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US must stay engaged in Iraq despite Afghanistan: analysts

US in Afghanistan transit talks with Turkmenistan
The United States is discussing the possibility of using Turkmenistan's airspace to support the battle in neighbouring Afghanistan, a top US State Department official said Thursday. US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said that he discussed the possibility of using the Central Asian state's airspace with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and was hopeful an agreement could be reached. "We talked about permitting American aircraft to fly via their territory and transport various supplies. We have raised this question with every country in the region. We are hopeful of cooperation in this area with Turkmenistan," he told reporters through a translator. Berdymukhamedov first raised the possibility of opening up his isolated country's airspace to the transport of non-military cargo at a press conference in neighbouring Uzbekistan in February. The United States has been actively searching for alternative supply routes into war-wracked Afghanistan since Kyrgyzstan announced earlier this year that it would be expelling coalition forces from a key airbase on its territory. The announcement of negotiations comes at a time of increasing tensions between Turkmenistan and Moscow over a gas pipeline explosion last week, and as Ashgabat appears to be opening up to greater cooperation with the West.
by Staff Writers
Baghdad (AFP) April 16, 2009
A recent upturn in deadly bombings in Iraq has exposed the risk that a planned withdrawal of US forces will be seized on by insurgents as an opportunity to wreak new carnage, analysts told AFP.

The decision to speed up the drawdown of American troops from Iraq, which it invaded six years ago, and focus on Afghanistan has also raised the perception that the United States has lost interest, which must be avoided, they said.

"It is crucial not to create the impression in Iraq that we have somehow disengaged," said Noah Feldman, author of "After Jihad, What We Owe Iraq." He was a senior adviser to the Coalition Provincial Authority (CPA) set up after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

"So far the insurgency in its various guises has without exception tested US policy when it is rolled out. I see no reason to think this time is any different," said Feldman, a professor of Law at Harvard University.

US President Barack Obama said during a visit to Iraq on April 8 that the next 18 months would be "critical," and also pledged he would stick to a timetable for all American troops to leave by the end of 2011.

However, Obama wants all combat troops out by August next year, and US soldiers are already scheduled to withdraw from major cities and towns by June, to help speed a planned military "surge" in Afghanistan.

"I am deeply concerned about keeping our eye on the ball and maintaining security," said Feldman. "In fact, this is crucial," he added, alluding to the risk of losing interest in Iraq because of US military aims to battle a bloody Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and attacks by Al-Qaeda militants based in the lawless border areas of Pakistan.

February and March saw the number of deaths from unrest in Iraq rise from a six-year post-conflict low of 191 in January to 258 and 252 respectively, according to defence, interior and health ministry statistics in Baghdad.

The death toll remained high in March because of four major suicide bombings.

Incidents in the past 10 days have included a series of six co-ordinated car bombings in Baghdad that killed at least 34 people and wounded 139 and two suicide attacks on Iraqi security bases, one of which killed five US soldiers.

Defence and police officials said on Thursday a suicide bomber disguised in military uniform killed 16 Iraqi soldiers west of Baghdad, although a defence ministry spokesman later denied the deaths, saying 38 recruits were wounded.

United Nations figures show that the number of attacks rose in every region of Iraq in the first week of April, compared with the last week of March.

Lydia Khalil, international affairs fellow in residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a former policy adviser for the CPA in Baghdad, also said Washington must maintain its concentration on Iraq.

"We need to view these recent attacks as a reminder that just because the surge has succeeded in bringing a measure of stability to Iraq, there are still many more dangers that lie ahead," New York-based Khalil said.

"This is especially true as US troops begin to draw down even more of their forces," in line with the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed between Washington and Baghdad last November.

"We are going to have to think of other ways to help Iraqi security forces against terrorist attacks," she added.

"In and around northern Iraq, particularly around Mosul and disputed territories (such as oil-rich Kirkuk), will be particular trouble spots."

The US military concedes that Mosul, Iraq's second largest city located in the north of the country, remains an Al-Qaeda stronghold.

Colonel Gary Volesky, a US commander in northern Iraq, said this week the troops would remain there if Baghdad asked them to. Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdel Mahdi also said Baghdad was prepared to be flexible in the case of Mosul.

Michael O'Hanlon, who specialises in US national security policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, said he was "worried, but worried in general" about Iraq's security situation, not because of recent trends.

"Mosul is a challenge but I think, and have thought, that the Iraqis will be pragmatic and if they need our help, they'll find a way to keep requesting it," he said.

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Suicide bomber wounds 38 at Iraqi army base
Habbaniyah, Iraq (AFP) April 16, 2009
A suicide bomber wounded 38 Iraqi army recruits in a base west of Baghdad on Thursday, according to a defence ministry spokesman who denied earlier reports that 16 soldiers were killed.

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