Saturday, September 26, 2009

He's hoping for a bad boy vibe





Yesterday (6:18 pm EST), Jalal Talabani, Iraqi President, addressed the United Nations General Assemnbley. He tapped the microphone four times before he began reading his prepared speech for the next 17 minutes and four seconds

The most important challenges we face in the near future is the legislative elections due to be held in January 2010 for which the political parties have already started preparations. The success of these elections will put the current political regime based on democracy, pluralism and the peaceful transfer of power on the right path. The success of the elections will transfer the political process from the establishment stage to one of permanence and stability and will promote stability and security in Ira. The elections will strengthen our capabilities in building national institutions qualified to fulfill the requistes of a strong state based on law, living peacefully with its own people and neighbors and to be a key factor in the security and stability in the region. This will reflect postively on Iraq's Arab, regional and international relations and its active return to the international community.
The real danger currently facing Iraq is outside interference in its internal affairs which has committed the worst crimes against innocent Iraqis from various segments of society, men, women, children and the elderly. In an attempt to destabilize security and stability achieved in Iraq during 2008 and 2009, Iraq has witnessed recently a series of bombings and terrorist attacks, the last of which was the Bloody Wednesday explosions that targeted the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Finance which targeted the country's sovereign institutions on 19 August 2009. This led to many innocent victims, including many employees of the government, diplomats and administrators. These criminal acts and large number of victims have reached the level of genocide and crimes against humainty subject to punishment under international law. We believe these acts at this level of organization, complexity and magnitude cannot be planned, funded and implemented without support of external forces and parties and primary investigations indicate the involvement of external parties in the process.
Therefore, the government of the Republic of Iraq puts this important matter on the table of the Secretary-General of the United Nations and requests its submission to the Security Council for the purpose of forming an independent international investigation outside the jurisdiction of Iraq and bring those found guilty to a special international criminal court.
The Iraqi government finds itself obliged to resor to the United Nations to protect its people and stop the bleeding of innocent Iraqis and we are looking to the assistance of the international community and its support ot the Iraqi positions in the formation of an independent international commission to investigate the crimes of terrorism against the Iraqi people we request the United Nations Secretary General to name a senior offficial to evaluate the extent of foreign intervention that threatens the security and integrity of Iraq and to consider terrorist crimes as genocide. We also look for better cooperation and coordination with the neighboring countries and other concerned states to control Iraq's boraders, exchange information, coordinate efforts and prevent the groups that support terrorism and work against Iraq under any cover.

It was a far cry from his speech to the United Nations September 25, 2008 when he was speaking of the importance of ensuring that women were able to participate in "all spheres of influence". This year, almost 12 months to the day, he stood before the United Nations and wanted to open with what can be seen as an attack on Syria. Bloody Wednesday, Black Wednesday, August 19th, whatever you call it, no one knows who was responsible. Nouri al-Maliki had been in Damascus and met with Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, to demand that Syria turn over 179 Iraqis residing in Syria to Iraqi authorities. This demand wasn't new. When Nouri was hiding out for 18 years in Syria, there were many calls from Saddam for Syria to turn Nouri and others over to Iraqi authorities. Syria refused then to turn over anyone without proof and Syria stands by that policy today. The demand for the 179 to be turned over came before the August 19th attacks.

Like George W. Bush, Nouri used an attack to push through things he already wanted. Nouri and others thought Turkey would be the one to lean on because Turkey does conduct raids in (and assaults on) northern Iraq. Their 'right' to do so was just renewed and the hope of Nouri and his allies was that the desire to renew would mean Turkey would automatically side with Iraq against Syria. That's why Iraqi officials made idiotic statements in the last few weeks on Arabic TV claiming that Turkey agreed with Iraq and said the 'proof' offered by Iraq that Iraqis in Syria were responsible for the August 19th bombings was irrefutable. Turkish officials didn't say that, nor did they feel that. Their role was to get the two sides to come together. That's how they saw it. It's doubtful that Turkey's desire for continued raids could have been leveraged by Nouri to begin with but the fact that Iraq suffers from a drought and needs Turkey for water further undercut any hopes that Iraq could strong-arm Turkey.

So yesterday Jalal Talabani took the matter to the United Nations. Not to the Arab League. They don't want to take it to the Arab League because a Cairo meeting this month did not go well for Iraq and indicated that other governments saw Iraq's 'evidence' to be as weak as did Syria. Despite attempting to bypass the Arab League, Talabani claimed to the United Nations yesterday that "we seek to establish better relations with the Arab and Islamic countries and we are committed to the decisions of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conference."

How much can one person beg for? Traditionally, you beg for one thing. Jalal was begging non-stop. After demanding an international inquiry, he then went into how Iraq should be spared of its debts and obligations. Is Iraq a new country? No. And the 20 million-plus Iraqis that lived there before the start of the illegal war (approximately 26 million was the CIA estimate in 2002; they estimate 28 million today which apparently includes external refugees and corpses in the count) are still in Iraq. So what's going on?
Under a United Nations mandate authorizing the foreign occupation of Iraq -- issued after the illegal war started (no UN mandate was issued on the illegal war) -- Iraq was seen as a ward that needed protection -- not only from foreign forces but also from the international community. The treaty masquerading as a Status Of Forces Agreement was wanted by the White House and by Nouri. Nouri wanted it so that Iraq was no longer a 'ward of the state'. As such, Jalal Talabani pressed the UN to lift Iraq's debts, "Therefore, we request a clear resolution issued by the Security Council to terminate all resolutions issued under chapter VII which affected the sovereignty of Iraq and led to financial obligations which are still binding on Iraq because the situation which necessitated the adoption of those resolutions no longer exists. We and the Iraqi people look forward to the day when Iraq is released from chapter VII sanctions."

To some degree, Talabani's second round of begging will most likely be met. However, he will forever be criticized historically for making that his second request and not his first and only request. Nouri's petty-grudge war resulted in the Iraq basically being taken out of receivership on the internaional stage becoming request number two and not the primary one. This request was the one the non-representative government in Baghdad had worked the last three years on and suddenly it became a secondary issue in Talabani's speech. With news from Alsumaria that Foreign Minister Hosheyar Zebari has declared Syria, Turkey and Iraq have agreed "to form a Turkish-Syrian-Iraqi investigtation committee," Talabani's decision to emphasize August 19th over the economic issues looks like an even bigger mistake.

Yesterday, there was a prison break in Tikrit with sixteen prisoners escaping -- one of whom was later caught, five of whom had been sentenced to death. Steven Lee Myers (New York Times) notes the curfew and that "American search dogs and aircraft" are being used to hunt for the escapees. Ned Parker and Saif Hameed (Los Angeles Times) reported this morning that two of the sixteen have now been captured and that 4 "prison guards were under investigation on suspicion of helping the detainees escape. The prison director was dismissed and detained while under investigation, officials said." BBC News reports 5 of the escapees have now been caught and that the "police detain 100 staff for questioning about the breakout." Nada Bakri (Washington Post) adds, "Authorities said Friday that at least 100 prison officials and guards, including 10 officers, have been arrested and three special committees formed to investigate the prison breakout in Tikrit." Bakri also notes that with 5 of thte 15 escapees back in custody, the curfew in Tikrit has been lifted. Iran's Press TV notes that posters of the escapees "have been distributed across Tikrit and other cities in Salaheddin province to ensure that the 10 remaining jail breakers will not remain long at large." Reuters notes Iraqi officilas are now saying 6 of the 15 escapees have been captured.

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"Not all that as a critic"


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Not all that as a critic






"From the Revolutionary War to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, American service member have given their lives for this country," declared US House Rep John Hall as he brought the US House Veterans Committee's Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs to order this morning. Among the problems Hall cited is that there's no space for needed cemeteries. At least 31 more cemeteries are estimated to be needed and 2015 is the soonest that for a location "that will meet the current criteria for the establishment of a new national cemetery." The requirement is that a region's population have at least 170,000 veterans before it can have a national cemetery. Subcommittee Chair Hall also noted that the VA's $300 for a funeral plot and $300 for burial does not begin to cover the costs.

There were three panels. The first panel included former US Senator and Vietnam veteran Max Cleland who is the Secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, Arlington National Cemetery's John C. Metzler , DoD's Lynn Heirakuji and Dept of Interior's Katherine Stevenson. The second panel was composed of American Veterans' Raymond C. Kelley, Ft Logan National Cemetery's John Nicolai, Gold Star Wives of America's Vivianne Cisneros Wersel, Disabled American Veterans John Wilson and National Funeral Directors Association's Lesley Witter. The third panel was the VA's Steve L. Muro (with VA's Ronald Walters). We'll cover the strongest moment of the hearing.

During the first panel, US House Rep Steve Buyer opened with a visual display showing various cemeteries. Normandy American Cemetery, Arlington National Cemetery, Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. These were "beautiful" and up to standard. He then went to a national cemetery run by the Department of the Interior, Andersonville National Cemetery. Pointing to the dingy, dirty headstones, "This should not matter that this is the marker of someone who died in the Civil War. It shouldn't matter. It shouldn't matter if it was someone who died in the Revolution or someone who died that's interned in Mexico City." He then "So when you said in your testimony that you gently, finely clean the markers, well that's going to take you a lot of time. This is not a standard for which we should have in America. I think Mr. Cleland, if you saw that in one of yours, you would just freak out." Buyer explained that he complained about the weeds and the result was they pulled out everything, including the grass.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: Let me ask you something, Ms. Stevenson, tell the committee here, what are your needs? What do you believe your needs are to raise the standard within the Dept of Interior?

Katherine Stevenson: The report that I just mentioned [in opening statement] will have some recommendations for funding and it will have recommendations for increased treatment of, uh, cleaning and so on.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: What are your goals?

Katherine Stevenson: Our goals are the same as the goals set by the National Cemetery Administration. We have the same three standards, height and alignment, clean stones and level grave sides as they do.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: How many cemeteries did you go to in the review?

Katherine Stevenson: Four.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: How many do you have in your system?

Katherine Stevenson: Fourteen.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: Why wouldn't you go to all fourteen cemeteries?

Katherine Stevenson: We wanted to do it as quickly as we could and get some sense of uh what was going on -- in the ones that you mentioned, for example, Andersonville was one of them. So we took ones that were fairly close to Andersonville.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: Did you go to -- what are the four that you went to?

Katherine Stevenson: Andersonville, Andrew Johnson, Fort Donaldson and Stones River.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: Andrew Johnson? Is that the -- that's the one in Tennessee? That's the one in Tennessee? [Stevenson nods.] Have you sent inquiries out to the other ten?

Katherine Stevenson: No, sir. No more than usual. I mean, we-we talk to them a fair amount.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: Alright. You've got fourteen. Alright, there's a disconnect here. I'm not going -- I'm not in a fight with you here, okay? I want us to raise the standards, so when this review -- this report -- comes out, I'm going through it.

Katherine Stevenson: Good.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: The light's on you, okay? So what I -- what I -- My immediate sense here is is when I think the Secretary tells me he's going to do a review, that it's going to be of all 14 cemeteries. I don't want something done quick and easy. Alright? I want this to be done correctly. And if your sense is and your counsel to us is that four is going to be sufficient well [shrugs] that's fine but is what you're asking me is, "Steve, just pause here. When you get the report, you're going to be satisfied?"

Katherine Stevenson: [speaking very slowly] You know, you can choose a photograph in any of these cemeteries and [picking up speed] any, I bet, of the veteran cemeteries that are managed by other people and we will have some scenes that are perfect and some scenes that are not. And I know that that's true in the cemeteries that we manage. We are trying to do our very best for the veterans and for their burial places.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: Alright. Well your standard of very best doesn't meet the standards established by others. So we're going to take your standard of very best and we're going to raise it. We're going to raise your very best even higher. Okay? And, uh, I didn't go out and selectively choose to find what I think would be the worst photograph. It's easy to go out there and take that photo. And I was extremely upset the day I saw a veteran being buried in a cemetery like I saw. It's one thing -- it's one thing, you know, we've all been to cemeteries and we've seen the conditions of some of them but to think that this was an active cemetery under the stewardship of the federal government was extremely disheartening. I-I-I'm going to pause here, Mr. Chairman, give it back to you under the time.

Subcommittee Chair John Hall asked when the report would be finished and Stevenson stated it was complete but "it just needs to go through formal review." From the third panel, we'll note two exchanges. First up, an informative exchange between US House Rep Deborah Halvorson and the VA's Acting Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs, National Cemetery Administration Steve L. Muro covering outsourcing issues and homeless veterans.

US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: I'm really concerned with something that just came up with the fact of this outsourcing of jobs. Can you explain to me what's happening with outsourcing of our jobs? Are they truly being taken away from veterans and going to other companies and not our veterans?

Steve Muro: Well, let me explain what we've done. As we open new national cemeteries, we keep certain jobs in-house: the internments, the rep work. And we do the headstone and mowing, we contract that out. We have increased FTEE [Full Time Equivalent Employee] in our system, we're up to 1600. So we're doing in-house work and some contract -- same thing at some of our closed cemeteries where it is more difficult to get employment. The gentleman spoke about south Florida, it actually took us two years to fully staff that cemetery with-with veterans, those that were willing to apply. We had a high turnover there because of the cost of living. So in many areas, the cost of living has forced us to look at other ways to get the work done. But we still, each year we've increased our FTEE, all our new cemeteries open with approximately 15 FTEE to manage the cemetery so we are keeping the-the internment work in-house, we're keeping the rep work and all of the public affairs type work in-house. The mowing, the trimming and the setting of headstones, we do contract out.

US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: Well because we're doing everything in our power to create opportunities for veterans, I don't want to be embarrassed when I hear that veterans' cemeteries and groups like yourselves are going outside of our veterans groups. So --

Steve Muro: And those -- those that we're hiring are disabled veterans companies. We are hiring with disabled veterans companies.
US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: Because?

Steve Muro: So we are giving the work to veterans. We work with VBA [Veterans Business Association] to hire OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom], OAFs [Operation Afghanistan Freedom] instead of going through different training programs. Each network -- we have five networks throughout the system -- are required this year and last year to hire 5 OAF and OIFs. So we are hiring vets. You know, 70% of our employees are veterans.

US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: Okay, I just want to make sure that that's happening. I mean, as you know, we're doing everything to make sure that, because we're having more and more veterans come back, and I just want assurances that we're doing everything we can to make sure that we're hiring veterans, we're giving incentives to hiring veterans. I don't want to be talking about our Veterans Administration, of all people, aren't doing what -- We can talk all the time, but until we practice what we preach, you know, that's not doing us any good.

Steve Muro: And I understand that and we are.

US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: Great. One last question is one thing that I know that we're interested in exploring and something that the Secretary is very interested in, you know, is homelessness among our veterans. But also where you're concerned with, can you take us through some of the situations. What happens with burial issues with regards to those who are homeless veterans and what happens when a veteran doesn't have any family members? How do you deal with that situation?

Steve Muro: Our cemetery directors work closely with the different coroners' offices and they -- we try to determine eligibility, we work with the regional office to determine eligibility so that if we do find that they are a vet -- those that they find on the street, the homeless -- so that we can ensure that they can be buried in a national cemetery.

US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: How do you know that they're a veteran if they don't have --

Steve Muro: We get finger prints. So long as they haven't cremated, we can get finger prints. And as long as they have finger prints, we go to FBI with the finger prints and we can find files. And we've been really successful throughout the country doing that. Working with the coroner's office.

In the final minutes of the hearing, Subcommittee Chair John Hall would follow up to ask if Muro was stating that the contractors hired were all veterans and whether they used veteran workers? Muro replied that they are all veteran contractors and they are encouraged to use veteran workers. Next up, music. If a veteran's getting a burial, he or she is entitled to the send off expected. Instead, many are being buried without bugles.

Subcommittee Chair John Hall: I just wanted to ask you, Secretary Muro, in the -- continuing and following up on a comment that was made by the Ranking Member of the full committee, Mr. Buyer, when he was here earlier, talking about artificial or digital bugle machines. As the token musician on the panel, I [laughter] -- a French horn player and a decent, at one time anyway, a decent trumpeter and bugler, there are many very accomplished high school band bugle players -- or trumpet players who can play a bugle just as well -- does the, uh, is this in your purview? Is this something that the NCA in the process of working with the families handles? I just came from a 9-11 ceremony -- as did many of us recently -- where there were two buglers calling-answering backing and forth to each other, playing real bugles and it's a very moving moment with the Color Guard standing attention and the crowd and survivors in our -- in my, one of my five counties, 44 family survivors of 9-11 victims and I can only imagine how much less moving the moment would have been if someone had pushed a button on the tape or a CD, you know, had an artificial reproduction. So I'm just curious, have you contacted, do you work with local schools or find people who actually play the instrument?

Steve Muro: Yes, well, couple of things we're doing to get real buglers at the cementeries for not only services but for ceremonies. We worked closely the last three years with Taps Across America, Bugles Across America, to get more interest in buglers to come and volunteer. We work with the local school districts, the ROTC that may have buglers and we try to get them scheduled for our services so that we can utilize them to support the families. The artificial bugle? It's actually a real bugle with -- with an electronic device that goes in, instead of looking like a --

Subcommittee Chair John Hall: That's not a real bugle, I'm sorry.

Steve Muro: You're right. But it is better than the boom box.

Subcommittee Chair John Hall: Well it looks better. It's a boom box that's shaped like a bugle.

Steve Muro: But we are trying to get volunteers.

Subcommittee Chair John Hall: I understand, sir.

Steve Muro: And there are those that charge the families, unfortunately. You see the papers, people advertise, "I can do a bugle for this amount." We don't encourage it, but we can't stop the families from hiring them. So we try to work with the VSOs and the schools --

Subcommittee Chair John Hall: I appreicate that, sir. I used to get paid to pay organ at Mass when I was a teenager but it didn't mean that maybe I shouldn't have volunteered but they offered and I was mowing lawns and doing other things to. But anyway.

A funeral is not a spur of the moment elopement in Vegas. While you might endure a recording of a wedding march being played at your elopement ceremony, a burial isn't last minute and there's no excuse for using a recording. With the bases across the US, all the bases, there's no reason a veteran's funeral on a national cemetery or a private ceremony can't be supplied with a bugle player. High school (and middle school players as well) are very talented and can be used in a pinch but why, when the military has countless bugle players, they're not dispatching them automatically to ceremonies is a question that needs to be asked. And the word for using an 'electronic' bugle is tacky. It's tacky and it's beneath the service that's been given by the veteran. It'd be cheaper to use flag decals on the coffins instead of cloth ones. But the point of veterans funerals isn't do do them on the cheap. Survivors shouldn't have to hire a musician for a military funeral nor should they have to endure canned music.

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"This is a hearing on SES bonuses and other administrative issues at the US Department of Veterans Affairs," US Rep Harry Mitchell explained as he brought the US House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing to order this morning. The SES bonuses? Bonuses awarded by the VA. Are they being awarded fairly? What's the process? Who's overseeing? In addition, there is concern over hiring practices including issues of nepotism. "Since 2007," US House Rep John Hall said, "I have been -- and this committee has been -- deeply concerned about this issue of bonus awards at the Department of Veterans Affairs. I hope that this hearing will demonstrate the steps that the VA has taken to make bonuses about rewarding excellence not about helping out friends or families."

At a time when the country's experiences an economic crisis, the bonus issue has already gotten headlines in the corporate world. Now it comes to the public sector and does so at a time when many are surprised top officials in the VA still have jobs with all the problems veterans face attempting to access care. Hall put it more nicely.

US House Rep John Hall: Recent news articles and reports from the VA's Inspector General have shed light on rampant nepotism and abuse by those in a position of power. The Associated Press detailed an embarrassing episode in which a VA employee, having an affair with their superior, was reinbursed for 22 flights between Florida and Washington. One office at the VA received $24 million in bonuses over a two year period. $24 million is a lot of money in this economic climate, with many veterans living on an ever tightening budget, and it's irresponsible for us to allow this to continue without taking a careful look at who is earning the bonuses and who is not. As many of you know, I introduced a bill in the last Congress that required no bonuses to be paid out to senior VA officials until the claims backlog was under 100,000 claims. I think we can all agree that our first priority is to the veterans that served our country and paid the price. In this Congress, I'm considering other ways to make sure that bonuses are awarded fairly and within reason and, to me, an increasingly backlog indicates that there are some at VA who should not be receiving bonuses?

Today's hearing follows multiple reports of veterans struggling to get needed care. Friday, Tom Philpott (Stars and Stripes) reported on a forum and noted Army Cpl Kevin Kammerdiener's mother Leslie Kammerdienr explaining how her son, a veteran of both the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War, suffers when attempting to receive care:

One of their worst experiences occurred Labor Day weekend last year when she and Kevin, who was severely burned and lost the left side of his brain to an explosion, arrived at the VA Polytrauma Center in Tampa, Fla., for follow-up treatment and no one knew he was coming. "We had no medications for him. We had no bed for his burned body and we had no food for his feeding tube -- for 30 hours," Leslie said. "My son suffered for 30 hours because this system was not ready." Just a week ago, she said, Kevin signaled that he wanted to take his own life by hanging. She called the VA hospital for help. "Days went by and nobody called me." Finally, she confronted VA doctor at a social event "and said, 'Look, you guys have to help us ... I'm not trained. I'm not a nurse. I'm not a neurosurgeon. I'm not a psychologist. I'm not a therapist. I'm just a mom. And I don't have any help with this'."

Elaine noted that article on Friday and observed how common these type of stories are, "At a certain point, I don't think you can be immune to these stories (nor do I believe you should), but I do think it gets to a level where you can no longer pretend that it's an isolated incident or a series of isloated incidents. The VA isn't doing their job. Why is that? It goes to the top and it goes to a disrespect of veterans at the top."

Today's hearing certainly backs that up -- as have other hearings. Subcommittee Chair Mitchell explained, "We all know that the Department of Veterans Affairs has some of the hardest working and dedicated employees; however, there are concerns about the VA bonus process and how the VA matches pay to individual and organizational performance." Again, the problem's at the top. It's not the workers having direct contact with the veterans. But there is a culture of neglect at the top, a culture of abuse as well. US tax payers fork over money for any number of things and among those things that hopefully only a small number would complain about is veterans health care. However, when the money that is supposed to go to veterans health care goes elsewhere, there's a serious problem which should result in serious investigations.

The subcommittee heard from two panels. The first panel was James O'Neill from the VA's Inspector General's Office (joined by Joseph G. Sullivan and Michael Bennett). The second panel was the VA's Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould (joined by John Gingrich, John U. Sepulveda and Willie L. Hensley). Subcommittee Chair Mitchell put the witnesses under other before they testified.

In his opening statement, James O'Neill observed, "Federal law states that a public official may not apoint, employ, promote, advance or advocate for the appointment, employment, promotion or advancement in or to a civilian position any person who is a relative of the public official." That seems pretty clear.

But some officials at the VA seem confused. O'Neill detailed attempts by a VA official to get a contractor to hire her friend, the same official passing on "nonpublic VA procurement information" which the friend could use in seeking employment from a contractor, anoter woman working for the VA broke policies and used preferential (illegal) treatment to hire five friends, she went on to then give two of them higher pay than was warranted, a male manager used his position and influence to see that an unqualified family member was hired in the same division, he also abused his position (and the rules) by getting an additional family member appointed to the Austin Human Resource staff, another official informed her subordinates involved in hiring that she wanted her friend hired, to ensure that this friend working for a contractor was 'familiar' with the job, the official began bringing her "into government day-to-day business," closed the job because, by rules, a veteran was ahead of the friend in the relisting and then had the job relisted so her friend could reapply, three employees pushed friends to the top of the applicant pool by falsifying information and spreadsheets. Education? VA officials helped one another attend George Washington University at the tax payer expense despite the degrees not being related to their positions, they 'curiously' failed to track the spending and the Inspector General's Office had to get the information from GWU. Despite a departmental shortfall -- a known shortfall -- senior managers awarded $24 million in retention bonuses and awards over two years.

As O'Neill noted, "OI & T officials broke the rules to hire, favor and financially benefit their friends and family in so doing they wasted VA resources that could have been put to better use and they failed to ensure that the best qualified individuals were hired so veterans can receive the best possible service that they deserve and have earned."

Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: Why did you go to OI & T [Office of Information & Technology]? How did you happen to pick that? Have you done other divisions or departments? Was it tipped off or what?

James O'Neill: It was an allegation that we received, sir. Specifically about certain individuals in OI & T. That launched our investigation.

Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: And this is the only section that you've looked into? Was OI & T?

James O'Neill: In this matter, sir.

Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: In this matter. But you don't know if nepotism or the bonuses or anything other departments you'd find the same type of behavior in other departments?

James O'Neill: That would be speculation because I don't have any data to support it. We periodically have conducted investigations relating to allegations of nepotism in the past but, frankly, I can't recall the last one we had. It's been awhile.

Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: I guess I was saying that a lot of your investigations are based on somebody coming forward and allegating, making some sort of allegation of some misuse or improper procedure.

James O'Neill: Particularly administrative investigations, yes, sir.

Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: What are the top three recommendations that you've made for the VA to ensure that the procedures that you've outlined and that we know that are there are actually enforced?

James O'Neill: Well in this particular matter -- uh -- we recommended that they determine and apply the appropriate administrative actions against the eight individuals that were cited in the report, that they issue bills of collection where appropriate for improper payments related to the graduate degrees in particular, determine what corrective actions would be appropriate to deal with the problems we identified during our investigation. Someone hired under an expired direct hire authority? They -- VA has to take some corrective action. Uh -- provide training on hiring and the provision of awards throughoout OI & NT. And review the use of the hiring authorities and the funding for academic degrees and retention allowances to ensure compliance with applicable standards.

Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: I guess maybe you've kind of answered this but what oversight function in the VA broke down in the Human Resources process?

James O'Neill: I would say that um the leadership of OI & T did not pay adequate attention to the awards that were being distributed, the hiring practices that we cite in our report and uh and of course the payment for academic degrees so I would lay it at the feet of management of OI & T at the time and whatever oversight HR would provide would also need addressing.

Ranking Member David P. Roe was bothered by the awards and bonuses and twice noted the case of one VA new hire who had not completed her first 90 days but was given $4,500 award/bonus from a supervious who now claimed not to remember why that was. As Roe noted, when this happens, others know and it destroys morale. Roe noted that it was difficult to grasp "how this wasn't picked up," the various violations including hiring your family.

US House Rep John Hall: Does the Department have guidelines for administrative action to cover this type of behavior, for instance, hiring multiple members of one's family?

James O'Neill: Certainly, sir.

US House Rep John Hall: Good. Glad to hear it. Is there a timeline for the implementation of your recommendations by the Office of Human Resources

James O'Neill: Well as I mentioned earlier, I belive the timeline request came in to extend -- in order to, uhm, take the recommen -- the recommend action, the individual against whom the action is recommended has a period of time for an appeal so I think that the request is to allow that time to pass to provide a formal response to us. We -- I have reasion to believe this is pursuing on track.

US House Rep John Hall: I will take that -- I will take that to mean we shouldn't have to worry that the VA is looking at this with the seriousness with which the public and this committee sees it.

James O'Neill: I am absolutely confident they are looking at it with quite serious eyes.

US House Rep John Hall: What do you think is the top number one action out of your report that would improve the way bonuses are given out? We're all expressing a concern that they reflect performance rather than just being automatic, yearly, like a Christmas gift.

James O'Neill: Well we made a specific recommendation to review retention bonuses within the Office of Information and Technology. Retention bonuses make up a large portion of the "bonus" [C.I. note, he made air quotes when saying bonus] pool that is expanded in that area and perhaps elsewhere in VA. But they -- our recommendation, I think, is very specifically directed at retention bonuses. Uh, we didn't make a formal recommendation to look at, uh, awards beyond that but it would be clear to me that, after reading this report, that the current management would feel required to look at it. This is pretty appalling when you talk about a $4500 award for GS5, I've been administrating awards for a long time and we have GS13s that risk their lives and don't get anything close to that so it's glaring. I think that our report will prompt a close review of these processes.

Last week. Julia O'Malley (McClatchy's Anchorage Daily News) reported on Iraq War veteran John Mayo who was on multiple medications and was charged by the military with shoplifting -- an crime Mayo can't even remember taking place. As a result he was discharged and he and his family became homeless when the military immediately showed up, during dinner, at their base home and kicked them out. Mayo suffers from PTSD. His mother Cathy Mayo feels Iraq change her son, 'broke' him and, "What they did to him, you don't do it to a dog. I lost my son."
It's in that climate, where veterans are struggling for help and not getting it or getting the wrong kind of help and the realization that this comes down to economic issues resulting not from an attempt to spend generously on veterans or a bad economy but from abuse and misuse by the VA that Congress really needs to launch an investigation. This is a disgusting misuse of tax payer money -- and Congress controls the purse. In addition, it should be criminally prosecuted when the VA money is misused. Regardless of whether or not, for example, the money going to bonuses was from a special section of the budget and didn't take away monies already budgeted for care, it's still a misuse and it should result in criminal penalties. Not simply firing, not simply making someone pay it back. It's criminal and it should be treated as such. Bonuses are far from the VA's only problem as Congress learned on Tuesday.

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1 in 10 internally displaced families are headed by women. Women for Women's Zainab Salbi (at Huffington Post) explores the situation for women in Iraq today:

I visited my mother's grave yesterday and learned that her tombstone was destroyed by a missile two years ago in one of the clashes between the militias and the US troops. "Not even the dead are spared from the bombings in Iraq," I thought to myself. But at least my mother is not witnessing the pain many Iraqi women are witnessing as they try to find space for themselves in the "new Iraq."
Few of the women of my mother's generation -- a generation of educated women who have worked in all different sectors of the country -- are still holding on. They are few -- many professional women who were doctors, professors and journalists were assassinated in the past seven years as part of what I believe is a larger, strategic approach by extremist militias to "cleanse" Iraqi society of its intellectual and professional elite. Those who have survived the killings and the temptation to leave the country in search of a safer place to live have either retreated within the home or taken advantage of quotas that have opened opportunities for women to become members of the Iraqi parliament.
Today in Iraq, women have no one unified reality. At the same time as many women increase participation in the political sector -- Iraq's Parliament and local councils are required to have 25 percent female representation -- thousands more are experiencing brutal hardship and extreme poverty. There are now more destitute women in Iraq than ever before -- estimates of the number of war widows range from one to three million. These and other socially and economically marginalized women are vulnerable and at high risk of trafficking, organized and forced prostitution, polygamy, domestic violence, and being recruited as suicide bombers, something that the society is still trying to process and understand. In a single day's journey around Baghdad, one can see all these many and conflicting realities of Iraqi women -- that was my day today.

"So Iraq is as important as ever," US House Rep Bill Delahunt said Thursday as he chaired the US House Foreign Relations Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight, "albiet, it may be forgotten by some." Wally, Kat, Ava and I attended the hearing and due to so little Iraq coverage in Western media today, we'll drop back to it today. Congressional Research Service's Ken Katzman was among those appearing before the subcomittee. He didn't read his opening statement, he summarized it and we'll note this section.

Ken Katzman: In general, Iraq's political system can be characterized by peaceful competiton rather than violence; however, sectarainsim and ethnic and factional infighting continue to simmer and many Iraqi views and positions are colored by efforts to outflank, outmanuever and constrain rival factions. These tendencies will only grow in the run-up to the January 16, 2010 national elections in Iraq which may also concurrently include a vote, a referendum, on the US-Iraq agreement subject to --that that would have to be approved by the National Assembly to have the referendum -- that decision has not been taken yet. Compounding the factional tensions is the perception that Prime Minister Maliki is in a strong position politically. This is largely a result of the strong showing of his Dawa Party in the January 31, 2009 provincial elections. His showing in those elections was in turn a product of his benefitting from an improved security situation, his positions in favor of strong central government as opposed to local tendencies or regionalism, and his March 2008 move against Shi'ite militias who were virtually controlling Basra and Um Qasr port. Although Maliki's colalition was the clear winner in these elections, the subsequent efforts to form prvoincial administrations demonstrated that he still needs to bargain with rival factions including that of the radical, young, Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who is studying Islamic theology in Iran with the intention of trying to improve his standing in the clerical heirarchy. Possibly as a result of his strengthened position, Maliki is seen by rivals as increasingly authoritarian. He is widely assesed by US and Iraqi experts as attempting to gain control of the security services and build new security organs loyal to him personally rather than to institutions. Some have accused him of purging security officials he perceives as insufficeintly loyal. He has also reportedly been using security forces to intimidate opponents including in Diyala Province. For example. 4,000 Special Operations commandos, part of the Iraqi security forces -- the official forces of Iraq, report to Maliki's office of the commander in chief and not to the Defense or Interior Ministries. Some of Maliki's opponents and critics say these political tactics mimic the steps taken by Saddam Hussein when he was rising to power to centralize his rule.

It should have reminded the Subcommittee members of when US Ambassador Chris Hill appeared before the full House Foreign Relations Committee and always seemed confused (a natural state for Hill, granted) when asked of rumors that Nouri was attempting to consolidate his power. Committee Chair Howard Berman, for example, received a non-response.

Chair Howard Berman: According to Ken Pollack, in the most recent of the National Interest , over the past year, and I quote, "Malaki has been deploying more of Iraq's nascent military power to the north and goading the army into regular provocations with the Kurdish militia," the pesh merga. My questions are: Is Pollack's assertio accurate? And a little more detail -- you touched on this, but what are the prospects that there will be a serious outbreak of hostillities between Arabs and Kurds? Are growing Kurdish-Arab tensions the biggest threat to Iraqis stability?

Hill responded in his usual rambling form, randomly strung together words that a generous person would count as 21 run-on sentences.

Chair Howard Berman: Let me interject --

Chris Hill: Yeah?

Chair Howard Berman: -- only because I only have about 20 seconds left .

Chris Hill: Yeah?

Chair Howard Berman: But is this assertion regarding purposeful deployments in the nature of provocations by the Iraqi army to the north?

Chris Hill: Yeah. I haven't read Dr. Pollack's article.

Yeah? That's how a US Ambassador speaks to Congress? Yeah? So Chris Hill -- in the best Condi Rice fashion -- played Beat The Clock, stringing together nonsensical words, stammers and "uh"s to keep the clock ticking down about an article he never read. He could inform he'd had a 36 hour sleepover in the Kurdistan region but he intentionally and repeatedly avoided all questions -- from Democrats and Republicans (Ranking Member Dan Rohrabacher attempted to follow up on Berman's question and got the same run around) -- about Nouri attempting to increase his own power. US House Rep Sheila Jackson Lee is asking him about Nouri's power-grab in relation to Camp Ashraf and, yet again, he stalls and never can supply her with an answer. She even has to explain the basics to him, that regardless of whether Nouri is in control or the US is in control, the State Dept lodges objections to human rights abuses at the very least.

Related, Alsumaria reports that representatives from Baghdad, Damascus and Ankara met in New York today -- Turkey in the position of counselor -- over the increased tensions between Syria and Iraq. And they note that Jalal Talabani, Iraqi President will speak to the United Nations about that. Of course, he will speak about other things as well. And that was underscored in the House Foreign Relations Subcommittee hearing on Thursday as US reps spoke of the need to get Iraq back to its pre-Gulf War status in terms of agreements and laws and commerce. That's part of the two agreements signed by the US as well. That's, in fact, among the reasons why Bush didn't want to renew the United Nations mandate nor did Nouri. Nouri wouldn't be in charge of as much money as he is now without the 'occupation' of Iraq 'ending.' People have yet to grasp what the security agreements actually did and why Nouri and Bush wanted them. But, in fairness, the Thursday hearing wasn't covered by the press, now was it? Talabani is expected to call for an end to the $25 billion in reparations Iraq owes Kuwait. The 'thinking' is that, "Saddam did it! Not Iraq!!!! Saddam's gone!!!!" It's amazing, considering how reparations effect so many countries -- including the US where there are calls for reparations to be made for slavery -- that the notion that one leader died so there is no longer an obligation to make reparations goes unchallenged. But it does, day after day, week after week, with no comment or objection. And were Iraq still under the UN mandate for the occupation, it wouldn't have a shot at getting the reparations cancelled. Among the many reasons Nouri didn't want to renew the UN mandate.

On the tensions between Syria and Iraq, AP reports Nouri's created "a backlash over a bitter fight he picked with Syria" -- a backlash within the Iraqi government. Nouri insists that Ba'athist in Syria (a secular group) teamed up with al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (a fundamentalist group) to carry ou the bombings of Bloody Wednesday aka Black Wednesday on August 19th. Nouri has been fortunate in that the Western press has largely been happy to spin for him and indicate that he's requesting two people be turned over. But it's not just the US, here's Robert Fisk (Independent of London) reporting earlier this month, "Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, demands an international tribunal because Syria won't hand over a couple of Iraqi Baathists whom he blames for the suicide bombing deaths of at least 100 civilians in Baghdad." A couple? Nouri's asking Syria to hand over 179 people. And because of the August 19th bombings? No. Nouri was demanding those 179 people be turned over to Iraq in his face-to-face August 18th meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A day before the bombings. Nouri's been very lucky, very lucky, that the Western press has been so eager to run with his morsels and refused to explore the public reality. (Most of which was reported in the Arab press well before the bombs of August 19th began exploding.) AFP also reports on Talabani's intention to call for an investigation. (Left unstated is that Talabani's trip to the US is only in part due to the UN, he's also having medical treatment while he's here.) As Talabani gears up for his US trip, Iyad Al Samarraie, Speaker of Parliament, is visiting France. Alsumaria reports his trip is "to promote bilateral releations and cooperations between both countries' parliaments." Meanwhile Iran's Fars News Agency reports that Yasin al-Mamouri who heads Iraq's Red Crescent Society began his visit to Iran yesterday. The Tehran Times adds, "Al-Mamouri is scheduled to inspect Iran's Red Crescent Society's different organizations and sectors in his one-week travel." Iran continues to hold US citizens Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd. The three were visiting in Iraq and hiking in northern Iraq when they allegedly crossed into Iran July 31st. They have been prisoners ever since. Kiersten Throndsen (KBCI CBS 2 -- link has text and video) reports on efforts by family members to have the three released.

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Today the US Defense Department issued a release announcing "the death of an airman who was supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. Senior Airman Matthew R. Courtois, 22, of Lucas, Texas, died Sep 20 as a result of a non-hostile incident on Abdullah Al Mubarak Airbase, Kuwait. He was assigned to the 366th Security Forces Squadron, Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. The circumstances surrounding the incident are under investigation." DoD is supposed to supply the names to the deaths M-NF have announced. Yet again, M-NF 'forgot' to make an announcement. Yesterday M-NF did make an announcement, the US military announced: "JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq -- One U.S. service member was killed and 12 others were injured when a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter went down inside of Joint Base Balad at approximately 8 p.m. Saturday. The name of the deceased is being withheld pending notification of next of kin and release by the Department of Defense. The names of service members are announced through the U.S. Department of Defense official website at The announcements are made on the Web site no earlier than 24 hours after notification of the service member's primary next of kin. The cause of the incident is unknown and is under investigation. More information will be released as soon as it becomes available." The two announcements bring to 4346 the number of US service members who have died in Iraq since the start of the illegal war. Giddy with the Cheese Whiz, Steven Lee Myers (New York Times) added Sunday that only 8 -- only 8! -- US service members have died this month ("among the lowest monthly tolls since the war began in 2003"). The toll is now 9. And the New York Times reported the monthly toll in July and August as 7 for each month. (After the Times reported their monthly total, the US military punked them yet again by upping it to 8. The paper couldn't correct because their entire coverage hung from the hook of "low, low, low!!!!!") In addition, Myers declared, "The helicopter crash was the first since two reconnaissance helicopters collided while under enemy fire in January near the northern city of Kirkuk, killing four soldiers." That would be the last US military crash. The last crash of a US helicopter? Tim Cocks (Reuters) reports, "The last reported incident was on July 17, when a U.S. State Department helicopter crashed near Baghdad, killing two crew members. In January, two U.S. military aircraft came under enemy fire and crashed into each other, killing four soldiers."

Last week (see Wednesday and Thursday snapshots), Ahmed Abdul Latif threw a shoe at the US military in Falluja and was shot. Nawaf Jabbar and Ned Parker (Los Angeles Times) reported that Latif fell to the ground after being shot according to eye witness Ahmed Mukhlif who says that then "the four U.S. Humvees stopped and a man stepped out, his rifle pointing toward the wounded Iraqi, and a policeman intervened and prevented the American from firing again." Saturday an Iraqi correspondent for McClatchy reports that Ahmed Abdul Latif died in the hospital Thursay and quotes his brother stating, "Maybe now he is at peace." Earlier, an Iraqi correspondent at McClatchy had noted of Ahmed Abdul Latif:

A man who lived through the "cleansing" of Fallujah by occupation forces. Two battles - not one. He saw his city burn, his friends killed, his neighbours maimed. His mind broke, and he became imbalanced. He roamed the streets with long unkempt hair, disheveled clothes and a wild look in his eyes. Whenever he saw an American military convoy pass, he would shake his fists in the air and raise his voice and swear at them. He would sometimes pick up a pebble and hurl it at them.

In Iraq, Camp Ashraf is where Iranian dissidents belonging to MEK live. They have been in Iraq for decades. Following the 2003 invasion, the US provided protection to Camp Ashraf and declared them protected persons under the Geneva Conventions. The US turned over control of Camp Ashraf to Nouri al-Maliki's government at the start of the year -- after getting assurances from him that he would not assault the camp or ship the dissidents back to Iran. Despite assurance, Nouri launched an attack on Camp Ashraf July 28th resulting in at least 11 deaths, hundreds injured and thirty-six residents hauled away. Yesterday, Michael Holden and Elizabeth Fullerton (Reuters) report that Archbishop Canterbury Rowan Williams, head of the Anglican Church, issued a statement on Camp Ashraf. From the Archibisoph of Canterbury's website: The continuing situation in Camp Ashraf, together with the fact that the 36 people taken from the camp in July have not been released, constitutes a humanitarian and human rights issue of real magnitude and urgency. There is a strong argument in terms of international law that the Ashraf residents are "protected persons". Both the government of Iraq and the government of the United States -- as the agency responsible for the transfer of the residents to another jurisdiction -- have an obligation to secure the rights of these residents and to defend them from violence or abuse. I am in contact with our own government as well as representatives of other governments to urge that the current situation be remedied urgently. A very significant step towards the long-term security of the residents will be the establishing of a UN monitoring team to visit the camp. Meanwhile I hope that all concerned will listen to what those across the world who are deeply anxious about these human rights violations are saying, and respond as a matter of urgency. In the same humanitarian spirit I would also urge those who have been demonstrating their concern by not taking food to bring their fast to an end. Further loss of life would only compound recent tragic events.

Saturday Brian Knowlton (New York Times) reported on Camp Ashraf supporters demonstrating in DC. 26-year-old Iranian-American Hamid Goudarzi who is on a hunger strike stated, "I'm getting weaker every day. But I'm here to the end." Knowlton added, "The protesters are calling for the resumption of American protection of the camp until a United Nations presence can be arranged and for the release of 36 members who have been detained since the clash at Camp Ashraf, which is home to about 3,400 people."
Turning to the topic of drugs. Most people are familiar with a "mule" in the drug trade: A person carries drugs -- sometimes swallowing them in a balloon so that they carry the drugs inside of their body -- across a border. On the latest Inside Iraq (Al Jazeera -- video link), Dr. Abdul Rahman Hamid of Al Muthanna Province, explains how camels are used, "The smugglers perform surgery on these animals. They usually cut open the camel's hump, place the drugs inside and stitch them back up and then cover the stitches with the camel's hair so it won't be noticeable. It is criminal what they're doing to these animals." Inside Iraq began airing Friday and Jasim Azzawi explored the topic of drugs which have plauged Iraq in recent years. Iranians have been blamed for the influx, US troops have been blamed, British troops have been blamed, 'security' contractors and other contractors (labor brought in to build or work in non-security roles) have been blamed.

Jasim Azzawi: To discuss the drug problem in Iraq, I'm joined from London by Mustafa Alani, director of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Centre, and from Tehran by Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University. Gentlemen, welcome to Inside Iraq. Mustafa Alani, drugs in Iraq prior to 2003 were generally unknown and unavailable simply because users, they went to jail for so many years, and traffickers were executed. Today drug abuse and drug trafficking has become endemic in Iraq, threatening the very fabric of Iraqi society. Has the Iraqi government lost the war on drugs?

Mustafa Alani: I think we still have a chance that if the government has a willing -- the intention to fight the war and the capability to fight the war, I still think we have a chance to save the country. You are right, previous regime was able to basically to maintain the country clean from-from the drug. We had a zero rate of drug using and drug trafficking. In 2007, we have 14,000 drug users in Iraq -- this is an official figure from the Iraqi government. So in four years, between 2003 and 2007, we have 14,000 people start to use drug. The government is certainly blamed here but there is another factor actually. We cannot put the blame only on the government door. Another factor because it is an occupied country, because neighboring countries getting benefits from that. So it is a very complicated picture but the government? I think still we have hope that the government going to act soon with determination and put the fighting drug as a priority. I believe we still have some chance to save the country from the drug problem.

Jasim Azzawi: Complicated? Indeed it is and bleak as the way you portrayed it. And Iran somehow stands accused of facilitating if not perhaps looking the other way for drug traffickers and drug to come from Iran into Iraq, Dr. Sadegh Zibakalam?

Sadegh Zibakalam: [. . .] I must disagree with you, both gentlemen, with you, Dr. Jasim, and also with Mr. Mustafa Alani in London. First of all, I don't think that the fact that there was no drug problem under Saddam regime is any credit to that regime --

Jasim Azzawi: Why is that?

Sadegh Zibakalam: -- as I am sure both you gentlemen -- as I am sure both you gentlemen are aware. There is no such a problem, there is no drug problem in almost all the entire ruthless, police-less state and dictatorship countries. There is no drug problem in North Korea, there was no problem -- drug problem -- under old Communist regime and of course there was no drug problem --

Mustafa Alani: Well this is an achievement.

Sadegh Zibakalam: -- under Saddam. When you have democracy -- when you have democracy, you're bound to have drug problem because it is one of the fundamental questions posed by --

Jasim Azzawi: That argument, Sadegh Zibakalam, is absolutely flawed. You are not going to win any argument by stating that, once you become democracy, then it's okay to have drug problem and it's okay to have abusers --

Sadegh Zibakalam: I am not --

Jasim Azzawi: -- and its okay to have traffickers.

Sadegh Zibakalam: I am not saying --

Jasim Azzawi: That's exactly what you just said.

Sadegh Zibakalam: I am not say -- No, no, no. I am not saying that, if you have a democracy, you must have drug problem. All I am saying, all I am saying is that democracy begins with this fundamental, principle question: Is the individual free to do what he or she likes or is the individual --

Jasim Azzawi: I cannot believe --

Sadegh Zibakalam: -- must do what the state believes --

Jasim Azzawi: I cannot believe --

Mustafa Alani: This is unbelievable.

Jasim Azzawi: -- that a professor of political science, a professor of political science is saying that. Basically, you are justifying drug trafficking, drug abuse, Dr. Zibakalam.

Sadegh Zibakalam: No, no. I am -- I am neither justifying the-the drug traffic or the taking drugs --

Jasim Azzawi: Let me ask you another question.

Sadegh Zibakalam: I'm saying that if you look, you have --

Jasim Azzawi: Is Iran responsible for the drug inundated Iraq or not?

Sadegh Zibakalam: You haven't let me to finish my --

Jasim Azzawi: Go ahead.

Sadegh Zibakalam: -- previous comment.

Jasim Azzawi: Go ahead.

Sadegh Zibakalam: You have the drug problem in-in Germany, you have the problem, drug problem, in the United States. Everywhere that you have democratic society, you have some kind of -- some kind of drug problem. Are you going to tell me that there is no drug problem in-in-in Western societies?

Jasim Azzawi: Indeed --

Sadegh Zibakalam: Are you going to tell me

Jasim Azzawi: Indeed --

Sadegh Zibakalam: no western country --

Jasim Azzawi: -- there is a lot of problems. Sadegh Zibakalam, we started by saying that the strict application of the law under the previous regime prevented anybody from even thinking of using it, let alone trafficking it. But let us move on to Mustafa Alani. Mustafa Alani, if the Iraqi government is busy right now fighting terrorism and insurgency and militias and all that -- and, indeed, it is -- and perhaps, as you said, fighting drug abuse and trafficking is not at the top of its priorities because simply those people are very difficult to catch. Explain to me in that case, how is it possible that fields are being cultivated with poppy seeds in Diwaniya, in Kifil and even in the orchard fame of Diyala [Province]. These are well known, as we say in the Arab world, بهذا الشكل الصارخ المتاحة, so flagrantly available, that any police officer will be able to identify it.

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