Saturday, August 21, 2010

The questions mount





The Scripps Howard News Service reports, "As the last combat troops leave Iraq, one Kentucky family learnst their son has died there." Christopher Wright of Lewis County, Kentucky is the fallen. Misty Maynard (Ledger Independent) reports he was on his second tour of duty in Iraq and she speaks to the family's pastor John Moore, of Tollesboro Christian Church, "Moore said it had been at least a year since he had seen Christopher Wright. One of the most vivid aspects of Wright, Moore said, was his passion for the military and his hopes to attend jump school and become a Ranger or a Green Beret." Elizabeth Dorsett (WKYT) quotes James King, who works for Joe Cochran (Christopher Wright's father), on the family learning the news, "When the military guys came in, they didn't have to say anything." ICCC's current total for the number of US service members killed in Iraq is 4416. Strangely USF never announced the death.
The war didn't end yesterday. The one good thing about so many pushing the myth that it did is that so many people are weighing in. If you're noted, you were among the best weighing in but that doesn't mean we happen to agree with you in part or in total. Let's start with US Senator Russ Feingold:
"While I applaud President Obama for sticking to his redeployment timetable, more than 50,000 U.S. troops are still serving in harm's way in Iraq. I urge the president to redeploy those remaining troops as promptly and safely as possible so we can reduce the strain on our military and our budget.
"While our departure from Iraq is taking much longer than it should, it does show that setting a timetable for redeployment can help contribute to stability and enable us to focus on combating al Qaeda's global network. Al Qaeda and its affiliates continue to expand in places around the world like Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, North Africa and elsewhere. Rather than send more troops to Afghanistan, where there is no military solution, the president should lay out a timetable for ending our military involvement there so we are better able to combat al Qaeda's global network without needlessly risking American lives and spending dollars we don't have."
No, Barack didn't keep his pledge, but we'll note that after Matthew Rothschild (link is audio):
I'm Matt Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive, with my Progressive Point of View which you can also grab off our website over at Barack Obama is to be commended for keeping his pledge to pull US combat troops out of Iraq by the end of August and congratulations to the soldiers and the families of the soldiers coming home. But let's remember that 4,415 members of the US military never came home and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died in this immoral and illegal war that Bush and Cheney launched for no good reason. And let's also remember that the US still has 56,000 troops in Iraq who may well see combat in the year ahead and by the end of next year, it's not like the American presence will vanish. The State Dep is building new fortresses in Iraq to go along with the massive embassy in Baghdad. It's spending upward of one million dollars on outposts in Erbil, Mosul and Kirkuk and Basra. And instead of soldiers guarding these facilities and the diplomats who work there, the State Department is going to be relying on 7,000 private contractors -- mercenaries by any other name. This is good news for the like of DynCorp and Blackwater, but not for Iraq and not for us. I'm Matt Rothschild and that's how I see it.
I'm disgusted and that's how it is. 'Barack Obama is to be congratulated . . . but that mean nasty State Dept!!!' What? Barack got congratulated (despite the fact that it was not his campaign promise -- or is basic math not a progressive value? -- April 2010 was one campaign pledge and, in Texas in Feb. 2008, he lowered it October 2009). But not held accountable. But not held accountable? Who is over the State Dept, who is over the entire federal government in the United States? That would be the president who would be Barack Obama. It's real cute the way Matthew Rothschild parcel's out praise for Barack (unearned praise, Matt Rothchild) but can't hold him accountable. Now the militarization of diplomacy was Samantha Power's plan -- presented to Barack in 2007. But he signed off on it. He's the one seeing that it's executed. He's the one putting all the national security types -- past and present -- on it. And that's why we're calling it the "militarization of diplomacy." When no one was talking about or writing about it, we called it the "militarization of the State Dept" but this really won't be State Dept led. This will go under the national security and that's why those people -- including the gangbusters for it woman who is so convinced she gets Robert Gates' job if he does step down in 2011 -- are the ones at the meetings and why so many meetings take place without State even being present or in the loop. It's also why the new US Ambassador was selected. (Or are we ignoring his national security background as well?) About the militarization of diplomacy, yesterday, Michele Kelemen (All Things Considered, NPR -- link has audio and text) reported:

Michele Kelemen: Overseeing contractors will be another key challenge, he says. Security contractors will be needed not just at the embassy but also at the other diplomatic outposts that are being opened if diplomats are going to be able to get out of their buildings to do their jobs. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Corbin says there will be two consulates - one in the southern city of Basra and one in Erbil in the Kurdish north. There are also plans for temporary branch offices in Mosul and Kirkuk.

Michael Corbin (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State): These are a three- to five-year presence. And we chose the Kurd-Arab fault line, as we like to call it, it's not what the Iraqis call it. But there are issues in Kirkuk and in Mosul that have not only to do with Arab-Kurd issues but also Iraq's minorities.
Peter Hart: Goodbye Operation Iraqi Freedom, hello Operation New Dawn. The Iraq War is ending, we're told, with TV crews back in Iraq, capturing footage of the final combat troops exiting the country. One might reach for the term Orwellian to describe such events, perhaps because there is no fitting way to convey the "up is down, black is white" sense of what has happened in Iraq and what is happening there now. Our next guest wrote about this for under the headline "The Iraq Withdrawal: An Orwellian Success." Hannah Gurman is an assistant professor at New York University's Gallatin School. She joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Hannah Gurman.
Hannah Gurman: My pleasure.
Peter Hart: Well here's the official story: Violence is down, Iraqis are stepping up, as ABC's Christiane Amanpour put it recently, "The surge, let's face it, has worked." These are basically the indisputable facts in our media discussions about Iraq. In what ways do you think this Iraq narrative might qualify as Orwellian, as you put it?
Hannah Gurman: Well it's really hard to say where to begin. By almost every measure with respect to security, the state of Iraqi politics and maybe most importantly Iraqis to basic resources and the state of Iraq's infrastructure. There are things that the mainstream story just isn't illuminating. In terms of infrastructure, for example, there are still many, many Iraqis who do not have electricity. They have about two to three hours of electricity a day. And the latest Brookings Index shows that there are 30 - 50,000 private generators making up for that gap between the national grid and what people actually need. So that's just one example of the basic situation on the ground that we don't really hear that much about from Obama or from Ambassador Christopher Hill when they are touting the success of the surge narrative.
Peter Hart: It's interesting, those Brookings numbers used to be widely cited in the media when they wanted to cite progress in the Iraq War. You don't hear them cited as often now. Perhaps because the findings are rather dismal.
Hannah Gurman: Yeah and that gets to heart of really what Iraqi citizens see on the ground and they point to the every day situation. So it is interesting that that's one of the things that we're really not hearing very much about in terms of the surge narrative. We're hearing a lot more about the decreases in violence, we're hearing a lot more about the optimism of Iraqi politics and even with respect to their things, there are things to be questioned.
Peter Hart: Speaking of Orwellian, I'm looking at the Washington Post headline the day we record this show, "Operation Iraqi Freedom Ends As Last Combat Soldiers Leave Baghdad." The article [by Ernesto Londono] notes that there might never be an acknowledged end to the Iraq War. The real point seems to be this: US commanders are also stressing that this is no longer America's war to lose. The end it would seem is not about winning then, it's about not losing.
Hannah Gurman: Yeah and it does also point to the strange shift from the concept of victory which used to be the way people thought about America's goals in war to now success so even if we don't win, we still don't lose. There is this prominent word "success" and you see it everywhere in discussions of the Iraq withdrawal -- that we are "successfully" handing over this situation to Iraq.
Peter Hart: Also today, the day we record this show [Thursday], the New York Times has this piece [by Michael R. Gordon] that's somewhat muddled. It tells us there's going to be this tiny military presence in Iraq. Experts are quoted saying this will be insufficient for the task, we may need to send more troops. At the same time, this presence will exist alongside thousands of private security forces, five massive compounds, massive amounts of State Dept planes and helicopters, there will be private security guards. The Times explains these are "quick reaction forces" to rescue citizens in trouble. And it also tell us that Iraqis object to these forces because they have a history of killing civilians. What are the mechanics of the Iraq occupation in this post-war phase.
Hannah Gurman: Well you heard that today, or Thursday morning Iraqi time, the last combat brigade pulled out of Iraq so now you have by the end of this month, 50,000 troops are going to be in Iraq and they're going to be simply transferred or relabled from "combat battallions" to "advise-and-assist battallions." And so they'll be there training or continuing to train the Iraqi security forces. What they actually do on the ground, I think, is very much up in the air whether and when they will actually be participating in combat, I think, is very much up to debate. Then you have this other story you've been discussing which is the transferring over, in many ways, the transferring over military responsibilities to the civilian personnel in Iraq. And, in essance, it's a shadow army. It's very paradoxical because on the one hand it really raises the responsibility of the civilian presence in Iraq but, on the other hand, it's really a civilian presence that is operating security appartaus in Iraq. And there are many military and even senior civilian officials who believe that that civilian presecne is going to have to be upped or eventually supported by a more conventional military presence. So they really don't know.
Moving over to today's second hour of The Diane Rehm Show today, Diane and her guests David Ignatius (Washington Post), Laura Rozen (Politico) and Thom Shanker (New York Times).
Diane Rehm: Thom Shanker, the last American brigade left Iraq yesterday. Wasn't this earlier than the actual deadline?
Thom Shanker: Well it's very interesting, Diane. We have to be careful of the words we use and the labels we apply. I mean what the American military force in Iraq has been doing for the past six to nine months is very similar to what they'll be doing throughout the rest of this year and 2011. What the military did is they waived their hand and symbolically said 4-2 Stryker brigade from Fort Lewis is the brigade that's leaving and will not be replaced. So that brigade has left Baghdad and crossed the border into Kuwait on its way back to the United States. But there are six brigades left in Iraq, still 56,000 troops whose mission officially changes on September 1st, from combat to advise-and-assist, but that's been going on. In fact we should note the 4-2 Stryker brigade that's gotten so much attention did not lose a single soldier to a combat death during its entire 12 months there. So clearly the mission has been changing. I think it's sort of a case, if we could rephrase the great John Lennon song, it's not exactly peace, but all we are saying is give the non-combat-advise-and-assist mission a chance.
Diane Rehm: What about the contractors who were left behind? What kind of role will they play?
Thom Shanker: They will only have an increasing role. When the American military officially ends its presence under the Status Of Forces Agreement at the end of next year, the State Dept takes over. We've already seen statistics. The State Dept will have to hire up to 7,000 security contractors to protect its 5 hardened sites across the country. The State Dept's looking at a security operations bill of a billion dollars once the American military leaves and, with it, helicopters, armored vehicles, security patrols. I don't think the American people understand the cost and extent of the commitment to sustain whatever progress has been made.
Diane Rehm: Laura Rozen, I don't get that the State Dept is going to be taking over the security measures.
Laura Rozen: Well that's actually the point the State Dept and Defense officials have been trying to make this past week is that, you know, in the effort to normalize the US-bilateral relationship with Iraq, the State Dept will be taking the lead from the Pentagon in managing US relations with Iraq. And they've actually been Defense Dept and State Dept officials going together to Congress to try to ask for the kind of appropriations Thom is talking about. And the State appropriaters in Congress just aren't used to these 5, 6, 7 billion dollar appropriations requests from the State Dept. You know, they spent monthly, for the Pentagon in Iraq. So the Pentagon and the State Dept have been quite frustrated. They had to downsize a bit the US diplomatic presence that will be in Iraq over the next several years to five total diplomatic offics.
Diane Rehm: David Ignatius, I'm totally confused by this.
David Ignatius: Well welcome to Iraq. You shouldn't imply that the State Dept is going to have responsibility for security. It won't. The contractors who will be coming in, many of them will be doing force-protection to protect these State Dept officers. They're not a military force. They need in today's Iraq people to travel with and keep them safe. The problem is that Iraq is kind of now really excited about getting its sovereignty. Excited but not all is efficacious in dealing with it. And the issue of contractors is a very, very prickly one for the Iraqis. We've had incidents in which Blackwater people shot people up in downtown Baghdad. So it's a real problem. The State Dept is going to need people to protect them but the people doing the protecting may be very unpopular in Iraq.
Diane Rehm: Thom Shanker, what about training Iraqi soldiers? Just before the brigade pulled out, you had Iraqi recruits killed in a suicide bombing.
Thom Shanker: That's exactly right, Diane. Even though the overall violence levels are far, far below what they were at the worst of 2006, the insurgents and the militants are still capable of spectacular attacks. What's happening between September 1st when the Operation Iraqi Freedom, the invasion war plan, becomes Operation New Dawn, anadvise-andd assist mission for the Americans, 50,000 American military personnel that stay through the end of next year are doing exactly what you said, Diane. They'll be training, advising, trying to make certain if they can that the Iraqi security forces can do it all once they leave at the end of 2011 unless, unless, the Iraqis ask for a continued American presence.
Diane Rehm: David.
David Ignatius: Diane, I think when we're talking about Iraq, we ought to just know the really sad point from the standpoint of view which is as the designated withdrawal of the last combat brigade happens, Iraq doesn't have a government yet. Five months after the elections, if you want to put any kind of positive spin on this terrible, painful experience in Iraq it's that the US brought democratic elections, Iraq has elected a Parliament but that Parliament is frozen. In talking with an Iraqi friend of mine, who's part of the government, yesterday, he said they just don't see any way forward right now. The administration here in Washington is working very hard to try to broker a deal between Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya faction -- he's a former prime minister -- and the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and his State Of Law faction that would add a new position that presumably would be given to Allawi where he would run a national security council and have some security -- It's a kind of jury-rigged system for a country that can't make the positions its got already work in a functional manner, the idea of adding a whole new layer, strikes some people as crazy. But that's the current administration plan for breaking the logjam.

Diane Rehm: And let us not forget that the US death toll -- the US death toll has been 4415 soldiers-- men, women. And that does not even touch the Iraqi civilians who've been killed in the process.
Thom Shanker: That's exactly right to weave that point and the smart point that David just made. I was having coffee with some smart army colonels yesterday at the Pentagon. Officers who have had multiple tours in Iraq. They have made peace with the sacrfice of their colleagues and comrades because they are soldiers, they are patriots. They've made peace with the initial mission for the invasion: Weapons of Mass Destruction proving false. They've made peace with the under-resourcing of the war. But as the last combat troop leaves, as the 50,000 remaining advise-and-assist, what really troubles smart military officers is: Will the Iraqis take advantage of the great sacrifice of American blood and treasury that's made this possible? And as David so correctly said, that's the question mark today.
I called out Matthew Rothschild, so we'll note of the above exchange a few points. First off, Diane noted the US death toll and that was good. That's one of the things she does best. However, she then went into civilians. Civilians? Iraqis. Iraqis. No matter what you label them, they live in their own country. This nonsense of a US death count but only an Iraqi civilian matters? Do we think the US military sent civilians into Iraq with guns? No, they sent a fighting force into a foreign country. Iraqis who fought back an invasion and continue to fight it are defending their country. And the history of Iraq will decide whether they are heroes or scoundrels. But what they are right now is Iraqis and their deaths need to be counted regardless of whether they are civilian or 'insurgent,' regardless of whether they are civilian or military. In fact, there's something really disgusting about the US trumpeting its own military death toll but repeatedly the White House (under Bush and under Barack) spins and the press runs with this idea that only Iraqi civilians deaths matter. We count the US dead and we take that seriously -- the US military dead. Why are Iraqi soldiers and police officers less important? They're not. Again, I do not subscribe to these classifications which I find insulting (I do not believe Diane was trying to be insulting and this didn't originate with her) to the suffering of the Iraqi people.
The suffering of the Iraqi people. This 'great gift' the US gave ("under false pretenses" as a listener e-mailed)? It's really not a great gift. You may show up at Sue's house with a juicer. But Sue has a juicer already that she doesn't use and doesn't want. You can go all over town telling people you gave Sue a great gift. Actually, Sue, the one who received it, will determine whether it's a great gift or not. She's the one who will use it (or toss it). The Iraqi people are not all in agreement on what the US 'gave.' There feelings -- little explored in the press -- need to be taken into account. I could go on and on but I'll leave it at that. As noted, a listener brought up objections. Thom Shanker responded but it is not his place -- does he not get this -- to hail what has happened in Iraq as "a truly historic opportunity". Iraq may or may not want democracy. That's why it hasn't taken root, pay attention, they haven't been allowed to decide. The exiles have ruled over them, put in place by the US government. It is not for Thom Shanker, an American citizen, to decide that what was done in Iraq is "a truly historic opportunity" for the Iraqis. The Iraqis -- who are not being asked or reported on -- are the ones who will decide whether the alleged 'gift' is a good one or a bad one. It's their country. Do we not get that? Democracy is self-determination. They could determine tomorrow they want a dictator. That would be a democratic move in making that decision if that's the choice they wanted to make. It is not on the US to decide for the Iraqis. Thom Shanker is a smart person and an often gifted reporter so it is very maddening that the objectivity that is such a hallmark of his reporting is out the window when he's talking about Iraq and its future -- its future, not his. "I think we can all agree that democracy is better than dictatorship." Who is "we"? Americans? Yes, I suppose most Americans, having grown up in a democracy, are comfortable with it. But democracy is not a one-size fits all nor, in fact, is it pret-a-porter. It is not off-the-rack, one-size-fits-all. Democracy is a garmet that fits you best because it has been designed to your needs and wants. Democracy requires input of the governed and the governed in Iraq are the voices no one is hearing from and the ones Shanker seems unaware of. And, again, he's smart and often a gifted reporter. But democracy cannot be grafted it has to come from the people -- continued democracy stands no chance -- in any country, even the US -- without the consent of the people. As Jeremy R. Hammond notes a Foreign Policy Journal:
This view of "Many Iraqis" is offered a voice. The view of the majority, as indicated by public opinion surveys, however, is excluded. Back in December 2007, for instance (and there's little reason to think Iraqis' views have since reversed), the Post reported that "Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of 'occupying forces' as the key to national reconciliation, according to focus groups conducted for the U.S.military last month." The focus group's report stated that most Iraqis "would describe the negative elements of life in Iraq beginning with the 'U.S. occupation' in March 2003".

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Never ending spin






Today on PRI's The Takeaway, John Hockenberry spoke with Michael R. Gordon of the New Yourk Times.
John Hockenberry: When we say noncombat troops -- it almost sounds like an oxymoron -- but noncombat troops, is that a semantic distinction or is there something real in that term.
Michael R. Gordon: Well it's not even accurate. I think that what happened yesterday was largely symbolic and to some extent hyped by the electronic media. The uh -- What's happening is there are combat troops remaining in Iraq. The 50,000 troops include six brigades which are essentially combat brigades. But these combat brigades have been renamed assist-and-advise brigades and they've been given a task of helping to train the Iraqi army but that doesn't mean they're not made up of combat troops. They are. And in addition, the US is still helping the Iraqi special forces carry out counter-terrorism missions against al-Qaeda operatives and all of that and that fits my definition of "combat."
Before we get to that, we're again dropping back to Monday's State Dept press briefing by the "Near Eastern and North African Affairs Bureau Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq Michael Corbin and Defense Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Middle East Affairs Colin Kahl." So that's US State Dept and DoD both represented. We've covered it repeatedly and probably will again in the future. So the two were explaining the militarization of diplomacy in Iraq. Here's Corbin:

We're going to have two consulates in Iraq, and the Council of Ministers recently signed off on having two consulates -- one in Basra and one in the north, in Erbil. And these consulates provide a recognized important diplomatic platform for all the types of programs that we want to do now and that we'll want to do in the future. And consulates around the world used to be a very key element of our diplomatic presence. We'll have two of those consulates. And obviously, one is in the Kurdish region in the north and the other is in Basra, which has enormous economic importance as the -- being close to Umm Qasr, the only -- Iraq's only port, being close to the new oil fields, the ones that have been exposed in the latest oil bid rounds. So we're going to have different interests in these consulates, but they serve as platforms for us to apply all the tools of a diplomatic presence.

And, in case you're wondering, in Baghdad -- the Green Zone section -- the US Embassy will remain. So three buildings -- Nope. Citing "this transition from the military to civilians" as the reason more is needed, he explained their would be "embassy branch offices" "in Kirkuk and in Mosul . . . An embassy branch office is a diplomatic termthat is recognized as a way diplomats can have presence, but these are going to be temporary presences, as Deputy Secretary Lew has explained. These are a three to five-year presence . . ." If you're trying to calculate, he's referring to 2011 (or 2012) so add three and five years to that.
Asked about the air space and Iraq needing the US to continue to provide protection for the air space, Kahl responded, "You're right about the air sovereignty, what the U.S. military calls the air sovereignty gap. For all the right reasons, we've focused on building Iraq's ground forces to provide for internal security and be able to conduct counterinsurgency operations. We've also made a lot of progress in building up their air force, but largely kind of the foundation for a capable force, as opposed to one that can fully exercise and enforce Iraq's air sovereignty. We can expect that the Iraqis will have requirements for air sovereignty that extend beyond 2011, which is one of the reasons they've expressed interest in purchasing a multi-role fighter to provide for their own security. All their neighbors have it, et cetera." Asked to elaborate on "provide assistance," Kahl responded, " You're right about the air sovereignty, what the U.S. military calls the air sovereignty gap. For all the right reasons, we've focused on building Iraq's ground forces to provide for internal security and be able to conduct counterinsurgency operations. We've also made a lot of progress in building up their air force, but largely kind of the foundation for a capable force, as opposed to one that can fully exercise and enforce Iraq's air sovereignty. We can expect that the Iraqis will have requirements for air sovereignty that extend beyond 2011, which is one of the reasons they've expressed interest in purchasing a multi-role fighter to provide for their own security. All their neighbors have it, et cetera."

With that background, today Michael R. Gordon reports on the current realities.Speaking to Ryan Crocker -- the former US Ambassador to Iraq -- Gordon is informed that the US needs to be flexible and that a request to extend the SOFA would be in the US' "strategic interest." From Gordon's article:

With the Obama administration in campaign mode for the coming midterm elections and Iraqi politicians yet to form a government, the question of what future military presence might be needed has been all but banished from public discussion.
"The administration does not want to touch this question right now," said one administration official involved in Iraq issues, adding that military officers had suggested that 5,000 to 10,000 troops might be needed. "It runs counter to their political argument that we are getting out of these messy places," the official, speaking only on condition of anonymity, added. "And it would be quite counterproductive to talk this way in front of the Iraqis. If the Iraqis want us, they should be the demandeur."
This morning, Ross Colvin (Reuters) provided an analysis on the possibility that US would withdraw in 2011 and notes various public statements but here's the key passage:

The U.S.-Iraq military pact that came into force in 2009 provides the legal basis for U.S. troops to be in Iraq. Under the agreement, all U.S. troops must be out by 2012. But U.S. negotiators say that even as the pact was being negotiated, it was considered likely it would be quietly revised later to allow a longer-term, although much smaller, force to remain.

And now we go back to PRI's The Takeaway:
John Hockenberry: First of all, do you see no US military presence in Iraq for America after 2011, is that possible?
Michael R. Gordon: I think it's unlikely. And in the view of a lot of Iraqis and people like Ambassador Ryan Crocker -- who served as abassador in Iraq from 2007 to 2009 -- undesirable. The Bush administration signed an agreement to get all troops out by the end of 2011. The Obama administration is -- which is in a campaign mode now as it approaches the midterm elections, has promised to honor that but, really, there are going to be a lot of tasks that remain. For example, Iraq will have no air force. Well who's going to patrol the Iraqi skies? It almost certainly will be the United States. Iraq is buying M1 tanks and artillery. Well who's going to help them field it and learn how to operate it? It's almost certainly going to be the United States. al Qaeda militants and Iranian-backed militias are going to remain in Iraq in some measure. They've been attacking US forces over the last several months. Certainly, it seems very likely that there will be some sort of US role in advising or helping Iraqi special operation forces to go after them. And there's going to be a very large civilian role. There's going to be 2,400 odd civilians -- State Dept and other officials carrying out functions not only in Baghdad but in Kirkuk and Mosul, trying to tamp down Kurdish-Arab tensions. And they're going to rely, under current plans, on private security contractors. It's kind of ironic that the Obama administraion is going to be preside over a more than doubling of private security contractors in Iraq, but that's the current plan. If we negotiatea new agreement with Iraq to keep some US forces there, maybe that burden will be reduced somewhat.
As Gordon notes, electronic media is making a big deal about the departure of combat brigades. Setting aside the theatrics of renaming, did the last US 'combat' brigade pull out of Iraq as everyone's insisting? Apparently not. Xinhua reports, "An U.S. official from the Defense Ministry has denied that the U.S. combat troops have completed withdrawal from Iraq, the official Iraqia television reported Thursday. 'What happened was a reorganization for these troops as some 4,000 soldiers had been pulled out and the rest of the combat troops (will leave) at the end of this month,' Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell was quoted as saying. His comments came after some U.S. media said earlier that the last brigade from the combat troops has left Iraq Thursday morning two weeks before the deadline of Aug. 31." Calling it the "second fake end to Iraq War," Jason Ditz ( observes:

Officials have been pretty straightforward about what really happened, not that it has been picked up by the media, which has preferred the more pleasant narrative of a decisive military victory. Instead, the US simply "redefined" the vast majority of its combat troops as "transitional troops," then removed a brigade that they didn't relabel, so they could claim that was the "last one." Even this comes with the assumption that the State Department, and a new army of contractors, will take over for years after the military operations end, assuming they ever do.

And it worked, at least for now. All is right with the world and the war is over, at least so far as anyone could tell from the TV news shows.

And James Denselow (at Huffington Post) notes, "As US combat units pulled back into Kuwait today a single soldiers was spotted shouting 'we won, we won'. What has been won is perhaps the narrative which states that despite regular bloodletting, Iraq is a success that the US can depart from with honor." northsum32 (All Voices) explains, "To move around Iraq without United States troops, the State Department plans to acquire 60 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, called MRAPs, from the Pentagon; expand its inventory of armored cars to 1,320; and create a mini-air fleet by buying three plans to add to its lone aircraft. Its helicopter fleet, which will be piloted by contractors, will grow to 29 choppers from 17. There are to be 6 to 7 thousand private security contractors. This is bound to cause conflict with the Iraqi government which has been very critical of private security firms." For more on that topic, refer to Michele Kelemen's report for All Things Considered (NPR).

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How very telling






Yesterday CNN and the network's Alexander Mooney reported on the latest CNN - Opinion Research Corp poll which found "69 percent oppose the war in Iraq -- the highest amount of opposition in any CNN poll." And while respondents support a withdrawal they do so with eyes open to the possible issues arising when a withdrawal takes place: "Six in 10 say they are not confident in the Iraqi government's ability to handle the situation in that country." That's bad news for War Hawks. Opposing withdrawal, War Hawks always want to whine, "Think what will happen!" Americans, juding by the poll, are aware of the possibilities. They're also probably aware that the alternative is permanent occupation which they don't favor. Sentiment against the illegal war hardened sometime ago. And the poll indicates that attempts by War Hawks to insist the illegal war continue for 'humanitarian reasons' (so Samantha Power) will not work as a scare tactic. Iraq will rise or fall on its own when US forces leave -- whenever that is. The Iraqi people will determine their future and that may include determining that the exile class installed by the US government does not represent them or their country's best interests.
The violence already exists in war-torn Iraq and has never vanished. It's created the Iraqi refugee crisis, the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since 1948. Tomorrow is World Humanitarian Day. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) explains:
Thursday marks an important occasion for the staff of UNHCR and all humanitarian workers. It is the day that militants detonated a massive truck bomb in Baghdad in 2003, killing 22 people including 18 UN staff members and injuring dozens more. Last year, the UN and other humanitarian organizations began honouring the anniversary as 'World Humanitarian Day' in order to recognize the contribution made by humanitarian workers worldwide.

Here at UNHCR, we spoke to a handful of our staff about their experience on the job. One story that we are publishing today, which is available here, reports on the unique challenges of working in Iraq and the broader Middle East. In another, which can be read here, Vincent Cochetel, who was kidnapped and held for nearly a year in Chechnya while serving as head of UNHCR's north Caucasus office, discusses the ordeal and the lessons it holds for his colleagues in the field.

To learn more about World Humanitarian day, go here.

Wafa Amr, Helene Caux, Farah Dakhlallah, Nabil Othman and Sireen Khalifeh look at the Iraqi refugee crisis on behalf of the UNHCR: Depending on the organization estimating, there are between 3.9 million refugees and 4.5 million. Iraq's population (non-refugee) is largely young (only 59% are estimated to be over the age of 15).
For UNHCR Iraqi staff member Wafa, just going to work and returning home at the end of the day is a life-threatening experience. Elias Shalhoub, a psychologist and protection officer in Lebanon, says the challenge for him lies in discussing the needs of refugees and not knowing whether he can help. Martha Kow-Donkor, a field officer for UNHCR in Yemen braves tribal checkpoints and mine fields to help deliver aid to internally displaced people there. Her main worry is failing to reach people in time.
All three are struggling to balance the hardships, dangers and frustrations of their work with the UN Refugee Agency with the goal of helping some of the world's neediest people.
Andrew England (Financial Times of London) observes of the refugee crisis, "This enduring tragedy shows few signs of easing even as US troops prepare to leave Iraq next year. After the British-American invasion of 2003, Iraq sank into the bloody chaos of insurgency and sectarian violence. Entire neighbourhoods of the country's cities, particularly Baghdad, were cleared of either their Sunni or Shia inhabitants." Jonny Abo and Abdul Jalil Mustafa (DPA) note al-Mortagi Abdel-Moneim al-Kaabi, an Iraqi who became a refugee following being shot multiple times and who says, "I still suffer from a lot of diseases but thank God I'm alive, although I feel like I am psychologically bleeding because I cannot forget the painful memories." Now he and his wife (who has breast cancer and is receiving treatments for which charitable assistance -- from the UN -- only pays 40% of the cost ) live in Syria. Syria and Jordan have the bulk of Iraq's refugee population. Fiyaz Mughal (Daily Star) explains, "The Syrian government estimates that there are 1 million refugees in the country, the overwhelming majority coming from Iraq. In Jordan, estimates for Iraqi refugees range from 600,000 to 700,000 and the influx has led to a steep rise in real estate and food prices in urban areas. As a result, many Jordanians harbor increasing resentment toward refugees." Lebanon and Egypt also have a large amount. The western world has not done a very good job on the issue -- despite a lot of public pronouncements. Andrew Ward (Finanical Times of London) reports Sweden cares little for Iraqi refugees as evidenced by the tape interview of Iraqi Riyad with Swiss immigration officials. Riyad explains his brother was, beheaded, that, "They murdered my brother and would have done the same to me." To which the immigration official replies, "Yes, I know that. But it doesn't count that they might do the same thing to you; you have to prove there is an actual threat." Riyad's brother can prove it -- but of course that required his dying. Apparently, when Sweden deports Riyad, if he's killed in Iraq, they'll say, "Well, you proved it. You're dead, but we'll give you citizenship after-the-fact. Congratulations." A very small number make it to the US. (Detroit, the San Diego area and Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth areas in Texas have been among the areas many Iraqi refugees have settled in.) Anna Fifield (Financial Times of London) reports on Iraqi refugee Elham who lives with Ayd (her husband) in Maryland where she now works "as a doctor's assistant." In Iraq, Elham was a doctor, a gynecolist. She states, "Before we arrived, we were told that as doctors we would be welcomed with open arms. But when we got here, everyone told us we were over-qualified and that we should not mention our degrees, so that I could get a job as a housekeeper. [. . .] I was respected in Iraq as a doctor and now I come here and I am nothing. It's very difficult for me to accept this idea."
Among the hardest hit communities -- probably the second hardest hit when you break it down into percentages (the Jewish community in Iraq has vanished, they would be the worst hit) -- in the country is the Mandaeans which now counts, Stephen Starr (Asia Times) notes, 70,000 external refugees and only 5,000 still in Iraq. Starr offers this background:
Mandaeans are followers of John the Baptist and moved from the Holy Land to the expanses of today's southern Iraq and southwest Iran around the second century AD. Their religious origins are thought to have been drawn independently of Christianity and may even be older. They are monotheists - thought to be the oldest in the Middle East - believing in a single god.

Mandaeans are also Gnostics, believing in mysticism and a heightened role of the natural world. Very little has been recorded of the Mandaean religion and traditions and in principle people cannot convert to, or leave, the religion. They speak their own language and have quietly been struggling to keep their customs alive for almost 2,000 years.
Mission Network News released the following on Monday:

Iraq (MNN) -- "Get up! Grab your things. We need to go!" Imagine these words said in panic, as you and your family are given less than 24 hours to gather your belongings and leave your home in Iraq.

Open Doors USA says for thousands of Iraqi Christians, this scenario has become a real life nightmare, as extremist Muslims force them to either leave their homes or pay with their lives.

Often, believers only have time to grab a few essentials and leave with the clothes on their back. Among these items is usually a Bible, as they cling to it and its message of hope.

To help these refugees, Open Doors is aiding in the set up medical projects, as well as distributing emergency packs, which include basic necessities.

However, their response is dependent on faithful supporters lending their gifts and prayers.

Pray that God will grant courage to these fleeing families. Pray that they will not back down from their faith, even in the midst of persecution.

Also, you can give financial support to Open Doors USA's relief efforts by clicking here.

Steve Inskeep: And let's just emphasize here, is this turning into almost a permanent refugee population, a permanent population of Iraqis who will be outside their country the same way that there are Palestinians who have been outside of the Palestinian territories for decades now?
Deborah Amos: It begins to look that way. Not that there was ever a flood of returnees, there wasn't, but 2010 has been less than 2009. And people are making this calculation, that as long as there's a government crisis as the Americans drawdown, why would you go back now? It is not easy to be a refugee. It's likely that your kids are out of school. It is likely that your diet is a mess, that you're probably eating mostly, you know, sugared tea and bread, for at least two of those meals. The international community's largesse -- while never large, is less. People want this crisis to be over.
Steve Inskeep: And I suppose if you had another round of sectarian warfare, you'd have to be prepared for that possiblity of another million people coming across the border at some point.
Deborah Amos: You know, 18 months ago that was the nightmare scenario. As Americans drewdown, there would be a return to the full out sectarian war. It doesn't look like that's going to happen. However, it is this randomness of the violence and, more important, it is the inability of this government to find some power sharing agreement between Sunnis and Shi'ites. As you know, the majority of the refugees outside are Sunnis and Christians. They are watching a government that cannot come to terms with a Sunni-backed political coalition that won the most seats in Parliament, and yet has not been able to use that power to come into the prime ministership. Every country in the region is now meddling in Iraq because of the weakness of the state. And so, it is very difficult for them to consider returning. Better to wait, better to wait and see what happens.

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Don't worry, you'll pick up the tab








Today Baghdad is slammed by a bombing. Alsumaria TV, citing "health sources," puts the death toll at "at least 60" with "another 157" injured from a suicide bombing this morning. Fan Chunxu (Xinhua) quotes a Ministry of the Interior source explaining, "The explosion targeting an army recruitment center at Bab al- Muazem area in Baghdad occurred at local time 7:30 a.m. (0430 GMT), it was an old building of the Defense Ministry, now up to 45 people were dead and 121 others were wounded." Stephen Farrell (New York Times) reports, "Outside a blue-domed mosque near the scene of the attack on Tuesday, Sgt. Muhammad Hassan, 28, said the latest bomber had clearly intended to attack the Army recruits." Farrell quotes him stating, "I was here from the early morning. We searched everybody. One exploded himself among a group of soldiers and recruits. The recruiting has been going on for at least a week, and this was the last day. We were not expecting it because it was the final day." BBC News adds, "The BBC's Hugh Sykes in Baghdad says that a suicide bomber walked up to the army recruitment centre where hundreds of people had been queuing for hours - some since Monday evening." At the top of the hour news briefs on NPR this morning, listeners heard Sykes state that no protection was provided for "men looking for employment." The New York Times' Stephen Farrell told PRI's The Takeaway this morning, "how a suicide bomber had just walked up to the recruiting station at 7:30 a.m., waited until he was surrounded by as large a crowd as he could get and then blew himself up." Ben Lando (Wall St. Journal) adds, "An interior ministry official said a person wearing a suicide vest triggered the explosion a few minutes past 8:00 a.m. local time." Channel 4 News states, "An army source suggested two bombers could have been involved in the attack as recruits gathered outside the centre in large groups to seek work." Jane Arraf (Christian Science Monitor) reports, "The senior officer said they believed the bomber had accomplices who helped him stow a pair of pants with explosives attached near the site and put them on in addition to the pants he was wearing. Some of the potential recruits had lined up before dawn." Richard Spencer (Telegraph of London) quotes recruit Ahmed Kadhim stating, "After the explosion, everyone ran away, and the soldiers fired into the air. I saw dozens of people lying on the ground, some of them were on fire. Others were running with blood pouring out." Aziz Alwan and Leila Fadel (Washington Post) describe the aftermath, "Hours after the bombing, families searched frantically for their relatives as casualties were transported to hospitals. An elderly woman collapsed in the middle of the street, screaming just a few yards from al-Midan square, where the recruits were killed. She slapped her face and wept as young boys tried to calm her." Andrew England (Financial Times of London) adds, "Another policeman pointed to bloody footprints left by survivors as he described how they fled in panic. Nearby, dozens of sandals belonging to the victims and a small heap of clothes were stacked in piles, while large pools of blood were left to congeal in the sun." PBS' Margaret Warner is in Iraq and she may have a report on tonight's The NewsHour.
The Guardian has video footage of some of the survivors after they were taken to the hospital. ITN offers a photo of one survivor in the hospital. BBC News displays a photo essay on the aftermath. Damien Pearse (Sky News) provides a text and video report. BBC News' Hugh Skye also files a video report:
Hugh Sykes: One of Baghdad's main hospitals was suddenly overwhelmed shortly after 7:30 this morning. The suicide bomber exploded his bomb in a large crowd. Dozens of men, some with terrible shrapnel and impact injuries, were taken to hospital after the attack.
Saleh Aziz: We were standing at al Muatham and the army and the officers were registering our names for recruiting when a bomb went off. I don't know exactly if it was a bomb or not. All the young men and the officers were killed. I was wounded in my arms and, thanks God, I managed to run away.
Hugh Sykes: It happened on the other side of the Tigris River from the hospital in a square called the Maidan. Hundreds of men had been waiting there all night hoping for a good place in the que for the army recruitment center and then the suicide bomber arrived. This bomb is part of a clear pattern of targeted attacks on the security forces here. Baghdad traffic policemen and federal police have been murdered in significant numbers over the past few weeks. Members of the government-backed, mostly Sunni Sahwa militia, the "Awakening" movement, have been attacked too and now these men simply queing for jobs in the army in a country where unemployment is running at 60%.
Richard Spencer (Telegraph of London) observes of the bombing, "It marks a resumption of a previously successful tactic aimed at discouraging Iraqis from joining the police and army." Liz Sly and Raheem Salman (Los Angeles Times) note, "It was the bloodiest single attack in months, and came less than two weeks before U.S. forces draw down to 50,000 and formally end their combat mission. Tensions have been rising as the deadlocked negotiations for a new government drag into a sixth month, and there are fears insurgents will try to take advantage of the political and security vacuum to stage a comeback." Sean Alfano (New York Daily News) notes, "Tuesday's bombing marks the fourth time in August Iraqi police or military have been attacked by insurgents."
The Economist notes, "By the end of next year even its military advisors expect to be gone, so they say, unless the Iraqi government asks them to stay (which is looking more likely now that American-made tanks and choppers are arriving in defence ministry lots)." Terry Patar of IHS's Iraq Focus Group tells Caroline Alexander and Kadhim Ajrash (Bloomberg News), "The longer the things go without a government being formed properly, the more of a driver there is for militant groups." The political stalemate.
March 7th, Iraq concluded Parliamentary elections. The Guardian's editorial board notes, "These elections were hailed prematurely by Mr Obama as a success, but everything that has happened since has surely doused that optimism in a cold shower of reality." 163 seats are needed to form the executive government (prime minister and council of ministers). When no single slate wins 163 seats (or possibly higher -- 163 is the number today but the Parliament added seats this election and, in four more years, they may add more which could increase the number of seats needed to form the executive government), power-sharing coalitions must be formed with other slates, parties and/or individual candidates. (Eight Parliament seats were awarded, for example, to minority candidates who represent various religious minorities in Iraq.) Ayad Allawi is the head of Iraqiya which won 91 seats in the Parliament making it the biggest seat holder. Second place went to State Of Law which Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister, heads. They won 89 seats. Nouri made a big show of lodging complaints and issuing allegations to distract and delay the certification of the initial results while he formed a power-sharing coalition with third place winner Iraqi National Alliance -- this coalition still does not give them 163 seats. They are claiming they have the right to form the government. In 2005, Iraq took four months and seven days to pick a prime minister. It's now 5 months and 10 days.
Yesterday talks between Iraqiya and State Of Law broke down after Nouri declared on state television that Iraqiya was a "Sunni party." Mohammed Tawfeeq (CNN) explains, "[Iraqiya spokesperson Maysoon] Al-Damalouji said they were demanding an apology to the supporters of al-Iraqiya. Allawi, a secular Shiite, heads the cross-sectarian al-Iraqiya list, which won the largest number of seats in the March 7 national elections. Al-Iraqiya garnered most of the Sunni Arab vote." Leila Fadel and Mary Beth Sheridan (Washington Post) observe, "The move by Allawi's group further isolates Maliki, who is intent on staying in power. This month a coalition of Shiite groups also halted talks with Maliki's group." They also note that US Ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill (now former US Ambassador) just left the country (James Jeffrey has been confirmed as the new ambassador) and that Gen Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, is set to leave Iraq September 1st. Liz Sly (Los Angeles Times) points out of Nouri, "Only the Kurds, who do not have enough votes to give Maliki a second term, have somewhat unenthusiastically said they do not reject him." Lindsey Hilsum (Channel 4 News) adds:
According to the think tank Stratfor, many of Mr Maliki's allies are taking their orders from Tehran, which is doing its obstructionist utmost.
"There are not enough of these politicians to create a government, but there are enough to block a government from being formed. Therefore, no government is being formed," said the most recent Stratfor analysis. Others blame Mr Allawi's grouping, which brings together both Shia and Sunni politicians, for refusing to accommodate Mr Maliki's faction.
With no government, even the illusion of stability cannot be maintained. Today's bombing of an army recruitment centre, with nearly 50 dead, is a sign of how dangerous the situation is.
Meanwhile Waleed Ibrahim (Reuters) is reporting that Allawi is increasing talks with Moqtada al-Sadr's bloc and Ibrahim cites an announcement Allawi made yesterday, "In the next few days and thereafter, we are going to intensify our discussions to reach an important, mutual stance on what needs to be done to form the next government."
Earlier this month (August 6th), On The Media (NPR) addressed the issue of media with Deborah Amos (link has audio and text):
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The media echo chambers that we talk about so often are thriving in Iraq. People watch the channel that confirms their own views. And yet the phenomenon is not as strong there as it is here.
DEBORAH AMOS: Indeed, the studies show that Iraqis watch at least five different channels. They are crossing sectarian lines to watch different newscasts.
A Harvard professor who's done these kind of studies in the American media, he uses a wonderful term, which is "cognitive misers." That's what Americans are. We are cognitive misers. We don't like to watch stations that don't necessarily agree with our political opinion. It's too much trouble. And there's nothing really at stake for us to cross the lines. For Iraqis, there's plenty at stake. What are the other sects doing that I need to know about so that I can make some serious decisions about is my neighborhood safe? Do I send my kid to school tomorrow? Can I get to my job tomorrow? So it really matters for them to cross those lines.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The whole idea of a sectarian press is considered anti-democratic, and yet the newspaper environment of America 200 years ago, when our democracy was emerging, was incredibly sectarian.
DEBORAH AMOS: That's exactly right. And Iraq is mirroring an old system, in particular because it is not yet a commercial system. These channels are all funded by political parties, Islamists, Arab businessmen. Sharqiya may be the most popular because they are the most commercial. And once you become a commercial station, then you do have to broaden your appeal because you just don't have enough consumers in your particular sect. So it is possible that as all of these channels have to survive, not simply by funding of political parties but funding by commercial, that it may open that political space.
And while it's an interesting conversation with much to offer, we're noting it in this section, on the elections, for a reason. Deborah Amos was brought on to discuss her recent paper [PDF format warning] "Confusion, Contradiction and Irony: The Iraqi Media in 2010." Of prime interest:
In Iraq's short history of free elections, Shiite candidates have a demographic advantage. Shiites are approximately 60% of the population, and Iraqis voted almost exclusively along sectarian lines in the 2005 national elections and the 2009 provincial vote. Maliki also had a media advantage. The state-run national news network did not accept paid campaign advertisements, but freely broadcast extensive reports of Maliki's election appearances and campaign speeches in evening news bulletins. On the eve of the vote, state TV broadcast a documentary highlighting the Prime Minister's visit to security checkpoints around the capital.
And guess who's political slate received the "highest positive coverage"? Nouri's.
So explain it to us, did alleged reporters just sit around on their asses watching Iraqi TV in the lead up to the election?
That would certainly explain the NPR embarrassment that is Quil Lawrence (who needs to get his Afghanistan reporting right real quick or we may start including Afghanistan in the snapshots). For those who've forgotten, Iraq held elections March 7th. The morning of March 8th, Quil Lawrence was announcing the Nouri al-Maliki was "the winner." Not just that his slate got the most votes -- which it didn't -- but that Nouri was the winner. NPR's never explained how that happened. NPR's never bothered to address why the day after the election -- when no vote count, not even partial, was complete -- Quil was allowed to go on the air and declare Nouri the winner. So what was it? The White House wanted Nouri to win. (A Nouri win always meant an easy extension for the SOFA.) Was Quil 'reporting' based on Iraqi media or was he schilling for the White House? And why has NPR's ombudsperson never addressed the issue of a reporter calling the election when the votes weren't counted?
That's a serious question and it demands a serious answer. Deborah Amos is a serious journalist (for NPR) and she is also the author of the new book Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East. The book addresses the exiles, the refugee crisis created by the violence and instability in Iraq. The Baghdad bombing wasn't the only violence reported in Iraq today. Laith Hammoudi (McClatchy Newspapers) reports that judges were also targeted today: in Baghdad Judge Kamal Jabbar Bander "was seriously injured" by a roadside bombing while in Diyala Province two other judges were wounded by a roadside bombing. In addition to the targeting of those 3 judges, Reuters notes five more were targeted with bombs and 2 of those were killed, a Baghdad explosion (a generator and it may or may not have involved a bomb) which claimed 5 lives and left twenty-five injured, a Baghdad assault in which three people were injured after being shot by unknown assailants, 2 police officers shot dead in Kirkuk, a Baghdad grenade attack in which two people were injured, Hasan Abdul-Lateef (Trade Ministry's head of the audit department) was shot dead in Baghdad, 1 police officer was shot dead in Hamman al-Alil, 2 corpses (woman and a man) were discovered in Mosul (inside a car) and 1 employee of Badosh prison was shot dead in Mosul. If we use Reuters' conservative count of 57 killed in the Baghdad bombing at the recruitment center and 123 injured, we're left with 71 reported deaths and 161 reported injured.

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