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NightWatch 20100326

NightWatch

For the Night of 26 March 2010

South Korea: Update. A statement from the Blue House (the Republic of Korea's presidential mansion) said the sinking of the South Korean ship was not the result of a North Korean action, according to KBS 1 TV.

Rescue workers resumed operations Saturday, 27 March, to search for missing sailors, Yonhap reported. The 1,200-ton patrol ship Cheon an sank Friday night apparently after an explosion punched a hole in the bottom of the vessel, according to South Korean military officials. A total of 104 sailors were aboard the ship, and only 58 of them have been rescued so far.

The Navy is trying to determine what caused the incident, officials said. The military plans to salvage the sunken vessel for investigations, a process that is said to take at least 20 days, officials said.

North Korea: While the North made no comment today about the lost Republic of Korea Navy ship, it threatened nuclear attacks against the South.

The Korean Central News Agency published an army statement, "Those who seek to bring down the system in the DPRK, whether they play a main role or a passive role, will fall victim to the unprecedented nuclear strikes of the invincible army." The statement criticized a report in the 19 March issue of the South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo that U.S. and South Korean officials will meet in April to discuss contingency plans for internal upheaval in the North.

Comment: Any news reports about Allied planning for an internal collapse in the North or joint military exercises invariably generate a threat statement. Most statements, such as that on 9 March, threaten to increase the nuclear deterrent or to retaliate with great physical damage. This is the first to threaten "nuclear strikes," which is an escalation of the rhetoric. The threat is still conditional, but the message is clear that the North will use nuclear weapons to prevent the collapse of the regime.

In any collapse scenario, command and control of nuclear armed missile forces is likely to be one of the last capabilities to survive. This is the lash out scenario, which has been considered for many years. The likely use of nuclear weapons makes this much more threatening than prior conventional military scenarios.

Iraq: Update. Former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi's secular Iraqiya bloc won the most seats in the 7 March parliamentary election, two more than incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's bloc, official results showed Friday. Allawi said, "Today, the results of the elections settled the issue of Al-Iraqiya's authorization to form the next government, and we will work with all Iraqi parties, whether they won or not, to form the next government," according to Al-Sharqiyah Television

Iraqiya won 91 seats in the 325-member Council of Representatives, compared to the 89 won by the State of Law Alliance led by Maliki, election officials said. The Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition led by Shiite religious groups, came in third place with 70 seats. Kurdistania, comprised of the two long-dominant Kurdish blocs, won 43 seats.

Iraqiya's victory gives the bloc the first opportunity to form a government within the next 30 days. A ruling coalition must have a majority of 163 seats. If Iraqiya fails to do form a coalition within 30 days, Iraq's president, who himself is elected by parliament, would choose the leader of another bloc to try to form a coalition government.

Comment: Al Maliki still wants a recount but has failed to generate widespread public support for more political wrangling. There also remains a significant danger of political violence, nonetheless. Hours before the official results were announced, two bombs detonated in the town of Khalis, Diyala Province, killing 43 people and injuring more than 65.

Israel: An Israel Defense Force soldier and an officer were killed and two soldiers wounded in clashes with Palestinian gunmen east of Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, on Friday, according to an official release. Two Palestinians also were killed.

An official spokesman said the fighting started when its troops crossed into Gaza after spotting militants planting explosives along the border. Reports from inside Gaza say the militants then tried to capture an Israeli soldier.

The al Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, claimed responsibility for killing the two Israeli soldiers. Following the clashes, Israeli press reported five tanks and two armored bulldozers moved into the area near Khan Younis to raze some Palestinian hiding places. Israeli Navy ships increased patrols off the southern coast of Gaza.

Comment: These are the first Israeli soldiers to be killed in clashes since the truce between Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces began after Operation Cast Lead ended in early 2009. For now, the truce appears to be ended, for practical purposes. Israel may be expected to respond asymmetrically to Palestinian attacks. An escalatory spiral appears to have commenced.

Netherlands-Venezuela: Netherlands Foreign Minister Verhagen said in a parliamentary commission statement yesterday that Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is holding off on establishing high level contact between the two countries, according to Dutch press.

"The Netherlands wants to have good relations with Venezuela, but is unable to get in touch with high level officials in Caracas," Verhagen said. "Even though we scheduled numerous meetings with Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelans always cancelled at the last minute."

The Dutch want talks with Chavez to refute his accusations that the United States is preparing an invasion of Venezuela from bases on Aruba and Curacao. These Caribbean islands are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which means the Netherlands government is responsible for their defense and foreign policy.

Note: Special thanks to a Brilliant and careful Reader for this report from the Dutch language press.

US-Mexico: The US Justice Department released the National Drug Threat Assessment, 2010 today. Key points from the executive summary are:

"Overall, the availability of illicit drugs in the United States is increasing. In fact, in 2009 the prevalence of four of the five major drugs--heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, and MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine)--was widespread and increasing in some areas. Conversely, cocaine shortages first identified in 2007 persisted in many markets. Significant trends include:

-- Increased heroin availability evidenced by higher purity, lower prices, and elevated numbers of heroin-related overdoses and overdose deaths is partly attributable to increased production in Mexico from 17 pure metric tons in 2007 to 38 pure metric tons in 2008, according to U.S. Government estimates.

-- Despite recent government of Mexico (GOM) efforts to prohibit the importation of methamphetamine precursor chemicals, methamphetamine availability increased as the result of higher production in Mexico using alternative, less-efficient precursors. Sustained domestic production also contributed to the increased availability levels.

-- Marijuana production increased in Mexico, resulting in increased flow of the drug across the Southwest Border, including through the Tohono O'odham Reservation in Arizona."

Concerning Mexico, the Assessment reported,

Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) continue to represent the single greatest drug trafficking threat to the United States. Mexican DTOs, already the predominant wholesale suppliers of illicit drugs in the United States, are gaining even greater strength in eastern drug markets where Colombian DTO strength is diminishing. The extent of Mexican DTO influence over domestic drug trafficking was evidenced in several ways in 2009. For example:

-- Mexican DTOs were the only DTOs operating in every region of the country.

-- Mexican DTOs increased their cooperation with U.S.-based street and prison gangs to distribute drugs. In many areas, these gangs were using their alliances with Mexican DTOs to facilitate an expansion of their midlevel and retail drug distribution operations into more rural and suburban areas.

- In 2009, midlevel and retail drug distribution in the United States was dominated by more than 900,000 criminally active gang members representing approximately 20,000 street gangs in more than 2,500 cities.

The only good news is,

"Cocaine shortages have persisted in many U.S. drug markets since early 2007, primarily because of decreased cocaine production in Colombia but also because of increased worldwide demand for cocaine, especially in Europe; high cocaine seizure levels that continued through 2009; and enhanced GOM counterdrug efforts. These factors most likely resulted in decreased amounts of cocaine being transported from Colombia to the U.S.-Mexico border for subsequent smuggling into the United States."

The report makes several key points: supply is responding to demand in the US; the Mexican drug gangs now operate in every region of the US; Mexican DTOs are now the dominant drug suppliers at the wholesale and retail ends of the US market, over Colombia and others; gangs remit to Mexico more than $40 billion annually from the US market, according to the report.

End of NightWatch for 26 March.

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