Wednesday, April 6, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, Ban Ki-moon addresses some serious issues related to Iraq, Tom Brokaw covers Iraq for NBC, Robert Gates visits Iraq, there is no progress to be found there, the VA stalls a Congressional committee, and more.
Dar Addustour reports that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted yesterday that the last two months have seen Iraqis killed as they protested for basic services, unemployment and against corruption. He stated 116 people have been injured in Baghdad, Erbil and Basra and that security forces had prevented Iraqis in Baghdad from access to the protests. Joe Sterling (CNN) quotes Ban Ki-moon stating, "Unless there is quick and concerted action by the Government of Iraq to address these concerns, the political and security gains that Iraq has made in recent years could be undermined." Alsumaria TV adds, "Presenting a report at the U.N. Security Council Ban Ki-moon said that his organization is concerned about the situation in Kirkuk and the deployment of five thousand Peshmargas in the past two months." From the [PDF format warning] UN report:
A number of demonstrations have taken place throughout the country during the reporting period, most notably in Basra, Kut, Baghdad, Mosul, Karbala, Diwaniyah, Anbar and Sulaymaniyah. While many protests have been peaceful there have been instances of violence in which some protesters or security forces have allegedly been killed. At least 20 people were reportedly killed since the beginning of the protests and 116 injured in shootings. UNAMI has received reports of arrests, unlawful detention and torture of demonstrators. Several journalists and media workers who were covering the protests were arrested, threatened and ill-treated by the police.
[. . .]
While mindful of the need to maintain security and order, and prevent forces opposed to Iraq's democratic transition from exploiting the situation, I am concerned at the use of force by Iraq's security forces in handling some of these protests and the consequent loss of life. Of grave concern also are reports of arbitrary arrests, detention and torture, and the ill-treatment of journalists and media personnel covering these events. I call on the Government of Iraq to conduct an independent investigation into these alleged violations and to ensure a measured approach in dealing with future protests by exercising maximum restraint and avoiding violence.
The UN Secretary-General has a report which includes the protests, the way protesters have been targeted and the way media has been targeted but the same topics have gotten little to no attention from the US media. The editorial board of the New York Times did offer "Mr. Maliki's Power Grab" followed the Washington Post's "The Arab uprising spreads to Iraq." The Post editorial would note, "Some worry that is where Mr. Maliki is headed. As The Post's Stephanie McCrummen reported , some of the repression has been carried out by black-suited special forces under his command. Thanks to a favorable court decision, the prime minister has been moving to take control of electoral authorities and other previously independent bodies. Mr. Allawi announced that he was withdrawing from a national policy council because Mr. Maliki had not followed through on promises to give it real authority." And Stephanie McCrummen was the one of the few print reporters for a US outlet covering the protests (Jane Arraf covered the issues for the Christian Science Monitor and AP had several reporters covering it). Even now, all this time later, most Americans have never heard from their news outlet of choice (exception being NBC, we'll get to it) about the events Ban Ki-moon is describing.
It's real to Iraqis. They face tremendous odds to protest. The Great Iraqi Revolution notes, "2 demonstrators were kidnapped by security forces in Tahrir Square last Friday. They are Sallah Muhsin and Haidar Shehab Ahmed." They also note:
No silence after today
THE IRAQI REVOLUTION OF RAGE
4/9 is the day of every honorable Iraqi . . .
It is the day for everyone who lost a brother or a friend or a dear one . . .
It is a day for every mother who has lost a son, her very being . . .
Aswat al-Iraq notes that 71 detainees were released from jails in Sulaimaniya following last Friday's protests in which security forces turned on protesters resulting in 35 people being injured. Aswat al-Iraq also reports a demonstration today in Tikrit in which protesters demanded that Ammar Yousif Ali, the Province Council Chair, resign as a result of last week's attack. As many as 65 people were killed in Tikrit in an assault on the provincial government headquarters. Tim Arango (New York Times) notes the still reeling community:
"We were expecting something to happen, but not this big," said Noor al-Samari, a member of Parliament from Salahuddin Province, which includes Tikrit. "The security forces are very weak." An interview with Mr. Samari on Sunday was cut short after he received a call summoning him and local security officials to Baghdad to appear before a parliamentary committee investigating the attack. Echoing several local leaders, he was highly critical of American forces for not being directly involved in the fight. "They were close by but didn't do anything," he said.
US coverage of Iraq, yesterday on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams (click here for video), Tom Brokaw reported from Baghdad having spent the day prior in Jordan examing the protests taking place there and King Abdullah II's response.
Brian Williams: Meanwhile Defense Secretary Robert Gates is on his way to the Middle East for a tour of US military operations there. Tom Brokaw is in the region tonight, doing some reporting for a prime time special to air at a later date. Tonight Tom's in Baghdad where the US has expended so much blood and treasure and where there's been a real spike in violence in recent weeks. And, Tom, it's true, it has fallen from the news because of everything else going on elsewhere in the region.
Tom Brokaw: Brian, it has been a violent week here in Iraq. In Baghdad alone on Monday, there were three IED explosions north of Baghdad, gunmen stormed a home and killed 6 people, a police officer was shot at a security checkpoint, and, over the weekend, two more American soldiers were killed presumably by enemy fire. American forces are scheduled to leave this country by the end of the year but this week the American Ambassador [James Jeffrey] said that the Embassy staff will more than double from about 8,000 personnel to about 20,000. So Iraq is a reminder of just how difficult it is to establish a democracy in this part of the world. After all, we've been at war here for eight years now. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent and thousands and thousands of lives have been lost on both sides. So Secretary [Robert] Gates will face some tough questions in this region about the American intentions going on now with all this new turmoil -- especially in an area where the United States has such big stakes politically and economically. And a lot of those questions, presumably, will come from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. I was told on the way in here that the Saudis are so unhappy with the Obama administration for the way it pushed out President [Hosni] Mubarak of Egypt that it sent high level emissaries to China and Russia to tell those two countries that Saudi Arabia now is prepared to do more business with them. Back here in Iraq, the political and the economic situation remains fragile, so fragile that the UN Secretary-General [Ban Ki-moon] is worried that this country could now see massive protests in the streets once again. One side of good news, however, Brian, on the way in from the airport today, we went through several checkpoints, they were all manned entirely by Iraqis, no Americans in sight. Brian?
Brian Williams: That is a big change. Tom Brokaw, back in a familiar spot for a lot of us tonight in Baghdad, Iraq. Tom, thanks.
As Williams and Brokaw noted, Gates is in Iraq. Kevin Baron (Stars and Stripes) reports, "With Iraq's security and the legacy of an eight-year war that has claimed more than 4,400 American lives hanging in the balance, Gates already has told Congress that the U.S. would consider Iraqi requests to extend the U.S. troop presence. But first, the Iraqis have to ask. In Baghdad, however, Iraqi leadership remains disjointed following last year's protracted post-election negotiations to form a government." From the Feb. 16th snapshot. exchange which took place during the House Armed Services Committee hearing on Defense Dept.'s budget:
US House Rep Dunan Hunter: Let's talk about Iraq for a minute. If the Status Of Forces Agreement is not changed or the Iraqis do not ask for our help and ask us to stay, what is our plan for 2012? At the end of this year, what's going to happen?
Secretary Robert Gates: We will have all of our forces out of Iraq. We will have an Office of Security Cooperation for Iraq that will have probably on the order of 150 to 160 Dept of Defense employees and several hundred contractors who are working FMS cases.
US House Rep Duncan Hunter: Do you think that represents the correct approach for this country after the blood and treasure that we spent in Iraq? My own personal time of two tours in Iraq. There's going to be fewer people there -- and that 150 -- than there are in Egypt right now. Somewhere around 600, 700 of those types of folks in Egypt. How can we maintain all of these gains that we've maintained through so much effort if we only have 150 people there and we don't have any military there whatsoever. We have more military in western European countries than we'd have in Iraq -- one of the most centralized states, as everybody knows, in the Middle East.
Secretary Robert Gates: Well I think that there is -- there is certainly on our part an interest in having an additional presence and the truth of the matter is the Iraqis are going to have some problems that they're going to have to deal with if we are not there in some numbers. They will not be able to do the kind of job and intelligence fusion. They won't be able to protect their own air space. They will not -- They will have problems with logistics and maintenance. But it's their country, it's a sovereign country. This is the agreement that was signed by President Bush and the Iraqi government and we will abide by the agreement unless the Iraqis ask us to have additional people there.
Missy Ryan, Caroline Drees and Sophie Hares (Reuters) quote an unnamed Dept of Defense official stating, "If they [Iraq] are going to ask for modifciation or anything else [regarding US troops remaining in Iraq past 2011], it would probably be in their interest to ask for it sooner rather than later because we're starting to run out of months. . . . The ball is in their court." CNN quotes "a senior defense official" (unnamed) stating "it is important for them [Iraq] to complete the government formation-process, particularly to get the security ministries dealt with." Dar Addustour explains that there are now four candidates for Minister of the Defense. That would be good news if this were April 2010 and not April 2011. But a year after the elections, this is yet another sign of how indecisive and ineffective Nouri al-Maliki truly is. Nouri had nominated Kahlid al-Obedi for the post of Minister of Defense; however, he could not muster the required votes in Parliament. Elisabeth Bumiller (New York Times) observes, "After arriving in Iraq on Wednesday, Mr. Gates took off his tie and sat outside on the lakeside terrace of one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, now used by the American military, and talked to his aides in the relatively cool Baghdad air."
And there is no 'progress.' Al Rafidayn notes the municipal government of Baghdad is trumpeting the re-opening of 121 streets in the city. That may pass for 'progress' to some. But Grant Smith (Bloomberg News) reports that Adnan al-Janabi, Chair of the country's Oil andd Energy Parliamentary Committee announced yesterday that Iraq will not be able to pass the oil law "by this summer." For those paying attention, this has been an issue for some time. The White House put it in their benchmarks for success back at the start of 2007 -- and both the US Congress and Nouri al-Maliki signed off on the benchmarks. If the benchmarks were not achieved, the US funds were supposed to be cut off. And the assumption was that, by 2008, the benchmarks would be accomplished. Instead, four years later and nothing on the benchmarks including the theft of Iraqi oil. Some observers believe the US military will not leave Iraq until the theft of Iraqi oil legsilation is passed. In other Uh-oh-look-out-here-it-comes developments, Alsumaria TV reports that Mahmoud Othman, Kurdish MP, is stating he expects Nouri al-Maliki's (incomplete) Cabinet will "collapse."
Remember those benchmarks? One of them was reconciliation. Meaning to take Paul Bremer's de-Ba'athification program - outlawing Ba'athists from participation in the new government -- and making it a de-de-Ba'athification process. As part of that effort, a 2008 law was passed. However, as many noted in real time (including US House Rep Lloyd Doggett), it was not implemented and just sat there. Haider Ibrahim (AKnews) reports that Nouri's State of Law slate is now objecting to the law and, despite Parliament stating it needs to be enacted, Nouri's slate is saying it must not be.
Meanwhile Ayad Allawi continues discussing the deal. Allawi was the first one to explain in any substantive detail US Vice President Joe Biden's behind-the-scenes role in securing the prime minister post for Nouri. He has since declared a "coup" has taken place noting that the deal hammered out by various parties -- including Biden -- is not being followed. Al Mada reports that today he declared the deal had the written consent of Nouri al-Maliki's representative Hassan Sinead and, even with that, it is not being followed. For background, we'll drop back to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's report:
The new Government was formed on the basis of a power-sharing agreement, reached on 11 November 2010, between the main political blocs. Following the agreement, the Council of Representatives lifted de-Baathifciation charges against three key Iraqiya bloc leaders. One of the leaders, Saleh al-Mutlaq, was appointed as one of the three Deputy Prime Ministers. The other two Deputy Prime Ministers, Hussein Shahristani and Rowsch Shaways, were appointed from the National Alliance and the Kurdistan Alliance, respectively. Most ministerial posts were divided on the basis of the power-sharing agreement.
[. . .]
The formation of the proposed National Council for Strategic Policies, also agreed upon in the power-sharing agreement, has not taken place. Although a draft law for its establishment was presented in the Council of Representatives in late over its proposed competencies, composition and the mechanism for the election of its head. The leader of the Iraqiya bloc, Ayad Allawi, who was initially expected to assume a leadership role in the Council, stated in March 2011 that he would no longer seek a position on it.
In his observations, he declares, "I commend Iraq's political leaders for their commitment to dialogue and consensus building, which made the formation of a national partnership Government on 21 December 2010 possible. That transition from one elected Government to another was an historic accomplishment and brought an end to months of political uncertainty. However, further steps need to be taken to complete the Government formation process as soon as possible, including appointments to key security posts. In the interest of national reconciliation, I also call upon Iraqi political leaders to establish the National Council for Strategic Policies, which was agreed as part of the power-sharing agreement reached between the political parties."
Today UPI counts 9 dead and fourteen injured noting a Baaj suicide bombing which claimed the lives of 3 people (plus the bomber) and left seven injured, a police officer was shot dead in Mosul, a goldsmith was shot dead in Mosul, two Baghdad roadside bombings claimed 2 lives and left six people injured, 1 government worker was shot dead in Baghdad and 2 Babel bombings left 1 Sahwa dead and another injured. In addition, Aswat al-Iraq reports a brick plant collapsed in Missan Province leaving eight people dead.
Adel Fakher is an Iraqi journalist. He is now an award-winning journalist having won for Best Journalistic Material on Landmines in Iraq. Aswat al-Iraq, the news outlet he works for, reports that he was presented with his award Monday: "The reporter won the award for an interview he made last year with former environment minister Nermin Othman on statistics of minefields in Iraq and the ministry's efforts to remove and clear these mines in cooperation with the United Nations and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)." Monday we noted the attacks and assaults Iraqi journalists repeatedly face while attempting to do their jobs. That day the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory explained the latest journalist to be targeted is Morteza Aahtor who was arrested in Nasiriya by a "special security force sent from Baghdad" for articles he'd written. Attorney Ghassan Saleh states that Morteza was arrested not on a court order but on a government order. The Journalistic Freedoms Observatory is calling for the immediate release of Morteza. Though we noted several journalist organizations, I missed one. The Committee to Protect Journalists notes Monday:
In Iraq today, security forces arrested Murtadha al-Shahtour, media director of Al-Nasiriyya's police department and a regular contributor to the independent daily Azzaman and other news websites. On January 2, al-Shahtour published an article on the website Kitabat in which he criticized government policies related to security issues. Kitabatsaid that al-Shatour's detention stems from the January 2 article; the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO), a local press freedom group, concurred.
Security forces arrested Raya Hamma Karim, a correspondent for the independent weekly Hawlati and Niyaz Abdullah, a journalist and a board member of JFO, in Iraqi Kurdistan today, news reports said. Both were covering student protests at auniversityin Arbil.
Now we're going back to Ban Ki-moon's report one more time to note a topic that often gets very little attention:
Water remains a critical issue in Iraq. Drought in the northern areas, including Kirkuk, is a key concern despite recent rains, and transboundary water resource management is a priority. The Government of Iraq requested UNDP assistance to develop an integrated water resources management programme and a negotiation strategy for Euphrates-Tigris riparian rights with its neighbours. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), UNOPS and UNDP provided consultants and resources to support disaster risk reduction in vulnerable areas of Iraq, including support to the newly created Committee of Disaster Management in Council of Ministers. UNDP, UNICEF, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and WHO also supported water quality monitoring and access to safe water and sanitation, as well as the revision of policy and legislation for the decentralization of master planning of water and sanitation management. In addition, UNICEF supported the development of the water and sanitation policy for KRG, which is pending endorsement.
Turning to the US, Spc Morganne McBeth died while serving in Iraq. How? That's required a great deal of work to determine. Last January, John Ramsey (Fayettevile Observer) reported, "Spc. Morganne McBeth, 19, of Fredericksburg, Va., died July 2 a few hours after being stabbed in the heart while in a tent with two friends at Al Asad Air Base. By the time investigators arrived at the hospital, her condition was too severe for them to speak to her." However, she'd already stated, in her phone call requesting help, that "she was stabbed during a scuffle." Rusty Dennen (Free Lance-Star Publishing) explained an Article 32 hearing took place in January for Spc Nicholas Bailey who, along with Spc Tyler Cain, is accused in Morganne McBeth's death. Matthew Burns (WRAL) reports Cain has been "found guilty of conspiring to obstruct justice and two counts of giving false statements." Drew Brooks (Fayetteville Observer) explains that the jury returned their verdict after two hours of deliberation and he has been demoted to private and will spend 25 days. Rusty Dennen (Free Lance-Star) reports, "McBeth's parents, Leonard and Sylvia, who live in Stafford County and attended the proceeding, said afterward they were happy, for the most part, about the vedict." The father points out, "But it won't bring our daughter back." While Sylvia McBeth notes that Cain's family was allowed to speak during the punishment phase of the trial, "But we didn't. I think they should give us the opportunity. Yes, he joined [the Army] to be all he can be. But Morganne joined so she could serve our country. He came back home to meet his family; she came home in a wooden box." May 31st is when Nicholas Bailey's court martial starts -- he is the one who stabbed (accidentally or on purpose) Morganne McBeth according to testimony.
Near the end of my USO tour, I was embedded with troops from the 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment. Before my departure, the unit's commanding officer pulled me aside. He had a favor to ask.
Just months before, one of the soldiers in the unit had been killed by a homemade bomb while on patrol. The soldier was a native of California, where I was born, raised and live. He told me the soldier's grieving family had been forced to move on with their lives, and asked if I would consider contacting them directly to let them know I had been with their son's unit and had seen where he lived during his tour of duty.
I was honored. I'm working with USO and Army officials to arrange an introduction. When we hear about soldiers killed abroad, it does not hit home. We don't think about their families. It is important we take a moment to reflect each day about those serving our country.
Moving over to the US Congress, yesterday the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing to explore the VA's plans for new construction and the cost. Jeff Miller is the Chair of the Committee, Bob Filner is the Ranking Member. The chief witness for panel one was the VA's Scott Gould. In his opening remarks, Filner expressed surprise because the VA was calling this their ten-year plan. But that plan was predicted to cost somewhere around $53 to $65 billion while VA was asking for half that amount.
Ranking Member Bob Filner: I guess, Mr. Gould, I want to figure out what is the clever bureaucratic thinking behind putting forward a 10-year plan and then asking for a budget appropriation that will take 20 years to meet the 10 year plan? So. There must be something really clever there that I'm missing. So. It looks like you're putting together a 20-year plan. I don't understand it. If you're going to come out with a 10-year plan and you say you need X-amount of dollars and then you ask for half of that, I'm not sure why we're . . . What the point is? Why have a plan if you're not even going to ask for it to be implemented.
Gould didn't have a direct answer. Perhaps he wasn't 'authorized' by the VA to answer the questions fully and honestly? In these cases, what's often going on (may or may not be true here) is that a department knows they can't get the budget needed so they ask for a lower sum and the department assumes that once the construction starts, it will be very difficult for Congress to say no to cost overruns because who wants the eye sore of stopped government construction all over town?
The closest Gould came to some sort of a response was this to Miller, "At the same time, every member here would frankly admit that we are in a tough situation in terms of the budget, our resources are constrained. We need to make sure that every dollar we have counts. And it was with those two needs in balance -- both the large ten-year demand and the near term constraint on our budget that we arrived at a total figure of $2.8 billion [. . .]"
Miller wanted to know why activation costs and operating expenses weren't being factored in?
Gould's reply was one for the record books, "It's very important and you'll note in the budget request we clearly identify that it is not included."
It's very important, but we didn't include it, but we did note prominently that we weren't including it. But it's important, in fact, very important. But we didn't include it.
Gould then made remarks to Miller that spun the morning into a new direction. He believes the Congress and the White House can avoid a shut down this Friday at midnight if a fiscal budget plan for this fiscal year (which started October 1st) isn't approved.
Ranking Member Bob Filner: I know that was not the subject of the hearing, Mr. Secretary, but I'm very disappointed in the answer. That is, we've got to know more. Some of us are going to argue it's necessary to avoid a shut down, some of us are going to argue no, it's doesn't matter. Every agency should tell us what the consequences are. I mean, again, is somebody's disability check going to be cut [if the government shuts down]? Is somebody's claim going to be adjudicated or not. Is -- Are contracts going to be let -- I mean, these are rather obvious questions and surely you've considered them. So, I mean you've got to answer some of them. Do we have to go down everything? The Chairman asked you about burials. So I'll ask you about Disability claims, or disability checks. Are they going to be paid or not going to be paid. Or the GI Bill. Are they going to get their checks on time? I mean, we can go on and on. But you've got to give us some specifics here.
VA Deputy Secretary Scott Gould: Well perhaps I can be helfpul on the disability claims, looking back to the '95 - '96 experience where government went through this very wrenching process in conjunction with the counsel and after reviewing the appropriations uh-uh language and impact those checks did flow during that time. So I just would ask the Committee to recognize that, with respect to our veterans, their health care will be continued by virtue of the fact that we have an advance appropriation about 86% of our budget is covered over that two year period. So, as you return to your constituents with obvious concern and care, if they are working in VHA -- the Health Administration, then clearly they fit into a sitution where funding has already been provided to them so --
Ranking Member Bob Filner: What percent of remaining employees will be considered essential or non-essential? Roughly?
VA Deputy Secretary Scott Gould: Uh, we don't know what that final number is.
And I think Filner's more than underscored his concerns. US House Rep Corrine Brown noted that "it is ill advised to be closing facilites or trying to balance the budget on the backs of those who've given so much to protect the freedom we hold so dearly. I have a couple of questions and I don't know if you have the answers right now." No, he didn't have the answers. But he did have a way to waste time. Repeatedly thanking the Committee for . . .? Whatever he had been asked, just taking the Congress members words and hurling them back at them and adding a "we thank Congress for" at the start of his statements and at the end. He was very good at running out the time clock. He wasted over an hour and a half of everyone's time. The second panel was the GAO's Lorelei St. James and Raymond Kelly of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. There was very little time left for the two. St. James noted in her opening remarks and in reply to Chair Miller's questions that the GAO recommended VA provide full results on projected costs. Miller noted, "But they did not add activation and operation costs so how serious a problem [. . . ] is it?" It would be better to have those costs, she stated. As to when the VA would follow this recommendation (which the GAO has made for several years now), St. James replied, "I don't know."
For six plus years now, this writer has stood on the street corners of my town, with but a handful of fellow progressives, to oppose the invasions and occupations of Iraq & Afghanistan. We hold signs advocating cuts in the bloated military budget and closing the nearly 800 bases we have offshore (in over 100 countries) and using the savings to save our economy. When Bush and his crew were in power, we attracted a larger number of demonstrators. However, as soon as Barack Obama was a candidate for President, the numbers dwindled to what they are now. Move on.org and Progress Florida chose to ignore our protests, and the countless others throughout America. Why? Well, look at what the Democratic leadership and most of its members in Congress (and now the White House) support and vote for. Yes, they support the continuance of our occupations and bases in those countries. Yes, they vote to increase, not to cut, the military spending… They refuse to hold hearings on the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, or on the illegal and immoral policy of torturing suspects.
The deadline for eligible service members, veterans and their beneficiaries to apply for Retroactive Stop Loss Special Pay (RSLSP) has been extended to April 8, 2011, allowing personnel more time to apply for the benefits they've earned under the program guidelines.
The deadline extension is included in the continuing resolution signed by President Obama Friday, providing funding for federal government operations through April 8, 2011.
Retroactive Stop Loss Special Pay was established to compensate for the hardships military members encountered when their service was involuntarily extended under Stop Loss Authority between Sept. 11, 2001, and Sept. 30, 2009. Eligible members or their beneficiaries may submit a claim to their respective military service in order to receive the benefit of $500 for each full or partial month served in a Stop Loss status.
When RSLSP began on Oct. 21, 2009, the services estimated 145,000 service members, veterans and beneficiaries were eligible for this benefit. Because the majority of those eligible had separated from the military, the services have engaged in extensive and persistent outreach efforts to reach them and remind them to apply. Outreach efforts including direct mail, engaging military and veteran service organizations, social networks and media outlets, will continue through April 8, 2011.
To apply for more information, or to gather more information on RSLSP, including submission requirements and service-specific links, go to http://www.defense.gov/stoploss.