PM announces second Iraq inquiry

The inquiry was recommended by a bi-partisan parliamentary committee report, which found the Government’s statements on the case for war apparently went further than the intelligence advice it received.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, says an inquiry headed by former spy, Philip Flood, will report to the Government by the end of June.

Mr Howard says he’s confident Mr Flood will conduct the report in a way that will build public support and confidence in Australia’s intelligence agencies.

“He’s not only a former director general of the Australian International Development Assistance Bureau, a director-general of ONA*, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, he’s a former ambassador to Indonesia, and he’s a former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. In other words, a person eminently qualified, somebody who’s served with distinction, both sides of this parliament during his professional career, and I’m certain he’ll carry out the task in a professional way.”

The Federal Opposition has criticised the terms of reference of the second inquiry, saying it will only be the actions of the intelligence agencies in the lead-up to the Iraq war that will be examined, rather than the Government itself.

Labor’s spokesman for foreign affairs, Kevin Rudd, also says the inquiry does not appear to have the powers of a Royal Commission, and should not be headed by a former spy.

“Those who have headed intelligence agencies in the past would be problematic because there would be a conflict of interest. You can’t have people who have been a part of the intelligence club at some stage in their careers. And Mr Flood on that score has been formally the director of the Office of National Assessements.”

Attacks mark war anniversary

Two Iraqis were killed after being struck by one of three rockets targeting the so-called “Green Zone” hit a traffic island in the nearby Mansour neighbourhood.

A second missile landing inside the coalition compound causing no casualties.

In a separate assault, five rockets were fired at a military base near Fallujah in western Iraq killing two US soldiers were killed and wounding five more soldiers and a sailor.

The attacks came as President George W Bush faced renewed criticism for leading the war on Iraq.

Former White House adviser Richard Clarke has alleged the Bush administration wanted to topple Iraq’s ousted leader Saddam Hussein immediately following the September 11 attacks in 2001, despite evidence pointing to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.

The claims were reinforced by comments from former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, who said Washington acted too quickly going to war based on hastily compiled evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

European Commissioner Romano Prodi has also called the White House into question over the Iraq campaign, challenging the war’s purported benefits in the fight against terrorism.

In Iraq, divisions are re-emerging with the country’s leading Shi’ite Muslim cleric pressing the UN to reject Iraq’s interim constitution, according to a letter obtained by a Reuters journalist.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani reportedly argued the constitution’s three-person presidential council, consisting of a Sunni Muslim, a Kurd and a Shi’ite Muslim, would be unable to make unanimous decisions.

According to al-Sistani’s letter, this would open up the potential for foreign intervention to break potential deadlocks, and possibly end in the break-up of Iraq.

Venezuela referendum rejected

At least five people have died in street violence since Friday, and dozens have been wounded.

Venezuela’s elections council said on Tuesday the opposition does not have enough signatures to force a recall referendum.

Chavez opponents say they submitted more than 3.4 million signatures; however the council claims only 1.83 million of these are valid, falling short of the minimum 2.4 million needed.

But council president Francisco Carrasquero said 876,000 signatures could be reconfirmed by the signers in a special repair period later this month.

Voters whose signatures are disputed have between March 18 and March 22 to report to voting centres to confirm they signed the petition.

But oppositionists claim the complex process is a tactic to scuttle the vote.

“There is no other way but to accept this decision,” said Mr Carrasquerro.

“If someone does not accept it, they will be acting outside the law.”

His comments come as troops firing tear gas clashed with anti-government protesters in several cities.

One demonstrator was shot dead in Valencia.

Opposition leaders defended the validity of the signatures and have rejected the repair period.

They have called on the Organisation of American States and the Atlanta-based Carter Centre, mediators in the Venezuelan turmoil, to urge electoral officers to reconsider.

“The recall process that has been under way in Venezuela remains the best constitutional option for achieving national reconciliation in Venezuela and preserving Venezuela’s status as a democratic society,” said White House spokesman Scott McLennan.

“We are increasingly concerned about the situation in Venezuela. We have some real concerns about it,” he said.

FBI releases details of seven suspects

US officials are searching for the following seven people they believe may be involved in a plot to attack the US:

Adnan G El Shukrujimah is a Saudi Arabian who used to live in South Florida, and is believed to be a possible leader of a terrorism cell or an organiser.

He may be carrying passports from Saudi Arabia, Trinidad or Canada.

FBI officials say they are particularly interested in him as he is familiar with the US, is proficient in using fake documents and is fluent in English.

Aafia Siddiqui, 32, is a Pakistani woman who was an award-winning student at MIT, and also gained a doctorate in neurological sciences at Brandeis University.

Authorities believe she is not an al-Qaeda member but think she could be a fixer who can get things done in the US for other operatives.

It is believed she is in Pakistan, where her mother said she was last seen with her three children. Her husband, Dr Amjad Mohammad Khan, is also wanted by the FBI for questioning.

Fazul Abdullah Mohammed is a native of the Comoros Republic, and is believed to be al-Qaeda’s ringleader in eastern Africa. He has been indicted in the US over the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He has a $25 million bounty on his head and is thought to be hiding in Kenya or Somalia.

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani is a Tanzanian who also goes by the names Foopie, Fupi and Ahmed the Tanzanian. He is also under indictment in the United States for the embassy attacks.

Amer El-Maati was born in Kuwait, and is wanted by the FBI for questioning about possible al-Qaeda links.

Abderraouf Jdey is a former Tunisian who gained Canadian citizenship in 1995.

He is one of five men who left videotaped suicide messages recovered in Afghanistan at the home of Mohammed Atef – reportedly Osama bin Laden’s military chief killed in a US airstrike in 2001.

Also recovered from the home was a suicide letter by Jdey from August 1999, in which he pledged to die in battle against infidels.

Jdey also goes by the names Farouq Al-Tunisi and Al Rauf bin Al Habib bin Yousef Al-Jiddi. He might have a Canadian passport. His last known address was an apartment building in Montreal.

Adam Yahiye Gadahn says he grew up on a goat ranch in California then converted to Islam in his later teenage years. The 25 year old US citizen also goes by the names Adam Pearlman and Abu Suhayb Al-Amriki.

The FBI has claimed he has attended al-Qaeda training camps and has served as an al-Qaeda translator.

Annan calls for Iraq UN probe

In the letter to the 15-nation council, he said the inquiry would need the council’s backing and he will send a more detailed proposal most likely next week.

The UN has already begun its own internal investigation.

The oil-for-food program was set up to allow Saddam’s regime to use money from oil sales to buy essential supplies for Iraqis to help ease the hardship caused by sanctions slapped on Baghdad before the 1991 Gulf War.

It is credited with keeping six out of 10 Iraqis alive during the last years of Saddam’s rule.

But Iraqi and US officials are now looking into allegations that bribes to foreign officials and companies were common, and that billions of dollars were skimmed off the top by regime cronies.

“These allegations, whether or not they are ultimately shown to be well-founded, must be taken seriously and addressed forthrightly, in order to bring to light the truth and prevent an erosion of the trust and hope that the international community has invested in the organisation,” said Mr Annan’s document.

“I proposed to establish an independent, high-level inquiry to investigate the allegations relating to the administration and management of the program, including allegations of fraud and corruption.”

Mr Annan said earlier on Friday that it is “highly possible” that there was widespread wrongdoing in the UN-run program, which supervised Iraqi oil sales under Saddam.

The oil-for-food program began and December 1996 and ended last November, was the UN’s largest ever aid program, and oversaw tens of billions of dollars in transactions.

Benon Sevan, the UN official who ran it, has denied any improper behaviour.

In January, an Iraqi newspaper alleged that individuals and organisations from more than 40 countries had received vouchers for cut-price oil from the Iraqi regime.

Labor’s terror u-turn puzzles PM

The Prime Minister says Labor’s turnabout on laws letting the Government ban suspected terrorist organisations shows just how politically expedient the party really is.

Labor has been blocking the legislation in the Senate for two years but says it will now vote for the laws.

Mr Howard says, while he congratulates the Opposition on the decision, he is a little puzzled by it.

“What’s happened is Labor said it would never accept the situation where the executive government could proscribe an organisation without explicit parliamentary authority through legislation — that was their position — and they said it was wrong in principle that that power be given to the Attorney-General of the day. They’ve now accepted it.”

The Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, says the legislation will give the Government the power to ban a group without recalling parliament.

“Labor has agreed that we shouldn’t be held hostage to a decision by a court or an administrative appeals tribunal in order to be able to proceed quickly to proscribe a terrorist organisation.”

But the Opposition’s spokesman on homeland security, Robert McClelland, says he feels amendments to the bill now give parliament ultimate say on the bans.

Mr McClelland says the Government must now consult with the leader of the Opposition and state and territory leaders before deciding on a group.

“There’s also built into the process a mechanism for judicial review where any individual affected or organisation affected can apply to the Federal Court of Australia for review of the decision to proscribe an organisation. So, in effect, these safeguards are far more extensive than any comparable jurisdiction in the world.”

Sudanese peace accords signed

Three protocols were signed on Wednesday by Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army on power-sharing and the administration of three disputed regions.

It comes after two years of intense political negotiations in Kenya and leaves only technical and military aspects of a ceasefire standing in the way of a comprehensive peace accord.

Kenyan chief mediator Lazarus Sumbeiywo said both sides had pledged to deliver this by late June or mid July.

The Kenyan talks, however, did not cover the western region of Darfur, where a separate conflict that began in February 2003 has created what the United Nations has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving hundreds of thousands of people at risk of starvation and about a million displaced.

Nevertheless, the signing which took place at a lakeside hotel near the western Kenyan town of Naivasha, prompted a cacophony of cheers from hundreds of Sudanese refugees.

“This indeed is a momentous occasion in the history of our country,” declared SPLA leader John Garang.

“We have reached the crest of the last hill in our ascent to the heights of peace… there are no other hills. I believe what remains is flat ground,” he said.

“Things will never and can never be the same in Sudan.”

His negotiating counterpart, Sudanese vice president Ali Osman Taha, said: “This is a day for Sudan, for peace, development and stability.

“It’s our duty in Sudan to put these words into action with the same degree of determination to make peace.”

The latest phase of Sudan’s long-running civil war reignited in 1983 when the south, where most observe traditional religions and Christianity, took up arms to end domination and marginalisation by the wealthier, Islamic and Arab north.

Together with recurrent famine and disease, Africa’s longest conflict has claimed at least 1.5 million lives and displaced more than four million people, mostly in the impoverished south.

Since July 2002, when the two sides struck a deal granting the south the right to a referendum after a six-year transition period, other deals have been reached on a 50-50 split of the country’s wealth – particularly revenues from oil – and on how to manage government and SPLA armies during the interim period.

The two sides have agreed to form a government of national unity with a decentralised system of government with significant devolution of power to the states.

Keelty vows to stay on

Mr Keelty has refused to comment on reports that he was close to quitting over political pressure exerted after he publicly expressed the view that involvement in the Iraq war had raised Australia’s profile as a terrorist target.

Mr Keelty, attending a meeting in Sydney of senior federal and state officials to discuss security issues, would not elaborate on the spat with the government, saying he wants to put this week behind him.

He says he remains committed to dealing with the issue of terrorism and has confidence in his fellow police commissioners.

“I think the real issue is do you have before you a group of commissioners who are professional? And I think you have, people who will be committed to being apolitical, which is important for commissioners, and people who will tell the truth.

“And I have every confidence in everyone that’s in this room that we will be doing that.”

The federal Opposition leader, Mark Latham, says Government criticism of Mick Keelty over his remarks on the terrorist threat to Australia have hurt national security.

The Australian newspaper reports the Prime Minister’s Office pressured Mr Keelty to back off his comments, and Mr Latham says that is no good.

He says the police have got to do their job without fear or favour, and political interference weakens Australia’s national security.

John Howard is not saying whether his office pressured Mr Keelty to issue a clarification of his remarks.

Mr Howard says Mr Keelty’s subsequent statement, in which he said his comments had been taken out of context, speaks for itself.

But when it was suggested people had a right to know if a political office pressured a law officer’s office, Mr Howard was quick to say nothing improper happened.

Mr Keelty’s view on Iraq has been widely supported by other security professionals including other police chiefs, terrorism experts and a senior officer of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Veterans’ pension increase announced

Prime minister John Howard has announced Cabinet has approved an increase in veterans funding of $267 million over five years.

Mr Howard says the government consulted extensively with veterans before announcing the package.

Last month, the Liberal party room rejected a draft veterans package and forced Cabinet to reconsider the deal.

Mr Howard says the right decision has been made now.

“We did take some proposals to the party room. It wanted the Cabinet to have another look at it. I don’t feel any sense of concern about that.

“Every so often, the party room is quite capable of greater wisdom than the Cabinet. The party room was right. The Cabinet did have another look. And this was the result.”

The new measures include exempting veterans’ disability pensions from means-tested income-support payments.

Pensions for totally and permanently disabled veterans will be indexed to inflation or male average weekly earnings, whichever is higher.

War widows will be given rent assistance, and funeral benefits will be almost doubled to 1,000 dollars.

Veterans’ disability benefits will be extended to groups such as veterans of the Berlin airlift.

During the airlift in 1963, when Russia blocked land access to west Berlin, Western Bloc countries flew food and other supplies into the city

There will be a one-off payment to prisoners of war from the Korean War or their widows.

Compensation will also be given to veterans who may have suffered during the British atomic testing in Australia in the 1950s.

There has been mixed reaction to the announcement.

The Returned and Services League says the package advances the veterans’ cause well, but there are still issues that need addressing.

But the RSL’s national president, Major General Bill Crews, says benefits should be extended to certain other veterans, including Commonwealth and Allied soldiers.

“We’d also like to have seen the $25,000 grant to ex-prisoners of war extended to those who were prisoners in Europe.

“We’d also liked to have seen an extension of benefits to those veterans who were from Commonwealth and Allied countries but who have now become Australian citizens.

UK dismisses Iraq rift claims

While UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Tuesday the interim Iraqi government, due to take over the reins on June 30, would have the power to veto military operations, the US said its troops would reserve the right to defend themselves.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: “The final political control (over foreign troops) remains with the Iraqi government. That’s what the transfer of sovereignty means.”

But US Secretary of State Colin Powell told a news conference in Washington: “Ultimately… US forces remain under US command and will do what is necessary to protect themselves.”

The apparent difference between the allies could complicate efforts to secure UN Security Council endorsement of the handover plan.

This comes as permanent council members France, Russia and China indicated they wanted changes to the draft resolution, tabled by the UK and US on Monday outlining Iraq’s return to sovereignty.

Mr Prescott said on Wednesday the Iraqi leadership would be in charge of dealing with terrorists, but British and American troops would have the right to defend themselves if they were to come under attack from insurgents.

He said any confusion over the positions of the US and Britain show that negotiation and interpretation is already underway.

The exact position of troops in post-June 30 Iraq is potentially the key issue in the negotiations.

A leading member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council said he wants the resolution “clarified” to make clear that multi-national troops are in the country only at the invitation of Baghdad.

Adnan Pachachi, who is being tipped as a possible leader of the caretaker authority, said operations must be conducted in consultation with the interim government.

The issue comes as diplomats from the 15 UN Security Council nations meet in New York for informal discussions on a resolution to underpin the restoration of sovereignty in Iraq.