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. Iraq marks fifth anniversary of bloody war

by Staff Writers
Baghdad (AFP) March 19, 2008
Iraq on Thursday will mark the fifth anniversary of the US-led invasion that toppled brutal dictator Saddam Hussein, but also plunged a nation of 26 million people into chaos and bloodshed.

On March 20, 2003, US planes dropped the first bombs on Baghdad, to signal an invasion that would within three weeks topple Saddam's regime and leave US forces in charge of a resentful and rebellious people.

On Wednesday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said the invasion ended Saddam's era of torture and tyranny.

"The brutal regime of the dictator fell ... the regime that ruled Iraq for decades, the decades of darkness. The decades that were of tyranny," said Talabani in a statement.

During Saddam's iron-fisted rule, he said, the prisons were full of "innocent prisoners. These cells were Saddam's theatres for torture and brutal crimes."

But five years since that day, Iraqis and US and allied forces still face daily attacks from insurgents and Islamist militants, and fighting between armed factions from both sides of Iraq's Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide goes on.

As the conflict enters its sixth year, peace activists launched protests acround the world, and US President George W. Bush once again defended his tainted legacy.

Bush acknowledged that the war has "come at a high cost in lives and treasure," but defended both the decision to invade and to boost the number of US troops in Iraq last year.

"The answers are clear to me: removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision -- and this is a fight America can and must win," he said in a speech at the Pentagon, US military headquarters.

Anti-war activists are not impressed and launched sit-ins and marches across the United States on Wednesday, demanding an immediate withdrawal of US soldiers.

"This war needs to end and it needs to end now," Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice, told AFP.

Demonstrators said they would target government agencies, lawmakers, oil companies and "corporate media" for helping to promote and sustain the war.

Bush has taken heart from recent signs that the bloodshed in Iraq has fallen, but even US commander General David Petraeus admits that the country has made insuffienct progress towards national reconciliation.

"Scoring a military victory is easy, but a political victory is more difficult to achieve," said Mustapha Alani, director of security studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre.

He said Washington had dismantled Saddam's regime and was now "unable to put it back together".

The day-to-day reality on the ground is grim.

The war has killed more than 4,000 US and allied soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians -- between 104,000 and 223,000 died between March 2003 and June 2006 alone, according to the World Health Organisation.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, in its latest report, said the plight of millions of Iraqis who still have little or no access to clean water, sanitation or health care was the "most critical in the world".

Nevertheless, there has been progess towards peace in large areas of southern and central Iraq, where the situation is far less violent than it was even a year ago.

A "surge" in US forces, which over the past year increased the level of troops to more than 160,000, has helped reduce the violence, and tens of thousands of Sunni former insurgents have been recruited to fight Al-Qaeda.

At the same time, radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has ordered his powerful Mahdi Army militia to refrain from attacks on Iraqi civilians and security forces.

Insurgents, however, continue to carry out spectacular attacks.

On Tuesday, at a national unity conference -- undermined by a boycott from two key parliamentary blocs -- Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki boasted that Iraq's sectarian civil war was over.

On Wednesday he visited, for the first time since becoming the premier, Baghdad's Sunni bastion of Adhamiyah. There he promised the Sunni Arabs jobs as a reward for their fight against Al-Qaeda.

"We will welcome our sons who are challenging terrorism and injustice. They will have suitable jobs. What they have done is amazing," Maliki said.

The economy, the main concern of Iraqis after security, is also a wreck. Unemployment is running at between 25 and 50 percent of the workforce, according to government figures.

Oil exports are the country's main money-earner and a key source of contention between rival political factions.

Iraqi officials say production is at 2.9 million barrels a day, higher than pre-war levels. Oil analysts believe it is really around 2.2 million.

Public services like water and electricity have yet to be fully restored, despite billions of dollars having been spent on often badly managed reconstruction projects.

Government calls for Iraqi refugees to return to help rebuild the country have been largely ignored. Fewer than 50,000 have returned from neighbouring Jordan and Syria, while more than two million have fled.

Iraq's parliament has been paralysed by competition between parties driven by sectarian interests.

Last year the US embassy in Baghdad documented a high level of corruption at all levels of government, and questioned the Maliki administration's willingness to crack down on crooked practices.

The war is estimated to have already cost Washington more than 400 billion dollars -- making it the most expensive conflict in history.

And what have Americans got for their money?

US credibility in the Middle East has been eroded; the influence of Iran, Washington's enemy, has grown; and the price of oil has spiked to record levels, with catastrophic repercussions on the global economy.

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Commentary: Fox Fallon's fall
Washington (UPI) Mar 19, 2008
The abrupt resignation of Middle Eastern commander Adm. William J. "Fox" Fallon over a controversial interview and profile in Esquire magazine was a carefully choreographed exit for the 63-year-old Navy aviator. The first Navy man appointed to head the Central Command, which stretches from the Middle East to South Asia and includes Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, he is now one of three former Centcom commanders who are opposed to bombing Iran's nuclear facilities if the mullahs keep on trucking their nuclear weapon ambitions.

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