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UN envoy signals death of IGC

UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has been outlining recommendations for a transfer of power in Iraq leading up to elections next January.

He has proposed the scrapping of the US appointed Iraqi Governing Council when sovereignty is handed over on June the 30th – and also says the post of US civilian administrator for Iraq, held by Paul bremer, be abolished.

A new caretaker government should be appointed he says, led by a prime minister, a president and two vice presidents.

“I am confident that it will be possible to form such a government in a timely manner, that is, during the month of May 2004, ” Mr Brahimi said.

The demise of the council would not be mourned by many Iraqis. Its makeup – 13 Shi’ites, five Sunni Arabs, five Kurds, a Christian and an ethnic Turk – reflects the ethnic and religious makeup of the country, but many Iraqis viewed its members either as outsiders or as puppets of the Americans.

Fighting around Baghdad and Fallujah and in the south has left many Iraqis fearful over the country’s future and heightened resentment of the US occupation.

Paul Bremer, the chief US administrator in Iraq, welcomed Mr Brahimi’s recommendations.

“We hope that the UN will continue to use its expertise to play a vital role in advising Iraq as it moves forward with its political transition,” Mr Bremer said in a statement.

Mr Brahimi’s proposals came as Iraq’s US administrators have been anxious to show progress on the political front amid this month’s surge in violence, the most widespread and deadly since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Mr Brahimi has been in Iraq since April 5, his second visit to the country this year. He insisted on Thursday that UN and US officials were cooperating, but criticised the US military operation in Fallujah.

“Collective punishment is certainly unacceptable and the siege of the city is absolutely unacceptable,” he said.

Latham says he decided on Xmas troops deadline

Mr Latham had claimed the deadline was decided by shadow ministers 12 months ago.

Now he says their decision had been to bring the troops home as soon as possible, with the actual timing to be set only when they knew when an election was likely to be held.

With the Prime Minister indicating an election the second half of the year, Mr Latham says he was able to decide on Christmas as a potential deadline, without taking the date to shadow cabinet.

But the Opposition Foreign Affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd says Mr Latham did consult him.

The federal government says Mr Latham has seriously damaged the reputation of a high ranking public servant in his efforts to cover up his lie over Iraq briefings.

Mr Latham has denied making misleading statements either about Labor policy, or about the intelligence briefings he received.

In parliament yesterday he referred in particular to a briefing from a deputy secretary of the Defence Department Ron Bonighton after Australian and other troops in Iraq had failed to find any weapons of mass destruction.

Defence Minister Senator Robert Hill says Mr Latham has not only compromised Mr Bonighton but also his own principles.

‘So yesterday Mr Latham just totally invented this story, just totally invented this story and in doing so did serious damage to a highly respected and professional public servant, this is the labor party that was telling us how important it was to protect the integrity of public servants only a week or so ago.’

Mr Latham, is continuing to attack the Prime Minister for playing what he calls reckless politics with Australia’s national security.

He says Mr Howard disclosed the Australian Secret Intelligence Service’s role in Iraq and that could endanger Australian lives there.

But Mr Howard insists it was Mr Latham who started the process.

NATO botches rescue raid

About 40 US, UK and German troops in helicopters and vehicles took part in the raid, which targeted the Orthodox Church and the nearby priest’s accommodation in the town of Pale.

The wife of Father Jeremija Starovlah told Reuters her husband and son were injured when troops burst into the family home next to the church in the town that was a stronghold of Karadzic.

She said: “We were awoken by shooting. Soldiers burst into the house and immediately took them to another room … a soldier put a gun to my head. I heard my husband cry for help, but I could do nothing. I don’t know if they are still alive.”

A doctor confirmed they were both in a coma late on Friday.

A NATO spokesman said the two were flown to a US base in northern Bosnia near Tuzla and were taken to the city’s hospital for treatment.

Captain Dave Sullivan, spokesman for the NATO-led force SFOR, said: “We did not find the individual we were looking for. We conducted a focused operation … to detain Radovan Karadzic. We searched an administrative accommodation building but we failed to locate him.”

The raid began when a convoy of US troops rolled into Pale shortly about 0915 AEST on Thursday, according to a resident who said he saw the entire operation.

Witnesses reported hearing gunfire and an explosion, as at least four NATO helicopters hovered over the centre of the town, in the mountains above the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.

SFOR has recently intensified its seven-year hunt for Karadzic, wanted by the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague on two charges of genocide for the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims in the 1992-95 war.

The former leader of the breakaway Bosnian Serb republic has a $A6.5 million bounty on his head.

He and his former army commander General Ratko Mladic rank as the most wanted Balkan fugitives still at large.

Spy chief says US was ‘unprotected’

George Tenet told the 9/11 commission systemic problems in the intelligence community had left the country vulnerable to the attacks which killed nearly 3,000 people.

He also warned the problems would take years to fix, saying it will take “another five years of work to have the kind of clandestine service our country needs” to combat al-Qaeda and other terrorist threats.

Mr Tenet added: “The same can be said for the National Security Agency, our imagery agency and our analytic community.”

He told the panel investigating the September 11 attacks that a series of tight budgets since the end of the Cold War meant that by the mid-1990s, intelligence agencies had “lost close to 25 percent of our people and billions of dollars in capital investment.”

A needed transformation is underway, he said, and appealed for a long-term commitment in funding. “Our investments in capability must be sustained,” he added.

At Wednesday’s hearing Mr Tenet was first to testify, defending the CIA, before FBI Director Robert Mueller recounted a range of steps the agency has taken since the attacks to improve its intelligence capabilities, sharpen its focus on terrorism and replace outmoded technology.

Just before the intelligence chiefs took the stand, the commission released a critical report, saying intelligence services lacked a strategic plan before September 11 to gather and examine information collected about al-Qaeda – and that they had no way to properly spread the information.

But in his second public appearance before the commission, Mr Tenet took issue with the report and defended the CIA’s strategies.

The CIA head said his agency warned policy makers about the growing threat of al-Qaeda, and was “making the right investments” to prepare for the fight against the terror group.

Still, he admitted, the CIA was never able to penetrate the 9/11 plot.

He also said he did not speak to George W Bush in the month before the attacks, when Mr Bush was on holiday in Texas.

“He’s in Texas and I’m either here [in Washington] or on leave for some of that time,” Mr Tenet said in response to a question from commissioner Tim Roemer. “In this time period, I’m not talking to him, no.”

Mr Mueller, who took the top job at the FBI just a week before the September 11 attacks, said in the past two-and-a-half years, the FBI has been turning itself into an “intelligence-driven” agency and has greatly improved its relationship and coordination with the CIA.

Responding to reports that the commission may recommend the establishment of a new domestic intelligence agency outside the FBI, Mr Mueller urged the panel to let the current improvements continue and not to risk derailing them by recommending the creation of a new agency.

Foreigners urged to quit Iraq

The warnings, issued by a number of governments as private companies also review their positions in Iraq, came as about 40 hostages from at least 12 countries were being held.

On Tuesday a French journalist became the latest kidnapping victim, while coalition spokesman Dan Senor said the US Federal Bureau of Investigation was investigating the rash of abductions.

However, Mr Senor reiterated there would be no negotiations with kidnappers pressing for the withdrawal of foreign troops.

He said: “We’re making it clear that there will be no negotiations with hostage-takers and… that it is everyone’s interest that these hostages be released as expeditiously as possible.”

Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television earlier broadcast videotape of four Italian hostages sitting in a room surrounded by masked and heavily armed militia fighters.

“The Iraqi resistance has detained four Italians and demands the Italian government pull its troops from Iraq,” it reported, three days after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited Italian troops in the country.

France has followed Germany in issuing a formal warning urging its citizens to leave, calling the kidnappings “unacceptable”.

The British Foreign Office said it continued to advise against all but the most essential travel to Iraq.

Russia’s biggest contractor in Iraq, Tekhpromexport, is pulling its 370 staff out of Iraq amid security concerns.

Iraqi civil and religious leaders have condemned the kidnappings and called for the hostages to be released but their appeals seem to have had little impact on some militants intent on testing the will of US allies.

The abduction of three Japanese civilians last week has been branded a major crisis for the leadership of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Other governments, including US allies, warned their citizens to keep clear of Iraq.

Most of Washington’s coalition partners insisted military personnel would stay put, but New Zealand said it would bring its 61 army engineers home if the security situation confined them to base for too long.

Chavez ‘ready’ for referendum

Even though it could remove him from office, Chavez says he accepts the verdict of the National Electoral Council, which says there are sufficient validated signatures on a petition for a referendum to take place.

Council director Jorge Rodriguez said the opposition had collected 2,451,821 valid signatures for a referendum, more than the 2,436,083 minimum required by law, or 20 percent of the population.

The referendum will likely be held on August 8, if the council is able to organize it by then.

“We’re going when the National Electoral Council orders it. We’re ready to begin the real fight of the presidential recall,” Chavez said.

Chavez has said that he would abide by the results of the referendum.

“To be frank, I hope that my opponents have gathered enough signatures to trigger a referendum, because I relish the opportunity to once again win the people’s mandate,” he said on May 26.

Street violence between pro-and anti-Chavez demonstrators shook Caracas in anticipation of the announcement.

Chavez claims he is fighting what he calls Venezuela’s corrupt, privileged oligarchy.

His critics say he is wrecking the economy, but Venezuela’s poor majority defends him.

When the result of the petition recount was announced those against Chevez set off fireworks and celebrated in the streets. His supporters meanwhile rallied in protest near the presidential palace.

Chavez was ousted in April 2002 in a two-day military coup, and was returned to power 47 hours later.

He also weathered a lengthy general strike in late 2002 and early 2003, which shut down the country’s oil industry.

The opposition campaigned last year to collect enough signatures on a petition to call for a referendum on Chavez’s rule.

Howard and Latham face off over troops in Iraq

Mr Howard has also accused Mr Latham of falsely claiming that the shadow cabinet had agreed a year ago on a policy to bring the troops home by Christmas.

The government used its numbers in the House of Representatives to delay Question Time and bring on a debate on the issue.

Mr Howard cited advice from a number of senior Defence Department and intelligence officials that Mr Latham had not received a substantive briefing about the Australian troops in Iraq.

‘He’s now trying to pretend that some incidental reference to Iraq in the context of a proper, routine briefing about intelligence services represents a bona fide pursuit of advice as to whether or not our troops should remain deployed in Iraq. This Leader of the Opposition should correct the record. He should withdraw the claims he’s made in this parliament. He should not compound bad policy with misleading the Australian public.’

Mr Latham denied making misleading statements either about Labor policy, or about the intelligence briefings he’d received.

He referred in particular to a briefing from a deputy secretary of the Defence Department Ron Bonighton after Australian and other troops in Iraq had failed to find any weapons of mass destruction.

‘I walked away from that briefing knowing and understanding that the government’s policy in Iraq was a fiasco, was an absolute fiasco. And what’s more, I concluded that the faster that Australia could get out of Iraq, the better. In response to that policy fiasco, in response to the problems that the government caused in relation to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the sooner Australia could get out of Iraq the better. ‘

Mr Howard’s motion accusing Mr Latham of misleading the House was passed along party lines.

In the Senate, the Defence Minister Robert Hill said Labor’s stance on Iraq makes no sense and a decision to withdraw the troops is based on ignorance.

Senator Hill claims Mark Latham has no idea about just how vital the Australian troops’ role is in Iraq.

He says Airforce crews have carried thousands of passengers and tens of thousands of tonnes of cargo and that other troops are helping to rebuild the country.

He says he’s at a loss to understand why Mr Latham wants to bring them home before their work is finished.

‘These Australians are performing a first-class function in Iraq. So Mr President, so the Labor party position is: Australian troops are playing a critical role, they are doing a first class job but let’s bring them home before the job is finished. Mr President it makes no sense. It makes no sense.’

Ashcroft criticised over 9/11

Mr Ashcroft attacked the administration of President Bill Clinton as he fended off accusations over his own action before the September 11 attacks.

His testimony came after a preliminary report from the panel said he rejected an FBI plea for increased counterterrorism funding the day before the September 11 attacks.

But Mr Ashcroft moved to blame many of the intelligence failures before September 11 on the Clinton administration, contradicting evidence already given by several officials to the panel.

He said: “The simple fact of September 11 is this, we did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade, our government had blinded itself to its enemies.

“The old national intelligence system in place on September 11 was destined to fail.”

A preliminary report by the commission on action taken by US intelligence and law enforcement agencies before the al-Qaeda attacks of 2001 said counterterrorism advisors were stunned by the lack of emphasis put on terrorism by Mr Ashcroft.

The report said that on May 9, 2001, the attorney general told a federal hearing the Justice Department’s highest priority was to “protect citizens from terrorist attacks.”

“On May 10, 2001, the department issued guidance for developing the fiscal year 2003 budget that made reducing the incidence of gun violence and reducing the trafficking of illegal drugs priority objectives.”

The report said Dale Watson, the first head of the FBI counterterrorism division, “told us that he almost fell out of his chair when he saw the memo, because it made no mention of counterterrorism.”

The commission added that the budget prepared for fiscal 2003 did not increase counterterrorism funding over 2002 but that the FBI had sought increased finance for improved technology.

“Acting FBI director Thomas Pickard told us he made an appeal to Attorney General Ashcroft for further counterterrorism enhancements not included in this budget proposal. On September 10 (2001), the attorney general rejected that appeal.”

The report added that a former FBI director accused Mr Aschroft of spurning his warnings about a possible al-Qaeda attack.

Thomas Pickard, an acting FBI chief in 2001, told the commission he briefed Mr Ashcroft weekly in June and July about the increasing terrorist threat.

The report quoted Mr Pickard as saying that after two briefings “the attorney general told him he did not want to hear this information anymore”.

Mr Ashcroft denied having made any such comment to Mr Pickard.

‘Cash for visas’ inquiry ‘obstructed’

Committee Chair, Labor Senator Joe Ludwig says all requests for information were met with resistance and refusal from the Immigration Department and the current Immigration Minister Senator Amanda Vanstone.

The committe’s report has made 21 recommendations in relation to the broader subject of ministerial discretion.

It says ministers should report to parliament on how many times they excercise discretion in visa application cases.

Senator Ludwig says the minister’s decision making process lacks transparency and accountability, a serious deficiency in need of urgent attention.

But he says he’s particularly concerned the department and Senator Vanstone refused to give the committee access to information that could have put accusations against Mr Ruddock to rest.

‘The refusal can only add to the speculation that the former minister may have improperly exercised his discretion powers under the migration act. The committee is concerned that Senator Vanstone’s refusal to provide the case, documents and ministerial notebooks and other information held by the department preventing it addressing in full the inquiry’s terms of reference.’

The select committee has spent the past six months investigating the immigration minister’s discretionary powers on migration issues after Mr Ruddock’s handling of visas was criticised.

Labor linked his granting of three visas to Liberal Party donations totaling $113,000, saying it was proof of a major scandal within the migration system.

The federal government has dismissed the senate committee report.

Liberal Senator Santo Santoro says the the inquiry and the report is nothing more than a nasty piece of politicking by the Labor party.

‘It was always going to be a political witch hunt to bring down one of the most effective and efficient and honest ministers of the Howard government. The allegations, Mr Acting Deputy President, that were made in the house of representatives were put forward without a shred of evidence behind them. They were and still are scurrilous allegations without any foundation whatsoever.’

The Democrats’ leader Senator Andrew Bartlett says he too was disappointed by the obstructions placed in the committee’s way.

But, Senator Bartlett says the report contains some extremely valuable insights into the problems surrounding the minister’s powers of discretion.

‘There’s a real overall systemic problem with the system of ministerial discretion the real problem and what this report, the vast majority of this report is actually about is the problems of how ministerial discretion power has evolved and the extent of it, the vast extent of it now under the migration act and how widespread it is. how common it’s use is for an area that should be for exceptional circumstances.’

The Justice Minister Chris Ellison says a separate Federal Police investigation has cleared Philip Ruddock of granting visas in return for political donations.

Egypt, US back Israeli pullout

The US president met the Egyptian president in Texas for talks on Monday as the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip continued – Israeli troops killed two Hamas militants apparently planning a raid on a nearby Jewish settlement.

Mr Mubarak said a pullout must be linked to the internationally brokered, US-backed “road map” or “it will not be accepted by the public opinion in the area”.

“So the withdrawal from Gaza, if it is a part from the road map, I think it will be very highly appreciated,” said Mr Mubarak, days before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to present the plan to Mr Bush in Washington.

Mr Bush said any pullout would be a “positive development”.

He added: “We both are in agreement that if Israel makes the decision to withdraw, it doesn’t replace the road map. It is a part of the road map, so that we can continue progress toward the two-state solution.”

Mr Bush reaffirmed his support for the stalled blueprint, despite failures to implement the measures it calls for ahead of the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

He said: “The point is the decision (by Israel to withdraw) doesn’t replace the path toward the establishment of a Palestinian state that’ll provide hope for the Palestinian people.”

However, the US President warned “there will never be a Palestinian state, in my judgment, if terrorists are willing to kill. And so, the first step we’ve all got to do is to work on the mutual security concerns of the region.”

Amid active diplomatic contacts between the United States and Israel on the plan, Bush withheld his formal endorsement, saying “let’s not prejudge what Prime Minister Sharon is going to tell me.”

Mr Mubarak, whose country gets more US aid than any other except Israel, said Cairo “could help a lot in Gaza by training the police, by giving them advice, by sending in some groups to make plans for them how to work”.