to said they thought that their country would never regress to the rampant killing it was witnessing 15 months ago.

              "The people won't stand for that again," said Nadil al Sahie , a university professor. "We've had enough."

              I hope he's right, and I think he might be. But whether the real story of Iraq will become one about success and peace is a far larger and tougher question, and how long it might be before we can tell that story is impossible to say.


              • SULAIMANIYA, Iraq, December 5, 2008 (Reuters) - Iranian artillery fire rained down on a remote area of northeastern Iraq on Friday, causing some material damage but no casualties, a local Kurdish official said.

                The artillery bombardment was intermittent, said Azad Asso, a district mayor for Jarawa district at the Iranian border, around 195 km (120 miles) northeast of Sulaimaniya.

                Asso said the bombardment began in the afternoon and continued into the early evening.

                Iran occasionally shells northern Iraq, where it says Iranian Kurdish separatist fighters take shelter.

                The last reported bombardment occurred in August, when an Iraqi civilian was wounded by rocket fire.


                • December 5, 2008 -- Three teenage girls were killed in Iraq on Friday, two of them sisters, when one of them found a tape recorder wired with explosives and brought it inside their house, security officials said.

                  The incident took place in the town of Balad Ruz in volatile Diyala province, an ethnically and religiously mixed region northeast of Baghdad that has seen scores of attacks in recent years.

                  The two sisters who were killed were 14 and 16 years old. Their sister-in-law, who was 17, also died in the blast, said Ahmed Fuad, a medic at Baquba General Hospital in the provincial capital.

                  Another two girls, aged seven and 19, were wounded in the blast, Fuad said, adding that they were sisters of the two sisters who were killed.

                  The girls came from a Shiite family that lived in a predominantly Sunni part of the town. The family had recently returned after fleeing their home at the height of Iraq's sectarian fighting, security officials said.

                  The overall level of violence in Iraq has fallen sharply over the past year as US and Iraqi forces allied with local militias have flooded into previously ungovernable areas, but attacks are still common in certain areas.


                  • WASHINGTON, December 5, 2008 (AP) - President Bush said Friday that the fight in Iraq has been longer and more costly than expected, but he defended the U.S.-led invasion, saying the world could not have risked leaving Saddam Hussein's power unchecked.

                    In a speech he was delivering later on Friday, Bush defended his Middle East policies, claimed some progress and outlined his view of what President-elect Barack Obama will inherit there. Bush said state-sponsored terrorism continues to destabilize the region, people still live under oppression, political and economic reforms are advancing ''in fits and starts,'' and Iran's uranium enrichment remains a threat to peace.

                    The president said that while it's true that Iraq's Saddam Hussein was not connected to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the decision to oust him cannot be viewed in isolation.

                    ''In a world where terrorists armed with boxcutters had just killed nearly 3,000 people, America had to decide whether we could tolerate a sworn enemy that acted belligerently, that supported terror and that intelligence agencies around the world believed had weapons of mass destruction,'' Bush said, referring to intelligence reports that later proved false.

                    ''It was clear to me, to members of both political parties, and to many leaders around the world that after September 11, this was a risk we could not afford to take,'' the president said about the Iraq war, which has claimed the lives of more than 4,200 U.S. military personnel.

                    In his speech to the annual Saban Forum, a gathering on Middle East policy sponsored by the Brookings Institution, Bush credited the Iraq invasion that deposed Saddam with persuading Iran to suspend its nuclear weapons search. He noted the U.S. intelligence community has timed Tehran's halting of a key part of its nuclear weapons program to 2003 - the year the war began.

                    ''The defeat of Saddam ... appears to have changed the calculation of Iran,'' Bush said.

                    More broadly, he defended his administration's approach to diplomacy with Iran, which so far has been unsuccessful.

                    ''We have made our bottom line clear,'' Bush said. ''For the safety of our people and the peace of the world, America will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.''

                    Bush said that after Saddam's regime had been toppled by U.S.-led forces, his administration chose to stand by the Iraqi people, help nurture a budding democracy - even launch a military buildup when increased violence threatened to tear the nation asunder.

                    ''When Saddam's regime fell, we refused to take the easy option and install a friendly strongman in his place,'' he said. ''Even though it required enormous sacrifice, we stood by the Iraqi people as they elected their own leaders and built a young democracy.''

                    Earlier this week, Iraq's three-member presidential council signed off on a new U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, which requires the nearly 150,000 U.S. troops to leave Iraq by January 1, 2012. It also requires American soldiers to withdraw from Iraqi cities by the end of June 2009. On Thursday and Friday, Bush called several Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to thank them for their work in getting the agreement approved.

                    Bush said his policies in the Middle East have not always been popular and sometimes have fallen short of the administration's goals. ''For example, the fight in Iraq has been longer and more costly than expected,'' he said.

                    Bush called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the most ''vexing'' problem in the region - something that his administration has been seen as slow, at least in his early years as president, to aggressively mediate.

                    Still, he noted that he was the first U.S. president to call for a Palestinian state and said he sees progress toward reaching a two-state solution. After months of publicly insisting that an agreement between the two sides could be sealed by a year-end deadline, which was set by the two sides and Bush last November in Annapolis, Md., the Bush administration has conceded that it will hand the fragile, unfinished U.S.-backed peace effort to Obama.

                    Bush recalled the status of the Middle East talks when he came to office, following former President Bill Clinton's inability to forge an agreement at Camp David in 2000. The collapse of those talks gave way to the Al-Aqsa intifada, which broke out a couple of months after the Camp David peace summit in July 2000.

                    Bush said that in 2001, more than 500 Israelis and Palestinians were killed. He called the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a ''terrorist who stole from his people and walked away from peace.'' He also criticized former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

                    ''Sharon was elected to fight terror and pursue a 'Greater Israel' policy that allowed for no territorial concessions,'' he said. ''And neither side could envision a return to negotiations or the realistic possibility of a two-state solution.''


                    • December 5, 2008 -- The White House altered documents regarding the nations involved in the so-called "Coalition of the Willing" that aided the US invasion of Iraq.

                      A University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign political science professor says he found that the White House had modified elements of its website dealing with the coalition and in some cases deleted key documents in the public record.

                      At the onset of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the White House released a list of the nations participating in the coalition, an important part of Bush Administration PR efforts, as the war was not UN-endorsed. Over a period of years, however, the original releases were modified to account for the diminishing number of nations.

                      Two releases were deleted from the White House website entirely, the professor says.

                      "I think that it raises the question of whether or not we can trust the government to maintain public records of things that were said or done that later prove embarrassing," Illinois political science professor Scott Althaus said.

                      "It could be what we found is limited," Althaus added. "But if it is not, it certainly opens the finding up to larger questions."

                      According to the university's student newspaper, a proofreader doublechecking a paper Althaus co-authored on the edited releases found that one of the URLs included in his paper now led to a blank page. "Related lists of coalition countries also appeared to contradict one another," the paper added.

                      The Cline Center for Democracy asserted that the "pattern" of "revision and removal" suggest that the White House has edited documents dealing with the period between 2003 and 2005.

                      "Instead of the White House Web site maintaining an updated list while preserving copies of the old ones or issuing revised lists in addition to the original posts, the White House removed original documents, altered them and replaced them with backdated modifications that only appear to be originals," wrote Illinois University reporter Kelly Gibbs on Friday. The findings showed "that several documents had been revised and listed different numbers and names of coalition countries."

                      "In many ways it is puzzling why so much effort was put into revising and deleting these documents," Althaus told Gibbs. "This is mainly because the changes were pretty small potatoes."

                      Althaus says he's been surprised by the reaction to his revelations on political blogs, cautioning that he isn't inherently saying that the modifications were part of a Bush political propaganda effort.

                      "Our findings out in the blogosphere are generally interpreted in a political lens, which was not our intention at all," Althaus said. "Our intention was to alert scholars and journalists who rely on government documents to let them know the facts have been tampered with."


                      • Fort Bragg, North Carolina, December 5, 2008 -- A soldier was acquitted of murder Thursday in the 2005 bombing deaths of two superiors in Iraq, triggering loud outbursts and gasps from the slain officers’ families.

                        A military jury found National Guard Staff Sgt. Alberto Martinez not guilty of two counts of premeditated murder in the deaths of Capt. Phillip Esposito and 1st Lt. Louis Allen. Both officers were killed when an anti-personnel mine detonated in a window of their room at a U.S. military base in Iraq in June 2005.

                        "He slaughtered our husbands and that's it?" yelled Allen's widow, Barbara, after the verdict was read. Someone shouted that Martinez was a murderer. The judge quickly ordered the courtroom cleared.

                        The jury spent two days deliberating after a six-week trial at Fort Bragg, during which Martinez did not testify. If convicted, the New York National Guard soldier could have faced the death penalty.

                        "We are pleased that the military justice system worked," the Martinez family said in a written statement. "Our sympathies go out to the families of the victims."

                        Martinez, 41, of Troy, New York, was the first soldier from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to be accused of killing a direct superior, a crime known as "fragging" during the Vietnam War. All three men belonged to the 42nd Infantry Division.

                        Esposito, 30, of Suffern, New York, worked as an information technology manager in New York City and was Martinez's company commander. Allen, 34, of Milford, Pennsylvania, was a high school science teacher and the company operations officer.


                        • BAGHDAD, December 5, 2008 (AFP) — Many major global oil companies have stayed away from the first Iraq Energy Expo which opened in Baghdad on Friday, amid uncertainty about plans for oil production partnerships.

                          ConocoPhillips of the United States and Russia's Lukoil and Gazpromneft are among 40 exhibitors, but BP, Exxon and Total are absent although they say they want to return to Iraq after being thrown out by then dictator Saddam Hussein 36 years ago.

                          The three-day oil conference and show at a new exhibition centre near Baghdad International Airport is the first of its kind in Iraq since an international embargo was imposed in 1990 after Saddam launched an invasion of Kuwait.

                          With an estimated 115 barrels of crude oil deposits, Iraq has the world's third largest reserves behind Saudi Arabia and Iran.

                          "We need your technical support to rebuild Iraq. We promise you full cooperation," Hussein Shahristani, the oil minister, told foreign oil companies at the opening of the event.

                          The minister's plan envisages a tripling of oil exports to six million barrels a day by 2018.

                          Shahristani said the authorities are "in the home straight" before awarding contracts, after the Iraqi government in October invited tenders for eight tempting oil contracts.

                          An executive from Gazpromneft, the oil division of Russian gas giant Gazprom, believes his company's prospects could be boosted by previous Russian experience in Iraq under Saddam's regime.

                          "It is like the kalashnikov. The Russians and Chinese have technologies, certainly more primitive but which are the most appropriate for the Iraqis at this stage of their development," the executive said.

                          The Iraqis say they are optimistic about their capacity to attract investors, thanks to the relative improvement in security in the war-torn country.

                          However, some companies already working in Iraq are dissatisfied with progress.

                          "Since we have been here, we haven't made money," an executive of a US oil company said. "We sent some expert teams, then we took them back (as) we had no results. There are far too many problems."

                          Because of a lack of investment and modernisation of ageing installations, Iraq produces only 2.4 million barrels a day, including two million for export, way below peak levels in the 1980s when it exported 3.4 million barrels a day.

                          The expo, organised by the Iraqi American Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was delayed from October because the conference centre was not ready.

                          Its opening comes after the government had to slash its budgeted spending plans for next year after the plunge in oil prices, which have fallen by two thirds to below 50 dollars a barrel from record highs above 147 dollars in July.

                          A national oil law has been delayed in parliament over bitter differences among the assembly's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions over the sharing of the revenues generated from oil sales.

                          Last month, Iraq and China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) nevertheless signed a three-billion-dollar deal to develop the Al-Ahdab oil field in Wasit province for 23 years.

                          The project, the first major oil development deal that a foreign firm has secured in Iraq since Saddam's overthrow in 2003, revives a contract signed in 1997 that granted China exploration rights to the Al-Ahdab oil field.

                          In September, Royal Dutch Shell signed a gas joint venture estimated to be worth four billion dollars, becoming the first Western major to enter Iraq through a deal with Baghdad after nearly four decades.

                          Saddam threw out foreign oil companies when he nationalised the sector in 1972.


                          • BAGHDAD, December 6, 2008 (Xinhua) -- Two Iraqi children and their mother were killed by a bomb hidden in a radio apparatus in a town in Diyala province, a provincial security source said on Saturday.

                            The incident occurred on Friday afternoon after the two children found the radio in a street and brought it to their mother in the town of Balad Ruz, 75 km northeast of Baghdad, the source told Xinhua on condition of anonymity.

                            As soon as the mother turned the radio on it exploded immediately, killing her and her two children, the source said.

                            Iraqi security forces rushed to the scene and an investigation was underway, while ambulances were evacuating the victims to nearby hospitals, added the source.

                            According to the source, the armed groups which linked to the al-Qaida network in Iraq frequently devise new styles of killing people to arouse panic among Iraqi families.

                            Diyala province, which stretches from the eastern edges of Baghdad to the Iranian border, has long been a stronghold for al-Qaida network in Iraq.


                            • BAGHDAD, December 6, 2008 (Xinhua) -- Four Iraqi children were killed on Saturday by a bomb explosion in the town of Iskandriyah, south of Baghdad, a local police source said.

                              The incident occurred before midday as children less than eight years old were playing football in a popular playing field near their houses in the town, some 50 km south of Baghdad, the source told Xinhua on condition of anonymity.

                              The powerful blast resulted in the killing of four children and in the damaging of several nearby houses, the source said, adding that an explosive ordnance disposal team rushed to the scene and had started a search operation seeking for more bombs.

                              The incident came a day after two Iraqi children and their mother were killed by a bomb explosion was hidden in a radio apparatus in the town of Balad Ruz, in the Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad.

                              Violence has dramatically dropped in the Iraqi cities, hitting a four-year low, but the U.S. military warned recently that security remains fragile and the gain is reversible.


                              • BAGHDAD, December 6, 2008 (Xinhua) -- Two Awakening Council group fighters were killed and two others injured on Saturday in a gunfire attack on a security checkpoint in the city of Baquba, capital of the volatile province of Diyala, a provincial police source said.

                                "Unknown gunmen attacked early in the morning a security checkpoint manned by Awaking Council Fighters and policemen in theal-Wajihiyah town some 12 km northeast of the provincial capital Baquba," the source told Xinhua on condition of anonymity.

                                The attack resulted in the killing of two fighters and the wounding of two others, the source said.

                                Iraqi security forces immediately sealed off the main roads leading to the scene and immediately began a search operation seeking for the attackers, he added.

                                The Awakening Councils involve local armed groups, especially some powerful former insurgent groups, who fight the al-Qaida network after the latter exercised indiscriminate killings against both Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities.

                                Diyala, including Baquba, some 65 km northeast of Baghdad, has long been the hotbed of insurgency since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, despite the ongoing security crackdown in the province conducted by U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces.


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