Friday, August 3, 2012. Chaos and violence continue, Nouri goes nuts over Turkey, his backup singers shimmy behind him and ooh and ahh about suicide, arrests and all things 'evil' about Turkey, depleted uranium gets some press attention, the VA's interesting contract practices are discussed in Congress, and more.
A power-sharing agreement brokered in November 2010 at Erbil among Iraq's key political actors was meant to establish a balanced coalition government, in which key executive branch posts were to be distributed among the main parties in rough proportion to their electoral strength. A newly created National Council for Strategic Policy was also meant to broaden representation in policymaking beyond the cabinet. The resulting checks and balances, it was thought, would prevent the government from adopting extreme positions by requiring compromise policies acceptable to all the major stakeholders. Since then, however, Maliki's critics claim he has ignored the Erbil agreement, instead accruing excessive power, bypassing the Iraqi constitution and bringing under his personal control the country's other political institutions, including the judiciary, federal agencies and the nominally independent election and integrity commissions and central bank. He has also placed many key national security posts in the hands of his supporters, appointing many senior police, military and intelligence officers without parliament's approval, while seeming to exercise undue influence on their activities. The judgments of the supposedly neutral Constitutional Court also consistently favor the government. Furthermore, Maliki and his allies have blocked the creation of the aforementioned strategic council in parliament and refused to hold referenda in governorates whose provincial councils were seeking to become federal regions to increase their autonomy from Baghdad.
Again, it's a very strong overview. (My own personal favorite observation? "Finally, to reassure his critics, he has sometimes stated that he may not run for a third term in national elections scheduled for 2014.") The thing about Nouri is that once he unleashes the crazy, he can't reel it back in, he can't bottle it up. Which explains the latest development in the Baghdad-based government's attempt to be a 'good neighbor.' Barry Malone (Reuters) reports, "Iraq made a formal protest to Turkey's envoy in Baghdad on Firday after the Turkish foreign minister made a surprise visit to an oil-rich Iraqi city claimed by both the central government and the country's autonomous Kurdistan region."
Huh? Who knew Iraq had it's own Area 51, off-limits to all. But, wait, it's Kirkuk. A city in the province of Kirkuk, where an estimated 388,000 people live. And it's not a gated community. People travel in and out of Kirkuk freely. But let a Turkish official touring northern Iraq visit the city and Nouri's uncapping the crazy.
The backstory: Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu arrived in Erbil on Wednesday and continued his visit on Thursday by visiting various parts of the KRG and, most 'controversially' for Baghdad, Kirkuk. Kirkuk is a disputed region with both the KRG and Baghdad claiming it. (How to solve the issue? Article 140 of the Constitution explains it. But that census and referendum was supposed to be instituted by the end of 2007, per the Constitution, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to do so and continues to refuse to do so.)
Davutolgu visited leaders of Kirkuk's Turkmen community, with which Ankara has long had close ties, as well as religious and historical sites including the city's Ottoman cemetery.
Turkmen Front head Arshad al-Salehi said: "Turkmen should work to enhance relations with Turkey, and Shiites with Iran, and Sunnis with Gulf countries."
The front's deputy leader, Ali Hashem Mukhtar Oglu, said Davutoglu was the highest-ranking Turkish official to visit the city in decades.
Ties between Iraq and Turkey have been marred by a flurry of disputes this year.
In July, Iraq warned Ankara against "any violations" of its territory and airspace, and instructed the foreign ministry to register a complaint at the UN Security Council, after Turkish jets bombed Kurdish rebels in Kurdistan.
A few days earlier, Iraq called on Turkey to stop accepting "illegal" transfers of crude oil from Kurdistan, which an official from the region said had begun earlier in the month.
Sapa-AFP note that in the meeting between the Turkish ambassador to Iraq and the Iraqi government, it was conveyed to Iraq that "Turkey has no secret agenda." Nouri's paranoia being what it is, that reassurance most likely meant very little.
Nouri unleashed the dogs. Al Mada reports that today the Ministry of Health announced that there have been seven suicides -- all under 16-years-old -- as a result of a Turkish soap opera. Also today State of Law's Abdul Salam al-Maliki is stomping his feet. All Iraq News reports that he is demanding that the Arab League condemn the visit by the Turkish Foreign Minister and that the Arab League call the visit a breach of Iraq's sovereignty. The KRG should actually pay Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law political slate a monthly fee. These little tantrums by State of Law are like a mini-advertisement: "Come to the Kurdistan where adults are in charge." You have to wonder if Nouri gets how stupid his slate makes Iraq look? On the world stage, State of Law is a joke. al-Monitor notes, "According to Rudaw News Agency, parliamentarian Abdulhadi el Hassan from Maliki's party said: 'Turkey is blatantly interfering in Iraq's internal affairs. The Turkish embassy should be closed down. We have the right to detain Davutoglu'."
KUNA reports, "Turkey's foreign ministry Friday summoned Iraqi Ambassador in Ankara to protest against Iraqi criticism over Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu's visit to Kirkuk." Alsumaria notes that Iraqiya (the political slate that came in first in the March 2010 elections) has called on Nouri's government to lower the rhetoric and stop escalating the situation. Hurriyet Daily News reports Davutoglu met today with Ayad Allawi (head of Iraqiya).
Is it any wonder that the KRG is so much more attractive to the international business community? After all, they don't have to deal with Crazy Nouri in the KRG. Daniel Graeber (Oil Price) reviews recent deals with the KRG that irk Baghdad:
Iraq, more than seven years after the first post-Saddam government was voted in, still lacks effective legislation to govern the oil sector. The central government in Baghdad considers unilateral oil contracts with the Kurdistan Regional Government illegal. U.S. supermajors Chevron[CVX111.121.87(+1.71%)] and Exxon Mobil [XOM87.551.67(+1.94%)] were blacklisted by Baghdad for making deals with Kurdish authorities. In April, the Kurdish government retaliated by blocking oil exports but has since sent some shipments over the border to Turkey. Despite the political infighting, French majors Total and Marathon Oil locked step in the Kurdish north. Total, in a statement, said it was looking for "new opportunities" in Iraq. (More: Investing Lessons in One of the World's Most Volatile Sectors)
That move brought additional fire from Baghdad. A spokesman for the energy ministry said the central government would "punish" companies that made deals without Baghdad's consent, warning Total it could face "severe consequences" for its actions.
Maybe it was the Kurds announcing a few days ago that they had no problem with the US making efforts to assist Iraq with its ongoing political crisis but Nouri's government lately has made clear that they're not pleased with either the US or the KRG. Al Mada reports that insiders in Nouri's Cabinet are stating that the rebuffing by the Interior Ministry on police training by the US is only the first step and that they are/will be making it clear that the government has little desire to work with or have a relationship with the US government. A quote from the article: "Iraq is capable of moving forward without the United States and is no longer needs its assistance in either construction or development." Apparently, yesterday's phone call with US Vice President Joe Biden did not go as well as Nouri would have liked.
Violence continues today in Iraq. AFP reports that a Dhuluiyah roadside bombing has claimed the lives of 4 Iraqi soldiers and left four more injured while a Baquba checkpoint was attacked resulting in the deaths of 4 police officers with two more left injured. In addition to those two incidents today, KUNA reports that late last night there was an attack in al-Rutba in which 2 police officers were killed and two more injured by assailants (three of which were injured in the battle). Sinan Salaheddin (AP) reports that "three drive-by shootings in Baghdad" today resulted in the deaths of 3 Iraqi soldiers and 2 police officers with five soldiers and six police officers left injured. Mohammed Tawfeeq (CNN) observes, "The unrest coincides with an emerging political crisis, with Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political blocs increasingly at odds in the fractious legislature. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is Shiite, has struggled to forge a power-sharing agreement and has yet to fill key Cabinet positions, including the ministers of defense, interior and national security."
Raed Jarrar: The second attack on Falluja happened in 2004 and this was the years where the US actuallly used very heavy military weapons to attack the entire country. I was in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and went around the country before the attack on Falluja and after documenting the US use of depleted uranium. I think Iraqis were not very familiar with the dangers of depleted uranium. I documented many cases of kids playing inside tanks that were by DU bullets.
Shihab Rattansi: Now, of course, the US has denied using DU in the Iraq War -- in the second Iraq War at least.
Raed Jarrar: I mean, in many cases, it is very much documented. They denied it in the first war and then after that it was documented. And in the second war, I think there are so much documentation --
Shihab Rattansi: Is the documentation of DU or simply elevated radiation?
Raed Jarrar: Both. So I've found -- I've personally found documented many DU bullets and DU bullet entry points into tanks and [. . .] of course, elevated radiation. The DU radiation is very limited so it's usually around a foot from where the DU bullet punctured the tank. And the radiation there was between 2,000 and 10,000 percent
Shihab Rattansi: We'll get back to that discussion in a moment because I think there might be a discussion about what's -- if there is uranium being used, if it is indeed depleted uranium. And we'll get back to that later on. But as far as that second assault on Falluja occurred, I mean just remind us what happened. There was basically an evacuation order given.
Raed Jarrar: So there was another first attack on Falluja that failed [April 2004]. And there was another attempt to go in. And they gave evacuation orders to many Iraqi civilians, many people, hundreds of thousands, left the city and everyone knew that the entire town would be destroyed. Now, of course, the promise was at that time that the US will go get rid of all of the bad guys and rebuild the city. Now, of course, that did not happen. We saw a total destruction of Falluja and the use of so many unconventional weapons. But then after that no reconstruction was --
Shihab Rattansi: How many people were behind during that assualt?
Raed Jarrar: No one knows the exact numbers because it wasn't documented. But there were at least tens of thousands of left behind.
And there was some 'documentation.' The New York Times' Dexter Filkins won a little prize for his 'documentation.' I wasn't aware there was a See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil prize for journalism but then again the profession's in shambles these days. So Dexy's prize winning feature took many, many days to appear in print. Apparently the US military vetting Dexy's copy didn't feel any pressing deadline. You know what might be worst than a Go-Go Boy in the Green Zone (whose antics ended there ended his marriage)? The idiots like Tom Hayden and Terry Gross who fawn over the Look The Other Way When War Crimes Go Down Boy. Click here to check out the photo of Falluja by Jahi Chikwendiu (Washington Post). It kicks off a Falluja photo essay.
Still on violence, and consider it the laugh of the day, Kitabat reports that Ali Musa Daqduq being deported to the US (see yesterday's snapshot) was turned down by the Iraqi court because they were worried he might face capital punishment. Iraq holds something of a record with 68 executions in 2011 and they're prepared to top that this year and, see the July 30th snapshot, have announced 196 more individuals they plan to execute.
(New York) – Amnesty International today urged Iraqi authorities to commute
all pending death sentences and impose a moratorium on executions with a
view to abolish the death penalty after the chief of police in the Iraqi
governorate of Anbar announced on Monday a Court of Cassation decision to uphold 196 death sentences in the region.
It is unclear if the sentences have been ratified by the Iraqi presidency yet.
The announcement gave no timeline for carrying out the executions but expressed a hope that it would be soon.
"After this alarming announcement, Iraqi authorities must move quickly to commute all death sentences and declare a moratorium on executions
across the country," said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director
at Amnesty International.
"If the Iraqi authorities carry out these death sentences, they would nearly quadruple Iraq's already shocking execution record so far this year."
In the first half of 2012 alone, Iraq executed at least 70 people, which is
already more than the figure for all of last year.
According to Amnesty International's information, in 2011 a total of at least
68 people were executed in Iraq. Around the country, hundreds of others
are believed to remain on death row.
The death penalty was suspended in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003
but restored in August 2004. Since then, hundreds of people have been sentenced to death and many have been executed.
Amnesty International opposes the death penalty – the ultimate cruel,
inhuman and degrading punishment – in all cases without exception, as a violation of the right to life.
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist
organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever
justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.
Back in December, he called for Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq to be stripped of his post. By May, he was making nice with al-Mutlaq and the push for a vote of no-confidence on al-Mutlaq in Parliament had been dropped by State of Law. All these weeks later, Al Mada reports, nouri is finally asking Parliament to withdraw his request of a no-confidence vote on al-Mutlaq. This comes asDar Addustour notes he's also sent al-Mutlaq a letter asking him to, please, attend the Cabinet meetings. On the Parliament front, the proposed federal court law has been bottled up in Parliament for some time due to various disagreements. Alsumaria reports that Parliament is planning to vote on the law next week and that they have agreed on the disputed point -- the number of members of the Court will be 17 (9 judges, 4 Islamic law scholars and 4 legal experts).
Turning to the United States . . .
Chair Bill Johnson: And one final question and then we'll move on to my colleagues, in your analysis -- or your analysis shows that as of April 1, 2012, 60% of the firms listed as eligible in VetBiz had yet to be verified using this more thorough process, we just talked about that, and 134 of these firms received a total of 90 million in new VA SDVOSB contracts during a four month period. So do you still feel that there is a vulnerability here until all of the firms have been verified under the new process?
Richard Hillman: Yes, Mr. Chairman. Consistent with the VA OIG study which found that for the level of review those that were using the less rigorous process 70% of the time, upon more detailed review they were found to be ineligble for the program causes us significant pause and believe that we need to ensure that the rigorous process is being followed by all of those within the VetBiz program
Chair Bill Johnson: And given the fact that we're talking about tens of millions in this case, a total of 90 million in new contracts during a four month period, there are millions of dollars -- of tax payer dollars -- at risk here of going to companies that are ineligible thereby diminishing the amount of contract awards that should be going to eligible veteran companies. Would you agree with that?
Richard Hillman: The VA study, through it's work, determined that for a one year period of time there were potentially $500 million dollars going to ineligible firms. And if actions weren't taken to address that problem, over a 5-year-period of time 2.5 billion dollars would be provided to ineligible firms.
Chair Bill Johnson: And given the fact that according to your statement a few minutes ago that previous experiences that often times even after they're found ineligible they're allowed to complete those contracts, we're talking about millions, hundreds of millions of tax payer dollars, going to ineligible firms that walk away scott free. Correct?
Richard Hillman: Seems that's so.
US House Rep Jerry McNerny would observe after the exchange, "That was pretty sobering, Mr. Chairman." And it was. And distrubing to hear Richard Hillman, with the Government Accountability Office, explain that, in cases where the VA has determined that a firm is not a veterans small business and that the company may have been dishonest (even to the point of fraud), the VA has "allowed [these firms] to complete those contracts even though they had been found to be uneligible."
It was Thursday's joint-hearing of the House Veterans Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation. Yesterday's snapshot noted the issue of whether or not the VA was breaking the law and the VA's interesting concept of what ownership and control of a business was. In the real world, if you have at least 51% of a business, you have control of it. In the VA world, not really. This is a very big issue because veterans who start small businesses and compete for contracts may find out that they're not a veterans small business . . . by the VA's definition. The VA's Thomas Leney was the witness we focused on. Today we look at the second panel made up of GAO's Hillman and the VA's Office of Inspector General's James O'Neill. We're going to include two excerpts and they will not instill confidence in how the VA is handling its small business program.
US House Rep Jerry McNerney: I think our first panel showed the difficulty we face in terms of coming up with a non-subjective standard for awarding veteran statuses to businesses. The 100% control? Clearly, there was a lot of questions within the Committee. But the fraud issue is another part of this that we haven't talked about too much. Mr. Leney was saying that only 5% of applicants tend to be fraud. But my fear, and I think that's something that you're showing in prior testiomny, is that that 5% can end up awarding a lot of contracts to people who are undeserving and should be prosecuted. What -- How much of a problem do you think fraud is in the overall program, Mr. Hillman?
Richard Hillman: The work that we have done looking at individual case studies is not something that we can extrapolate to the universe as a whole to give you the percent of fraud that we think may exist within the program. The closest example of that would be a study done by the VA's OIG [Office of Inspector General] who, in 2011, did a study that was a statistically valid, random sample projecting the extent to which there may be fraud within the program. What they found with their study was -- in a review of 42 firms -- they found that 32 of the 42 or 76% of those firms were not eligible for the program. Now that study included a verification process that was the less rigorous process under the 2006 act as well as just a plain self-certification process that was implemented before the 2006 act. If you look at only those firms that were included as part of the 2006 verification process, you see a similar percentage. About ten of fourteen firms that were included in the VA's OIG sample was found not to be eligible. Or 70% of those programs, a very comparable percentage.
US House Rep Jerry McNerney: Well do you think this 100% control standard is contributing to fraud? Is that a standard that's difficult to verify in some ways? Is there some way that we can improve that standard in order to reduce the appeal of fraud to unscrupulous players?
Richard Hillman: Like Jim has said, in the cases we have examined as part of our work, there has been very little ambiguity as it relates to an ownership or control issue -- when we have gone out and conducted our own investigations. For example, ownership issues are most often validated associated with the operating agreement -- operating plans -- that exist. And you can document the extent to which on paper the individual is an owner of the business or not. Control on the other hand is a much more subjective determination and, uh -- For example, conversations this morning associated with the fact that if you own 51% of the company, you can decide to sell that company. You not only own it but you control it. Well there could be instances in the operating plan or other agreements with that firm that if the principal decides to sell that business there's an agreement that they must consult with the minority owners first to get their agreement. Well that would be a provision where there was maybe 51% ownership but because of an operating agreement, not 100% control.
US House Rep Jerry McNerney: Well --
Richard Hillman: So the devil is in the details.
US House Rep Jerry McNerney: -- that's informative. That's informative because then ownership is easily -- it's subjective, it's easy to establish, it means something, everybody can understand it and if people are committing fraud, then they can be prosecuted. Whereas control is a much more subjective standard that we're having to try and manage.
Richard Hillman: In -- In all our cases we have looked at, we've seen instances and where individuals may be living and working in other practices 500 miles away. We see instances where they may be receiving a salary of $12,000 where a minority owner may be receiving a salary of $80,000. You see examples like these which suggest on paper ownership exists but control isn't being afforded that leave you to pause. In those instances, we provide our cases and our case results to the enforcement organizations and they provide and adjuidcate over those issues.
US House Rep Jerry McNerney: So ownership has its own risks then with regards to somebody just using a veteran on paper and maybe skimming off some of the profits but not having control. So this is -- this is still a difficult issue for us.
Richard Hillman: And there is -- there is -- In addition to ownership issues, there's also this issue that you just referred to as a pass through where you do have a service disabled veteran as the owner of the business but that service disabled veteran may pass that contract through to an entity that is run by non-veterans or non-service disabled veterans to manage that activity and, in accordance with provisions of the program, if they don't handle 50% of that service contract or up to 15% of that contract or related contract then they're not fulfilling the provisions of the program as well. So the details dictate whether or not the program is -- is elibable for the program and I think that's -- that is a source of confusion and something that the program has attempted to clarify.
[. . .]
Chair Marlin Stutzman: Mr. O'Neal, in your testimony, all of the cases you cite involved companies that self-certified their status as veteran owned and controlled. CVE has now installed a more rigorous verification program to determine whether a company is truly veteran owned and controlled. Can you tell us how many of your cases -- opened or closed -- involve companies certified under the more rigorous process and whether that process is meeting the goals of eliminating most of the cheaters?
James O'Neill: No. I can't tell you here. I can give you a written response. I'd have to do some research but I know of one instance, for example, where the company had been certified under the more rigorous standards but it was at the beginning of the process and mistakes were made in CVE and we -- don't forget, we can execute search warrants, we can get e-mail, we can uncover evidence of fraud that even the most rigorous standard applied by CVE won't find. So it's going to happen. I think it's certainly far fewer cases -- I don't think the number would exceed 10, I'd be surprised -- I've actually -- our companies that have passed that level of scrutiny by CVE. But I will respond to you in a written response.
Chair Marlin Stutzman: Okay. Thank you. Mr. Hillman, looking at the highlights, you start off the first paragraph saying that the CVE SDVOSB program remains vulnerable to fraud and abuse. And you mention that several times. And even with your recommendations, at the conclusion of the one paragraph, you say GAO made some changes to the report that you had made after the Veteran Affairs -- after they had challenged some of them or you guys discussed them but you continue to believe that the program remains vulnerable to fraud and abuse. Do you feel that the VA is concerned about this particular program? Are they -- What kind of response do you get from them when you discuss your concerns about fraud and abuse? Is it as much of a concern to them as it is a concern to you?
Richard Hillman: When you review an organization such as the Veterans Administration or perhaps even the Small Business Administration, those entities have largely a role of advocacy and service to those constituent groups -- either veterans or small businesses. The OSB function which Mr. Leney operates is also more of a service oriented function. The idea of having a strong controls environment to help deter or detect fraud and abuse isn't necessarily part of that DNA. So when we're going in and evaluating the extent to which a program has strong prevention controls or detection and monitoring controls or controls to ensure that the program is taking aggressive actions against bad actors, we seem to be looking at it with a lens the extent to which you can identify and address conditions offraud and abuse. That type of influence -- I believe Mr. Lenny's organization is attempting to develop through additional training, through additional guidance. But it really hasn't existed to this same degree that we would have hoped that it might to date.
Chair Marlin Stutsman: Why do you think that is?
Richard Hillman: I believe it has an awful lot to do with what the organization's mission as an advocate for those constituents groups -- in this case veterans -- uh-uh -- The -- uh -- interest in ensuring that there's strong oversight and protection over the fraud, waste and abuse angles isn't something that is really what they see as their primary function.
Chair Marlin Stutzman: What's your opinion of the VA's process for debarring companies? Have they set the thresholds high enough? Are more companies getting denied verification that should be also considered for debarment? What is your opinion?
Richard Hillman: The statistics that we have seen show that, over time, the debarment committee within VA is making more debarment decisions and has more proposed debarment decisions than they have had in the past. As of July 26, 2012, there are now 11 SDVOSB [Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Program] cases that have been tried by the debarment committee, 5 debarments, 6 proposed debarments. And these debarments when they occur, occur for a four to five year period of time. They're taking aggressive action in that regard. However, you use numbers such as five debarments, six proposed and you're seeing many more being provided to them for their review. The committee itself was established in September 2010 -- almost two years of activity. I do believe that is sufficient time for someone to go in and take an evaluation of how well that Committee has been functioning over that two year period and what additional steps could possibly be taken with this.
Chair Marlin Stutsman: Okay. Last question. Would you think -- Do you think self-certification was a mistake? Does it open the door for more fraud and abuse?
Richard Hillman: Absolutely. The government-wide program which manages 7o percent of all SDVOSB contracts is largely a self-certification program and it is very suseptable to fraud and abuse. The VA is the only agency that has a certification process for service disabled small veterans business and that has reduced the vulnerability of fraud. We're hoping that Mr. Lenney will continue to make that level of fraud as low as possible, commiserate with the cost of establishing controls. And we're -- we're very concerned about the government-wide program being a self-certified program and, uh, that is not serving veterans well.
And we'll close with the war on Syria. Alex Lantier (WSWS) notes how a Democrat in the White House allows faux peace types to really go to town getting their War On:
Obama's reassurance that the US is providing only "non-lethal assistance" to anti-Assad forces is a cynical lie. The US is waging a brutal civil war by proxy that has already cost tens of thousands of lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Its goal is to install a US puppet regime in Damascus to isolate and prepare for war against Iran, remove a potential enemy of Israel, and advance a broader agenda of complete dominance of the Middle East by US imperialism. This agenda—pursued in the course of a decade of US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and intensified after last year's mass uprisings in North Africa with wars in Libya and Syria—is deeply unpopular in the working class in the United States and internationally.
Washington's covert backing for the Syrian "rebels" lays bare the role of pro-imperialist pseudo-left groups—like the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the US, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain and the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) in France—which have promoted the war in Syria. Their "leftism" amounts to nothing more than giving "left" justifications for the crimes of American and European imperialism.
The ISO openly declares its support for intervention. In an article by Yusuf Khalil and Lee Sustar in its Socialist Worker publication, it writes: "The increasing role of the armed struggle raises the question whether to accept arms and support from the West … While many in the Syrian revolutionary movement are opposed to US and Western intervention, they will take whatever help they can get."