Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The for-show play-day

While a lot of the media hype today focuses on the U.S. "withdrawal," that is hardly the reality. As previously reported, U.S. military commanders have said they are preparing for an Iraq presence for another 15-20 years, the U.S. embassy is the size of Vatican City, there is no official plan for the withdrawal of contractors and new corporate mercenary contracts are being awarded. The Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) between the U.S. and Iraq gives the U.S. the right to extend the occupation indefinitely and to continue intervening militarily in Iraq ad infinitum. Article 27 of the SoFA allows the U.S. to undertake military action, "or any other measure," inside Iraq's borders "In the event of any external or internal threat or aggression against Iraq."
As the airwaves and internet are flooded with reports of this new Iraqi sovereignty and U.S. withdrawal, it is important to remember a bit of history. Five years ago -- almost to the day -- President Bush put on an almost identical show. His proconsul L. Paul Bremer "handed over sovereignty" to the Iraqi government just before he skulked out of Baghdad on a secret flight (right after he issued an order banning Iraq from prosecuting contractors). Despite the pronouncements and proclamations and media hype, the occupation continued and real sovereignty was non-existent.
It is very doubtful that -- decades from now -- Iraqis will tell their grandchildren about where they were on June 30, 2009, "National Sovereignty Day." At the end of the day, this is U.S.-style Hallmark hype and will remain so until every last occupation soldier leaves Iraqi soil.

The above is from Jeremy Scahill's "Iraq's 'National Sovereignty Day' is U.S.-Style Hallmark Hype" (Information Clearing House). Dan Baltz asks "Have We Forgotten Iraq?" (Washington Post):

The fact that yesterday's deadline passed with so little public comment does not negate the fact that it represents the first big test for Obama's policy. In the days leading up to the deadline, there were a series of bombings and attacks, leaving more than 250 people dead. And yesterday, a car bomb in Kirkuk killed more than two dozen people. On Monday, four American soldiers were killed in combat. Iraq is not fully secure.
Administration officials have insisted, and the president reiterated yesterday, that the spike in violence was expected as the handoff took place and insurgents attempted to exploit the transition. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has publicly expressed his confidence that Iraqi forces can keep their cities secure. Other military leaders have done the same in private to the White House. If they are wrong, there may be questions about what kind of country Americans are preparing to leave behind. Obama could find himself under pressure to adjust the withdrawal timetable.

It's an article that accepts too many conventional wisdoms and fails to ask the key question: What happens next? Not what is George W. Bush's plan (the Status Of Forces Agreement is Bush's plan) but if violence spikes, what does the adminstration plan to do? US Ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill publicly declared that contingency plans were not for public consumption. Amazingly the press refused to call him out or even note that.

Alissa J. Rubin's "Iraq Celebrates U.S. Withdrawal From Its Cities" runs on the front page of the New York Times (and, drive-bys, that's the headline in the print edition, don't e-mail to 'correct' me) which is a pretty in-depth article and a strong one by Rubin.

The excitement, however, has rung hollow for many Iraqis, who fear that their country's security forces are not ready to stand alone and who see the government’s claims of independence as overblown.
From Basra in the south to Mosul in the north, Iraqis expressed skepticism about the proclamation of "independence."
"They will not withdraw to their homes; they will stay here and there so that they can return in emergencies," said Samir Alwan, 28, the owner of a mini-market in Basra. "So it is not sovereignty, according to my point of view, and I think that the Iraqi Army is only able to secure the south of the country and unable to secure Baghdad and Mosul."

Balz and Rubin both avoid mentioning Odierno's news worthy moment. From yesterday's snapshot:

So if it was a historic day, let's go to the numbers, let's go to the stats. Woops. Reporters tried to do that during a Baghdad briefining with top US commander in Iraq General Ray Odierno and it wasn't not pretty. Reuters quotes him exclaiming, "Because it would be inaccurate! Because I don't know exactly how many [US service members] are in the cities. It varies day-to-day based on the mission. [. . . .] How many times you want me to say that? I don't know." They note he apologized for his outburst ("temper" was his term) and it must be stressful to be the one who has attempted to avoid the spin but have it shoved off on you.

Here's some of the exchange from the DoD transcript:

Q General, it's Andrew Gray from Reuters. You talked about a small number of U.S. forces remaining in the cities to train and advise. Can you put a figure? How many U.S. forces will remain?

GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, people have been trying to get me to say a figure now for about a month. And the reason I won't do it is because it's going to be different every single day, and it'll be based on how much training, how much advising, how much coordination is required. That will change each and every day. So I won't put a number on it.
It is a smaller number, a significantly smaller number than what we've had in the cities now. But it has very specific missions: train the Iraqi security forces, advise them as we continue to move forward, enable them in order to -- potentially if they need some help with aviation, logistics, et cetera. But more -- almost as important, coordinate and help us to continue our situational awareness of all situations within Iraq. And that will help us to better support the Iraqi security forces.

Q General, just to follow up briefly, I am disappointed you didn't give us the scoop after a month of holding out, but I wonder if you could at least give us a -- you know, is it an -- a few thousand? If you could give us a kind of ballpark -- are we talking about several thousand? Would that be a reasonable ballpark to use?

GEN. ODIERNO: Again -- again, there's hundreds of cities around, and we have hundreds of -- you know, and I've let the local commanders work this out. So for me to give a number would frankly be inaccurate, and I just don't want to do it. There'll be trainers, advisers, helping throughout all of the Iraqi cities where we continue to support and advise Iraqi security forces.

Q Whatever the number is, how are you going to convince them basically, the U.S. forces remaining, not to jump in and be helpful, where perhaps you would prefer that the Iraqis take the lead?
What will be different about what they're told to do, in a situation where they might think, their first instinct is, gosh, we can do that better.

GEN. ODIERNO: Well, again this is -- I call it -- we are working on changing our mindsets in the city. And I equate it to when we first started the surge, where we had to change our mindset.
So pushing our soldiers back out, getting back into the communities, really partnering with the Iraqi security forces and today, it's the same kind of thing. We have to change our mindset.
When we're in the cities, there's very specific things that we'll do. Actually we've been out of the cities, a large majority of the cities now, for the last eight months. So it's really only Mosul and the last remnants that we've had, in Baghdad, that have pulled out over the last few weeks.
So we've actually been implementing this in many parts of Baghdad for a long time. And they understand what their mission is. They understand what we expect them to do. And you know, we have worked this very closely with all of the leaders in Iraq.
We've worked -- I've worked very closely with the minister of defense, the minister of interior, the operations commanders, the operational commanders in order to work this out. And I feel very comfortable with where we're at.

Q General, it's Tom Bowman with NPR.
I mean, you're reluctant to talk about how many trainers and mentors are in the cities. And it raises a question about whether or not this is just a show or not whether, you know, this is just semantics.
There are essentially U.S. soldiers with guns in the cities. You can call them trainers or mentors. But how different is it from what we saw maybe two-three weeks ago? And if you have U.S. soldiers just outside the cities, I mean, what is this?
Is this just a show for the American people?

GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I would say, you probably didn't listen to what I just said. Because what I just said was, having battalions and brigades inside a city is significantly different than having trainers, advisers and MiTT teams. And I said, we'll be operating in the belts around Baghdad.
I've been very clear about this, just like we did in the surge. We had -- the reason we had to surge forces is, we had to get people in the cities. And then we had to eliminate safe havens and sanctuaries in the belts around Baghdad.
It's the same thing, except the Iraqis will take responsibility for security in the cities. We will continue to do full-spectrum operations, outside of the cities, to work the safe havens and sanctuaries around the cities. And we will continue to do that. And it's legitimate, legitimate operations that we'll continue to conduct outside of the cities.
If you're here in Baghdad, you would know. There is a significant change inside of the cities.
There are thousands among thousands of soldiers that have pulled out of Baghdad. There -- and there hasn't been any soldiers in the cities in southern Iraq, there hasn't been any soldiers in the cities in Ramadi, there hasn't been any soldiers in the cities in Fallujah for months now. And we've been executing this very well.
So again, if you're here in Iraq, you would see it for yourself there is a significant change.

Q (Off mike) -- to be transparent, if you're going to be so transparent, why can't you tell us how many trainers and mentors are in the cities?

GEN. ODIERNO: Because it would be inaccurate. Because I don't know exactly how many are in the cities. We -- it varies day to day, based on the mission.

Q You must have a ballpark.

GEN. ODIERNO: I don't know how many times you want -- how many times you want me to say that? I don't know. What I'm telling you is, it's training and advising teams that remain in Baghdad. And it'll be different every single day, and we've worked very closely locally with the commanders to figure this out. And it'll be different tomorrow than it is today. And that's why I don't want to say a number, because it'll be inaccurate. (Off mike) -- get to second-guess what I say. If I say a number today, it'll be different tomorrow, and it'll be different the next day. What I'm telling you is, it's significantly lower than it has been so far.

What he was telling was nothing concrete. His outburst is not the end the world, it is, however, news, and should be treated as such. He was asked a basic question about a point he raised and he flew off the handle.

Jeremy Scahill's on Democracy Now! today as is McClatchy Newspapers' Sahar Issa.

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