Sunday, February 18, 2007

SOME of the Death Squads

Death Comes To Baghdad Despite Crackdown
Feb. 18, 2007(CBS/AP) Militants struck back Sunday in their first major blow against a U.S.-led security clampdown in Baghdad with car bombings that killed at least 63 people, left scores injured and sent a grim message to officials boasting that extremist factions were on the run.

The attacks in mostly Shiite areas — twin explosions in an open-air market that claimed 62 lives and a third blast that killed one — were a sobering reminder of the challenges confronting any effort to rattle the well-armed and well-hidden insurgents.

Instead, it was the Iraqi commanders of the security sweep feeling the sting.

Just a few hours before the blasts, Lt. Gen. Abboud Qanbar led reporters on a tour of the neighborhood near the marketplace that was attacked and promised to "chase the terrorists out of Baghdad." On Saturday, the Iraqi spokesman for the plan, Brig. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, said violence had plummeted by 80 percent in the capital.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki condemned the bombings as a desperate act by "terrorists" and "criminals" who sense they are being squeezed.

"These crimes confirm the defeat of these perpetrators and their failure in confronting our armed forces, which are determined to cleanse the dens of terrorism," al-Maliki said in a statement.

U.S. military chiefs have been much more cautious. They have insisted the security drive, begun last week, may take months to make clear gains and that counter-punches from militants were likely every step of the way.

The ones dealt Sunday came from the militants' favored weapon of the moment: parked cars rigged with explosives.

The first blast tore through a produce market in the mostly Shiite area of New Baghdad, toppling the wooden stalls and leaving pools of blood and vegetables trampled in the chaos. Minutes later, another car bomb exploded near a row of stores.

More than 125 people were injured, including many women who were shopping, said police and rescue officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Victims were carried to hospitals on makeshift stretchers or in the arms of rescuers.

Another car bomb in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City left at least one dead and 10 wounded, police said.

It was by far the deadliest day since the security sweeps began. On Thursday, a string of car bombs killed seven civilians on the first full day of the house-to-house searches for weapons and suspected militants.

The U.S.-led teams have faced limited direct defiance as they set up checkpoints and comb neighborhoods. But that could change as they move into more volatile sections of the city. The next could be Sadr City, a stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

U.S. soldiers pressed closer to Sadr City on Sunday and the reception changed noticeably. In previous days, Shiite families opened their doors to welcome the troops — feeling that the American presence would be a buffer against feared attacks from Sunni militia.

On Sunday, in areas closer to Sadr City, parents slapped away the candy and lollipops given to children by soldiers.

"The Baghdad security plan is very important to push Iraq ahead," said Haider al-Obeidi, a parliament member from the Dawa party of al-Maliki.
In other developments:

# Two more U.S. soldiers have been killed in action, the U.S. military said. Both were killed Saturday: one by a grenade in a northern neighborhood of Baghdad; the other from gunfire north of the city, the military said.

# As of Sunday, at least 3,137 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military civilians. At least 2,514 died as a result of hostile action, according to the military's numbers.

# Syrian President Bashar Assad held talks with Iranian leaders in Tehran, including President Mahmoud Ahamedinejad. The two leaders are generally on opposing sides of Iraq's sectarian divide: Iran backs the majority Shiites, and Syria is seen as a key supporter of Sunnis.

# Iran's Foreign Ministry denied that radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was in Iran, calling statements by U.S. and Iraqi officials saying he had traveled to Iran "psychological warfare."

# A Marine who said he never fired a shot in the kidnapping and murder of an Iraqi man was sentenced Saturday to 8 years in military prison – the longest sentence yet in the case. Lance Cpl. Robert B. Pennington, 22, also was reduced in rank and given a dishonorable discharge during the sentencing hearing at the Camp Pendleton Marine base.

# CBS News reporter Kristen Gillespie visited a refugee camp in the Jordanian desert where a group of Iraqi refugees have lived three years in canvas tents. They can't go home, and their Palestinian ancestry makes for a very uncertain future.
The Baghdad crackdown has sent ripples through all corners of the country. The borders with Iran and Syria — shut for three days as the plan got under way — reopened Sunday. But new and strict rules will apply.

Moussawi, the plan's spokesman, was quoted in the Azzaman newspaper as saying the crossing points to the two nations would be open for only several hours a day and under "intense observation."

The United States and allies claim Iraqi militants receive aid and supplies from Iran, including parts for lethal roadside bombs targeting U.S. forces. Iran denies any role in trafficking weapons.

© MMVII, CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.


Torah scrolls confiscated
from Ukrainian community
By Vladimir Matveyev
KIEV (JTA) — As their Torah scrolls were packed into black plastic garbage bags and carried out of the Jewish school, the students and adults continued to pray, many with tears in their eyes.

The scrolls originally belonged to the Jewish community of Zhitomir in central Ukraine, but were acquired by the local state archives through communist and Nazi looting. Since then, in the absence of a restitution law, the archives had lent the scrolls to the community — but on shaky terms.

On Feb. 14, the community was forced to return 10 scrolls it had received more than two years ago. Representatives of the archives carried them out of the Ohr Avner Jewish Day School, leaving the community without any scrolls.

“This was like the medieval times, this was like a nightmare,” said Oleg Rostovtsev, a spokesman for the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, the country’s leading Jewish umbrella group.

The seizure was the result of a controversy that was triggered a few months ago when the officials at the Zhitomir Regional State Archives demanded the return of the scrolls, citing concern over their safety.

In 2004, the archives handed over 17 out of 290 Torah scrolls in its possession to be used by the local Jewish community run by Chabad.

The scrolls had been the property of the many synagogues and private Jewish households in Zhitomir, and were confiscated by communist authorities during anti-religious campaigns or seized by the Nazis during the occupation of Ukraine in World War II.

For two-and-a-half years, the scrolls were kept in a specially designated room at the Ohr Avner school.

Without a restitution law, many Jewish communities in the post-Soviet Ukraine were allowed to temporarily use Torah scrolls confiscated by the Bolsheviks, while most of the scrolls remain the property of state-run museums and archives.

Such loans do not always satisfy the Jewish community.

The Zhitomir community had previously expressed its concern that in the absence of a proper restitution act, they could not repair the borrowed scrolls in accordance with Jewish law.

In addition, representatives of the community had to submit a petition every three months that would allow them to keep the scrolls.

In October, representatives of the archives checked the scrolls kept in the Zhitomir school and demanded their return, claiming that at least seven of the scrolls may have been damaged while in the community’s possession.

Archive Deputy Director Natalia Shimchenko told JTA that the archive’s curators had established that the “number of units” registered with the archives “did not correspond with those in the community safe.”

Local Jewish leaders deny the accusations of improper care or alterations and said the scrolls — some of them fragmented — were improperly catalogued in the archives.

But the community chose not to argue, and last month returned the seven scrolls in question to the archives.

The archives then refused to prolong the loan agreement on the remaining 10 scrolls and confiscated them Wednesday despite protests from the Jewish community and the local governor.

“We are law-abiding citizens of Ukraine and we have not violated any laws,” community leader Vladimir Rozengurten said, adding that allegations of improper care and damage were “slander.”

“The statements that we have damaged the scrolls are outrageous,” Zhitomir Chief Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm said. “This is a groundless accusation, and we still have no results of the examination” of the scrolls.

But community leaders said they had to back off, apprehensive of possible use of force by representatives of the archives.

“I’m sure we are not saying goodbye for a long time to the Torah scrolls,” Rozengurten said.

He and other community leaders are hoping that legislation will be adopted in Ukraine dictating the return of the scrolls that were confiscated by the Bolsheviks and the Nazis.