Friday, December 17, 2010. Chaos and violence continue, the United Nations notes the targeting of Iraqi Christians, Ayad Allawi speaks, the US Justice Dept files suit against city and state, and more.
Starting with Iraqi refugees, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has announced its objection to Europe's forced returns of Iraqi refugees. Spokesperson Melissa Fleming states, "UNHCR strongly reiterates its call on countries to refrain from deporting Iraqis who originate from the most perilous parts of the country." UNHCR adds, "In the latest incident, Sweden on Wednesday forcibly returned a group of some 20 Iraqis to Baghdad, including five Christians originally from the Iraqi capital. Fleming, speaking to journalists in Geneva, said UNHCR staff in Baghdad had since interviewed three of the Christians and three Arab Muslims among the group. One of the Christian men said he escaped Iraq in 2007 after militiamen threatened to kill him. He travelled through several countries in the Middle East and Europe before reaching Sweden, where he applied for asylum." And as wrong and as bad as that is, The Local reports that the Swedish government deported one 52-year-old male to Iraq . . . but he wasn't from Iraq. He was from Iran.
The latest wave of attacks on Iraqi Christians began October 31st with the assault on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad in which at least seventy people were killed and another seventy injured. Since then, Baghdad and Mosul especially have been flashpoints for violence aimed at Iraqi Christians with many fleeing -- and many fleeing to the KRG. UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming noted today, "This forced return comes at a time when our five offices in Iraq are noting a significant increase in Christians fleeing Baghdad and Mosul to the Kurdistan Regional Government Region and Ninewa plains [in the north." She cited 68 as the number of people killed in the October 31st attack on the church. Joe Sterling (CNN) notes 70 were killed (53 of which were Iraqi Christians). Fleming explained 1,000 families as the number that has left Baghdad and Mosul for northern Iraq. She also noted that Iraqi Christians are also fleeing to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria with UNHCR offices in each country registering an increase in the "number of Iraqi Christians arriving and contacting UNHCR for registration and help." She put the efforts of the European countries doing these forced deportations into perspective when she noted one Iraqi Christian male in Jordan had been forcibly returned to Iraq "just days beforehand" by a European country she didn't identify. He "left the church minutes before the bombing took place." No, (I'm saying this) it is not safe for Iraqi refugees to return to Iraq. If they want to, every one has the right to live their lives as they see fit. But no host country should be forcing Iraqi refugees to return to Iraq. Katherine T. Phan (Christian Post) covers the statements: "The agency expressed dismay that Sweden forcibly repatriated this week a group of 20 Iraqis, including 5 Christians from Baghdad, after their applications for asylum were rejected." Martin Chulov (Guardian) notes that the figures Fleming offered on Iraqi Christians leaving the country were seen as too low by the head of the country's Christians Endowment Group's Abdullah al-Naftali who says, "I can tell you that the numbers the UN are citing are too low. We have recorded a 213% increase in normal departures since the church massacre. It is not a slow, or steady exodus -- it is a rapid one."
October 31st started the latest wave of attacks on Iraqi Christians. Latest wave. For a look at key moments in earlier waves, BBC News offers a timeline here. Stephanie Nebehay (Reuters) notes that, before the start of the Iraq War, there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq and that the number has fallen to approximately 850,000. Aaron Howard (Jewish Herald-Voice) quotes the Univerisy of Chicago Medical Center's Dr. Elmer Abbo who is also the executive director for Assyrian American National Coalition, "I will clearly say this: What is happening in Iraq is, at the minimum, ethnic cleansing. Other people will say it is genocide,e ven if the numbers are not there, because the Assyrians are being killed in a deliberate and strategic way. We're being oppressed to the point where we're being pushed out of the country. Sometimes, it is under direct force where people come to your door and say 'convert, be killed or leave.' Those are the options. Whenever there's a church bombing, it says: You are not welcome here. Leave, or we will kill you." Asia News notes that, in addition to barrier being erected around churches in Baghdad and Mosul, there will be checkpoints and that, "The Christmas celebrations will consist of masses and small parties within the boundaries of the parishes, but there is frustration among the faithful." Alan Holdren (Catholic News Agency) quotes, Father Georges Jahola of Mosul stating, "Christians are being extinguished in Iraq, while Iraq remains Muslim. [And people want to leave due to safety] They see that there is no longer a place for Christians in Iraq. Even for us as a Church, we cannot deny it." Rebecca Santana (Associated Press) speaks with Ban Daub who was at Our Lady of Salvation Church with her nephew when it was attacked October 31st and she states, "We are afraid for our sons and our children. There is no life in Baghdad for the Christians." The editorial board for the Orange County Register offers, "It may be that it will prove impossible for a Christian community to thrive in an Iraq that is officially Muslim, and that almost all Iraqi Christians will eventually flee. That would be sad; some of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world are in Iraq. It would not, however, be unprecedented. In 1948, after the establishment of the state of Israel, almost all of Iraq's Jews fled the country."
Meanwhile Shashank Bengali (McClatchy Newspapers) reports, "Iraq closed another chapter on the Saddam Hussein era Wednesday when the United Nations Security Council lifted most of the sanctions that it had imposed after the late ex-dictator's invasion of Kuwait 20 years ago." Obvious benefit? $700 million from the oil-for-food program is about to be "into Iraq's escrow account". Previously, they couldn't touch the money. File it under "I'll have what Joe's snorting," BBC News reports that US Vice President Joe Biden -- who chaired the meeting -- declared, "Iraq is on the cusp of something remarkable -- a stable, self-reliant nation." Where have we heard that before?
That's really all that was worth saying. A number of articles were written -- some passing as analysis, none worth linking to. But Hoshyar Zebari, Foreign Minister of Iraq, held a press briefing after the meeting and I am surprised his remarks weren't covered. We'll note his opening statement in full:
Well today was a momentus day for Iraq. And a happy day. After years of being sanctioned by the Security Council resolution due to the agressions, the beligerance of Saddam's regime, I think today we close a chapter, a dark chapter. And today's session? So the passage of three security resolutions demonstrated the international support for Iraq to get rid of previous sanctions and restrictions on its sovereignty and independence. So my country and I'm personally very, very delighted to have this support. We are overwhelmed by this support. And I think this shows Iraq is coming back truly to its rightful place among the community of nations. Iraq has been a founding member of the United Nations and many other organizations and I think today is a great day for the people of Iraq, for the country. Still we have some way to go to be completely free of Chapter 7. That is, we need to fulfill our obligations toward our brotherly country Kuwait. I think today event will give us momentum in fact to address all remaining issues with Kuwait under Chapter 7, to close that chapter in a good faith and a mutual trust between our two nations. This will be the task of the of the new Iraqi government which is in the forming and it's formation is imment. It would be announced very, very soon, it wouldn't be weeks, it would be days. And this issue of the situation between Iraq and Kuwait will be a top priority for the next government to address it.
Specifically, the meeting on Wednesday adopted three resolutions: on weapons of mass destruction, on ending the oil-for-food program and on ending immunities that protected Baghdad from claims during the Saddam Hussein era.
Iraq has signed prohibitions against chemical and biological weapons and cooperated with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog. One resolution allows it to develop a civilian nuclear program, although the Council in February said Iraq first had to ratify an agreement, the so-called Additional Protocol that would allow intrusive inspections by the IAEA. Parliament has not ratified yet and the resolution requires it to do so as soon as possible.
Another resolution formally shut down the mismanaged oil-for-food program, which was supposed to bring in supplies to ordinary Iraqis suffering under sanctions. France abstained on this measure, concerned that it did not sufficiently protect BNP Paribus, the Paris-based bank, which handled payments. And a third resolution dissolves in June a special supervised fund over how oil revenues are spent and protected Iraq from legal claims. About $22 million in claims are still outstanding.
But resolutions concerning Kuwait were left intact, including compensating for stolen items and demarcating the border, especially the waterways. 5 percent of the Iraq's oil revenues will continue to be earmarked for Kuwait.
First, the Obama administration played a key role in Sunnifying the Iraqi nationalism of Iraqiyya so that it could be more acceptable to Iran: By encouraging Iraqiyya to accept a junior, "Sunni" role in a power-sharing arrangement for the next government where the Iranian-supported Shiite parties clearly have the upper hand, Washington basically gave Iran what it wanted in Iraq in terms of a politics defined in sectarian fronts. To add insult to injury advisers to Obama went on to spin the US involvement in the affair as a triumph of American diplomacy against Iran! Today the US government went a little further: To celebrate the latest "progress", it decided it was time for the UN Security Council to give up some of what little remains of outside-world leverage in Iraq, including a formal termination of the oil-for-food programme and restrictions relating to weapons of mass destruction.
At the press briefing, Zebari was asked about his future in the next government of Iraq and his reply was, "Well I'm here as the Foreign Minister of Iraq now."
A power-sharing agreement has allowed Nouri al-Maliki a crack at forming the government. He needs to nominate cabinet minister and get Parliament to vote in his nominees and he has eight days left to do that. There are a few tiny cracks emerging as the clock ticks. First up, the Kurds. Over the weekend, KRG president Massoud Barzani spoke of Kurdish independence. Some feigned shock. Hiwa Osman (Rudaw) explores the remarks and context today:
Once again, the people of Kurdistan have realized that neither the media nor those who raised a brouhaha over President Barzani's statement about self-determination seem to have understood or want to understand what the new Iraq is about. Barzani has been under fire for publicly stating that Kurds have a right to self-determination, an argument that is not new. He was simply repeating a long-held Kurdish position on self-determination. This should not have shocked anyone -- but the exaggerated, critical response to Barzani's statement shows that the new reality of Iraq is not accepted by everyone.
Again, this was news when it happened and remains news now. Barzani's party (KDP) won in the July 2009 elections, destroyed Jalal Talabani's party (PUK), due to the fact that Barzani knows not to call Kurdish independence a "dream" that won't and can't come true. It was a signal to Kurds in Iraq and across the globe and it's part of the leveraging that the US press is ignoring but is going on currently as Barzani attempts to play maybe-we-walk to force Nouri to make additional concessions to the Kurds or risk tanking his shot at a second term as prime minister.
March 7th, Iraq concluded Parliamentary elections. The Guardian's editorial board noted in August, "These elections were hailed prematurely by Mr Obama as a success, but everything that has happened since has surely doused that optimism in a cold shower of reality." 163 seats are needed to form the executive government (prime minister and council of ministers). When no single slate wins 163 seats (or possibly higher -- 163 is the number today but the Parliament added seats this election and, in four more years, they may add more which could increase the number of seats needed to form the executive government), power-sharing coalitions must be formed with other slates, parties and/or individual candidates. (Eight Parliament seats were awarded, for example, to minority candidates who represent various religious minorities in Iraq.) Ayad Allawi is the head of Iraqiya which won 91 seats in the Parliament making it the biggest seat holder. Second place went to State Of Law which Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister, heads. They won 89 seats. Nouri made a big show of lodging complaints and issuing allegations to distract and delay the certification of the initial results while he formed a power-sharing coalition with third place winner Iraqi National Alliance -- this coalition still does not give them 163 seats. November 10th a power sharing deal resulted in the Parliament meeting for the second time and voting in a Speaker. And then Iraqiya felt double crossed on the deal and the bulk of their members stormed out of the Parliament. David Ignatius (Washington Post) explains, "The fragility of the coalition was dramatically obvious Thursday as members of the Iraqiya party, which represents Sunnis, walked out of Parliament, claiming that they were already being double-crossed by Maliki. Iraqi politics is always an exercise in brinkmanship, and the compromises unfortunately remain of the save-your-neck variety, rather than reflecting a deeper accord. " After that, Jalal Talabani was voted President of Iraq. Talabani then named Nouri as the prime minister-delegate. If Nouri can meet the conditions outlined in Article 76 of the Constitution (basically nominate ministers for each council and have Parliament vote to approve each one with a minimum of 163 votes each time and to vote for his council program) within thirty days, he becomes the prime minister. If not, Talabani must name another prime minister-delegate. In 2005, Iraq took four months and seven days to pick a prime minister-delegate. It took eight months and two days to name Nouri as prime minister-delegate. His first go-round, on April 22, 2006, his thirty day limit kicked in. May 20, 2006, he announced his cabinet -- sort of. Sort of because he didn't nominate a Minister of Defense, a Minister of Interior and a Minister of a National Security. This was accomplished, John F. Burns wrote in "For Some, a Last, Best Hope for U.S. Efforts in Iraq" (New York Times), only with "muscular" assistance from the Bush White House. Nouri declared he would be the Interior Ministry temporarily. Temporarily lasted until June 8, 2006. This was when the US was able to strong-arm, when they'd knocked out the other choice for prime minister (Ibrahim al-Jaafari) to install puppet Nouri and when they had over 100,000 troops on the ground in Iraq. Nouri had no competition. That's very different from today. The Constitution is very clear and it is doubtful his opponents -- including within his own alliance -- will look the other way if he can't fill all the posts in 30 days. As Leila Fadel (Washington Post) observes, "With the three top slots resolved, Maliki will now begin to distribute ministries and other top jobs, a process that has the potential to be as divisive as the initial phase of government formation." Jane Arraf (Christian Science Monitor) points out, "Maliki now has 30 days to decide on cabinet posts - some of which will likely go to Iraqiya - and put together a full government. His governing coalition owes part of its existence to followers of hard-line cleric Muqtada al Sadr, leading Sunnis and others to believe that his government will be indebted to Iran." The stalemate ends when the country has a prime minister. It is now nine months, nine days and counting. Thursday November 25th, Nouri was finally 'officially' named prime minister-designate. Leila Fadel (Washington Post) explained, "In 30 days, he is to present his cabinet to parliament or lose the nomination." Steven Lee Myers (New York Times) added, "Even if Mr. Maliki meets the 30-day deadline in late December -- which is not a certainty, given the chronic disregard for legal deadlines in Iraqi politics -- the country will have spent more than nine months under a caretaker government without a functioning legislature. Many of Iraq's most critical needs -- from basic services to investment -- have remained unaddressed throughout the impasse." Jane Arraf (Al Jazeera) offered, "He has an extremely difficult task ahed of him, these next 30 days are going to be a very tough sell for all of these parties that all want something very important in this government. It took a record eight months to actually come up with this coalition, but now what al-Maliki has to do is put all those people in the competing positions that backed him into slots in the government and he has a month to day that from today."
Nizar Latif (The National) explains, "Negotiations continue, with parliament due to discuss the matter in tomorrow's session. Parliament will make the final decision on exactly what status the council is to have, and it will require a constitutional revision. Amending the constitution involves navigating a labyrinth of parliamentary procedure, something likely to take many months. Until all of that is complete, the council will have no powers at all, regardless of any agreements between rival blocs." Parliament's scheduled session for tomorrow was supposed to take place on Tuesday. In a completely no-surprise move, the session was postponed. Tuesday, Ayad Allawi's spokesperson made a statement. Supposedly that was the end of the story. Not so fast. Waleed Ibrahim (Reuters) reports that Allawi declared his joining the government is conditional upon the National Council for Strategic Policies being created and being independent (this is the council he would head). Allawi is quoted stating, "He [Maliki] was clear in his words and right to the point. We hope things will go properly to achieve these issues without any obstacles. We don't believe the important issue is how many ministries we will get in the coming government, but rather the partnership that we will share in making decisions on Iraq futuer."
There were not a large number of stories filed on the protest. I included a link to a video and there was nothing but video there which did create a problem for those who can't stream or who have hearing issues (no closed captioning in the video) but were trying very hard to follow this story. My apologies for that. I should have realized it would create a problem with an under-covered news event. We'll note the protest again today and all details and quotes without links come from the video at David Swanson's site.
"Mr. President, please talk to us!" cried protesters outside the White House Thursday morning after they marched there from Lafayette Park. President Barack Obama didn't speak to them and it's unknown whether he even heard them.
While democracy and rule of the people were being kicked aside in the press room, outside in 24 degree weather, activists were chanting "Peace now!" and "Stop the killing! Stop the wars!" and "The war is a lie!" A number of them walked past the barricades and up to the White House fence. Pressing their backs against the fence, they faced the press, the police and many other activists as a police officer walking through the demonstration appeared to tell his partner, "This should be fascinating."
Activist and authorDavid Swanson explained, "I'm here to help those who are doing more than saying the right thing to pollsters on the telephone. A majority of Americans saying we've got to end these wars, the president sitting there saying 4 more years and then we'll rename it non-combat -- that's outrageous, it's unacceptable, it's against the majority will of our people, of the Afghan people, of the people around the world. Veterans for Peace have been asking for a meeting with this president on behalf of the majority for years. We can't get a meeting. we're coming here, we're going to go to jail. The good people are in jail. The people who have not been charged with any crimes are in jail and the criminals are roaming free."
The activists sang "We Shall Overcome" and "Down By The Riverside." Stop These Wars observes, "As the light snow increased to heavy and began accumulating, activists kept warm by singing and chanting. At about 12:30, police began arresting protesters who remained along the fence, while supporters who did not want to risk arrest were moved across the broad street."
Iraq War veteran and March Forward's Mike Prysner summed up why he was demonstrating, "They're not going to end the wars. And they're not going to do it, because it's not our government. It's their government. It's the government of the rich. It's the government of Wall Street, of the oil giants, of the defense contractors. It's their government. And the only language that they understand is shutting down business as usual. And that's what we're doing here today, and we're going to continue to do until these wars are over. We're going to fight until there's not one more bomb dropped, not one more bullet fired, not one more soldier coming home in a wheelchair, not one more family slaughtered, not one more day of U.S. imperialism."
"We have postcards that we want to deliver to the president," declared Veterans for Peace's Mike Ferner. "We have asked him in a letter three weeks ago to meet with us and to hear our concerns as military veterans of this tragedy and the wrong headedness of these wars. We've not been able to meet with him so we have a number of these postcards that have been signed by people around the country."
Since he wouldn't meet with them, they "delivered" the postcards by tossing them over the fence, onto the White House yard in what several present dubbed "airmail."
Meanwhile the US Justice Dept has filed a lawsuit against the city of Brockton and the state of Massachusetts over Iraq War veteran Brian Benvie whom they argue was denied a promotion in the Brockton Police due to his service. The Justice Dept issued the following notice yesterday:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Thursday, December 16, 2010 Justice Department Files Complaint Against City of Brockton, Massachusetts, and Commonwealth of Massachusetts for Violating the Employment Rights of an Iraq War Veteran WASHINGTON – The Justice Department announced today the filing of a complaint against the city of Brockton, Mass., and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, for violating the rights of an Iraq war veteran, under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA).
The lawsuit alleges that the defendants violated Brockton Police Sergeant Brian Benvie's USERRA rights when they failed to fully recognize the retroactive promotion to sergeant he earned after taking a make-up promotional exam upon his return from active duty military service in Iraq in 2007. Benvie's score on the exam placed him at the top of the promotional list, and he was promoted to sergeant in July 2008. Benvie subsequently learned that another patrolman with a score lower than his had been promoted to sergeant in October 2007. After initially refusing, the city eventually retroactively adjusted Benvie's promotion to the date he would have been promoted but for his military service. However, the defendants subsequently failed to give full effect to that promotion by denying Benvie the opportunity to take the lieutenants' promotional exam.
Among other things, the suit seeks to provide Benvie with a makeup exam for the lieutenants' promotional exam that he was not permitted to take; place Benvie on the appropriate eligibility list based on his score on the lieutenants' exam; and, should his score merit it, retroactively promote Benvie to lieutenant with all of the rights, benefits and seniority that he would have enjoyed if he had been permitted to take the exam in October 2008 and had achieved the same score.
"No service member should miss out on opportunities for advancement in the civilian workplace because he or she answered a call to duty," said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. "We will use all of the tools at our disposal to protect the rights of those men and women who serve our country and make sacrifices to protect our rights."
U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Carmen M. Ortiz said, "Our service men and women make the ultimate sacrifice by serving our country. We cannot allow employers to disadvantage them based on their military service or military status."
The Justice and Labor Departments place a high priority on the enforcement of service members' rights under USERRA. "Our two agencies work closely together to ensure that our service members are treated right when they return from service," said Ray Jefferson, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Veterans' Employment and Training Service.
This lawsuit arose as a result of a complaint Benvie filed with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). After an investigation, DOL determined that Benvie's complaint had merit and referred the matter to the Justice Department. The case is being handled by the Employment Litigation Section of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts.
Editor's Note A full-length "60 Minutes" program has been prepared, but due to live CBS Television Network programming before and after Sunday's broadcast, whether time will allow a whole hour cannot be determined until Sunday night. Both programs will contain the two-part story listed below.
Endless Memory Lesley Stahl reports on the recently discovered phenomenon of "superior autobiographical memory," the ability to recall nearly every day of one's life. Stahl interviews the handful of individuals known to possess the skill, which scientists are only now beginning to study. (This is a double-length segment) | Watch Video