Friday, December 9, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, the Camp Ashraf plan Martin Kobler presented to the UN Security Council Tuesday continues to gain support, the Defense Department attempts to again short-change National Guard service members, 28 firefighters bring a class-action lawsuit over contracting, and more.
Yesterday I met with Martin Kobler, the Sepcial Representative of the Secretary-General and head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). As I did earlier this week in my meeting with the UN SG Ban Ki-moon, I expressed my full support for the efforts both UNAMI and UNHCR are making to solve the problem of Camp Ashraf. I stressed that the safety of the people in the camp must be our primary concern. The initiative by United Nations High Commissioner Antonio Guterres and the work of Mr. Kobler are essential to facilitate an orderly solution to the problem which fully respects human rights and international humanitarian law. I have stressed to all the parties involved, including the Iraqi Foriegn Minister who I met this week and the EU Foreign Ministers, that the UNAMI and UNHCR-led process must be fully supported as the best and only way forward. I have asked my Special Adviser Jean De Ruyt to continue liasing with the United Nations on my behalf, inclduing on practical ways of working together. I want to praise the work of Martin Kobler and reiterate my call on all parties to show flexibility and cooperate fully to find a satisfactory solution.
What is the UNAMI and UNHCR-led process? Martin Kobler outlined it to the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday:
SRSG Martin Kobler: The Secretary-General has spoken personally to Mr. Maliki to appeal for flexibility and for full support for the UN's efforts to faciliate this peaceful solution the government has assured that it seeks. He has asked me to attach the highest priority to this case. In trying to facilitate a solution, we are emphasizing a number of important points. First, that lives are at stake and must be protected. The government has a responsibility to ensure the safety, security and welfare of the residents. Any forced action that results in bloodshed or loss of lives would be both ill-advised and unacceptable. Second, we believe that any workable solution must be acceptable to both the government of Iraq and to the residents of Camp Ashraf. The solution must respect Iraqi soveriegnty on the one hand and applicable international humanitarian human rights and refugee law on the other hand. Third, a solution must also respect the principle of nonrefoulement. No resident of Camp Ashraf should be returned to his or her home country without consent. While some progess has been made in our latest discussions in Baghdad, many obstacles remain to arriving at a plan that would meet the concerns and requirements of all concerned. Subject to all conditions being met, UNHCR is ready to begin verification and interviews for the purpose of refugee status determination; however, the process will take time to complete and clearly the situation cannot be fully resolved before December 31st. I, therefore, appeal to the government of Iraq to extend this deadline in order to permit adequate time and space for a solution to be found. I also appeal to the leadership and residents of Camp Ashraf to engage constructively and with an open mind to this process. They should give serious consideration to the proposals under discussion. There should be no provocation or violence from their side nor a challenge to Iraqi sovereignty. Finally I appeal to the international community to do more to help. A lasting solution cannot be found and as governments step forward and offer to accept Camp Ashraf residents to resettle in their countries.
Today the Staten Island Advance reports,"About 220 people from First United Christian Church in Tompkinsville will travel on Monday to Washington, D.C., to protest what they believe is an impending massacre of Iranian dissidents. Nationwide, about 960 humanitarian and faith-based organizations numbering 50,000 to 60,000 people are expected to converge on the White House at 10 a.m. to protest the situation at Camp Ashraf in Iraq."
Background, Camp Ashraf houses a group of Iranian dissidents (approximately 3,500 people). Iranian dissidents were welcomed to Iraq by Saddam Hussein in 1986 and he gave them Camp Ashraf and six other parcels that they could utilize. In 2003, the US invaded Iraq.The US government had the US military lead negotiations with the residents of Camp Ashraf. The US government wanted the residents to disarm and the US promised protections to the point that US actions turned the residents of Camp Ashraf into protected person under the Geneva Conventions. As 2008 drew to a close, the Bush administration was given assurances from the Iraqi government that they would protect the residents. Yet Nouri al-Maliki ordered the camp attacked twice. July 28, 2009 Nouri launched an attack (while then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was on the ground in Iraq). In a report released this summer entitled "Iraqi government must respect and protect rights of Camp Ashraf residents," Amnesty International described this assault, "Barely a month later, on 28-29 July 2009, Iraqi security forces stormed into the camp; at least nine residents were killed and many more were injured. Thirty-six residents who were detained were allegedly tortured and beaten. They were eventually released on 7 October 2009; by then they were in poor health after going on hunger strike." April 8th of this year Nouri again ordered an assault on Camp Ashraf (then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was again on the ground in Iraq when the assault took place). Amnesty International described the assault this way, "Earlier this year, on 8 April, Iraqi troops took up positions within the camp using excessive, including lethal, force against residents who tried to resist them. Troops used live ammunition and by the end of the operation some 36 residents, including eight women, were dead and more than 300 others had been wounded. Following international and other protests, the Iraqi government announced that it had appointed a committee to investigate the attack and the killings; however, as on other occasions when the government has announced investigations into allegations of serious human rights violations by its forces, the authorities have yet to disclose the outcome, prompting questions whether any investigation was, in fact, carried out." Nouri al-Maliki is seen as close to the government in Tehran. They have made it clear that they want the dissidents out of Iraq and returned to Iran -- where they would face trial at best, torture most likely. Nouri has announced he will be closing Camp Ashraf at the end of this year. UK MP Brian Binley (Huffington Post) writes, "As things are evolving and if Maliki gets away with his plan to impose the deadline, just as the Christmas and New Year holidays are in full swing, the prospect is that the world will sit and watch while men and women are killed in cold blood or mutilated, crushed by US-supplied armoured personal carriers."
Wednesday, US House Reps Dana Rohrabacher and Gary Ackerman oversaw a hearing on Camp Ashraf by the House Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. Ashish Kumar Sen (Washington Times) described the hearing an an effort "to seek an explanation from State Department officials about a court-ordered review of the terrorist label and an update on developments at Camp Ashraf." Sen reminds that the court ordered the review back in July 2010. Erik Slavin (Stars and Stripes) adds, "The State Department is re-examining MEK's status as a terrorist organization, said Ambassador Daniel Fried, who was appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to oversee the MEK's situation."
In his prepared remarks, Fried declared, "The Secretary has tasked me to report to her, using experience I have as a career foreign service officer of 34 years, to ensure that the US government is taking every responsible action possible, working with the government of Iraq, the United Nations, and our allies and partners, and in contact with the residents of Camp Ashraf and those who speak for them, to assure that any relocation of residents from Camp Ashraf is done humanely, with our principal concern being the safety and well-being of the residents. We are working urgently." Repeating, the court-ordered review came down in July of 2010.
Meanwhile weeks after ExxonMobile's deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government, it continues to dominate the news. Patrick Cockburn (Independent) reports, "The bombshell exploded last month when Exxon Mobil, the world's largest oil company, defied the instructions of the Baghdad government and signed a deal with the Iraqi Kurds to search for oil in the northern area of Iraq they control. To make matters worse, three of the areas Exxon has signed up to explore are on territory the two authorities dispute. The government must now decide if it will retaliate by kicking Exxon out of a giant oilfield it is developing in the south of Iraq." Sam Dagher (Wall St. Journal) reports that Nouri al-Maliki has announced the contract won't be cancelled.
Tensions around what's going on in Syria weren't cancelled either. Liz Sly (Washington Post) offers an an analysis of the impact on Iraq including, "As the Syrian conflict takes on increasingly sectarian dimensions, the crisscrossing rivalries that had been held somewhat in check in recent years among Iraq's Shiite majority and its Kurdish and Sunni minorities also risk being inflamed. Syria's sectarian makeup is almost a reverse image of Iraq's, with a minority, Shiite-affiliated Alawite regime confronting a protest movement drawn largely from the country's Sunni majority. " Brian Katulis (American Progress) argues that Nouri's trip to DC next week should include discussions of Syria, "Iraq and the United States currently have different positions on what to do about Syria. The United States maintains that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad must step down and has carved out a strategy to stop the violence and support a political transition through economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and support for the opposition. Iraq has rejected calls for Assad to step down. In the fall Maliki echoed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Syria, saying that Syria needed to implement a series of political reforms to overcome the current crisis."
I don't understand that all. Syria will surely come up in passing but is the Center for American Progress now advocating for telling Iraq what to do? I believe, in regards to Syria, Nouri has already stated Iraq is not a follower. I also believe Nouri's expressed his belief that civil war could easily break out in Syria. He's also staked out a position of friendly input. Why is it Nouri's job to do the US job?
However, what kind of democracy has resulted after eight years of U.S. occupation? Once seen as weak, Prime Minister Maliki has concentrated power in his hands. He turned a minority parliamentary position into the premiership and refused to honor a power-sharing agreement his chief opponent.
The International Crisis Group pointed to Maliki's expansion of government control over supposedly independent agencies tasked with overseeing the government. Worse, reported Yochi Dreazen: "Maliki has refused to appoint either a permanent defense minister or an interior minister, keeping Iraq's U.S.-trained armed forces and intelligence services under his sole control. He has also taken direct command of the ostensibly neutral 150,000 Iraqi troops stationed in Baghdad, using them to arrest rival politicians, human-rights activists, and journalists."
Maliki brutally suppressed anti-government demonstrations coinciding with the Arab Spring, targeted human rights activists, and cracked down on the media, having critics of his regime arrested and tortured. A number of journalists have been murdered, with government agents the chief suspects. Ghada al-Amely of the al-Mada newspaper told National Journal: "We feel just as scared as we did during Saddam's time." Maliki recently used improbable rumors of a Baathist coup to arrest more than 600 former members of the Baath party, including academics.
Washington has said little. Indeed, Wikileaks captured America's ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, observing that "It is in the interests of the U.S. to see that process of strengthened central authority continue." So much for democracy.
Crucially, the mission in Iraq has come to change -- and indeed militarize - the way in which the State Department operates.
First the expense. The State Department budget for FY2012 in Iraq is $6.2 billion. While that number may not shock in the context of the torrent of dollars that flowed during the war itself, it is nonetheless a major outlay, significantly larger than this year's budget for, to take an important example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Moreover, the Department of Defense will also continue to spend money to redeploy thousands of troops from Iraq to U.S. military bases in Kuwait and elsewhere nearby.
Then the risk. Violence continues as daily fare in Iraq, including continued resistance to U.S. presence. To deal with this fact, fully one third of the 16,000 civilians to be posted in Iraq will wield guns: a phalanx of security contractors -- 5,500 strong -- will operate in the country. This is definitely not State Department business as usual, even in the more dangerous areas in which it operates. The Iraq total is three times the number of people the State Department has employed to protect all of its other diplomatic missions in the world combined.
Breaking it down, the State Department's 5,500 security personnel join 4,500 "general life support" contractors who will be working to provide food, health care, and aviation services to those employed in Iraq, and approximately 6,000 US federal employees from State and other agencies. After Jan. 1, there will also be 157 U.S. military personnel and about 700 civilian contractors in Iraq who will train local forces in how to use the more than $8 billion in military equipment U.S. military corporations have sold to Iraq.
Moving from risks to violence, Reuters notes a Muqdadiya roadside bombing injured one "tribal leader," a Muqdadiya sticky bombing claimed 2 lives and 1 Sahwa shot dead in Baquba -- all events were from Thursday.
Backtracking on initial information about how it handled the remains of American service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force now says the cremated body parts of hundreds of the fallen were burned and dumped in the landfill. Earlier, the Air Force said only a small number of body parts had been buried in a commercial landfill and claimed it would be impossible to make a final determination of how many remains were disposed of in that manner.
Jill Laster and Markeshia Ricks (Marine Corps News) report, "Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said he believes the service has found and fixed problems at Doer Port Mortuary and that a Defense Department panel will back up that belief." If that belief is backed up, that's disgusting. As Keyes and Starr report the Air Force's position is that they will apologize to any family . . . who objects. They are not contacting families and informing them of what happened. The families have to contact the Air Force. Who does the Air Force work for? Having already disrespected the fallen, they now can't even offer an apology. This is not accountability, this is not a sign of a government that works for the people. This is about bureaucrats who feels they shouldn't be bothered and that their mistakes are justifiable because they don't have to answer to anyone.
Mike Bowersock (Ohio's NBC 4i -- link has text and video) speaks with Iraq War veteran Daniel Hutchison who states, "I served in Iraq in 2006 and four of my really good friends were killed and it makes my blood boil to think they may be in a landfill right now. The argument can be made that it is difficult to try to identify all the pieces to bring it back home, but it's difficult to fight in a war."
The Defense Department is hardly a one scandal department. The Pentagon is coming under intense and deserved criticism for its refusal to initiate "a mental health program for National Guard soldiers." USA Today's Gregg Zororya reports on this latest government effort to save a penny by spitting on the National Guard. Zoroya quotes Senator Patty Murray who is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, "I was really surprised that the Departemtn of Defense decided to oppose this. It's just a no-brainer to make sure that this is out there for every Guard and Reserve member wherever they live." The Pentagon's own tracking demonstrates more National Guard service members have died from suicide in the last five years than have been died serving in Iraq or Afghanistan for any reason (other than suicide). At a time when the Pentagon has already used the National Guard in ways most didn't ever see happening, are they going to again refuse to give the Guards its due?
When they came home from Iraq, 2,600 members of the Minnesota National Guard had been deployed longer than any other ground combat unit. The tour lasted 22 months and had been extended as part of President Bush's surge. 1st Lt. Jon Anderson said he never expected to come home to this: A government refusing to pay education benefits he says he should have earned under the GI bill. "It's pretty much a slap in the face," Anderson said. "I think it was a scheme to save money, personally. I think it was a leadership failure by the senior Washington leadership... once again failing the soldiers." Anderson's orders, and the orders of 1,161 other Minnesota guard members, were written for 729 days. Had they been written for 730 days, just one day more, the soldiers would receive those benefits to pay for school.
Soldiers with the National Guard are already under the gun in Iraq and Afghanistan. But now a new government report claims that while the troops are fighting far from home, red tape is preventing many of them from being paid.
While National Guard soldiers fulfill their duty, risking their lives around the world, the Pentagon apparently is not living up to its obligation to pay them the right amount or on time. That's according to a new congressional report obtained by NBC News, which finds the Pentagon's pay process is such a mess it's having "a profound financial impact on individual soldiers and their families."
"This is well beyond anything I could ever imagine," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., "I would like to think if we send people off to war that we're not going to have them worry about whether their home is going to be taken because they can't pay their mortgage."
Those are just two examples. They both have to do with the Pentagon's problems paying the Guard for the work they're being asked to do. At a time when the Pentagon keeps insisting it's addressing the suicide issue, it's appalling that yet again they're trying to save a few pennies by short changing National Guard service members.
In other news of cheapness and crooked behavior, Ryan Abbott (Courthouse News Service) reports 28 firefighters are part of a class action lawsuit against "Wackenhut, KBR and Halliburton [who they allege] forced them to work around the clock in Afghanistan and Iraq but paid them for only half their time." Zoe Tillman (The BLT) quotes one of the attorneys representing the firefighters, Scott Bloch, stating, "This case is about very big government contractors making billions off of the back of firefighters and other people who work over there in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're going to make billions if they pay for work performed, but somehow that's not enough for them."
Lastly, the US Justice Dept notes a 20-month sentence for a US Army Corps of Engineers employee for bribery:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Friday, December 9, 2011
Former Army Corps of Engineers Employee Sentenced to 20 Months in Prison for Accepting Bribes from Iraqi Contractors
WASHINGTON - A former employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stationed in Baghdad, Iraq, was sentenced today in the Eastern District of Virginia to 20 months in prison for conspiring to receive bribes from Iraqi contractors involved in the U.S.-funded reconstruction efforts, announced Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Justice Department's Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride for the Eastern District of Virginia and Assistant Director in Charge James W. McJunkin of the FBI's Washington Field Office.
Thomas Aram Manok, 51, of Chantilly, Va., was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga. In addition to his prison term, Manok was sentenced to three years of supervised release. Judge Trenga ordered a forfeiture hearing to be held on Jan. 13, 2012. Manok pleaded guilty on Sept. 19, 2011.
Manok admitted to using his official position to conspire with Iraqi contractors to accept cash bribes in exchange for recommending that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approve contracts and other requests for payment submitted by the contractors to the U.S. government. According to court documents, in March and April 2010, Manok agreed to receive a $10,000 payment from one such contractor who had been involved in constructing a kindergarten and girls' school in the Abu Ghraib neighborhood of Baghdad and had sought Manok's influence in having requests for payment approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. According to court documents, Manok was to receive an additional bribe payment from the contractor once the contractor's claim had been approved. Manok also admitted that he intended to conceal the payments from authorities by transferring them, via associates, from Iraq to Armenia.
This case was investigated by the FBI's Washington Field Office, the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General, the Army Criminal Investigation Command and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, as participants in the International Contract Corruption Task Force. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul J. Nathanson of the Eastern District of Virginia and Trial Attorney Mary Ann McCarthy of the Criminal Division's Fraud Section.
This prosecution is part of efforts underway by President Barack Obama's Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. President Obama established the interagency Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force to wage an aggressive, coordinated and proactive effort to investigate and prosecute financial crimes. The task force includes representatives from a broad range of federal agencies, regulatory authorities, inspectors general and state and local law enforcement who, working together, bring to bear a powerful array of criminal and civil enforcement resources. The task force is working to improve efforts across the federal executive branch, and with state and local partners, to investigate and prosecute significant financial crimes, ensure just and effective punishment for those who perpetrate financial crimes, combat discrimination in the lending and financial markets, and recover proceeds for victims of financial crimes. For more information about the task force visit: www.stopfraud.gov.
Thursday, December 8, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, gridlock continues in Iraq, more remains of the fallen have been dumped in a landfill, and more.
Laura Meckler (Wall St. Journal) reports the White House has scheduled a speech Wednesday at Fort Bragg for US President Barack Obama. Because surely what America needs from Barack now is yet another speech? Because at Fort Bragg there's little chance of his being put on the spot about the continued high unemployment? Margaret Talev and Viola Gienger (Bloomberg News) explain the speech will take place two days after Barack meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the White House and, "President Barack Obamais focusing on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by year's end, even as his administration continues talks behind the scenes about the future American role there."
"We really don't know what's going to happen. But we do know this: We do know that we have done everything we can in the time that we -- that we have been here for the Iraqi security forces to make sure that they have a credible security forces to provide for the security, the internal security of their country."
Hossam Acommok (Al Mada) reports that Aziz Ugaili, National Alliance MP, is noting that over 26 security companies will remain in Iraq after December 31st and questioning the claim of US withdrawal while also expressing his fear that, in DC later this month, Nouri al-Maliki will sign an agreement with the US involving 'trainers.' Meanwhile Al Mada also reports that the Sadrist movement is declaring that the US remnants after December 31st will be fair targets and that the US is not planning to keep a small number of staff for the embassy the way other countries do. In addition, Al Mada reports that the UAE has offered their services in training Iraqi forces.
Iraq has a prominent visitor today. Bi Mingxin (Xinhua) reports, "Arab League (AL) chief Nabil al- Arabi arrived in Baghdad on an official visit to hold talks with Iraqi leaders over sanctions against Syria, an official at the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said Thursday." He's already met with Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. While the media is placing the emphasis of the meeting on a potential March Arab summit, that's a smokescreen. Regardless of whether the summit takes place in March (it was repeatedly postponed in 2010), the reality is that al-Arabi is visiting due to concern over Iraq's position regarding Syria. Dar Addustour noted al-Arabi is also scheduled to meet with President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi today while in Iraq. In addition, Al Sabaah adds that he's supposed to meet with unnamed Iraqi officials.
Today, while other Arab states have condemned Syria and called for the regime to step down, Iraq has demonstrated its support. Iraq has not called for Assad to relinquish power, but instead has advocated gradual reform. The Maliki government has made moves to strengthen its economic ties with Syria since before the violence broke out this year and has been strengthening those ties since. This past summer, Iraq hosted a tour of Syria's top government and business leaders, a visit that led to a new pact to increase bilateral trade. Iraq is now Syria's biggest trading partner.
The Iraqi government also supports Syria because it fears that if the Assad regime collapses, violence could spill over into Iraq and cause further instability. Sectarianism is another important reason: Maliki is a Shia Muslim who spent years in exile in Syria before returning to post-Saddam Iraq. Quite probably Maliki feels a sectarian affinity for Assad, a member of the Alawite sect of Shia Islam. Maliki and the Assad family both share a common fear of Sunni-led insurgencies.
Walters: But you have people who are against you who are protesting every day. It started with people marching with olive branches and with their children asking for more freedom, for freedom of press, for freedom of expression, and much of the country now, sir, is not supporting you, that's what these, that's what your crisis is about.
Assad: Yeah. That's why we had the reform started quickly, after the very beginning that you described as simple, so we didn't take the role, we didn't play the role of stubborn government, they say they need more freedom. We right away had new party laws, new media law, new election law, new local administration law, and we are revising our constitution now. Showing your opinion, whether you like somebody or doesn't like government or president or whoever, should be through the election, the ballot box, this is the only way.
Walters: If you have elections, will they be elections for president?
Assad: No, no, we are going to have first of all the local administration election this month...
Walters: Local administration, but what about the president?
Assad: Yeah, after that, we are going to have the parliamentarian election, which is the most important. Talking about presidential election, it's going to be in 2014, this is the...
Walters: People don't want to wait that long, till 2014.
Assad: Which people?
Walters: The people who are protesting.
Assad: How, how, how much, how many, are they majority or not, that's why you need, you need to wait first of all for the parliamentarian election, these election will tell you are you going to have majority or minority, then when you can think about presidential election, but not before, before that you don't have any indication, any clear indication.
Walters: In 2014, when there are presidential elections, will you allow opposition parties?
Assad: That's why we are changing the constitution.
Walters: OK. And if somebody else wins, will you step down in 2014?
Assad: If he wins he's going to be in my position, I don't have to step down, he's going to be president. So you don't step down. He will win the election, he will be president. So step down means you leave, while if you win the election, he's going normally, he's going to be in that position instead of me.
Speaking with Bill Weir on Nightline last night, Barbara Walters declared that there appears to be a disconnect and that Assad has trouble reconciling what's taking place in parts of Syria. Deutsche Presse-Agentur reports, "Iraq said Thursday it would initiate contacts with the Syrian government in an effort to persuade it to accept an Arab League plan to end months of violence in the country." Ammar Karim (AFP) quotes Nabil al-Arabi stating, "Our conversation (with Iraq) . . . was to explore whether the Iraqi government is willing to exert its influence with Syria. The Iraqi government told us that it will carry out contacts with the Syrian government to resolve this issue." Al Arabiya notes the Arab League has called for international monitors; however, "in an interview with ABC's Barbara Walters on Wednesday the embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said he will not allow Arab League observers unfettered access to monitor the crackdown."
Conflicts continue between the Baghdad-based central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government over issues of oil especially with regards to the KRG's deal with ExxonMobil. UPI notes, 'Nouri al-Maliki is stepping up the pressure on ExxonMobil to back off ab reakaway oil exploration deal with the Kurds' semi-autonomous enclave and the betting is the world's largest oil company will fold." CNN quotes KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih stating, "There is no way that we will be dissuaded from our constitutional right to developing our resources and allow ourselves to ever again become hostages to the whims of some bureaucrats in Baghdad. We've been there before. Oil was used to strangle our people, to commit genoicde." J. Jay Park (Financial Times of London) attempts to make sense of the legal issues but keeps coming back to a 2007 draft or a more recent draft or -- Those are bills. They aren't laws. Though many drafts have been written, the oil and gas issue was never resolved by law.
A lot of things remain unresolved in Iraq. In fact, "unresolved" would be the government's Facebook status. Political Stalemate I was a period in Iraq following the March 7, 2010 elections. It ended in November of 2010 only as a result of a meet-up in Erbil and the political parties signing off on an agreement in which all but State of Law made political concessions. The results of the March 7th elections, even after Nouri al-Maliki bitterly contested them and stamped his feet until a few post-election votes were tossed his way, were that Iraqiya came in first and Nouri's political slate State of Law came in second. Iraqis do not elect their prime minister, the Parliament does. Per the Constitution, Ayad Allawi, the leader of Iraqiya, should have had first crack at forming a government. First crack? You become prime minister-designate and then have thirty days to name a Cabinet (nominate people for positions and have Parliament vote in favor of them). If you can't accomplish that in 30 days, per the Constitution, a new prime minister-designate is supposed to be named.
Nouri al-Maliki refused to surrender the post of prime minister. So the March 7th elections were followed by over 8 months of gridlock, Political Stalemate I. The Erbil Agreement found all but State of Law making major concessions so that the country could pull together. (During that eight month period, Parliament had one session which was little more than roll call.) Iraqiya, the winner in the elections, was supposed to see their leader (Allawi) head an independent security commission, the KRG was promised Article 140 would finally be followed (Article 140 of the Constitution addresses disputed territories such as Kirkuk -- it calls for a census and referendum to be held in Kirkuk by the end of 2007. Nouri was prime minister then and refused to implement Article 140.) Many promises were made but the only one that concerned Nouri was that he would remain prime minister.
With all sides signing off on the Erbil Agreement, it appeared that Iraq would be moving forward on a national level. Nouri was named prime minister-designate (unofficially named, Jalal Talabani would wait two weeks before making it official to give Nouri 30 days plus two weeks to form a Cabinet). Before November drew to a close, Nouri would announce the planned census to take place in December was off. He would claim that the national security commission had to be put on hold but would be created earlier. By the time he was illegally moved from prime minister-designate to prime minister, Iraq was in Political Stalemate II. And that's where it has remained. Illegally moved from prime minister-designate to prime minister? The Constitution says 30 days to name Cabinet. That's not 'partial' cabinet, that's the full Cabinet. Nouri did not name a full Cabinet. Most importantly he said he would 'temporarily' fill the security ministries -- Defense, National Security and Interior. Salam Saadi (Rudaw) offers this today on the Erbil Agreement:
After the 2010 elections in Iraq, the Kurdistani bloc set 18 conditions before agreeing to join the Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet. Among those conditions was the full implementation of Article 140, which was designed to solve the issue of the disputed territories.
In Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Region, Maliki agreed to all the conditions set forth by the Kurdish leaders. Two years on, however, the Kurds complain that the Iraqi prime minister hasn't met any of the pledges he made in what is known the Erbil agreement.
The Erbil agreement reads. "The Iraqi coalition government will be considered void if the Kurdish alliance withdraws from it, if the Iraqi government fails to meet the agreed upon articles of the Iraqi constitution.
Meanwhile Nouri's announcement in February of this year that he would not seek a third term was a means to appease an angry public. More recently, his legal advisor has been telling the press that no law prevents Nouri from seeking a third term. Dar Addustour reports that MP Aziz Ugaili (National Alliance) is not proposing just such a law. If passed, it would forbid anyone from holding a third term, limit all prime ministers to two terms and the two terms would not have to be consecutive. Would it be retroactive for Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Ayad Allawi? (Both have served one term as prime minister since the US invasion of Iraq.) It would have to be retroactive or it wouldn't limit Nouri to two terms. If it wasn't retroactive, that would mean Nouri could claim, "Okay, under this law, I will only serve two terms -- from the minute it passes." Thereby allowing himself four terms as prime minister.
On the issue of broken promises, Nouri promised a reduction in pay for various officials back in February 2012. Iraq just passed their 2012 budget. Dar Addustour notes that the Sadr bloc in Parliament is stating that 40% of that budget goes to the three presidencies.
Nouri's chief rival is Ayad Allawi who bested Nouri in the March 2010 elections and should be prime minister had the Constitution been followed. Rumors have been swirling that Allawi would have an announcement this week and many assumed it would be a creation of a shadow government that would be poised to take over. He has made an announcement but that wasn't it. Alsumaria TV reports:
Head of Iraqiya List Iyad Allawi announced, on Tuesday, that he is ready to reconcile with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki if he is willing to renounce his opposing stands. This is the perfect time for real reconciliation, Allawi said warning against endless tensions. "I have no problem in shaking hands with Maliki if he renounces his opposing stands against us and others. I am not embarrassed by any cause that serves Iraqis and the region," Allawi told Alsumaria TV on Tuesday in a special interview with Jadal Iraqi talk show. "This is the perfect time for a real, honorable, realistic and healthy reconciliation," he added.
Aswat al-Iraq adds, "Al-Iraqiya Bloc called on Premier Nouri al-Maliki to respond to Dr. Iyad Allawi's reconcilliation plan for the sake of Iraq, and to lay down a road map for the future of the country."
Turning to veterans issues, Barbara Leader (News Star) reports that 24-year-old Iraq War veteran Spc Marcus Delon White "jumped to his death from the U.S. 165 bridge in Columbia" on Tuesday despite please from his fiancee and attempts by others to prevent him from jumping. Meanwhile AP notes that Iraq War veteran Martin Poynter apparently killed Deputy Richard Rhyne who was attempting to arrest him "for not paying child support" and that Poynter apparently then took his own life.
Scott Pelley: Just when you thought the scandal over mishandled remains of fallen American troops at Dover Air Force Base couldn't get any worse. It did today. David Martin has been reporting on the investigation that led to a career ending letter of reprimand for the commander of the mortuary and tonight David is at the Pentagon with new developments.
David Martin: A landfill is no one's idea of a fitting resting place for a soldier fallen in battle.
Gari-Lynn Smith: No service member, no human being at all, should be placed into a landfill -- no matter if it's a finger nail, a foot or an entire body
David Martin: Yet that is what happened to Gari-Lynn Smith's husband, Sgt 1st Class Scott Smith, who was blown apart by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006. Without her knowing part of his body was incinerated and disposed of as medical waste in this Virginia landfill. She found out two years after his funeral.
Gari-Lynn Smith: I have honestly no idea what we buried of him because they forbid me to see him in the casket.
INSKEEP: Well, what is the Air Force saying about it now?
WHITLOCK: They're saying they still don't know how far back this went. Their first records of it occurring were in 2004, but we also have emails and other correspondence from mortuary officials that indicate this was the practice going back to the '90s. At the same time, there are committees in Congress that are conducting investigations into this practice, as well as other problems at Dover. And Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has appointed a commission of independent public health experts to take a look at operations at Dover. And this is something he has said he wants them to look at as well.
INSKEEP: So 274 may not be the final number.
WHITLOCK: I don't think so, Steve.
This issue was raised on the Senate Armed Services Committee during a November 10th hearing in which the Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen Norton Schwartz appeared.
Senator Kelly Ayotte: General Schwartz, on a different topic and I just feel the need to ask -- ask about this. Uhm, I'm deeply troubled by the reports about what happened at the mortuary at the Dover Air Force Base. And I'm sure you would agree with me this is outrageous that remains of our soldiers would be put in a landfill and not treated with the appropriate dignity and honor which they deserve. Can you tell me, uh, where we are with this? And how we're going to ensure that this never happens again? And, most importantly, that those who have participated in this outrage are going to be held accountable?
Gen Norton Schwartz: Senator Ayotte, first of all, let me clarify the allegation about putting remains in a landfill. These were portions, prior to 2008, which were sent away from the Dover mortuary to a funeral home for cremation -- which is an authorized method of dealing with remains, particularly those that are separated from the larger portions of remains returned to the family. After that, the results of the cremation came back to the mortuary were sent to a medical support company for incineration. So you had cremation, then incineration and it was at that point that this medical support organizations placed the residuals from that effort to a landfill. In 19 -- In 2008, the Air Force came to the conclusion that that was not the best way to deal with those remains and so it is now done in a traditional fashion of burial at sea. It has been that way since 2008. It will continue to be that way in the future and let me just conclude by saying the Secretary of the Air Force, Mike Donley [Secretary of the US Air Force] and I take personal responsibility for this. Our obligation is to treat our fallen with reverence and dignity and respect and to provide the best possible support and care for their families. That is our mission. The people who did not fulfill our expectations were disciplined and there's no doubt what our expectations are today.
Senator Kelly Ayotte: Well I -- General Schwartz, I appreciate your updating on that and, uh, when I think about the fact that we have Veterans Day tomorrow, this is so important, obviously, that we treat the remains of our fallen with dignity and respect and I know that you share that concern as well. And please know that members of this Committee will be there to support you in any way to make sure that the families know that we certainly won't allow this to happen again.
Senator Claire McCaskill: I want to specifically, for a minute, General Schwartz, go to the situation at Dover and I don't want to dwell on how hard this has to be for you and the leadership at the Air Force. No one needs to convince me that you want to get this right at Dover. I'll tell you what I do want to bring to your attention and I've did so with a letter today and that is with the finding of the Office of Special Counsel. And so people understand what the Office of Special Counsel is. It's an investigatory and prosecution oriented agency whose primary responsibility under our law is to be independent of all of the agencies and protect whistle blowers. And what I am concerned about is their investigation into what the Air Force did in response to the whistle blowers. And specifically the fact that the IG of the Air Force, they failed to admit wrong doing in their report. And while I understand people have been moved around as a result of the problems that have occured because of mishandling of the sacred remains of the fallen, I'm not sure that they have been held as accountable as what we saw happen at Arlington in connection with that heart breaking incompetence. And what I want to make sure is that there is an independent investigation as to whether or not the IG shaded it a little bit [Chair Carl Levin began nodding his head in vigrous agreement with what McCaskill was saying] because everyone was feeling a little bit protective of the institution for all the right reasons. The vast majority of the people who serve at Dover and who do this work, I'm sure, do it with a heavy heart but with a passion for getting it right. But when we have a circumstance like this arise, I want to make sure the Inspector Generals are not so busy looking after the institution that they fail to point out wrong doing -- which was not ever acknowledged -- and that there is accountability for the people involved. And so, I want you to address the Special Counsel's report as it relates to the Air Force investigation.
Gen Norton Schwartz: Senator McCaskill, there was -- There were -- Clearly were unacceptable mistakes made. Whether they constitute wrong doing is another matter entirely. And when you look at a situation like this, you look at the facts of a case, as an attorney might say. You look at the context in which the event or the mistakes occurred. And you also consider the demands that are -- are placed on individuals and-and organizations. With respect to accountability, we also had an obligation to ensure that the statutory requirements for Due Process were followed. We did that precisely. I can only speak for the case of the uniformed officer. But the uniformed officer received a letter of reprimand. We established an unfavorable information file. We removed him from the command list and his anticipated job as a group commander at Shaw Air Force Base was red-lined. This is not a trivial sanction.
Senator Claire McCaskill: Well I - I understand that's not a trivial sanction but I-I-I'm worried that there was a conclusion that there was not an obligation to notify the families in these instances and obviously this deals with more than uniform personnel and obviously the Secretary of the Air Force is also copied on the letter that I sent today calling for this independent investigation. What happened at Arlington, nobody was intentionally mismarking graves. They were mistakes too. And I just want to make sure that we have really clear eyes while we have full hearts about the right aggressive need for investigations by Inspector Generals in circumstances like this. And thank you very much and thank all of you for being here today.
The issue is still not being addressed, not when the Air Force is announcing today that they don't plan to notify the families of the fallen involved. Still on veterans issues, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee is holding two field hearings next week. What's a Senate field hearing? It's a hearing outside of DC. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee will be holding two this month, both on December 12th, in Quincy, Massachusetts and in Columbus, Ohio. Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and her office notes:
Committee on Veterans' Affairs
United States Senate
112th Congress, First Session
Updated: December 6, 2011
Monday, December 12, 2011 9:15am Quincy, MA
Field Hearing will address concerns over delays in veterans' services related to the claims backlog and the Department of Veterans Affairs' plans to reduce the backlog. The location of the hearing is Quincy City Hall 1305 Hancock Street, Quincy, Massachusetts.
Monday, December 12, 2011 9:30am Columbus, OH
Field Hearing will focus on employment challenges facing veterans. The location of the hearing is the Center For Workforce Development 315 Cleveland Ave, Columbus, OH.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011 10:00 a.m. SR-418
POSTPONED to a date yet to be determined. Hearing on the nomination of Margaret Bartley to be Judge of United States Court of Veterans Appeals for Veterans Claims, Coral Wong Pietsch to be Judge of United States Court of Veterans Appeals for Veterans Claims, and Gloria Wilson to be Judge of United States Court of Veterans Appeals for Veterans Claims.
Wednesday, December 7, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, Moqtada asks 'what withdrawal,' DoD tells a Congressional Subcommittee that "we're spending money that we're not watching," January 4th four IG positions go vacant and the White House is making no effort to fill them, attacks on electricity transmission towers in Iraq, the White House condemns statemenst Syrian President Bashar al-Assad makes in an exclusive interview with ABC News' Barbara Walters, and more.
"This is the sixth hearing addressing the accountability of tax dollar in war zones," declared US House Rep Jason Chaffetz as he brought to order the hearing into Iraq and Afghanistan this morning. Chaffetz is the Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform's National Security Subcommittee. Appearing before the Subcommittee was the Defense Dept's Inspector General Gordon S. Heddell, the State Dept's Deputy Inspector General Harold Geisel, the acting inspector general of US AID Michael Carroll, the acting inspector general for the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction Steven J. Trent and the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen.
Subcommitee Chair Chaffetz summarized the fraud and abuse problems early on,, "In October, the full committee heard testimony from the Commission on Wartime Contracting about its final report. The Commissioners allege that between $30 and $60 billion dollars had been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan due to waste, fraud and abuse in the contracting process. According to the Commission, this was due to ill conceived projects, poor planning and oversight, poor performance by contractors, criminal behavior and blatant corruption. This is unacceptable. And while some may agree or disagree with our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is universally unacceptable to waste tax payer money."
Early on, he also noted a serious failure on the part of the White House.
Subcommittee Chair Jason Chaffetz: Before recognizing Ranking Member [John] Tierney, I'd like to note that the Defense Dept, State Dept, USAID and SIGAR will not have IGs in January. In May of this year, I wrote the President asking him to move without delay to appoint replacements. That letter was signed by Senators [Joe] Lieberman, [Susan] Collins, [Claire] McCaskill and [Rob] Portman, as well as [House Oversight Committee] Chairman [Darrell] Issa and Ranking Member [Elijah] Cummings and Ranking Member Tierney. I'd like to place a copy of htis record into the record. Without objection, so ordered. To my knowledge, the President has yet to nominate any of these replacements, nor has he responded to this letter. I find that totally unacceptable. This is a massive, massive effort. It's going to take some leadership from the White House. These jobs cannot and will not be done if the president fails to make these appointments. Upon taking office, President Obama promised that his administration would be "the most open and transparent in history." You cannot achieve transparency without inspectors general. Again, I urge President Obama and the Senate to nominate and confirm inspectors general to fill these vacancies and without delay.
The public face of reconstruction in Iraq has been the Speical Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen. We'll note the following from his opening statement.
SIGIR Stuart Bowen: First, I am concerned about maintaining SIGIR's ability to get the information we need to complete ongoing audits and investigations and to continue to provide the kind of comprehensive Quarterly Report coverage that the Congress has come to expect from us. The State Department recently instituted a new bureaucratic process, requiring the channeling of information that we request from the Embassy through Foggy Bottom offices. This process inevitably will cause delays, impede our capacity to deal directly with the individuals in Iraq responsible for providing the necessary data, and thus reduce our responsiveness. Symptomatic of this bureaucratic development, one of my investigators, working jointly with the FBI on a criminal case, recently was refused information by the State Department regarding a potential subject (who is a State employee). State directed my investigator to use the "audit process" to obtain this investigative information. Worse, he was challenged as to whether the information, which he had requested in good faith, was even related to "reconstruction funding." This development is just the latest quandary in a predicament-filled year, during which the State Department has repeatedly raised fallacious objections to varying SIGIR requests. I thank the Chairman and Ranking Member -- and the full Committee's leadership -- for their steadfast support of our oversight mission; but these recent issues underscore the reality of the continuing oversight challenges that confront us.
You can't do oversight without the staff. Or, as Stuart Bowen noted during questioning, "You have to be there, to do the work." On that topic, we'll note this exchange from the hearing.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: I'd now like to recognize myself for five minutes and Mr. Heddell, let's start with you. The Defense Contracting Auditing Agency, I know is a little bit outside of your lane but I would appreciate it if you would offer a perspective. The Commission on Wartime Contracting had indicated that there were some 56,000 -- 56,0000 -- contracts behind in terms of auditing these contracts. Why is that? How can that be? How is it that DoD can be so far behind in this? Sorry, your microphone please.
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: Mr. Chairman, my office has actually done a lot of work with respect to DCAA. I would just say generally, first off, that I think that they probably are under-resourced and need help in that respect but historically DCAA has been a very challenged organization. They do a tremendous amount of work for a lot of agencies -- not just inside the Department of Defense but outside the Department of Defense. In the last three to four years, the DCAA has undergone some sweeping changes as a result of some fairly significant criticisms of their leadership, of their processes, and-and not meeting expectations. As a result of that, it has new leadership today with Pat Fizgerald who was the Director of Army Audit. And Pat has taken on a gigantic job. And with the work that my office has done to try to help them identify vulnerabilities in their mangagement, in their processes and how to be an effective organization, for the last two years, their focus has been -- and this is Gordon Heddell talking -- more internal than external. So while, under ideal circumstances, they would have been focusing outward, doing great work, doing lots of audits with very experienced and good leadership, they've had to focus inward to correct management deficiencies and vulnerabilities. I think that's partially a result of this backlog in audits, not entirely.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: And-and my understanding is we've been participating in a lot of wars and spending a lot of money and a lot of resources, as that expenditure has gone up, help me understand what's happening with the actual auditors themselves because you have been appropriated more money.
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: Absoultely. In fact, I've been a very fortunate organization. In the last three or four years, the DoD Office of Inspector General has been plussed up some $87 million, Mr. Chairman. I doubt that any other IG can say that, so I'm very fortunate. The Congress has been very supportive of me. And for that matter, so has the Department of Defense.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: But have you been spending that money?
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: No. The problem there is that the budget, the $87 million in plus ups that I have received have not been annualized. And what that means is that although I'm very fortunate to get these plus ups, I'm not able to use that money to hire permanent staff. So I can hire contractors, I can -- I can do other things with that money but I cannot, because it's not being annualized by the Department, I cannot run the risk of hiring people and then having to RIFF them [lay them off] the following year for fear that I don't have enough money in my budget to pay them. It's a problem.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: Of that $87 million that you've gotten, how much did you actually spend?
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: Well we have spent almost all of it because --
Chair Jason Chaffetz: But you're hiring outside contractors to do --
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: Yes, sir. We're hiring outside contractors. We're creatively doing work that is positive and meets the needs of both the Congress and the Department and the American people. But, for instance, you know one of the -- in the early 2000s, there's two things that happened that have come to haunt us today. One is that while we sent our military forces into southeast Asia to fight two wars, there was a mistaken belief by many of the civilian agencies that they could fight those two wars in the continental United States, my own organization being one of those. And it wasn't until three of four years ago that we came to the realization you cannot do that, that you must be present, and you have to have the people in place, you have to have the footprint. The second thing that happened is that the Department of Defense's budget doubled to about $650 billion dollars. And at the same time, the contract -- Aquistion and Contract Management Workforce, in fact, was reduced in size meaning that we lacked thousands and thousands of needed contracting specialists that are not there to oversight these contracts, that are not there to raise their hand and say 'stop the assembly line.' We're spending money that we're not watching. We're not surveillling it. So those are the two major issues.
Subcommittee Chair Jason Chaffetz: Well thank you, I appreciate that. I think this highlights a mulit-billion dollar problem and challenge that we certainly need to address and fix because I think there is a definite need that is pervasive in the Congress -- both in the House and the Senate -- to make sure that these types of functions are in place. But the way that the money is appropriated is obviously falling short and failing.
Now we're going to fall back to the December 1st snapshot to note the November 30th hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia hearing:
Ranking Member Gary Ackerman: He [Bowen] has testified before other bodies of Congress, he has released written quarterly reports, as well as specific audits and the message is the same: The program for which the Department of State officially took responsibility on October 1st is nearly a text book case of government procurement -- in this case, foreign assistance -- doesn't buy what we think we're paying for, what we want and why more money will only make the problem worse. Failed procurement is not a problem unique to the State Department. And when it comes to frittering away millions, Foggy Bottom is a rank amateur compared to the Department of Defense. As our colleagues on the Armed Services committees have learned, the best of projects with the most desirable of purposes can go horribly, horribly off-track; and the hardest thing it seems that any bureaucracy can do is pull the plug on a failed initiative. How do we know the Police Development Program is going off-track? Very simple things demonstrate a strong likelihood of waste and mismanagement. Number one, does the government of Iraq -- whose personnel we intend to train -- support the program? Interviews with senior Iraqi officials by the Special Inspector General show utter disdain for the program. When the Iraqis suggest that we take our money and do things instead that are good for the United States, I think that might be a clue.
Ackerman went on to note how "the program's objectives remain a mushy bowl of vague platitudes" and how it had "no comprehensive and detailed plan for execution, there is no current assessment of Iraqi police force capability and, perhaps most tellingly, there are no outcome-based metrics. This is a flashing-red warning light."
We dropped back because this issue was also raised in today's hearing.
US House Rep Raul Labrador: Mr. Bowen, right now the police development program is the administration's largest foreign aid project for Iraq going forward. And there's some evidence that the Iraqis don't even want this program. So have you or your staff asked the Iraqi police forces if they need the $500 million a year program that the Obama administration is planning to spend on the police development program?
SIGIR Stuart Bowen: Yes, Mr. Labrador, we have and we reported on that in our last quarterly report noting that the senior official at the Ministry of the Interior, Senior Deputy Minister al-Assadi said "he didn't see any real benefit from the police development program." I addressed that with him when I was in Iraq a couple of weeks ago and I asked him, "Did you mean what you said?" And his response was, "Well we welcome any support that the American government will provide us; however, my statements as quoted in your recent quarterly are still posted on my website."
US House Rep Raul Labrador: So why is the administration still spending $500 million a year to provide this program?
SIGIR Stuart Bowen: There's a beliff that security continues to be a challenge in Iraq, a well founded belief, I might add, given the events of this week. Killings of pilgrims again, on the way to Najaf, on the eve of Ashura. The focus though on trying to address those problems has been a widely scattered, high level training program involving about 150 police trainers who, as we've seen again this week, are going to have a very difficult time moving about the country.
US House Rep Raul Labrador: So what other problems have you found with the police development program, if any?
SIGIR Stuart Bowen: Several. Well, Mr. Labrador, we pointed out in our audit that, one Iraqi buy-in, something that the Congress requires from Iraq, by law, that is a contribution of 50% to such programs,has not been secured -- in writing, in fact, or by any other means. That's of great concern. Especially for a Ministry that has a budget of over $6 billion, a government that just approved, notionally, a hundred billion dollar budget for next year. It's not Afghanistan. This is a country that has signficant wealth, should be able to contribute but has not been forced to do so, in a program as crucial as this.
US House Rep Raul Labrador: I know I've run out of time but, Mr. Geisel, do you have any comments on this?
Deputy Inspector General for US State Dept Harold Geisel: Well, of course, first of all, I'm not going to second guess my friend and colleague on what his people found. And, of course, the people you need to bring up here are the people from the State Department to comment on what he found. I do -- I saw that the Department published a document -- a 21-page document that includes goals and measures of performance for the police development program but it's my friend's baby, not mine.
After that bit of hot potato, the next big issue was returning to the lack of nominees to fill the soon to be vacant oversight roles.
US House Rep Raul Labrador: One of the things that's most frustrating to me as a freshman in Congress is that there are some things that both sides agree on that we need to be working on and yet we're not doing them. I look at the Oversight Committee, here, I don't think there's a lot of difference. There might be some small differences between the two sides, but it seems like we can identify some things like the $500 million that we're going to spend on the Iraq police force that they don't even want, that we should be finding things in common that we could be saving on. I want -- if we could put on that transparency here on President Obama. And I'm not saying this, I'm not using this to embarrass anybody, but President Obama has said on his website that he's committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history. He wants a window for all Americans into the business of government. And that's something that I want. I actually agree with him on this issue. Yet this panel is representing the IG offices principally responsible for overseeing tax payer money in Iraq and Afghanistan and, as of January 4th of next year, four of the five offices will not have an IG. I'm concerned about that. I want everybody to comment, do you know whether the President has nominated anyone to fill these vacancies? If so, who has been nominated? Have you made any recommendations? And do you think the absence of permanent IGs will actually harm our efforts in oversight? And anyone can take this question.
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: I-I certainly would like to comment. Number one, I don't know the names, Congressman Labradour, of anyone who might have been nominated or who is being considered to be nominated. Number two, I can tell you that the confirmation -- the nomination and confirmation process that we have is cumbersome and slow and it has an adverse impact on the leadership of these organizations. Number three, when I took over as the acting inspector general in July of 2008, the DoD IG had -- at the very top -- been vacant for so many years -- over the past 10, 12 years, you can't imagine. And so to run an organization using an acting inspector general as the leader is foolhardy. You can do it for a few months, but you cannot succeed over years and decades and that is what has happened.
US House Rep Raul Labrador: Does anybody know why that has happened? Is there any reason why? It seems like both sides would agree that we need a robust IG in all of these agencies. Does anybody have any comments on that? Mr. Carroll?
US AID acting IG Michael Carroll: I can't comment on what the White House is doing but I just want to assure you on behalf of the USAID IG that one of the great things about working for Don Gambatesa, it was truly a partnership between him and I, so as I moved into the acting role, other than the fact that it's a bit of a work load issue for me, the work goes on and the leadership philosophy continues and so I just want to assure the Subcommittee that-that there'll be no-no degredation in our effectiveness or what our work is going to be for as long as it takes the President to make a decision on the IG job.
Meanwhile Al Mada reports that Moqtada al-Sadr declared (in his online column to followers) that, "I do not know of a withdrawal of the occupation" in reply to a question about celebrations taking place in Iraq as US forces are repostured. Related, Jim Michaels (USA Today) interviews US Lt Gen Robert Caslen about the current status of the Iraqi forces and quotes Caslen stating, "That leaves a significant training gap in the Iraqi security forces. Iraqi security forces are going to have to address how to meet that training gap in the future." reports Al Rafidayn notes Nouri al-Maliki is scheduled to visit DC next week and meet with members of the US administration. Al Mada states he will be leading a delegation and notes that Abbas al-Bayati, MP with the National Alliance is insisting that Nouri cannot enter into any agreement on his own.
Rumors continue that Nouri al-Maliki will ask Gulf countries to patrol Iraqi air space (since its own air force is not prepared for the job yet and won't be until 2014 at the earliest). Kitabat reports the rumors as truth and part of a plan -- by Iraq and other Gulf states, according to the newspaper -- for this Gulf air force to patrol the entire region. That seems very unlikely. Setting aside the various conflicts Nouri has with Saudi Arabia and other neighbors, it seems highly unlikely that Iraq would agree to such a deal which, in 2014, would no longer be necessary but would be very difficult to get out of. Al Mada reports that government sources are denying any plan to enter into an agreement with Gulf region countries to have them protect Iraqi air space.
In other news, Al Mada reports that the Christian bloc in Parliament has declared that there is no need for "international forces" in any disputed territories. "International forces" most likely means both the US and NATO. Last week, Iraqi Christians were targeted in northern Iraq. Alsumaria TV reports that the Union of Kurdistan Islamic Clerics is rejecting the charges that incendiary language by one of their members led to the attacks.
In the Middle East, Iran borders Iraq on the east. AFP notes an attack in north east Iraq which claimed 1 police officers life and left two more injured as powerlines supplying electricity to Iraq from Iran's Kermanshah were sabotaged. Deutsche Presse-Agentur notes, "Iraqi Electricity Ministry spokesman Museb al-Madras said the attack on Tuesday in Baquba, 60 kilometres east of Baghdad, targeted pylons that are part of a network that brings in some 400 megawatts of Iranian power annually. " In addition, Aseel Kami, Kareem Raheem, Fadhil al-Badrani and Rania El Gamal (Reuters) report another attack was planned but prevented, "In the vast western Anbar province, the Iraqi army defused bombs planted around a power plant early on Wednesday, local army sources said. The attackers had tied up the guards and took their weapons, the sources said."
Reuters notes today's violence in Iraq alrso includes 1 police officer shot dead in Falluja, a Kirkuk sticky bombing which claimed the life of 1 person, a Kirkuk roadside bombing which injured an official with "Iraqi Railways Company," a Baghdad roadside bombing which claimed the life of 1 police officer and left three more injured, an attorney shot dead in Mosul, a Jurf al-Sakhar sticky bombing which injured a worker with the National Security Ministry, a Jurf al-Sakhar roadside bombing whcih injured one person and, dropping back to last night, 1 peshmerga shot dead in Kirkuk.
Sam Dagher (Wall St. Journal) examines today's violence and sees three deaths as potentially linked and a disturbing portent of the future for Iraq, "Maj. Gen. Jamal Taher Baker, Kirkuk's provincial police chief, says these attacks were carried out by militant groups linked to al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's former regime to derail any easing in the dispute in Kirkuk, which has pitted local communities against one another. The day's violence came after at least four people were killed and 45 others wounded over the previous 10 days in roadside bombings and mortar attacks targeting members of the Shiite Turkmen community in and around Kirkuk, according to local police." Oil-rich and disputed Kirkuk, long predicted to be a flashpoint in Iraq, Dagher notes, is rumored to be drawing in Iranians and Turkish operatives to foster more violence.
Turkey borders Iraq from the north and in addition to purchasing electricity from Iran, Iraq is conducting business with Pakistan and India. Khalid al-Ansary (Bloomberg News) reports that Iraq's purchased 30,000 tons of rice from India and 90,000 from Pakistan and that Iraq is predicted to produce 250,000 tons of rice this year (basically a fifth of what Iraq is expected to consume in 2012).
While Iran borders Iraq from the east, Turkey borders it from the north and Jordan borders it from the southwest. MENAFN News notes that Jordan is requesting that Iraq help them with an alternative trade route for their exports to Turkey and Europe should Syria close their borders. (Syria borders Iraq on the northeast and is directly north of Jordan.) In addition, Omar Obeidat (Jordan Times) reports:
Owners of cargo trucks are mulling using Iraq as an alternative transit route to Turkey and Europe as just a few trucks enter Syria per day due to the turbulence in the northern neighbour. According to Mohammad Dawood, president of the Jordan Truck Owners Association (JTOA), over the past two weeks Jordanian trucks carrying vegetables and other goods to Turkey and Europe have "rarely" travelled through Syria due to the ongoing instability. He told The Jordan Times over the phone on Saturday that although Syrian authorities are not banning the entry of Jordanian cargo trucks through their land, owners and drivers are reluctant to enter the violence-hit country. On the topic of Jordan, Aswat al-Iraq notes, "The number of Iraqis in Jordan has recently dropped down to 195,000, according to the Iraqi Embassy in Amman on Sunday."
ABC's Barbara Walters: Mr. President, you have invited us to Damascus and you have not given an interview to the American media since this crisis began. What is it you want us to know?
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: I would like to reiterate what I used to say after 11th of September, to every American delegation I met, first of all I think the American people, people should know more about what's happening beyond the ocean, second the American media I would like them to tell only the truth about what's happening in the world, and for the American administration. Don't look for puppets in the world.
Walters: Don't look for puppets?
Assad: Only deal with administration that, on people that can tell you know about the truth, because what's happening in the world now is taking the world toward chaos, what we need now is we need to deal with the reality. So the message now is about the reality.
Walters: Tell me what the reality here is your country is. What is the reality?
Assad: It's too complicated, it takes hours to talk about... so let's be specific.
Walters: Not long ago you were widely seen as a fresh pragmatic leader, a doctor whose life was in healing people, now sir, much of the world regards you as a dictator and a tyrant. What do you say to that?
Assad: What's important how the Syrian people look at you, not how you look at yourself. So I don't have to look at myself. This is... second, it's about the system. You have a dictator and you have dictatorship, there's a big difference between the two, dictatorship is about the system, we never said we are democratic country, but we're not the same, we-- we are moving forward in, in reforms, especially during the last nine month, so I think we are moving forward, it takes a long time, it takes a lot of maturity to be full fledge democratic country, but we are moving that, that direction, for me as a person, whatever I do should be based on the will of the people, because you need popular legitimacy and this is against dictatorship for person.
And turning to veterans issues, Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and her office notes:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Murray Press Office - (202) 224-2834 Wednesday, December 7, 2011 Tester Press Office – (202) 228-0371
VETERANS: VA Responds to Concerns Raised by Chairman Murray and Senator Tester for Improved Military Sexual Trauma Claims Process
(Washington, D.C.) -- Today, Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Patty Murray and Committee Member Jon Tester announced the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will be working to improve the accuracy and consistency of their disability claims process related to Military Sexual Trauma (MST). This announcement comes after Chairman Murray and Senator Tester sent a letter to Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey in October about the critical need to take further action to ensure that veterans who suffer disabilities related to MST will have their claims properly decided.
The letter was sent as a response to a December 2010 VA Office of Inspector General Report, Review of Combat Stress in Women Veterans Receiving VA Health Care and Disability Benefits, which found VBA had not fully assessed available MST-related claims data, which led to no clear understanding of how consistently these claims are being adjudicated.
"With an unacceptable number of our troops returning home with the damaging effects of MST, something had to be done," Chairman Murray said. "The actions recently taken by the VA to address this issue are a significant step in the right direction. I am thankful they heard our concerns and moved quickly to tackle them. As Chairman, I will continue to monitor the progress of these improvements."
"VA standards need to be fair and accountable for all victims of service-related trauma," Senator Tester said. "It's also critical that the VA is responsive to the evolving needs of America's veterans and I'm pleased that the agency will be taking a close look at how it handles Military Sexual Trauma. I appreciate the VA's quick response to our letter and will keep a close eye on their progress."
Chairman Murray and Senator Tester's letter requested that the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) take action to address concerns about the ability to correctly identify and adjudicate claims for disabilities based on MST. Last week, VBA took action on the concerns raised by Chairman Murray and Senator Tester and issued a training letter, "Adjudicating Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Claims Based on Military Sexual Trauma (MST)." Compliance with this training letter and a new on-line training program for decision makers will help them correctly decide a claim related to MST.
Finally, Chairman Murray and Senator Tester's letter expressed concern with the current evidentiary standard for adjudicating PTSD claims based on in-service personal assault, such as MST. The issued training letter clarifies the types of evidence, and provides specific examples to aid decision makers in applying a liberal interpretation of the requirements, consistent with medical and lay evidence, which may be used to support a claim based upon MST.
The full text of the Senators' letter is below:
The Honorable Allison A. Hickey Under Secretary for Benefits Department of Veterans Affairs 810 Vermont Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20420
Dear Under Secretary Hickey:
We are writing to commend your recent efforts to improve the recognition of disabilities related to Military Sexual Trauma (MST). These efforts are long overdue and more work remains to be done. Far too many servicemembers, both men and women, are returning home from service carrying the devastating wounds that result from MST. After sacrificing so much to serve their country, they often face tremendous challenges in obtaining the services and benefits they desperately need. That is why we urge you to take further action to ensure that veterans who suffer disabilities related to MST will have their claims properly decided.
A December 2010 VA Office of Inspector General Report, Review of Combat Stress in Women Veterans Receiving VA Health Care and Disability Benefits, found that VBA had not fully assessed available MST-related claims data. As a result, there is no clear understanding of how consistently these claims are being adjudicated. We understand that you recently directed a review of MST-related claims and request that you provide us with the results of this review and the actions taken in response to the review findings. There are also additional steps you can take to ensure that veterans who suffer disabilities related to MST will have their claims properly decided. These actions include ensuring that regulations and policies concerning MST are based upon sound medical research and are providing VBA decision makers with the training and supervision needed to correctly adjudicate these claims.
In 2002, VA implemented universal MST screening after research found that medical and mental health conditions associated with MST were unreported and thus untreated. VA's own research, The Veterans Health Administration and Military Sexual Trauma, (December 2007), found that 22 percent of screened female veterans and one percent of screened male veterans reported MST. This research found that the likelihood of a mental health diagnosis, including but not limited to PTSD, more than doubled for veterans exposed to MST. This underscores the need for VBA to properly recognize mental and physical health conditions associated with MST.
Additionally, we have concerns regarding the evidentiary standard for adjudicating PTSD claims based on in-service personal assault such as MST. Under the current standard, evidence such as records from law enforcement authorities or rape crisis centers may be used to corroborate the veteran's account of the stressor incident. However, research shows that MST is severely underreported in both military and civilian settings. As a result, the evidence described in the regulation may not exist.
Although the current regulation allows medical or mental health professionals to consider evidence, such as behavioral changes, and to provide an opinion as to whether the evidence indicates that a personal assault occurred, claims processors may not correctly interpret evidence used by a medical professional in the context of a particular case. A clinician skilled in diagnosing and treating disabilities associated with MST should make determinations as to whether the post-MST behavior change is consistent with the reported MST experience. We request that you consider our concerns as you explore potential regulatory changes that may be necessary to resolve the issues surrounding the reported improper adjudication of PTSD claims based on MST.
We are also aware of the steps you have taken to require training concerning MST, and are pleased that you are focused on improving VBA's ability to correctly identify and adjudicate claims for disabilities based on MST. While much attention has been given to PTSD claims, we urge you to provide training on other mental health and medical conditions that may result from MST.
Thank you for your attention to this request. We look forward to continuing to work with you on behalf of our nation's veterans.