Thursday, December 24, 2009. Chaos and violence continue, Gen Ray Odierno shows leadership many below him lack, there's no 'safe' religion in Iraq, Congress is going to hold the VA accountable when?, and more.
The Ashura pilgrimage is ongoing in Iraq and so is the violence. Shi'ite Muslims head to Krbala for rememberance and mourning. As with all pilgrimages in Iraq -- and despite Nouri al-Maliki's claims of having brought 'security' to Iraq -- the pilgrims are targeted. AP reported 11 dead and seventy wounded in bombing attacks on the Pilgrims today in Babil Province -- AP has now updated the 11 to 13 dead and the number may continue to rise throughout the day. Li Xianzhi (Xinhua) explains, "An explosive charge went off at a parking lot in the center of Hilla, some 100 km south of Baghdad, detonated at about 1:30 p.m. (1030 GMT), the source told Xinhua on condition of anonymity. Minutes later, a car bomb parked at the site went off after Iraqi security forces and onlookers gathered at the scene, the source said." Al Jazeera notes yesterday's attacks which led to the deaths of 4 pilgrims in Baghdad and twenty-eight more injured. CNN adds, "Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Hussein was killed in battle in Karbala in 680, one of the events that helped create the schism between Sunnis and Shiites, the two main Muslim religious movements." Michael Hastings (Washington Post) provides this context, "The Shiite festival, commemorating the death of Imam Hussein in 680 AD, has been marred over the past six years by sectarian violence." Along with Shi'ite pilgrims, Iraqi Christians are also being targeted. Catholic News Service provides some of the recent history of targeting:
In July, a series of church bombings in Mosul left at least four dead and more than 30 injured. A flare-up in violence in October 2008 claimed the lives of 13 Christians and forced thousands to flee the city.
In February 2008 Chaldean Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul was kidnapped, and his driver and two bodyguards were killed. Two weeks later his body was recovered after kidnappers revealed where it was buried.
His replacement, Archbishop-elect Emil Shimoun Nona of Mosul, is scheduled to be ordained in January. Pope Benedict XVI confirmed his election in November.
Alsumaria reports, "Iraqis are celebrating Christmas discretely due to deteriorated security and because of mounting attacks against Christians. Christmas ornament is decorating timidly Iraqi streets and Christian families are staying home after Mass." AFP explains, "Since the US-led invasion of 2003, hundreds of Iraqi Christians have been killed and several churches attacked. Around 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq at the time of the invasion, but their number has since shrunk by a third or more as members of the community have fled abroad, according to Christian leaders." Muhanad Mohammed and Suadad al-Salhy, Mustafa Mahmoud, Aref Mohammed, Missy Ryan, Alison Williams and David Stamp (Reuters) report 1 Iraqi Christian was shot dead in Mosul today along with another man (who may or may not have been an Iraqi Christian). Tuesday AFP reported that the Iraqi military was on high "alert" according to the Minister of Defense, Mohammed al-Askari, who stated, "We have put our forces on alert in Baghdad, the provinces of Kirkuk and Nineveh, including its capital Mosul, where our Christian brothers will be celebrating their holidays, because we have intelligence indicating they could be attacked during this period." Shi'ite Pilgrims and Iraqi Christians haven't seen any evidence of "high" alert. Saturday, noting the various high-level bombings in Baghdad, an Iraqi correspondent for McClatchy asked a question about the government's 'security strategy' that applies here as well, "After four bloody and brutal explosions, I wonder who has a strategy. Does our government have a security strategy or the enemy has a killing and destroying strategy????"
Reuters notes 1 man shot outside his Mosul home. AP notes a Sadr City which claimed 9 lives and left 33 people injured -- they were participating in a funeral process, while a Baghdad bombing resulted in the deaths of 4 pilgrims and ten being injured. Mohammed Al Dulaimy (McClatchy Newspapers) reports today on Wednesday violence: 3 police officers shot dead in Baghdad, a Baghdad roadside bombing injured two Shi'ite pilgrims, a Baghdad mortorcyle bombing claimed 1 life and left seven people wounded, a Falluja roadside bombing targeting Sawha leader Efan Sadoun and leaving two of his bodyguards injured (Sadoun is not reported harmed), and a Baghdad car bombing which claimed the life of 1 Iraqi soldier and wounded "a candidate to the coming national election" as well as relative accompanying the candidate. (I believe the other incidents Al Dulaimy reports on were noted in yesterday's snapshot.)
Now let's switch topics to the US military. First off, the top US commander in Iraq, Gen Ray Odierno, continues to demonstrate common sense (if you doubt that, you were not paying attention when David Petraeus was top US commander in Iraq). Mohammed Abbas, Missy Ryan and Jon Hemming (Reuters) report he stated that, starting January 1st, there will be no criminal punishments for soldiers in Iraq over the non-crime of pregnancy. If you're lost, consider yourself fortunate. Tuesday ABC World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer covered the issue of Gen Tony Cucolo playing God an issuing an order that pregnancy was now a crime for any soldiers serving in northern Iraq. Thankfully, Diane Sawyer has a great deal more on the ball than Kate Snow who presented a one-sided 'report' that found time to quote Cucolo at length, to quote anonmyous internet chatters (misquote actually) who agreed with Cucolo's policy, to quote a military 'expert' (forever wrong) who agreed with Cucolo's policy and the only noted objection in her report was 47 words from NOW president Terry O'Neill -- or as Snow wrongly called them "National Organization of Women" (it's the National Organization for Women). Snow did note, "A group of female senators today also sent a protest letter to the Secretary of the Army." She failed to identify the senators or to quote from their letter. The letter was in the Tuesday's snapshot and we'll note it again:
December 22, 2009
The Honorable John McHugh
Secretary of the Army
101 Army Pentagon
Washington, DC 20310-0101
Dear Secretary McHugh:
It has come to our attention that Major General Anthony Cucolo III -- the Commander of Multi-National Division-North, Iraq -- has implemented a stricter policy that criminalizes pregnancy for members of the United States Armed Forces under his command and for others "serving with, employed by, or accompanying" the military. While we fully understand and appreciate the demands facing both commanders and service members in Iraq, we believe this policy is deeply misguided and must be immediately rescinded.
Under the policy, it is possible to face punishment, including imprisonment, for "becoming pregnant, or impregnating a Soldier, while assigned to the Task Force Marne" Area of Operations. The policy even extends to married couples jointly serving in the warzone.
Although Major General Cucolo stated today that a pregnant soldier would not necessarily be punished by court-martialunder this policy, we believe the threat of criminal sanctions in the case of pregnancy goes far beyond what is needed to maintain good order and discipline. This policy could encourage female soldiers to delay seeking critical medical care with potentially serious consequences for mother and child.
This policy also undermines efforts to enhance benefits and services so that dual military couples can continue to serve. We can think of no greater deterrent to women contemplating a military career than the image of a pregnant woman being severely punished simply for conceiving a child. This defies comprehension.
As such, we urge you to immediately rescind this policy. Thank you for your prompt consideration of this most important request, and for your continued commitment to our men and women in uniform.
United States Senator
United States Senator
Kirsten E. Gillibrand
United States Senator
Barbara A. Mikulski
United States Senator
If you need more background on this story, Feminist Wire Daily has a comprehensive item that they posted yesterday (so they don't note that Odierno has now killed the policy). We've covered this since Saturday and I'm assuming most reading are fully aware of this issue -- and I know the many service women e-mailing to complain about the policy know it very well -- including the issue that women who were sexually assaulted wouldn't be punished . . . after they'd proven their sexual assault. As if sexual assualt has ever been easy to prove in the military. Back to ABC where Snow quoted women from chat pages and Facebook who stated they were for the policy. She cherry-picked in order to just present women supporting the policy. But in terms of some women feeling that this policy punishing pregnancy was a good thing, why would women say that? Because there's a stereotype that women get pregnant to get out of service. That's a false stereotype and, in reality, it's no more common than straight males announcing they are gay in the hopes of being discharged. Instead of exploring that stereotype, Kate Snow just endorses it. (It's a sexist stereotype like the sexist and racist stereotype of the so-called "Welfare Queen" that Ronald Reagan always 'saw' -- remember he suffered from dementia.) Now there are women who say yes to the policy and women who say no and you can go through this American Women Veterans Facebook thread and find both. (Or you can be like Kate Snow and just pick the ones you agree with.) But what the policy plays into is a lot of hostility towards women and what you're hearing in what Kate Snow quoted is frustration women have with the system and their mistaken belief that it's "all" these women getting pregnant to get out of the military who are hurting their own chances to advance. No, girls, you're being lied to yet again. You're accepting a false stereotype that exists to turn you against other women and to blame other women instead of blaming a command culture that refuses -- despite multiple Senate investigations -- to move into the 20th Century even now as we are in the 21st one.
Let's note the end of Snow's 'report' (and you can stream video here at Sarah Netter and Luis Martinez's ABC news story which was much more balanced than anything Snow offered):
Diane Sawyer: But you're not saying that there was no criticism from inside --
Kate Snow: I'm certainly not saying that.
Diane Sawyer: -- the military?
Kate Snow: No, no. We scanned online, there is both. There are men and women in the military thinking this is a bad policy.
Diane Sawyer: But if he is the only general in Iraq with this policy is he going to be forced to back down?
Kate Snow: Not so far.
Kate Snow, with a straight face, insisted that she wasn't saying there was no objection -- when her entire report was built around that premise. (For full transcript, click here.) She then lied and said "Not so far," when Diane asked her if Cucolo was backing down. Uh, yeah, he was backing down. He'd declared Saturday he'd court-matial and imprison and on Tuesday he was rushing to say he'd decided not to do that. That's backing down, Kate Snow.
Repeating, Gen Ray Odierno has common sense. The order dies January 1st. Good for Ray Odierno. Thank you for having common sense, Ray Odierno, and showing leadership on the issue. No one else stepped up to the plate.
Okay so Odierno steps up to the plate, what about the US Congress? We have to ask that question because yesterday Kimberly Hefling (AP) broke the story that the GI Bill payments due at the start of the fall semester? Some still haven't received them. "Thousands" still wait. For the checks that should have been cut no later than the first day of the fall semester last August or September (depending on when the semester started which differed for some campuses). It is now the end of December. It is now Christmas in fact. And veterans are still waiting. The year will end with them still waiting. Now let's be really clear, the rent doesn't wait, the food doesn't wait, the bills don't wait. Veterans have to take care of all of those things. While waiting for the VA to get off it's happy and bloated ass and do what it should have done months ago.
October 14th, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki appeared before the US House Committee on Veterans Affairs. At that point, veterans across the country were struggling as they waited for the VA to make good on the payments they were led to believe would start with the fall semester. And the Committee should have focused on that but they didn't. They fretted that Shinseki kept his "light under a bushel" (that's a direct quote from a member of Congress) and that he needed to hire a PR person so that everyone would know what a wonderful job he was doing. What wonderful job? The scandal had broken, the press was all over it and the committee was kissing Shinseki's ass instead of holding him accountable. They all played dumb when he volunteered that the VA always, ALWAYS, knew this would happen, that a huge number of veterans would wait and wait and wait for checks. The Committee should have exploded with righteous indignation over the fact that (a) this was done to veterans and (b) the VA failed to inform Congress of what they knew.
Of course, they didn't. They weren't holding him accountable. It was embarrassing in real time and it's only more embarrassing today as we now know the problem that Shinseki said was fixed has not, HAS NOT, been fixed. Here's the money quote from Shinseki, here's what he told Congress:
I'm looking at the certificates of eligibility uh being processed on 1 May and enrollments 6 July, checks having to flow through August. A very compressed timeframe. And in order to do that, we essentially began as I arrived in January, uh, putting together the plan -- reviewing the plan that was there and trying to validate it. I'll be frank, when I arrived, uh, there were a number of people telling me this was simply not executable. It wasn't going to happen. Three August was going to be here before we could have everything in place. Uh, to the credit of the folks in uh VA, I, uh, I consulted an outside consultant, brought in an independent view, same kind of assessment. 'Unless you do some big things here, this is not possible.' To the credit of the folks, the good folks in VBA, they took it on and they went at it hard. We hired 530 people to do this and had to train them. We had a manual system that was computer assisted. Not very helpful but that's what they inherited. And we realized in about May that the 530 were probably a little short so we went and hired 230 more people. So in excess of 700 people were trained to use the tools that were coming together even as certificates were being executed. Uhm, we were short on the assumption of how many people it would take.
He knew. He knew when he came into office. He was told it and he confirmed it with an outside consultant. But he never told Congress. No one ever told Congress and no one told the veterans waiting for the checks. "Thousands" of whom are still waiting all this time later.
The October 16th snapshot covers the October 15th appearance of the VA's Keith Wilson appearing before the Subcommittee that US House Rep Stephanie Herseth Sandlin chairs. We'll note one exchange from that hearing:
US House Rep Harry Mitchell: Mr. Wilson, this is not your first appearance before this subcommittee. You have appeared before it several times since the GI Bill was signed into law to keep the committee members apprised of the VA's efforts to implement the GI Bill. And you offered assurances that the VA would be ready by August 1st. You even brought in a detailed timeline to show us how the VA would be ready by August 1st. In February, [John] Adler of this Committee asked if the VA needed more tools to accomplish the goal of program implementation and you responded by stating, "This legislation itself came with funding. This funding at this point has adequately provided us with what we need for implementing payments on August 1, 2009." If this legislation provided you with what you needed then why did you go to the VA -- or then where did you and the VA go wrong in meeting the implementation goal? So I'd like to ask two questions. How are we supposed to believe the assurances you're offering today? And, two, knowing how interested Congress is in implementing the GI Bill, once you knew you were running into problems, why didn't you let us know? Why did we have to first hear about it from veterans and read about it in the Army Times?
Keith Wilson: You rightly call us out in terms of not providing timely service to all veterans. We acknowledge that and uh are working as hard as humanly possible uh to make sure that we are meeting those goals. Uh the timeline that we provided to the subcommittee uh I believe was largely met uh in terms of our ability to generate payments on the date that we were required to deliver the first checks -- first payments did go out August 3rd. Uh there were a couple of significant challenges uh that we had not anticipated. One was uh the volume of work created by the increase in applications for eligibility determinations that did not translate into student population dropping off other programs. But we had significantly more work in our existing programs than we would have expected to have to maintain going into the fall enrollment. One of the other primary challenges that we have responded to is uh when we began our ability to use the tools that were developed uh to implement the program in the short term. Uh May 1st is when we began using those tools and it was very clear to us from the get-go that even accounting for our understanding that they weren't perfect, we underestimated the complexity and the labor-intensive nature of what needed to be done. We responded by hiring 230 additional people to account for that.
US House Rep Harry Mitchell: And I read all of that in your testimony. My point is, once you knew you were running into problems, why didn't you come back to us? We heard it first by veterans and through the Army Times that you were having problems.
Keith Wilson: [Heavy, audible sigh] It has been our desire from the get-go to make sure that the subcommittee has been informed all along. If we did not meet those expectations, then we need to be held accountable for that. We provided information that we had at each of the hearings and we have had a long standing mechanism by which we have provided updates to staff on a regular basis. Uh we did notify the Subcommittee at the time of the hiring of the 230 additional people.
In that hearing, Stephanie Herseth repeatedly asked if he needed additional staff at the call center for educational benefits. She also underscored that "we need to be made aware of the problems immediately if there's any complications that arise" and "if you start anticipating problems or start experiencing problems" then let the Committee know. She wasn't alone in stating that. US House Rep John Adler also touched on this repeatedly such as asking Wilson "are there any other tools you need from Congress" and reminding him that "we would like to hear from you as needs arise, before the crisis arise" and "tell us what you need from us." Congress hasn't been informed of these problems and if the checks still aren't out, then obviously the VA needed additional staff. Obviously. Another VA witness lies to Congress (or doesn't know the status) and veterans are again waiting. And when does Congress intend to take the VA to task? This is nonsense. No veteran who enrolled for the fall 09 semester should still be waiting for the monies owed to them from the new GI Bill. That is ridiculous, that is insulting and until Congress gets ready to hold the VA accountable, there won't be any improvement.
The next hearing on this issue should get to when a problem was known and why Congress was not immediately notified. The next hearing should probe whether a decision was made to keep Congress out of the loop. Congress is supposed to offer supervision and thus far the VA has thwarted that by repeatedly providing the Congress with false information -- and a good portion of the false information was provided intentionally.
It is outrageous that as so many use tomorrow to celebrate with families or reflect, veterans continue waiting for fall '09 checks. It is outrageous that the New Year will begin with these veterans still waiting. If the Congress doesn't pursue this and do so strongly, then their behavior will be outragoues. Right now, it's just sad.
In other news, Black Agenda Report is not on 'holiday' this week (many sites are). Among their new offerings is a commentary by Glen Ford (link is text and audio) which includes):
It is now beyond question that civilian military contractors -- mercenaries -- are permanently embedded in the structure and longterm planning of the United States Armed Forces. In recent years, about half the U.S. personnel in the combined South Asia theaters of war -- Afghanistan and Pakistan -- have been civilians, according to Pentagon figures. The one-to-one ratio of military to civilians -- a percentage that would have been unthinkable prior to the invasion of Iraq -- may become even more lopsidedly mercenary with President Obama's troop escalation in Afghanistan. The Congressional Research Service estimates that as many as 56,000 civilian contractors may accompany the 30,000 uniformed troops scheduled for deployment to Afghanistan. That's a ratio of almost two-to-one civilian to military. The Afghanistan/Pakistan theater has become the modern world's first large scale corporate/civilian war.
In an update to that, Walter Pincus (Washington Post) reports on a new proposal by the Dept of Defense to replace contractors with "full-time federal personnel" as a cost-cutting measure. The only thing to add to his article is that such a shift would carry with it the belief (right or wrong) that accountability would be easier since these would be government employees with codes of conduct.
Turning to England, the Iraq Inquiry concluded public hearings for the year December 17th. They resume public hearings January 5th. In the new year, they will hear from former prime minister Tony Blair and current prime minister Gordon Brown. Helene Mulholland (Guardian) reports that the latter "has been called to give evidence to the Iraqi Inquiry" as have David Miliband (disclosure, I know Miliband) and Douglas Alexander, but all will testify after England's upcoming elections. Mulholland also notes: "Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former chief spin doctor, is included on the list alongside the former prime minister hemself, who recently caused controversy by telling the BBC he would still have thought it right to remove Saddam Hussein if he had known he had no weapons of mass destruction." In addition, Miranda Richardson (Sky News) adds, "Lord Goldsmith, the former Attorney General whose advice on the legality of the 2003 invasion has been at the centre of controversy, will give evidence in January or February." Yesterday the Liberal Democrats released the following statement:
"Gordon Brown signed the cheques for the Iraq war, and he should explain that decision before polling day," said the Liberal Democrat Shadow Foreign Secretary.
Commenting on today's statement from Sir John Chilcott which reveals that Gordon Brown, David Miliband and Douglas Alexander will not appear before the Iraq inquiry until after the election, Edward Davey said:
"Giving special treatment to Labour ministers not only undermines the perception of independence of the inquiry but will damage the public's trust in politics further still.
"This looks like a deal cooked up in Whitehall corridors to save Gordon Brown and his ministers from facing the music.
"Gordon Brown signed the cheques for the Iraq war, and he should explain that decision before polling day.
"British soldiers will not be impressed by a Prime Minister unwilling to step into the firing line."
William Hague has accused Gordon Brown of "the very opposite of open and accountable government" after it emerged that he will not give evidence to the Iraq Inquiry until after the General Election.
The Shadow Foreign Secretary said that the public will rightly ask why it is that numerous officials have given evidence to the Inquiry about their role in carrying out the Government's policy on Iraq, but not a single Minister has had to face questioning.
William said that it was becoming "clearer and clearer" why Gordon Brown delayed setting up the Inquiry for so long after it should have begun its work, and he added:
"His intention throughout has been to ensure that the Inquiry won't report until after the coming General Election -- and now we have the added effect of Ministers not having to give evidence at all before the election."
That the political establishment in Britain and the US have no interest in conducting an honest inquiry into the war is not surprising, given its legacy. Iraq is a fractured country with a wrecked economy and simmering sectarian and ethnic tensions that threaten to engulf society in violence.
George Bush and Tony Blair's war, supported by the Tories and the rest of the political establishment in Britain, is the cause of this.
When the allied occupation - "Operation Iraqi Freedom" - began, Iraq was thrown into chaos. Widespread looting broke out and millions of Iraqis were cut off from electricity and water supplies. But the main priority for the occupying forces was not to prevent Iraq's social collapse but to secure oil fields and ministries.
US and UK multinationals immediately began a lucrative contract carve-up of the Iraqi oil industry, and the supplies of arms and military equipment - the least priority being rebuilding the shattered infrastructure and supplying the Iraqi people with essential services.
For the US capitalist class "regime change" in Iraq meant unchallenged control and profits from an abundant oil supply.
Oil wasn't the only reason for going to war. The war was part of a wider agenda of strengthening US imperialism's prestige - a message to third world leaders and imperialist rivals that any opposition to US hegemony would not be tolerated.
This inquiry will be used as a PR tool by the political establishment to attempt to appear to be listening to the public, particularly those directly affected, such as military families.
But in the eyes of millions who opposed the Iraq war and continue oppose the war in Afghanistan, they are guilty and should be tried as war criminals.
We need 'regime change' of the rotten political establishment in Britain, who conducted the war on behalf of big business and imperialism, by building a mass socialist opposition.
Francis Elliott (Times of London) reports, "But the evidence of Mr Brown, Mr Miliband and Mr Alexander will be saved until the inquiry resumes its public sessions next summer, after the election." Michael Savage (Independent of London) continues, "However, Jack Straw, who was the Foreign Secretary at the time of the Iraq invasion and remains in the Cabinet, will be questioned before the election. Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister, Alastair Campbell, his former spokesman, and Jonathan Powell, Mr's Blair's former chief of staff, will also give evidence before the start of any election campaign." Olivia Midgley (Spenborough Guardian) reports Pauline Hickey wants Blair to answer questions: "Her son, Christian, a sergeant with the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, was killed by a roadside bomb during a foot patrol in Basra - just three days before he was due to return home, in 2005." Meanwhile Joe Murphy (London Standard) reveals, "A letter by Jack Straw asking Tony Blair to consider alternatives to invading Iraq is set to be revealed at the official war inquiry." Dmitry Babich (Russia's RIA Novosti via the Telegraph of London) reports that M16 head John Sawers is insisting that Russia -- by refusing to go along with sanctions as a member of the UN Security Council -- forced England into the Iraq War but that Andrew Billigan's response is, "I would say to John Sawers: 'Nice try.' but I don't think there is any truth in what he said at all."
Today, Chrismas Eve, Free Speech Radio News examines the costs to Iraqis of the Iraq War in a special half-hour broadcast:
Iraqis make up the world's largest population of refugees. The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq released a wave of violence and economic instability and brought with it the destruction of key infrastructure and the near-collapse of basic services. More than 2.7 million Iraqis have been displaced within their borders and another two million have fled their country, largely to Syria and Jordan. Today we bring you a special FSRN documentary called, "Guests in the Waiting Room: Iraqi refugees in Jordan," produced by Hanan Tabbara and Salam Talib.
Next snapshot, which will probably be Monday, will note this article by David Price. Closing with this from Sherwood Ross' "Federal War Spending Exceeds State Government Outlaws" (Veterans Today):
The U.S. spends more for war annually than all state governments combined spend for the health, education, welfare, and safety of 308 million Americans.
Joseph Henchman, director of state projects for the Tax Foundation of Washington, D.C., says the states collected a total of $781 billion in taxes in 2008.
For a rough comparison, according to Wikipedia data, the total budget for defense in fiscal year 2010 will be at least $880 billion and could possibly top $1 trillion. That's more than all the state governments collect.
Henchman says all American local governments combined (cities, counties, etc.) collect about $500 billion in taxes. Add that to total state tax take and you get over $1.3 trillion. This means Uncle Sam's Pentagon is sopping up nearly as much money as all state, county, city, and other governmental units spend to run the country.
If the Pentagon figure of $1 trillion is somewhat less than all other taxing authorities, keep in mind the FBI, the various intelligence agencies, the VA, the National Institutes of Health (biological warfare) are also spending on war-related activities.
A question that describes the above and answers itself is: In what area can the Federal government operate where states and cities cannot tread? The answer is: foreign affairs---raising armies, fighting wars, conducting diplomacy, etc. And so Uncle Sam keeps enlarging this area. His emphasis is not on diplomacy, either.