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Daily Archives: December 7, 2007

Top US general says no ‘victory dances’ yet in Iraq

by Daphne Benoit*The top American general in Iraq, David Petraeus, expressed satisfaction yesterday at the progress made in Iraq but said the military was still far from any victory dance.

"Nobody in uniform is doing victory dances in the end zone," Petraeus told reporters travelling with US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who arrived in Baghdad Wednesday on an unannounced visit.

Gates said on Wednesday that the violence in Iraq had dropped to levels not seen since the bombing of a Shiite shrine in the central town of Samarra that unleashed brutal Shiite and Sunni conflict nearly two years ago.

He said the reduction in violence meant the "goal of a secure, stable and democratic Iraq is within reach."

Petraeus, who in September announced to Congress the first possible elements of an American troop drawdown in Iraq, was more cautious yesterday.

"We work hard to build up on the progress made" but "we have to be careful not to feel too successful," he said.

"Certain days we certainly feel very good but there are still attacks. We have seen continued improvements," he said, adding that there was "much hard work still to be done and issues to be addressed".

Petraeus attributed the drop in violence to series of factors, including a rise in the number of Iraqi security personnel, rejection of Al-Qaeda by the Sunni Arabs, rising support from neighbouring countries like Syria and a six-month ceasefire by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

He said the US military is keenly watching Iran and its promise to help in curbing bloodshed in Iraq.

"We have seen reduction of signature attacks (explosively formed penetrators)" but "we are all in a wait and see mode," he said.

The US military has regularly charged that Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite extremists smuggle EFPs, fist sized bombs that cut through a heavily armoured military vehicle, and use them against the coalition forces.

But last month Gates told reporters in Washington that he believed Tehran had assured Baghdad of helping in controlling the bloodshed.

"We are hopeful Iran will take up his promise to stop," said Petraeus.

Petraeus further stressed that the military continued to chase Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters.

"Rest assured we try to make the adjustments necessary to pursue them and not establish the kind of bases like Baqubah and other places," the general said, referring to the city north of Baghdad which has Al-Qaeda hideouts.

Petraeus also said the US military is giving more and more responsibility to Iraqi forces and adopting a "flexible" approach as in Anbar province in the west.

Since last year violence in Anbar has dropped, as local Sunni tribes align with the US military and fight Al-Qaeda militants.

More and more Sunni Arabs, who once fought the military, are now turning allies of the American soldiers.

The military calls them "concerned local citizens" and uses them as neighbourhood guards.

Yesterday, Petraeus made a case for these CLCs again, saying they offer intelligence in areas where there are no security forces.

He, like Gates, called for their integration into the security forces.

US forces, meanwhile, killed three "terrorists and detained 19 suspects during operations yesterday to disrupt Al-Qaeda," the military said in a statement.


Teen kills eight in US mall rampage

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A teenager who wanted to die "famous" shot dead eight Christmas shoppers with an assault rifle at an Omaha shopping mall before killing himself.

Robert Hawkins, 19, left a suicide note in which he explained the latest shooting rampage to stun the United States, police said, adding that two of the five people wounded in Wednesday's shooting were in critical condition.

Employees and shoppers fled the mall or locked themselves inside stores after hearing dozens of shots from the upscale Von Maur department store at the Westroads Mall.

Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren said the shooting appeared to be "very random and without provocation."

He identified the shooter as Robert Hawkins, 19, and said he was armed with an SKS assault rifle.

"We believe there was one shooter and one shooter only," he said.

"We do have a (suicide) note. I can't describe the contents of this note, but it does appear this incident was premeditated."

Hawkins' landlady, Debora Maruca Kovac, told CNN television that Hawkins' note said "that he was sorry for everything, that he didn't want to be a burden to anybody, he loved his family, he loved all of his friends. He was a piece of shit all of his life and now he'll be famous."

Kovac said that Hawkins had lived in her house for a year and a half, and had recently broken up with his girlfriend.

"He was withdrawn," she said. "He was like a lost pound puppy that nobody wanted. … He had a lot of emotional problems."

The Omaha World Herald newspaper reported that Hawkins had also been fired from his job at a McDonald's, and was arrested Friday for being a minor in possession of alcohol — the legal drinking age in the United States is 21.

The newspaper said he had been sent to jail for seven days in 2005 on charges of disorderly conduct.

The Sarpy County Sheriff's Department, located just south of Omaha in Papillion, told KETV television that Hawkins' mother walked into its office shortly after the shooting with a note that "could be interpreted as suicidal."

The sheriff's office and Omaha police could not be immediately reached for comment.

Employees and shoppers at the Mall panicked after hearing dozens of assault rifle shots boom around the mall.

"People were freaking," an employee at Whitehall jewelers, who refused to give her name, told AFP by telephone.

Shoppers and workers described a terrifying scene.

"We heard about 35, 40 shots, and on our way we did see someone down by the escalator, bleeding," witness Jennifer Cramer told KETV.

"I was standing around getting ready to go back to work and all of a sudden I heard this bang, bang, bang — it sounded like someone shooting fireworks," another witness told KETV. "I ran to get away from whatever was happening."

The Nebraska incident was the latest in a series of shootings in the United States, where private gun ownership is legal and widespread.

Late last month two people were found dead in an apparent murder-suicide at a Texas mall.

The woman was working at a store when she got a phone call from her angry boyfriend who threatened to harm her, local television station KHOU said.

The woman called mall security for help, but the boyfriend arrived before they did and took her hostage, pulling down the store's front gate and barricading them inside.

There have also been a series of school shootings this year, the worst being the Virginia Tech massacre in April in which 32 people were killed when a student went on a campus rampage.

Wednesday's shooting took place as President George W. Bush headed back to Washington after delivering a Republican fund-raising speech in Omaha.

Bush expressed sadness after learning about the shooting.

"His thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families this evening," the White House said in a statement.

"Having just visited with so many members of the community in Omaha today, the president is confident that they will pull together to comfort one another as they deal with this terrible tragedy," it said.

Police response to the tragedy was "quicker and more organized" due to Bush's visit, the head of the Omaha Police Department's SWAT team told the World-Herald.

Members of the SWAT team and other police personnel had been assembled Wednesday morning to provide security for the president's visit. Though some of the extra officers had gone home when the first call for help at the mall came in, many were nearby and raced there, said Sergeant Tim Carmody, head of the SWAT and bomb teams.

"Based on what we know," he said, "I don't think (security for Bush's visit) could have prevented what happened, but it allowed us to respond faster, and we were able to efficiently clear out the mall."