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Iraqi Christians speed exodus to Kurdistan: report

Iraq cabinet ramps up spending as oil prices rise
Baghdad (AFP) Feb 6, 2011 - Iraq's government submitted a revised draft budget to MPs for approval on Sunday, raising projected public spending as oil prices have increased, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said. The new spending programme estimates overall expenditure at $81.86 billion, or 96.6 trillion Iraqi dinars, while income will be $68.56 billion, leaving a shortfall of $13.3 billion-- about a 16 percent budget deficit. Sunday's submission is based on average oil prices of $76.5 per barrel and projected exports of 2.2 million barrels of oil per day (bpd), a figure which includes 100,000 bpd of exports from the autonomous Kurdish region. A previous draft budget, sent to parliament on December 1, estimated spending of $78.8 billion based on oil prices of $73 per barrel. Of the overall spending in the new budget, $56.44 billion will be operating expenses -- primarily salaries and pensions for civil servants - and the remaining $25.42 billion will be dedicated to investment, Dabbagh said. Energy sales are expected to account for 90 percent of revenues.

Dabbagh said the $13.3 billion deficit would be covered by "money accumulated from past surpluses and from internal and external loans." He added that the cabinet also gave the green light for the finance ministry to request a $4.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, and a further $2 billion from the World Bank. While Iraq's projected oil price currently looks to be a conservative estimate -- prices currently stand at around $89 in New York -- its projected exports are more ambitious. Iraq has not exported 2.2 million barrels per day of oil since the 2003 US-led invasion ousted dictator Saddam Hussein. The country currently produces around 2.5 million bpd, with exports averaging around two million bpd, though the former figure is expected to rise to three million bpd by the end of the year, according to the oil ministry.
by Staff Writers
Baghdad (AFP) Feb 6, 2011
An exodus of Christians to the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq's north has accelerated after a spate of attacks against the minority group, according to the International Organization for Migration.

An official from the organisation also spoke Sunday of reports that many Christians were either leaving Iraq, or planning to emigrate.

By the end of January, 1,078 families had moved to the three provinces that comprise Iraqi Kurdistan since an October 31 attack on a church in Baghdad by Al-Qaeda militants left 44 worshippers and two priests dead, IOM figures show.

A total of 331 families moved in the six weeks immediately following that attack, while a further 747 have left the rest of Iraq for Kurdistan between December 15 and the end of January.

"Our monitors do report though that they are hearing of many emigrations abroad, and many more who hope to emigrate in the future," IOM Displacement Monitoring Officer Keegan de Lancie told AFP, noting that the organisation only tracked figures for internal displacement.

"Colleagues in Turkey have reported a spike in Christian families seeking refuge there, and I myself have encountered recently displaced Christian families from (the northern Iraqi province of) Nineveh here in Amman where I'm based," he added.

De Lancie said IOM monitoring shows that an average Christian Iraqi family consists of four to five members.

The report noted that "monitors in Baghdad report that Christians continue to face grave threats" and "despite increased security measures an atmosphere of extreme insecurity persists among Christians remaining in Baghdad and many still intend to move or emigrate."

The October 31 attack on the Baghdad church was the biggest in a spate of violence targeting Christians. Just 10 days after the siege, a series of attacks against Christian shops and homes in Baghdad killed six and left 33 wounded.

And on December 31, violence against 15 Christian homes in several Baghdad neighbourhoods left two dead.

Between 800,000 and 1.2 million Christians lived in Iraq before the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, but that figure now is estimated by religious leaders at 400,000.

earlier related report
US mission will be safe after Iraq withdrawal: officials
Washington (AFP) Feb 3, 2011 - The US envoy to Baghdad and the senior US commander in Iraq assured skeptical lawmakers Thursday that the US diplomatic mission there will be well protected after US troops withdraw in late 2011.

A private security force some 5,500 strong will protect the large US diplomatic presence in Iraq, US Ambassador James Jeffrey told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Jeffrey and Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the commander of US military forces in Iraq, said they were confident that the force was adequate, and that Iraq will remain stable once US troops have departed.

Both also said they were confident Iraq's US-trained military and police could maintain order once US troops exit. Iraqi security forces "have a good capability" to confront Shiite extremist groups and Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Austin said.

Republican Senator John McCain however was not convinced.

"I'm deeply concerned about this issue of complete US withdrawal," said McCain, a strong supporter of the 2007-2008 military "surge" in Iraq.

McCain questioned the Iraqi military's capacity to use high-tech weapons to pinpoint targets and avoid unnecessary civilian deaths, and its ability to build an air force without US help.

McCain also said he was was "very concerned" about radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his close ties with Iran.

The fiery Sadr gained widespread popularity among Shiites in the months after the 2003 US-led invasion, and his Mahdi Army militia battled US and Iraqi government forces in several bloody confrontations.

Sadr suspended Mahdi Army activities in August 2008, after major US-supported Iraqi assaults on its strongholds in Baghdad and southern Iraq.

Sadr came to Iraq in early January after four years of self-imposed exile in Iran, but returned to Iran after just two weeks.

Austin and Jeffrey also said they had no indication the Iraqis want the US military to remain beyond 2012 -- shattering a long-held assumption in official Washington.

Republican senator Lindsey Graham was skeptical about the strength of a private protection force.

"Would it make sense financially, security-wise, to have a military footprint left behind, if the Iraqis request, to continue to provide security for US State Department officials and others?" he asked.

Austin insisted the private security force would be "adequate."

Starting in 2012, the US presence in Iraq will consist of up to 20,000 civilians at sites that include two embassy branches, two consulates, and three police training centers. The figures includes armed private security personnel, support staff and diplomats.

Currently there are 2,700 armed security contractors in Iraq, Jeffrey told the senators.

Austin said US military advisers and trainers would stay to support the Iraqi military with US-made equipment such as M1A1 tanks, military aircraft and patrol ships. He did not give a figure, but said they would not include combat troops.

Just 50,000 US troops are currently in Iraq, down from a peak of more than 170,000 and ahead of the full withdrawal in late 2011.

"We face a critical moment now in Iraq, where we'll either... finish the job and build upon the sacrifices made, or we will risk core US national security interests," Jeffrey told the senators.

He described it as "a historic opportunity and a critical window to help Iraq emerge as a strategic partner and a force for stability and moderation in a troubled region."

The government of then-president George W. Bush agreed to the withdrawal terms with the administration of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in November 2008.

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