March 2, 2012. Chaos and violence continue, protesters continue to be attacked in Iraq, protesters continue to protest in Iraq, monthly totals for February's violence are out, the White House hosts a veterans dinner, and more.
Yesterday snapshot noted Wednesday's Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing where the VA appeared as witnesses. Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Committee, Richard Burr is the Ranking Member. The topic was the White House's budget request for VA in Fiscal Year 2013. Many topics were raised in relation to the budget. We'll note this exchange initiated by the former Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Commitee, Senator Daniel Akaka.
Senator Daniel Akaka: General Shinseki, as you know, we often face challenges in treating our veterans who live in many rural and remote areas. This is especially true in places like Alaska and Hawaii where you just can't get to some places by jumping in a car and driving there. I know you're working on an MOU [Memorandum Of Understanding] with the Indians to find solutions to help provide services to our Native American veterans and I commend you and all of you involved in these efforts. Mr. Secretary can I get your commitment to possible ways of working with the Native Hawaiian health care systems and the Native American veterans systems that provide services for Native Hawaiian veterans who live in many of the rural parts of the state of Hawaii.
Secretary Eric Shinseki: Senator, you have my assurance that, uh, we will do our utmost to provide for any of our veterans wherever they live -- the most rural and remote areas, the same access and quality to health care and services as we provide to someone living in a more urban area. There is a challenge to that but we are not insensitive to that challenge and we're working hard to provide VA provided services and where we can't to make arrangements -- if quality services exist in those areas marking arrangements for veterans to be able to participate in those local opportunities. We are, I think you know, working and have been for some time on signing an MOU with Indian Health Service so that wherever they have facilities and we have vested interests that a veteran -- an eligible veteran -- going to an Indian Health Service facility will be covered by VA's payments. We're in stages of trying to bring that MOU to conclusion. We intend to do that. And where tribes approach us prior to the signing of the MOU and want to establish, from Tribal Nation with VA, a direct relationship because they have a medical facility and would like us to provide the same coverage, we're willing to do that. But that would be on a case-by-case basis.
Senator Daniel Akaka: Thank you. Secretary Shinseki, staffing shortages continue to be a problem although there's been some progress. But some clinics are seeing staffing levels below 50% causing excessive waiting time for veterans that need care. I understand this is an issue you've been working on. As you know the number of veterans needing services is growing yearly and it shows that you have been making progress. Can you provide an update on the Department's progress to address staffing levels?
Dr. Robert Petzel: Uh, Mr. Secretary, thank you; Senator Akaka, thank you for the question. The -- uh -- We've addressed mental -- We've talked about mental health earlier and the efforts we're making to try and assess whether there's adequate staffing there. I think you're probably talking about primary care, which is our largest out patient clinic operation. We treat 5 -- 4.2 million veterans in our primary care system and it accounts for the lion's share of our budget expenditures. We assessed staffing three years ago when we began to implement a Patient Aligned Care team or PAC program and have done it again recently. And we're finding that we're now able to bring up the support staffing and the physician staffing to reasonable levels associated with the standards around the country. I would like to take off record -- offline -- any information you have about specific places where there's a 50% vacancy rate. I'm not aware that we have this around the country. So I would be delighted to meet and talk with your staff and find out where these areas might be so that we can address them specifically.
Senator Daniel Akaka: My time has expired but, Secretary Shinseki, as we face budget constraints, we must all work to improve our efficiency and redouble efforts to look for ways to get the most from our budgeted resources. My question to you is can you talk about any steps you are taking to improve the acquisition process at VA and any efficiencies you've been able to realize in this area?
Secretary Eric Shinseki: Senator, I would tell you that, uh, we have been working for several years now on restructuring our acquisition business practices. Three years ago, acquisition was spread throughout the organization. Now it's consolidated in two centers. One comes directly under Dr. Petzel and that's where all medical acquistions -- gloves, masks, aprons -- we ought to be able to leverage that into a bulk purchase and get a good price on those kinds of things. For everything we have an Office of Acqusition, Logistics and Construction and we have a director who heads both offices then come up to my level to the deputy secretary as part of our monthly oversight review process.
When I think of veterans in "rural" areas, I think of them in southern states or in Michigan which is densley populated in and around Detroit but much more sparsely populated throughout the rest of the state. I also think of Alaska, Montana and other states. I never consider Hawaii rural but of course it is. "Remote and rural" really drives that home. Senator Akaka's word choice really drove the point home. He also asked about staffing and a community member (Troy) had asked if the empty medical positions at VA were raised by any senator when discussing the budget on Wednesday? Ranking Member Richard Burr raised that issue.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: Since the Chair just asked about mental health, let me just ask if my information is correct. In December, VA polled their facilities and they found that there were 15,000 open mental health positions. Is that accurate? Dr. Petzel?
Secretary Eric Shinseki: Let me turn to Dr. Petzel.
Dr. Robert Petzel: Uh, could you repeat that number, Senator Burr. Ranking Member Richard Burr: In December of 2011, the VA polled their facilites and found there were 15,000 mental health slots that were unfilled meaning --
Dr. Robert Petzel: Our of 20,500, that's true.
There were many important questions raised in the hearing. On Iraqi violence, Mohammad Akef Jamal (Gulf News) raises an interesting one today about the February 23rd attacks across Iraq, "The spokesman of the Ministry of Interior announced that the ministry possesses grave and important information regarding the blasts. He then proceeded to threaten all those who have carried out the terrorist operations -- but if the ministry was truly in possession of information, why are the culprits still at large? " Don't expect it to get answered anytime soon but it is an important question. AKE's John Drakeappeared Wedensday on New Zealand's Radio Live (link is audio) to dicuss the ongoing violence. Excerpt:
James Coleman: John Drake is an Iraq intelligence analyst at AKE Intelligence -- an organization offering research and analysis on security risks around the globe. He joins us from London. John, good evening to you.
John Drake: Good evening and good morning.
James Coleman: So Baghdad is the focus of much of the violence. What has triggered the increase in aggression in the capitol?
John Drake: Well it's the focal point of all the main political organizations in Iraq. It's the seat of government, it's where a lot of the Iraqi and international media are based. So by conducting attacks in Baghdad, it often gives the militant groups additional attention, it raises the profile of their activies. It generates an audience for whatever political agenda they're trying to push. That's one of the main reasons. It's also, wherever you get a large amount of people in a large urban area that is often where you will get the great concentration of violence. Larger cities tend to see more crimes. It's often very similar when it comes to terrorism as well.
James Coleman :Mosul's been unusually quiet. Is there any indications that militants are looking elsewhere?
John Drake: That could be the case. Mosul is normally one of the most violent parts of the country. Over the course of last year, it saw an average of about one to two attacks a day. Over the last few weeks, it's been down to about two or three attacks a week. Now while the Iraqi authorities did indicate this was maybe due to some of their recent counter-insurgency operations in the city, the operations that they've been initiating haven't been more intense than normal and they haven't really been netting more militants than normal either. So there are two concerns. One is that militants may be looking across the border to Syria. They may be crossing the border to sell weaponry or even equipment and medicine or anything that they could put on the black market to raise finances for their operation. They may also be sending fighter across the border into Syria to engage in unrest and revolution there. They may be trying to infilitrate the main opposition organizations to Syrian President Basher Assad. They may be responsible for conducting some of the recent terrorist attacks in the country. However after the attacks -- the series of attacks in central Iraq a few days ago, it's obvious that they haven't all gone across the border. There's still a lot of them still in Iraq and looking to conduct attacks in the center of the country.
Staying with violence, AGI reports 2 Baghdad bombings resulted in 6 deaths and ten people injured today while Mohammed Ameer and Peter Graff (Reuters) report that Iraqi governmental ministries have released the February death toll figures asserting that 151 people died in February. They note these official numbers may be low and that "[o]ther sources, such as Iraq Body Count, a group which compiles data from media reports, give higher figures."
So let's look at how many we noticed the media reporting.
February 1st 2 were reported dead and eleven injured; February 2nd 4 were reported dead and one injured; February 3rd 3 were reported dead and eight injured; February 4th 5 were reported dead and three injured; February 5th 1 was reported dead and 5 injured; February 6th 1 was reported dead and twenty-two injured; February 7th 4 were reported dead and sixteen injured; February 8th no reported deaths; February 9th 2 were reported dead 3 injured; February 10th 1 death was reported (we don't include the border clashes with Turkey when we do these counts); February 11th none reported dead or wounded; February 12th 2 were reported dead and twelve injured; February 13th 3 were reported dead and seven injured; February 14th 9 were reported dead and twenty-seven injured; February 15th 4 were reported death and four injured; February 16th 1 was reported dead and eight injured; February 17th 5 were reported dead and one injured; February 18th no one was reported dead and none injured, February 19th 40 and thirty-three; February 20th zero were reported dead or wounded; February 21st zero were reported dead or wounded; February 22nd zero were reported dead or wounded; February 23rd 70 were reported dead [well over] a hundred wounded [these were the bombs across Iraq and once the wounded reached 100 the press largely stopped counting]; February 24th 1 dead and three injured; February 25th zero were reported dead or wounded; February 26th 2 were reported dead and seven injured; February 27th one person was reported wounded; February 28th 8 were reported dead, twelve injured; and February 29th 11 were reported dead and twenty-six injured. Check my math, that should be 175 dead and 329 injured. That's just the ones we noted and I surely missed many. In addition, not all deaths are covered by the media -- true throughout the war and only more so now.
At least 53 people were killed and 245 injured in #Iraq violence last week.
His totals are 135 dead and 422 injured. Iraq Body Count probably keeps the best records of those monitoring deaths covered by the media and they counted 248 civilian deaths in Iraq for the month of February.
Zooming in on violence to violence against protesters. Mahmoud al-Hassani al-Sarkh is a religious leader whose offices were attacked around February 19th when Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani's were being attacked.Nasiriyah News Network reports that approximately 100 Sarkhi supporters protested yesterday in Nasiriyah as they called for his office to be reopened. Hassan Sahlani (Nasiriyah News Network) adds that a delegation from the protesters met with the governor and the province's police chief.Violence also took place today in Nasiriyah. While Thursday's demonstration went well Alsumaria TV reports when the same supporters of religious authority Mahmoud al-Hassani Sarkhi demonstrated in public today, they were run off by riot police using water hoses.
And sadly, if that's all that happened, it may have been the least response to protesters by any portion of the Iraqi government.
In the KRG, demonstrators gathered on February 17th and they numbered in excess of 250. They report to Human Rights Watch that they were beaten, threatened and intimidated. Journalist attempting to cover the December 17th action were also attacked: "They confiscated the camera of Rahman Gharib, coordinator for the local press freedom group Metro Center to Defend Journalists, and beat him on the head and leg after he took some photographs, Gharib and witnesses told Human Rights Watch. The Metro Center has documented numerous abuses against Kurdish journalists, including more than 200 cases of attacks and harassment during the protests in Sulaimaniya between February and May, 2011."
In Baghdad, a number of methods were used to suppress turnout. From the report:
Members of several protest groups told Human Rights Watch that they attempted to demonstrate in Tahrir Square on February 25, the anniversary of Baghdad's 2011 "Day of Anger," when thousands gathered in the square to protest widespread corruption and demand greater civil and political rights. During nationwide demonstrations on that day a year earlier, security forces killed at least 12 protesters across the country and injured more than 100. Human Rights Watch also saw Baghdad security forces beat unarmed journalists and protesters, smashing cameras and confiscating memory cards. On February 25, 2012, security forces in Baghdad again attempted to stop protesters from reaching Tahrir Square, though with different methods. Several demonstrators told Human Rights Watch that security forces blocked many roads approaching Tahrir Square, at times saying the roads were blocked because a car bomb that had gone off in the vicinity, although protesters said local merchants reported hearing no explosions and Iraqi authorities released no specific information to the media. Security forces told also told protesters walking toward Tahrir Square that they had intelligence indicating that "many terrorists" were in the square and 11 bombs had been placed in the area, and that security forces "could not guarantee the safety of protesters." Human Rights Watch witnessed security forces using similar explanations to prevent journalists and protesters from going to Tahrir Square many times between March and December 2011. Some of the protesters who reached Tahrir Square said they did not enter the square because the show of force by security forces frightened them. According to observers, the forces numbered between 600 and 1,000 armed personnel in and around Tahrir Square, with more amassed on side streets. As protesters approached the multiple checkpoints surrounding Tahrir Square set up that morning, security forces informed them that they had a long list of protesters whom they had orders to arrest and that they would check this list against the identification cards of anyone wishing to pass through. A young activist who did not want his name used for fear of government reprisal told Human Rights Watch that one smiling soldier told him and other protesters, "We may have your name. Why don't you step forward and see if you get arrested?" Another activist said that an officer told protesters that even people with names "similar" to those on the list would be arrested. "From the way he said it, I thought he might arrest me no matter what my name was, so we left," he said. One demonstrator, who said he was intimidated and did not try to pass the police checkpoints, said: "I just stood monitoring, outside Tahrir Square. No one at all was allowed to take photos or use their phones. There were so many members of the army; they were standing every half meter in the square with their sticks."
And Tim Arango and the New York Times? They didn't report on any of the above. Iraqi reporters were trying to cover the Baghdad demonstration and Human Rights Watch notes that:
Journalists told Human Rights Watch that security forces prevented them from covering the demonstration by not allowing them to enter the square with photographic equipment, voice recorders, mobile phones, and even pens. One Iraqi news agency reported that security forces briefly detained journalists for "violating the rules of demonstration, entering banned areas and trying to provoke the public." Human Rights Watch has observed security forces interfering with journalists at work at more than 20 demonstrations at Tahrir Square during the past year. Iraq's constitution guarantees "freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration."As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iraq is obligated to protect the rights to life and security of the person, and the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. In May, the Council of Ministers approved a draft "Law on the Freedom of Expression of Opinion, Assembly, and Peaceful Demonstration," which authorizes officials to restrict freedom of assembly to protect "the public interest" and in the interest of "general order or public morals," vague criteria that the law does not define further. The draft law is awaiting approval by parliament.
Iraq's Constitution formally guarantees the rights of free speech and assembly, but in practice it's generally ignored.
The Committee to Protect Journalists rated Iraq the worst country in its "impunity index" for last year, which measures how a national legal system does, or does not, protect reporters. Five reporters were killed across the country in 2011 and 150 have been killed there since 2003. Last year, 26 journalists were detained by the authorities for their work. The CPJ says that there has not yet been a conviction in any of those cases.
In spite of the attacks and threats, Jane Arraf (Al Jazeera, Christian Science Monitor) Tweets that protests took place in Baghdad today:
#Iraq ex civil servants gathering in rain in #Baghdad's Tahrir Square demanding jobs back - far more riot police - what are they afraid of?
From the current occupation to a potential new one, on this week's. Black Agenda Radio, hosted by Glen Ford and Nellie Bailey, (airs each Monday at 4:00 pm EST on the Progressive Radio Network), Glen Ford discussed Syria with international law expert Francis A. Boyle. Excerpt.
Glen Ford: The US and its allies insist that Syria doesn't have the right to protect itself. Now about one-third of the deaths in this internal conflict have already been Syrian soldiers and policemen. Clearly, it is an armed conflict.
Francis A. Boyle: Obviously. My guess is like what happened in Libya there was a spontaneous protest and demonstrations by people living there against the Assad government. That doesn't surprise me at all. But it was quickly hijacked and has been used as a pretext to promote an attempt to overthrow the Assad government and, if that doesn't work, to produce civil was in Syria that would neutralize Syria and its long standing refusal to succumb to Israel's demands and the Zionist demands that they effectively give up the Golan Heights. And also to crack Syria up into its ethnic components, which it does have along the lines of what they've already done to Afghanistan, Iraq, Yugoslavia and Libya as well. So the same thing could very easily happen to Syria and it would simply serve the interests of Israel, the United States, France -- the former colonial power there. It's a joke and a fraud to say that France is the least bit interested in human rights in Syria. And also Turkey -- the other former colonial power in Syria. And, again, it's a joke and a fraud to say that Turkey's the least bit interested in human rights in Syria -- especially after what's it's done to its -- what it's still doing to its own Kurdish people in Turkey itself and also in northern Iraq. So you really can't take these colonial-imperial powers seriously when they shed crocodile tears for human rights.
Glen Ford: France is demanding a humanitarian corridor in Syria. But of course we remember that NATO rejected the idea of a humanitarian corridor in Libya when the African Union proposed one.
Francis A. Boyle: Look at the proposal by the African Union which is the appropriate regional organization, set up under Chapter 8 of the United Nations Charter to deal with Africa. And they had a very comprehensive peace proposal there for Libya and it was completely brushed aside and indeed stymied at the Security Council and in the General Assembly. So the colonial-imperial powers in NATO and the United States paid absolutely no attention to the African Union. This is all eyewash that they're concerned about human rights. Have any of them lifted one finger at all to help the Palestinians? Especially the
1.5 million Palestinians now who are being subjected to slow motion genocide in Gaza? Of course not. So it's just preposterous. This is all propaganda here in the United States that I don't think really deceives anybody over there in the region about what's really going on.
Glen Ford: It seems to many of us that Syria has been forced to battle block by block in certain cities lest the West declare some area, some city, some border area, some sliver of land in Syria to be a kind of liberated territory that must be protected by the West.
Francis A. Boyle: Well they did the same thing in Libya in Benghazi, right? Remember Reagan tried to do the same thing in Nicaragua with the Contras and set up some kind of free zone and a liberated government that could then ask for military intervention? That is correct. So this is pretty much par for the course for these colonial-imperial powers. Right.
Glen Ford: So as an expert on international law, is Syria within its rights to defend its control over all of its territory?
Francis A. Boyle: Well I'm not justifying any human rights violations by Syria -- one way or the other. But certainly it seems to me that what is going on here is an organized attempt to overthrow the legitimate government of Syria that is being coordinated by the United States, France, Turkey, Qatar -- a dictatorship -- and by Saudi Arabia -- another dictatorship. And it appears support coming from Israel and Iraq and other forces under the control of Western intelligence agencies such as al Qaeda. For example, last week the Financial Times reported that all of these al Qaeda fighters -- after they did the dirty work in Libya are now moving over to mobilize against Syria. Also they are mobilizing now in Jordan, as we speak. The government does have a right to keep itself in power. You know, who gives Obama the right to say that the government in Syria should step down? None. But they don't really care. There has been no effort made at all by the United States, any of these imperial powers or by the United Nations or by the League of Arab States to achieve a peaceful resolution of this dispute as required by the terms of the United Nations Charter under Chapter Six -- which is what they should have done before moving to Chapter Seven enforcement measures. No effort at all has been made to produce a peaceful resolution of this matter and that's exactly what happened in Libya -- no effort at all was made. So I think that indicates just an absence of good faith at and, at this point, they have no intention of a peaceful resolution of this dispute. Their objective, their intention is to overthrow the Assad government, put in a stooge puppet if possible that will be under the control of the United States, France and at the end of the day sign some type of bogus peace treaty with Israel that will give them the control of the Golan Heights.
President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Dr Jill Biden tonight welcomed a group of true American heroes to the White House. "A Nation's Gratitude: Honoring those who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn" was a formal dinner that paid tribute to our Iraq veterans and marked the end of the war.
More than 100 service members and their guests were in attendance, and the invitees included men and women in uniform from all ranks, each U.S. state and territory, and every branch of the Armed Forces. Together, they represented the million American troops who served in Iraq, and they also represented what Vice President Joe Biden called the finest generation of warriors in all of history.
In his remarks, the President welcomed the veterans home, praised their bravery and dedication to their mission, and thanked them on behalf of more than 300 million Americans:
Tonight, what we can do is convey what you've meant to the rest of us. Because through the dust and the din and the fog of war, the glory of your service always shone through. In your noble example, we see the virtues and the values that sustain America, that keep this country great.
You taught us about duty. Blessed to live in the land of the free, you could have opted for an easier path. But you know that freedom is not free. And so you volunteered and you stepped forward, and you raised your hand and you took an oath -- to protect and defend; to serve a cause greater than yourself, knowing, in a time of war, you could be sent into harm's way.
You taught us about resolve. Invasion turned to insurgency and then sectarian strife. But you persevered, tour after tour, year after year. Indeed, we're mindful that even as we gather here, Iraq veterans continue to risk their lives in Afghanistan, and our prayers are with them all tonight.
In one of our nation's longest wars, you wrote one of the most extraordinary chapters in American military history. Now the Iraqi people have a chance to forge their own destiny, and every one of you who served there can take pride in knowing you gave the Iraqis this opportunity; that you succeeded in your mission.