Friday, April 13, 2007

Iraq & Iran dominate the news

The freed hostages and the Green Zone bombing has dominated the news

A week yesterday 4 British troops were killed by roadside bomb in Basra, the same day as 15 navy personnel arrived home after 13 days being held captive in Iran. Since then both countries at the centre of these events, Iraq and Iran, have dominated news headlines.

On Friday some of the former captives spoke of their ordeal. Speaking at a press conference, they spoke of being blind-folded and held in isolation throughout their captivity [BBC]. They said they were threatened with 7 years in prison if they did not admit they were in Iranian waters before their capture. Captain Chris Air told the packed press conference that fighting back “was not an option”.
"We are aware that many people have questioned why we allowed ourselves to be taken in the first place and why we allowed ourselves to be shown by the Iranian authorities on television,” he said. "Let me be absolutely clear, from the outset it was very apparent that fighting back was simply not an option".
The Iranian response was dismissive of the allegations of maltreatment saying the British government had been “dictating to the sailors what to read and what to say” as part of an “organized propaganda by the British media.” [BBC].
But Lieutenant Felix Carmen insisted they were 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters. During their detainment the sailors said they had been subjected to psychological pressure and ‘mind games’. They said that Faye Turney, who was not present at the conference, had been told she was the only person remaining in captivity for four days of her detention. They all spoke of having been kept in solitary confinement for at least a week before being allowed to socialize and play chess together under the glare of the Iranian media which they described as a “complete set-up”.
The thirst for further details culminated in some of the sailors being paid by some media organizations for their stories. The Sun, ITV News and The Daily Mirror all paid undisclosed sums for several of the former captives tales. The apparent decision by the military to allow the former captives to sell their stories was sharply criticized from several quarters. A military commander was quoted in the Sunday Times as saying the sailors were behaving like “reality TV contestants”. But another spokesman from the MoD had earlier said that the experiences by the 15 service personnel had amounted to “special circumstances” which had precipitated the decision to allow them to approach media organizations [BBC]. In a statement the MoD said: "Serving personnel are not allowed to enter financial arrangements with media organizations. However, in exceptional circumstances such as the awarding of a Victoria Cross or events such as those in recent days, permission can be granted by commanding officers and the MoD." But the MoD decision was described by Sir Menzies Campbell, leader of the Liberal Democrats, as “a serious error of judgment”. Families of soldiers killed in Iraq also weighed in with condemnation. And as the bodies of four soldiers killed in Iraq returned to the UK a week later, families requested that there be no Government representatives present.
By Monday the furore surrounding the decision to allow the sailors’ stories to be sold escalated when the Sun published Faye Turney’s story after paying undisclosed sum said to be into 6 figures. In the story she said she feared being killed and that at one point thought her captives were measuring her for a coffin [BBC]. They had been measuring her and others for suits given to the captives prior to their departure. As the public digested the experiences of the seamen, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced a disquieting message to the West over the country’s continuing Uranium enrichment. "With great honour, I declare that as of today our dear country has joined the nuclear club of nations and can produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale," Mr Ahmadinejad told the audience at Natanz [BBC]. The announcement drew strong criticism from the US with one official saying it would only serve to “isolate Iran” further.

The ‘cash for stories’ still dominated the papers and news media on both Tuesday and Wednesday with Defence Secretary Des Brown and eventually the Prime Minister Tony Blair making statements on the issue. On Wednesday, several days after the decision had been made to allow the stories to be sold; Mr Blair said “with hindsight” it had been a “bad decision”. There had seemingly been no plan as to how to handle the thirst from the media to report on the story and how the captives had been treated [BBC]. Des Brown had earlier shifted the blame from the Prime Ministerial office by saying “the buck stops with me” [BBC].

Wednesday also saw further criticism of the Iranian regime. Major General Caldwell openly blamed the Iranians for supplying Iraqi militants with weapons. He told reporters that the Iranian regime were not only providing weapons but also training to Shia insurgents [BBC].

The accusation came a week after the release of the hostages and the deaths of four soldiers in Basra which the Prime Minister had tacitly implied the Iranian regime was complicit. Thursday saw the return of the bodies of the British service personnel to RAF Lyneham. But there was less of the fanfare surrounding their return as seen the previous week for the returning sailors. Hours of Live media coverage had been allocated to the sailors’ return last Thursday, but as the four Union Flag draped coffins arrived on British soil there was little coverage of the events [BBC]. Second Lt Joanna Yorke Dyer, 24, Cpl Kris O'Neill, 27, Pte Eleanor Dlugosz, 19, and Kingsman Adam James Smith, 19, were attacked on 5 April near Basra. Their deaths marked the bloodiest day for UK troops in Iraq since November. And it was another bloody day in Iraq Thursday after two suicide attacks brought chaos and death to Baghdad. In the morning a suicide truck bomb destroyed a bridge on the River Tigris dividing Shia and Sunni areas. Cars plunged into the river and at least 8 people were killed when the British built Sarafiya bridge collapsed [BBC]. It was one of only a few remaining bridges linking the two sides of the city and will cause widespread disruption. But it was the attack only a few hours later which had the strongest political impact. A believed suicide bomber detonated his explosives in the Iraqi Parliament within the supposedly heavily fortified high security Green Zone in central Baghdad. Seven people were killed including one MP, Mohammed Awad, a Sunni representative. Twenty two civilians were injured. Early reports had suggested 8 people were killed, two of them MPs, [BBC] but these figures later proved to be incorrect. On Friday, security at the parliament was stepped up whilst an investigation was launched into how the bomber penetrated the Green Zone. Three individuals, said to be cafĂ© workers, were detained for questioning. Meanwhile the parliament met to show its solidarity with the dead MP [BBC]. As CNN’s reporter spoke from the scene of the explosion she made a slip of the tongue saying the MP killed was Mohammed Atta. He of course was the ringleader behind the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and who flew flight AA-11 into the World Trade Center. It is ironic in as much as the events that occurred on that fateful day have led to the desperate situation in Iraq. Thursday’s attack on the Iraqi parliament came only a day after the Algerian capital was hit was struck by a series of suicide car bombs near to the Prime Minister’s office [BBC]. At least 23 were killed, and over 160 injured, in those bombings. Groups linked to al-Qaeda have claimed responsibility for both attacks.

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