Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Charges and counter-charges swirl in Iraq

Al Mada continues to be one of the leading press outlets in the Middle East today with their latest scoop.  They publish a letter signed last Saturday by various leaders (KRG President Massoud
Barzani, Moqtada al-Sadr, Ayad Allawi and Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Najaifi).  The letter, agreed to and signed at Moqtada al-Sadr's home on Saturday, calls on the National Alliance to propose an alternative to Nouri al-Maliki.  The letter references a written reply from National Alliance leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari (presumably the message Moqtada was waiting on at the end of last week) and how it did not make clear the response to demands for the implementation of the Erbil Agreement.  Kitabat reports that al-Najaifi released a statement yesterday referencing the letter and stating that it gave the National Alliance one week to find an alternative to Nouri.  Citing unnamed sources, Al Sabaah states that the National Alliance has rejected the call to find an alternative.

Al Mada reports that representatives of the National Alliance will meet with the reps from the Kurdistan Alliance in Baghdad today.   Yesterday, Nouri's supporters attempted to change the narrative by insisting (after it was learned that there were over 163 votes to oust Nouri) that they had 163 votes to oust Osama al-Najaifi as Speaker of Parliament.  Alsumaria notes the whisper campaign against the speaker includes the allegation that he's in service to a foreign country.  Al Mada adds that Nouri's State of Law insists this vote is taking place!  Just as soon as Parliament's back in session.  (That would be weeks and weeks from now.)  Alsumaria explains Iraqiya is calling State of Law's claims false and stating they do not have the votes they claim to; however, that Nouri does have time to act to stop a no-confidence vote.  (The deadline Moqtada gave him expires Sunday.)  Rumors continue to fly that Iraqiya's Saleh al-Mutlaq made a deal to save his own ass (Nouri had been trying to oust him as Deputy Prime Minister) which now will find him betraying Iraqiya and siding with Nouri.  When these rumors started last week, we noted al-Mutlaq's denial.  Currently, he's issued no denail to the rumors.

In related news, Alsumaria reports Iraqi President Jalal Talabani states that a date for a national conference will be set soon.  Of course, Talabani earlier set the date at April 5th but, less than 24 hours before that meet-up was to take place, it got cancelled.   State of Law will have to cancel their whisper campaign that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is on their side.  Al Mada notes that al-Sistani's aids have rejected the rumors that the Grand Ayatollah has admonished Moqtada al-Sadr not to split ranks with the Shi'ite politicians.  The Grand Ayatollah has issued no such statement and is not involved in the political process except to say that the crisis needs to be resolved. 

This position is in keeping with al-Sistani's position for over a year now.  The rebuke to those spreading the rumors may also result from the fact that the attacks earlier this year on the Grand Ayatollah's supporters and clerics were thought to have been carried out by Nouri's associates.

Amnesty International is calling for the release of Ramze Shihab Amhed from Iraqi detention:

Ramze Shihab Amhed has already had eight trials and says he was tortured while in secret detention
Amnesty International is calling for the release of a British man who has been detained in Iraq for nearly two-and-a-half years, denouncing new attempts to put him on trial as “politically-motivated”.
Ramze Shihab Ahmed, a 69-year-old dual Iraqi-UK national who has lived in the UK since 2002, is detained in Baghdad with the Iraqi authorities saying they are investigating his alleged involvement in terrorist offences.
However, Mr Ahmed has already been through eight trials and acquitted in each one. Most recently, on 10 May, he was found not guilty over alleged terrorist offences, but immediately told that he must remain in detention while further allegations are investigated. Amnesty believes that he has been in custody long enough for investigations into further charges to have been completed.
The Iraqi government has recently ordered the arrest of a number of Arab Sunnis in the country, including officials, and conducted trials against ex-army officers. The circumstances surrounding the continuous detention of Mr Ahmed, an ex-army officer from the Arab Sunni community, suggests his prosecution and detention may be politically-motivated.
Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:
“This is looking more and more like a politically-motivated effort to persecute Ramze, a Sunni and a former military man.
“The Iraqi authorities have already put Ramze through a staggering eight trials across two and half years, and have had more than enough time to investigate any alleged wrongdoing.
“Unless the prosecution can demonstrate a legitimate reason to detain Ramze, they should put an end to his ordeal and release him.
“The Iraqi authorities should allow him to return to his wife in Britain and investigate the allegation that he was tortured while held in a secret jail.”
Ramze Shihab Ahmed was originally arrested by security officials in a relative’s house in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on 7 December 2009. The previous month he had travelled from the UK to Iraq in an effort to secure the release of his detained son ‘Omar. However, after himself being arrested, he was held for nearly four months in a secret prison near Baghdad, during which time his whereabouts were completely unknown to his family. During this period Mr Ahmed alleges he was tortured - including with electric shocks to his genitals and suffocation by plastic bags - into making a false “confession” to terrorist offences.
Amnesty has campaigned for Mr Ahmed’s allegations of torture to be independently investigated and has urged the UK government to make representations to the Iraqi authorities on his behalf concerning this.
Mr Ahmed “reappeared” in late March 2010 when he was able to make a phone call to his wife Rabiha in London, imploring her to seek help from the UK authorities. However, partly on the basis of his coerced “confession”, he was subsequently put on trial, including on various terrorism charges. 
Ramze Shihab Ahmed’s wife Rabiha al-Qassab, a 64-year-old former teaching assistant who lives in north-west London, said:
“I’m appalled at what they’re doing to Ramze. He’s an innocent man who’s already been through so much.
“Though I’ve lost a lot of faith in the Iraqi justice system, I still hope the Iraqi authorities can see that they’re holding an innocent man who has had absolutely nothing to do with terrorism. Surely after eight trials they can now see that?
“UK officials have been very helpful to my husband and have offered their support, but I think the time has come for the UK government to absolutely insist on Ramze’s release.”
Note to editors:
Over 6,000 Amnesty supporters have lobbied the Foreign Secretary William Hague over the case. UK consular officials have visited Ahmed in jail in Baghdad and the Foreign Secretary has raised his case with the Iraqi Foreign Minister.

Amnesty supporters are currently lobbying the Iraqi embassy in the UK, calling for Ramze’s release if the prosecution authorities fail to show good reason to hold him longer and for an investigation into his allegations of torture (see:

Finally,  Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committe. Her office notes:
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
CONTACT: Murray Press Office
(202) 224-2834
VETERANS: Murray Calls on VA to Expedite Implementation of Patient Scheduling Systems, Asks for Quarterly Reports on Mental Health Provider Hiring Progress
Murray: Scheduling remains a barrier to timely and quality mental health care at VA
(Washington, D.C.) -- Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee sent two letters regarding the Department of Veterans Affairs mental health care wait times. The first letter, also signed by Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC), was sent to the Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology at VA, Roger Baker, regarding implementation of a new patient scheduling system. In a recent report, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) characterized the Department's twenty-five year old patient scheduling system as a major limitation on VA's ability to reduce wait times and as not user friendly. Senator Murray urged VA to take steps to ensure its current system is no longer a barrier to veterans seeking timely access to mental health care and to expedite the planned replacement of this system.
In a second letter, sent to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, Senator Murray requested quarterly reports on VA's progress as they implement staffing increases for mental health services. As VA begins work to hire 1,600 new mental health staff, in addition to another 1,500 existing vacancies, these quarterly reports will provide the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee with insight into the Department's progress as it fills these critical positions.
"A new patient scheduling system must be a top priority for VA. With the current system, VA schedulers have trouble telling a provider's availabilty and they can't track demand for services. This is why I hear time and again from veterans trying to get appointments for mental health care only to be told they'll have to wait a month or more. That isn't right and we've got to do better," said Senator Murray. "VA has also promised to hire 1,600 new mental health providers, yet there are already 1,500 existing vacancies. If we're going to provide high quality and timely mental health care, we must see real results from VA and not allow this promise of more providers to become 3,100 empty offices. As we continue to address other problems with mental health care for our veterans, I will be watching closely to make sure VA is doing everything in its power to bring these providers on board."
These letters come on the heels of a report Senator Murray had requested from the Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General on the time it takes VA to complete mental health care appointments for our nation's veterans. The report concludes, as Senator Murray has repeatedly warned, that the wait times for mental health care faced by veterans, many of whom are in crisis and need urgent care, far exceed acceptable wait times and are significantly greater than VA has previously reported.
The full text of both letters follow:
May 22, 2012
The Honorable Roger W. Baker
Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Baker:
For the past two years, the Committee has conducted oversight of veterans' access to mental health care at VA and the quality of that care. We have heard repeatedly from veterans in crisis who looked to VA for help only to find their appointments postponed and care delayed. During the Committee's most recent hearing on mental health care, we examined the serious issues affecting the Department's ability to schedule appointments in a timely way and to accurately calculate veterans' wait times.
The hearing highlighted what we have long known -- scheduling and the Deparmtnet's twenty-five year old scheduling system remain at the heart of VA's inability to provide timely access to medical care. In its report, Veterans Health Administration: Review of Veterans' Access to Mental Health Care, and at the hearing, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) characterized the Department's twenty-five year old patient scheduling system as a major limitation on VA's ability to reduce wait times and as not user friendly.
We know that this outdated system prevents the Department from accurately tracking the key performance metrics that are necessary to correctly evaluate wait times and access. VA cannot readily track demand or capacity, and assessing provider availability through the system is challenging. Inconsistent practices by schedulers to capture appointment information have also affected VA's ability to provide timely access to care. Indeed, the Department has known about these issues as early as 2005. That year, and again in 2007, the OIG released reports identifying these issues, yet nearly seven years later, scheduling remains a barrier to timely and quality mental health care at VA.
It is clear to us that much more must be done by VA to reduce wait times and improve access to mental health care. Replacing the patient scheduling system must be a top priority for the Department. While we know that VA is working on a replacement scheduling system, we understand it will not be implemented until 2014 at the earliest. As our servicemembers continue to return home from Afghanistan and the need for a reliable scheduling system grows, this timeline may simply be too little too late. If the Department cannot expedite implementation of its scheduling replacement system, what steps will VA take in the meantime to ensure its current system is no longer a barrier to veterans seeking timely access to mental health care?
In order to expedite implementation, funding of a the new system must also be a priority. Yet we understand that the Fiscal Year 2013 funding for this project through your office's prioritized operating plan is not yet confirmed. This is a critical project. Full funding must be a priority.
While these are complicated issues, and indentifying a viable commercial scheduling system capable of successfully integrating with VA legacy systems requires careful and thoughtful planning, those who depend on VA for timely and quality mental health care look to us for answers and solutions. We look forward to hearing from you about your plan to expedite implementation of VA's new scheduling system and the steps you will take in the interim to ensure the current scheduling system is part of the solution and not part of the problem. Thank you for all of your work on behalf of our nation's veterans.
May 22, 2012
The Honorable Eric K. Shinseki
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Shinseki:
Thank you for your plan to increase the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) mental health services by adding 1,900 new staffing positions. The announcement of additional positions is a well-intended step toward meeting the increased demand in mental health services at VA.
I write to request quarterly updates, beginning at the end of the third quarter of this fiscal year, on the Department's progress as VA implements the staffing increase for mental health services. As VA begins hiring nearly 3,400 mental health staff, these quarterly updates will provide the Committee with insight into the Department's progress in filling critical vacancies.
I also request that the Department provide information on the use of additional pay authorities to recruit mental health professionals over the last four years, as well as any advertising or recruitment efforts to address the staffing shortage. I expect the first report to the Committee no later than three months since the announcement of new mental health positions.
As you know, VA's mental health services have the unique ability to firmly place veterans on the successful path toward achieving their full potential, which not only saves lives but also enrich the lives of our veterans, their families, and their communities. I thank you for your commitment to our nation's veterans and look forward to continuing to work with you on this important mission.

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