Rise in attacks prompts new MRAP plans

The number of Iraqi roadside bomb attacks with a particularly deadly kind of explosive spiked in January and March, prompting renewed Army plans to buy heavily protected Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles.

After a spate of attacks in January using explosively formed penetrators, Army generals in Iraq sent a report in mid-February asking for more MRAPs to Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commanding general of III Corps, who signed the report and forwarded it to Army headquarters in Washington.

The report led the Joint Requirements Oversight Council on Feb. 22 to raise the ceiling for Army purchases of MRAPs by 2,000 to 12,000, said Lt. Col. Martin Downie, an Army spokesman. The Army still wants ultimately to buy 15,500 of the vehicles, Downie said.

In March, the number of EFP attacks was up again, said Christine Devries, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization.

Overall, roadside bomb attacks in Iraq are down from last year, but attacks with EFPs matched 2007 levels in January and March, Devries said. She would not give exact numbers.

EFPs that can tear through more lightly armored Humvees and trucks have been less effective against MRAPs. More than 3,000 MRAPs are in theater and thousands more on the way in the first half of the year.

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British Fear U.S. Commander is Beating the Drum for Iran Strikes

A strong statement from General David Petraeus about Iran's intervention in Iraq could set the stage for a US attack on Iranian military facilities, according to a Whitehall assessment. In closely watched testimony in Washington next week, Gen Petraeus will state that the Iranian threat has risen as Tehran has supplied and directed attacks by militia fighters against the Iraqi state and its US allies.

The outbreak of Iraq's worst violence in 18 months last week with fighting in Basra and the daily bombardment of the Green Zone diplomatic enclave, demonstrated that although the Sunni Muslim insurgency is dramatically diminished, Shia forces remain in a strong position to destabilise the country.

"Petraeus is going to go very hard on Iran as the source of attacks on the American effort in Iraq," a British official said. "Iran is waging a war in Iraq. The idea that America can't fight a war on two fronts is wrong, there can be airstrikes and other moves," he said.

"Petraeus has put emphasis on America having to fight the battle on behalf of Iraq. In his report he can frame it in terms of our soldiers killed and diplomats dead in attacks on the Green Zone."

Tension between Washington and Tehran is already high over Iran's covert nuclear program. The Bush administration has not ruled out military strikes.

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Officials Foresee No Ebb in Iraq Violence

When Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker brief Congress this week, they will be hard-pressed to depict Iraq as moving toward stability in the wake of recent violence that sent deaths soaring to their highest level in seven months.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's move against Shiite Muslim militias has revealed the gravity of the country's Shiite rivalries, just as U.S. forces are decreasing their presence.

The intense combat in southern Iraq that pitted Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army against Iraqi and American forces has largely wound down for the time being, but the enmity that fueled it remains. Fighting between the two sides flared Sunday in Baghdad, leaving as many as 22 dead.

The military campaign in the southern port of Basra, which the government says targeted all armed groups, unraveled a seven-month freeze on armed operations observed by the Mahdi Army that had been considered pivotal to Iraq's recent reduction in violence.

"We are now locked in a battle," said a high-ranking Iraqi government official, who predicted more confrontations in the coming months. "I think this will be a hot summer in Iraq."

Crocker, in a meeting with foreign journalists Thursday, praised Maliki for taking on militias but said the prime minister had started a fight that could not be dropped.

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VA workers charge $2.6B on gov't credit cards at luxury hotels, high-end retailers

Veterans Affairs employees last year racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in government credit-card bills at casino and luxury hotels, movie theaters and high-end retailers such as Sharper Image and Franklin Covey — and government auditors are investigating, citing past spending abuses.

All told, VA staff charged $2.6 billion to their government credit cards.

The Associated Press, through a Freedom of Information request, obtained the VA list of 3.1 million purchases made in the 2007 budget year. The list offers a detailed look into the everyday spending at the government's second largest department.

By and large, it reveals few outward signs of questionable spending, with hundreds of purchases at prosthetic, orthopedic and other medical supply stores.

But there are multiple charges that have caught the eye of government investigators.

At least 13 purchases totaling $8,471 were charged at Sharper Image, a specialty store featuring high-tech electronics and gizmos such as robotic barking dogs. In addition, 19 charges worth $1,999.56 were made at Franklin Covey, which sells leather totes and planners geared toward corporate executives.

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$3 Trillion May Be Too Low

By Joseph Stiglitz

Our original estimate of the cost of the Iraq war was too conservative: in reality the cost for the US will be much higher!

President Bush has tried to give the impression that the $3 trillion dollar estimate of the total cost of the war that we provide in our new book may be exaggerated.

We believe that it is in fact conservative. Even the president would have to admit that the $50 to $60 billion estimate given by the administration before the war was wildly off the mark; there is little reason to have confidence in their arithmetic. They admit to a cost so far of $600 billion.

Our numbers differ from theirs for three reasons: first, we are estimating the total cost of the war, under alternative conservative scenarios, derived from the defence department and congressional budget office. We are not looking at McCain’s 100-year scenario - we assume that we are there, in diminished strength, only through to 2017. But neither are we looking at a scenario that sees our troops pulled out within six months. With operational spending going on at $12 billion a month, and with every year costing more than the last, it is easy to come to a total operational cost that is double the $600 billon already spent.

Second, we include war expenditures hidden elsewhere in the budget, and budgetary expenditures that we would have to incur in the future even if we left tomorrow.

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Iraqis Angered by Renewal of Blackwater Contract

Iraqis expressed anger on Saturday at news the United States had renewed the contract of Blackwater, a private security firm blamed for killing up to 17 people in a shooting incident last year.

"Renewing this contract means we will see this sort of thing again in the streets," Abbas Hasoun, a grocer, said. "I wish we could turn the page on this, but keeping this company here means bloodshed will continue."

A traffic policeman who said he was questioned in Turkey by the FBI about the shooting was patrolling on Saturday the same busy traffic circle where the incident took place.

"I went to Turkey and testified about what I saw, but all my efforts were in vain when I heard the news," said the policeman who asked that his name not be published for security reasons.

The FBI is investigating whether Blackwater employees broke the law during the shooting last September when Blackwater staff, apparently believing they were under attack, fired into cars in heavy traffic, killing civilians.

In spite of the criminal probe, the State Department announced on Friday the firm's contract to protect U.S. personnel in Baghdad would be renewed.

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Lawmakers Worry About Who Will Be Indicted Next

There is fear in the halls of the Alabama Statehouse. Your colleague may be wired. Somebody may be watching you.

An indictment looms.

After a dozen legislators received subpoenas one day last month in a criminal investigation, an atmosphere of paranoia and anxiety has descended on the gleaming white building that houses the state Legislature, many of its occupants say.

Legislators are sweeping their offices for bugs. Routine horse-trading for votes is stymied, for fear it could be misinterpreted. A wary lawmaker agrees to meet a reporter only in a wide-open parking lot. After-hours get-togethers are off.

The concern is a result of a long-running federal investigation into corruption within the state's system of two-year colleges that has led to guilty pleas on bribery and corruption charges by one state lawmaker and the system's former chancellor. The Birmingham News reported in 2006 that a quarter of the 140 members of the Legislature had financial ties to the college system, with most of the jobs or contracts going to lawmakers or their relatives. Recent reports indicate the number has grown to nearly a third of the Legislature.

The fear is all the more acute in that the current investigation centers on Democrats in their last redoubt of power here, the state Legislature, and takes place against a backdrop of intense partisan ill-feeling. Many here maintain that a former governor, Don Siegelman, who was convicted by federal prosecutors and jailed last year, was singled out because he is a Democrat.

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Questions in Portugal About CIA Flights

By Mario de Queiroz, Inter Press Service

Lisbon - Portuguese Prime Minister José Sócrates and his predecessor José Manuel Barroso should answer "clearly and transparently" questions about secret CIA flights transporting prisoners to Guantánamo, says British lawyer and activist Clive Stafford Smith.

Speaking to the press in Lisbon on Thursday, Stafford Smith, the head of the non-governmental British human rights group Reprieve, said the Portuguese government may be sued if it fails to cooperate voluntarily in the search for the truth.

Reprieve says it has documentary evidence that Portugal was involved in the illegal transfer of U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) prisoners, in CIA or chartered planes, to the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba.

The case of the so-called CIA "extraordinary renditions" flights goes back to November 2005, when a U.S. newspaper, The Washington Post, revealed the existence of secret CIA prisons in several countries, and the illegal transport of prisoners, particularly to Guantánamo.

The CIA extraordinary rendition programme involves flying or otherwise transferring terror suspects from their place of detention to countries where they are not nationals, and where the security services are known to practise torture.

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What the Fed Won't Say

By Niel Irwin / Washington Post

It will be a quiet week for economic data, but after Friday's lousy employment report, it may be nice to have a breather. On Tuesday(4-8-08), the Fed will release minutes of its March 18 meeting, when it cut the interest rate it controls by three-quarters of a point.

Expect a document that indicates extensive concern about inflation and the slowing economy but offers no strong guidance on what interest rate action the Fed will take next.

The minutes will also give details of some central bank decisions meant to improve market functioning but not of the crucial meetings when it intervened to rescue investment bank Bear Stearns.

The most significant data this week will be in a report on the trade deficit on Thursday(4-10-08).


Bush Bypasses Several Levels to Rely On Petraeus

For months, a debate raged at the top levels of the Bush administration over how quickly to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. But the discussion shut down soon after President Bush flew to Camp Arifjan, a dusty Army base near the Iraqi border in Kuwait, in January for a face-to-face meeting with the man whose counsel on the war he values most: Gen. David H. Petraeus.

During an 80-minute session, the president questioned his top commander in Iraq on whether further troop reductions, beyond those planned through July, would compromise security gains. According to officials familiar with the exchange, Petraeus said he wanted to wait until the summer to evaluate conditions -- and Bush made it clear he would support him and take any political heat.

"My attitude is, if he didn't want to continue the drawdown, that's fine with me," Bush said before television cameras later, with Petraeus standing by his side. "I said to the general: 'If you want to slow her down, fine; it's up to you.' "

In the waning months of his administration, Bush has hitched his fortunes to those of his bookish four-star general, bypassing several levels of the military chain of command to give Petraeus a privileged voice in White House deliberations over Iraq, according to current and former administration officials and retired officers.

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