Tuesday, December 20, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, Iraq's political crisis continues, network news continues to ignore the political crisis, where did David Petreaus supposedly go, Camp Ashraf residents face a looming deadline, and more.
How bad are things in Iraq right now? Reidar Visser (Iraq and Gulf Analysis) notes a rumor, "The reported appearance of CIA director David Patraeus at a meeting of Iraqiyya yesterday seems somewhat extraordinary. If true, it could be indicative of how Washington sees the situation in Iraq after the withdrawal. Critics will claim that after two years dominated by Joe Biden diplomacy, it is perhaps somewhat late in the day to begin sending competent special envoys to Iraq." The rumor may have truth to it, it may be completely false. But its very existence, it merely being uttered goes to just how out of control things are in Iraq.
But the news is ignored repeatedly by broadcast media. For example, last night the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley led with a 'news' story. Pelley informed as the theme music faded, "The Secretary of Defense says tonight that the United States will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon." This is your lead? That Leon Panetta -- that any US Secretary of Defense -- states that? Where have you been for the last ten years? This is US policy. You can explore whether it's wise or stupid, fair or hypocritcal. But treating it as news? That's really a joke. Why would any US network newscast lead with five-day old, moldy mashed potatoes as their main dish? Oh, Pelley quickly explained that Panetta made these remarks "in an interview for 60 Minutes." So it wasn't the lead story because it was news, it was the lead story because it was advertising for CBS' Sunday night program. The NewsHour had no mention of Iraq. But they did do several segments to tell the country that Kim Jong-Il was dead, that Kim Jong-Il was still dead and that Kim Jong-Il was dead. PBS will offer more details on Kim Jong-Il's death as they develop. However, sources do say, today, that Kim Jong-Il remains dead. World News with Diane Sawyer also jumped on the Kim Jong-Il is dead train. And a 'hard hitting' look at citrus juices. NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams offered a mix of what everyone else did because better they should all be wrong together, right?
While they ignored what's taking place in Iraq, Al Rafidayn noted Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani is warning about the potential collapse of the Iraqi government as a result of Nouri's latest power grab. Barzani is calling for a national conference. Dar Addustour quotes Barzani stating that what took place Sunday at Baghdad International Airport-- pulling Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq and Finance Minister Rafie al-Issawi off a flight and detaining them for several hours -- must not happen again. All three pulled from the plane belong to Iraqiya. Barzani insists that while security is everyone's concern, detentions must be authorized by the judiciary.
The little Nouri who cried Ba'athists. And cried terrorists. Going to the well on that once too often and among the reasons he's so hard to believe today. Jomana Karadsheh and Mohammed Tawfeeq (CNN) remind, "Since October, Iraqi security forces have rounded up hundreds of people accused of being members of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party or terrorists. Iraqiya says the majority of those people are members of its political bloc and that the prime minister is simply taking out his opponents."
Which brings us to today. Though it didn't make last night's newscasts, the issue was raised at the White House today in the press briefing.
Jake Tapper (ABC News): On Iraq, the political crisis there seems to be escalating. Aside from monitoring the situation, is the administration doing anything? Has Vice President Biden been asked to step in and perhaps oversee this -- or intervene?
Jay Carney: You're referring to?
Jake Tapper: The -- al-Hashimi, the arrest warrant.
Jay Carney: As I discussed yesterday, we're obviously concerned about this and we have -- we are always in conversations with Iraqi leaders. We closely monitor the reports. And we urge the Iraqi authorities charged with this responsibility to conduct their investigations into alleged terrorist activities in accordance with international legal norms and full respect for Iraqi law. As I said, we are talking to all parties to express our concern regarding these developments. We continue to urge all sides to work to resolve differences peacefully, through dialogue and in a manner that is consistent with the international standards of rule of law, transparency and the democratic political process. Ambassador James Jeffrey, as well as other U.S. -- senior U.S. officials, have been in frequent contact with Iraqi leaders on this matter and will continue to do so.
Jake Tapper: Is Vice President Biden one of those officials?
Jay Carney: I don't have any conversations involving the Vice President to report out to you. You correctly identify the fact that the Vice President is very engaged in Iraq as a rule, but I don't have any specific conversations of his to report out.
Zhang Ning and Wang Hongbin (Xinhua) observe, "Tension among Iraq's major political blocs has been rising, as the country's highest judiciary body issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi on terror charges Monday." Tony Karon (Time) explains it began with Iraqiya announcing they were withdrawing from Parliament over Nouri's inability to follow previously agreed to terms (such as the Erbil Agreement):
Maliki's response came a day later with a furious attack on the country's two most senior Sunni politicians. First, he urged parliament to pass a vote of no confidence in Deputy Prime Minister Salih al-Mutlaq, who in a TV interview earlier this month had accused Maliki of creating a new dictatorship. More ominously, perhaps, Maliki on Monday ordered the arrest of Iraq's Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi. The warrant concerns an investigation into a bombing plot uncovered inside Baghdad's heavily protected Green Zone, in which three members of al-Hashimi's security detail have been under investigation. Maliki has claimed to have been the target of this alleged bomb plot. Critics said the judicial panel that issued the arrest order is under the Prime Minister's sway, and having kept the positions of Defense Minister and Interior Minister for himself, he has ensured that all of the country's security forces answer directly to him.
In more than half an hour of grainy black-and-white video recordings, three men described as al-Hashimi's bodyguards detailed bomb attacks they carried out going back to 2009 that were directed against government security forces. The weapons used were bombs and pistols with silencers. The men spoke in monotones, and it was impossible to determine if their statements were of their own free will, as claimed by al-Maliki aides, or coerced. It appeared that a small selection of their interrogations was presented, evidently edited to provide maximum support for the government position that al-Hashimi headed the chain of command of what amounted to assassination squads.
The reliance on confessions in the CCCI cases raises serious concerns about the fairness of those proceedings. Torture and other forms of abuse in Iraqi detention facilities, frequently to elicit confessions in early stages of detention, are well-documented. The reliance on confessions in the court's proceedings, coupled with the absence of physical or other corroborating evidence, raises the possibility of serious miscarriages of justice.
Aswat al-Iraq notes that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has declared he was not consulted about the arrest warrant. The Irish Examiner notes that al-Hashemi is currently in the KRG. Al Mada explains the warrant prevents him from leaving the country. The Herald Sun carries a wire story noting that al-Hashemi is stating that the case needs to be transferred to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Al Rafidayn provides a walk-through on the law including the the charges fall under Article IV and that a conviction could result in either life imprisonment or the death penalty. Reuters quotes Ayad Allawi (leader of Iraqiya) stating, "We fear the return of dictatorship by this authoritarian way of governing. It's the latest in a build-up of atrocities, arrests and intimidation that has been going on a wide scale." And Reuters quotes Allawi stating "It reminds me personally of what Saddam Hussein used to do, where he would accuse his political opponents of being terrorists and conspirators," Meanwhile Nouri's flunkies, Dar Addustour notes, are claiming he is the target of a death threat and that a team of assassins have been trained on foreign soil to kill him.
The arrest warrants were raised at the US State Dept in the press briefing spokesperson Victoria Nuland gave.
QUESTION: Iraq. I have one. I just -- I was wondering if you had anything further on the communications between the U.S. Government and the Iraqi Government on those arrest warrants. Ambassador Jeffrey, as you said, has been in touch with all parties. Did he return to Iraq because of this issue? I know he was in town for the Maliki visit. Was that -- was his return in part because of this sectarian threat posed by these warrants?
MS. NULAND: Well, he's been doing laps back and forth. He was here for the Maliki visit, he was back, he was here for another ceremony in the U.S., now he's back. And as I said, we are eager to have him there because he has been talking to all of the interlocutors and encouraging them to work together, to work together within the constitution, within international standards of rule of law, and try to work through these issues. So he continues to be--
QUESTION: Is there -- Is there anything more you can tell us specifically on what that advice entails? I mean, what specifically is the U.S. hoping or urging the Iraqis to do to prevent another outbreak of sectarian violence pegged to this case?
MS. NULAND: Well, I think I went through the sort of whole menu of things that we're advising yesterday, but just to go through it again if that's helpful --
MS. NULAND: With regard to the arrest warrant for Vice President al-Hashimi, we are urging the Iraqi authorities charged with the responsibility for these investigations to conduct these investigations into alleged terrorist activities in accordance with international legal norms and full respect for Iraqi law. More broadly, we're urging all political parties and activists to try to resolve their political differences peacefully, through dialogue, within the constitutional norms set forth within Iraq, and to really demonstrate their commitment to a unitary, sovereign Iraq that abides by its own constitution.
QUESTION: And looking at the -- looking at the warrants that are now out and given your prior experience with al-Hashimi, is -- do you have any reason to believe that these accusations are at all plausible or do you worry that this is a politically motivated legal proceeding?
MS. NULAND: I think I'm not going to give a value judgment one way or the other here. I think that from our perspective, the proof of this has to be in the conduct of the investigation of the legal procedures in a manner that comports with international law.
QUESTION: Toria, could you share with us if Mr. Jeffrey spoke with Vice President al-Hashimi in the last -- let's say this -- today or --
MS. NULAND: Without getting into too many details, suffice to say that he's spoken to pretty much every major Iraqi political actor in the last couple of days.
QUESTION: Including Vice President al-Hashimi?
MS. NULAND: I believe so, yes.
QUESTION: And Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq?
MS. NULAND: I can't speak to whether he's spoken to him since his arrest, but he --
QUESTION: Do you know their status? Are they on the run or are they hiding? What's --
MS. NULAND: I can't speak to that, Said.
QUESTION: [. . .] quick follow-up on this. Has anyone above Ambassador Jeffrey's level been in contact with the Iraqis on this? Assistant Secretary Feltman or the Secretary, anybody like that?
MS. NULAND: Well, I think you know that Vice President Biden has been in contact with a number of Iraqis. I'll refer you to his office. We -- I think I read out some of that earlier in the week.
QUESTION: In general, can you -- what's the Administration's opinion of the Iraqi justice system and its ability to provide due process to -- and due process in a fair, transparent trial for those who are charged with crimes?
MS. NULAND: Well, I think you know that we've been working with the Iraqis to build their justice system for a number of years now. And again, each --
QUESTION: Yeah. How did that go?
MS. NULAND: Each case is a new case and has to meet the high standards expected of Iraq by its own constitution, and as I said, we will judge them by their ability to uphold their own constitution and international standards.
QUESTION: Right. Well, but I mean, you pronounce judgment on other countries' legal -- on your opinion of other countries' legal systems all the time. What is it -- what's your opinion of the Iraqi justice system?
MS. NULAND: The Iraqi justice system, in its latest iteration, has produced justice in some cases. It needs to continue to do so in these cases.
QUESTION: Well --
MS. NULAND: I'm not going to give them a grade if that's what you're asking for, Matt.
Patrick Cockburn (Independent) adds, "Two days ago Mr Maliki asked parliament for a vote of no confidence in the Sunni deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlaq for incompetence. Mr Mutlaq had accused Mr Maliki of being a dictator. Although Iraq nominally has a power-sharing government in practice it remains divided between parties and communities. All jobs are awarded through a patronage system making political leaders averse to giving up official posts."
Throughout the Iraq War, waves of attacks have taken place leading to waves of refugees, over 4.7 million refugees. It's the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since 1948. The Bush administratioin made a big to do, in its last years, of being concerned about the situation. In 2008, the Special Immigrant Visa Program for Iraqis who worked with the US started -- created by Congress' Defense Authorization Act for FY08. This was in addition to other programs already in place. It had a quota of 5,000 yearly; however, if the 5,000 was not met, the remainder could be rolled over and used the next year. For example, if in 2009, 4500 were admitted -- 500 short of 5000 -- the remaining 500 could be put on 2010 for a new total of 5500. Barack Obama, as a candidate for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, repeatedly asserted that he would address the refugee problem. He is, in fact, doing a worse job than Bush. Catholic Online covers the US Special Immigration Visas Program:
The SIV program is specially designed to expedite the visa application process for as many as 25,000 people over five years who worked with Americans and are found to be facing an ongoing threat in their country. But, the US has dragged its feet. President Obama mandated more detailed background checks which have only served to lengthen the process. Now, the average wait time for an applicant is at least nine months. That's a long time for someone living under the threat of assassination. In fact, it's too long for at least 300 people who have been killed for working with US. Today, only 7,000 visas have been issued according to the State Department, and more than 30,000 applications are still pending a decision.
More than 140,000 Iraqis worked with the United States during the nearly nine-year war and occupation., and tens of thousands have since applied for immigration visas in the United States.
The US issued only a handful in the early years of the war. A law passed in 2008 created the Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) programme, which was supposed to expedite the process: It allocated 25,000 visas over five years for Iraqis who worked with Americans and face an "ongoing threat" in their home country.
But four years later, only about 7,000 of those visas have been issued, according to the State Department, with more than 30,000 applications pending a decision.
In Iraq, many people and groups are targeted. Currently, Nouri's targeting Iraqiya, but also targeted are Iraqi women, Iraq's LGBT community and many other groups including Iraqi Christians. Ruthie Epstein (Human Rights First) observed last week:
The conversation over the coming weeks must include an acknowledgement of the millions of Iraqis displaced by the war. Thousands lack permanent and safe housing in Iraq; thousands more languish without formal legal status in their countries of first asylum, awaiting protracted and uncertain resettlement processes. Tens of thousands of children cannot access regular education and their parents cannot work legally. Single or widowed women, LGBTI individuals, religious minorities, journalists, and academics still face threats or violence in their country, as do Iraqis who worked in some capacity with the United States or a U.S.-based organization. 39,000 Iraqis await resettlement processing by the United States inside Iraq, and 18,000 more are in the U.S. resettlement pipeline in Syria.
Michelle Bauman (Catholic News Agency) notes that the consequences from the illegal war that Pope John Paul II warned against have turned into realities with Father Firas Behnam Benoka stating "love wouldn't have been killed off in favor of violence and hate" if Pope John Paul II's warnings had been heeded. Instead over half of the Chrisian population has fled Iraq since the start of the war and, the priest maintains, Iraqi Chrisians now worry about "extinction."
Meanwhile Irwin Cotler (Toronto Star) observes, "While the world prepares to celebrate the beginning of the New Year, the people of Camp Ashraf, Iraq, live in imminent peril. At the camp -- set up by American forces -- 3,400 Iranian refugees are facing prospective massacre at the hands of the Iraqi government. The majority of residents have survived until now because of U.S. protection, but with American forces leaving by the end of the year, the Iraqi government has imposed an arbitrary deadline of Dec. 31 for residents to leave. Those who have nowhere to go will likely be attacked and killed; yet, the international community has been largely silent to their plight."
AP's Matthew Lee raised the issue of Camp Ashraf at the US State Dept briefing today.
Matthew Lee: Yeah. No, though I want to go to my other Iraq question, which is: What is your understanding of the situation right now at Camp Ashraf?
Victoria Nuland: Well, I think you know that we've been quite active in support of --
Matthew Lee: Well, I'm not asking about the negotiations. I want to know specifically, what's your understanding of the situation there at the camp, like, on the ground right now. There are members of -- residents who claim that the -- they've been subject to a blockade, that nothing is getting in -- food, fuel, that kind of thing.
Victoria Nuland: I don't have that information. I will take it and check on the status of the actual camp. As you know, we have been supporting strongly the efforts of the United Nations and Ambassador Kobler to try to negotiate between --
Matthew Lee: Right. That's not my question, though.
Victoria Nuland: -- the Government of Iraq and the residents of Ashraf to settle these issues peaceably and before the deadline, and particularly to help the Ashrafis get themselves resettled. So those efforts continue. I do not have any information at the moment with regard to difficulties at the camp today, but if that is not accurate, we will get back to you.
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) has offered, "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."
Jamie Crawford (CNN) reports, "The Obama administration 'welcomes' a United Nations-led effort in Iraq to relocate a group on the State Department terrorism list, before an end-of-the-year deadline that could see heavy violence and a large humanitarian disaster unfold, senior administration officials said Monday." Do they welcome a UN-led effort? The UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy to Iraq Martin Kobler outlined the plan to the United Nations Security Council on December 6th:
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.
What the UN proposed was that the deadline be extended beyond December 31st. This was addressed in an open session of the UN Security Council and the White House is damn well aware of that. I don't know if right now is a time that the White House wants to be viewed as complicit with Nouri al-Maliki. It should also be noted that the US State Dept has been court-ordered -- for over a year now -- to re-evaluate the status of the MEK. The current terrorist designation (already dropped by European countries) is preventing many countries from accepting the Camp Ashraf residents. Barbara Slavin (IPS) notes, "Sanjeev Bery, advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, told IPS in an email that the organisation 'is concerned that Camp Ashraf residents are at serious risk of severe human rights violations if the Iraqi government goes ahead with its plans to force the closure of the camp by the end of this month'." Kasra Nejat (Columbia Tribune) argues, "America was the country that signed a personal pact with every member of the camp giving them protected-person status. It is time they were given what they were promised: protection from the despots in Iran and their henchmen in Iraq. Anything less will leave the United States politically and legally complicit in any future bloodshed."