Friday, December 9, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, the Camp Ashraf plan Martin Kobler presented to the UN Security Council Tuesday continues to gain support, the Defense Department attempts to again short-change National Guard service members, 28 firefighters bring a class-action lawsuit over contracting, and more.
Yesterday I met with Martin Kobler, the Sepcial Representative of the Secretary-General and head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). As I did earlier this week in my meeting with the UN SG Ban Ki-moon, I expressed my full support for the efforts both UNAMI and UNHCR are making to solve the problem of Camp Ashraf. I stressed that the safety of the people in the camp must be our primary concern. The initiative by United Nations High Commissioner Antonio Guterres and the work of Mr. Kobler are essential to facilitate an orderly solution to the problem which fully respects human rights and international humanitarian law. I have stressed to all the parties involved, including the Iraqi Foriegn Minister who I met this week and the EU Foreign Ministers, that the UNAMI and UNHCR-led process must be fully supported as the best and only way forward. I have asked my Special Adviser Jean De Ruyt to continue liasing with the United Nations on my behalf, inclduing on practical ways of working together. I want to praise the work of Martin Kobler and reiterate my call on all parties to show flexibility and cooperate fully to find a satisfactory solution.
What is the UNAMI and UNHCR-led process? Martin Kobler outlined it to the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday:
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.
Today the Staten Island Advance reports,"About 220 people from First United Christian Church in Tompkinsville will travel on Monday to Washington, D.C., to protest what they believe is an impending massacre of Iranian dissidents. Nationwide, about 960 humanitarian and faith-based organizations numbering 50,000 to 60,000 people are expected to converge on the White House at 10 a.m. to protest the situation at Camp Ashraf in Iraq."
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."
Wednesday, US House Reps Dana Rohrabacher and Gary Ackerman oversaw a hearing on Camp Ashraf by the House Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. Ashish Kumar Sen (Washington Times) described the hearing an an effort "to seek an explanation from State Department officials about a court-ordered review of the terrorist label and an update on developments at Camp Ashraf." Sen reminds that the court ordered the review back in July 2010. Erik Slavin (Stars and Stripes) adds, "The State Department is re-examining MEK's status as a terrorist organization, said Ambassador Daniel Fried, who was appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to oversee the MEK's situation."
In his prepared remarks, Fried declared, "The Secretary has tasked me to report to her, using experience I have as a career foreign service officer of 34 years, to ensure that the US government is taking every responsible action possible, working with the government of Iraq, the United Nations, and our allies and partners, and in contact with the residents of Camp Ashraf and those who speak for them, to assure that any relocation of residents from Camp Ashraf is done humanely, with our principal concern being the safety and well-being of the residents. We are working urgently." Repeating, the court-ordered review came down in July of 2010.
Meanwhile weeks after ExxonMobile's deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government, it continues to dominate the news. Patrick Cockburn (Independent) reports, "The bombshell exploded last month when Exxon Mobil, the world's largest oil company, defied the instructions of the Baghdad government and signed a deal with the Iraqi Kurds to search for oil in the northern area of Iraq they control. To make matters worse, three of the areas Exxon has signed up to explore are on territory the two authorities dispute. The government must now decide if it will retaliate by kicking Exxon out of a giant oilfield it is developing in the south of Iraq." Sam Dagher (Wall St. Journal) reports that Nouri al-Maliki has announced the contract won't be cancelled.
Tensions around what's going on in Syria weren't cancelled either. Liz Sly (Washington Post) offers an an analysis of the impact on Iraq including, "As the Syrian conflict takes on increasingly sectarian dimensions, the crisscrossing rivalries that had been held somewhat in check in recent years among Iraq's Shiite majority and its Kurdish and Sunni minorities also risk being inflamed. Syria's sectarian makeup is almost a reverse image of Iraq's, with a minority, Shiite-affiliated Alawite regime confronting a protest movement drawn largely from the country's Sunni majority. " Brian Katulis (American Progress) argues that Nouri's trip to DC next week should include discussions of Syria, "Iraq and the United States currently have different positions on what to do about Syria. The United States maintains that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad must step down and has carved out a strategy to stop the violence and support a political transition through economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and support for the opposition. Iraq has rejected calls for Assad to step down. In the fall Maliki echoed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Syria, saying that Syria needed to implement a series of political reforms to overcome the current crisis."
I don't understand that all. Syria will surely come up in passing but is the Center for American Progress now advocating for telling Iraq what to do? I believe, in regards to Syria, Nouri has already stated Iraq is not a follower. I also believe Nouri's expressed his belief that civil war could easily break out in Syria. He's also staked out a position of friendly input. Why is it Nouri's job to do the US job?
However, what kind of democracy has resulted after eight years of U.S. occupation? Once seen as weak, Prime Minister Maliki has concentrated power in his hands. He turned a minority parliamentary position into the premiership and refused to honor a power-sharing agreement his chief opponent.
The International Crisis Group pointed to Maliki's expansion of government control over supposedly independent agencies tasked with overseeing the government. Worse, reported Yochi Dreazen: "Maliki has refused to appoint either a permanent defense minister or an interior minister, keeping Iraq's U.S.-trained armed forces and intelligence services under his sole control. He has also taken direct command of the ostensibly neutral 150,000 Iraqi troops stationed in Baghdad, using them to arrest rival politicians, human-rights activists, and journalists."
Maliki brutally suppressed anti-government demonstrations coinciding with the Arab Spring, targeted human rights activists, and cracked down on the media, having critics of his regime arrested and tortured. A number of journalists have been murdered, with government agents the chief suspects. Ghada al-Amely of the al-Mada newspaper told National Journal: "We feel just as scared as we did during Saddam's time." Maliki recently used improbable rumors of a Baathist coup to arrest more than 600 former members of the Baath party, including academics.
Washington has said little. Indeed, Wikileaks captured America's ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, observing that "It is in the interests of the U.S. to see that process of strengthened central authority continue." So much for democracy.
Crucially, the mission in Iraq has come to change -- and indeed militarize - the way in which the State Department operates.
First the expense. The State Department budget for FY2012 in Iraq is $6.2 billion. While that number may not shock in the context of the torrent of dollars that flowed during the war itself, it is nonetheless a major outlay, significantly larger than this year's budget for, to take an important example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Moreover, the Department of Defense will also continue to spend money to redeploy thousands of troops from Iraq to U.S. military bases in Kuwait and elsewhere nearby.
Then the risk. Violence continues as daily fare in Iraq, including continued resistance to U.S. presence. To deal with this fact, fully one third of the 16,000 civilians to be posted in Iraq will wield guns: a phalanx of security contractors -- 5,500 strong -- will operate in the country. This is definitely not State Department business as usual, even in the more dangerous areas in which it operates. The Iraq total is three times the number of people the State Department has employed to protect all of its other diplomatic missions in the world combined.
Breaking it down, the State Department's 5,500 security personnel join 4,500 "general life support" contractors who will be working to provide food, health care, and aviation services to those employed in Iraq, and approximately 6,000 US federal employees from State and other agencies. After Jan. 1, there will also be 157 U.S. military personnel and about 700 civilian contractors in Iraq who will train local forces in how to use the more than $8 billion in military equipment U.S. military corporations have sold to Iraq.
Moving from risks to violence, Reuters notes a Muqdadiya roadside bombing injured one "tribal leader," a Muqdadiya sticky bombing claimed 2 lives and 1 Sahwa shot dead in Baquba -- all events were from Thursday.
Backtracking on initial information about how it handled the remains of American service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force now says the cremated body parts of hundreds of the fallen were burned and dumped in the landfill. Earlier, the Air Force said only a small number of body parts had been buried in a commercial landfill and claimed it would be impossible to make a final determination of how many remains were disposed of in that manner.
Jill Laster and Markeshia Ricks (Marine Corps News) report, "Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said he believes the service has found and fixed problems at Doer Port Mortuary and that a Defense Department panel will back up that belief." If that belief is backed up, that's disgusting. As Keyes and Starr report the Air Force's position is that they will apologize to any family . . . who objects. They are not contacting families and informing them of what happened. The families have to contact the Air Force. Who does the Air Force work for? Having already disrespected the fallen, they now can't even offer an apology. This is not accountability, this is not a sign of a government that works for the people. This is about bureaucrats who feels they shouldn't be bothered and that their mistakes are justifiable because they don't have to answer to anyone.
Mike Bowersock (Ohio's NBC 4i -- link has text and video) speaks with Iraq War veteran Daniel Hutchison who states, "I served in Iraq in 2006 and four of my really good friends were killed and it makes my blood boil to think they may be in a landfill right now. The argument can be made that it is difficult to try to identify all the pieces to bring it back home, but it's difficult to fight in a war."
The Defense Department is hardly a one scandal department. The Pentagon is coming under intense and deserved criticism for its refusal to initiate "a mental health program for National Guard soldiers." USA Today's Gregg Zororya reports on this latest government effort to save a penny by spitting on the National Guard. Zoroya quotes Senator Patty Murray who is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, "I was really surprised that the Departemtn of Defense decided to oppose this. It's just a no-brainer to make sure that this is out there for every Guard and Reserve member wherever they live." The Pentagon's own tracking demonstrates more National Guard service members have died from suicide in the last five years than have been died serving in Iraq or Afghanistan for any reason (other than suicide). At a time when the Pentagon has already used the National Guard in ways most didn't ever see happening, are they going to again refuse to give the Guards its due?
When they came home from Iraq, 2,600 members of the Minnesota National Guard had been deployed longer than any other ground combat unit. The tour lasted 22 months and had been extended as part of President Bush's surge. 1st Lt. Jon Anderson said he never expected to come home to this: A government refusing to pay education benefits he says he should have earned under the GI bill. "It's pretty much a slap in the face," Anderson said. "I think it was a scheme to save money, personally. I think it was a leadership failure by the senior Washington leadership... once again failing the soldiers." Anderson's orders, and the orders of 1,161 other Minnesota guard members, were written for 729 days. Had they been written for 730 days, just one day more, the soldiers would receive those benefits to pay for school.
Soldiers with the National Guard are already under the gun in Iraq and Afghanistan. But now a new government report claims that while the troops are fighting far from home, red tape is preventing many of them from being paid.
While National Guard soldiers fulfill their duty, risking their lives around the world, the Pentagon apparently is not living up to its obligation to pay them the right amount or on time. That's according to a new congressional report obtained by NBC News, which finds the Pentagon's pay process is such a mess it's having "a profound financial impact on individual soldiers and their families."
"This is well beyond anything I could ever imagine," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., "I would like to think if we send people off to war that we're not going to have them worry about whether their home is going to be taken because they can't pay their mortgage."
Those are just two examples. They both have to do with the Pentagon's problems paying the Guard for the work they're being asked to do. At a time when the Pentagon keeps insisting it's addressing the suicide issue, it's appalling that yet again they're trying to save a few pennies by short changing National Guard service members.
In other news of cheapness and crooked behavior, Ryan Abbott (Courthouse News Service) reports 28 firefighters are part of a class action lawsuit against "Wackenhut, KBR and Halliburton [who they allege] forced them to work around the clock in Afghanistan and Iraq but paid them for only half their time." Zoe Tillman (The BLT) quotes one of the attorneys representing the firefighters, Scott Bloch, stating, "This case is about very big government contractors making billions off of the back of firefighters and other people who work over there in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're going to make billions if they pay for work performed, but somehow that's not enough for them."
Lastly, the US Justice Dept notes a 20-month sentence for a US Army Corps of Engineers employee for bribery:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Friday, December 9, 2011
Former Army Corps of Engineers Employee Sentenced to 20 Months in Prison for Accepting Bribes from Iraqi Contractors
WASHINGTON - A former employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stationed in Baghdad, Iraq, was sentenced today in the Eastern District of Virginia to 20 months in prison for conspiring to receive bribes from Iraqi contractors involved in the U.S.-funded reconstruction efforts, announced Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Justice Department's Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride for the Eastern District of Virginia and Assistant Director in Charge James W. McJunkin of the FBI's Washington Field Office.
Thomas Aram Manok, 51, of Chantilly, Va., was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga. In addition to his prison term, Manok was sentenced to three years of supervised release. Judge Trenga ordered a forfeiture hearing to be held on Jan. 13, 2012. Manok pleaded guilty on Sept. 19, 2011.
Manok admitted to using his official position to conspire with Iraqi contractors to accept cash bribes in exchange for recommending that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approve contracts and other requests for payment submitted by the contractors to the U.S. government. According to court documents, in March and April 2010, Manok agreed to receive a $10,000 payment from one such contractor who had been involved in constructing a kindergarten and girls' school in the Abu Ghraib neighborhood of Baghdad and had sought Manok's influence in having requests for payment approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. According to court documents, Manok was to receive an additional bribe payment from the contractor once the contractor's claim had been approved. Manok also admitted that he intended to conceal the payments from authorities by transferring them, via associates, from Iraq to Armenia.
This case was investigated by the FBI's Washington Field Office, the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General, the Army Criminal Investigation Command and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, as participants in the International Contract Corruption Task Force. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul J. Nathanson of the Eastern District of Virginia and Trial Attorney Mary Ann McCarthy of the Criminal Division's Fraud Section.
This prosecution is part of efforts underway by President Barack Obama's Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. President Obama established the interagency Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force to wage an aggressive, coordinated and proactive effort to investigate and prosecute financial crimes. The task force includes representatives from a broad range of federal agencies, regulatory authorities, inspectors general and state and local law enforcement who, working together, bring to bear a powerful array of criminal and civil enforcement resources. The task force is working to improve efforts across the federal executive branch, and with state and local partners, to investigate and prosecute significant financial crimes, ensure just and effective punishment for those who perpetrate financial crimes, combat discrimination in the lending and financial markets, and recover proceeds for victims of financial crimes. For more information about the task force visit: www.stopfraud.gov.