Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Barack Obama makes surprise Iraq visit

* Mark Tran
* guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 7 April 2009

Barack Obama today made his first visit to Baghdad since taking office, amid an upsurge of violence linked to rising political tensions.

Air Force One landed at Baghdad international airport 4:42pm local time (2.42 BST) amid heavy security, with the airport shut down and roads into the capital empty. "There is still a lot of work to do here," the Associated Press quoted Obama as saying.

The presidential motorcade rolled past troops standing to attention en route to a meeting with several hundred men and women among the 139,000 US forces stationed in the country.

Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, told reporters on the plane Obama had decided to make the trip to Iraq as it was close to Turkey, where he had just been, and because he wanted to show his appreciation of the troops.

"Our men and women who are in harm's way, either in Iraq or Afghanistan, deserve our utmost respect and appreciation," Gibbs said.

Obama had planned to take a helicopter from the airport into the city to meet Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, but the threat of a severe sandstorm meant the pair would probably have to talk by telephone.

Shortly before leaving Turkey, the president held Iraq up as an example of the change he sought in the policies inherited from his predecessor.

"Moving the ship of state takes time," he told a group of students in Istanbul. He acknowledged his long-standing opposition to the war, but said that with US forces established in the country, withdrawal had to be done "in a careful enough way that we don't see a collapse into violence".

The US president arrived in Iraq after a hectic tour in Europe that took in the G20 economic summit in London, a Nato meeting in Strasbourg and a visit to Turkey, where he appealed for a "partnership with the Muslim world".

His surprise visit to Iraq came amid fears of a relapse into widespread violence after seven car bomb explosions in Baghdad yesterday – the largest number of explosions in one day in almost two years.

The attacks followed arrests of members of Sunni militias – known as awakening councils – whom government officials described as outlaws.

The arrests, which led to pitched street battles, have alarmed Sunni militias, who fear they will be cast aside by the Shia-led government despite their crucial role in helping the US tackle al-Qaida fighters in Iraq in 2007.

The Iraqi government is worried that the release of Iraqi prisoners may have fuelled the escalation in violence. Since the start of the year, the US military has been releasing up to 1,500 detainees a month from its detention centres, which it aims to close by the end of 2009 and transfer to Iraqi control.

The Iraqi government approved of the handover but is now concerned some senior militia members are among those being freed. Defence officials have confirmed that one former detainee has been responsible for a suicide attack in recent months.

The prospect of renewed sectarian violence on a large scale threatens to cast a pall over Obama's decision last month to pull out all US combat units by the summer of next year and the remaining personnel by the end of 2011.

Of the 142,000 US troops in Iraq, between 92,000 and 107,000 are to leave by August next year. The remainder will deal primarily with training Iraqi forces, supporting the Iraqi government and engaging in counter-terrorism.

A central plank of Obama's presidential campaign was to wind down the highly unpopular war in Iraq, which has cost more than 4,000 American lives, as well as those of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Efforts are being switched towards Afghanistan, where the US is fighting a resurgent Taliban, and to countering rising instability in neighbouring Pakistan.

Asked why Obama had come to Iraq, Robert Gibbs, the White House press spokesman, said: "there are several important reasons, not the least of which is to see and spend some time with the men and women who are serving our country honorably here."

During his visit to Turkey, Obama acknowledged that George Bush's war in Iraq had sown mistrust of the US, and he assured Muslims that the US was not "at war with Islam" but instead sought its partnership in order to pursue common goals.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Global economy woes shake markets

Japanese stock market trader Japanese shares felt the force of the economic uncertainty

Fears about a global economic slowdown, heightened by worsening US job figures, have continued to undermine stock markets around the world.

London's FTSE 100 index lost 2.3% - taking its weekly decline to 7% - its biggest since July 2002.

Markets in Paris and Frankfurt fell by 2.5% as economy concerns spread.

On Wall Street the Dow Jones index clawed back early losses to edge higher despite figures showing the US economy shed 84,000 jobs last month.

But the benchmark US index still had its worst week since May.

Earlier, Japan's main share index fell nearly 3% while markets in Hong Kong, China, Australia and India all slid 2%.

'Ugly' data

The US labour market figures - which showed the unemployment rate rising to 6.1% - were a further jolt to investors who have had to swallow a slew of poor economic data in recent days.

Economists had been expecting 75,000 jobs to be lost while the government also revised upwards.

"This was an ugly number that pretty much confirms that our economy continues to trend downward," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer of Harris Private Bank.

"This just knocks the legs out of any hope of seeing much economic improvement right now."


The FTSE 100 closed down 2.3% at 5,240.70 points. The last time it lost so much value in a week was more than six years ago in the wake of financial scandals such as Enron and WorldCom.

Markets in Paris and Frankfurt continued their recent downward trend, both the Cac-40 index and the Dax-30 dropping about 2.5%.

The Dow Jones index, which lost 3% on Thursday, rose 32.73 points, or 0.3% to 11,220.96, but still ended down 2.8% on the week.

"Given the fact we were down so much yesterday we're seeing a bit of a reflex rally with investors wanting to take advantages of some of the bargains," said Bucky Hellwig, senior vice president at Morgan Asset Management.

The Nasdaq index slipped 3.16 points, or 0.1% to 2,255.88, ending the week 4.7% lower.

Earlier Japan's benchmark Nikkei index fell 361.54 points to 12,196.12 amid a widespread sell-off of shares in Asia.

The Hang Seng index fell more than 3% in Hong Kong while markets also fell sharply in China, Australia and India.

"Amid the uncertainty, few investors are willing to buy," said Masayuki, Otani, chief market analyst at Securities Japan.

"Several bad things happened at once," he added, explaining the fall.


Worries about inflation have prevented central banks in Europe from cutting interest rates to help forestall a slowdown.

But analysts believe this could change soon with economic forecasts across Europe looking increasingly gloomy.

The European Central Bank cut its 2009 growth forecast from 1.5% to 1.2% on Thursday while the UK economy stalled in the second quarter.

In a separate development, the Russian rouble fell against the dollar a day after Russia's central bank intervened to support the currency amid concerns about a flight of foreign capital after the conflict with Georgia.

The central bank sold up to $4bn in reserves, the Financial Times reported, after the rouble slipped to its lowest level since February 2007.
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