Tuesday, December 6, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, the UN Security Council discusses Camp Ashraf, Barbara Walters lands an interview with a news maker, Senators Patty Murray and Richard Burr demand an investigation into the VA wait time for mental care, and more.
SRSG Martin Kobler: Let me start at the outset by condemning in the strongest possible terms yesterday's atrocious, terrorist attacks on Ashura pilgrims which killed dozens and injured many more. Mr. Ambassador, my condolences go to the families of the victims. The Iraqi religious and ethnic diversity is the ultimate strength of the country. This diversity is at the heart of the country's effort to establish a peaceful, prosperous and all-inclusive society.
It wasn't a good start. S'hi'ites are the dominant group in Iraq -- both in terms of controlling the govnerment and in terms of sheer numbers. So Kobler looked like a little kiss ass sucking up to the butt of power. It would have taken one sentence to note the Friday assault on Iraqi Christians. But he didn't.
Today, UPI quotes the Iraqi Minorities Council's vice chair Louis Climis explaining, "The sad fact that minrorities still need to camouflage their identity implies they are often ignored or discriminated in public life." And they note that Minority Rights Group International has determined as many "as 4,000 Christian families fled Baghdad" in the last thirteen months. Though many of the more than one million Iraqi Christians have fled the country since the start of the war, a significant number have moved to the Kurdistan Regional Government's three provinces which is thought to be 'safer' Iraq and more welcoming. As noted in yesterday's snapshot, religious minorities were targeted there as well on Friday. Catholic Culture explains it this way, "Following an imam's sermon -- described as 'vitriolic' by AsiaNews -- Islamist protestors destroyed dozens of liquor stores and other property owned by Christians in Zakho, a city of 200,000 in northern Iraq. The violence then spread to surrounding towns."
Damaris Kremida (Christian News Today) adds, "After mullah Mala Ismail Osman Sindi's sermon claiming there was moral corruption in massage parlors in the northern town of Zakho on Friday (Dec. 2), a group of young men attacked and burned shops in the town, most of them Christian-owned. The businesses included liquor stores, hotels, a beauty salon and a massage parlor, according to Ankawa News." Hevidar Ahmed and Ahmed Iminki (Rudaw) interviewed Mala Ismail Osman Sindi who denies doing any inciting and insists all he did was talk "about massage parlors" and "I only said that instead of massage parlors, people should build mosques." However, they also interview someone attending the service who states that the message preached got the response of angry cry for destruction and Sindi affirms that one person did shout out during the service but states he handled that. An observer in Zakho states, "After the Friday sermon, a large number of people gathered in front of the massage parlor, attacked and set it on fire. Later on, they stormed liquor stores and women's hair salons." City officials states 20 liquor stores, 3 hotels, 1 woman's hair salon and a massage parlor were set on fire while Sumel officials state "four liquor stores were burnt in their town."
IRIN notes, "While violence in 2011 is slightly lower than in 2010, [Minority Rights Group International's Chris] Chapman said, there have been several attacks on churches; an attack on a Turkmen political party; repeated attacks on members of the Shabak, Yezidi and Mandaean minorities, including kidnappings and murders, according to local NGOs; and continued targeting of shops providing goods or services deemed un-Islamic, including liquor stores owned by Christians and Yezidis, according to USCIRF[US Commission on International Religious Freedom]."
It takes a special kind of insanity to insist that religious and ethnic diversity are the strength of the country and refuse to acknowledge attacks on that diversity. Again, the dominant population is Shi'ite. Alsumaria TV reported yesterday:
Iraqi Yazidi citizens in Dahuk Province, 450 km northern Baghdad, are concerned about the situation and its accelerated implications in the province as well as in some areas of Kurdistan Region following some sectarian attacks on alcohol shops and bars in Dahuk Province. Yazidis began guarding their territories on their own, while the Directorate of Yazidi affairs called security forces to take strict measures to protect citizens. "The compound residents fear the same attacks that took place last night in Zakho and Samil regions," mayor of Khanik Al Yazidi Compound Kiran Ido told Alsumarianews. "Since last night, about 400 men are guarding the compound in anticipation of any attack," Ido added. "The compound's residents fear to be targeted," Ido affirmed calling concerned authorities to "take action towards fixing this unusual situation." The worries of Yazidis and other minorities in the Kurdish part of Iraq following Friday's incidents are justified," some observers said. "These incidents threaten peace in this region known for its ethnic diversity especially after the latest incidents which Christians considered as targeting them since they are the biggest traders of alcohol in the region," observers added.
The slogan is "This is your UN" but when they're forgotten and ignored, it may be very difficult for Iraqi Christians and Yazidis (among other groups) to feel that way.
Kobler spoke of spending a great deal of time on the issue of Camp Ashraf and this issue was the one he most emphasized.
Background, Camp Ashraf houses a group of Iranian dissidents (approximately 3,500 people). Iranian dissidents were welcomed to Iraq by Saddam Hussein in 1986 and he gave them Camp Ashraf and six other parcels that they could utilize. In 2003, the US invaded Iraq.The US government had the US military lead negotiations with the residents of Camp Ashraf. The US government wanted the residents to disarm and the US promised protections to the point that US actions turned the residents of Camp Ashraf into protected person under the Geneva Conventions. As 2008 drew to a close, the Bush administration was given assurances from the Iraqi government that they would protect the residents. Yet Nouri al-Maliki ordered the camp attacked twice. July 28, 2009 Nouri launched an attack (while then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was on the ground in Iraq). In a report released this summer entitled "Iraqi government must respect and protect rights of Camp Ashraf residents," Amnesty International described this assault, "Barely a month later, on 28-29 July 2009, Iraqi security forces stormed into the camp; at least nine residents were killed and many more were injured. Thirty-six residents who were detained were allegedly tortured and beaten. They were eventually released on 7 October 2009; by then they were in poor health after going on hunger strike." April 8th of this year Nouri again ordered an assault on Camp Ashraf (then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was again on the ground in Iraq when the assault took place). Amnesty International described the assault this way, "Earlier this year, on 8 April, Iraqi troops took up positions within the camp using excessive, including lethal, force against residents who tried to resist them. Troops used live ammunition and by the end of the operation some 36 residents, including eight women, were dead and more than 300 others had been wounded. Following international and other protests, the Iraqi government announced that it had appointed a committee to investigate the attack and the killings; however, as on other occasions when the government has announced investigations into allegations of serious human rights violations by its forces, the authorities have yet to disclose the outcome, prompting questions whether any investigation was, in fact, carried out." Nouri al-Maliki is seen as close to the government in Tehran. They have made it clear that they want the dissidents out of Iraq and returned to Iran -- where they would face trial at best, torture most likely. Nouri has announced he will be closing Camp Ashraf at the end of this year. UK MP Brian Binley (Huffington Post) writes, "As things are evolving and if Maliki gets away with his plan to impose the deadline, just as the Christmas and New Year holidays are in full swing, the prospect is that the world will sit and watch while men and women are killed in cold blood or mutilated, crushed by US-supplied armoured personal carriers."
We're going to include two more excerpts of Kobler's testimony. Both because this is a serious issue and because it matters what he said. Many people following this issue don't want summaries -- which might or might not be accurate -- they want the actual words.
SRSG Martin Kobler: The government of Iraq has asked the United Nations to facilitate a peaceful and durable solution to this matter and we are making an exhaustive effort to do so. We believe that such a solution is possible. However, the positions of the government of Iraq and the Camp Ashraf residents and their leaderships still remain far apart. The government of Iraq repeatedly emphasized its intention to close down the camp by December 31st this year and to transfer its residents to another location until countries are found outside Iraq where they can reside. This deadline is fast approaching. The position of Camp Ashraf residents to remain in the Camp until countries are found to receive them -- is to remain in the Camp until countries are found to receive them. They still do not agree to be transferred to a new location outside the camp without the protection of Blue Helmets [a phrase referring to UN peace keeping forces]. I'm pleased by the progress made so far and by the government of Iraq's agreement to give UNHCR the role it has under its mandate.
Yes, that's how sad it was. The UN envoy is thanking the Iraqi government for following the mandate. We'll note another section and I'm not sure what he's attempting to say in the last sentence of the quote (possibly no "lasting solution" in Iraq?).
SRSG Martin Kobler: The Secretary-General has spoken personally to Mr. Maliki to appeal for flexibility and for full support for the UN's efforts to faciliate this peaceful solution the government has assured that it seeks. He has asked me to attach the highest priority to this case. In trying to facilitate a solution, we are emphasizing a number of important points. First, that lives are at stake and must be protected. The government has a responsibility to ensure the safety, security and welfare of the residents. Any forced action that results in bloodshed or loss of lives would be both ill-advised and unacceptable. Second, we believe that any workable solution must be acceptable to both the government of Iraq and to the residents of Camp Ashraf. The solution must respect Iraqi soveriegnty on the one hand and applicable international humanitarian human rights and refugee law on the other hand. Third, a solution must also respect the principle of nonrefoulement. No resident of Camp Ashraf should be returned to his or her home country without consent. While some progess has been made in our latest discussions in Baghdad, many obstacles remain to arriving at a plan that would meet the concerns and requirements of all concerned. Subject to all conditions being met, UNHCR is ready to begin verification and interviews for the purpose of refugee status determination; however, the process will take time to complete and clearly the situation cannot be fully resolved before December 31st. I, therefore, appeal to the government of Iraq to extend this deadline in order to permit adequate time and space for a solution to be found. I also appeal to the leadership and residents of Camp Ashraf to engage constructively and with an open mind to this process. They should give serious consideration to the proposals under discussion. There should be no provocation or violence from their side nor a challenge to Iraqi sovereignty. Finally I appeal to the international community to do more to help. A lasting solution cannot be found and as governments step forward and offer to accept Camp Ashraf residents to resettle in their countries.
Ashraf residents have shown all kinds of flexibility; they have agreed to the European Parliament's plan to be transferred to third countries, despite their obvious right to remain in Ashraf, where they have lived for a quarter century. But they cannot allow themselves to be dispersed and forcibly displaced inside Iraq -- and they surely cannot volunteer to be slaughtered. If their displacement is ordered, they will have no option but to resist. Who would agree to be forced from his home to be killed in a quite dark alley? Time is running out for the United States, United Nations and European Union to take a stand.
The US State Dept was supposed to be reviewing the issue of the status -- official designation by the government of the United States -- of the MEK. At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month, it was noted that the Congress was still waiting to see what the State Dept was going to decide. It would be very embarrassing for the foot dragging State Dept if other countries claimed they couldn't take in the residents because the US considered them a terrorist group.
Staying with the US and Iraqi government relationship, Bob Cox (Fort Worth Star-Telegram) announces, "It's finally official: Iraq is getting F-16s. On Monday, the Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin Aeronautics an $835 million contract to supply the Iraqi government with 18 F-16 fighter jets plus equipment, continued logistics and other support." Similarly, Guy Norris (Aviation Week) writes, "The long-running saga of selling F-16s to Iraq has come to an end with Lockheed Martin winning an $835 million foreign military sales contract to provide 18 aircraft." And there's the order and potential new orders. UPI notes, "Iraq wants to make a deal with the United States for another 18 Lockheed Martin F-16 multi-role fighters to expand its fledgling air force as the U.S. military withdrawal nears completion." Right now, you might want to remember an interview AFP's W.G. Dunlop did and realize what a US official was saying. Hint, more purchases means more 'trainers.'
Charley Keyes: Also a new topic. Please, on Iraq, the security situation, particularly as the drawdown of U.S. military forces continues and the buildup of the contractor force for the State Department, have diplomatic activities been curtailed amidst concerns over security? And can you just bring us up to date where we are in that security transfer?
State Dept Spokesperson Mark C. Toner: Sure. I wouldn't say that our diplomatic activities have been curtailed in any way. I do know there was a Warden Message. I know that's not what they're called anymore -- Alert to Americans talking about a kidnapping, so that may be where some of that reporting came from -- a kidnapping threat, rather -- kidnapping threat. Thank you, Matt -- that -- where some of those reports came from. Those things obviously are very common there, and we issue warnings, or alerts, rather, as we get them. I mean, speaking more broadly --
Charley Keyes: Just before you go on --
Mark C. Toner: Yeah.
[???]: -- the date of that was December 2nd, right?
Mark C. Toner: Correct. I think, though, that's right. Anyway, to get back to your question about the transition in general, we're looking at – I mean, this is a very broad-based transition. In terms of personnel and numbers, I think our overall diplomatic presence in 2012 will be about 15- to 16,000 people. And that's going to include, obviously diplomats, business and development experts, security assistance staff, law enforcement officers, commercial, financial, agricultural professionals from a number of U.S. agencies. And that's on track. So the size of our core mission is about the size of – that you'd – of other large country missions. But obviously in Iraq, there are security concerns, and that's going to mean an expansion of security personnel. And again, we're – some of these contractors are in place. Some of them are going to be expanded. I don't have any real hard numbers to give you with regard to extra security personnel at this time.
Charley Keyes: But not divulging any operational details --
Mark C. Toner: Yeah.
Charley Keyes: : -- but is it possible to say those 5- or 6- or 7,000 security contractors are in place or will be in place by New Year's Eve?
Mark C. Toner: I think we can confidently say that there'll be a sufficient security presence as provided by contractors in place for the transition.
Staying with the government, Al Rafidayn notes Nouri al-Maliki's Cabinet did mange to finally complete their fiscal year 2012 budget (FY 2012 started October 1, 2010) of $100 billion. Khalid al-Ansary (Bloomberg News) adds, "The budget is based on an oil price of $85 a barrel and is smaller than the $112 billion spending plan discussed by the Cabinet in September, which was based on an oil price of $90 a barrel, Dabbagh said by phone from Baghdad. The deficit will be about 16 trillion dinars ($14 billion), he said." While the Cabinet continues to move slowly, Aram Roston (Daily Beast) points to a new development:
Ahmad Chalabi and Ayad Allawi, two rival Iraqi opposition politicians who were instrumental in pushing the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, are setting aside their differences for the time being to try to create a formidable counterforce to Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, according to Iraqi and American officials. [. . .] Those familiar with the current maneuverings by Chalabi and Allawi say their budding alliance is momentous, especially given the circumstances. "The system has come full circle," said one former CIA official who knows both Allawi and Chalabi, and who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Historical opposition figures are working together against another tyrannical government in Baghdad. It just drips with irony."
And more criticism comes from one of Nouri's allies. Al Mada reports that Moqtada al-Sadr's political bloc is criticizing the current system noting it is gridlock and that little is accomplished. Moqtada is calling for Saudi Arabia not to execute three Iraqis. This as Al Rafidayn notes that the Iraqi government has announced that Tariq Aziz will be executed next year. And while all it took for the US press to declare Nouri a target of an assassination attempt was for his spokesperson and Nouri to offer conflicting stories, the Iraqi press has more skepticism and, in fact, Ahmed Abdul-Jabbar Abdullah (Dar Addustour) looks back at last week and notes that Osamaal-Nujaifi was the target of Monday's bombing (not Nouri).
In other news Al Sabaah reports that Iraqi vice president Tariq al-Hashimi has accused the Parliament of violating the Constitution by ignoring the request of Salahuddin Province to have their desire to become semi-autonomous forwarded to the Electoral Commission. He notes that the decision of what Salahuddin should do is up to the people -- per the Constitution, a vote of the province's residents will determine what happens next. Related, Rania El Gamel (Reuters) reports the province of Basra is making noises about wanting more control and more say (especially on oil) and may follow Salahuddin's lead in demanding to go semi-autonomous. (Currently only 3 of Iraq's 18 provinces are semi-autonomous -- the three make up the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq.)
In today's reported violence, Reuters notes a Tal Afar rocket attack on the Kurdistan Democratic Party headquarters, a Baquba roadside bombing claimed the life of 1 police officer and left another injured, a Mosul roadside bombing injured one person and a Kirkuk mortar attack claimed one life and left eight people injured.
Bashar al-Assad is the president of Syria. He is a newsmaker. Barbara Walters (ABC News) has interviewed him on developments in and around his country:
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assadsat down with ABC News Anchor Barbara Walters for his first exclusive on-camera interview with an American journalist since the uprising in Syria began last March. Walters' no-holds-barred interview with President Al-Assad in Damascus comes as he is under unprecedented international pressure to step down and stands accused by the Arab League, the United Nations (UN), and human rights groups of gross and systematic human rights violations.
The interview will air across ABC platforms on Wednesday, December 7, first on ABCNews.com and Yahoo! News' Newsmakersseries (6:00 am ET), then on "Good Morning America" (7:00 am ET), "The View" (11:00 am ET) and "World News with Diane Sawyer" (6:30 pm ET). "Nightline" will air a Special Edition: "Barbara Walters in Syria: Assad Speaks" devoting full program to Walters' report from inside Syria (11:35 pm ET). Portions of the interview will also be available on ABC News Radio and ABC NewsOne.
Though forgotten by some today, Barbara Walters was a trailblazer for women in TV journalism -- and not because she interviewed Diana Ross or Barbra Streisdan (though she did) but because she interviewed the news makers and the Middle East leaders were often her focus in the 1970s. The interview should be of great interest and some of President Bashar al-Assad's responses to Barbara Walters have already been denounced by the US State Dept (see today's press briefing).
Iraq intends to be impartial in this chaos due to its new reconstruction process. Iraq's impartiality to the embargoing decision of Arab League to Syria will make Iran's attack to Syria more difficult and prevent gonig to the war with Iran. Because Iraq has Access demand of energy in contrast with its energy resources. Largest energy companies of the World (including Turkey) invest in Iraq. ABD, Turkey, England and European countries shall endeavour to prevent Iraq from a probable war and protect their investments. This proves that Iraq will have a strategic situation perspectively. Turkey is the key country of these geopolitic and strategic plans. In opinion, Turkey is expected to be coordinator country in new world order. Yet, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has declared in 2010 that he was the Co-chair of Greater Middle East Initiative. Turkey is a model for Islamic countries which have energy resources in particular, on the ground that its close relationship with eastern countries, democratic and secular construction despite its Islamic nature, its role as terminal for energy transportation as well as its agricultural and water resources.
Kuwait borders Iraq from the south-east. AP notes that Kuwait's Emir, Sheik Sabah al-Ahmad al-Saah, has "dissolved parliament." CNN adds, "The dissolution of parliament comes a week after al-Sabah accepted the resignations of the former prime minister and the cabinet. Former Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah said 'negative practices' of a minority of members of Parliament made progress impossible."
Lastly, Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Her office notes:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Matt McAlvanah (Murray) - (202) 224-2834 Tuesday, December 6th, 2011 David Ward (Burr) -- (202) 228-1616
Sens. Murray, Burr Ask VA Inspector General to Launch Investigation into Mental Health Care Wait Times
As veterans continue to take their own lives at unprecedented rates, top Democrat and Republican on Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee call for inquiry after evidence of long wait times for appointments, questions over bookkeeping practices, and dissatisfaction from frontline health care providers surface at Senate hearings
(Washington, D.C.) -- Today, U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Richard Burr (R-NC), the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, asked the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Inspector General to begin a formal audit of mental health care wait times at the VA. The call for action comes after a series of Senate hearings raised questions around the time it takes for veterans to receive an initial appointment and whether VA facilities are accurately reporting mental health care accessibility.
"We write to request that your office conduct an audit of how accurately wait times for mental health services are recorded for both the initial visits and the follow-up appointments and determine if wait time data VA collects represent an accurate depiction of veterans' ability to access those services," the Senators wrote. "In addition, we ask that your office evaluate whether VA is accurately and completely reporting the data they collect."
The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee has held two hearings this year on VA mental health accessibility. At the first hearing on July 14th the Committee heard the first-hand stories of two service members, who even after attempting to take their own lives, had appointments postponed and difficulties cutting through the red tape in order to get care. Then, just last week, the Committee heard from a VA psychologist and mental health care coordinator who testified about delays in providing mental health care treatment, including care for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). That hearing also raised questions on whether VA providers where using techniques to ensure initial mental health care appointments fall within the VA's required 14 day window, without providing true access to care at those appointments. A survey of VA mental health providers requested by Senator Murray showed dramatically different results from the waiting time data that VA reports.
Senator Murray also called VA's Inspector General, George Opfer to reiterate the importance of this investigation and the high priority she places on attaining accurate and complete mental health care wait time data from the VA. At the Committee hearing last week, the VA witnesses said the Department would cooperate fully with the investigation requested by Senators Murray and Burr.
The full text of the Senators' letter follows:
December 6, 2011
The Honorable George J. Opfer Inspector General Department of Veterans Affairs 801 I Street, NW Washington, D.C. 20001
Dear Mr. Opfer,
We continue to hear from veterans about long wait times for VA mental health services. For that reason, the Committee held a hearing last week to discuss wait times and access to mental health care. While we understand that VA is in the midst of implementing new actions which build on the continuing transformation of mental health services to improve veterans' access to care, the Committee cannot properly evaluate the implementation unless provided with accurate information.
We write to request that your office conduct an audit of how accurately wait times for mental health services are recorded for both the initial visits and the follow-up appointments and determine if wait time data VA collects represent an accurate depiction of the veterans' ability to access those services. In addition, we ask that your office evaluate whether VA is accurately and completely reporting the data they collect. We have many questions about the overall implementation of mental health services at VA, but the most important is whether or not veterans can access the mental health care they need in a timely manner. Our request would build upon your previous work regarding wait lists for mental health care. At the Committee's recent hearing we requested that the Department cooperate fully with this audit, and they have agreed to do so.
Thank you for your prompt attention to this important request. We appreciate your work to ensure our nation's veterans are provided high quality care and timely services at VA and look forward to your report.