Tuesday News Roundup

In the midst of increasing insurgent attacks in Afghanistan, the US is trying to increase its number of troops on the ground. But while its Iraq surge involves adding new troops, in Afghanistan it only extends tours of duty.

Karzai acknowledged the upswing in Taliban attacks and vowed to deal them a heavy blow in the months ahead.

The U.S. intelligence officer disclosed for the first time full-year statistics on insurgent attacks in Afghanistan. Suicide attacks in 2006 totaled 139, up from 27 in 2005, and the number of attacks with roadside bombs more than doubled, from 783 in 2005 to 1,677 last year. The number of what the military calls “direct attacks,” meaning attacks by insurgents using small arms, grenades and other weapons, surged from 1,558 in 2005 to 4,542 last year.

The officer noted that some of the increase can be explained by the fact that U.S., NATO and Afghan forces conducted more offensive operations in more areas last year, but the officer said the insurgents also have begun to launch more sophisticated — and in some case, more coordinated — attacks.

In Iraq, a coordinated terrorist attack involving two car bombs killed at least 63 people and injured 135.

“It’s like a disaster that cannot be described,” said a police official at the hospital, who asked that his name not be published. “Most of those who are injured are about to die.”

The attacks came during a jittery day of explosions and gunfire that was severe even by Baghdad’s standards. Bombs targeting police officers in downtown Baghdad killed 25 people and injured 98.

Insurgents struck a bus in the mostly Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Sadr City, killing two people and injuring seven, and an ambulance, killing the driver and a paramedic.

Less than two hours after the university bombings, gunmen on a motorcycle and inside a minivan opened fire on a crowded market in the Shiite neighborhood of Ur, killing 13 people and injuring 19.

A new UN report about Iraq confirms at least 34,000 dead civilians in 2006, which should put to rest the claims of Lancet skeptics who believe the deflated Iraq Body Count number. Note that this is just an updated number of reported deaths, which is different from the number of actual deaths, which can only be determined by a survey. As such, it’s still likely to be a gross underestimate.

The U.N. report also said that 30,842 people were detained in the country as of Dec. 31, including 14,534 in detention facilities run by U.S.-led multinational forces.

It pointed to killings targeting police, who are seen by insurgents as collaborating with the U.S. effort in Iraq. The report said the Interior Ministry had reported on Dec. 24 that 12,000 police officers had been killed since the war started in 2003.

The report also painted a grim picture for other sectors of Iraqi society, saying the violence has disrupted education by forcing schools and universities to close as well as sending professionals fleeing from the country. At least 470,094 people throughout Iraq have been forced to leave their homes since the bombing in Samarra, according to the report.

Despite Olmert’s statement from a month ago that he wouldn’t negotiate with Syria because Bush wouldn’t approve, Israel held talks with Syria over the Golan Heights. While both governments deny it, Haaretz claims the negotiations did in fact take place between 2004 and 2006.

Negotiations broke down largely over Syria’s demand for access to the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s main reservoir situated at the base of the heights.

In Damascus a Syrian foreign ministry official said: “No negotiations took place, the Haaretz report is completely false.” The Israeli daily said the so-called non-paper that emerged from the unofficial discussions, proposed an Israeli pullout from the Golan to lines Israel held before the 1967 Middle East war in which it captured the strategic plateau.

Under the proposed understandings, Israel would retain control over the waters of the Sea of Galilee, but both sides would have joint use of a buffer zone a park along its shores that would act as a buffer zone.

The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler reports how in order to get real information out of Condoleeza Rice, members of her press entourage plan questions as a team.

Tuesday morning, Rice’s companion at the news conference was the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud al-Faisal. He has been foreign minister for more than three decades, back to the days of Henry Kissinger. Including Rice, he has seen 10 secretaries of State come and go, although there are persistent rumors that he may soon be replaced [dangling modifier optional – Alon]. Despite Rice’s precision of language and skill at dodging questions, Saud is quite possibly the diplomatic world’s champion at jostling with reporters. He speaks in code that leaves no doubt what he’s thinking, but without using words that would make for a dramatic news story.

The reporters agreed the two questions should deal with the crisis in Iraq and Iran’s growing regional power. Ali Larjani, Iran’s top national security official, had met with King Abdullah the day before Rice’s arrival.

Eventually, the reporters agreed to push Saud on whether he approves of President Bush’s new plan for Iraq and whether Saudi Arabia would agree to act as a mediator between the United States and Iran. Saudi media had reported Larjani made such a request.

The reporters also added a question about whether a meeting of Persian Gulf foreign ministers, plus those of Egypt and Jordan, arranged by Rice later in Kuwait, is actually an anti-Iran alliance. An oil question was also thrown for good measure, although no one really expected he would say that Saudi Arabia is ready to increase production to put pressure on Iran. There were companion questions for Rice. (Both U.S. and Saudi reporters use their opportunity to ask “one question” to throw two or three questions at each minister, a stretching of the rules that has been perfected by Japanese reporters.)

But Saud, who speaks in a dignified and careful manner, effortlessly batted the questions away with aplomb. Regarding Larjani’s reported request, Saud said there is no need for Saudi Arabia to mediate. “Our relations with the United States are longstanding and need no explanation,” he said. “Iran is a neighbor of Saudi Arabia, so obviously we hope to avoid any conflict with the Iranians.”

The reference to Iran as “a neighbor,” without adding that the relations are good, said volumes about the Saudi attitude toward Iran.

Indeed, pro-American Middle Eastern states, including Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, support Bush’s escalation. Reuters mistakenly refers to them as “moderate,” even though in their internal policies many of them (e.g. Saudi Arabia) are as authoritarian as they go, and in their foreign policies they’re too complicated for one-word descriptions.

Foreign ministers of six Gulf Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, all concerned chaos in Iraq could spread to the entire region, expressed their backing for the 20,000 extra troops at talks with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Kuwait.

“We expressed our desire to see the president’s plan to reinforce American military presence in Baghdad as a vehicle … to stabilize Baghdad and prevent Iraq sliding into this ugly war, this civil war,” Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad al-Salem al-Sabah told a joint news conference with Rice, who is on a regional tour to marshal support for Bush’s plans.

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