- - Wednesday, January 5, 2011

IRAQ

Al-Sadr returns from exile

NAJAF | Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a fierce opponent of the United States and head of Iraq’s most feared militia, came home Wednesday after nearly four years in self-imposed exile in Iran, welcomed by hundreds of cheering supporters in a return that solidifies the rise of his movement.

Mr. al-Sadr’s presence in Iraq ensures he will be a powerful voice in Iraqi politics as U.S. forces leave the country. He left Iraq in 2007 somewhat as a renegade, a firebrand populist whose militiamen battled U.S. troops and Iraqi forces.

He returns a more legitimized figure, leading an organized political movement that is a vital partner in the new government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Mr. al-Sadr can wield a bully pulpit to put strong pressure on Mr. al-Maliki — and is likely to demand that no American troops remain beyond their scheduled final withdrawal date at the end of this year.

His return caused trepidation among many Iraqis, particularly Sunnis who remember vividly the sectarian killings carried out by his militia, the Mahdi Army, and think he is a tool of Iran.

ISRAEL

Rights groups: Inquiry is war on dissent

JERUSALEM | Human rights groups expressed outrage Wednesday after Israel’s parliament moved toward approving a formal inquiry into their sources of funding, describing it as a step to stifle dissent and limit democracy.

The vote was one of a series needed to establish a parliamentary commission of inquiry into human rights groups that work toward prosecution of Israeli soldiers and officials abroad for alleged war crimes. It passed by a wide margin, 41-15.

The sponsor of the inquiry legislation, like similar steps before, was Yisrael Beitenu, the hard-line party headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and dominated by immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Activities of groups like Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, which expose purported Israeli human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza, have long infuriated Mr. Lieberman and his allies.

BELGIUM

Separatists hold up bid to end crisis

BRUSSELS | Hopes of an end to Belgium’s longest political crisis evaporated Wednesday when a powerful Flemish separatist party rejected a new bid to kick-start government coalition talks.

After more than six months without a government, leaders of the language-divided country had a Wednesday deadline to announce a resumption of talks on a new political compromise to bridge the gulf between speakers of Dutch and French.

On the table was a 60-page proposal to reform the Belgian state, offering each of the country’s communities more autonomy in line with demands from the powerful independence-minded New Flemish Alliance (N-VA).

But the N-VA, which won the top results at the country’s indecisive elections in June, said it had “fundamental remarks,” or objections, on the text.

Leaving the door half-open and half-shut, it said: “We will see if these remarks are acceptable to the other parties. We will then conclude whether there is any sense in engaging in final negotiations.”

AFGHANISTAN

NATO: $20 billion for Afghan training

KABUL | By the end of the year, NATO will have spent $20 billion on developing Afghan security forces since the start of 2010 and will maintain a training presence through at least 2016, the commander of the training mission said Wednesday.

Soaring illiteracy rates among service members and a shortage of specialized trainers, however, remain major hurdles as Afghans prepare to take control of securing their nation by the 2014 deadline for NATO to withdraw combat forces, said Army Lt. Gen. William Caldwell.

“We have made great strides in providing the Afghan national security force with both capable and sustainable weapons, vehicles and equipment over this last year, while building a very strong and self-reliant security force,” Gen. Caldwell said.

The $20 billion for 2010 and 2011 is paying for training, equipment and infrastructure. The figure is a large increase over the $20 billion spent between 2003 and 2009.

From wire dispatches and staff reports