Wednesday, September 21, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, Moqtada al-Sadr accuses Nouri of building a dictatorship, Hoshyar Zebari makes Nouri's s**t list, Zebari also says US troops will remain in Iraq in 2012 as trainers, US Senator Jon Tester calls on Barack to remove all US troops (beyond those that guard the embassy) from Iraq at the end of this year, the Veterans Affair Committees in the House and Senate hold a joint-hearing, and more.
"As many of you know," declared Senator Patty Murray today, "my father was a World War II disabled veteran who was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds he suffered during the invasion of Okinawa. I grew up watching his struggles with the knowledge that he had sacrificed for our nation and that he asked very little in return. Then later in my life -- during college -- I worked as an intern in the Seattle VA hospital, providing physical therapy to Vietnam veterans who came home with the visible and invisible wounds of war. Those personal experiences have given me not only a very real understanding of the consequences of sending our service members into combat, but also a sense of the obligation we have to care for them when they return." Murray was speaking this morning in DC at a joint-hearing held by the Senate and House's Veterans Affairs Committees. Murray is Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, US House Rep Jeff Miller is the Chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. The primary witness appearing before them was the American Legion's National Commander Fang Wong. Also appearing were the American Legion's Tim Tetz, Michael Helm, Verna Jones and Daniel Dellinger. Helm addressed proposed post office closings when asked (and Ava will be cover that Trina's site tonight).
Wong testified that the American Legion strongly opposes the recommendation that premiums for TRICARE be increased. He reminded that US President Barack Obama spoke to the American Legion last month at their 93rd Annual National Convention and swore "that the budget would not be balanced on the backs of veterans." Wong noted that this promise would be broken if TRICARE premiums were increased -- as the proposal Barack presented to the nation on Monday recommended -- for military retirees because "military retirees are veterans."
In an exchange with US House Rep Timothy Walz, Wong called out reports and reporters who referred to "medical and retirement benefits earned by military personnel as social welfare. I resent that. We're not here looking for handouts. We earned those rights and you folks should protect those rights." On employment, he noted that the government says 'Hire veterans, hire veterans!' to private industry; however, approximately 80% of all veterans who now work in the federal government work can be found in the Dept of Defense, the Dept of Veterans Affairs or Homeland Security.
US House Rep Silvestre Reyes noted the "tough budget times" the US is in "but like you [Wong], I feel we should take care of the veterans first and foremost" and he then noted he had "signed on" to a piece of legislation on veterans identification cards, a piece of legislation he felt had good intent, but now he's found out that "there's a proposal to charge the veteran for that identification card. I don't agree with that." Wong went with a joke instead of addressing the issue. He had many laughing out loud (proposing Congress mandate that all veterans join the American Legion). But maybe addressing the issue, even only in a "I personally think . . ." manner would have done a better job of representing veterans' interest?
From the hearing, we'll excerpt this section.
Senate Committee Chair Patty Murray: I really appreciate your attention and focus on the employment of our returning heroes and I know Chairman Miller and I are both working on this. I wanted to ask you, you mentioned mandatory TAP and of course seemless transition. Do you hear a lot from your membership about the lack of certifcations service members receive? That their resumes don't show the true breadth of their skills they have learned in the military?
Fang Wong: Madame Chairman, I was fortunate to serve on the Department of Labor Advisory Committee for a couple of years and at that particular period of time TAP was one of our major concerns. We actually conducted field trips by the committee members to various military installations to see how it worked. And what we find -- this is a couple of years back -- at that time was that TAPS really needs some standardization and repackaging because we find that depending on what installation and service that you attend, they - they do different things. The - the instructions presented were really outdated and the things that they stressed mostly, perhaps it's not really close to what the service member really needs. There were some service that required mandatory -- I believe the Marines Corps is the only service that requires mandatory training. A lot of the other posts? I went to Fort [. . ] the Army post and basically it's open, you should come; however, if you're not there, it's okay. That type of atmosphere. The committee I served with, we spent a lot of time studying that and we make a lot of recommendations to the Secretary and I guess to Congress that we should do something with TAP and get some standardization because we find out from a lot of success stories of service members that we have opportunity to interview and talk to that TAP, if used properly, actually helped them prepare. The thing about that is when we take in inductees and volunteers into the service now days, DoD and the government, we, the tax payers, spend millions and millions of dollars to train them to be a professional soldier. And when the time for them to change the uniform and go back to the civilian world, perhaps we're not spending nearly as [much] time or attention to prepare them back to the civilian world where they could seamlessly go back to a normal life. Of course, you know anybody that ever served in the service, especially those great men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, nothing will ever again be normal when they go back to their world. But we should do what we can to prepare them and make sure that they get the benefit. And a lot of time, with TAP, I beliee we were not providing the opportunity or providing the tools where they could easily equate what they performed, what they were trained in the military as to what's out there in the civilian world for them. And the civilians license and agency, the certification agency, they're throwing -- I'm not saying they're bad but they're throwing road blocks up there and saying that unless you are getting this piece of paper, you're not qualified. You know, when we -- when we entrust 18, 19, 20 year-old young men and woman that volunteer to serve for our freedom, we entrust them operating machines, planes, tanks that cost millions, million, millions dollar, how can we tell them that you're not qualifed? We have to understand one thing, when the government trained this particular individaul, he or she, to me, is the most disciplined, most learnable most qualified individual because one thing that we need to understand: They love this country. That's why they serve. And we owe it to them that we do everything we can to make sure they will have a good job, they will have a good career.
Senate Committee Chair Patty Murray: Thank you, I really appreciate that. I have a number of other questions but we have a lot of members here so I'm going to turn it over to Chairman Miller.
House Committee Chair Jeff Miller: If I could just follow on with the TAP issue, Friday I was the reviewing official at Paris Island, the end of 13 grueling weeks I'm sure for some young Marines, very grueling, right? It's my belief and I want to know if you share the same belief and you talked about TAP needign to be revamped and changed, 13 weeks to make a Marine or the other boot camps, I mean I don't -- I don't think that just having them in classroom for a day or two or however long the TAP program is enough. Do you think there's a way that we can convince DoD to give a substantial amount of time at the end of the service and I know that service member is focused on really one thing and that is reuniting with their family, getting on with their life. But this TAP program is so important to that individual to prepare them for that transition. And I'd like to know what you and the Legion think about the possibility of making it a not only mandatory but a longer program?
Fang Wong: Mr. Chairman, maybe we're talking about two separate issues here. We were looking at TAP. Tap basically, they were provided to members separating from the service. And most of the time it happens at an installation. And you're right, the members will go there for maybe a week and TAP is maybe part of that one week transistion, training or orientation. What we learned, again, I refer back to the administriaton or the committee, and what we learned in a lot of institutions, they will provide the TAP training a lot sooner anybody who wants can sign up for it as then that way they can get the basic information. And then, as they're getting close to the separation day or the retirement day, they will be reinvited back. By that time, they will have the time in between to learn or figure out what he really needs or what she really needs, and able to ask some more direct questions or recieve more direct help from the instructor. And that when we interviewed some of the recently separated members, they indicated that helps a lot whereas you cram in one day, half a day and the end and the service members have a lot more on their mind to worry about that they don't have time to sit down and allow that to sink in and realize how important in preparing the resume and preparing himself or herself to be interviewed and that may not be the top priority of them. So give them an opportunity to come back. And so we do it sooner and then give them the opportunity to come back, I think that would be more helpful. The other scenario I can see is like when we are moving soldiers back from the war zone, a lot of them, we let them go home real quick. And they may still have service obligation left, but we release them and there's different opinions about how do we separate them? We ask questions: Are you okay, do feel anything different? Things like that. And we have to bear in mind, when you're young, you serve and you're away from your loved ones for a long tif that is the only gate or opportunity that stands between you and your family, I'll bet 99% of the time, that soldier will say, "No, no, no. I just want to be with my family." And so I don't know how to fix it. I don't know whether we should keep them a little bit longer or make it mandatory but that is something we need to look forward to.
At the end of the hearing, Mark Begich used his time to note that Alaska has 77,000 veterans which he stated was the highest per capita of any state.
Turning to Iraq where there's a new president, Tareq al-Hashimi. Actually, Dar Addustour explains, the Sunni vice president is actually the acting president while President Jalal Talabani is in New York attending the United Nations General Assembly. Though the president may have (temporarily) changed, Nouri and Political Stalemate II remain the same.
Starting with Nouri and his petty nature, yesterday's snapshot noted that MP Sabah al-Saadi was denying there was an arrest warrant sworn out against him and he was stating that Nouri al-Maliki was targeting him, that Nouri was deliberately keeping the three security ministries vacant in an attempt to seize more power and that Nouri was willing "to sell Iraq to maintain his hold on power." The situation continues to develop. Al Rafidayn reports that the Parliament received an arrest warrant for al-Saadi yesterday and the charges are threatening national sovereignty and integrity." They also remind that al-Saadi previously lodged the accusation that Nouri had forced Judge Rahim al-Ugeily out as Chair of the Integrity Commission. These are not separate stories. Nouri filed a complaint against him for those charges. Making those charges, Nouri insists, threatened national sovereignty and integrity. Nouri is demanding that parliamentary immunity be lifted.
The story doesn't end there. al-Saadi held a press conference. Al Mada reports that the press conference revolved around a document which revealed a plan to kill a number of members of Parliament "including me personally" as well as journalists and tribal chiefs. Numerous people have received the document including the Ministry of the Interior and security officials in various provinces; however, no one informed al-Saadi of the threat against his life. Dar Addustour notes that any such vote on lifting al-Saadi's immunity has been pushed back to Monday. Among those criticizing Nouri's move? Moqtada al-Sadr. Aswat al-Iraq quotes al-Sadr stating that the warrant is part of "building a new dictatorship" and "we suggest to Premier Maliki to stop these moves for the Iraqi reputation, because political action is build on partnership, not demotion."
Last Tuesday, the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper quoted Yassin Majeed, a close aide to Al-Maliki, as saying that the Iraqi prime minister had threatened to fire Zebari "if he does not improve his ministry's performance."
In addition to accusations of mismanagement and a lack of inter-agency communication and coordination, critics say that the Foreign Ministry is plagued by corruption, cronyism and nepotism.
Iraqi media outlets thrive on reports of corruption inside the ministry and at Iraqi embassies abroad, the latter having acted as channels for hundreds of millions of dollars intended for rehabilitation work in Iraq.
Little has been done to investigate the allegations.
Meanwhile Hossam Acommok (Al Mada) reports that KRG President Massoud Barzani has declared that a few words and airy promises are not enough to resolve the conflict between the KRG and the centeral government out of Baghdad and that he sent a letter to Nouri al-Maliki informing him of that. The disputed issues remain Nouri al-Maliki's failure to implement the Erbil Agreement, Nouri's proposed oil and gas bill and the failure to implement Article 140 of the Constitution which resolves the disputed Kirkuk region.
Still on the topic of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the government of Turkey is boasting of another round of carpet bombing today on northern Iraq. AP reports that in addition to carpet bombing the region, the government is using Heron drones to track movement (those drones supplied by the Israeli government) and intelligence passed on by the US government which the US government obtained via "U.S.-operated Predator drones". World Bulletin notes the Turkish boast of hitting "152 targets" since the bombings began on August 17th. The Times of Oman reports, "Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has submitted a list of requests for help from the United States to counter Kurdish separatists, Anatolia news agency said Wednesday." And Erdogan's quoted stating his belief that it will be no problem for Turkey to get those predator drones from the US it requested last week.
Turning to other violence, Reuters notes a Baghdad roadside bombing left two people injured, a Baghdad sticky bombing which claimed the life of 1 police officer, an attack on a Baghdad cell phone store in which the owner was killed, an attack on a Baghdad supermarket in which the owner was killed, a Udhaim roadside bombing which claimed the lives of 2 police officers, a Kirkuk sticky bombing which injured two people, a Baaj home invasion which killed a police officer and a Balad Ruz mass grave with 27 corpses.
A senior Maliki aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the internal discussions, said the premier believed Iraq needed a minimal number of American troops to remain here past the end of the year. But the aide said Maliki was unlikely to make a formal request unless he has clearer political support from the country's other major parties. So far, only the main Kurdish bloc has been willing to publicly call for extending the American troop presence, with Massoud Barzani, the head of the quasi-independent Kurdish Regional Government, warning a few days ago that a full withdrawal risked triggering a new "civil war" here. American officials say the Iraqis seem to be playing out the clock. The officials said the U.S. hasn't discussed any specific troop numbers with the Iraqis, and cautioned that the discussions between the two countries have yet to even address basic issues like what specific missions would be entrusted to the holdover American troops.
Lara Jakes (AP) reports Hussain al-Shahristani, a deputy prime minister for energy (and so trusted by Nouri that he made him acting Minister of Electricity after Nouri forced out the Minister), declared that until Iraq passes its budget, they can't take up the issue of "how many troops would be asked to stay, or what exactly they will be doing". Aswat al-Iraq adds that US Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey and Iraq's Shi'ite vice president, Khaudair al-Khuza'i, spoke today about withdrawal and training needs ofr Iraq's forces. But Hoshyar Zebair tells Alistair Lyon (Reuters) today, "Definitely we as a country need these trainer and experts to help and support the Iraqi security capabilities." He states a training agreement will happen but an extension of the SOFA will not. Even if he's wrong, Michael Tennant (New American) adds:
The last remaining troops are scheduled to leave Iraq by December 31, though the Obama administration has been working hard to ensure that some residual force remains -- anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 troops. But while the official military presence is declining, the number of embassy personnel is set to double to 16,000, about half of whom will be security forces. The State Department will have 5,000 security contractors comprising a private army under the command of the Secretary of State. Meanwhile, the Office of Security Cooperation will get 3,000 armed guards to protect the office's personnel as they enrich U.S. defense contractors to the tune of "an estimated $13 billion in pending U.S. arms sales, including tanks, squadrons of attack helicopters and 36 F-16s," Froomkin reports.
The United States will also have two consulates in Iraq besides the Baghdad embassy, and it plans to have over 1,000 staffers at each consulate. Froomkin argues that "the diplomatic corps" has already taken a "substantial" hit from the staffing of the embassy; adding 2,000 more personnel at the consulates cannot help matters any. Then again, a government whose slogan is "You're either with us or against us" -- a situation that has changed little since Obama took office -- hardly has much use for diplomats, who are trained to negotiate. Anyone can deliver an ultimatum.
In the US, Dennis Bragg (KPAX) reports Senator Jon Tester delivered a statement on the Senate floor yesterday calling for the White House to stick to the Status Of Forces Agreement and withdraw all US troops at the end of this year. We'll note this press release from the senator's office:
Tester calls for removal of U.S. troops from Iraq by year's end Senator: 'Let's end this war for good' by December 31 as planned
Tuesday, September 20, 2011 (U.S. SENATE) -- U.S. Senator Jon Tester today delivered a clear message to Congress and President Obama: America's troops should leave Iraq by December 31 of this year as planned. Speaking on the floor of the Senate, Tester praised the hundreds of thousands of American troops who "never faltered" and "provided security and Democracy to a nation that had never known it." "Iraq now has the tools it needs to secure its people and its economy," Tester said. "Iraq's new leaders must solve their problems for their own people. Keeping thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq would needlessly put them in more danger. It would cost American taxpayers more money. And it would further distract us from our core national security objectives of protecting American citizens and further dismantling al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups." In a letter sent today to President Obama, Tester said U.S. troops "should not be in Iraq one minute more than is necessary." The Status of Forces Agreement signed by President Bush and the Iraqi government calls for withdrawing Operation New Dawn troops from Iraq by year's end. Although there has been no official announcement, recent news reports suggest the possibility of keeping several thousand U.S. troops in Iraq past the December 31 deadline. "We cannot afford moving the goal post," Tester told his colleagues today.
"Across Montana, and this nation, people are saying: Come home now." Tester said U.S. Marines should continue to guard America's embassies, and that the U.S. should maintain a "strong diplomatic presence" in Iraq. Tester noted that between his first visit to Iraq in 2007 and his second visit earlier this year, Iraq's leaders were "finally moving forward after too many wasted years, too many wasted dollars and too many lives lost." Tester said the progress is largely due to the fact that "Iraqis were told in no uncertain terms that the United States was leaving," which "galvanized Iraqi politicians to take control of their own country." "Since 2003, our nation has sent hundreds of thousands of other young men and women to fight in Iraq," Tester said. "We have done so at an enormous cost: 4,474 Americans have given their lives. More than 32,000 have been wounded. And we can't put a number on those who suffer from injuries unseen." Tester also noted that "the price tag of this war that was put on our children" is approaching $1 trillion. Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, praised efforts to help Iraq veterans transition back to civilian life, such as the Montana National Guard's Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Program. "I will do my best to make sure we keep up our end of the bargain," Tester said. "Whether it's a college education, health care or compensation for an injury suffered on the field of battle, we will honor our commitment to our heroes."
Tester's floor speech appears below.
Tester's letter to President Obama is online HERE.
Floor Remarks U.S. Senator Jon Tester September 20, 2011
PREPARED FOR DELIVERY.
Mr. President, during a trip to Baghdad this past January, I had an opportunity to meet with several members of the Montana National Guard's 163rd Combined Arms Battalion. That day, I told them that I was proud of each and every one of them, from unit commander Lieutenant Colonel T.J. Hull and Sergeant Major John Wood on down the line. Through courageous service to our country, they were making tremendous sacrifices on our behalf. And they were representing the very best of Montana. This month, these folks have been coming back to Montana from their demobilizing station in Washington state. Today, I join their families, their friends and their neighbors in welcoming the last group of these citizen soldiers back to Montana. Job well done, soldiers. And thank you. For nearly a year, these 600 Montanans served in some of the harshest conditions imaginable -- escorting numerous convoys across dangerous terrain and conducting other critical security missions throughout Iraq. At one point over the last 12 months, this unit accounted for more than half of Montana's best and brightest serving overseas. They gave up the comforts of their families, their homes, and their communities to bring stability to a nation on the other side of the world. Through it all, they showed courage in difficult times. They remained strong. And they were always in our thoughts and prayers. Now that they're home, it is our duty to continue our support by providing the benefits, quality care and services they need as they transition back to their families, their jobs and their communities. Many Iraq veterans make that transition with success, coming home to good jobs and welcoming communities. But for others -- making that transition is no easy task. It's no secret that there is a potential for higher rates of substance abuse. Higher divorce rates. Higher unemployment rates. The effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury can impact entire families. Thankfully, veterans often look after each other. We should recognize the important role of America's Veterans' Service Organizations, and their willingness to help with that transition. Montana was one of the first states in the nation to adopt the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Program. It involves entire families of National Guard soldiers and airmen, preparing them for the changes that come before, during and after a deployment. The Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Program is a success. And I'm pleased that in the last Congress, my colleagues gave all states the resources to implement it. Furthermore, I will do my best to make sure we keep up our end of the bargain. Whether it's a college education, health care or compensation for an injury suffered on the field of battle, we will honor our commitment to our heroes. We make this promise to the men and women of the 163rd -- and to the Montanans who make up the many other units of the Montana National Guard that were deployed this year, and to the folks who are part of Montana's RED HORSE squadron now in Afghanistan. To our Reservists and to the folks serving in the active duty military today, we make the same commitment. Even as we make this commitment, many folks in Montana are wondering what should happen next in Iraq. Since 2003, our nation has sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to fight in Iraq. We have done so at an enormous cost: 4,474 Americans have given their lives. More than 32,000 have been wounded. And we can't put a number on those who suffer from injuries unseen. And let's not forget, the price tag of this war that was put on our children is quickly approaching $1 trillion. And then there's tens of billions of dollars in waste and fraud. Mr. President, the war in Iraq started with political leaders who had their own agenda. They went there looking for weapons that never existed. But through it all, the professionalism of our military never faltered. They provided security and democracy to a nation that had never known it. But for far too long, Iraqi politicians did nothing to secure their own future. I first went to Iraq in 2007 and returned there again this January. I was struck by how much had changed in those four years. Iraq was finally moving forward after too many wasted years, too many wasted dollars and too many lives lost. There are many reasons for the change. The improved security from our military and the training provided by our troops played a big role. But American diplomats and military leaders told me that the biggest reason for progress in Iraq was this: The Iraqis were told in no uncertain terms that the United States was leaving. Our military presence would end on December 31 of this year. That, Mr. President, was what galvanized Iraqi politicians to take control of their own country. Today, I am sending a letter to the President calling on him to stand by his commitment to pull all U.S. Operation New Dawn troops out of Iraq by the end of this year. We should bring the last of them home on schedule. U.S. Marines will still guard our embassies as they always have. And we will still maintain a strong diplomatic presence in Iraq. Despite this year's deadline, I know there's talk of possibly keeping a sizeable force of U.S. troops in Iraq into next year. If that's the case, it's not good enough. We cannot afford moving the goal post. Across Montana, and this nation, people are saying: Come home now. I know that sectarian violence in Iraq will continue. But we should not be asking American troops to referee a centuries-old civil war. That conflict is likely to continue into the distant future regardless of our presence. Iraq now has the tools it needs to secure its people and its economy. Iraq's new leaders must solve their problems for their own people. Keeping thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq would needlessly put them in more danger. It would cost American taxpayers more money. And it would further distract us from our core national security objectives of protecting American citizens and further dismantling al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups. That's where our focus needs to be. And that's why I'm saying: "Let's end this war for good." Mr. President, I yield the floor.