Kim Sengupta

Israel-Gaza Conflict: Gaza Suffers Its Deadliest Day After ‘Heinous Massacre’

A night and day of ferocious violence has resulted in more than 100 deaths in Gaza, with Palestinian accusations that a bloody assault on the town of Shuja’iya by Israeli forces, leaving bodies on the streets and buildings destroyed, was motivated by revenge for the deaths of 13 soldiers.

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Chaos In Afghanistan as Abdullah Abdullah Pulls Out of Election

Afghanistan has been thrown into fresh political crisis after the presidential challenger Abdullah Abdullah withdrew yesterday from a poll run-off scheduled for Saturday. The move in effect clears the way for Hamid Karzai to retain power despite the fact that he was stripped of his first round election majority because of rampant fraud. A weakened Karzai administration, shorn of electoral legitimacy, represents a major blow to Western powers as they consider whether to send more troops to Afghanistan for the military campaign against the Taliban.

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British Troops to Start Leaving Iraq in March

Britain will begin withdrawing its 4,100-strong force from Iraq by the beginning of March, with almost all troops leaving within a few months, a senior defense source revealed yesterday. The Prime Minister is expected to announce the pullout that, in effect, ends the UK's engagement in one of the most controversial wars in recent times, in the Commons next January.

Most of the helicopters and unmanned Predator aircraft will be transferred to Afghanistan, and ministers will consider whether to send extra troops to Helmand for a temporary "surge" in time for the country's elections in September next year. The UK forces in Basra are to be replaced by American troops who are expected to set up their southern Iraq headquarters in the city. As well as guarding the Iranian border, the U.S. contingent will safeguard supply lines into Iraq.

A small detachment of UK troops of about 400 will remain behind, with an officer with the rank approximating a brigadier, to train Iraqi forces. Britain will continue to train the Iraqi navy and also set up and run a staff college for officers in the country's armed forces.

Gordon Brown had said this year that there would be a "fundamental change of mission" in Iraq in 2009. The exact timetable of the withdrawal could not be formulated during negotiations with the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki over the crucial Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) to work out the conditions of the troops leaving as well as those who would be staying behind. That agreement is now expected to be signed by the end of the year after approval by the Baghdad parliament.

The British military, it seems, had been moving equipment out of Iraq for some time in anticipation of the drawdown, in an operation codenamed Archive. The gradual removal of assets is designed to minimize the need for long convoys heading out of Basra towards the Iraq border which would present a target for the militias to attack.

American and British commanders say that disengagement from Iraq, with the loss so far of 177 British service personnel and thousands of Iraqis, can be done because there has been a dramatic improvement in the security situation in Basra and other southern areas since the operation, Charge of the Knights, conducted by Iraqi government, U.S. and British forces this year.

Unlike Afghanistan, where British and Nato forces face daily attacks, there have only been isolated incidents, either with roadside bombs or firearms, in the past few months.

There has also been a notable decline in the supply of weapons and explosives across the Iranian border, and a decrease in what was claimed as Iranian attempts to destabilise Iraq. It appears, said the senior officer, that Tehran did not want an unstable country next door and accepted that Iraq will play its role as a Shia power in the region. Senior British officers are also of the opinion that the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Shia Mahdi Army, will enter the political process.

Afghan Court Throws Out Death Sentence Against Student Journalist

A Kabul appeals court has quashed a death sentence imposed on the Afghan student Sayed Pervez Kambaksh for downloading information from the internet on women's rights.

The judges ruled however, that the 24-year-old trainee journalist should serve 20 years in jail -- a decision Kambaksh's lawyers insisted was unconstitutional and should be overturned by the country's supreme court.

The appeal court decision was seen as a major legal victory for Kambaksh. According to the defense team, as well as a number of other legal experts, the court had the power to uphold or set aside the death sentence, but it had no right to "arbitrarily" impose a jail term.

A petition by the readers of The Independent to secure justice for Kambaksh had attracted more than 100,000 signatures and won the backing of human rights groups and international statesmen. Yesterday the student's family said they had already received widespread messages of support and were confident he would be freed in the next stage of the legal process.

During yesterday's hearing, one of the prosecution's main witnesses, a fellow student, Hamid Ali, appeared to withdraw his testimony against Kambaksh, who was also prevented by the judge from addressing the court over his protestations that an alleged "confession" had been beaten out of him.

After the hearing, Kambaksh said: "I was, of course, hoping to be freed, but the fact that they have said I no longer face the death sentence is a big relief. I really did not think I would last this long. I thought they would make sure that I disappeared. Hearing the judge say that long sentence was very surprising, but I now just want to continue with the legal cases and, hopefully, I'll get freed. I also want to say I am very grateful to everyone, especially The Independent, for what they have done so far and I would be very grateful if they would continue to support me."

Amnesty International appealed for Kambaksh to be freed. "There are no legal grounds for either his conviction or this sentence," said Sam Zarifi, its Asia Pacific director. "While it can only be a positive step that he is no longer on death row, he should be freed immediately."

Kambaksh's lawyer, Mohammed Afzal Nuristani, said: "There were a lot of irregular things at the appeal court like the judge not letting my client speak about the torture he has suffered. It was also very good for Pervez that their main witness, Hamid, did not incriminate him in his evidence. These are matters I can raise with the Supreme Court. The first thing I am going to do is challenge the 20-year sentence. This court had no right to impose that. This will take another few months, but at least they are not going to hang him and we now have time."

Kambaksh was convicted in January 2007 after students at his local university accused him of disseminating material on women's rights which "insulted Islam". In an earlier interview at Balkh prison he said the trial lasted just four minutes and he was not allowed to speak in his defense before being sentenced to death. Even the head of the jail where he is being held, General Taj Mohammed, said that, in his view, Mr Kambaksh should be freed.

The first appeal hearing took place in May. Since then there have been a number of adjournments which the student's lawyers blame on prosecutors.

Yesterday, Kambaksh's brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, said: "Pervez has now been in prison for more than two years for no reason at all. What happened today [at the appeal court] was because there are still extremist people in this country who want us to stay at a dark time. The trial was very unfair and they came to a decision which all the lawyers tell us is illegal. We hope the Supreme Court will now take the right course and Pervez will be freed one day soon."

Russia Begins Bombing Georgian Capital

Georgia's appeal for a ceasefire seemed to have fallen on deaf ears last night as Russian jets expanded their bombardment, targeting the capital, Tbilisi, for the first time. As the world's diplomats hurried to contain the violence and prevent the conflict engulfing the wider Caucasus region, Russia made clear it no longer considered Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili a partner, prompting accusations from his main ally, the United States, that Moscow was resisting peace and wanted regime change.

Russia has made no secret of its dislike for Mr Saakashvili, his alliance with Washington, his attempts to join Nato and his oft-repeated pledges to bring two separatist provinces back under Tbilisi's control -- a pledge he tried to make good on Thursday by sending troops into South Ossetia.

Last night there was strong condemnation of the Georgian leader from the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who said: "A man who issued orders to commit war crimes which resulted in thousands of deaths of peaceful civilians cannot be viewed by Russia as a partner."

Underscoring the magnitude of the problem facing Georgia, Moscow-backed separatists in its other breakaway region, Abkhazia, declared they had opened a second front. Maxim Gunjia, the separatists' deputy foreign minister, said his tiny air force was bombing Georgian positions in the highly contested Kodori Gorge and that about 1,000 troops had also been deployed. "We have started operations because we saw the Georgian attack on South Ossetia and knew Abkhazia would be next," Mr Gunjia said from the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, a town of ramshackle beach bars, palm trees and buildings gutted in a 1992-93 war of independence against Tbilisi's forces.

Georgia announced yesterday that it had pulled its troops out of South Ossetia and Mr Saakashvili said his government had been trying "all day" to contact Russia to discuss a ceasefire. "Georgia expresses its readiness to immediately start negotiations with the Russian Federation on a ceasefire and termination of hostilities," a statement said.

But Russia said it was sceptical of the Georgian claims of a withdrawal. "We must check all that. We don't trust the Georgian side," said Russia's deputy foreign minister, Grigory Karasin. Moscow wants Georgia to rule out using force in future.

Georgia's ceasefire came on a day of claim and counterclaim, but a day when the military might of an angry Russian bear was on full display. As well as the bombing in and around the capital, including one explosion just metres from the main runway at Tbilisi international airport, there were also reports of explosions in the western town of Zugdidi, following on from attacks on the central town of Gori overnight.

Meanwhile dozens of Russian tanks and military vehicles headed for the two-mile Roki tunnel, which leads from Russian-held North Ossetia into the separatist South.

Russia's navy also entered the conflict, deploying a flotilla off Georgia's Black Sea coast. There were reports that they would mount a blockade, snuffing out supply lines for weapons, oil and wheat -- a charge denied by Moscow. Unconfirmed reports late last night said the Russian war ships had sunk a Georgian vessel.

In the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, the human suffering in the wake of the Georgian attack and Russian counter-attack was horrifyingly evident. Corpses were dotted about the city, burnt-out tanks littered the road, and every other building showed bomb or mortar damage, with many simply smouldering ruins. Where once 10,000 people had roamed, there was barely a soul. Many residents have fled across the border into North Ossetia, and those left were the walking wounded, some heavily bandaged, others limping along on crutches.

Russian television spoke of a "humanitarian catastrophe" in South Ossetia, with more than 2,000 people dead and thousands homeless. President Dmitry Medvedev -- who has largely taken a back seat to the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, who sped from Beijing to North Ossetia on Saturday -- termed the Georgian action a "genocide" and ordered officials to document the crimes.

A Georgian government source said 130 Georgian civilians and soldiers had been killed and 1,165 wounded, many by Russian bombing inside Georgia. Russia denied attacking civilian targets.

Tbilisi accused Moscow of shipping 4,000 soldiers to the port of Ochamchire in Abkhazia. Abkhaz officials insisted they were fighting on their own but warned that Russia could become involved. Amid reports of North Ossetians, Cossacks, Chechens and Dagestanis from around the Caucasus volunteering to fight in South Ossetia, Mr Gunjia said Georgia had sparked a "chain reaction" by attacking South Ossetia. "It's no longer possible to listen to Georgia talk about a peaceful solution in South Ossetia or Abkhazia, or offer us autonomy. Georgia has shown its real face."

How the Iraq Occcupation Has Turned Friendship Between Families Into Sectarian Hatred

They are two Iraqi families, one Shia, the other Sunni, who once lived in what were called "mixed" neighbourhoods. Now they are among the 2 million internal refugees in the country, a vast and desperate pool of the dispossessed whose numbers have risen massively along with US troop "surge" operations.

The forced migration, called "a human tragedy unprecedented in the country's history" in the latest Iraqi Red Crescent report, has uprooted communities from homes they have occupied for decades. In Baghdad, the focus of US military action, there are a million displaced people in a population of four million.

Another two million people, according to UN estimates, have fled abroad. Amnesty International, in a report released today, identifies Britain as forcibly returning more Iraqi refugees than any other country in Europe.

But it is the internal diaspora that is causing acute problems in this fractured society, with numbers rising by 71 per cent in just one month, according to the Red Crescent. The Independent has spoken to two families, the al-Rawis and the al-Amirys, who had been forced to flee their homes. In both cases the horrors they endured have turned tolerance and friendship across the religious divide into sectarian anger and hatred.

Um Samir al-Rawi is now living with her two daughters, Saba, 33, and 28-year-old Hiba, in a dark and dingy house in Khadra, a Sunni neighbourhood where they had taken refuge after being driven out of their home in the previously mixed Jihad district. Mrs al-Rawi's husband died in 2004, and their son, Samir, is now in exile in Syria after being hunted by the Mehdi Army Shia militia, which had accused him of being an insurgent.

"I asked Samir to stay at a friend's house in Mansour, he is the only man left in the family and we could not afford to lose him," said Mrs al-Rawi, 69. "It was very fortunate that he left, otherwise he would have been killed. The Mehdi Army were shouting that all Sunnis were terrorists and deserved to die. They killed one of our neighbours, Abu Bakr. They shot him in cold blood in front of his home. He had refused to leave his house. We were also told that he was killed because of his son's name."

The Shia militias are said to have a particular hatred of Sunni names, such as Bakr and Omar. That people can die because of their name may seem far-fetched, but not in Baghdad. Last year morgue attendants found a dozen bodies, killed in different locations, gathered in a pile. The identification papers, left on the chests of the corpses, all bore the name Omar.

Mrs al-Rawi continued: "We had to leave. It was terrible, all we had time to take were some of our clothes, documents and our identification cards. We were frightened, we had no idea where to go. The last thing we did was put the holy Koran in the living room and asked God to protect us and our home."

The family stayed at a school which had been turned into a centre for refugees. But the sparse communal facilities for several hundred people, many of them sick, became unbearable and the al-Rawis pooled their meagre resources to rent a house.

Mrs al-Rawi said their former neighbour told them that since their departure, "the militia had broken the locks of our house and four Shia families are living there now. I feel very angry with the Shias, I cannot forgive them. The house was built by my father and now we have lost everything. Here we have just a few pieces of furniture and are prisoners in this neighbourhood."

Just a few miles away, across a dried-up tributary of the Tigris, Assem al-Amiry, another refugee, has journeyed the other way, from a mixed area to what is now a predominantly Shia one.

The al-Amirys - Assem, 41, his wife Siham, 39, daughter Hadeel, 10, and son Haitham, five - used to live in Ghazaliya, where life became particularly dangerous after the destruction of the golden dome of the shrine at Samarra last year.

"We had al-Qa'ida attacking our district all the time," Mr al-Amiry said. "They began killing Shias, calling us kafirs, saying we were unclean and they will dispose of us. The government did nothing to protect us. Some of my neighbours left, others were killed, but I refused to go, it was my home. Then one morning my daughter found an envelope on the doorstep with an AK-47 bullet and a note telling us that we had 48 hours to get out, or we would all be killed."

Mr al-Amiry moved his family to al-Huriya where they have rented a house for $120 a month. He has started to work as a money changer. "I got a telephone call from a Sunni neighbour who told me the insurgents had looted our home and then burnt it along with the other Shia houses," he said.

Hadeel, aged 10, was confused by it all. "What is Shia? What is Sunni?" she said. "I do not understand. I used to play with my friends and we used to go to school together. I miss them and I think they must miss me."

The War on Terror Is the Leading Cause of Terrorism

Innocent people across the world are now paying the price of the "Iraq effect," with the loss of hundreds of lives directly linked to the invasion and occupation by American and British forces.

An authoritative U.S. study of terrorist attacks after the invasion in 2003 contradicts the repeated denials of George Bush and Tony Blair that the war is not to blame for an upsurge in fundamentalist violence worldwide. The research is said to be the first to attempt to measure the "Iraq effect" on global terrorism.

It found that the number killed in jihadist attacks around the world has risen dramatically since the Iraq war began in March 2003. The study compared the period between 11 September 2001 and the invasion of Iraq with the period since the invasion. The count -- excluding the Arab-Israel conflict -- shows the number of deaths due to terrorism rose from 729 to 5,420. As well as strikes in Europe, attacks have also increased in Chechnya and Kashmir since the invasion. The research was carried out by the Centre on Law and Security at the NYU Foundation for Mother Jones magazine.

Iraq was the catalyst for a ferocious fundamentalist backlash, according to the study, which says that the number of those killed by Islamists within Iraq rose from seven to 3,122. Afghanistan, invaded by US and British forces in direct response to the September 11 attacks, saw a rise from very few before 2003 to 802 since then. In the Chechen conflict, the toll rose from 234 to 497. In the Kashmir region, as well as India and Pakistan, the total rose from 182 to 489, and in Europe from none to 297.

Two years after declaring "mission accomplished" in Iraq President Bush insisted: "If we were not fighting and destroying the enemy in Iraq, they would not be idle. They would be plotting and killing Americans across the world and within our borders. By fighting these terrorists in Iraq, Americans in uniform are defeating a direct threat to the American people."

Mr Blair has also maintained that the Iraq war has not been responsible for Muslim fundamentalist attacks such as the 7/7 London bombings which killed 52 people. "Iraq, the region and the wider world is a safer place without Saddam [Hussein]," Mr Blair declared in July 2004.

Announcing the deployment of 1,400 extra troops to Afghanistan earlier this week -- raising the British force level in the country above that in Iraq -- the Prime Minister steadfastly denied accusations by MPs that there was any link between the Iraq war an unravelling of security elsewhere.

Last month John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence in Washington, said he was "not certain" that the Iraq war had been a recruiting factor for al-Qa'ida and insisted: "I wouldn't say that there has been a widespread growth in Islamic extremism beyond Iraq, I really wouldn't."

Yet the report points out that the US administration's own National Intelligence Estimate on "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States" -- partially declassified last October -- stated that " the Iraq war has become the 'cause célèbre' for jihadists ... and is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives."

The new study, by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, argues that, on the contrary, "the Iraq conflict has greatly increased the spread of al-Qa'ida ideological virus, as shown by a rising number of terrorist attacks in the past three years from London to Kabul, and from Madrid to the Red Sea.

"Our study shows that the Iraq war has generated a stunning increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks, amounting to literally hundreds of additional terrorist attacks and civilian lives lost. Even when terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan is excluded, fatal attacks in the rest of the world have increased by more than one third."

In trying to gauge the "Iraq effect," the authors had focused on the rate of terrorist attacks in two periods -- from September 2001 to 30 March 2003 (the day of the Iraq invasion) and 21 March 2003 to 30 September 2006. The research has been based on the MIPT-RAND Terrorism database.

The report's assertion that the Iraq invasion has had a far greater impact in radicalising Muslims is widely backed security personnel in the UK. Senior anti-terrorist officials told The Independent that the attack on Iraq, and the now-discredited claims by the U.S. and British governments about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, had led to far more young Muslims engaging in extremist activity than the invasion of Afghanistan two years previously.

Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, head of the Secret Service (MI5) said recently: "In Iraq attacks are regularly videoed and the footage is downloaded into the internet.

"Chillingly, we see the results here. Young teenagers are being groomed to be suicide bombers. The threat is serious, is growing and will, I believe, be with us for a generation."

In Afghanistan the most active of the Taliban commanders, Mullah Dadullah, acknowledged how the Iraq war has influenced the struggle in Afghanistan.

"We give and take with the mujahedin in Afghanistan," he said. The most striking example of this has been the dramatic rise in suicide bombings in Afghanistan, a phenomenon not seen through the 10 years of war with the Russians in the 1980s.

The effect of Iraq on various jihadist conflicts has been influenced according to a number of factors, said the report. Countries with troops in Iraq, geographical proximity to the country, the empathy felt for the Iraqis and the exchange of information between Islamist groups. "This may explain why jihadist groups in Europe, Arab countries, and Afghanistan were more affected by the Iraq war than other regions," it said.

Russia, like the US, has used the language of the "war on terror" in its actions in Chechnya, and al-Qa'ida and their associates have entrenched themselves in the border areas of Pakistan from where they have mounted attacks in Kashmir, Pakistan and India.

Statistics for the Arab-Israel conflict also show an increase, but the methodology is disputed in the case of Palestinian attacks in the occupied territories and settler attacks on Palestinians.

* The U.S. is joining the Iraqi government in a diplomatic initiative inviting Iran and Syria to a "neighbours meeting" on stabilising Iraq, the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday. The move reflects a change of approach by the Bush administration, which previously had resisted calls to include Iran and Syria in such talks.

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