Thursday, September 10, 2009

They had nothing else to do







US Ambassador Chris Hill appeared before Congress today. He last appeared before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on March 25th, back when Committee Chair John Kerry was explaining that, if confirmed as ambassador, he would depart for Iraq "within a day of his Senate confirmation. Tuesday April 21st, Hill was confirmed by the Senate. Three days later he showed up in Baghdad. Baby Hill's first broken promise since becoming ambassador.

This morning, Chris Hill appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and there wasn't a great deal to that hearing. Hill insisted that there was joy and wonder in Iraq because Sunnis and Shia had no "risen to the bait" of sectarian warfare. He avoided the issue of mounting tensions between Kurds and Arabs -- surprising when you grasp that outside observers and the top US commander in Iraq, Gen Ray Odierno, have identified that mounting tension as among the most pressing problems facing Iraq today. In fact, "Analysts say tensions between Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq is the major threat to the country's stability and security as the U.S. troops, which have mediated between the two sides, are prepare to withdraw from Iraq by 2012." That's Xinhua, we'll come back to that after discussing the hearing.

He acknowledged that "there is a risk of escalation in tensions between Arabs and Kurds around the disputed areas in nothern Iraq." A risk? It's taking place. Hill came off like an uninformed fool in March when attempting to speak on the issue of Kirkuk. He was no more convincing today discussing "the thorny dispute in Kirkuk." What is he doing on that issue? Apparently nothing but, he insisted, "The UN has an important role here." Then why are you appearing before Congress?

"There has been some good news," insisted Hill. "Iraq statged two rounds of successful elecitons this year -- the provincial council elections in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces in January, and elections for the Kurdistan Regional Government in July." Yes, he is that stupid. The KRG elections allowed for 3 more provinces to vote. And? What of Kirkuk? The oil-rich Kirkuk has not had its referendum -- promised in Iraq's Constitution ratified in 2005. There has been no promised census. There is no progress.

And that needs to be stated clearly. In 2007, a series of benchmarks were created by the Bush White House to measure 'progress' in Iraq. These were not 'longterm' benchmarks. These were benchmarks Iraq was supposed to meet within a year. And never did. And even now, as 2009 winds down, the benchmarks haven't been met.

Hill should not be allowed to cite 'progress' without defining it. He found time to slam the Iraqis comfort level with a Socialist economy, to preach the marekt economy as the only way for Iraq to find stability, to prep for a coming war with Iran (including climbing the drama cross about an Iranian rocket landing "in the front yard of my house") and more. James Morrison (Washington Times) reported this morning that Hillmight face questions today regarding why he more or less ignored ("downplayed") a letter from over "500 members of the British Parliament" warning that Camp Ashraf residents were in danger (the residents were assaulted July 28th). The issue was raised by the House Committee and Hill embarrassed himself and the country of the United States. The assulat resulted in 11 dead, many injured and at least 36 kidnapped/imprisoned. (Camp Ashraf residents call the 36 hostages.) Hill declared that Nouri has assured him the 36 won't be sent to Iran. The MEK are Iranian dissidents who have been in Iraq for decades now. Saddam Hussein welcomed them into the country. Following the US invasion in 2003, the US protected the MEK. Hill stated that they won't be sent back to Iran and seemed pleased with his statement. That's an ambassador? When Joe Wilson was Ambassador to Iraq, he stood up to the ruler. Hill's couldn't have been more ineffectual if he'd added, "Nouri and I text and i.m. all the time. And Hoshie Zebari is so dreamy!" He insisted that Nouri knew the US was interested in "the preservation of their human rights" but that appears only to apply to "Don't send them back to Iran!" Imprison them? Hey, fine and dandy with Chris Hill.

Due to the differences in time limits, we'll focus on the Senate committee. Individuals members of the committee have more time to ask questions on the Senate Committee. Equally true, Hill appeared fully awake for the afternoon session. His hair was in disarray and he had a food stain on his shirt (he is the Pig-Pen Ambassador), but he was awake.

We'll note a lengthy section of John Kerry's opening statement:

If the Iraqi public rejects the agreement, then I believe we have no choice but to withdraw all of our forces as quickly as we can. This would complicate our redeployment and severely curtail our ability to assist the Iraqi security forces and government. But at this point, I'm not sure how we justify asking our soldiers to stay one day longer than necessary after being formally disinvited by the Iraqi people.

In a sense, the security agreement that the Bush Administration negotiated with Prime Minister Maliki made moot the old "should we stay or should we go" policy debate. But even so, Iraq remains a Rorschach test for pundits and policymakers:

On the one hand, a person can look at the security gains since 2006 -- when sectarian violence threatened to tear Iraqi society apart -- and conclude that Iraqis have stepped back from the brink. And it's true that, since the worst days of 2006 and 2007, violence has dropped by 85 percent, even with the recent mass-casualty attacks. American fatalities are at their lowest rate of the war. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, while still deadly, is only a shadow of its former self.

There has been political progress, as well. In the January elections, unlike in 2005, sectarian and ethnic identification is unlikely to be the sole organizing principle of Iraqi politics. The leader of the Anbar Awakening, a group that evolved out of the Sunni Arab insurgency, has been talking openly about a political alliance with the Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Such an announcement would have been unthinkable just eighteen months ago. Other Sunni factions are exploring a coalition with the Kurds. Electricity production, which had long been stalled, quietly increased by forty percent in the last year.

That is the optimistic view. But one can look at the same set of facts on the ground and come to a more pessimistic conclusion: namely, that removing an American presence that has been the lynchpin of the security improvements of the last few years would lead Iraq back into a downward spiral of communal violence.

It's too soon to know whether the rise in violence since American forces withdrew from Iraqi cities in June is an uptick or an upswing. Whether it is a blip or a trend, recent violence has been troubling. August was the deadliest month for Iraqis in more than a year. And the devastating "Black Wednesday" bombings against the Iraqi Foreign and Finance Ministries last month were a stark reminder that forces opposed to reconciliation remain capable of devastating attacks that could alter the country's direction. The attacks were also a blow to the Iraqi people's confidence in their security forces. And of course, Iraq's problems don't end there: Arab -- Kurdish tensions remain unresolved, corruption is rampant; millions of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons remain far from home, waiting to be resettled; and Iraq's relations with its neighbors are volatile. These are a few of the many challenges Iraq will face in the coming years.

So which is it? Is Iraq beginning to unravel again, or are these just the inevitable bumps on the road toward returning responsibility for Iraq to Iraqis? What will happen after we leave? We don't have definitive answers to these questions.

Ranking Member Richard Luger stated they didn't need Hill to use a crystal ball and tell them about what would take place in 2011, that instead they need "your best sense of how things are progressing towards that date." And then the floor went to Chris Hill.

In the midst of reading his prepared statement -- the same prepared statement Senator John Kerry asked him to summarize and not read in full so that there could be more time for questions -- Hill looked around (so many rumors of meds, so many rumors) and asked,
"Is that my phone or someone else's? Good, it's not mine." Good. And did anyone else hear the ringing? Hill returned to reading his statement. Repeating, John Kerry told him the statement would be put into the record "as if you read it in full" and instructed him to summarize it so there would be more time for a discussion. Hill just doesn't grasp events around him. Maybe all those ringing cell phones he hears distracts him? Over three minutes into his word-for-word reading of the prepared statment, Hill was greeted by a loud throat clearing on the part of Senator Kerry. No, he didn't take a hint. Four minutes in, Kerry was visibly irritated. No, Hill didn't notice but went on about "we need to work closely with Iraq" . . . Some might think Hill was so dependent upon his prepared remarks because he stammers and stumbles when speaking without prepared text. Possibly. But he manages to screw up even his word-for-word reading. And, it needs to be noted, the prepared remarks he gave in the afternoon were pretty much the same ones he gave in the morning to the House committee. Kirkuk was "the thorny dispute" in both because they were the same damn statement. Four minutes later, Senator Kerry was again loudly clearing his throat and Hill was continuing to speak about "a very important day, more important than many . . ." Over ten minutes after he was asked to summarize and not read his statement, Hill finished reading it.

Senator Kerry noted Hill "mentioned in your testimony a strengthend civilian effort. What do you mean by that? We have one of the largest embassies in the world." Hill agreed that was true and then stated that the embassy "will need to get smaller." If you're confused, the committee appeared to be so as well as Hill began speaking of having to rent apartments in Baghdad for some staff members and putting in a partition/dry wall in one when the two people were not married. "But I want to assure mr chairman I want to see that embassy smaller," he declared firmly to the puzzled stares of the committee. Is Hill planning to rent out the embassy conference room for small parties? Sign lease agreements with some of the Subway sandwich shops losing spots on bases. [Marc Santora reported on bases yesterday, it was an article of interest but there was no room for it in the snapshot. Click here to read his article.]

Senator Russ Feingold asked whether the US military should provide security for embassies in war zone considering recent contractor scandals? "Incidents do happen," stated Hill, "everywhere." Thanks for that explanation, Chris. But, "I would rather not task the military with another mission." The US marines are the ones who are supposed to be protecting US embassies staff in foreign countries. If Hill's aware of that, he gave no indication. In replying to Senator Feingold, Hill fell back repeatedly on some variation of, "Maybe I can take the question and get back to you." Even for something as basic as his own role as supervisor as US troops draw-down. It was rather sad.

And what of 'progress'? Senator Kerry observed, "We've been sitting on this committee listening to this talk -- I can remember Senator Rice [. . .] testifying to us three or four years ago, saying the oil law is almost done." And it wasn't and it isn't.

"I went out there with the expectations that we would move on it," Hill declared of the oil law while painting himself as Hill of Arabia. But now? The issue's so much more complicated than he knew. (Over his head?) The law has many parts: "revenue sharing, institution building". And no luck on it. "We have tried to break it down," Hill shrugged. " I think that getting the economy there operating [. . .] is eseentital to the future of that country and frankly we cannot be funding things that should be funded by the Iraqis and would be funded" if the oil law was in place. Senator Corker wanted to know "how long as a country that we are supporting Iraq financially?" Hill agreed, "They should be able to pay their own bills. There's no question that they should pay their own bills." But?

They need financial support, Hill said, and pinned it on pre-Saddam era, going back to the British occupation (which he named and fingered) and Iraqis 'fear' of turning over assets "to foreigners to development. So they've got to get over that." Oh do they? They have to get over that. Hill said that Iraqis have to get over that? And he's the ambassador to Iraq?

The oil draft law (aka Theft Of Iraqi Oil)? "I think realistically speaking," Hill said indicating he had offered something other than realistic speaking to the committee previously, "it will probably not get done before the January elections. So our concern is that we cannot have Iraq's future held up or held hostage by this one particular issue."

The Ambassador to Iraq made statements blaming Syria and that may have been the most interesting of all. "They have rightly called for their return" declared Hill of former Ba'athists now living in Syria. Wow. What a difference from mere days ago. September 1st he appeared on WBUR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook (see Sept. 2nd snapshot for transcript of his remarks). From that broadcast:

Jacki Lyden: We are going to take a few calls here in just a moment but Ambassador, I would like to ask you, based on your intelligence, who do you think is responsible for the August 19th bombings which was the worst in a very long time?

Chris Hill: Well I you know the investigations are very much continuing I'm not sure I want to sort of give you a running tab of an ongoing investigation but there are certain usual suspects here that we are obviously looking at very closely and one of course is this al Qaeda in Iraq -- so-called AQI. Now the government has some theories that it's more complex that you have possible ex-Ba'athist elements You know these are also Sunni who feel disenfranchised from the system but they're not sort of these extreme Wahhabists Sunnis that al Qaeda draws its ranks from. Yet there is you know talk in the analytical community whether they're Ba'athist in al Qaeda or AQI -- I want to stress this is al Qaeda in Iraq, a sort of franchised operation. And there's a lot of you know talk that perhaps they have some know -- tactical putting, you know, putting this thing together. It's really hard to say. What is clear though is that for many people in this country when those terrible bombings took place out came the fingers and pointing at each other. And to be sure there's a time for finger pointing, there's certainly a time to investigate and see what failures there were in the system. But there's also a times, as the United States, as we know very well in the wake of 9-11. There is a time to come together and one hope that that call will be better heard in Iraq. Because, uh, it's a very rough political climate here.

Again, his tune changed and he sang it repeatedly, always off-key, today. But he found it "rather ironic" that the day before the August 19th bombings, Nouri al-Maliki was in Syria and they had "signed a number of agreements". That's "ironic"? Does Chris Hill know the definition of "irony"? Hill places tremendous faith in Nouri's assessment of Syria and Syrian involvement because, Hill explained, Nouri spent "18 years of his life in Syria."

The issue of the Status Of Forces Agreement was raised -- Kerry raised it first in his opening remarks -- and what would happen if it was changed in some manner or a new agreement was done? Hill felt he wasn't qualified to answer and stated he would defer to the State Dept attorneys but he was of the non-legal opinion that "we would not engage in changing the security agreement without official consulation" with Congress.

We may return to the hearing tomorrow. If so, we'll address the nonsense Hill offered on refugees. It was as irritating as Hill's mincing efforts to be cute such as replying to John Kerry's question about a power grab on Nouri's part with a rambling answer that began "In the privacy of this hearing room".

In terms of immediate concerns, it was pointed out that the elections are scheduled for January and that Barack Obama has stated his delay (broken campaign promise) in terms of drawing down troops is to keep troops on the ground for that. Hill declared, "I worry about developing the political rules of the game and what I don't want to see is an election that resutls in six months of government formation during which there is a loss of some of the progress made." He fears that following the election it will take some time time to set up a new government. That's not the only election fear being expressed currently. Catholic News Agency reports that Father Shlemon Warduni, Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad, is stating the 2010 elections in Iraq have Iraqi Christians fearful of even more violence and noted of Zakho and Amadhiya, "The lack of work is noticeable and is made worse by the fact that many lands have been occupied by people who have come from other areas in search of refuge. The streets are not secure and neither are they in good condition, thus making it difficult for the people who need to find work or to transport the infirm to move about."

He could have grounded that fear in facts but, being Chris Hill, knew none. In the spring of 2006, when the US nixed the Iraqi's first choice for prime minister and Nouri was proposed as the accepted candidate instead, Nouri promised to quickly assemble his cabinet. He didn't do that. He was boasting that he would do so before the official deadline and gave himself a new deadline, an earlier one. He missed both. Hill was offering some nonsense during the hearing (re: power grab) about how Nouri's cabinet is people forced on him and blah, blah, blah. Nouri assembled his cabinet. Chris Hill seems as unaware of that as he is of every other Iraq-related fact.

During the Senate hearing, there were eight Camp Ashraf supporters (wearing yellow shirts) on the row behind him -- to the left of him (his left) -- with two on the right side of him. Kat, Ava and Wally have a piece on the Camp Ashraf supporters which will run in tomorrow morning's gina & krista round-robin.

RECOMMNEDED: "Iraq snapshot"

"Iraq bombing kills at least 20"
"Chris Hill to appear before Congress today"
"The non-news"
"As usual, Michelle looked dreadful"
"Cass Elliot"
"the clues"
"TV worth watching"
"The dumb speech"
"Yes, I watched"
"Barack's bad plan"
"Barack's contradiction"
"Dems launch smear campaign on Charles Boustany!"
"Barry O . . . vacuous"

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