US military presence in Haiti sparks controversy

US military presence in Haiti sparks controversy. Religious riots kill 200 in Jos, Nigeria. UN warns Israeli blockade puts Gazans’ health at risk. Yemen strikes house of suspected al-Qaeda militant. FBI 'fabricated terror emergencies' to get access to phone records. Suicide attack on Iraqi army HQ in Mosul. All this and more in today’s security briefing.
Rukeyya Khan
20 January 2010

American troops made a dramatic entrance to the earthquake-ravaged Haitian capital to distribute aid and provide security in one of the most visible and sensitive deployments of US military personnel in the country. Hundreds of soldiers belonging to the US Army's 82nd Airborne poured out of helicopters in Port-au-Prince whilst US marines waded ashore west of the capital to set up a key new base for distributing aid.

The US' current commitment in Haiti stands at just over 11,000 personnel. Officials in Washington have stressed that their role in Haiti is strictly humanitarian, not peace-keeping, and that the US is working to clear a port in the capital to facilitate the arrival of ship-borne aid. The US deployment of troops to Haiti has added to existing pressures on its armed forces. President Obama has ordered the mobilisation of reserve forces for the mission in Haiti but the move has meant that there will be little breathing room for the military, should it be faced with another unexpected call.

In addition to US forces, the United Nations yesterday voted to deploy an additional 2,000 blue helmets and 1,500 new UN police to help guard the distribution of aid, as reports of looting in the capital grow. The additional support will bring the full strength of the UN's Haiti force to over 12,000.

A strong aftershock rocked Haiti early on Wednesday morning as efforts continued to bury the victims of last week’s earthquake and search for survivors. The magnitude 6.1 tremor struck north-west of Port-au-Prince. The extent of the damage is not yet known.

The openSecurity verdict:  The American weekly magazine, TIME, published a commentary on Saturday named ‘The US Military in Haiti: A Compassionate Invasion’ claiming that ‘Haiti, for all intents and purposes, became the 51st state at 4:53 pm on Tuesday in the wake of its deadly earthquake. If not a state, then at least a ward of the state - the United States.’ As Haiti struggles to rescue survivors from the devastating earthquake, there is growing concern around the world about the role the United States will play in the country's relief efforts.

With thousands of American troops stationed in the country there is a fear that the earthquake could be used to exploit the ravished nation. Earlier, Hugo Chavez, a critic of what he calls US 'imperialism', accused Washington of occupying Haiti under the pretext of an aid operation. The US has strongly denied such accusations and the state department said on Tuesday that the US was acting in a supportive capacity, all the while aware that the 'government of Haiti is in charge, [and] the UN is in charge.’

The way in which the US responds to current relief challenges in Haiti have been overshadowed by its historical legacy of interference in the country. Haiti was occupied by the US between 1915 and 1934. More recently, in 2004, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed through an act of rebellion by former Haitian soldiers. Though US officials insisted Aristide left voluntarily, the exiled president claims he was kidnapped at gunpoint and a victim of a 'coup d'etat' orchestrated by Washington. Since, the country continues to be ravaged by violence, corruption and poverty. Critics have also accused Washington of destabilizing the country's economy by imposing neoliberal policies that led Haiti to lift its rice tariffs in the 1990s and the creation of sweatshops, both of which undermined its economic autonomy and are seen as causes of poverty and an ailing infrastructure.

Haiti's long-standing problems meant that when the earthquake struck last week, police, firemen and emergency service workers were nowhere to be found. No one could repair the damaged power stations, water works or phone systems. The lack of security in delivering aid has proven to be a major obstacle to relief agencies. Whilst security and relief efforts remain the priority, there are concerns about the future of Haiti with many suggesting that the country may temporarily have to be administered by an external power. Some have called on the UN to declare Haiti a protectorate to avoid the possibility of any one major power exercising control and hegemony.

For its part, the UN has announced a $40m in 'cash-for-work' programme for Haitians in an effort to defuse the uncertain security situation in the country and provide an income to survivors. Yesterday, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon told journalists that he had agreed with Barack Obama to release funds rapidly to hire local young people for jobs including the removal of rubble. But in spite of such efforts, the colossal problem of disseminating aid to hundreds of thousands of survivors looms large. The US military is carrying out air drops of food and water, though the Haitian ambassador to the US has called for an end to such chaotic methods and instead a more stable relief programme.

Debate continues to rage over the way relief operations are conducted. Most prominently, the US and the France-based aid group Doctors Without Borders engaged in a public spat on Tuesday. The group said one of its planes carrying medical equipment was turned away from the Port-au-Prince airport yet again in the past few days—the fifth such instance in the past week. Medics working with the injured have accused US air traffic controllers of turning away essential medicine supplies that could have saved lives, with priority going to US military flights.

Although the US military is overstretched, it clearly has the capacity to enact an effective occupation of Haiti should it so desire. For now at least, suspicions about US motives will have to be cast aside for the greater common goal of providing much needed relief.

Nigeria riots kill 200 in Jos

At least 200 people have been killed in violence between Christians and Muslims in the Nigerian city of Jos, according to Human Rights Watch. A 24-hour curfew was in place in the city on Wednesday but gunfire could be heard in neighbouring areas. The fighting which broke out on Sunday has prompted thousands of people to flee the city. Hundreds of houses, mosques and churches have been burnt down. The civil unrest comes at a dangerous time for Nigeria, a centralised state with much power vested in the President. For the past two months, President Yar’Adua has been out of the country undergoing medical treatment in Saudi Arabia with his exact condition unknown.

There are conflicting accounts of why violence broke out on 17 January in Jos, where there has been repeated sectarian fighting over the past decade. Some report that Muslim youths set fire to a church while others say young Christians violently protested over the building of a mosque in a Christian district. Other reports say the violence was triggered as a result of a dispute over the rebuilding of houses destroyed when similar violence broke out in 2008. 

UN warns Israeli blockade puts Gazans' health at risk

The blockade of the Gaza Strip is putting residents' health at risk, the UN and aid groups have warned.  One year after Israel's offensive on Hamas-ruled Gaza, UN agencies and the Association for International Development Agencies (AIDA), representing over 80 NGOs, said on Wednesday that the Israeli restrictions were 'undermining the functioning of the health care system and putting at risk the health of 1.4 million people in Gaza.'

Medical facilities and equipment are in despair, many damaged in Israel's military operation a year ago have not been rebuilt they said. They added that patients with serious medical conditions were being prevented from obtaining timely specialised treatment outside Gaza. The World Health Organization has reported that 88 people have died while waiting for permits since November 2007, and on average 20% of essential drugs were out of stock in Gaza between March and November 2009. Restrictions on travel out of Gaza meanwhile have prevented medical staff from updating their expertise at foreign medical centres.

Yemen strikes house of suspected al-Qaeda militant

The Yemeni air force has bombed the home of a suspected al-Qaeda leader, a week after the military said he had died. The attack on the home of Ayed al-Shabwani was met with anti-aircraft fire from his village. Earlier, al-Qaeda had denied that Shabwani had been killed in a 15 January attack in north Yemen.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council has added the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to its list of outlawed organisations. The groups leaders face travel bans and a worldwide freeze on their assets. The purpose of blacklisting the organisation is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat its capability to execute violent attacks.

Elsewhere, direct flights between Yemen and the UK have been suspended as part of measures to improve security after the attempted bombing of a transatlantic flight by Umar Farouk AbdulMuttallab last year. Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis said Tuesday flights will only be resumed once the Yemeni government enhances airport security.

FBI 'fabricated terror emergencies' to get access to phone records

The US justice department is preparing a report which concludes that the FBI reportedly broke the law by invoking terrorism emergencies that did not exist to obtain more than 2,000 telephone records over four years from 2002, including those of journalists working for US newspapers, according to emails obtained by the Washington Post. The newspaper reports that counterterrorism officials at the FBI headquarters did not follow procedures and breached regulations designed to protect civil liberties.

In 2007, the FBI acknowledged that one unit in the agency had improperly gathered some phone records and a justice department audit at the time cited 22 inappropriate requests to phone companies for searches and hundreds of questionable requests. The latest revelations however show that improper requests were much more frequent and numerous than previously thought.

Suicide attack on Iraqi army HQ in Mosul

A suicide bomber detonated a car bomb targeting an Iraqi army headquarters in the northern city of Mosul on Wednesday, wounding 22 people, local police said. Among the wounded were eighteen soldiers, five police officers and ten civilians. US and Iraqi officials anticipate that there will be a rise in such attacks before parliamentary elections scheduled for 7 March.

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