Iran, North Korea seek to boost cooperation

TEHRAN (Reuters) –

Iran and

North Korea have agreed to step up bilateral contacts, an Iranian news agency said on Friday, signaling closer ties between two countries which were part of U.S.

President George W. Bush‘s “axis of evil.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government “is interested in expanding ties with North Korea in the political, economical and cultural fields,” Mottaki was quoted as saying.

“Therefore it is necessary to remove some barriers to provide and recognize new fields of cooperation,” he said, suggesting North Korea’s debt to Iran was one such barrier without giving details.

Under Thursday’ accord, the foreign ministries of the two countries would every year send delegations to each other to “exchange ideas” over different international issues.

Bush branded the two countries as well as

Iraq as part of an “axis of evil” after he took office in 2001.

Since then, Iran has defied Western pressure to suspend its nuclear program, which the West fears is aimed at making atom bombs, a charge Tehran denies.

North Korea drew international condemnation when it conducted its first nuclear test in October, but agreed in February this year to shut its nuclear facilities in return for energy aid.

US troops die in new Iraq attack

map

Nine US soldiers have been killed in a suicide bomb attack on a base north of Baghdad, military officials have said.Some 20 troops and an Iraqi civilian were injured in the attack, which happened in the volatile province of Diyala, to the north-east of Baghdad.

There has been fierce fighting in Diyala recently, pitting US and Iraqi forces against Sunni and Shia militias.

It is thought to be the US military’s worst single loss since late 2005, when 10 marines were killed near Falluja.

More than 3,300 US troops have been killed and some 24,300 have been injured in Iraq since the conflict began.

Rare attack

In a brief statement released early on Tuesday, the US military said a suicide car bomber attacked a patrol base near Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province, on Monday.

It is in no-one’s intention that this (the wall) is going to be a permanent state of affairs

Ryan Crocker

Profile: Ryan Crocker

Iraq violence, in figures

Fifteen of the wounded soldiers were later able to return to work, the statement said.

American troops in the province come under frequent mortar and small arms attack, but a frontal assault like this on a base is rare, says the BBC’s Andrew North in Baghdad.

Most are now too well defended for suicide attackers to get close. But the base that was attacked is a smaller installation and so may have been more vulnerable, our correspondent adds.

The latest bombing followed a series of blasts in the town of Ramadi on Monday that killed 20 people and hurt dozens.

Three cars exploded in quick succession near a restaurant and market in Ramadi’s western district of al-Taamim.

Earlier on Monday blasts hit Baqouba and Mosul, and near where the new US envoy was giving his first briefing in Baghdad.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker said the next few months were critical in the effort to reconcile Iraq’s warring communities and urged the government to make use of a US-led security plan in the capital.

He also defended the thinking behind a controversial wall being built around the flashpoint Adhamiya area, a Sunni enclave on the mainly Shia east bank of the Tigris.

On Sunday Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said he had ordered a halt to the project after it drew strong criticism from residents and Sunni leaders.

The latest US deaths also came as Democratic Party lawmakers in the US Congress agreed to merge House and Senate versions of a spending bill for Iraq, which include a timeline for the withdrawal of US troops.

The bill calls for a withdrawal to start no later than 1 October 2007, with a non-binding deadline of 31 March for a total pullout. US President George W Bush says he will veto the bill.

US helicopters collide in Iraq

Map of Iraq

Two US helicopters have crashed after an apparent mid-air collision north of Baghdad, killing two soldiers and wounding five more, the US said.The helicopters came down in the early hours of the morning near a US military base south-west of Taji.

An investigation was under way but the crash did not appear to be the result of “enemy fire”, a US statement said.

Meanwhile three car bombs and a mortar exploded in southern Baghdad killing at least 15 people, Iraqi police said.

Another 50 people were injured in the attacks, in a market in the Al-Shurta al-Arabaa district. Women and children were among the casualties.

Reports are coming in of a third bomb, but there are no indications yet about casualties.

The attacks came a day after a suicide attack on a crowded market in the Shia holy city of Karbala, which is now known to have killed 42 people, and a truck bomb attack on a bridge in southern Baghdad.

Car and suicide bombs have occurred almost daily in Baghdad in recent months, despite a US-led security crackdown which began in February.

Cause for concern

The US military gave no details about the types of helicopter involved in Sunday’s apparent collision.

The US has lost more than 50 helicopters in Iraq since the 2003 invasion with the loss of a number of soldiers.

At least 11 were downed in the first two months of this year, most as a result of enemy fire.

The BBC’s Jonathan Charles in Baghdad says helicopters are crucial to coalition operations in this part of Iraq, and the losses have been a cause for concern for the military.

Suicide Car Bomber Kills 4 Afghans

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — A suicide car bomber targeted a private security firm Sunday in southern Afghanistan, killing four Afghans working for the company and wounding another, police said.

Mohammad Asif Khan, a policeman in Kandahar province’s Spin Boldak district, said the attack occurred on a main highway in the district, where the company was providing security for road construction projects. Three security guards were killed, along with their driver, Khan said.

On Saturday, a suicide bomber blew himself up next to several Afghan border policemen in eastern Khost province, leaving at least seven officers and one civilian dead, while six suspected Taliban were killed in the south, officials said.

The explosion happened as the bomber tried to enter the border police base in Khost, said Gen. Qasim Kheil, a border police commander. Six officers also were wounded in the blast, he said.

The attack happened as fighting between militants and foreign and Afghan forces appears to be intensifying after the usual winter lull.

In the volatile south, U.S.-led coalition and Afghan troops clashed with suspected Taliban in Helmand province also on Saturday, a coalition statement said. Troops called in an airstrike on an observation site used by the Taliban, leaving six militants dead, the statement said.

Earlier, officials said U.S.-led troops and aircraft pounded Taliban militants in southern Afghanistan, killing more than 70 in two separate clashes on Thursday, as NATO-led troops pressed on with their largest-ever anti-Taliban offensive in Afghanistan’s insurgent-haunted south.

More than 5,000 NATO and Afghan troops are engaged in Operation Achilles, launched last month to flush militants entrenched in the northern tip of the opium-producing province.

Iran enrichment in early stages

Mohamed ElBaradei, IAEA chief

Mohamed ElBaradei’s comments echo those of Russian officials

The head of the UN’s nuclear agency has said Iran is only at the early stages of enriching uranium.Mohamed ElBaradei said Iran had not reached the industrial scale of uranium enrichment it claimed recently.

Mr ElBaradei said Iran had only hundreds of centrifuges for enriching uranium, not the thousands that would be needed for industrial production.

Tehran says its nuclear programme is peaceful, but the West fears it wants to build atomic bombs.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said international concern over Iran’s nuclear programme was based on its motives, rather than its current capability.

“Iran is still just at the beginning stages in setting up its Natanz enrichment facility. The talk of building a facility with 50,000 centrifuges is just at the beginning, and it is currently only in the hundreds,” Mr ElBaradei said.

The UN Security Council has imposed a package of sanctions on Iran over its refusal to cease enriching uranium, which some Western countries fear could be part of a secret nuclear weapons programme.

‘Nuclear club’

On Monday the Iranian president said his country had “joined the nuclear club of nations” by beginning the industrial scale enrichment of uranium.

Russian officials have already expressed doubts over the Iranian claims.

This is the first time Mr ElBaradei has commented on Iran’s announcement that it has entered a new phase in its enrichment programme.

He said that Iran would not be able to produce the highly enriched uranium needed for a nuclear bomb as long as it remained under the supervision of IAEA inspectors.

A team of IAEA inspectors is currently in Iran where it has been making a routine visit to the enrichment facility at Natanz.

Military leader wants Turkey to enter Iraq

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s military, which began staging several “large-scale” attacks on separatist Kurdish rebels in the country’s southeast, asked the government Thursday for approval to launch a cross-border incursion into northern Iraq.

“An operation into Iraq is necessary,” Gen. Yasar Buyukanit said, pushing for permission to raid northern Iraq to fight Kurdish guerrillas despite strong opposition from the United States and Iraq against such unilateral action.

The call raises the pressure on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to take a harder line against Kurdish guerrillas and against the Kurdish leadership in northern Iraq, where the rebels are based and train.

Buyukanit said the military already was moving against separatists in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeastern region bordering Iraq.

“There are several large-scale operations underway in several areas,” Buyukanit told reporters. “Our aim is to prevent them from taking positions in the region with the coming of spring.”

He said the rebels generally intensify their attacks on Turkey as the snow melts, opening up mountain passes.

Clashes already have killed 10 soldiers and 29 Kurdish guerrillas in recent fighting, Buyukanit said. The separatist conflict has left more than 37,000 people dead since 1984.

On Monday, the Turkish government demanded that U.S. and Iraqi officials crack down on guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, running their rebellion from hideouts in the predominantly Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

“The PKK has huge freedom of movement in Iraq,” Buyukanit said. “It has spread its roots in Iraq.”

But Iraq’s government is barely able to control its own cities. U.S. commanders, who are battling the Iraqi insurgency in the middle of the country, are stretched too thin to take on Turkish Kurds hiding in remote mountains near the frontier.

Washington repeatedly has cautioned Turkey against staging a cross-border offensive, fearing that it could destabilize the region and antagonize Iraqi Kurds, who are allied with the U.S.

However, Turkey has asserted its right to stage a cross-border offensive if Iraqi officials fail to clamp down on the guerrillas.

Iraq misery grows, says Red Cross

Residents in a Baghdad district protest against mortar attacks targeting them

The current security situation is disastrous, the Red Cross says

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says the situation for ordinary people in Iraq is getting steadily worse. In a new report, the ICRC says the conflict is inflicting immense suffering on the whole population.

The plight of civilians is a daily reminder of a long-lasting failure to respect life and dignity, it says.

The report seeks to draw attention to what life in Iraq is like, four years after Saddam Hussein was toppled.

The bombings and abductions in Iraq happen with such deadly frequency these days they hardly make the headlines.

With this report, the ICRC hopes to focus on what life has become for ordinary men, women and children.

The ICRC still has a presence in Iraq despite the bombing of its Baghdad offices three-and-a-half years ago.

‘Simply unbearable’

Recently Red Cross workers asked Iraqi women about their lives and what might be done to help them.

Debris from car bomb

Car bombs: An everyday reality now

The answer was a shock, according to Pierre Kraehenbuehl, ICRC director of operations.

What they would really like is help to “collect the bodies that line the streets in front of our homes every morning and that we find nobody dares to touch or remove,” one woman said.

She added the women found it “simply unbearable” to confront their children with them morning after morning as they tried to take them to school.

The Red Cross says every aspect of life in Iraq is getting worse.

A simple trip to the market has become a matter of life and death.

Access to basics like water and electricity are increasingly difficult – so much so that many Iraqis have given up hoping for big improvements and focus on small ones like clearing the bodies from the streets.

The famously neutral International Red Cross will not blame anyone in particular for what it calls the current disastrous security situation.

But it does say that everyone with political and military influence in Iraq must do more to protect civilians. The report makes it clear is that nobody, not the Iraqi government nor the coalition forces, has done enough so far.

Navy chief defends captured crew

Captured crew arriving in the UK

The crew returned to the UK on Thursday after 13 days in captivity

The Royal Navy’s head has defended the actions of 15 British personnel seized by Iran and UK operations in the Gulf.First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathon Band said the crew “reacted extremely well in very difficult circumstances”.

Admiral Band also said British boarding operations being carried out in the Gulf had been sanctioned by the UN.

Six of the 15 personnel, who returned to the UK on Thursday 13 days after being captured in the northern Gulf, will speak to the press at 1500 BST.

Iran claimed they had strayed into its waters, which the UK denied.

‘Extraordinary act’

Admiral Band told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This incident was a most extraordinary act conducted in those waters.

“I think our people have reacted extremely well in very difficult circumstances.”

He added: “The boarding operations taking place that morning in the northern Gulf were sanctioned by the United Nations under specific resolutions.

HMS Cornwall

The crew were stationed aboard HMS Cornwall

“They were being conducted under operational procedures with the coalition of US, UK and Australian forces.”

Admiral Band said UK boarding operations had stopped for the time being but coalition operations were continuing under British command.

The MoD said the UK would continue to ask Iran to return its two captured boats used by the 15 sailors and marines, but he held out little hope of success.

The freed personnel were helicoptered to the Royal Marine base at Chivenor in north Devon on Thursday, after arriving on a British Airways plane at Heathrow in London.

Earlier, they spoke of their happiness at being back in the UK and reunited with relatives.

Lt Felix Carman said the group had been “completely overwhelmed” by the goodwill they had received when they arrived back at Chivenor.

CAPTURED NAVY PERSONNEL

Chris Air, 25, from Altrincham in Cheshire

Mark Banks, 24, of Lowestoft, Suffolk

Paul Barton, of Southport, Merseyside

Arthur Batchelor, 20, of Plymouth

Felix Carman, 26, of Swansea

Gavin Cavendish

Christopher Coe, 31, of Huddersfield

Dean Harris, 24, of Carmarthen, west Wales

Andrew Henderson

Simon Massey

Danny Masterton, 26, of Muirkirk, Ayrshire

Adam Sperry, 22, of Wigston, near Leicester

Nathan Summers, of Hayle, Cornwall

Joe Tindell, 21, of south London

Faye Turney, 26, originally from Shropshire

Profiles of navy personnel

Two versions of events

Several said they had been well treated while in Iran, but since their return there have been suggestions some may have been held in solitary confinement.

Lt Col Andy Price, who met the group at the airport, said there had been “times when they were left alone”, but refused to go into further detail.

Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, said: “They did exactly as they should have done from start to finish… and we’re extremely proud of them.”

Penny Banks, who was reunited with her son, Lance Corporal Mark Banks, said: “We are delighted to have him back – it was nice to hold him again.”

The MoD said the freed personnel had roast chicken and roast beef before enjoying drinks with their loved ones on Thursday.

‘No deal’

The navy has begun a review of the circumstances leading to the capture of the personnel.

Rules of engagement, equipment and procedures will all be analysed, the MoD said.

In a press conference outside Downing Street, Tony Blair said he was “glad” the crew had been returned “safe and unharmed”.

He said “no deal” had been done with the Iranians to secure their release, despite claims by Iran that it received a written apology from Britain on Tuesday.

And he contrasted the safe return of the Britons with four soldiers killed in Basra in Iraq on the same day.

The US welcomed Iran’s decision to free the servicemen, but said the positive move would not ease tensions over its nuclear programme.

HAVE YOUR SAY

The UK government and its forces have been made to look like total fools

Bob, Dundee

Send us your comments

It emerged on Thursday that in a television interview recorded before their capture, Capt Chris Air, had said one purpose of patrols in the area was to gather intelligence on “any sort of Iranian activity”.

In the joint Five News and Sky News interview, recorded on 13 March but not broadcast until after the 15 had been released, he acknowledged that he was operating close to the buffer zone between Iranian and Iraqi waters, adding: “It’s good to gather intelligence on the Iranians.”

Ramadi suicide bombing kills 20

Aftermath of car bombing in Ramadi - 27/3/2007

Ramadi has been a centre of the insurgency in western Iraq

A suicide truck bombing in the restive Iraqi city of Ramadi has killed at least 20 people, police say.A police commander in Ramadi said a police checkpoint had been targeted.

Elsewhere, police said clashes had erupted between US and Iraqi forces and fighters from the Shia Mehdi Army militia in the city of Diwaniya.

A ban on vehicles has been imposed on the city following a raid by security forces at about 0500 (0100 GMT), police sources in the southern city said.

A number of American vehicles have been destroyed in the fighting, police sources told the BBC.

There have been a series of sectarian killings in Diwaniya – which is 180km (110 miles) south of Baghdad – in recent days, a source in the governor’s office said.

Injuries

A police commander in Ramadi said the truck had been driven into a police checkpoint in the western part of the city and the bomb detonated.

There are reports that several policemen were killed. Thirty people have been reported injured.

The bombing was in a densely populated district and there are fears many of the casualties are civilians.

Some reports said the bomb had released chlorine gas.

There have been 10 bombings in Anbar province this year using chlorine gas as a weapon.

Ramadi has been a centre of the Sunni-led insurgency against coalition forces and the Iraqi government.

Iraq hostage video tests Germany

Hannelore Krause (right) and son Sinan in hostage video, 3 Apr 07

Some German experts believe the kidnappers want a ransom

A German crisis team is working to win the release of two German hostages held in Iraq, after a second video showing them in distress appeared on a website.But the government has rejected the kidnappers’ demand that Germany pull its troops out of Afghanistan.

Terrorism experts quoted by German media say the latest video, lasting five-and-a-half minutes, was probably recorded between 20 and 25 March.

It shows Hannelore Krause, 61, and her son Sinan, 20.

The video, bearing the signature of the “Siham al-Haq (Arrows of Righteousness) Brigades”, appeared on an Islamist website on Tuesday.

The group had claimed to have seized the pair in a similar video issued on 10 March.

New ultimatum

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the latest video “shocking and inhumane”.

Mrs Krause was crying as she begged the German authorities to help them.

“I urge the German people to help me in my difficult situation. Germany was safe before it joined America in its satanic union against so-called terrorism,” she said.

An unidentified voice in the background read out a statement in Arabic saying: “We extend our ultimatum to the German government 10 more days to begin the withdrawal of its troops in Afghanistan; otherwise we will kill this criminal woman and her son”.

Mrs Krause, who is married to an Iraqi doctor, said she worked for the Austrian embassy in Baghdad. The kidnappers’ statement said her son worked for the Iraqi foreign ministry.

Germany has made several appeals for the hostages’ release, including a video message from President Horst Koehler, distributed in Germany and the Arab world.