Thursday, June 28, 2012. Chaos and violence continue, some wonder who will eventually replace Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, attacks on the press in Iraq continue, we note the attacks on Al Mada, Nouri offers name calling of his rivals, the return of the VA's dreaded Madhulika Agarwal, and much more.
In an new article published by the Navy Times today, Patricia Kime reports on a study for the US military's Trauma Combat Casualty Care Committee which found "that nearly a quarter of the 4,596 combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011 were 'potentially survivable'."
There's not been a comprehnsive evaluation of deaths in Iraq but that's probably partly due to the fact that the violence has never stopped. This morning kicked off with Mohammed Tawfeeq (CNN) reporting 3 Taji car bombings have left at least two people dead and another fifteen injured. AP noted those numbers increased to 5 dead and eighteen injured. In addition, AFP noted a Baghdad car bombing has claimed 8 lives and left thirty injured. Kareem Raheem (Reuters) quotes Baghdad police officer Ahmed Nouri stating, "There were bodies scattered everywhere. Glass and vegetables covered the whole place. I feel lik my clothes are completely covered in blood and the smell of it is in my nose. In some places you cannot tell the blood from the (pulverized) vegetables." On the Baghdad bombing, AP quotes Hadil Maytham who was with her children when the explosions took place, "It shook the doors and the windows of the house. Then we heard shooting, probably by police who usually shoot randomly after explosions." AFP also noted a Baquba bombing claimed 2 lives and left four people injured and a Ramadi car bombing left five people injured. Reuters added, "A roadside bomb targeting a police patrol killed one and wounded five in Abu Dsheer, a Shi'ite area in southern Baghdad, police said." In addition, KUNA reports, "In Diyala Governorate southewest of Baghdad, unknown armed men killed four security elements at a checkpoint in Baqubah city." AFP added this evening that 2 Shawa were killed in Samarra with an additional two left injured. As the day ended in the US, AP was counting 22 deaths and over fifty injured. It has been a very violent month in Iraq with Iraq Body Count counting 404 deaths by violence this month (June 1st through yesterday).
Meanwhile many speculate about Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's health and his eventual death, specifically who would take over. Hayder al-Khoei (Niqash) argues it's very unlikely that Grand Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi (born in Iraq, adult life spent in Iran) would be named the replacement as some hope and some fear:
Shahroudi is a well-regarded scholar but his political position in Iran hinders, rather than helps, his prospects in Iraq. In fact, any political position a cleric holds actually has direct – and negative – implications on his religious credentials in Najaf. In Iran, religion and politics may be symbiotic. But in Iraq they do not go hand in hand.
The Shiite schools in Najaf, headed by al-Sistani have been practicing what is known as a tradition of quietism here for centuries: that is, a policy of religious leaders not interfering in political affairs. Clerics in Iraq do get involved in politics and the Grand Ayatollah does intervene in political affairs, but unlike in Iran, only on rare occasions.
Additionally, the process by which a successor to the religious movement is selected must be considered. As Iraqi government spokesperson, Ali al-Dabbagh, put it: "there will be a transition period for a few years after the leading cleric dies but there are set mechanisms in place [for choosing a successor] and anyone who attempts to fill this gap using financial and political power from outside Iraq will fail".
Al-Dabbagh is referring to the gradual process of selection, involving other senior clerics in Najaf who will have a role in persuading the masses toward one, or several, clerics suitable to eventually take al-Sistani's place. It will not be clear cut at first and it may take some years for one strong, leading cleric to emerge.
As political and financial independence is crucial, it seems unlikely that senior clerics in Najaf will persuade the masses to start following someone like Shahroudi, with such an overt political role in Iran.
But the likelihood of Shahroudi replacing al-Sistani does not just depend on theological differences between clerics in Iraq and Iran. It also depends on the attitude of the masses. By following al-Sistani, Shiite Muslims indicate their reluctance to tie their religious and spiritual identity to a modern political system.
Today, AFP reports, "Baghdad: Iraq's interior ministry has given dozens of media outlets 45 days to comply with Communications and Media Commission (CMC) regulations over licences, or they will face 'legal procedures'." Reporters Without Borders issues a statement which includes:
Tension between authorities and media have peaked this month with a decision by the Communications and Media Commission (CMC) – still pending implementation – to close 47 radio and TV stations on the grounds they lack official permits, and with demonstrations by journalists calling for the repeal of the Law on Journalists' Rights, which parliament adopted in August 2011 and which is widely regarded as violating the rights it claims to defend.
Disturbing decision by panel of questionable independence
Reporters Without Borders is alarmed by the CMC's decision, which triggered such an outcry that the interior ministry has given the radio and TV stations concerned 45 days from 25 June to comply with regulations.
The CMC took its decision more than a month ago but it was only revealed on 23 June by the Journalism Freedoms Observatory (JFO), which obtained documentary evidence of the plan. It concerns both local and foreign TV stations such as the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Monte Carlo, Radio Sawa, Al-Baghdadia TV and Al-Sharqiya News.
Many journalists and some politicians have criticized the decision as an attempt to gag the media, pointing out that the head of the CMC is appointed by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and that many of the targeted media are noted either for the non-partisan nature of their Iraqi coverage or, in some cases such as Al-Baghdadia and Al-Sharqiya, for their frequent criticism of the Iraqi government.
Iraq is currently experiencing a major political crisis with the prime minister facing mounting opposition. He is often accused of authoritarianism, nepotism and corruption.
Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO) head Ziyad al-Aajey told the Associated Press in a telephone interview that he believes the latest action against international news outlets is a direct warning from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"It is a government message to the media outlets that if you are not with us, then you are against us," he said.
But Nouri began his crackdown on the press in July of 2006, he was freshly named prime minister. He continued it. At one point, his attacks translated into a reporter for the New York Times having an Iraqi soldier aim a gun at him, pull the trigger and then laugh because there was no chamber in the round. This is what Nouri's encouraged and fostered in Iraq. He's sued the Guardian, he's sued everyone. Saleh al-Mutlaq tells CNN in December that Nouri's acting like a dictator and Nouri spends months trying to get al-Mutlaq stripped of his Deputy Prime Minister post.
In 2012, Nouri's favorite thing is to storm Iraqi news websites with hits to try to get them denied service. No one comments on that because there's hardly any foreign press in Iraq anymore. But there's too much still for Nouri. Little Saddam can't do what he wants to do if there's a chance that the world's watching.
This led some to insist that there are no web attacks in Iraq. Yes, there are. It's pretty much destroying Al Mada which, today, is temporarily back online. You won't find new content. The daily has been hard by these attacks and hasn't published since the end of May. However, May 25th they did report that their website was exposed to daily attacks that were causing it to crash. They apologized to their readers and noted that tehcnical staff was attempting to prevent the hacks and the disruption of service.
Al Mada is one of Iraq's finest newspapers -- a newspaper that repeatedly puts US coverage to shame. It could be a leader in the Middle East. Instead, it's repeatedly attacked and the US press can't even be bothered with noting that fact. Is it professional jealousy or just the US press forever being self-absorbed.
In Iraq, the political crisis continues. Kitabat reports that Ibrahim al-Jaafair hosted a meeting at his home last night and that various factions of the National Alliance met in what is seen as an effort to save Nouri al-Maliki. Whether the Sadr bloc supports the effort or not, Bahaa al-Araji did attend. Alsumaria reports that Nouri is insisting that a no-confidence vote is over and that it's either a dialogue or early elections.
Nouri wasn't the one calling for a no-confidence vote in himself so he's really not the one with the power to decide when such an effort is over. Dar Addustour notes the Kurdish Alliance sees Nouri's threat of early elections as his effort to avoid being questioned by the Parliament. Alsumaria reports Nouri is stating today that a campaign to sew confusion is being waged in Iraq and, while that would make a good confession from Nouri, he is yet again pointing the finger at others. Al Rafidayn quotes Nouri stating that the answer to the problems is not rushing to the Constitution. Well he would say that. When has he ever respected the Iraqi Constitution? Just one example, he's been prime minister since 2006. The Iraqi Constitituion's Article 140 insists a referendum and census on Kirkuk will be held. It insists it is not to take place any later than the end of 2007. Despite taking an oath to uphold the Constitution, Nouri has repeatedly refused to implement Article 140 and offered one excuse after another of why it's not a good time. Nouri has no respect for the Constitution and, over Article 140 alone, should be impeached and removed from office. Despite his inability to follow his oath, Nouri managed to insist that Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi is not netural and is not professional.
Senator Barbara Boxer: I want to say I came here to talk to you about the epidemic of veteran homelessness and to offer up an idea that doesn't cost any money that I think would be terrific in involving the American people in this -- fighting this epidemic. You know, I would say probably all of us in this room -- I certainly hope all of us in this room -- have safe, comfortable homes to live in and we take it for granted. But every night, 67,500 of our nation's veterans are homeless. 67,500 of our veterans are homeless. This is inexcusable because no veteran should ever have to spend a night on the streets and I know we all agree with that. Ensuring that our veterans have safe, stable housing is also a smart thing to do because research has shown that a home is the very foundation that a veteran can build and sustain a successful life. In my home state of California, I met a veteran, Holbert Lee. And when Mr. Lee returned home from Vietnam, he ended up addicted to drugs and homeless on the streets of San Francisco. We have an organization there called Swords to Plowshares and they helped him turn his life around, Madam Chairwoman, with the help of a housing voucher and VA support services, Mr. Lee now has a home to call his own. And today as a vocational specialist at the San Francisco VA, he is working to assist other veterans. Holbert Lee is a success story and proof of what can happen when we end the cycle of homelessness. But there are too many more men and women who we have not reached. Now our government announced a goal to end veterans homelessness by 2015. And I like to think that when we announce a goal like that, we mean it. This isn't just something we throw out. But yet [VA] Secretary [Eric] Shinseki admitted, "While we're not where we need to be just yet, we have movement but it's too early to begin high-fiving one another." And it is clear from those words that we have a long way to go. So I introduced S. 1806, the Check the Box for Homeless Veterans Act of 2011. Very straightforward. It creates a check off box on the annual federal tax return. Tax payers can decide to make a voluntary contribution of one-dollar or more to support programs that prevent and combat veterans homelessness. The donations are deposited in a new homeless veterans assistance fund established at the treasury that can only be used to supplement Congressionally appropriated funds for these various programs to help veterans. Now let me be very clear, the funds in the check off box will not be allowed by law to replace any budgeted dollars -- there needs to be a maintenance of effort -- but they would be used to supplement those dollars. So colleagues, I want to say -- Well, before I do my real close, I want to place in the record with your permission, Madam Chair, letters of support from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, from TEAM AMVETS, from the Center for American Homeless Veterans Inc. and from the California Association of County Veterans Services Officers and Swords to Plowshares. I think -- If I might put those in the record, if that is alright?
Chair Patty Murray: We will do that.
Senator Barbara Boxer: And I think that they -- If you read these letters, there's -- They strongly support this approach. So in conclusion I would say that our veterans have given so much. You're dealing with this every day and a lot of them suffer, they suffer mightily. And having a home is the least we can do and I think that all of Americans want a chance to help. They -- they feel sometimes helpless. But with a dollar on a check-off, if every American paying their taxes did that, we could do something special. I hope you will consider this. I will work with you to make it happen. I thank you for your dedication.
Boxer was speaking at yesterday's Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on proposed legislation. Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Committee. Yesterday, we noted her bills S. 3340 The Mental Health ACCESS Act of 2012 and S. 3313, The Women Veterans and Other Health Care Improvement Act of 2012. On the latter, we also noted some of the testimony of Tracy Keil. Tracy and her husband Iraq War veteran Matt Keil faced obstacles to having a child following Matt Keil being shot on February 24, 2007 while on patrol in Ramadi. If Matt Keil had a basic insurance policy with any corporation, fertility and conception issues and care would not have been an issue. As a veteran, Matt Keil's 'insurance' -- and that of his family -- comes via the VA. And Murray's bill brings the VA up to 2012 and puts veterans and their families on equal footing when it comes to reproductive health. Tracy Keil probably said it best yesterday, "War time changes a family, it shouldn't take away the ability to have one."
This is a basic issue that shouldn't be surrounded with any controversy or resistance. It's not 1980, we're not just learning of Baby Louise (Louise Joy Brown, born in 1978, the first child conceived via in vitro fertilization). Though the VA has dragged its feet for decades, these are not new issues. Tracy Keil was part of the second panel along with VetsFirst's Heather Ansley, Disabled American Veterans' Joy Ilem and the American Urological Association's Dr. Mark Thomas Edney. The first panel was VA's Dr. Madhulika Agarwal, William Schoenhard, Thomas Murphy and Robert Hipolit. Excerpt of the first panel on this issue.
Chair Patty Murray: Well the VA can't offer much in the way of care for spouses. What does that mean for couples who need extra assistance conceiving a child because of a war injury?
Dr. Madhulika Agarwal: Thank you again, for this question, Madam Chair. Uh, Congress has generally restricted eligibility of health care services in VA to spouses. There are some rare exceptions such as in [one word here -- no idea what she said, speak into the microphone] VA. S. 3313 is aimed at expanding that authority to include infertility management for spouses under some circumstances when the veteran's injury has precluded their ability to procreate naturally. Uh, we do not have a position on this yet but are reviewing it. And, again, look forward to working with you and the Committee.
Agarwal? We last encountered her in the June 4, 2009 House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health. That performance led to the next day's entry here of "The VA's Madhulika Agarwal: Lying or grossly uninformed?" In the three years, she's clearly not improved. For example, I think Chair Murray knows S. 3313 and doesn't need anyone from the VA to tell her what it would do -- Murray is the sponsor of the bill. We all caught that, right? Murray asked what services VA provided. The answer is really none. But to eat up time and give a false impression or who knows what, Agarwal starts babbling about what Murray's bill will do. And, in her opening statement, Agarwal had already declared that the VA had no position on Murray's bill. (Which I think is both offensive and a medical dereliction of duty.)
Ranking Member Richard Burr: Mr. Murphy, you addressed the Second Amendment issue. If individuals -- Let me ask you this, how many veterans names have been turned over to NICIS? How many are currently on that list?
Thomas Murphy: I don't have the details on the number of names that are currently on that list. I can tell you the details around the number of requests for relief or removal from that list.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: How many names have been requested to be relieved?
Thomas Murphy: 185, Senator.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: And how many have been granted?
Thomas Murphy: A total of 19.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: And that's out of 127,000 names that have been turned over on the NICIS list.
Thomas Murphy: Correct. I'm assuming your numbers are correct. I don't have those in front of me.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: Trust me, they are.
Thomas Murphy: Okay.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: If individuals seek releif from the NICIS list,reporting requirements, does the VA assist them in coming up with the evidence needed to show whether they're dangerous?
Thomas Murphy: Yes, Senator, we do.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: What do you do?
Thomas Murphy: The Duty to Assist Act requires us to fully develop the case. This is not a light matter in the Veterans Administration. This is a fully adjudicated, full developed claim with a-a full decision letter with an explanation of how the decision was arrived to with a lot of supporting evidence and documentation provided.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: Are there any veterans that are determined incapable to handle their own personal finances that's name is not put on the NICIS list?
Thomas Murphy: Let me make sure I understand the question. Are there veterans who --
Ranking Member Richard Burr: Do you -- You have sombody who's determined that a veteran cannot write a check so they cannot handle their finances. They have now assigned a spouse to be in charge of the finances. Is there anybody that that's happened to that that veteran was not then listed on the NICIS list?
Thomas Murphy: I can say that there are not supposed to be. I'm not saying that through an administrative process of errors that it hasn't occurred.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: My understanding -- and I'll get you to go back and clarify this if I'm wrong -- every veteran who is relieved of their financial -- or deemed that they can't handle their own finances is automatically put on the list?
Thomas Murphy: They're placed on the list by the Veterans Administration, yes.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: So what are the qualifications of the VA employees who make the decisions about whether veterans and their families should be stripped of their Second Amendment? What training do these people go through?
Thomas Murphy: I-I don't believe we have an option in this, Senator. We're directed --
Ranking Member Richard Burr: Well you've got VA -- You've got VA employees that are making a decision about whether somebody is capable of doing their own personal finances. That determination that they're not capable of doing that strips them of their Second Amendment right. It's very simple. What training does that VA employee go through to be qualified to make a determination that would strip someone of their Constitutional rights?
Thomas Murphy: Our employees -- Our adjudicators are trained in determining whether or not that veteran is capable of making the financial determinations they have with the funds that Veterans Administration provides that individual. As a result of that decision, they are placed on the NICIS list. It's not a determination of whether the individual is capable of handling firearms or not, it's can they manage their personal finances.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: I know. But when they go on the NICIS list, they are now deprived of firearm ownership.
Thomas Murphy: That's correct.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: Okay. So a determination that they can't handle their personal finances strips them of their Second Amendment right and also, the way that it's written, it forbids any firearm to be handled by anyone in the household. So you, in essence, strip the spouse of the Second Amendment right, you strip children of the Second Amendment right because you've determined that a veteran can't handle their own personal finances. Are we in agreement?
Thomas Murphy: We are.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: Okay. Now I don't want to make this too simplistic. If a veteran can't sign their name to a check and the VA determines that their spouse should be assigned the financial responsibilities because you're transferring money into an account, do we agree that that would trigger their listing on the NICIS list and that would lose their Second Amendment right and everyone else in the household.
Thomas Murphy: That's one I need to ask Mr. Hipolit to verify for me. I'm not -- I'm unaware of the requirements for other people in the household on the restriction to own firearms.
Richard Hipolit: Yeah, that's correct as well. I was also not personally aware of the household restriction. I know that if VA determines the person is incapable of handling their financial affairs that does get them on the NICIS list but
Ranking Member Richard Burr: But you would agree, Mr. Hipolit, that a determination that they can't handle their finances has a wide definition to it.
Richard Hipolit: I would say that if VA determines that they're unable to handle their finances that does qualify them to get on the NICIS list and their names are referred for the list.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: That's not necessarily a mental determination. It could be a physical determination, correct?
Richard Hipolit: Uh --
Ranking Member Richard Burr: -- that they're not capable of handling their finances.
Richard Hipolit: If they had a physical disability that impaired their ability to handle they're financial affairs, yes.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: So they're automatically classified as dangerous?
Richard Hipolit: Our determination is just whether they can handle their financial affairs and then that automatically triggers the requirement to refer their names.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: So would you agree that the purpose of the NICIC list which was to take guns away from dangerous people and the threshold that VA currently uses to determine who goes on the NICIS list are potentially two very different things?
Richard Hipolit: I think that the law enforcement forces determined who should be put on the NICIS list and they determine that person --
Ranking Member Richard Burr: But they don't in the case of veterans. In the case of veterans, the only person that determines whether they get on the NICIC list is the VA and it's determined based upon are they capable of handling their own finances.
Richard Hipolit: Well the law that requires us to make a referral is --
Ranking Member Richard Burr: And you're the only agency in the federal government that across the board sends every person that's not qualified to handle their personal finances to the NICIC list?
Richard Hipolit: That's not my understanding --
Ranking Member Richard Burr: Are you ware of that?
Richard Hipolit: It's my understanding that other agencies refer people as well.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: Other agencies refer people but they have a different threshold for the ones that they refer. I think they might use the definition of dangerous and what I've heard you say is dangerous does not come into play. Mental capacity does not come into play. Capability of handling your own personal finances is the only threshold and when they hit that, they're automatically put on the NICIS list.
Richard Hipolit: From VA's standpoint, if they're determined to be unable to handle their financial affairs, we have to refer them.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: I hate to dig in on this. I just want to point out to you that the threshold is very, very different at VA. There are many veterans, spouses, and family members who are deprived of their Second Amendment right to own firearms based upon an arbitary decision by somebody at VA that they can't handle their own personal finances. These people are all of the sudden labeled as dangerous when in fact the decision may have been a physical disability that didn't permit them to handle their own finances. I hope this is something the Committee will look at. I -- I'm actually shocked that the Veterans Affairs Committee is not outraged at the way this is being implemented. 127,000 of our country's veterans are stripped of a Constitutional right. Some probably should. Many of those 127,000 never have had that right take away. I thank you.