Friday, October 20, 2006

N.Korea Ready to Talk if U.S. Lifts Sanctions

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il told a special Chinese envoy on Thursday the hermit nation will only return to six-party talks on its nuclear program if the U.S. lifts sanctions, according to a Chinese diplomatic source.

The source quoted the North Korean leader as telling State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan on Thursday morning that North Korea will negotiate on its nuclear program, be it in new bilateral talks with the U.S. or the existing six-way framework, if the U.S. makes some concessions.

Kim apologized to Beijing for going ahead with its threatened nuclear test on Oct. 9, the source said. Tang returned to Beijing from Pyongyang on Thursday night after delivering Chinese President Hu Jintao¡¯s message to the North Korean leader Officially, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters that Kim and Tang discussed North Korean-Chinese relations and the current political situation on the Korean Peninsula.

This is a very significant visit, against the backdrop of major changes on the Korean Peninsula. We hope China's diplomatic efforts ... will bear fruit,¡± Liu said. Tang was accompanied by vice foreign ministers Dai Bingguo and Wu Dawei, the latter Beijing¡¯s chief negotiator in the stalled nuclear talks.

The spokesman revealed no details of Hu¡¯s message, saying only that Chinese leaders ¡°maintain their position¡± on Korean Peninsulas issue when meeting with foreign leaders. North Korea experts believe Hu conveyed the international community¡¯s concerns about the nuclear test to the North Korean leader and urged him to return to the six-way talks as soon as possible to resolve the problem peacefully. Based on Tang¡¯s meeting with Kim, China will mediate between Washington and Pyongyang during U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to China on Friday. A diplomatic source in Beijing said Kim's willingness to meet Tang was itself a good sign.

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He was family’s rock, jokester

A soldier from the area who died in Iraq is remembered for goofy spoofs and caring ways.

The Kansas City Star

David Unger’s accommodations in Iraq weren’t exactly to the standards of “MTV Cribs” — where flush celebrities show off their lavish homes.

But Unger, who rarely passed up a chance to make others laugh hysterically, couldn’t resist making a satirical comparison in a video he sent to his wife, parents and others back in Leavenworth.

While rich athletes and actors generally flaunt their Hummers and pools, the 21-year-old Army corporal mockingly showed off a shabby-looking grassy patch that he declared was “the future bowling alley, golf course, horseshoe arena. It’s all gonna go down right here.”

He joked about the birds who liked to leave droppings on military beds. And when a friend pulled up in an Army-issued armored vehicle, he deadpanned: “You did my rims!”

The video has become a precious memory as his family struggles with ways to cope with Unger’s death on Tuesday (Iraq time) near Baghdad.

The Department of Defense has not released the official details of the Leavenworth man’s death. His mother, Diana Pitts, said her son was killed when an improvised explosive device struck his armored Humvee. Four others, including an Iraqi interpreter, also were killed, she said.

Funeral services, which will be held at the Belden-Sexton-Sumpter Funeral Chapel in Leavenworth, are pending.

Unger, who graduated from Leavenworth High School in 2003, is survived by his wife, Laura Unger, a son, a daughter, his mother and father, and four younger siblings.

Pitts said Unger was expected to leave Iraq for Kuwait in mid-November. He would have returned to Texas with the 4th Infantry Division in December. Unger already had decided not to re-enlist and instead return to Leavenworth to spend more time with his family, Pitts said.

She and other family members now wonder how they will get by without her oldest child, who would have turned 22 on Halloween.

“For almost 22 years, he was the rock of our family,” she said.

But even as she fought back tears, his mother couldn’t help but smile remembering her son’s goofy spoofs and thoughtful Valentine’s Day card to his wife.

Even as a young child, Unger loved to say something unexpected just as his mother was about to hand down punishment.

“That was the type of person my son was. He was just always just trying to make everybody happy and laugh. That was my child. I just don’t know what any of us are going to do without him,” she said.

Pitts, who works in the chaplain’s office at Fort Leavenworth, said she had tried not to worry since he left for Iraq.

“I know that worry will eat you alive. I just tried to keep faith, and I just knew that he was going to be OK and he is OK. He’s in a much better place than any of us.”

Since his departure she has taken comfort in Ecclesiastes 3, which starts with the well-known lines “To every thing there is a season.” About the time of his death — hours before she received word — Pitts said she woke up at an odd hour and was drawn to the passage.

After she was notified of his death, she wondered: Was his spirit there? Did he die at that moment?

She later came to this conclusion about why she was drawn to the passage at that moment: “It basically just says there’s a time to ask questions. There’s a time to let it go. I just believe that God and David were telling me, ‘Let it go,’ ” she said. “I know that David loved us, and he knows that we loved him — nothing else at this point in time matters.”

To reach Dawn Bormann, call (816) 234-5992 or send e-mail to

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AS I SEE IT: The delay of Fight 1099 was a humbling honor

It was spitting rain as we circled Atlanta for what seemed like five or six huge, lazy arcs; we worried about making our connection.

Once safely in our seats on Kansas City-bound Delta Flight 1099, my wife and I relaxed, thinking of the enjoyable weekend we’d just spent with our son and his wife in Virginia.

That’s when Capt. Dan O’Hara announced another delay, something about the cargo hold … ongoing calculations of balance and weight ratios.

“Great,” I thought.

Then O’Hara made another announcement that hushed every passenger on the packed flight and left me ashamed for cussing our delay.

“I want you to know that we are all part of a very solemn journey today,” said O’Hara, a veteran and Naval Academy graduate. We have on board today, the body of a serviceman killed in action in Iraq, Private First Class Shane Austin, an Edgerton, Kan., native.

“I consider it a high honor to be a part of that journey … his final journey home. I hope it is your great honor as well.”

O’Hara asked that the passengers allow him and an honor guard to leave the plane first, so they could oversee the transfer of Austin’s casket. The 19-year old had died Oct. 8 trying to throw an enemy grenade out of his tank.

“I know it gets to people,” O’Hara said later, “but it can also make people stop and consider.”

Another passenger, Ted Steinmeyer described the transfer in a letter to this newspaper:

After “a very somber and thought-provoking ride home … almost everyone on the aircraft lined the terminal windows and paid our respects to Shane and his family.

“… two members of the honor guard uncrated Shane’s casket and draped it with our country’s flag.

“We watched Shane’s mother walk down the line of waiting family members and embrace each one; a show of compassion, strength and composure that most of us could not fathom … a stoic mother providing comfort to other grieving members of her family. The honor guard slowly marched his casket into the hearse.”

From all of us on Flight 1099, thank you Pfc. Shane Austin, for your sacrifice for your country and your crew mates, and thank you Capt. Dan O’Hara for allowing us a role in Shane’s final journey home.


Mike McGraw is a projects reporter for The Kansas City Star. He lives in Kansas City. Ted Steinmeyer is a regional sales manager. He lives in Leawood.

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Edgerton native killed in Iraq combat

An Edgerton, Kan., native was killed by enemy fire Sunday in Iraq, the Defense Department said Tuesday.

Pfc. Shane R. Austin, 19, was part of the Army’s 1st Battalion, 35th Armor Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armor Division, based in Baumholder, Germany. He died in Ramadi.

Austin’s father, Terry Austin, said his son was killed when an insurgent threw a grenade into his son’s tank. Shane Austin had been in Iraq a few months and was scheduled to come home with the rest of his unit next month.

“My son was a very proud soldier,” Terry Austin said. “He’s a hero in Edgerton today.”

Shane Austin was the middle of three brothers and had made private first class about a week ago, his father said Tuesday.

Austin attended school in the Gardner Edgerton district from elementary school through 2005. His mother and a brother went to the school Monday and told the staff of Austin’s death, Deputy Superintendent Tim Yoho told The Associated Press.

“Our prayers are with the family,” Yoho said. “It’s a horrible thing, and it brings us back to reality when it’s one of your own who is killed.”

A candlelight vigil will be held this weekend in Edgerton,but plans are not complete. Terry Austin said he wants his son to be buried at Fort Leavenworth.

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Attack on Iraqi City Shows Militia’s Power

Published: October 20, 2006

BAGHDAD, Oct. 20 — Hundreds of militiamen linked to the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr battled local police and members of a rival Shiite militia in the southeastern city of Amara today, destroying police stations and seizing control of entire neighborhoods, in apparent retaliation for the arrest of one of their fighters.

Local tribal and political leaders and representatives from the Baghdad offices of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki negotiated all day in an effort to stem the fighting.

The gunmen from Mr. Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, eventually withdrew from their positions and ceded control of the city to an Iraqi Army batallion sent from Basra. The negotiations continued late into the evening.

British forces, who occupied the city for two years before turning it over to Iraqi control in August, did not intervene to stop the bloodshed in Amara, apparently wanting to give Iraqi officials time to resolve the dispute on their own. British military officials said that a quick-reaction force was standing by outside Amara in case the Iraqis’ efforts failed.

The stunning and defiant display of militia strength underscored the weaknesses of the Iraqi security forces and the potency of the Mahdi Army, which has been able to operate virtually unchecked in Iraq. The Mahdi Army is widely accused of propelling the cycle of sectarian violence that threatens to plunge the country into all-out civil war.

Today’s clashes, which pitted Mr. Sadr’s fighters against members of a rival Shiite faction, the Badr Organization, also showed the deep fissures in the country’s Shiite leadership, and cast doubt on the ability of the ruling Shiite coalition to hold itself together.

The stability of Mr. Maliki’s government depends on a tenuous peace between Mr. Sadr, who controls one of the largest voting blocs in parliament, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who leads the Badr militia and the country’s largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. A generations-long feud between their families has carried over into a personal and political rivalry between the men, and their militias have periodically clashed.

A violent break between them would severely complicate the efforts of Iraqi and American officials to quell the soaring violence in Iraq.

In comparison with the west and north of the country, where a fierce Sunni Arab-led insurgency has tormented American and Iraqi troops and where Sunni and Shiite death squads have engaged in vicious cycle of retributive violence, the predominantly Shiite south has been fairly peaceful. But a disintegration of the unstable pact between Mahdi Army and Badr fighters could draw American attention away from other trouble areas and compel the British military to return to areas they have turned over to the Iraqis.

The American military command acknowledged this week that it was considering an overhaul of its latest security plan for Baghdad, where three months of intensive American-led sweeps had failed to curb violence by Sunni Arab-led insurgents and Shiite and Sunni militias.

According to Sheik Abdul Kareem al-Muhamadawi, Amara’s most prominent political leader, the latest dispute between the Shiite militias began after Qassim al-Tamimi, the chief of investigations for the provincial police force and a member of the Badr Organization, was killed in a bombing. Badr fighters blamed the Mahdi Army for the killing.

The police then arrested the brother of the local Mahdi Army commander, officials said, though it was unclear whether the arrest was related to the bombing.

Mahdi fighters responded with the assault on the city, which began Thursday afternoon.

By this morning, victorious Mahdi fighters, clad in black and carrying Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, were patrolling the city on foot and in commandeered police vehicles and were setting up roadblocks, local leaders and residents said. At least 8 people were killed in the clashes, and 75 were wounded, according to health officials in Amara.

“There is no state in the city right now,” Sheik al-Muhamadawi said by telephone early this afternoon. “Policemen tried to protect the stations, but what can they do? They do not have enough weapons and ammunition compared with the militia, which has all kinds of weapons.”

Amara is the capital of Maysan province, a region of farmland and marshes near the Iranian border that has been a chokepoint for munitions and people entering Iraq from Iran.

Political control has been fiercely contested by followers of Mr. Hakim and Mr. Sadr. Mr. Sadr’s allies dominate the 42-member provincial council, and the governor is a former Mahdi Army commander. But the police chief is a former Badr Organization member, and many of his policemen pledge loyalty to that militia.

The Shiite militias have presented Mr. Maliki with perhaps the greatest conundrum of his administration. American officials have pressed him hard to disarm the militias and rid the state security forces of their influence. Yet Mr. Maliki has hesitated to move against them, particularly the Mahdi Army and Badr Organization, for fear of alienating fundamentalist Shiite leaders inside his fractious coalition.

Mr. Sadr’s considerable leverage was apparent earlier this week, when Mr. Maliki ordered the release of one of Mr. Sadr’s senior aides. The aide had been arrested a day earlier by American troops on suspicion of participating in kidnappings and killings.

According to Western intelligence officials, though, Mr. Sadr appears to have lost control of part of his militia, which has splintered off into freelance death squads. In fact, it remained unclear whether he had approved the Amara uprising before it began.

Witnesses said a message from Mr. Sadr was blared over loudspeakers from vehicles in Amara this afternoon, calling on gunmen to lay down their weapons. The order was widely disregarded.

Khalid al-Ansary, Qais Mizher and Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Christine Hauser from New York.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Vet centers under pressure

Treatment staffs strive to cope with rising caseloads resulting from Afghan and Iraqi wars.
The Star’s Washington correspondent
WASHINGTON A network of community-based, walk-in veterans treatment centers is under increasing pressure as more and more former troops from Iraq and Afghanistan have come looking for help.

A report to be issued today by the Democratic staff of the House Veterans Affairs Committee says that nearly a third of all Vet Centers have seen the demand rise for outreach and other services.

The report surveyed 60 of the 207 Vet Centers operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It found that the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder doubled — from nearly 4,500 to more than 9,000 — from Oct. 2005 through June 2006.

The number of veterans with other types of mental-health and readjustment problems also doubled, and in some cases tripled.

Half of the Vet Centers sampled reported that expanding caseloads had affected their ability to treat their clientele.

“The administration’s failure to increase staffing and other resources for Vet Centers has put their capacity to meet the needs of veterans and their families at risk,” the report said.
The study was released to reporters Wednesday afternoon, and efforts to contact the VA for comment were unsuccessful. It was unclear when the VA received the report.

“The Vet Centers’ staff are dedicated and deeply committed to meeting the needs of veterans and their families, but without additional resources, even dedicated staff has limits,” said Democratic Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine, the House VA Committee member who requested the report.

The report is the result of a confidential survey of Vet Center staffs. The committee’s Democratic staff contacted a sample of 64 centers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Sixty centers responded.

The centers were created in 1979 to be accessible, storefront clinics where veterans could be seen almost immediately by a staff largely composed of combat veterans.
Other findings

•40 percent of the Vet Centers sampled have sent veterans with readjustment issues who should be receiving individualized therapy into group therapy.
•30 percent said they need more staff.
•25 percent could cut services and create waiting lists.
•20 percent said they have either limited or no capability to provide counseling or therapy for families dealing with a veteran suffering from PTSD or other mental-health problems.

To reach David Goldstein, call 1-(202) 383-6105, or send email to dgoldstein@

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