Wednesday, April 13, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, the US government declares no region of Iraq safe, Barack Obama wants to cut costs but not wars, a study on Iraqi refugees is presented at a conference in Honolulu, US Senator Bill Nelson fights for the rights of spouses and children of service members who've passed away, and more.
Obama's speech on the deficit on Wednesday was a flop. He proposed to end no wars, make no serious cuts to the military, REDUCE corporate taxes, tax no estates or investments, raise no taxes on any billionaires, and give an unelected commission the power to slash Medicare.
Obama began by blaming tax cuts, wars, and healthcare:
"[A]fter Democrats and Republicans committed to fiscal discipline during the 1990s, we lost our way in the decade that followed. We increased spending dramatically for two wars and an expensive prescription drug program -- but we didn't pay for any of this new spending. Instead, we made the problem worse with trillions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts -- tax cuts that went to every millionaire and billionaire in the country; tax cuts that will force us to borrow an average of $500 billion every year over the next decade. To give you an idea of how much damage this caused to our national checkbook, consider this: in the last decade, if we had simply found a way to pay for the tax cuts and the prescription drug benefit, our deficit would currently be at low historical levels in the coming years."
Notice that the possibility of ending wars got dropped from that last sentence.
Actually, Barack, let's look to the US State Dept which issued a warning yesterday that began, "The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks inherent in travel to Iraq and recommends against all but essential travel to the country given the dangerous security situation. Civilian air and road travel within Iraq remains dangerous. This Travel Warning replaces the Travel Warning dated November 5, 2010, to update information and to remind U.S. citizens of ongoing security concerns for U.S. citizens in Iraq, including kidnapping and terrorist violence." And at a time when Europe continues forced returns, note that the alert insists "no region should be considered safe from dangerous conditions"
And the war drags on. Jane Arraf (Christian Science Monitor) speaks with US military brass in Iraq and observes "a growing concern by American officials that the Iraqi governmetn is closing the door on a new aggreement for US troops in Iraq past the end of this year. The comments to a small group of reporters also signaled a concern that a militarily weak Iraq could be another destabilizing factor in what has become a volatile region." Brendan McGarry (Bloomberg News) reports from the Penatgon today and quotes Army Chief of Staff Gen Martin Dempsey stating, "It would certainly be in our interest to see Iraq remain on its current path and becom even more stable. As a member of the national security team, that would be my advice." US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spent several days in Iraq last week pressing the case for the US military staying on the ground in Iraq past December 31, 2011. In what appears to be an attempt at arm twising by the US White House, Anwar Faruqi (AFP) quotes an unnamed US miliary official stating, "If we left -- and this is the health warning we would give to anybody -- be careful about assuming that we will come running back to put out the fire if we don't have an agreement. Rudaw adds:
Chief of Staff of Kurdistan's president said today that the extension of the presence of American troops in Iraq is directly linked to the federal government of Iraq and the agreement between Baghdad and Washington.
This statement by the President's Chief of Staff Fuad Hussein was in reference to the question of American troops being stationed in the Kurdistan Region after the US withdrawal.
"American troops are here only based on the agreement between Iraq and the United States and this agreement will expire by the end of this year." said Fuad Hussein. "If Iraq wants these troops to stay longer, it will have to sign a new agreement."
Fuad Hussein said that only the Iraqi state can sign international agreements and that the Kurdistan Region can do nothing in this regard.
Jane Arraf explains, "If there is no new status of forces agreement, the United States could still negotiate bilateral pacts for specific training and assistance missions but those, too, would be expected to come under the scrutiny of Iraqi cabinet."
The government of Iraq remains frozen. Nouri al-Maliki still has yet to fill the security ministries. His 100 day clock (to show real reform) is ticking away and the political blocs appear to be unraveling. Dar Addustour reports that Ayad Allawi, Adel Abdul Mahdi and Ahmed Chalabi met yesterday to firm up plans for the shadow government. Ayas Hossam Acommok (Al Mada) adds that a source close to the planning notes this was the first meeting between the three leaders to address the shadow government and how to exercise oversight of the Parliament. The article also notes that Nouri al-Maliki, who had previously made noises about forming a 'majority government' (kicking out the winners) is now publicly stating he's dropped the plan (which, knowing Nouri's record, doesn't mean he actually has dropped it)and that he now insists a wide partnership of all the parties is needed. Al Rafidayn notes that Parliament resumed sessions yesterday (after yet another week long break) and that Hisham Darraji is seen as the favorite among the nominees for Minister of Defense. David Ali (Al Mada) observes that Iraq is still without a Minister of Defense or Minister of Interior and that Nouri is left attempting to assure Iraqis that this isn't a problem and that the matter is being resolved. Ali notes that some political observers are not so sure that Nouri will be able to reassure the Iraqi people and an opinion that popular favorite Hashim Darraji is being penalized (by Nouri) due to his congratulations to Ayad Allawi on Iraqiya's win in the elections. (Nouri was State Of Law which came in second in the national eelections.) Aswat al-Iraq reports that the political process was the topic of a discussion today between KRG President Massoud Barzani and Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujiefi. While Nouri's spokesperson released a statement on a Tuesday meet-up, "The meeting, attended by the Chairman of Baghdad's Provincial Council, Kamel al-Zaidy, Baghdad Governor Salah Abdul-Razzaq, the Chariman of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate, Moaya al-Lamy and a large number of journalists, as weel as the Chairman of the Free Youth Gathering, Jalal al-Shahmany, discussed the demands of Baghdad citizens and means to present necessary services for them." The statement was released shortly before another development took place. AFP reports that Baghdad security forces have announced that protests in the capital from now on will only be allowed in one of three football stadiums. The excuse being offered is complaints from shop keepers about traffic issues but the reality is this is yet another effort to hide the protests away. Academics are among those participating in the protests. They are also among those again targeted. UPI reports that the Iraqi class that returned or that managed to hang on during the so-called "brain drain" is once again finding itself targeted by unknown assailants. This was common from 2004 through 2008 but said to have tapered off with 'improved security'.
As the security posts have gone unfilled, Nouri has handled them by himself as a 'temporary' Minister. Some have seen this as an effort to consolidate the powers of the post into the post of prime minister. Others see it as further proof that Nouri lacks the ability to lead and pull the country together. What most can agree on is that while the three posts have remained vacant, the violence has increased in Iraq.
Press TV reports a southern Iraq US military base was attacked with mortars today and that this was "the third such attack on US forces in Iraq over the past week. On Sunday, three rockets targeted a US camp in Diwaniyah, a city south of the capital Baghdad." One of the keys to the reduction in violence in Iraq -- according to Congressional testimony provided repeatedly by Gen David Petraeus and then-US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker in April 2008 -- was the Sahwa. These were largely Sunni fighters (but, according to Petraeus, they weren't all Sunni) who were paid by the US government not to attack military equipment or soldiers (that was the order Petraues used repeatedly when testifying before Congress). Dropping back to the April 8, 2008 snapshot when the two appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee:
In his opening remarks, Petraues explained of the "Awakening" Council (aka "Sons of Iraq," et al) that it was a good thing "there are now over 91,000 Sons of Iraq -- Shia as well as Sunni -- under contract to help Coalition and Iraqi Forces protect their neighborhoods and secure infrastructure and roads. These volunteers have contributed significantly in various areas, and the savings in vehicles not lost because of reduced violence -- not to mention the priceless lives saved -- have far outweighed the cost of their monthly contracts."
In that same hearing, Crocker declared, "What has been achieved is substantial, but it is also reversible." The reverse may have taken place as Sahwa ("Awakening," "Sons Of Iraq") were taken off the US payroll with the expectation that Nouri would pick up the costs. When, a year after the April 2008 hearing, Nouri finally did, he frequently didn't pay the Sahwa. They were also frequently targeted by his forces (on his orders). Many have spoken to the press in the last two years explaining how it's been made clear that Sahwa are not wanted by the government out of Baghdad. Today Aswat al-Iraq reports four Sahwa were arrested and one ("a young man") put a knoose aroun dhis neck and hanged himself. That took place in Kirkuk which was also the site for a car bombing today which claimed 1 life and left sixteen people injured and a Baquba roadside bombing wounded the "Director of the al-Saadiya district and three of his companions." Reuters notes a Kirkuk roadside bombing injured Lt Col Najat Hassan, a Baghdad bombing left three people injured and, dropping back to last night, a Ramadi attack resulted in 1 shop keeper being murdered.
Lara Jakes (AP) reports that at least 17 injured residents of Camp Ashraf were "forcibly removed from their hospital beds" by Iraqi forces and left at Camp Ashraf. Jakes adds, "Three women were among the patients, many of whom were bandaged, according to the doctor and an ambulance driver who spoke on condition of anonymity because that were not authorized to speak to the media." Following the US invasion, the US made these MEK residents of Camp Ashraf -- Iranian refuees who had been in Iraq for decades -- surrender weapons and also put them under US protection. They also extracted a 'promise' from Nouri that he would not move against them. July 28, 2009 the world saw what Nouri's word was actually worth. Since that Nouri-ordered assault in which at least 11 residents died, he's continued to bully the residents. Iran's Fars News Agency reported last week that the Iraqi military denied allegations that it entered the camp and assaulted residents. Specifically, Camp Ashraf residents state, "The forces of Iraq's Fifth Division invaded Camp Ashraf with columns of armored vehicles, occupying areas inside the camp, since midnight on Saturday." Friday saw another attack which the Iraqi government again denied. Yesterday AP's Lara Jakes reported that the Iraqi Parliament voted today to close down the camp. AP reported that last Friday, at a UN Security Council meeting, Iraq's Ambassador to the UN, Hamid al-Bayati, declared that Iraq would "not force" the residents back to Iran "but it will encourage them to go to a third country." Alsumaria TV reported yesterday that Ali al-Dbbagh -- aka Nouri's mouth -- has declared, "The council of ministers has committed to implement an earlier decision about disganding the terrorist group People's Mujahedeen of Iran, by the end of this year at the latest, and the necessity of getting it out of Iraq." Alsumaria reports today that MP Safiya al-Suhail has declared turning the dissients over "to Iran does not go along with Iraq constitution and laws and the respect of human and individual rights regardless the fact that these refugees are in Iraq as a result of a political decision of the former regime." He states that due to "the humanitarian cases inside the camp, Iraq is bound in front of the international community to provide the needed for the members of this organization to get asylum countries."
More refugees. Iraqi refugees account for a large number of the world's refugees. UPI notes that that John Hopkins University's Dr. Farrah Mateen has observed the number of Iraqi refugees is growing as she noted the study she worked on which "presents the first results of a large national pilot project by the United Nations to monitor neurological disease in displaced people." The study of Iraqi refugees was presented today in Honolulu at the 63rd Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology. Dr. Mateen explains the study in this video.
Dr. Farrah Mateen: So the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees recognizes more than 40 million refugees in the world today and there are currently more than 30 active, armed conflicts and we know very little about neurological disease in humanitarian emergencies and in times of humanitarian crisis. The war in Iraq actually began more than eight years ago now, March 20, 2003. And the UNHCR recognizes more than 3.5 million persons of concern of Iraqi origin and currently there are more than 2 million refugees who live outside of Iraq. The United States as well as western Europe, Australia and Canada are major recipients of Iraqi refugees today and continue to be. Iraqi refugees often have to seek humanitarian assistance in the countries where they flee to. And its been found over recent years that developing country paradigms for understanding neurological disorders in refugee situations have been inadequate. And so we previously knew very little about neurological disease. It was limited to mortality outbreaks involving meninga coli outbreaks and polio outbreaks but very little was known about the more chronic disorders that refugees faced. So the Refugee Assistance Information System, or RAIS, is a pilot program run by the UNHCR which began January 1, 2010 in the kingdom of Jordan because Jordan has just over 6 million people overall and it's estimated there are about 450,000 Iraqi refugees there right now. 36953 are registered with UNHCR and 7,642 are in receipt of humanitarian and health assistance. So the objective of this study was to look specifically amongst those people receiving health and humanitarian assistance, what is their burden of neurological disorders and what specifically are those disorders? So we found that there are 1,295 refugees over the course of one year who had neurological diagnoses and RAIS is a program involving more than 100 centers country wide in Jordan with more than 25 partner organizations. The most common neurological diagnoses in this group were back pain -- which was 378 individuals, headache -- 171, epilepsy -- 164, nerve, root and plexus disorders 126, cervical disc disorders -- 93, dizziness 90, cerebral vascular listed as ICD, other cerebral vascular disorders -- 55, intervertebral disc disease, migraine and cerebral palsy followed that. In the whole data set, there are 70% of individuals from Baghdad, 78% were adults. The age range was less than one. So, at the time of birth, to 103 years old. The total data set had a median age of 37 years and 49% were male. Along people with neurological disorders, the median age was slightly higher, 43 yrs, 46% female and a high number of disabled 10%. Notably the UN in general feels that 10% of the world's population is disabled. [. . . ] Among people with neurological disorders, 4.97% -- approximately 5% -- self-reported a history of torture. This compares to 3.1% among people without neurological diseases. So that's a relative risk of 1.47. Neurologists were involved with a very small fraction of all cases of neurological disease among Iraqi refugees, 177 cases in total, which is about 14%, a very small number. Following neurologists, neurosurgeons, physical therapists and orthopedic surgeons were the next most involved medical specialists. Amongst the people with neurological disorders, 763 required medications which is also a very high number. So some of the conclusons of the study are Iraqi refugees -- I just want to emphasize how high some of the numbers are and how this is a large data set. It's the first of its kind. But neurological disorders are highly present in this population. So they account for -- I think it's 17% of all people seeking humanitarian assistance in this study. This is basically a marker of health care utilization. This is not a prevalent study. It's also not necessarily an assessment of health care needs which we would assume would be much igher. This is health care utilization. The strengths of this study are that it's an active, country wide, national surveillance system. RAIS is expected to expand throughout the Middle East and throughout northern Africa as conflict continues in the regions. So this is an initial goal for this system. But I want to recognize here that there is a potentially higher burden of neurological disorders. This is a country of first-asylum for many people. The existing studies -- they have been from third country resettlements and have had very small numbers and so there is a potentially high need for neurological care for Iraqi refugees, it's a global problem and it's a long term problem as well.
For the study, researchers used a UN database in Jordan. A total of 1,295 refugees were reported to have a brain or nervous system disorder, or four percent of all registered Iraqi refugees. Of those, 10 percent were disabled.
The study found that five percent of refugees with brain or nervous system disorders reported a history of torture compared to 3.1 percent of those without a diagnosed brain or nervous system disorder. The most common diagnoses were epilepsy (30 percent), back pain (27 percent) and headache (nearly 12 percent).
Neurologists were involved in 14 percent, or 179, of these cases and health education was available to about 11 percent of refugees with brain disorders.
"Our study highlights the great need for neurological health services, health education regarding neurological disorders and long-term disease management for refugees from war-torn countries," said Mateen.
The study was supported by the 2010 American Academy of Neurology Foundation Practice Research Training Fellowship grant.
The American Academy of Neurology, an association of more than 22,500 neurologists and neuroscience professionals, is dedicated to promoting the highest quality patient-centered neurologic care. A neurologist is a doctor with specialized training in diagnosing, treating and managing disorders of the brain and nervous system such as Alzheimer's disease, stroke, migraine, multiple sclerosis, brain injury, epilepsy and Parkinson's disease. For more information about the American Academy of Neurology and its upcoming Annual Meeting, visit http://www.aan.com.
If at first you don't succeed, try, try, again. That's what eleven lawmakers did today when they re-introduced longstanding legislation in the Senate aimed at giving some 55,000 military widows and widowers an improvement in benefits.
U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL), James Inhofe (R-OK), Mark Begich (D-AK), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), David Vitter (R-LA), Mark Udall (D-CO), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and John Kerry (D-MA) filed legislation to end the practice of offsetting survivor benefits paid by the Defense Department by the dollar amount of a benefit provided by the VA -- in cases where someone qualifies for both.
More specifically, veterans who die from a service injury or who were disabled before death are entitled to benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Some of these vets had also purchased or qualified for life insurance offered by the Defense Department's Survivor Benefit Plan. But, due to a quirk in federal law, the survivors of vets who chose to buy that insurance have had the insurance benefit greatly reduced -- or, offset by the VA benefit -- by as much as $1,200 a month.
The legislation does a second thing. It allows certain spouses to keep lump sum insurance payments they'd previously received from the military.
In January, the St. Petersburg Times reported the military was forcing a Brooksville, Florida woman, Freda Green, to pay back $41,000 from a defense department life insurance policy she received upon the death of her husband in 2003, simply because she got remarried. The move to recover the money resulted from federal court ruling that said the military hadn't followed a confusing section of federal law when it failed to award the full amount of both VA and defense department survivor benefits to spouses who remarried after age 57. But, instead of restoring full benefits to Ms. Green following the ruling, the military demanded she begin repaying the money they'd sent her years ago.
What the statement didn't note was that Senator Nelson has repeatedly introduced this measure for the last decade. When you have to introduce a measure again, it's because it didn't pass or was altered in the process. This afternoon, Senator Bill Nelson appeared before the US Senate Armed Services' Subcommittee on Personnel, chaired by Senator Jim Webb, to make the case for the legislation again.
Senator Bill Nelson: I want to come and speak about this legislation that you accurately noted that we have filed every year about the inequity in the treatment of military survivors. There's a long standing problem in our military survivor benefits system. And the requirement for a dollar to dollar reduction in the survivor benefit plan annuity by the amount -- and offset, by the amount of the dependency and indemnity compensation received by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It's that inequity that I want to address and that I have addressed each year that I have been here. And over the years we have chipped away at it. But the basic inequity is still there. Obviously we are in a tough fiscal environment. And obviously there are many worthy pieces of legislation to be funded. So I realize that in this environment we are going to have to find an offset. Now what has typically happened, we always pass this in the Senate and it goes to the conference and, because of the cost of this legislation, it's dropped in conference or it is whittled away at in a minor way. Interestingly, the cost is dropping as the survivors increasingly diminish in number. The cost of this, accurarely projected is-is dropping. But nevertheless I am here to say to your Subcomittee, Mr. Chairman, that I am committed to finding an offset. Now I don't want to tell you what the offset ought to be because what I learned from last week's experience is that you can be very creative in finding offsets and new sources of revenue as we found in the negotiations that went on between the President and the Majority Leader [Harry Reid] and the Speaker of the House last week. This benefit plan is an optional program for military retirees offered by the Department of Defense. And the military retirees pay a premium out of their retirement pay to ensure that their survivors will have income upon their death. It's reasonably priced insurance. But from the public marketplace, that's not necessarily available reasonably priced. Usually because there are service connected disabilities and health issues. And so SBP is a way for retirees to provide income insurance for their survivors, their family, and it pays them 55% of their pay. SBP is also paid to survivors when the service member dies on active duty. So it's an insurance program. On the flip side, dependency and indemnity compensation -- DIC -- is a survivor benefit administered by the Veterans Administration. And when military service cause the service member's death -- either due to service connected illness or disability or active duty death -- survivors are entitled to monthly compensation of just over $1100 a month from the VA. Well of the 270,000 survivors receiving Survivors Benefit Plan, about 54,000 of them are subject to the offset. And according to the Defense Accurarey, 31,000 survivors SBP is completely offset by DIC, that the survivor receives no SBP and must live on that $1100 alone. Retirees bought into the Survivors Benefit Plan in good faith, they paid good money. These military families planned for the future and the government offsets it. And there are other complications to the existing offset including a court decision in '09 which really is strange. It requires surviving widows to remarry after age of 57 in order to eliminate the offset. I can't figure that one out. And obviously, this shouldn't be tolerated. So, Mr. Chairman, I had a little bit of experience in insurance before I came to the Senate as the elected Insurance Commissioner of Florida and this offset is troubling. When somebody buys an insurance policy and there's another government program over here called Disability Indemnity and I know of no purchased annuity that would deny payment based on the receipt of a different payment. Now you recall, you are not only a student of history, Mr. Chairman, you are a historian and you are a great writer and you certainly recall those immortal words of President Lincoln in his second inaugural address in which he said, "[. . .] finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan." And that encapsulates what I've been trying to say here and have been trying to say for a decade. To honor these service members, the government should take care of these veterans, their widows and their orphans. And since '05, the Senate has supported this almost every year and then we go in the provision being offset when we go into conference. We made some steps in the right direction and I hope that we can find mandatory spending offsets to pay for this legislation which is always the reason that is given to ax it. CBO informs me that it will cost roughtly $6.6 billion to completely eliminate the offset over ten years. When I started out on this a decade ago the cost was upwards of $12 and 15 billion for a ten year period. I would ask you all in this Subcommittee to consider that as we put the legislation together for the authorization bill. And I would just conclude, Mr. Chairman, by saying that as the president in his second inauagrual address, in the midst of the Civil War, said, 'To take care of him, his orphan and his widow is the cost of war.' One of the costs of war is not only what we buy in the way of equipment and salaries, but a cost of war is taking care of our veterans and their survivors. And I humbly submit this to the Committee for your consideration.