Military draft should be considered: US war czar

A top US military officer in charge of coordinating the US war effort in Iraq said Friday that it makes sense to consider a return of the draft to meet the US military’s needs.

Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, who serves as a White House deputy national security adviser, said the all-volunteer military is serving “exceedingly well” and the administration has not decided it needs to be replaced with a draft.

But in an interview with National Public Radio, Lute said, “I think it makes sense to certainly consider it, and I can tell you, this has always been an option on the table.”

“But ultimately, this is a policy matter between meeting the demands for the nation’s security by one means or another,” he said.

Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, played down the general’s remarks.

“The President believes an all volunteer military serves the country well and there is no discussion of returning to a draft. General Lute’s comments are consistent with the President’s stated policy,” she said from Kennebunkport, Maine.

The United States did away with the draft in 1973 near the end of the Vietnam War.

The US military has preferred an all-volunteer force because it has allowed it to recruit better educated, more motivated troops for a high-tech force.

But commanders worry that repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan will break the force.

“As an army officer, this is a matter of real concern to me,” Lute said.

“Ultimately, the American army, and any other all-volunteer force, rests with the support and the morale and the willingness to serve demonstrated by our — especially our young men and women in uniform,” he said.

“And I am concerned that those men and women and the families they represent are under stress as a result of repeated deployments,” he said.

“And when the system is under stress, it’s right to be concerned about some of the future decisions these young men and women may make. I think our military leaders are right to be focused on that,” he said.

Separately, the US military said the army and marines met their recruiting goals in July and were on track to meet their recruiting targets for the year.

But the army, which missed its recruiting goals in May and June, is now offering new recruits 20,000 dollar bonuses if they sign up and ship out to boot camp before September 30, the end of the fiscal year.

“There’s also a professional and broader strategic argument to this, and that is that when our forces are as engaged as they have been over the last several years, particularly in Iraq, that we’re concerned as military professionals that we also keep a very sharp edge honed for other contingencies outside of Iraq,” Lute said.

He said a key test will come in April when combat brigades now in Iraq begin reaching the end of tours that already have been extended from a year to 15 months.

The military will then face decisions on whether to extend tours beyond 15 months, or deploy brigades that have had less than a year between tours to rest and recover, in order to maintain the current level of forces in Iraq.

Currently there are 162,000 US troops in Iraq, the most there has been since the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

“I do agree that come the spring, some variables will have to change — either the degree to which the American ground forces, the marines and the army in particular, are deployed around the world to include Iraq, or the length of time they’re deployed in one tour, or the length of time they enjoy at home. Those are, essentially, the three variables,” Lutte said.

Lute has been dubbed the “war czar,” but he called it “an fortunate term because it doesn’t describe my job at all.”

He said his job was to match the efforts of the bureaucracy in Washington with the needs on the ground in Iraq.

“I’m in charge of about 15 people. Now that’s not exactly very czar-like, but what I am able to do is make sure that efforts are aligned properly,” he said.

Arctic sea ice ‘lowest in recorded history’: scientist

Sea ice in the northern hemisphere has plunged to the lowest levels ever measured, a US Arctic specialist said Friday, adding that it was likely part of the long-term trend of polar ice melt driven by global warming.

University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana Arctic climate expert William Chapman told AFP that Arctic sea ice had plunged to new lows some 30 days before the normal point of the annual minimum.

He also said that with a lower ice cover and fewer clouds this year, the waters of the Arctic are being exposed to more intense sunlight, further warming them.

“As of yesterday and today … we have set a historical low for sea ice in the northern hemisphere,” he said.

Chapman, a researcher on Arctic meteorology of the university’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences, wrote Thursday in the online publication “The Cryosphere Today” that the new record comes a full month before the historic summer minimum typically occurs during the first or second week of September.

“There is still a month or more of melt likely this year. It is therefore almost certain that the previous 2005 record will be annihilated by the final 2007 annual minima closer to the end of this summer.”

He told AFP that current summer ice cover in the northern hemisphere is averaging 25-30 percent below what it was 50 years ago.

“The trend has been going down since the late 1970s at least, and maybe 50 years,” he said.

Chapman said there are a few factors at work to cause the sharp dip this year.

One is the late freeze last autumn and a second, the early thaw in spring 2007. “The ice was not around for as long as it usually is,” he said.

“The earlier spring melt opens up more dark water to sun,” he added, helping the sea ice to melt faster.

Yet another factor is the uncommon low level of clouds this summer in the far north.

“This summer is also relatively clear, not 90 percent cloudy as usual,” he said, allowing more sun to warm the waters and melt the ice.

“The concern is that the Arctic ocean is absorbing a lot of heat.”

While immediate weather circumstances explain the plunge in ice cover this year, Chapman linked it all to the greater trend of global climate change.

“It is certainly likely that the overall trend is related to global warming.”

One interesting aspect this year, he pointed out in his online article, is that the drop in sea ice is more geographically sweeping than in previous low years.

In earlier low years, big drops in the level of sea ice were confined to specific areas, such as the North Atlantic, the Bering Sea, the Beaufort Sea, or other locales.

This comes in part from prevailing winds blowing ice from one area or sea to another.

“The character of 2007’s sea ice melt is unique in that it is dramatic and covers the entire Arctic sector,” he wrote.

“Atlantic, Pacific and even the central Arctic sectors are showing large negative sea ice area anomalies.”

Canada to build first Arctic deep-water port, military base

Canada will build its first Arctic deep-sea port to bolster its disputed claims to the famed Northwest Passage and Arctic seabed, believed to hold oil and gas riches, its prime minister said Friday.

An old dock and gravel runway at the abandoned lead and zinc mining town of Nanisivik, Baffin Island, would be refurbished to re-supply new Arctic patrol vessels, said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a statement.

As well, a new Canadian Forces winter fighting school would be built in Resolute Bay in the Northwest Passage, he said.

“The first principle of Arctic sovereignty is use it or lose it,” said Harper, indicating the new facilities “tell the world that Canada has a real, growing, long-term presence in the Arctic.”

His announcement comes at the end of a three-day trek across the North and prefaces a massive Canadian military exercise this weekend aimed at countering foreign Arctic grabs.

Canada is at odds with Russia, Denmark, Norway and the United States over 1.2 million square kilometers (460,000 square miles) of Arctic seabed, thought to hold 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas.

Of late, the international rivalry has heated up as melting polar ice make the region more accessible, and could open the Northwest Passage to year-round shipping by 2050.

Canadian forces have operated in the Arctic since 1898, when a volunteer Yukon Field Force helped maintain law and order during the Gold Rush, but a modern military presence was only established in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, in 1970.

Less than 200 soldiers and 1,500 part-time Inuit rangers are now permanently based north of the 60th parallel, maintaining Canadian sovereignty and security over four million square kilometers (1.5 million square miles).

However, the Canadian Navy “does not have the capability to effectively patrol” Arctic waters, it said in a briefing note.

“The navy can only operate in northern waters for a short period of time, and only when there is no ice.”

Harper announced plans last month to build six to eight ice-breaking patrol ships to prevent trespass on Canada’s northern lands and to reaffirm its claim to the Arctic, at a cost of 7.1 billion dollars.

But critics lamented the medium-sized ice-breakers were not sufficient, and called for the three heavy ice-breakers he promised during the last election, in 2006.

“To exercise our sovereignty, Canada needs vessels that can go anywhere, any time in those areas we claim as our own,” said New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton.

“Rather than buying military ‘slush-breakers,’ we should be building new polar ice-breakers … to break ice for commercial vessels, help re-supply northern communities, maintain navigation devices, provide search and rescue, and support research scientists.”

Locals, meanwhile, demand more Arctic ports to spur economic activity and reduce remote communities’ reliance on costly air freight to import food and supplies.

“In the Arctic, there are huge opportunities for diversified economic development, be we lack such obvious tools as shipping facilities,” said Mary Simon, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, in a letter to Nunatsiaq News.

The United States has three aging ice-breakers.

Russia has just started building a new fleet of nuclear-powered ice-breakers, and last week reached the bottom of the Arctic Ocean under the North Pole at a depth of 4,261 meters (13,980 feet) in a mini-submarine to plant a Russian flag — which Canada dismissed as a 15th-century stunt.

Canada has one large ice-breaker and five light-to-medium ice-breakers — all aging and “too few for the size of our Arctic,” according to Robert Huebert, an Arctic geopolitical expert at Calgary University.

“It’s about time that we’re starting to take Arctic sovereignty seriously” after long ignoring its northern frontier, Huebert told AFP.

He noted that US oil firms Exxon and Imperial last month announced hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on Beaufort Sea projects, while South Korea is expanding its ice-breaker building capacity. “They’re not doing this on a whim,” he said.

“There’s going to be a lot more people doing a lot more things in the Arctic, and we need to be ready to claim what we want to control and show that we can control what we claim,” he said.

“The world is coming to the Arctic,” he said. “If push comes to shove, it all comes down to control.”

British helicopter crash results in third death

One person injured when a Royal Air Force helicopter crashed in northern England has died, bringing the death toll from the incident to three people, the British defence ministry said Friday.

Police had announced Wednesday that two people were killed and 10 injured in the accident near the Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire.

A police spokesman had said that of the 12 people on the aircraft, three were RAF crew, and nine army personnel were passengers.

An investigation has been opened into the crash.

Army meets recruit goals, with 20,000-dollar signing bonus

The US Army exceeded its July recruiting goal, aided by 20,000-dollar sign-up bonuses offered after two straight months of enlistment shortfalls, officials said Friday.

All other active-duty services met or surpassed their monthly recruiting targets in July.

The army signed up 9,972 new recruits in July, about two percent above its goal of 9,750, according to Pentagon statistics.

Shortfalls in May and June raised concerns about meeting the army’s annual goal of 80,000 recruits with youths and their parents leery of wartime military service.

The army responded by offering 20,000-dollar bonuses if recruits signed up starting July 25 and shipped out to boot camp within a month and before September 30, said Julia Bobick, a spokeswoman at the army’s recruiting command at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

The signing bonus and other incentives can add up to a maximum 40,000 dollars for new soldiers.

“It was introduced as a way to get as many folks shipped and into training as we can this fiscal year to try to ensure that we do meet our mission,” she said.

The army said it is now 957 recruits ahead of its pace to meet an annual goal of 80,000 recruits.

Three-Tonne Meteorite Stolen In Russia

Russian police were combing the northern Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk on Friday for a three-tonne meteorite that has disappeared from under the nose of its keepers.

The giant rock was stolen from the yard of the Tunguska Space Event foundation, whose director said it was the part of meteor that caused a massive explosion in Siberia in 1908, news agency Interfax reported.

“It winds up that it disappeared back in June, when the foundation was moving out of its old building,” a police spokesman told the agency.

“Our colleagues are establishing what got lost, where the rock is and why they only came to us about it now,” he said.

Foundation director Yury Lavbin brought the three-tonne rock to Krasnoyarsk after an 2004 expedition to the site of the so-called “Tunguska event” — a mysterious mid-air explosion in Siberia in 1908 that was 1,000 times more powerful than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Lavbin claimed at the time to have discovered the wreckage of an alien spacecraft during the expedition.

Scientists continue to argue over the cause of the explosion, which flattened over 2,000 square kilometres (800 square miles) of Siberian forest.

Medics fight disease after SAsia floods

Medics in Bangladesh battled outbreaks of diarrhoea and cholera Friday as international aid began to flow in South Asia to help millions lacking water and food after the worst floods in decades.

The death toll was well above 2,000 on Friday with 16 more deaths reported in Bangladesh, 19 in India’s Bihar state and three more in Nepal.

Monsoon rains have halted across much of the massive Himalayan flood plain from southern Nepal to the eastern delta nation of Bangladesh, with the focus now on combating a host of water-borne diseases, health officials said.

At Bangladesh’s biggest diarrhoea hospital in the capital Dhaka, doctors like Alejandro Cravioto were working around the clock amid hundreds of extra beds under tents to help flood victims.

“It’s like a war-zone situation,” he said, as medical staff patrolled the tents with megaphones, urging patients to take their medication and stay hydrated.

“Some patients are very ill but the treatment is extremely effective,” said Cravioto, the hospital’s executive director.

Thousands of villages remained under water, threatened by disease, while millions were still displaced in India and Bangladesh and desperate for relief aid.

“There are hundreds and thousands of internally displaced people camping on embankments and roads where the most urgent needs are for food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities and shelter,” the UN children’s agency UNICEF said in a statement.

Several countries and international agencies have pledged assistance and money to help victims, including the European Union which has put up an initial four million euros (5.5 million dollars).

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah ordered emergency supplies to be rushed to flood-hit Bangladesh, the official SPA news agency reported Thursday night, adding that 50 million dollars (37 million euros) was being sent to cover urgent needs in the disaster zone.

UNICEF is working with officials in Bihar, hit by the heaviest flooding in 30 years, to conduct medical surveillance and inoculate children against disease, particularly measles.

“The situation in Bihar is the most serious and continues to look grim,” the agency said, noting that nearly 132,000 houses have been destroyed and nearly half a million damaged.

The Indian government announced emergency aid for flood victims, with Bihar, where at least 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) of farmland have been inundated and 14 million people affected, scheduled to get 37 million dollars.

Early estimates of the monsoon’s cost to India stand at about 320 million dollars, though the figure is expected to rise.

The UN agency said that in Bangladesh 7,600 of more than 8,600 primary schools are closed and 23,000 cases of diarrhoea have been reported. The government there has urged citizens and foreign donors to help feed nine million displaced people.

The annual monsoon rains that soak the subcontinent from June through September are crucial for the farm-dependent economies in the region, but also wreak death and destruction.

India’s home ministry reported 1,550 deaths across the country from this year’s monsoon up to Thursday afternoon.

The figures do not include scores of people still missing from numerous boating accidents.

In Bangladesh the toll reached 362 after more deaths overnight, the food and disaster management ministry said.

In Nepal, the death toll rose to 99 after three people were swept away in a river in the south-west, the home ministry said, although the flooded lowlands had not received any rains for the past two days.

UNICEF reported that many of the 330,000 people displaced were returning to villages from relief camps.

burs/er/ejl/bp/tha

China Plans To Survey ‘Every Inch’ Of Moon

China plans to survey all of the moon’s surface before eventually bringing bits of the planet back to Earth, state media reported Friday.

“We would like to survey every inch of the moon’s surface,” Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of the China’s moon exploration project, was quoted as saying on the website of Chinese News Service.

Ouyang, speaking at a conference in southwestern China this week, said China’s lunar exploration programme was divided into three phases: orbiting the moon, landing on the lunar surface and coming back to Earth with samples.

China hopes to send an unmanned spacecraft to the moon to survey the moon systematically and after that, will attempt to collect samples of the moon to bring back to Earth, he said.

China’s space agency chief, Sun Laiyan, said earlier this year that the country aimed to launch its first lunar orbiter in the second half of 2007.

“The moon probe project is the third milestone in China’s space technology after satellite and manned spacecraft projects, and a first step for us in exploring deep space,” the China National Space Administration head said.

The orbiter represented the first phase, with a moon rover to be used in the second phase scheduled for around 2012, reports said.

The plan for the third phase was for another rover to land on the lunar surface and collect samples before returning to Earth.

China would continue to research manned space missions, including a space walk and experiments to link passing spacecraft, he said.

New Finnish nuclear reactor hits fresh snag

Construction of Finland’s new nuclear reactor, the world’s first third-generation plant, is now more than 18 months behind schedule owing to fresh building problems, Finnish energy company TVO said on Friday.

The engineering companies behind the project, France’s Areva and Germany’s Siemens, have informed TVO that the commercial launch of the Olkiluoto 3 reactor could be delayed until 2011, pushing back a previous target of the turn of 2010-2011.

The reactor, Finland’s fifth, was initially due to be operational in mid-2009 but has been plagued by delays.

In a statement, TVO said: “The supplier has reported that the execution of the works, in particular the need to satisfy the safety requirements of the new plant, is more demanding than the supplier had anticipated.”

Martin Landtman, who heads the reactor project for TVO, said the company was “disappointed to learn about this setback”.

“TVO and the supplier will review the supplier’s plans for mitigating the delays, and for the completion of the remaining works. TVO will only thereafter be in a position to communicate when the completion of the plant can be expected,” he said.

Manufacturing problems, cumbersome certification procedures for parts and inspections by Finnish nuclear safety authority STUK have all been blamed for delays in the past.

In early 2006, the project suffered a setback when the structure’s concrete foundation proved to be leaking, which interrupted construction for eight weeks.

The third-generation nuclear plant, which is to be based on European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) technology, is to use the latest nuclear technology that engineers claim provides greater energy, security and reduced waste.

Finland has mooted the idea of building a sixth nuclear plant.

World’s largest nuke plant closed for months

UN inspectors said Friday that the world’s largest nuclear plant in Japan will be closed for months, weeks after being hit by an earthquake.

A mission from the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), spent four days inspecting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant.

The giant facility northwest of Tokyo caught fire and leaked a small amount of radiation following a powerful earthquake on July 16, which killed 11 people in unrelated incidents.

“When you think of starting such a plant, you have to very carefully think about what you have to check first” and the possibility of future earthquakes, IAEA team leader Philippe Jamet said.

“This is one of the tasks in the following months (or) a year, I don’t know, that has to be carried out, if this plant is to restart,” Jamet told reporters after meeting with authorities in Tokyo.

But asked if the team’s final report would be bad news for Japan, Jamet said: “I’m not too worried.”

He said the team would present its preliminary findings to IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei on Monday at the UN agency’s Vienna headquarters.

“It’s very important for us that all the different countries can have good lessons to learn from this earthquake,” Jamet said.

The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., has already downgraded earnings forecasts on the assumption that the seven-reactor facility will be down for at least the rest of the financial year.

Authorities have ordered it shut until the company confirms its safety.

Tokyo Electric, the world’s largest private power company, said the leaked radiation was far below amounts that would be dangerous but came under criticism for initially under-reporting the severity of the incident.

Despite its propensity for earthquakes, Japan relies on nuclear plants for nearly one-third of its power needs as it has virtually no natural energy resources.

The government invited the IAEA team in the hope of easing concern both at home and overseas.

Jamet said he had a “very serious” conversation Friday with Japanese nuclear safety authorities including some disagreements.

“It’s completely impossible that you always agree on everything,” he said.

“And to a certain extent it’s our job to push them as far as we can to make sure that what they say is really trustable. So that’s what happened,” he said, stressing that the IAEA will issue ‘an independent statement’.”

The company and government have acknowledged they did not anticipate an earthquake as strong as 6.8 on the Richter scale in the area of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant.

In a report issued Friday on nuclear safety, the Cabinet Office said Japan “learned a great lesson as the quake affected facilities with lower quake-resistance, even though the safety of the nuclear reactors remained intact.”