Fresh developments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran

Conflicted information over fate of new Iraqi government after Biden’s visit

Petraeus asserts necessity to win in Afghanistan, says fight against Taliban reached decisive limits

Sanctions would stall Iran’s nuke program, affirms Obama

Iran leaders warn of grave consequences

Four months have passed since Iraq's parliamentary elections and the war-torn country is still no closer to having a coherent, working government. The impasse is provoking anger amongst the Iraqi population.

Despite the country's Election Commission confirming that Iyad Allawi, a Shiite former premier, was the March 7 election's narrow victor, Iraq's political parties are still arguing over which of them has the right to try to form a government. In addition, the process is being further hampered by the struggle between party leaders to create a strong enough coalition to command a majority in parliament.

At the heart of this potentially damaging impasse is the rivalry between Allawi and incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki.

Allawi's Iraqiya coalition narrowly beat the Shiite bloc formed from a merger between al Maliki's Shiite-led State of Law party and the Iran-friendly Iraqi National Alliance into second place in the election, but the prime minister is continuing to fight for a second term in charge.

Both Iraqiya and the State of Law alliance claim the right to have a first stab at forming the government.

"Immature new politicians and those who aspire to political power are a major problem," Hazhir Teimourian, an expert on Middle Eastern affairs at the Limehouse Group of International Analysts in London, told Deutsche Welle. "They point out what needs to be improved and they claim that the problems should have been solved long ago. Then there are those who have allied themselves with such neighbours as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey who whip up public agitation knowing that the government and parliament notice them in the hope of appeasing their masters. The failure to form a new government coalition is equally the fault of politicians at the very centre, in parliament."

While the personal clashes and prolonged political jostling rumble on, the Iraqi people are becoming increasingly angry at their politicians inability to form a government and are concerned that the power vacuum could plunge Iraq back into sectarian war while continuing to struggle with a stubborn insurgency.

The need for a strong, unified government to shore up the fragile state of Iraq's social infrastructure and security has been highlighted recently by a number of massive public demonstrations in protest at the political impasse. Thousands of protestors took to the streets of major cities earlier this week to call for a solution the political stalemate and to rage against the on-going power shortages which continue to leave huge areas of the country without electricity.

"There has been a large number of protests and even riots over the political situation," said Teimourian. "In Basra, two people were shot dead recently when demonstrators threatened to overrun government offices over inadequate electricity."

"The scarcity of good public services, from electricity in the grid to rubbish on the streets, is a major reason for disenchantment among the populace," he added.

"Unemployment is also high, despite enormous advances. In Baghdad, things have not been helped by a large scale migration of the rural poor to the city. The capital now has seven million people and cannot supply them with clean water, as well as other necessary services."

Teimourian believes that Iraqis want a government that is able to improve services, quickly reduce unemployment sharply and stamp out corruption.

"It's an unrealistic expectation, but since this new order was installed by Westerners, the expectations were always going to be unrealistic," he said.

"The Iraqi public resents the fact that the politicians appear preoccupied with their own political prospects and not the welfare of the country," Joost Hiltermann, the deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa program at the International Crisis Group think-tank in Washington, told Deutsche Welle. "Ordinary people want a government that governs, not politicians who bicker endlessly to no effect. Most simply want a government, any government, that can deliver security and basic services which is why we've seen many demonstrations over failing utilities, specifically lack of electricity."

As protests against the political situation become increasingly violent, with police and government buildings attacked by stone-throwing demonstrators, insurgent groups intent on taking advantage of Iraq's deadlocked political process have staged a new wave of bombings against financial institutions in the last few weeks, while Baghdad's Green Zone - the capital's fortified government and diplomatic enclave - has come under renewed mortar attack.

The belief that there is a concerted effort to spread fear and instability through violence is supported by government figures which show a slow but steady rise in deaths across Iraq since the March election. Statistics show that 337 people were killed in unrest in May, the fourth time this year the overall death toll has been higher than in the same month of 2009.

"When it comes to agitators for instability in the country, there are spoilers around, but most insurgents appear to have opted for the political path for now," said Hiltermann. "On the sidelines, some groups, like al Qaeda in Iraq, try to mess things up, and sometimes do get through, but they have very little traction and therefore fail in triggering greater violence."

"Saying that, it is certainly a possibility that shouldn't be ruled out that this continued lack of leadership could lead to a sectarian or civil war," he added. "But for now all sides are still talking and compromise, for example in the form of a power-sharing arrangement between the main winning lists, remains possible."

Hazhir Teimourian believes the threat of esclating violence is minimal at the present time.

"In the short term, there is no such danger," he said. "Al Qaeda and the other extremist champions of Sunni Islam have been pushed aside and security has improved, despite the odd suicide bombing. The national army is also strong enough to deal with any challenge from inside the majority sect, the Shias.

Nor is there any possibility that the Kurds would rise in arms to ensure that they have enough representation in the political centre ground."

Time may be running out, however. Iraq needs a government which can restore faith in the political process and shore up security before the largest round of United States troop withdrawals cut in-country deployments to 50,000 at the beginning of September. A solution which can give the country stability before public unrest turns to revolt or sectarian violence is provoked on a larger scale needs to be found – and fast.

"The most likely political solution to this impasse is a fairly broad-based coalition government that would prevent spoilers from exploiting the situation," Hiltermann said. "On the flip side, a coalition government will find it hard to reach difficult decisions and to govern, and this also could become a source for instability, or at least it could limit the longevity of the government."

In Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus formally assumed command of the 130,000-strong international force in Afghanistan, declaring "we are in this to win" despite rising casualties and growing skepticism about the nearly 9-year-old war.

During a ceremony at NATO headquarters, Petraeus received two flags -- one for the U.S. and the other for NATO -- marking his formal assumption of command.

He said it was important to demonstrate to the Afghan people and world that al-Qaeda and its extremist allies will not be allowed to again establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan from which they could launch attacks on the United States and other countries.

"We are in this to win," Petraeus told a crowd of several hundred NATO and Afghan officials at the ceremony held on a grassy area just outside coalition headquarters. "We have arrived at a critical moment."

Petraeus succeeded Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was fired last month for intemperate remarks he and his aides made to Rolling Stone magazine about Obama administration officials who were mostly on the civilian side.

"Upfront I also want to recognize the enormous contributions of my predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal," Petraeus said. He said the progress made reflected McChrystal's "vision, energy and leadership."

Petraeus said the change in command did not signal a radical shift in McChrystal's strategy of making the protection of the Afghan people the focus of the military mission. He stressed the importance of avoiding civilian casualties, but said he would examine the civilian and military policies "to determine where refinements might be needed."

That suggested he would review the rules under which NATO soldiers fight, including McChrystal's curbs on the use of airpower and heavy weapons if civilians are at risk. Some troops have complained such restraint puts their own lives in danger and hands the battlefield advantage to the Taliban and their allies.

"We must never forget that the decisive terrain in Afghanistan is the human terrain," Petraeus wrote in a memo to his troops, praising their effort. "Protecting those we are here to help nonetheless does require killing, capturing or turning the insurgents. We will not shrink from that."

Petraeus noted that June had been the deadliest month for the international force since the war began in October 2001 with 102 deaths, more than half of them Americans.

"As you and our Afghan partners on the ground get into tough situations, we must employ all assets to ensure your safety, keeping in mind, again, the importance of avoiding civilian casualties," he said.

Speaking before Petraeus, German Army Gen. Egon Ramms, whose Allied Joint Forces Command oversees NATO forces in Afghanistan, also praised the work of McChrystal, saying he took the coalition "forward at a very difficult time."

The Afghan Ministry of Interior said 63 drug smugglers and terrorists were killed and 16 tons of drugs and drug-making chemicals destroyed in a two-day operation that ended in southern Afghanistan. Ten armed militants and smugglers, including some foreigners, were arrested by a counternarcotics unit assisted by coalition forces along Afghanistan's southern border with Pakistan, the ministry said.

It said authorities freed 14 civilians being held by the smugglers and terrorists, and confiscated weapons, explosives and suicide vests during the operation at Baramcha in southern Helmand province.

Also in the south, four civilians were killed and five others were wounded by a remote-controlled bomb set up on a motorcycle in a bazaar in Musa Qala, said Dawood Ahmadi, a spokesman for Helmand province. At the time of the blast, police were busy defusing another bomb planted on a donkey, Ahmadi said.

Last week, a civilian was killed in a roadside bomb explosion in the Tagab district of Kapisa province, another civilian driving a car was killed when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Khash Rod district of Nimroz province, and four civilians died in a roadside bomb attack in the Shinkay district of Zabul province, Afghan police officials said.

In Tehran, Iran acknowledged for the first time last week that newly-imposed sanctions "may slow down" its nuclear drive, including its sensitive uranium enrichment work, but said it will not halt it.

The comments by the head of Iran's atomic energy, Ali Akbar Salehi, were the first admission by a senior official of the impact of new UN sanctions imposed on June 9.

"One can't say sanctions are ineffective," Iran's ISNA news agency quoted Salehi as telling a press conference in the southern port city of Bushehr.

"If sanctions are aimed at preventing Iran's nuclear activities ... we say they may slow down the work, but will not stop the activities. This is a certainty."

Previously senior officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had been defiant in their dismissal of the new sanctions.

Speaking soon after the UN Security Council adopted the new measures, Ahmadinejad said they were like a "used hanky which should be thrown in the dustbin."

Salehi, who is one of several vice presidents, said the sanctions would not affect a nuclear power station nearing completion in Bushehr, which he visited on Wednesday.

But he said there could be some impact on Iran's uranium enrichment program as it would now be more difficult to procure some equipment.

"The Bushehr site is not (affected) by the sanctions and Russian officials have repeatedly maintained that the sanctions are not targeting Bushehr," he said after inspecting the Russian-built plant, which he said would open in September.

"But on the issue of enrichment, we may face problems with some equipment such as measuring instruments," he said.

He added: "If we face a problem over this equipment, we will manufacture it."

Talks with the major powers on a plan drafted by the UN nuclear watchdog last October for the supply of fuel for a Tehran medical research reactor in return for Iran's shipping most of its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium abroad failed to bear fruit.

A fresh proposal brokered by Brazil and Turkey before the adoption of the new UN sanctions has been cold-shouldered by the West.

Salehi said Iran was "ready to negotiate" with the major powers over the fuel supply plan but he insisted that the talks should be on the basis of the proposal agreed with Brazil and Turkey.

He said the Tehran reactor was currently being run so as to ensure that the existing fuel "will suffice until September next year."

Iran set this September 1 as a possible date for the resumption of talks with the major powers, provided they are genuine.

Its top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili sent a letter to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton saying the powers must first clarify whether the talks were aimed at "engagement and cooperation or continued confrontation and hostility towards Iranians."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters: "If Iran is serious about talking to the P5-plus-one (the major powers), then I think we're willing to meet.

"Obviously we'd have to evaluate the Iranian offer," Toner added.

Ashton's office said the world powers and the EU were "analyzing" the content of the letter to provide a quick response.

A European diplomat said the letter was "more positive" than previous missives.

But President Barack Obama vowed the United States would keep up the pressure as he received Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House.

"We intend to put pressure on Iran to meet its international obligations and to cease the kinds of provocative behavior that have made it a threat to its neighbors and the international community," Obama said.

Since the UN measures were adopted, both the United States and the European Union have slapped additional sanctions on Iran unilaterally.

Western governments suspect Iran's nuclear program is cover for a weapons drive, something Tehran has repeatedly denied, insisting it is aimed solely at power generation and medical research.