Wednesday, March 9, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, protests continue, the US House and Senate VA Committee leaders call on President Barack Obama to stop the VA from short changing veterans and their caregivers, Nouri plans to announce nominees for his leader-less ministries tomorrow, and more.
For most of us in the United States, imaging a loved one injured in the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars (or any future wars) is a mental exercise detached from reality. How fortunate for us if we (that includes me) do not have to picture someone in their immediate family who could be wounded, return home and require that we become the primary caregiver. Again, for most of us, we're very lucky -- most, but not all. And addressing the realities of what a caregiver caring for a wounded veteran and what the veteran has to face is something that the Congress has spent several years working on. The House and the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee have held hearings, taken testimony, worked up proposals
And after all of those many hearings and many meetings with the effected populations, both houses of Congress agreed upon the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010 (May 5, 2010) which was to go into effect January 30, 2011. This bill had support from both political parties -- and support from independent Senator Joe Lieberman, Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders. In the Senate it passed by 98 votes (all present voted for it). In the House, it passed by 419 votes with all present voting in favor of it. President Barack Obama signed it into law May 5, 2010. It shouldn't have caused any problems because of the huge Congressional support it had -- universal support -- and because the Congress took so much care in investigating the issues, in taking testimonies from stakeholders, in evaluating and re-evaluating before they wrote the bill. But as the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee made clear March 2nd, there were huge differences between what the Congress passed and what the VA was planning to do with the law. This afternoon the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee released the following statement:
Leaders of the Senate and House Veterans' Affairs Committees call on President Obama to stop the VA from severely limiting a benefit for those who are forced to leave careers, health care behind to care for their loved ones
(Washington, D.C.) – Leaders of the Senate and House Veterans' Affairs Committee sent a bi-partisan, bi-cameral letter to President Barack Obama yesterday calling on him to ensure that eligibility for a law Congress passed to support veterans caregivers is not limited and that the law is implemented in a timely manner. In the letter, the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the Congressional Committees that oversee the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) expressed their frustration over VA and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) delays in moving forward with caregivers support, and with additional criteria that will severely limit the ability for some family caregivers to access the benefit. Specifically, the Congressional leaders asked the President to direct OMB to "ensure that the regulations or other elements of the program's implementation comply with the specific eligibility criteria that are set out in the law." "It's simply unacceptable that the VA would limit a program Congress designed to support family members of veterans who have left behind careers, lives, and responsibilities to see that their loved one can recover at home," said Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Patty Murray. "We are calling on the President to make sure that the will of Congress and the needs of these veterans are not being ignored. Caring for our veterans is part of the cost of war. This program is part of the cost of war." "When he signed the Caregiver Law, President Obama stood with wounded veterans and caregivers in promising that they'd be getting the help they needed," said House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller. "We're now calling on him to fulfill that pledge and direct his administration to hear the will of Congress, veterans, and caregivers to get this program right." "This legislation was originally designed to provide a path forward for caregivers who are already sacrificing their own aspirations in order to make the lives of severely wounded veterans easier to bear," said Senator Richard Burr, Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "I urge the President to work with VA to get this bill right so that caregivers in dire need of assistance can receive the benefits promised to them," "VA's continued delay in the implementation of such a vital program is inexcusable. Many of these caregivers have wiped out their savings, have had to forego their own health care coverage and have given up their careers in order to care for their loved one," said Rep. Bob Filner Ranking Member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. "Last year, Congress saw fit to extend critical benefits to the Caregivers of our nation's veterans and we will not stand idly by as VA prolongs the process. Too much time has passed already."
We'll note the letter in full at the end of the snapshot. But I'm having to juggle things to make this the opening -- and it's important enough that it should be the opening. Today
Ted Koppel: We're there because of U.S. interests, and those U.S. interests can be summarized quite simply in one or two words: oil and natural gas. The stability of the Persian Gulf is of enormous national interest to the United State. No politician wants to send young men and women to die for oil. But the fact of the matter is that it is one of the politically most - no pun intended - inflammable issues. When the price of gasoline goes up, as it is going up right now, to $4 a gallon, if we were to leave before there is genuine stability in Iraq, if that area no longer had the oversight of American military, I think you could very easily see the price of oil go up to seven, eight, nine dollars a gallon. And the fact of the matter is then you would have all kinds of political yelling and screaming on Capitol Hill, all kinds of pressure being raised by the American public, which would not want to see that happen to its economy.
Jane Arraf: This is what's left of the Rasheed family's alcohol store, one of the few that was still open in Baghdad. It was bombed, along with seven others recently just after Aid Rasheed closed up for the day. Aid is a Yazidi -- an ancient religion here. Yazidis and Christians have always owned liquor stores in Iraq. But as the government embraces a stricter interpretation of Islam, Aid says there's no room for them anymore
Aid Rasheed: Especially the Christians and the Yazidis, we don't know how we will live. In the north if we open a restaurant, no one will come to it. In the south, we have these shops they attack us and steal from us and kill us.
Jane Arraf: It's not just drinking that's under threat. The cultural heart of Baghdad, al-Mutanabbi Street, has been rebuilt since it was bombed in 2007. But many of the cities writers, artists and intellectuals have left the country Baghdad has always been known for its diversity, for its cultural tolerance. It's a part of the national identity but many people fear it's being crushed. Hadi al-Mahdi is an out spoken radio host but his criticism of the government has cost him dearly. He was one of dozens of media people arrested and beaten after a recent protest. Iraq is at a crossroads he said between freedom and dictatorship. Zena Hatab is a television presenter. She felt free enough to enter and win a local beauty pagent. That could be harder if a new warning seen in the al-Kadhimiya district is heeded. The display warns women of the dangers that await them if their bodies aren't covered head-to-toe.
Abass Ali Hussein: This shows this life and behind it is the after life. Being tortured by fire for those who are unveiled or wear too much make up. The Koran says we have to cover the chest and the arms. Only the face and the hands should show.
Jane Arraf: Many Iraqi Muslims dispute that reading of the Koran but it's a sign of changing time that few in this neighborhood will openly say so. Jane Arraf, Al Jazeera, Baghdad.
Religious minorities have been among the targeted groups in Iraq since the start of the illegal war. "Among" -- there is a long, long list of targeted groups in Iraq. Aswat al-Iraq reports that the country's Journalistic Freedoms Observatory released a statement today: "A total of 160 attacks took place against journalists throughout the country, including 60 in Kurdistan region. Security authorities waged a big campaign on media institutions in Baghdad and other provinces, and arrested journalists and ceased al-Diyar satellite channel." Sunday, Nouri al-Maliki sent police and military forces to throw the Communist Party out of their headquarters. The Party also produced their newspaper at the headquarters and were most likely targeted because they've been strong supporters and organizers of the protests. Al Mada reports that Hamid Majid Moussa held a press conference today in Baghdad, not far from where the Party's Newspaper By The People was produced, and declared that the government cannot justify the eviction of the Communist Party because the Party is not terrorists but they are instead being punished for their politics in violation of their Constitutional guarantees so the government must immediately return the Party's property. Patrick Martin (WSWS via Global Research) provides an overview of some of the recent attacks on the press, "Journalists covering an anti-government protest March 4 in Basra, in southern Iraq, were seized and beaten by police. Gunman in military uniforms raided an independent radio station in the Kurdish town of Kalar. The station's director, Azad Othman, told the Associated Press the volunteer station had been reporting extensively on demonstrations in Sulaimaniyah against the two ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. These attacks follow nationwide raids the previous Sunday, in which Iraqi police detained 300 people, mainly journalists, artists, lawyers and other intellectuals [. . .]"
The National Newspaper's editorial board observes, "Iraq's democratic exuberance is in tatters. A year ago this week, the US president Barack Obama praised elections as an 'important milestone in Iraqi history'. Today, diplomats cross their fingers that the country's mounting protests don't spiral out of control. More than anything, though, Iraq's popular uprisings underscore that an unhappy public is no longer content idly watching a kleptocracy emerge. Iraq's leader should take heed." Al Mada reports that the US government expects protests to continue but that the US government -- citing Michael Corbin, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq -- does not feel the protests will call for the overthrow of the (puppet) government in Iraq. Alsumaria TV quotes Corbin declaring, "People are protesting not for regime change, but for services, against corruption, for better government response to their needs."
Along with the press, protesters have also faced the crackdown and Aswat al-Iraq reports that the protesters in Ninewah who have been demonstrating demanding the release of 'detainees' saw 12 protesters released from police custody. Al Jazeera reports that today in Baghdad, "hundreds of Iraqi workers rallied in central Baghdad, calling for improved salaries and better economic conditions. The demonstration came after thousands of Iraqis had taken to the streets in recent days to protest against corruption, unemployment and the lack of public services." Meanwhile Aswat al-Iraq reports that Barham Saleh, Prime Minister in the KRG, has declared if the Kurdistan Parliament asks him to resign, he will do so and quotes him stating, "Acts of violence that accompanied the protests should not be repeated again."
Somewhat lost in the wave of protests sweeping through the Middle East, which are now washing up on Iraq's shores, has been the recent deployment of two brigades of Kurdish peshmerga troops in the disputed province of Kirkuk in northern Iraq. There has been a peshmerga presence in Kirkuk since 2003, but stationed north of the provincial capital of Kirkuk city. However, following Iraq's own "Day of Rage" on Feb. 25, peshmerga forces moved to take up positions along a line south of the city. Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officials have stated that the deployment is needed to protect Kurdish populations in the disputed areas from the threat posed by what they claim are terrorist-infiltrated demonstrations. The Iraqi government's response to the move has so far been muted, but local Arab leaders in Kirkuk and some of their Turkoman counterparts are expressing alarm that the move will fuel intercommunal tension and requesting intervention by the national government. Underscoring the potential seriousness of the situation, on Sunday, U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey and U.S. Forces Commanding General Lloyd Austin met with KRG President Massoud Barzani to discuss security arrangements in Kirkuk.
The status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories in northern Iraq is perhaps the major unresolved potential political driver of conflict in Iraq as American troops prepare to withdraw later this year, and at various points since 2008 the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish peshmerga have come close to an armed confrontation. The current situation in Kirkuk is likely to be defused without further escalation, but it raises important questions about the consolidation of U.S.-backed conflict-prevention mechanisms aimed at forestalling the use of military units to resolve territorial disputes as well as the lack of a viable Iraqi political process to begin to resolve the core elements underlying the territorial conflict. Without any political road map or vision existing for addressing the fate of the disputed territories, there is the risk that parties are tempted to take matters into their own hands and that moments of social unrest, such as the current demonstrations around poor services and unemployment, quickly degenerate into ethnic tension.
Meanwhile Aswat al-Iraq reports that Talabani spoke Monday in Sulaimaniya and declared Kurkuk to be "Kurdistan's sanctity." The problem with interpreting that comment is that (a) Talabani was before a crowd and (b) he always goes back on his statments -- especially when it comes to Kirkuk. That hasn't prevented many from attempting to decipher where Talabani is leading. The Brookings Institution's Michael E. O'Hanlon has a new column where he (as usual) advocates for the US to stay in Iraq and notes:
But the most vivid way to understand the continued desirability of a calming U.S. military presence is to focus on the contested city of Kirkuk and its environs in the north of the country, just below the autonomous region of Kurdistan proper. This is the oil-rich and history-laden city where Kurds, Turkomen and Arabs come into contact - and compete for claims to the land and its resources. According to the Iraqi constitution, written with American help and passed in 2005, there is supposed to be a referendum on Kirkuk's future. In fact, it was supposed to have happened by 2007, but disputes over who should be allowed to vote and what options should be presented to voters have continued to delay the resolution of the matter.
Hisham Rikabi (Al Mada) reports that Nouri al-Maliki will, according to whispers, offer up some names to fill empty Cabinet posts when he joins Parliament tomorrow. There are rumors on top of the rumors including that the names he proposes have no consensus behind them and that Nouri will be pushing his job off onto the Parliament (which will allow him an out, now won't it?). Among the names being whispered as nominees are Ahmed Chalabi, Lt Gen Abboud Qanbar and Turaihi Aqeel who, supposedly, will be competing for the post of Minister of the Interior. Citing Kurdish press reports, Rikabi notes rumors that Nouri intends to toss out ten names for the posts of Minister of Defense, Minister of Interior and Minister of National Security (and Intelligence). Dar Addustour adds that an unnamed person with the State Of Law political slate (Nouri's slate) has stated ISCI, Iraqiya and Moqtada al-Sadr's supporters will not be voting on the names due to the lack of political consenus. If that's true, who will be voting? That's a huge chunk of the MPs. Iraqiya won the most seats. The other two hold a significant number of seats and came together to back Nouri as prime minister-designate last year. If the rumor is true about withholding votes being planned for Thursday, that would explain why Moqtada al-Sadr was all over Iraq yesterday -- Sadr City in Baghdad as well as Kadhimiyah). Kadhim Ajrash and Nayla Razzouk (Bloomberg News) report State Of Law's Ali Shlah has gone on record and told them that Nouri "will present his candidates for the defense, interior and national security ministries to parliament" on Thursday.
In other news of Parliament, the National Alliance held a press conference today. Al Mada reports that they are threatening to walk -- all 80 of them -- if Parliament doesn't stop 'reading speeches and statements and failing to legislate.' The report also notes that although Parliament was to go into recess April 14th, they've extended the session to run through May 14th. Yesterday's snapshot included this: "Aswat al-Iraq reports that a member of the Iraqiya slate is stating over '200 draft laws are defunct inside the Iraqi parliment'." This is the inaction that the National Alliance is objecting to.
Aswat al-Iraq notes that the President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, made congratulatory statements yesterday towards Iraqi women in observance of International Women's Day. Sally Jawdat (Al Mada) reports from Irbil on the day and notes that Massoud Barzani, President of the KRG, congratulated women (all women) and then moved on to note women in the Kurdistan region and spoke of the role that they have played in the liberation of Kurdistan. He declared that the KRG is always a defender of women's rights. Meanwhile, Al Rafidayn reports that there has been an increase in the number of suicides among Karbala women who are the victims of assault. Dr. Amer Haidar is quoted stating that al-Hussein Hospital is receiving at least two women a week who have attempted suicide and that the women display fractures, burns and other signs of abuse. Dr. Sana Abdul speculates that some women may see suicide as the only way to be free of physically abusive husbands. Suha Alsaikli (Al Mada) reports on Iraqi women who gathered in Baghdad yesterday to mark International Women's Day including women with the Iraqi Communist Party, the Association of Iraqi Women and Peace and Solidarity Organization. Passing out sweets, the women drew attention to the status of women in Iraq, particularly widows and divorcees. Umm Ammar, with the Communist Party, decried Nouri's orders to seize the Party's headquarters on Sunday and noted that other parties were not targeted.
Larisa Epatko (PBS' NewsHour) writes this introduction to a photo essay at the website, "Women came together on March 8 to express a message of soldiarity on International Women's Day by dancing in Iraq, protesting in Ivory Coast and dressing as men in Lebanon. This year marked the 100th anniversary of the designated day, bringing with it a theme of 'decent work for women.' Events are planned throughout the month." One of the women of Iraq is Haifa Zangana who was born in Baghdad, raised there, attended Baghdad University, received her diploma in 1974 and continued her political activism as a member of the Communist Party. Escaping imprisonment and execution, she left Iraq. Since the start of the Iraq War, she's returned to Iraq twice. She's also an author of many books and, March 19th, she speaks at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. She shares her memories with Tahira Yaqoob (The National Newspaper):
At that time, everything was indicating that the Baath regime was a fascist party so I joined a faction of young people, who represented socialism with democracy, everything we thought we were missing. My mother did not say much but whatever I did, she would be in tears and one time, she begged me to give up. She said it was going to lead us into trouble and worried about the whole family being affected but I was a stubborn woman. [. . .] The Seventies were great. It was a time when we had the liberation movement, a time of hope and aspirations. You felt if you took part in this movement you were taking part in changing things. We were full of hopes. I was not unique. Most people were involved politically, it was part of daily life. You could not lie back and rest. [. . .] Dreaming of Baghdad is part of our collective memory. It was very important to document that part for the group of people involved and was very painful to write. When I had the time in the 1980s to look back at what happened in the early 1970s, even then it was really painful. I spent more than a decade trying to bury it. I wanted to come to terms and seek to forget. [. . .] I thought, this is an important part, not just of my life, but of the group of people I was involved with. It was an important experience as a woman. For a few years I was the only one. Some people suggested while I was writing the chapters that it was going to help me on a personal level as a kind of therapy.
Studies on the ground of the war's impact on women and girls come to vastly different conclusions. In October 2002, Saddam Hussein released criminals from Iraqi prisons. This and the soon-to-follow 2003 US-led assault on Baghdad, created conditions for bloodletting, for a sharp increase in organized crime trafficking in drugs, stolen cars, and women and girls; and for the ascendancy of armed Islamist conservatism. Saddam's tightly controlled violence and reign of terror were replaced by unpredictable, widespread violence against Iraqi women. The immediate consequences for women: hejabs worn by Muslim and Christian women alike (and abayas in some regions) to avoid being harassed and beaten in public; an epidemic of women killed in the city of Basra by fundamentalist men, who leave them in the street as a lesson to other women; increased rape, including of women in detention; abduction into prostitution; and a dramatic rise in "honor" killings, or the murder of women and girls by male family members to restore family honor. Muta'a - Sharia law-permitted exploitation of women by men in so-called temporary marriages, which serve as fronts for prostitution - rose after the war began, with men targeting desperate, penniless widows and the Shia militia targeting single girls. The real ruler in Iraq today, according to Iraqi Professor Maha Sabria, "is the rule of old traditions and tribal, backward law" with a US-brokered Constitution based in Islamic law, one which does not assure women basic rights or protections.
The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), which investigated women's deaths in Basra by visiting city morgues, found that most of the women killed by fundamentalist "vice squads" in Basra were largely professionals, activists and PhDs. The lesson to other women: end any participation in the public, political and social spheres and stay home under male surveillance. By early 2008, only 20 percent of primary and secondary students countrywide were female; the rest were prisoners in their homes. Houzan Mahmoud, who has risked her life to organize a petition against the introduction of Islamic law in Kurdistan, summed up the impact of the war: "If before there were one dictator persecuting people, now almost everyone is persecuting women."
I was living under the three wars, 1980, 1991 and 2003. I know what it means for the people. The worst impact of all the wars is on poor people. Since 2003, we had the Sectarian Violence -- how that has displaced people! They leave their homes, structures fall, corruption, violence, many diseases. Cancers are increasing because of the prohibited weapons they used during the war.
I live in east Baghdad. Sadr City has 40 percent of the population, close to 2 million, mostly poor. Fifteen or twenty people, living in a small area, these are small houses, many members of an extended family living in one house.
Fran Kelly: Manal Omar is an activist and scholar working at the US Institute of Peace in America. She lived in Iraq from 2003 to 2005 and wrote a book about her experiences called Barefoot in Baghdad. Manal Omar is in Australia this week. Manal, welcome to ABC Radio National Breakfast.
Manal Omar: Thank you, thank you for having me.
Fran Kelly: And happy International Women's Day.
Manal Omar: Thank you. Likewise.
Fran Kelly: Talking about women in Iraq, Manal, has democracy in Iraq delivered better outcomes for women there?
Manal Omar: Well the jury's still out on what the improvement for women will look like. Iraq has a very strong legacy of women's rights. If you look at the 40s and the 50s, it's something that Iraqi women are very proud of. In 2003, Iraqi women were talking about how they were going to leap forward and ways that they were going to reclaim that legacy of women's rights but unfortunately it has panned out quite like that. They're still struggling and unfortunately they're in a situation of just trying to maintain the status quo. And I'm cautiously optimistic that they'll be able to reclaim that legacy But it's been a very difficult path.
Fran Kelly: And what about improvement in terms of -- clear improvement that you can measure -- women's representation in the Parliament or in the top echelons of that Parliament in Iraq?
Manal Omar: That's a great question. You do have a quota so 25% of the Parliament are women and they are emerging over the last few government formations as being very strong, powerful women that are articulating not only the issues for women but for youth and other important issues that are important to the country as a whole.
Fran Kelly: Well is it true to say that though, in the recent Ministry there were no women ministers?
Manal Omar: That's right and --
Fran Kelly: That's a change isn't it?
Manal Omar: It is a change. In the last Iraq government formation there were no women that were no women that were appointed. And you know, I think it had more to do with the fact that when you're negotiating and looking at the political process it's often that leaders of the political parties who are almost always men that come out an take the seats. And so it wasn't necessarily targeting women but it's a very typical situation where women and in my book, I call it the negotiating chip where they're negotiated away and become assets during these times.
Fran Kelly: Tell me a little more about that. What do you mean the negotiating chip?
Manal Omar: I mean most often a lot of the political parties might not just be against women's rights or anti-women, but they're thinking about their own political interests. And when you're negotiating whether it's with tribal leaders or with the heads of politcal parties and in the case of Iraq religious leaders, what tends to fall through the cracks are women because no one wants to have their position filled by a woman they're going to have the head of the tribe or the head of the political party come and take the seat. And unfortunately and consistently the people who pay the price are the women representatives.
March 2nd, the US Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing to address the differences between the law the Congress passed to aid veterans and their caregivers and the meager and miserly way the VA intended to 'follow' it. The hearing was covered in that day's snapshot and Kat covered it in "Burr promises VA 'one hell of a fight'" and Ava covered it at Trina's site with "The VA still can't get it together." Leadership of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and the House Veterans Affairs Committee have written US President Barack Obama to ask him to prevent the VA from distorting the law Congress passed which would prevent many veterans and their caregivers from receiving the help Congress said they deserved. This is the letter the leadership of the Veterans Affairs Committee -- both houses -- sent Barack:
March 8, 2011 The President The White House Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President: We are writing regarding the family caregivers assistance program established in Public Law 111-163, the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010, which you signed into law on May 5, 2010. To date, implementation of this program is significantly behind the schedule mandated in law. The statutory deadline for the full implementation of this program was January 30, 2011. Our concerns were raised with you about this previously, and after conversations with members of your senior staff, we understand that you are directing your Administration to get this program back on track such that services should commence early this summer.
We ask that you direct the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Office of Management and Budget to implement the necessary interim-final regulations for this program within 60 days of the date of this letter. We also ask that you direct OMB to ensure that the regulations and other elements of the program's implementation comply with the specific eligibility criteria that are set out in the law. VA's reluctance to work with Congress and veterans advocates has led to a situation where caregivers remain unclear if they will receive the support Congress intended for them.
Further delay of this program hurts veterans and caregivers in need of these critical benefits and services. Further, limiting eligibility to arbitrary and stringent criteria, contrary to the intent of the law, creates undue hardship for veterans and family caregivers meant to be helped by the new program. Instruction and training in the provision of care, respite, technical assistance, counseling, and a living stipend for those who are forced to leave their jobs or work fewer hours to provide care to their loved ones are all being withheld as some in VA attempt to stymie this program. VA and OMB need your leadership to implement this program.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Chairman, Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL 1st), Chairman, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), Ranking Member, Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee
Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA 51st), Ranking Member, House Veterans' Affairs Committee