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1.  Objections to Iraq vote grow louder from the Boston Globe:

BAGHDAD — Sunni Arab and secular political groups joined forces yesterday to decide whether to call for a repeat of parliamentary elections that gave the Shi’ite religious bloc a larger than expected lead.

. . . The agreement to join forces over registering complaints was reached at a meeting in the offices of a secular bloc headed by former Shi’ite prime minister Iyad Allawi.

”We decided to form an operations room to collect the complaints from all the affected parties and present them to the Iraqi Electoral Commission” and international organizations such as the UN, said Naseer al-Ani of the Sunni Arab Iraqi Islamic Party.

He added that ”rerunning the elections was presented by some parties at today’s meeting, but they were only ideas.”

And this related story:  

1A.  Sunnis, Shiites threaten to boycott Iraq’s new legislature (from Toronto’s The Globe and Mail):

Baghdad — Dozens of Sunni Arab and secular Shiite groups threatened to boycott Iraq’s new legislature Thursday if complaints about tainted voting are not reviewed by an international body.
A representative for former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi described the Dec. 15 vote as “fraudulent” and the elected lawmakers “illegitimate.”
A joint statement issued by 35 political groups that competed in last week’s elections said the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, which oversaw the ballot, should be disbanded.

This tells me the all those who lost the elections are closing ranks.  Allawi must now feel that his ties to the US are no longer useful, if he’s willing to ally himself with the Sunni religious parties.  What’s more surprising is the willingness of other secular Shi’ites to join a boycott of Parliament.  They must have a lot of trepidation over what the majority Shi’a religious parties intend to do once their hold on power is secured.

More on the flip side . . .
2.  Blair:  UK Troop Withdrawals in 6 Months (from Reuters):

BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) – Prime Minister Tony Blair, on a lightning trip to Iraq, said on Thursday that the situation was entirely different from a year ago and signaled Britain could start scaling down its troop presence in six months.

Blair, on his fourth trip to Iraq since the 2003 U.S-led invasion, said good progress was being made in training Iraqi security and police forces to protect the country.

The ability of Iraqis to manage the country’s security is the key condition for the 8,000 British troops, most of them stationed in the southeast near Basra, to return home.
Asked if six months was a viable time for a withdrawal to begin, Blair said: “If everything goes to plan. It is our strategy, we want to draw down our own forces.”

. . . Tight security surrounded Blair’s visit including a news blackout until he touched down from Kuwait in a Hercules transport aircraft, for fear of attacks by insurgents.<p.<br>
 . . . The government has said it would be prepared to lead a NATO expansion into southern Afghanistan next year, expanding its force there from 9,000 to 15,000 troops, though defence experts say army resources are already stretched thin.

A partial withdrawal from Iraq could also ease the pressure on Blair over the U.S.-led war. Taking part in the invasion was the most contentious and politically damaging foreign policy decision of his eight-year premiership.

Compared with Baghdad, where U.S. troops are in command, southeast Iraq has been largely stable, but violence has increased in past months and British officials say local police and security services are being infiltrated by insurgents.

I merely note, the security situation in Iraq is still so bad that Blair and other officials still feel the need not to announce their visits until they are out of Iraq.  Not a sign of progress, is it?

3.  Rumsfeld says quick Iraq, Afghanistan pullout risky

BAGRAM, Afghanistan, Dec 22 (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Thursday a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq or Afghanistan would spawn more terrorism in the region and raise the risk of attacks on the United States.

Addressing U.S. troops on the second day of a visit to Afghanistan, Rumsfeld said “there are some in Washington who are questioning why our country is fighting this difficult war on terror half a world away”.

Under pressure at home from Congress and from waning public support the U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Rumsfeld on Monday ordered the number of troops in Afghanistan to be cut to about 16,500 by next spring from the current 19,000.

But he told the troops at Bagram air base “if we were to withdraw from Afghanistan precipitously, or from Iraq, the terrorists would attack us first somewhere else in this region and then they would attack us at home”.

Asked how he would define victory in Iraq, Rumsfeld said: “Victory in Iraq will be a situation where the political process will be successful, where the security forces are sufficiently competent to take over the security responsibilities and we can pass it on to them and we can draw down our forces …”.

Shorter Rummy: Stay the course.

4.  Italian prosecutors investigate killing of intelligence agent in Iraq (from Xinhuanet):

ROME, Dec. 22 (Xinhuanet) — Italian prosecutors began investigation on Thursday into the killing of an Italian intelligence agent in Iraq last March in which a U.S. marine was involved, local media reported.

    Mario Lozano, who is accused of killing intelligence agent Nicola Calipari at a U.S. checkpoint on March 4 in Iraq, has been placed under formal investigation, the ANSA news agency reported.

    Calipari was killed when he was guiding Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, a freed hostage, to safety. Sgrena was injured inthe incident.

    A US inquiry ruled out any guilt of U.S. troops over the incident while the Italian side said the tragedy was caused by the”inexperience” and lack of proper rules of engagement of US troops.

Guess the Italians don’t trust our own inquiry that absolved US troops from any responsibility.  Not news likely to be published in the American media.

5.  Security incidents in Iraq, Dec 22 (again from Reuters):

BAGHDAD – Four policemen were killed and six wounded when gunmen attacked a checkpoint in the southern Dora district of Baghdad, police said.

BAGHDAD – Three women employed in the Green Zone government and diplomatic compound were kidnapped along with their driver by gunmen in the south of the capital, police said.

*TIKRIT – Iraqi police found the bodies on Wednesday of two Iraqi contractors working with the U.S forces in Tikrit, 175 km (110 miles) north of Baghdad, local security forces said.

*BAIJI – One civilian was killed and another was wounded on Wednesday when gunmen opened fire on them in the oil-refining town of Baiji, 180 km (112 miles) north of Baghdad, local security forces said.

*SAMARRA – Three Iraqi police commandos were killed and four wounded on Wednesday when a makeshift bomb went off near their patrol in the city of Samarra, local security forces said.

*DUJAIL – A Shi’ite shrine was blown up in the town of Dujail, 90 km (50 miles) north of Baghdad, as Saddam Hussein was on trial in Baghdad for crimes against local people in the 1980s, local security forces said.

*ISKANDARIYA – Four civilians were killed on Wednesday when gunmen opened fire on two trucks in Iskandariya, 40 km (25 miles) south of Baghdad, police said.

BAGHDAD – Two civilians were wounded on Tuesday when the car they were traveling in was struck by a roadside bomb in the east of Baghdad, the U.S military said in a statement.

This one sort of speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

6.  US forces `being scaled back’ in Iraq (from the Financial Times):

In the wake of Iraq’s elections last week, senior military officials say that US forces have started to scale back their combat strength in some parts of the country, including areas with sizeable Sunni Arab populations that have until recently nurtured active insurgent cells.

Speaking after the elections, General George Casey, top US commander in Iraq, confirmed plans to scale back to the “base level” of 138,000 by early February.

Reductions beyond that would be a policy decision that officers are reluctant to discuss.

. . . During the latest one-year rotation, US troops have reportedly withdrawn from 30 bases out of 110, with 17 going to Iraqi units and others being cleaned up “so you wouldn’t know we were ever there,” Col Cloutier said.
However, the Americans are giving up their smaller facilities while retaining – and further strengthening – the large ones. Longer-term plans call for three or more “mega-bases” in a US-friendly Iraq, for a strategic presence similar to that in Germany, US security sources say.

Doesn’t sound like a real policy change just yet.  It’s more a planned draw down of forces now that the elections are over.  But what’s buried at the end of this story is what troubles me.  The idea of “mega-bases” and a “strategic presence similar to that in Germany” doesn’t sound like we intend to leave – ever.  After all, how long have we maintained a “strategic presence in Germany” now?  Oh, right – 60 years.  And counting.

7.  U.S. deaths in Iraq

As of Wednesday, at least 2,158 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war, according to an Associated Press count. At least 1,694 died as a result of hostile action, according to the military’s numbers. The figures include five military civilians.

The AP count is two fewer than the Defense Department’s tally, last updated at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

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