Thursday, June 11, 2009

Iraq snapshot

Thursday, June 11, 2009. Chaos and violence continue, the US decides the best way to treat those who killed 5 US soldiers is to 'release them into the wild,' the DoD releases suicide data for the Army for last month, Iraqi refugees release a music album, and more.
"Our country has been in conflict for nearly eight years, service members and their families are bearing the brunt of multiple deployments, with no foreseeable end in sight.  It is important that we uphold our responsibility to care for those who volunteer to serve our nationa in uniform and their families, given the sacrifices they are making in defense of our nation," declared US House Rep Susan Davis this morning as she brought the US House Armed Services Committee's Military Personnel Subcommittee to order.  This was a mark up meeting -- mark up of HR 2647 -- and the legislation would create a 3.4% pay raise for the military (Barack has asked for a 2.9% increase) and it also includes monies for families such as spouse internships.  Davis chairs the Subcommittee.  Wilson is the Ranking Member and his big point was displeasure that the proposal was unable to address disabilities.  Davis had noted that "we do not have the mandatory offsets to pay for this $5.1 billion proposal within the subcommittee.  The Democratic leadership, however, is working with the committee and a resolution to the issue is expected."  The mark was adopted by a unanmious vote. Mark ups are not hearings and we don't generally cover them but we're noting it for a few reasons including that Chair Davis has the nasty DC summer cold.  (Ava, Wally and I have it as well as Kat noted last night.)  Second, some of her statements need to be noted and juxtaposed with what's going on in Iraq.
* Our country has been in conflict for nearly eight years, service members and their families are bearing the brunt of multiple deployments, with no foreseeable end in sight.  It is important that we uphold our responsibility to care for those who volunteer to serve our nationa in uniform and their families, given the sacrifices they are making in defense of our nation.
* This is the Year of the Military Family, as such, we have included a number of initiatives that are focused on military families.  These include a pilot program for spouse overseas area and a requirement for the Secretary of Defense to study the appropriateness of the current housing standards.  These are just a few of the provisions that we have included to support our military families.
Those are Davis' statements and you can also toss in US House Rep Ellen Tauscher's remarks in the House Armed Services' Strategic Forces Subcommittee mark up this afternoon when Chair Tauscher thanked the Ranking Member for his work on HR 2647, "We don't agree on everything of course but we agree on more than we disagree and you are a great partner, Mike [Turner]."
To attend the mark up hearings was to see members of Congress working together to address the concerns of the military and, with Davis' Subcommittee especially, to address the concerns of the military members and their families.  For a brief moment, you could almost believe that the families might be treated with respect and compassion.  For a moment.
Jane Arraf (Christian Science Monitor) makes clear that whatever Congress does or does not do, military families will be spat upon by the US government.  So that we're all on the same page and also to take care of correction, let's drop back to yesterday's snapshot:
"They freed them? The American military did? Somebody needs to answer for it." That's Danny Chism quoted by Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Robert H. Reid (AP) yesterday. We noted it in yesterday's snapshot and Danny Chism's son, the late Jonathan Bryan Chism, is in the news today.  McClatchy Newspapers buries a major story by Richard Mauer entitled "Who was behind Karbala assualt, in which 5 Americans died."   January 23, 2007 the Department of Defense announced that four US soldiers "died in Jan 20 in Karbala, Iraq, from wounds sustained when their patrol was ambushed while conducting dismounted operations."  The four were identified as Jacob N. Fritz, Jonathan B. Chism, Shawn P. Falter and Johnathon M. Millican.  Also killed in the attack was Brian S. Freeman.  Bryan Chism was from Louisiana and WAFB reported January 31, 2007 that the military was "trying to cover up the details of an incident in Iraq," that the four "were actually abducted from a tightly-secured American compound by an insurgent commando team.  The insurgents were driving American vehicles, wearing American uniforms and carrying American weapons.  In fact, on eof the kidnappers is reported to have even had blonde hair."  Over two years later, Richard Mauer has uncovered additional details.  "The men inside were dressed in U.S. army camouflage and carried American weapons," he reports.  "They knew enough English to bark simple commands and offer polite greetings.  They knew exactly how the U.S. soldiers would defend the compound.  They knew that the compound's most important room was the command and control center -- with its radio base stations -- and they knew that at 6 p.m., the soldiers in the room would be off guard and relaxing.  They even knew that the two most senior American officers in Karbala would be in the room next door." Via a Freedom of Information request, McClatchy just obtained an investigative report by the military which was completed February 27th and  which "put the onus for intelligence-gathering and ground support [in the attack] on Iraqi police, America's supposed ally.  Not only were police negligent in surrendering their guard positions to the intruders without firing a shot or warning the Americans, the report says, but investigators found strong circumstantial evidence that police officials gave the attackers key intelligence and may have been complicit in allowing an advance force of attackers into the compound."
Now drop back to yesterday's news.  The US military traded the Iraqi prisoner said to be responsible for the murders -- traded him for five British hostages.  Laith al-Khazali was traded.  Was freed.  Which is why Danny Chism was asking, "They freed them? The American military did? Somebody needs to answer for it."
First the correction.  Mauer's excellent report was published by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Tuesday; however, it originally ran in 2007.  Thank you to a friend at McClatchy who caught that and pointed it out to me.  My apologies.  With the basics above, we have five US soldiers who were killed in Iraq.  The military's own study finds that the Iraqi police assisted in the attacks on the US military.  If you haven't read Mauer's report, just to summarize quickly, various civilian Iraqis who worked on the base, often until ten thirty at night, failed to show up the day of the attack.  All the Iraqi police, except for two, skipped out as well.  The two who showed up? They made a point to unlock the gate that the attackers would come through.  This was planned and it wa splanned with the help of al-Maliki's forces.  It was planned and it was carefully carried out. 
The US military believes that Laith al-Kahali and his brother orchestrated the assault.  Over the weekend -- with no notice to the families of the five US soldiers killed in the attack -- the US military released al-Kahali.  Today Jane Arraf reports that Qais al-Khazali, the brother, is now expected to be released as well. An unnamed US official states, "This isn't about freeing the hostages" referring to the five British citizens held by the brothers' group for over two years now, "it's about getting Asa'ib al-Haq to stop its attacks."
I have no idea how that's going to play.  In April of 2008, when The Davy Petraeus and Ryan Crocker Variety Hour played before various Congressional bodies, I would have thought there would be outrage over the 'strategy' Crocker and Petraeus spoke of and endorsed: Paying off Sahwa because that meant Sahwa wouldn't attack US troops or the equipment of US troops.  Generally speaking, the appearance of strength doesn't come from forking over your lunch money to ensure you're not beat up on the playground. So maybe the above will again bother no one?  But US soldiers were killed in an attack and the two thought responsible are being let out of prison, released to go free, and the US 'reasoning' is that "it's about getting Asa'ib al-Haq to stop its attacks"?
Okay, let's carry that 'logic' on out.  I want Leonard Peltier to be free (I really do want him to be free).  So the message the US is sending is that I should drop advocacy within the system and instead begin launching attacks on US sites?  (I don't believe in violence, before anyone fears I'm ab out to storm the Anna Sui Store in Manhattan.) That is the message that's being sent.  And it's probably not the message an occupying power wants to send.  Anyone who wants a prisoner freed in Iraq now knows how: Start launching attacks on the US military. 
This little stunt was always questionable.  It went against every basic in international relations theory but, as a one-off move, it could have been defended.  The White House chose not to defend it (and reporters chose not to press on the issue).  But now, as they release the second prisoner, and as they insist that the release is to get the brothers' group to stop attacking the US military in Iraq, this is an embarrassment that puts every US service member in Iraq in jeopardy.
It also says that US service members in Iraq are nothing but canon fodder.  The illegal war was based on lies and there's no doubt about that at this late date.  But the message being sent now, by the current administration, is that US service members are canon fodder and will be used and their deaths will be forgotten.  The message sent is that they don't matter.  While the military ranks are trained not to leave one of their injured or fallen behind, up in the brass the decision's been made that their lives don't matter and if they die and their killers can blackmail the US with continued attacks, their deaths will be dishonored in a rush to make their killers happy.
It's disgusting.  And, again, it puts every US service member in Iraq at risk.  (It also sends a larger geo-political message which is why it's so appalling that the press has refused to go after this story.  Long after Barack is out of the White House, these moves will follow the United States.)  The message is clear: "We will send you to Iraq.  We will expect you to fight till your death.  If you die we will honor your sacrifice up until the point that we can sell you out for our own benefit."  That is the message sent to US troops when 2 killers --  who carried out one of the most well planned assaults on US forces in Iraq -- are freed because, a US official states publicly, "it's about getting Asa'ib al-Haq to stop its attacks."
And don't argue, as some may try, that getting Asa'ib al-Haq to stop attacking the US military means the US military will be safer.  (A) They're not because they're now targets for anyone who wants the US to come to the negotiating table.  And (B) anyone who wanted to the US military to be safe would have begun a full and total withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. 
Arraf quotes an unnamed US State Dept official declaring of the moves, "This is what will have to happen.  We did the same thing with Moqtada Sadr and the same thing with the SOIs [Sons of Iraq]."  No, it is not the same thing at all.  "Sons Of Iraq" and "Awakening" are the same thing as Sahwa.  We addressed this earlier this week and we'll note it again.   "The United States doesn't negotiate with terrorists!" Of course they do. And they do it on a case-by-case basis and have always done so. The hard-line public stance is not, however, merely a face-saving device for whomever is president (it may or may not be that), it's also based on the belief that if it is known that the US negotiates with terrorists that puts every US citizen abroad at risk of being kidnapped in order to force the government of the United States to do as a group or organization wants it to.

Sahwa are Sunnis who turned from resistance fighters (fighting all foreign forces in Iraq including the US) into allies because they were paid. And when that began happening, a number of people were outraged. Arianna Huffington was among the ones outraged and apparently didn't understand that for any war to end, all sides need to come to the table and begin negotiations.

(That was a point Tom Hayden could make back before he became scared of his own shadow. In part because Laura Flanders attacked him, after he'd hung up the phone, on air for comments he'd made about who comes to the table and how. She viciously attacked him and then, realizing she'd gone way too far, she tried to blame it on her radio show's blog but none of the comments she made appeared on her show's blog.)

Sahwa was willing to put down their arms (at least against the US) if paid. And they didn't propose that arrangement. The US military initiated that and it took approximately eight months of offers before there was any move from Sahwa in that direction.

That's Sahwa. Asa'ib al-Haq is not a Sunni organization. It's a Shi'ite organization. Thought to be supported by some segment (government or otherwise) in Iran. Yes, there is humor to this considering that for years Michael Gordon preached war on Iran with the 'facts' that Iran was supporting Sunnis.

That's only one difference.

The other is that Sahwa wasn't holding anyone. By holding five hostages, Asa'ib al-Haq is different than Sahwa and whether or not the US should have released a prisoner or even had talks with Asa'ib al-Haq is a major issue and it's one that's going to remain long after Barack Obama leaves the White House.

The US never addressed Nouri al-Maliki's disdain for the press nor his assaults on them.  (US actions against journalists in Iraq, in fact, encouraged al-Maliki's own actions.)  An Iraqi correspondent for McClatchy shares what it's like to attempt to report from Iraq, where al-Maliki's thugs think they can make their own rules:
 After one hour of suffering, I reached the place and the cars which picked the journalists moved to the place. We waited for about 15 minutes near the gate of the ministry. This short time was more than enough for a problem to happen. The guards of the ministry of displaced and immigrants which is near the defense ministry told us that we have to gatherr in one place and we are not allowed to spread in the street. That was enough to get everyone crazy. I told the guard that he doesn't have the right to say so because we are waiting for the permission to enter the defense ministry. he said "this is the gate of a ministry" I was really surprised but I quickly answered him "yes an Iraqi ministry for all Iraqis and we are Iraqis and you must realize that the ministry doesn't own the street." He ordered me to move but I refused and told him simply "Its an Iraqi street and I can stand wherever I like." The discussion got hotter but after some reporters involved, some of them asked me in a very nice way to ignore the guard and I did.
The US had just installed Nouri al-Maliki a little over a month before he began his first noted assault on the press (part of his 'crackdown' ideas -- the bulk of which, such as neighborhood watch militias, had already been set up but al-Maliki contributed the attack on journalism all by himself). Life was already deadly for journalists in Iraqi (both Iraqi journalists and foreign ones) before al-Maliki but the strong man has shaped the country more than most realize. (They also don't grasp that he's attempting to set himself up for life, to become the new Saddam.) The attacks include the daily abuses. For example, a gun pulled on a New York Times journalist and the trigger pulled . . . as a 'joke.' And no one gets disciplined for that. Nouri fosters and encourages the hostility towards the journalists. Nouri repeatedly threatens them.  Time and again, like the Insane Rosa Brooks, he floats the idea that he will acredit them and determine who is and isn't a journalist or that he will bring punishment down on them.  He's currently brought at least two lawsuits against journalists.  He's been at war with journalism since the US installed him as prime minister.  The Committee to Protect Journalists' "CPJ, JFO cite press freedom abuses in Iraq" contains a letter they sent al-Maliki:

Dear Prime Minister al-Maliki,                    

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO) would like to bring to your attention several issues that harm press freedom in Iraq. In recent months, our organizations have documented a number of assaults and instances of harassment committed by government officials against journalists in various parts of the country under the control of Iraq's central government.            

Since 2003, the press in Iraq has made significant strides as hundreds of independent, party- or state-run newspapers, radio and television stations have emerged. Unfortunately, along with that progress Iraqi journalists have paid a steep price. For the past six years Iraq has topped CPJ's list as the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. As of June 9, CPJ has documented the deaths of 139 journalists and 51 media workers in Iraq since March 2003. Three were killed this year. JFO's records shows an even higher number of killed journalists and media workers.             

In May, at the Iraqi Journalism Summit in Baghdad, you said, "We are proud that we don't have a single imprisoned journalist because of freedom of expression." CPJ and the Observatory commend your government for this, but call on you to press the U.S. military to release Reuters photographer Ibrahim Jassam, who has been held in a U.S. military prison since September 2008 without charge.   

In recent months many journalists have faced harassment and in some cases assault by Iraqi security forces. In other cases, high-ranking government officials have used lawsuits as a political tool to obstruct and silence the news media.  

In order to improve the working environment for journalists in Iraq, CPJ and JFO call on your government to take the following steps:            

Press the U.S. military to respect the decision of the Iraqi courts and immediately release Ibrahim Jassam.       
Publicly condemn violent attacks and acts of intimidation against journalists. Investigate and bring to justice those who are responsible for killing, attacking, or harassing journalists.          
Direct government agencies to halt the filing of filing politically motivated lawsuits against journalists and publications.          
Direct all relevant security and military forces to end the use of force to harass or prevent journalists from doing their work.            
Suspend or amend articles 81, 82, 83, 84, 201, 202, 210, 211, 215, 225, 226, 227, 403, 433 and 434 of Law 111/1969, more commonly known as the 1969 penal code. These provisions criminalize and set harsh penalties for press related offenses.
Ensure all other laws, present and future, are in compliance with international standards for free expression.                
Attached to this letter is a short report in which CPJ and JFO document with more specificity violations against journalists since the beginning of this year.      

Thank you in advance for your attention to these important matters. We look forward for your response.           


Joel Simon             
Executive Director, CPJ          

Ziad al-Ajily          
Director, JFO          
While the press remains under attack, three US contractors have been released following the arrest of five over the weekend.  Late yesterday, Ned Parker (Los Angeles Times) reported, "The men had been freed on bail, but were forbidden to leave Iraq during the ongoing investigation into the death of Jim Kitterman, a 60-year-old construction contractor from Texas, said Rafae Munahe, a senior advisor to Interiot Minister Jawad Bolani."  BBC observes, "The US embassy in Iraq has confirmed the release of only one man so far." Al Arabiya quotes Judge Abdel Sattar Birakdar stating, "The other two arrested are still in jail because it was discovered they committed another crime and investigations are ongoing with them."  In other legal news, Amy Goodman (Democracy Now!) explained this morning, "The private military firm formerly known as Blackwater is facing a new lawsuit over the August 2007 killing of an Iraqi civilian in Hilla. The case was filed on behalf of the surviving relatives of seventy-five-year-old Husain Salih Rabea. At the time, Rabea's relatives said he had pulled over to the side of the road to let a Blackwater convoy pass. The last vehicle in the convoy allegedly opened fire when Rabea pulled back onto the road. The suit also alleges Blackwater employees are guarding employees of the International Republican Institute in Iraq despite an Iraqi government ban."

Back to al-Maliki. When not attacking the press, Nouri likes to terrorize and scare the Iraqi people. Gina Chon (Wall St. Journal) reports that Nouri's making more threatening noises, insisting that violence will likely increase between now and the elections (currently scheduled for January but they may end up pushed back). Between now and the elections? Yes, that would be over six months. Yes, that would be over half a year. He apparently figured (rightly) that the United Nations would be issuing the same warning shortly (as they did ahead of the provincial elections held in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces last January 31st) and he wanted to get a jump on them. Chon notes national elections have now been merged with the referendum on the treaty masquerading as a Status Of Forces Agreement. Noting that again in case any Spency Ackerman's still haven't caught on that the vote on the referendum which was supposed to take place next month has been kicked back to January.  Waleed Ibrahim, Daniel Wallis, Michael Christie and Angus MacSwan (Reuters) quote Jawad al-Bolani, Minister of the Interior, stating, "The referendum is a part of law and discussions are ongoing among the ministers and the council of representatives."  al-Bolani, of course, does what Nouri wants and, more to the point, the statement was made after al-Bolani met with US Ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill.  The US government wants the vote delayed as well.
Turning to the topic of refugees, Dalia al-Achi (UNHCR) reports that Iraqi refugees Salim Salem, Abdel Mounem Ahmad and Fadi Fares have released an album entitled Transitions (available on iTunes, Amazon, Npaster, etc.) which will raise money for refugees.  The three teamed up in Damascus.  The 15 track album can be downloaded at Amazon for $7.99 and includes such tracks as "Night In Baghdad," "Iraqi Sorrow," "Joy," "If Only We Could Leave" and "Where the Wind Will Take Us."  Meanwhile New York Times employee and Iraqi refugee who came to the US Sahar S. Gabriel announced Monday (NYT's Baghdad Bureau Blog) that she had found a job "the old-fashioned way.  The same way we find jobs in Iraq.  You ask friends and relatives and see if they have an acquaintance or two who has a job to offer or a position to be filled."

Turning to some of today's reported violence . . .
Laith Hammoudi (McClathcy Newspapers) reports a Tikrit rocket explosion which killed two children (a boy and a girl), a Mosul roadside bombing which claimed the life of 1 police officer and left one police officer and four people wounded, a Baghdad roadside bombing which injured four people, a Baghdad sticky bombing which wounded three and a Baghdad roadside bombing which claimed 1 life and left four more injured.  Reuters notes a Baghdad roadside bombing which left one US soldier and one Iraqi civilian injured and a Mosul car bombing which injured three Iraqi soldiers and one Iraqi civillian. DPA reports a Kirkuk car bombing which claimed the lives of 3 Iraqi soldiers and left nine more wounded.
Laith Hammoudi (McClatchy Newspapers) reports 1 corpse discovered in Tikrit.
Yesterday's "Iraq snapshot" covered the US House Oversight and Government Reform's National Security Subcommittee and Kat's "The do nothing Wartime Contracting Commission" last night continued the coverage. Tuesday's "Iraq snapshot" covered the US House Veterans Affairs Health Subcommittee hearing and Kat's "Assessing CARES and the Future of VA's Health Infrastructure" continued the coverage.  Tonight she's covering Congress again and it's an interesting thing which I don't think you'll find anywhere else because I didn't see any reporters present.  So she'll capture something and I think it's fair to call it a rare emotional moment in Congress.  And I don't mean that ("emotional moment") in a derogatory way.  Moving on, in the markup of Susan Davis' Subcommittee today the issue of dwell time was noted for the US Army.  Jeff Schogol (Stars and Stripes) reports that US Marine Corps Commandant Gen James Conway declared today that "almost all Marines [were] expected to leave Iraq next spring" and this will allow for more dwell time.  Whether that ends up being the case or not is debatable.  Marine leadership has repeatedly voiced their desire to leave Iraq and 'focus on' Afghanistan over the last years.
Today the Defense Dept released Army suicide data for the month of May: "one confirmed suicide and 16 potential suicides among active duty soldiers."  In the press release, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen Peter W. Chiarelli is quoted stating, "We have got to do better.  It's clear we have not found full solutions to this yet.  But we are trying ever remedy and seeking help from outside agencies that are experts in suicide prevention.  There isn't a reasonable suicide prevention tool that the Army won't potentially employ."