Thursday, December 8, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, gridlock continues in Iraq, more remains of the fallen have been dumped in a landfill, and more.
Laura Meckler (Wall St. Journal) reports the White House has scheduled a speech Wednesday at Fort Bragg for US President Barack Obama. Because surely what America needs from Barack now is yet another speech? Because at Fort Bragg there's little chance of his being put on the spot about the continued high unemployment? Margaret Talev and Viola Gienger (Bloomberg News) explain the speech will take place two days after Barack meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the White House and, "President Barack Obamais focusing on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by year's end, even as his administration continues talks behind the scenes about the future American role there."
"We really don't know what's going to happen. But we do know this: We do know that we have done everything we can in the time that we -- that we have been here for the Iraqi security forces to make sure that they have a credible security forces to provide for the security, the internal security of their country."
Hossam Acommok (Al Mada) reports that Aziz Ugaili, National Alliance MP, is noting that over 26 security companies will remain in Iraq after December 31st and questioning the claim of US withdrawal while also expressing his fear that, in DC later this month, Nouri al-Maliki will sign an agreement with the US involving 'trainers.' Meanwhile Al Mada also reports that the Sadrist movement is declaring that the US remnants after December 31st will be fair targets and that the US is not planning to keep a small number of staff for the embassy the way other countries do. In addition, Al Mada reports that the UAE has offered their services in training Iraqi forces.
Iraq has a prominent visitor today. Bi Mingxin (Xinhua) reports, "Arab League (AL) chief Nabil al- Arabi arrived in Baghdad on an official visit to hold talks with Iraqi leaders over sanctions against Syria, an official at the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said Thursday." He's already met with Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. While the media is placing the emphasis of the meeting on a potential March Arab summit, that's a smokescreen. Regardless of whether the summit takes place in March (it was repeatedly postponed in 2010), the reality is that al-Arabi is visiting due to concern over Iraq's position regarding Syria. Dar Addustour noted al-Arabi is also scheduled to meet with President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi today while in Iraq. In addition, Al Sabaah adds that he's supposed to meet with unnamed Iraqi officials.
Today, while other Arab states have condemned Syria and called for the regime to step down, Iraq has demonstrated its support. Iraq has not called for Assad to relinquish power, but instead has advocated gradual reform. The Maliki government has made moves to strengthen its economic ties with Syria since before the violence broke out this year and has been strengthening those ties since. This past summer, Iraq hosted a tour of Syria's top government and business leaders, a visit that led to a new pact to increase bilateral trade. Iraq is now Syria's biggest trading partner.
The Iraqi government also supports Syria because it fears that if the Assad regime collapses, violence could spill over into Iraq and cause further instability. Sectarianism is another important reason: Maliki is a Shia Muslim who spent years in exile in Syria before returning to post-Saddam Iraq. Quite probably Maliki feels a sectarian affinity for Assad, a member of the Alawite sect of Shia Islam. Maliki and the Assad family both share a common fear of Sunni-led insurgencies.
Walters: But you have people who are against you who are protesting every day. It started with people marching with olive branches and with their children asking for more freedom, for freedom of press, for freedom of expression, and much of the country now, sir, is not supporting you, that's what these, that's what your crisis is about.
Assad: Yeah. That's why we had the reform started quickly, after the very beginning that you described as simple, so we didn't take the role, we didn't play the role of stubborn government, they say they need more freedom. We right away had new party laws, new media law, new election law, new local administration law, and we are revising our constitution now. Showing your opinion, whether you like somebody or doesn't like government or president or whoever, should be through the election, the ballot box, this is the only way.
Walters: If you have elections, will they be elections for president?
Assad: No, no, we are going to have first of all the local administration election this month...
Walters: Local administration, but what about the president?
Assad: Yeah, after that, we are going to have the parliamentarian election, which is the most important. Talking about presidential election, it's going to be in 2014, this is the...
Walters: People don't want to wait that long, till 2014.
Assad: Which people?
Walters: The people who are protesting.
Assad: How, how, how much, how many, are they majority or not, that's why you need, you need to wait first of all for the parliamentarian election, these election will tell you are you going to have majority or minority, then when you can think about presidential election, but not before, before that you don't have any indication, any clear indication.
Walters: In 2014, when there are presidential elections, will you allow opposition parties?
Assad: That's why we are changing the constitution.
Walters: OK. And if somebody else wins, will you step down in 2014?
Assad: If he wins he's going to be in my position, I don't have to step down, he's going to be president. So you don't step down. He will win the election, he will be president. So step down means you leave, while if you win the election, he's going normally, he's going to be in that position instead of me.
Speaking with Bill Weir on Nightline last night, Barbara Walters declared that there appears to be a disconnect and that Assad has trouble reconciling what's taking place in parts of Syria. Deutsche Presse-Agentur reports, "Iraq said Thursday it would initiate contacts with the Syrian government in an effort to persuade it to accept an Arab League plan to end months of violence in the country." Ammar Karim (AFP) quotes Nabil al-Arabi stating, "Our conversation (with Iraq) . . . was to explore whether the Iraqi government is willing to exert its influence with Syria. The Iraqi government told us that it will carry out contacts with the Syrian government to resolve this issue." Al Arabiya notes the Arab League has called for international monitors; however, "in an interview with ABC's Barbara Walters on Wednesday the embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said he will not allow Arab League observers unfettered access to monitor the crackdown."
Conflicts continue between the Baghdad-based central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government over issues of oil especially with regards to the KRG's deal with ExxonMobil. UPI notes, 'Nouri al-Maliki is stepping up the pressure on ExxonMobil to back off ab reakaway oil exploration deal with the Kurds' semi-autonomous enclave and the betting is the world's largest oil company will fold." CNN quotes KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih stating, "There is no way that we will be dissuaded from our constitutional right to developing our resources and allow ourselves to ever again become hostages to the whims of some bureaucrats in Baghdad. We've been there before. Oil was used to strangle our people, to commit genoicde." J. Jay Park (Financial Times of London) attempts to make sense of the legal issues but keeps coming back to a 2007 draft or a more recent draft or -- Those are bills. They aren't laws. Though many drafts have been written, the oil and gas issue was never resolved by law.
A lot of things remain unresolved in Iraq. In fact, "unresolved" would be the government's Facebook status. Political Stalemate I was a period in Iraq following the March 7, 2010 elections. It ended in November of 2010 only as a result of a meet-up in Erbil and the political parties signing off on an agreement in which all but State of Law made political concessions. The results of the March 7th elections, even after Nouri al-Maliki bitterly contested them and stamped his feet until a few post-election votes were tossed his way, were that Iraqiya came in first and Nouri's political slate State of Law came in second. Iraqis do not elect their prime minister, the Parliament does. Per the Constitution, Ayad Allawi, the leader of Iraqiya, should have had first crack at forming a government. First crack? You become prime minister-designate and then have thirty days to name a Cabinet (nominate people for positions and have Parliament vote in favor of them). If you can't accomplish that in 30 days, per the Constitution, a new prime minister-designate is supposed to be named.
Nouri al-Maliki refused to surrender the post of prime minister. So the March 7th elections were followed by over 8 months of gridlock, Political Stalemate I. The Erbil Agreement found all but State of Law making major concessions so that the country could pull together. (During that eight month period, Parliament had one session which was little more than roll call.) Iraqiya, the winner in the elections, was supposed to see their leader (Allawi) head an independent security commission, the KRG was promised Article 140 would finally be followed (Article 140 of the Constitution addresses disputed territories such as Kirkuk -- it calls for a census and referendum to be held in Kirkuk by the end of 2007. Nouri was prime minister then and refused to implement Article 140.) Many promises were made but the only one that concerned Nouri was that he would remain prime minister.
With all sides signing off on the Erbil Agreement, it appeared that Iraq would be moving forward on a national level. Nouri was named prime minister-designate (unofficially named, Jalal Talabani would wait two weeks before making it official to give Nouri 30 days plus two weeks to form a Cabinet). Before November drew to a close, Nouri would announce the planned census to take place in December was off. He would claim that the national security commission had to be put on hold but would be created earlier. By the time he was illegally moved from prime minister-designate to prime minister, Iraq was in Political Stalemate II. And that's where it has remained. Illegally moved from prime minister-designate to prime minister? The Constitution says 30 days to name Cabinet. That's not 'partial' cabinet, that's the full Cabinet. Nouri did not name a full Cabinet. Most importantly he said he would 'temporarily' fill the security ministries -- Defense, National Security and Interior. Salam Saadi (Rudaw) offers this today on the Erbil Agreement:
After the 2010 elections in Iraq, the Kurdistani bloc set 18 conditions before agreeing to join the Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet. Among those conditions was the full implementation of Article 140, which was designed to solve the issue of the disputed territories.
In Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Region, Maliki agreed to all the conditions set forth by the Kurdish leaders. Two years on, however, the Kurds complain that the Iraqi prime minister hasn't met any of the pledges he made in what is known the Erbil agreement.
The Erbil agreement reads. "The Iraqi coalition government will be considered void if the Kurdish alliance withdraws from it, if the Iraqi government fails to meet the agreed upon articles of the Iraqi constitution.
Meanwhile Nouri's announcement in February of this year that he would not seek a third term was a means to appease an angry public. More recently, his legal advisor has been telling the press that no law prevents Nouri from seeking a third term. Dar Addustour reports that MP Aziz Ugaili (National Alliance) is not proposing just such a law. If passed, it would forbid anyone from holding a third term, limit all prime ministers to two terms and the two terms would not have to be consecutive. Would it be retroactive for Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Ayad Allawi? (Both have served one term as prime minister since the US invasion of Iraq.) It would have to be retroactive or it wouldn't limit Nouri to two terms. If it wasn't retroactive, that would mean Nouri could claim, "Okay, under this law, I will only serve two terms -- from the minute it passes." Thereby allowing himself four terms as prime minister.
On the issue of broken promises, Nouri promised a reduction in pay for various officials back in February 2012. Iraq just passed their 2012 budget. Dar Addustour notes that the Sadr bloc in Parliament is stating that 40% of that budget goes to the three presidencies.
Nouri's chief rival is Ayad Allawi who bested Nouri in the March 2010 elections and should be prime minister had the Constitution been followed. Rumors have been swirling that Allawi would have an announcement this week and many assumed it would be a creation of a shadow government that would be poised to take over. He has made an announcement but that wasn't it. Alsumaria TV reports:
Head of Iraqiya List Iyad Allawi announced, on Tuesday, that he is ready to reconcile with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki if he is willing to renounce his opposing stands. This is the perfect time for real reconciliation, Allawi said warning against endless tensions. "I have no problem in shaking hands with Maliki if he renounces his opposing stands against us and others. I am not embarrassed by any cause that serves Iraqis and the region," Allawi told Alsumaria TV on Tuesday in a special interview with Jadal Iraqi talk show. "This is the perfect time for a real, honorable, realistic and healthy reconciliation," he added.
Aswat al-Iraq adds, "Al-Iraqiya Bloc called on Premier Nouri al-Maliki to respond to Dr. Iyad Allawi's reconcilliation plan for the sake of Iraq, and to lay down a road map for the future of the country."
Turning to veterans issues, Barbara Leader (News Star) reports that 24-year-old Iraq War veteran Spc Marcus Delon White "jumped to his death from the U.S. 165 bridge in Columbia" on Tuesday despite please from his fiancee and attempts by others to prevent him from jumping. Meanwhile AP notes that Iraq War veteran Martin Poynter apparently killed Deputy Richard Rhyne who was attempting to arrest him "for not paying child support" and that Poynter apparently then took his own life.
Scott Pelley: Just when you thought the scandal over mishandled remains of fallen American troops at Dover Air Force Base couldn't get any worse. It did today. David Martin has been reporting on the investigation that led to a career ending letter of reprimand for the commander of the mortuary and tonight David is at the Pentagon with new developments.
David Martin: A landfill is no one's idea of a fitting resting place for a soldier fallen in battle.
Gari-Lynn Smith: No service member, no human being at all, should be placed into a landfill -- no matter if it's a finger nail, a foot or an entire body
David Martin: Yet that is what happened to Gari-Lynn Smith's husband, Sgt 1st Class Scott Smith, who was blown apart by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006. Without her knowing part of his body was incinerated and disposed of as medical waste in this Virginia landfill. She found out two years after his funeral.
Gari-Lynn Smith: I have honestly no idea what we buried of him because they forbid me to see him in the casket.
INSKEEP: Well, what is the Air Force saying about it now?
WHITLOCK: They're saying they still don't know how far back this went. Their first records of it occurring were in 2004, but we also have emails and other correspondence from mortuary officials that indicate this was the practice going back to the '90s. At the same time, there are committees in Congress that are conducting investigations into this practice, as well as other problems at Dover. And Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has appointed a commission of independent public health experts to take a look at operations at Dover. And this is something he has said he wants them to look at as well.
INSKEEP: So 274 may not be the final number.
WHITLOCK: I don't think so, Steve.
This issue was raised on the Senate Armed Services Committee during a November 10th hearing in which the Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen Norton Schwartz appeared.
Senator Kelly Ayotte: General Schwartz, on a different topic and I just feel the need to ask -- ask about this. Uhm, I'm deeply troubled by the reports about what happened at the mortuary at the Dover Air Force Base. And I'm sure you would agree with me this is outrageous that remains of our soldiers would be put in a landfill and not treated with the appropriate dignity and honor which they deserve. Can you tell me, uh, where we are with this? And how we're going to ensure that this never happens again? And, most importantly, that those who have participated in this outrage are going to be held accountable?
Gen Norton Schwartz: Senator Ayotte, first of all, let me clarify the allegation about putting remains in a landfill. These were portions, prior to 2008, which were sent away from the Dover mortuary to a funeral home for cremation -- which is an authorized method of dealing with remains, particularly those that are separated from the larger portions of remains returned to the family. After that, the results of the cremation came back to the mortuary were sent to a medical support company for incineration. So you had cremation, then incineration and it was at that point that this medical support organizations placed the residuals from that effort to a landfill. In 19 -- In 2008, the Air Force came to the conclusion that that was not the best way to deal with those remains and so it is now done in a traditional fashion of burial at sea. It has been that way since 2008. It will continue to be that way in the future and let me just conclude by saying the Secretary of the Air Force, Mike Donley [Secretary of the US Air Force] and I take personal responsibility for this. Our obligation is to treat our fallen with reverence and dignity and respect and to provide the best possible support and care for their families. That is our mission. The people who did not fulfill our expectations were disciplined and there's no doubt what our expectations are today.
Senator Kelly Ayotte: Well I -- General Schwartz, I appreciate your updating on that and, uh, when I think about the fact that we have Veterans Day tomorrow, this is so important, obviously, that we treat the remains of our fallen with dignity and respect and I know that you share that concern as well. And please know that members of this Committee will be there to support you in any way to make sure that the families know that we certainly won't allow this to happen again.
Senator Claire McCaskill: I want to specifically, for a minute, General Schwartz, go to the situation at Dover and I don't want to dwell on how hard this has to be for you and the leadership at the Air Force. No one needs to convince me that you want to get this right at Dover. I'll tell you what I do want to bring to your attention and I've did so with a letter today and that is with the finding of the Office of Special Counsel. And so people understand what the Office of Special Counsel is. It's an investigatory and prosecution oriented agency whose primary responsibility under our law is to be independent of all of the agencies and protect whistle blowers. And what I am concerned about is their investigation into what the Air Force did in response to the whistle blowers. And specifically the fact that the IG of the Air Force, they failed to admit wrong doing in their report. And while I understand people have been moved around as a result of the problems that have occured because of mishandling of the sacred remains of the fallen, I'm not sure that they have been held as accountable as what we saw happen at Arlington in connection with that heart breaking incompetence. And what I want to make sure is that there is an independent investigation as to whether or not the IG shaded it a little bit [Chair Carl Levin began nodding his head in vigrous agreement with what McCaskill was saying] because everyone was feeling a little bit protective of the institution for all the right reasons. The vast majority of the people who serve at Dover and who do this work, I'm sure, do it with a heavy heart but with a passion for getting it right. But when we have a circumstance like this arise, I want to make sure the Inspector Generals are not so busy looking after the institution that they fail to point out wrong doing -- which was not ever acknowledged -- and that there is accountability for the people involved. And so, I want you to address the Special Counsel's report as it relates to the Air Force investigation.
Gen Norton Schwartz: Senator McCaskill, there was -- There were -- Clearly were unacceptable mistakes made. Whether they constitute wrong doing is another matter entirely. And when you look at a situation like this, you look at the facts of a case, as an attorney might say. You look at the context in which the event or the mistakes occurred. And you also consider the demands that are -- are placed on individuals and-and organizations. With respect to accountability, we also had an obligation to ensure that the statutory requirements for Due Process were followed. We did that precisely. I can only speak for the case of the uniformed officer. But the uniformed officer received a letter of reprimand. We established an unfavorable information file. We removed him from the command list and his anticipated job as a group commander at Shaw Air Force Base was red-lined. This is not a trivial sanction.
Senator Claire McCaskill: Well I - I understand that's not a trivial sanction but I-I-I'm worried that there was a conclusion that there was not an obligation to notify the families in these instances and obviously this deals with more than uniform personnel and obviously the Secretary of the Air Force is also copied on the letter that I sent today calling for this independent investigation. What happened at Arlington, nobody was intentionally mismarking graves. They were mistakes too. And I just want to make sure that we have really clear eyes while we have full hearts about the right aggressive need for investigations by Inspector Generals in circumstances like this. And thank you very much and thank all of you for being here today.
The issue is still not being addressed, not when the Air Force is announcing today that they don't plan to notify the families of the fallen involved. Still on veterans issues, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee is holding two field hearings next week. What's a Senate field hearing? It's a hearing outside of DC. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee will be holding two this month, both on December 12th, in Quincy, Massachusetts and in Columbus, Ohio. Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and her office notes:
Committee on Veterans' Affairs
United States Senate
112th Congress, First Session
Updated: December 6, 2011
Monday, December 12, 2011 9:15am Quincy, MA
Field Hearing will address concerns over delays in veterans' services related to the claims backlog and the Department of Veterans Affairs' plans to reduce the backlog. The location of the hearing is Quincy City Hall 1305 Hancock Street, Quincy, Massachusetts.
Monday, December 12, 2011 9:30am Columbus, OH
Field Hearing will focus on employment challenges facing veterans. The location of the hearing is the Center For Workforce Development 315 Cleveland Ave, Columbus, OH.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011 10:00 a.m. SR-418
POSTPONED to a date yet to be determined. Hearing on the nomination of Margaret Bartley to be Judge of United States Court of Veterans Appeals for Veterans Claims, Coral Wong Pietsch to be Judge of United States Court of Veterans Appeals for Veterans Claims, and Gloria Wilson to be Judge of United States Court of Veterans Appeals for Veterans Claims.