Wednesday, June 15, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, wheeling and dealing continues in Iraq, today was Press Day in Iraq, Robert Gates celebrated by getting bitchy with a US Senator in Congress today, USA Today takes a stand on veterans issues, and more.
"The Post remains one of just a few American newspapers regularly reporting from Iraq, and it's a distinction we take seriously," Ed O'Keefe (Washington Post) observes in his column noting he's volunteered for "a seven week assignment to serve as The Washington Post's correspondent in Iraq." When he arrives in Iraq later this week, he'll have missed Press Day which is today. Aswat al-Iraq notes this is the anniversary of al-Zawraa which was "the first Iraqi newspaper, issued during the Ottoman Rule in 1869," 142 years ago. (Trivia note, yesterday was another anniversary -- this one for the US Army.) Suha Sheikhly and Ines Tariq (Al Mada) observe that the creation of the newspaper all those years ago was a strong cultural indicator that Iraq was moving forward beyond tyranny. The paper was originally published once a week, each Tuesday, but quuickly moved to be published twice a week. twenty years later (February 13, 1889), the pubIRIN noted in 2006 that the paper was started in Baghdad. Back then, IRIN was explaining that "the Iraqi Journalists Association (IJA) called upon the government, multinational forces and the international community to offer protection to local and foreign journalists working in the war-torn country."
At the start of this month, Reporters Without Borders was noting, "Reporters and cameramen from local and international satellite TV stations were beaten and detained by the security forces while covering a demonstration in central Baghdad's Tahrir Square on 25 May. Biladi TV reporter Omar Abudl Al-Razak and cameraman Hassan Ghazi, Russia Al-Youm cameraman Hussein Ali Hussein and Ain news agency photographer Akeel Mohamed were repeatedly hit, their cameras were smashed, their mobile phones were seized and they were forced to leave the area. A unit of interior ministry special troops stormed the headquarters of local radio station Sawt Al-Nahda Al-Democratiya on 22 May after it broadcast a programme about the housing crisis and other difficulties being experienced by the population. Founded in April, the station has just filed an application for a licence. Its recording and transmitting equipment was seized."
CPJ had urged authorities to focus their efforts not on a special court but on solving attacks on the press, hundreds of which have been carried out with impunity. Of the 145 journalists killed in Iraq since 2003, for example, at least 93 were targeted for murder, CPJ research showed. Iraqi authorities have failed to bring a single individual to justice in these cases, making the country the worst worldwide on CPJ's Impunity Index, which calculates the number of unsolved journalists murders as a percentage of a nation's population.
Aswat al-Iraq quotes the Chair of the Press Division in the Media College of Baghdad University, Dr Hassan Kamel, "This anniversary is taking place amid the continuation of suffering by the Iraqi press, in its search for the truth, despite fact that the democratic transformations in the country had opened a broad gap for freedom."
Dar Addustour reports the Parliament ended their session yesterday with Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi presiding over a little over half of the people elected to Parliament. Today they're set to discuss the issue of mobile phone companies in Iraq and why so many Iraqis are suffering from bad phone service. Though some might see that as a minor issue, this is a big issue for many Iraqis. If basic services were sufficient in the country -- electricity, potable water, etc. -- cell phone problems would probably be the highest ranked personal issue for many after lack of jobs. Is it currently a bigger issue than security? No.
And Patrick Markey and Aref Mohammed (Reuters) report that US military helicopters were used today in Basra to fire "on suspected militia fighters" and that the US response "came after seven rockets were fired at U.S. and Iraqi forces stationed at Basra airport." At least one suspect was killed. Aswat al-Iraq notes that three people were wounded as a result of the helicopter fire. AFP adds, "Major General Eddy Spurgin, commander of US forces in the south, said that the helicopter had fired back because American troops retain the right to use weapons in self-defence under the terms of a 2008 security pact with Iraq." Basra was the location for a Monday attack on the police when by a suicide car bomber. UPI reports MP Uday Awad is blaming the US for the Monday attack. They quote him stating, "The occupation is responsible for the weakness of the security in Iraq, in an attempt to strengthen their presence in the country, contrary to the security agreement between Iraq and the U.S."
As those accusations were made today, Marwan Ibrahim (AFP) reports Nejmeddine Karim, Governor of Kirkuk, declared that the US military needs to remain in Iraq, "Keeping the US troops is important to protect the sky and borders of Iraq and to maintain the internal security of the country, because we are witnessing a large danger through the escalation of violence and the fear of sectarian violence." New Sabah pictures what might happen if US forces depart and offers that there is a great chance that local competition then turns into a fierce war with militias competing with one agother to win bragging rights.
Already the tensions between Iraqiya (political slate headed by Ayad Allawi) and Nouri's State of Law slate simmer. The Erbil Agreement was an agreement devised in Erbil (in the KRG) by various political actors in Iraq plus the US. Elections had taken place March 10, 2010. For nine months after the election, there was no progress. So in November 2010, a list of recommendations were agreed upon with the hopes that it would move the process forward. Nouri would get to be prime minister and a National Council for Strategic Polices would be created and Allawi would be named to head it.
Nouri got what he wanted. And then double-crossed everyone.
Allawi has stated that he will not take the post if the council is ever created. It was supposed to be created last November but Nouri didn't keep his word. Nouri also failed to propose a full Cabinet. Currently the security posts are empty: Minister of the Interior, Minister of National Security and Minister of Defense. Nouri is saying he's the temporary head but many are noting this has now lasted for over six months and it appears to be part of Nouri's power grab and an attempt for the Little Saddam to claim even more powers.
Fitting in with that theory is a new report from Aswat al-Iraq which informs that Hassan al-Sunaid ("an official close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki") declared yesterday that Allawi wasn't fit for the position and that it could go to . . . Jalal Talabani (President of Iraq) or . . . maybe . . . Nouri. For those who missed it, this council was supposed to be independent and to provide a check on the prime minister. Now Nouri's goons are arguing that Nouri can head it.
Nouri's leadership has been a very sick joke. In February, as protests in Iraq were starting to really get going, Nouri declared he needed 100 Days. Give him 100 Days and Iraq would see results. Joining him the stay-off-the-streets-don't-protest was Moqtada al-Sadr. June 7th, the 100 Days came to an end. A new poll by Aswat al-Iraq finds that 70% of their "readers believe that the 100-day time table did not achieve tangible progress in the services fields." Meanwhile New Sabah reports that the Sadrist bloc is insisting Nouri can't dare sideline them because he needs them too much. The article notes the meetings that have been taking place between Nouri, the Supreme Islamic Council and two major political parties in the KRG as well as Jalal Talabani's talks with Moqtada al-Sadr.
Marwan Ibrahim (AFP) observes, "Private security firm AKE Group said last week that attacks have been on the rise since the beginning of the year, with violent incidents averaging more than 10 a day in May, up from four to five a day in January." And Basra wasn't the only location for violence today. Reuters notes a Hilla bombing claimed 1 life and left nine people injured, a Rashad mortar attack left ten Iraqi troops injured, 2 Iraqi soldiers were shot dead at a Mosul checkpoint, 1 Iraqi soldier was shot dead at a Baghdad military checkpoint and a Baghdad roadside bombing injured "two street cleaners and another bomb wounded four people in the same area".
Last week, 6 US soldiers died in Iraq, this week 2 have died. One of the six from last week was Spc Robert Hartwick. WBNS (link has text and video) reports, "Hundreds of people lined the streets on Wednesday to honor a Hocking County soldier killed in Iraq. [. . .] As his body was returned home on Wednesday, residents turned out to pay their respects during a procession that included hundreds of motorcyclists, police officers and firefighters." NBC4's Donna Willis and AP note, "The combat medic's body came home Wednesday, and the community lined the streets of downtown Logan to pay their respects." ABC6 reports, "Hartwick grew up in Hocking County where he attended church at the Gibisonville Mt Olive United Methodist Church. Pastor John Williams told ABC6/Fox28 News' Chris Koeberl Thursday that he remembered Hartwick as a quiet boy who loved the outdoors. The quiet boy returned home to men, women and children standing side-by-side Wednesday, paying their respects to his duty and sacrifice." His funeral is Saturday at the Logan Church of the Nazarene, eleven in the morning.
Another of the six US soldiers killed in Iraq last week was Pfc Michael Olivieri. Thursday is the Homer Glen native's funeral (Homer Glen is a suburb of Chicago). The service will take place at Modell Funeral Homes which carries this obituary at their website:
PFC. Michael C. "Mikey" Olivieri U.S. Army 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, KS, passed away as a result of insurgent fire in Iraq on June 6, 2011. Cherished husband of Sharon Olivieri. Loving son of Michael A. and Jody Olivieri. Devoted brother of Abby (fiance Adam Brook), Ashley and Joe. Dearest grandson of Joseph J. and Adelaide Olivieri, Dorothy and the late Rolland Riegel. Son-in-law of Nyman and Theresa Beckman. Visitation Wed. 2 p.m. until time of evening service 7:30 p.m. at Modell Funeral Home, 12641 W. 143rd St., Homer Glen, where funeral services will be held on Thursday June 16th at 10 a.m. Interment Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, donations to the Homer Township Public Library in Michael's name to support a silent reading room appreciated. Michael enjoyed music, playing and singing in the band called the Moops. He was an avid Cubs and Bears fan. His sense of humor could bring laughter to all. 708-301-3595 or www.modellfh.com.
The Chicago Sun-Times notes, "Visitation will be from 2 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Modell Funeral Home, 12641 W. 143rd St. Funeral services will be held there at 10 a.m. Thursday. Interment will be at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery." And Michelle Mulins (Southtown Star) reports, "The Homer Glen Village Board on Tuesday night urged residents to turn out in large numbers and wave flags Thursday during the funeral procession for Army Pfc. Michael Olivieri, a resident who was killed last week in Iraq."
Today US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm Mike Mullen appeared before Congress. Both are outgoing. Mullen intends to leave this fall and Gates hopes to leave shortly President Barack Obama has nominated Leon Panetta for Gates' post. The confirmation hearing was last week, see "Iraq snapshot," "Brown and Collins ask Panetta," "Claire McCaskill" and "Senate Armed Service Committee Boneheads." This morning Gates told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense that he was making his final testimony before a Congressional committee adding, "And this time I mean it." Possibly in reference to his back and forth, in and out of appointed government positions? Or he might have been referring to the The Robert Gates Farewell Tour which has found him repeatedly declaring that he was making his last Congressional testimony . . . only to do so again and again and again. He declared, "Those stop loss in the Army are now over. There are no Army soldiers stop-loss." So in 2006, he promised it would be over the next year and it wasn't and the same year after year until this year. So it took him five years to do what he promised Congress would be accomplished in one.
Gates opening statement bore the finger prints of the White House (including key phrases). While striving for poetry in discussing the military, the remarks came off plodding and obvious. True, some of that may have been delivery and deliverer. Mullen managed to pull off what Gates failed at. But what stood out most as he read his prepared remarks was his assertion at the start -- not in the written testimony submitted to Congress before the hearing -- that the Fiscal Year 2012 Budget "fully funds current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq." No, it does not. It does not because it cannot. Fiscal Year 2012 kicks off October 1, 2011. Though there may be answers by then on what's going to happen in Iraq, there are no answers right now. Will the US military stay in Iraq (under the Defense Dept umbrella) beyond 2011? If so, that's not budgeted for. If not, the budget really doesn't include various contingencies regarding dates. Meaning if all but the troops being shoved under the State Dept's umbrella leave Iraq and take any necessary equipment with them, the leaving process, when it starts, how it's done, itself will dictate costs. At this point the White House hopes the SOFA gets extended. But they don't know it will. And no one knows the costs for Iraq in 2012. That includes Mullen and was established on The Late Show with David Letterman (CBS). Adm Mike Mullen, Chair of the Joint-Chiefs of Staff, was a guest on Monday night's show.
David Letterman: Tell us about troops coming home. Iraq? Up and functioning on its own? Not functioning on its own?
Adm Mike Mullen: Well Iraq's actually doing pretty well. We've still got 47,000 troops there -- that's from almost 200,000 a couple of years ago. We will continue to downsize that footprint. Right now, to zero -- based on the agreement we have with the Iraqis. Whether the Iraqis will ask us for some kind of small footprint in the future is to be determined here in the next few months.
He spoke matter of factly.."Whether the Iraqis will ask us for some kind of small footprint in the future is to be determined here in the next few months." And until you know the size of the "footprint," you can't really budget for it. No one wanted to make that point on the Committee -- Democrat or Republican. Iraq was barely even noted -- despite the fact that in the last 8 days, 8 US soldiers have died in Iraq.
Senator Patrick Leahy: I supported going into Afghanistan for the purpose of getting Osama bin Laden after 9-11. This Subcommittee and all of us here on this Appropriations Committee have been strongly supportive of that. I did not support the invasion of Iraq which distracted us from that goal. Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11. We'll be paying for this cost for years to come. We borrowed the money to go into that war -- something extraordinary thing in a war to borrow the money -- continue to borrow the money. At the same time, we gave a tax cut for anybody who makes as much as a member of Congress. So what we said was we'll let our children and our grandchildren pay for these two wars.
And that was pretty much it for Iraq from the Senate. If US troops don't get out of Iraq, be aware that we'll be hearing from Congress that 'we took our eye off the ball in Iraq to focus on Afghanistan -- even after bin Laden was killed!!!' We'll stay with Leahy for a second longer. If Howard Zinn were still alive, he'd grab the exchange for one of his history books (and probably quote from the exchange in at least one essay). What the transcript below won't provide you with is the nasty way in which Gates speak. Picture Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, specifically the Pepsi board room scene.
Senator Patrick Leahy: How long -- How long do we support governments that lie to us, when do we say enough is enough? Secretary Gates, I'll start with you.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: Well first of all I would say based on 27 years in the CIA and four-and-a-half years in this job, most governments lie to each other. That's the way business gets done.
Senator Patrick Leahy: Do they also arrest the people that help us --
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: Sometimes.
Senator Patrick Leahy: -- when they say they're our allies?
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: Sometimes.
Senator Patrick Leahy: Not often.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: And, uhm, sometimes they send people to spy on us. And they're our close allies. So --
Senator Patrick Leahy: And we give aid to them?
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: -- that's the real world that we deal with.
Leahy was referring to Afghanistan. Only. Sadly. You have to wonder if Congress gives a damn when the reports are about this reporter beat up or this NGO activists targeted or any of it at all. At any rate, they were discussing Afghanistan and when Gates leaves, he'll be taking his bitchy with him. (Leon Panetta does not have a history of bitchy. He has not been confirmed to the post but it's a rule of thumb that if you served in Congress, you're an easy confirmation vote. They don't vote against their own.) As Diane Sawyer and the others try to put this glow around Gates, they ignore his most prominent characteristic: His bitchy nature. And it emerged in the hearing and continued to build until, with all the snideness his prarie twang could muster, Gates said, of Afghanistan, "I'm not talking about a Vermont democracy." Leahy's no fool and rightly heard the insult in that remark and snapped, "Neither am I, Mr. Secretary, and you know that!" It was a rare moment of anger from Leahy who is not know for showing anger in run-of-the-mill hearings. (Gates made clear his disdain for Congress in an interview to NPR earlier this month.) As has been the case anytime the two of them appeared before Congress together, it was left to Mullen to try to restore order (and Gates did a nasty little look where he turned his face so far to the side that, for a moment, he looked like he might do a full-on, Linda Blair Exorcist head twist.)
Senator Lamar Alexander did note Iraq when asking about how much money other countries were paying for the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Gates insisted it wasn't the case with Libya but with the other two the US bore the bulk of the financial costs. Senator Patty Murray, Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, is on the Subcommittee and her office notes these comments:
(Washington, D.C.) -- Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tough questions regarding some of the all too often overlooked human costs of the ongoing war in Afghanistan during a hearing on the Fiscal Year 2012 budget request for the Department of Defense (DoD). Senator Murray also asked how these long-term costs are being factored into the decision to drawdown forces in Afghanistan. During the exchange Senator Murray expressed her strong belief that these costs of war, including the rising rate of suicide among veterans, the lack of access to much needed mental health care, and the increased number of tours of current service members, must be taken seriously by the Pentagon and the White House, particularly in decisions to bring troops home. "Many of these service members have sacrificed life and limb in Afghanistan and we as a country are going to be taking care of them and their families not just today, not just when they return home, but for a lifetime," Senator Murray said today.
Excerpts from the exchange and the full text of Senator Murray's questions below.
Secretary Gates, last Friday I visited the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and had an opportunity to talk to a number of our wounded warriors, their dedicated providers, and their caregivers. As you know well, many of these service members have sacrificed life and limb in Afghanistan and we as a country are going to be taking care of them and their families not just today, not just when they return home, but for a lifetime. As Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, I take this issue very seriously and I've been trying to draw attention to this all too often unseen human cost of the war in thinking about how we should consider that as part of our decision in any long-term conflict. I think you know, the major components of this long-term war include the fact that deaths from suicide among veterans and service members from this war are on par with combat deaths, many of our warriors are facing difficult challenges accessing needed mental health care when they return home, And that many of the service members serving in Afghanistan today are on their third, fourth, or even fifth tours. So, while we have talked a great deal about costs in terms of rebuilding projects, Afghan aid, and military resources -- I wanted to ask you today what you -- and the Pentagon -- consider to be the biggest costs of this war to our wounded warriors and their families -- particularly those costs that we will be paying for for a very long time and whether that is ever considered or factored in when you're making decisions about drawing down in Afghanistan?
Excerpts from Sec. Gates' response:
"I cannot say that decisions in terms of drawdowns or military strategy are made bearing in mind the costs of the soldiers, and the sailors, and the marines who suffer, it is on the minds of everybody who makes those decisions, but by the same token, it is the nature of war and it is frankly one of the reasons why, as I told an interviewer a couple of weeks ago, I feel I have become more conservative, more cautious, about when you use force because I've seen the consequences up front," said Sec. Gates. "The costs are exactly as you described, in lives that are shattered, in bodies that are shattered, and in minds that are shattered," said Sec. Gates. "So from our part, in addition to the VA, we have tried to make sure that these funds for these programs have been protected and will be protected in the future."
Excerpts from Adm. Mullen's response:
"Senator, first of all, I appreciate your leadership on this because it has to have a voice. I actually believe we are just beginning to understand this," said Adm. Mullen in response to Sen. Murray's questions. "Leaders have to continue to focus on 'what are these costs' and I thought you said it very well, it is to repay this debt for the rest of their lives and we need to stay with them so that we understand what that means." "There are time bombs set up that we know are out there, we just don't know when they're going to go off," Adm. Mullen continued. "The relationship that the Pentagon has with the VA and with communities throughout the country has got to get stronger." "These costs are longstanding, we don't understand them as well as we should… not just for our members, but also for our families, we see that time and time again. Our families have become almost as much a part of our readiness as anything else and it wasn't that way 10 or 15 years ago. Without them we would be nowhere in these wars," said Adm. Mullen.
On hearings, I still hope to note a Veterans Affairs Committee hearing before the week is over. But I was at the Subcommittee hearing above and winning a bet from a friend that Gates would get nasty and bitchy. No one ever reports on that and I'm beyond tired of the hagiography surrounding The Bob Gates Farewell Tour. I also think it says a great deal about how little Iraq is on the lawmakers' minds. Last night, the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley did find Pelley noting the 2 deaths announced yesterday -- 2 soldiers who died in Iraq on Monday and whose deaths were announced yesterday -- as the lead in to a report by David Martin on the toll the wars have taken on military spouses. Others? It'll wait until Sunday. But on hearings we may cover, a friend's passed a transcript of a hearing I did not attend over. I don't cover that committee, I don't care for the Chair. But I agreed to read over it and we may find something in there to use. (If we do cover it, I will note I was not present and I'm using a transcript -- which is supposed to be either already posted or will be posted online at the Committee's website by noon tomorrow.) We're juggling a number of things that need coverage and something's are getting placed on hold and something's there's just not going to be time for.
The GAO's report describes a dysfunctional security system and identifies 284 sexual assaults at 105 facilities in a three-and-a-half year span. The victims included men and women, employees and patients. Some were being treated for mental illness, substance abuse or post-traumatic stress -- people at their most vulnerable.
The only conclusion is that, despite their protestations, VA leaders -- like Pentagon and military academy officials before them -- haven't paid enough attention to sexual assaults in places under their jurisdiction.
While the VA's health care system is considered generally good, this latest scandal is just one in a series of failures that have beset the department over the years: Long waits for disability claims. Even longer waits for appeals. Lost or destroyed records. Maintenance problems in clinics. Dirty equipment used for colonoscopies. And now, sexual assaults.
Instead of continuing the hard work of organizing and protesting unjust wars, too many people took the election of politicians with "D"s after their name as their own Mission Accomplished. Instead of continuing direct action, too many were content voting for "their" team and calling it a day, never mind the policies those they voted into office continued once in power.
It's worth recounting just how Democrats have rewarded their antiwar supporters. In 2006, riding public anger over the war in Iraq to take back control of the House for the first time in a dozen years, Democrats had a mandate for change – and then turned around and consistently funded the war they claimed to oppose. The most congressional Democrats have done is offer a resolution requesting a "plan" for ending the war in Afghanistan, all the while dutifully approving the funds to fight it.
We know how Obama has governed after likewise cynically riding antiwar sentiment into the White House.
Once casting themselves as brave opponents of the warfare state, many Democrats have rejected their rhetorical support for peace just as thoroughly as their once-upon-a-time opposition to the Patriot Act. When Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich offered a measure condemning Obama's illegal, undeclared war in Libya and demanding a withdrawal of all U.S. forces within two weeks, he was joined by more Republicans than he was his fellow Democrats. Nancy Pelosi, channeling every right-winger during the Bush years, even claimed lawmakers who opposed the president's unilateral war policy would send the "wrong message" to the U.S.'s NATO allies. The former speaker of the House is seemingly more concerned about hurt feelings than dead civilians, taxpayer money or the Constitution.
Even the recent House vote to block the president from spending funds "in contravention of the War Powers Act" – meaning Libya – received more votes from Republicans than Democrats. Who says elections don't change anything?
Democratic voters who genuinely believe in peace should know that ending the U.S.'s addiction to war requires more than spending a few minutes in the ballot box. The only change voting has brought in recent years is the party approving the money for war and the name of the president requesting it.