Thursday, February 13, 2014

Iraq snapshot

Thursday, February 13, 2014.  Chaos and violence continue, the assault on Anbar continues, the UN expresses concern over the assault, Nouri's military again attacks a hospital in Anbar, we look at the Kurds and the way the US government repeatedly mistreats them, the US Ambassador to Iraq prepares to field questions, and much more.

Iraq is, at best, in a state of flux.. Do you have a question on that?  Or maybe on one of the many current crises in Iraq?  If so, an opportunity comes calling your name:

Are you curious about the political/economic relations between the U.S. and Iraq? Do you want to know more about cultural and educational programs?
Well, here’s your chance! Post your questions to Ambassador Stephen Beecroft on our Facebook page or send them to The deadline for submitting your questions is March 1, 2014. We will post the Ambassador’s answers to the most popular questions on the Embassy’s Facebook page and Youtube channel.  

March 1st is the deadline.

World Bulletin News reports on the forming of the new government in the Kurdish Regional Government, "In the new government, there will be two deputy prime minister's, with one of them being from the Goran Movement. The positions of finance minister and parliament speaker will also go to the Goran Movement. However, the position of interior minister will not go to the Goran Movement after the YNK opposed it."

Chair Ed Royce:  There is just one more issue that I meant to raise with you and that's just turning for a moment to discuss inclusion of  the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the PATRIOT Act's Tier III designation -- terrorist designation.  My understanding is that this has become a sort of catch-all designation that has inadvertently mislabeled the KDP and the PUK as terrorists even though they have been a stabilizing force in the region and consistently loyal to the United States for decades.  As al Qaeda and other groups expand across the Middle East and beyond, it seems like a good time to take count of our remaining friends in the region and maybe take a look at this inappropriate designation and recognize that that's harming our very important relationship with the Kurdish people.  So would the administration be supportive of a legislative solution to this issue that would exclude these Kurdish groups from the Tier III designation

Brett McGurk:  Uh, Mr. Chairman, thank you for asking that question and for allowing me to put our response on the record. Uhm, as you said, the Kurdish people -- the PUK, the KDP -- have been among our closest friends in the region going back decades.  We think they should be removed from this list as soon as possible.  We think it is an imperative.  Uh, we understand that it requires a legislative fix.  There is nothing we can do by executive action alone.  And therefore we are 100% supportive of an immediate legislative fix to this problem and we look forward to working with you and the relevant Committees in Congress to get that done. 

That exchange is from last week when the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on Iraq. Appearing before the Committee was  the US State Dept's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq and Iran Brett McGurk.  We've covered the hearing in the February 5th Iraq snapshot, February 6th Iraq snapshot and February 7th Iraq snapshot. as well as "Prashant Rao's naive and Hannah Allem's got a grudge to f**k" which details the main themes of the hearing (and how Rao was terribly naive to believe Hannah Allem's hideous Tweets which were nothing more than her working her grudge against the Ashraf community).  We'll return to the hearing two more times in this snapshot.

Right now, we're focusing on the Kurds.

From From Monday, February 3rd's snapshot:

Friday's snapshot noted US Vice President Joe Biden's phone call to KRG President Massoud Barzani, carried the White House statement and I pointed out, "It's a shame that they [the White House] have more concern over pleasing Nouri than they do over the safety of the Iraqi citizens."  Today Rudaw reports:

Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani has postponed a planned visit to Washington this week because of other commitments, said his chief of staff, Fuad Hussein.
“President Barzani told Joe Biden (the US vice president) that because of some other commitments he couldn’t visit Washington at this time,” Hussein told Rudaw. “That is why the visit was postponed.”

That's only surprising if you weren't paying attention.  In 2012, Barazni made clear his opposition to the US giving Nouri F-16s.  And today?  Not only are those going to be handed over, helicopters and Hellfire missiles are being provided to Nouri.  And on top of all of that, Joe Biden wants to hold Nouri's hand and reassure him while telling Barzani that concessions (to Nouri) need to be made.

President Massoud Barzani is a much admired figure in the KRG and he's a leader on the world stage but Biden wants to treat like an errand boy and hand him a grocery list?

Of course, Barazni's insulted.  And that's before you get to the White House's historic betrayal of Baraniz on the 2010 US-brokered Erbil Agreement that they used Barazni's name and reputation to sell and then refused, after everyone signed the contract, to stand by it.  Yeah, it's about time Barzani put some distance between himself and the US government.

Maybe even a brief spell will force the White House to take Barzani a little more seriously?

February 6th, Ayub Nuri and Rudaw became the first to address the topic everyone else tried so hard to ignore:

Many people were baffled this week by the sudden news that Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani was not going to Washington. Barzani’s supporters said it was the Kurdish president who had cancelled the visit. Others laughed and said, “Who could cancel on the president of the most powerful country in the world?” From the US there was no explanation, and out of Kurdistan only came conflicting reports.
But who snubbed who isn’t really the issue. The real question is: How do the Kurds see America today.
Ten years ago the Kurds saw America as an ally, and America regarded them as friends. The Kurds joined America’s war and contributed to Saddam Hussein’s downfall. Kurdish Peshmarga and security forces offered the Americans intelligence, advice and guidance. Kurdish politicians and ministers went to Baghdad and put into service their two decades of experience to rebuild the Iraqi government.
What did they expect in return? A democratic Iraq that America had promised everyone. But ten years on, not only have the Kurds not seen a democratic country that respects their rights, they in fact feel it is often America -- not Baghdad -- that is acting against them.

The White House and the State Dept have seriously injured the relationship between themselves and the Kurds.  They've yet to demonstrate that they care about that damage or that they're interested in repairing what they've damaged.

In that regard, the current administration is a great like Tricky Dick's administration oh, so many decades ago.  Then-President Richard Nixon and War Criminal Henry Kissinger pretended to be the Kurds friends, pretended to care what happened to them, but they were just using them as pawns.

That is not my opinion.  That is what the US Congress found in the Pike Report.  February 16, 1976, The Village Voice published Aaron Latham's "Introduction to the Pike Papers."  Latham explained:

In 1972, Dr. Henry Kissinger met with the Shah of Iran, who asked the U.S. to aid the Kurds in their rebellion against Iraq, an enemy of the Shah.  Kissinger later presented the proposal to President Nixon who approved what would become a $16 million program.  Then John B. Connally, the former Nixon Treasury Secretary, was dispatched to Iran to inform the Shah, one oil man to another.
The committee report charges that: "The President, Dr. Kissinger and the foreign head of state [the Shah] hoped our clients would not prevail.  They preferred instead that the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of our ally's neighboring country [Iraq].  The policy was not imparted to our clients, who were encouraged to continue fighting.  Even in the context of covert action, ours was a cynical enterprise."
During the Arab-Israeli war, when the Kurds might have been able to strike at a distracted Iraqi government, Kissinger, according to the report, "personally restrained the insurgents from an all-out offensive on the one occasion when such an attack might have been successful."
Then, when Iran resolved its border dispute with Iraq, the U.S. summarily dropped the Kurds.  And Iraq, knowing aid would be cut off, launched a search-and-destroy campaign the day after the border agreement was signed.
A high U.S. official later explained to the Pike committee staff: "Covert action should not be confused with missionary work."

That is the history.  That is the root.  Deception on the part of the US.  And as the Kurds are disrespected and lied to today, the dishonest root of the original relationship becomes all the more telling.

When Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was the highest ranking Kurd, it really didn't matter.  The disrespect, the labeling two political parties as 'terrorists' (Talabani heads the PUK and Barzani heads the KDP).  But Jalal's not running anything these days.  December 2012,  Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a stroke.   The incident took place late on December 17, 2012 following Jalal's argument with Iraq's prime minister and chief thug Nouri al-Maliki (see the December 18, 2012 snapshot).  Jalal was admitted to Baghdad's Medical Center Hospital.    Thursday, December 20, 2012, he was moved to Germany.  He remains in Germany currently.

In 2012, KRG President Massoud Barzani was already outshining Jalal on the international stage -- long before Jalal's stroke.  And Barzani has never been as weak as Jalal.

Jalal was happy to dismiss thoughts of an independent Kurdistan ever happening.  He was willing to dismiss that despite the fact that Kurds fought for years to get to where they are now, in the KRG, three semi-autonomous provinces.  Jalal destroyed his own reputation over and over and was happy to dance for the US government.

Barazni wanted -- maybe still does -- a relationship -- a solid one -- with the US government.  But in 2010, after Nouri's State of Law lost the parliamentary elections to Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya, the US government used the Kurds -- lied to them and used them.  US President Barack Obama wanted Nouri to have a second term.  To go around the votes and the Constitution and the will of the Iraqi people, the White House came up with the idea of a legal contract among the political blocs which would circumvent the Constitution.  In order to get the others to sign on, they knew Nouri would have to offer them concessions in writing.  The US-brokered Erbil Agreement couldn't be sold on the US alone.  It needed the backing of a group and the White House used the Kurds and their relationship with the Kurds.  They had Barzani sell the agreement.  He never would have done that without promises from the White House that it was a legal and binding contract that had the full support of the White House.

Nouri used the contract to get his second term but refused to honor any of the promises he made in the contract (such as implementing Article 140 of the Constitution).  And when the Kurds took their issues public and joined with cleric and movement leader Moqtada al-Sadr and Iraqiya in the summer of 2011 to demand The Erbil Agreement be implemented, the White House played dumb, pretended they knew nothing, pretended they had never promised that the contract had their full backing.

This was harmful for everyone but especially upsetting to Kurdish leadership because not only was the contract not implemented but they were used -- and lied to -- by the White House.  The White House used the Kurds' standing and image to sell a contract that was worthless.

In 2012, Massoud Barzani made a public plea, even took it to US soil, that the White House not supply Nouri with F-16s.  That's been blown off as well.

And then there's the issue of the oil.  Under existing laws, the Kurds can do whatever they want with the oil in the KRG.  That's because there is no national oil & gas law.  Nouri al-Maliki promised the US government in 2007 that he would propose a national oil and gas law and get it passed shortly.  Seven years later and he never did.

So it ticks off the Kurds when the White House and the State Dept attack the KRG for attempting to sell its own oil even as the White House and the State Dept lie that they won't take sides and they're only interested in the law.

There is no national law.  The Kurds actions are completely legal but, over and over, the White House rushes to satisfy Nouri al-Maliki.

This has seriously harmed the relationship between the US government and the Kurdish government.  And Vice President Joe Biden who once had such a great relationship with Barzani (and Talabani) is no longer believed.  They're generous.  The KRG government leadership doesn't call Joe a "liar," they just argue that he does not have any power in the White House and can't keep the promises he makes.

And now Barazni won't even visit the US.

Is there anything in Iraq that the White House hasn't made worse?

UPI reports:

The growing number of dead men found in the streets and canals of Baghdad, mostly shot in the head, some bearing the marks of torture, is stirring fears Shiite death squads who slaughtered hundreds, possibly thousands, of Sunnis during the dark days of Iraq's sectarian bloodbath are back in business.

And Nouri's arming them.  The Shi'ite militias were reported on by Tim Arango (New York Times) back in September.  Arango noted:

In supporting Asaib al-Haq, Mr. Maliki has apparently made the risky calculation that by backing some Shiite militias, even in secret, he can maintain control over the country’s restive Shiite population and, ultimately, retain power after the next national elections, which are scheduled for next year. Militiamen and residents of Shiite areas say members of Asaib al-Haq are given government badges and weapons and allowed freedom of movement by the security forces.

And despite that, the White House is arming him.  Despite that, despite his assault on Anbar Province.  The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq issued the following:

         UN Envoy Concerned about Deteriorating Situation in Fallujah, Calls for Unity and Political Engagement

Baghdad, 13th February 2014 - Since the beginning of the fighting in Anbar Province over 63,000 families have been registered as internally displaced. Although many have fled to other parts of the country, including Karbala, Baghdad and Erbil provinces, others have sought safety in outlying communities in Anbar Province or are unable to flee the fighting. Their condition remains precarious with food stocks and potable water running low, poor sanitation and limited access to health care.

In a joint relief operation to assist the Government’s response to the crisis, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has so far distributed approximately 2,453 kits of core relief items; and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) approximately 11,500 hygiene kits and various water/sanitation supplies. The World Food Programme has handed out 4,650 Food Parcels, and the International Organization for Migration 1,415 non-food items . The World Health Organisation distributed 2 surgical kits covering 1,000 beneficiaries and medical supplies for 10,000 beneficiaries. 

"Since the first days of January the UN continues to work with the government, local authorities to provide aid to those affected by the fighting in Anbar. Although the conditions remain extremely difficult, with access roads often blocked by fighting, we will continue to cooperate with people on the ground to deliver assistance tot hose in need” Mr. Mladenov added.

“I am particularly concerned about the rapidly deteriorating conditions in Fallujah where many residents are caught up in the fighting. The UN continues to urge for humanitarian access to the city. Recent reports that the Fallujah General Hospital may have been used as headquarters for armed groups and also targeted by shelling  are very worrying. Hospitals and medical facilities should be protected by all” Mr. Mladenov said. 

Mr. Mladenov further reiterated his call for a political solution to the crisis that would allow all Iraqis to "unite against terrorism, which is affecting all segments of society”. 

"I call on all sides to address the causes of violence through dialogue and the political process and to help rebuild Anbar" he concluded.

Back to last week's Congressional hearing on Iraq.

US House Rep Ted Yoho: What are our military assets in Iraq and are they purely advisory?  And if so, how many?  Can you divulge that or --?

Brett McGurk:  We have, under our embassy, under the Chief of Mission and Ambassdor [Stephen] Beecroft, uhm, the Office of Security Cooperation which works very closely with the Iraqi military.  The numbers ebb and flow but it's about 100 personnel.  Uhm, and they do everything from advising to running the FMS programs, making sure that that's running efficiently.  And a very small contingent of half-a-dozen or so of our Special Operators who train some of the higher end Special Operators as the training component.  But that's all done under the Embassy Chief of Mission and the Office of --

Yoho interrupted McGurk at that point.  We bring it up now because All Iraq News reported today that the US Embassy in Iraq's Assistant Director of the Joint Security Cooperation William Bell Binder issued a statement today noting that "the first batch" of F-16 war planes "was delivered to Iraq" and that "[d]uring the past two weeks Iraq was delivered large amount of weapons and ammunitions." And All Iraq News also reported:

The US Embassy denied the existence of any military trainer in Iraq.The Assistant Directorate of the Joint Security Cooperation of the US Embassy, William Bell Binder, stated in a statement received by AIN ''Iraq subjected a request to train the security forces in the field of combating terrorism and we are waiting to concluded an agreement between Iraq and Jordan where the training will be on Jordanian territories since there is not nay convention that grants the US troops the legal immunity in Baghdad.'' 

So Congress was told trainers were already in Iraq -- because they are and have been even after the drawdown billed as a 'withdrawal' -- but the US Embassy is telling Iraqis there are no US military trainers in Iraq?

It's this sort of nonsense lie that makes the US government look so ridiculous.

Well this and backing Nouri al-Maliki.

Washington Post correspondent Liz Sly Tweets:

  • Indeed.  And thank goodness Sly has a memory -- no other reporters currently covering Iraq appear to have memories or be able to offer context.  They just repeat Nouri's claims that he will absorb the Sahwa into the security forces and fail to note that this promise didn't pan out before.

    So many failures, you really have to pick and choose you review Nouri's failures as prime minister.  The editorial board of Arab News notes Nouri's failures:

    Far from seeking a national consensus that could build a united front against the terrorists, Al-Maliki continues to alienate the Sunni community. Without the restraining influence of President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, who has suffered a severely debilitating stroke, Al-Maliki’s relations with the increasingly independent-minded Kurds in the north of the country, continue to decline.
    The National Unity government he is supposed to be leading is a farce. Virtually all Sunni politicians have been driven from Parliament. Kurdish legislators hardly bother to involve themselves in the political process in Baghdad. The government neither seeks nor welcomes dialogue. There is however a permanent welcome mat for Iranian diplomats and politicians. The visits are rarely high profile. More often it is Al-Maliki or his people who travel to Tehran. But it is hard to fathom the sort of advice the Iraqi premier is being given, let alone taking. Is he really being encouraged to let his country fall apart and into the hands of extremists? Are the Iranians setting up this most inept of politicians, so that Iraq will once again become an urgent regional security issue?

    Yesterday, Nouri  had his Bully Boy Bush moment as he declared victory in his assault on Anbar Province.  It's a a shame he didn't have the banner BBB stood under in 2003, the one proclaimed "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED."

    Victory claims were a bit premature.

    ABC News Radio observes, "There were more signs of Iraq's security deterioration Wednesday as the United Nations reported that upwards of 300,000 people have been dislodged from their homes in the volatile western province of Anbar." And that's not the only thing preventing Nouri al-Maliki's victory march.

    Al Bawaba reports rebels "seized part of Sulaiman Bek town and nearby villages in northern Iraq on Thursday, Agence France Presse reported local officials as saying.  This is considered to be the latest instance of authorities losing ground to militants, who have held all of the city of Fallujah and parts of provincial capital Ramadi for weeks."  Anadolu Agency adds, "Clashes are still going on and ISIL militants have not been repelled yet according to reports which claim that the militants gained control of Kirkuk-Baghdad route. A curfew has been established in Sulayman Beg. Eye-witnesses say that they cannot go out and they can hear the sounds of bullets and bombs."  IANS offers, "The security forces could not stand long in front of a large number of gunmen who spread out on the streets of the town, Mustafa said, adding that in the morning the gunmen took control of several suburbs and villages around the town."

    Through yesterday, Iraq Body Count counts 348 violent deaths for the month thus far.

    Today's violence?


     National Iraqi News Agency reports a Qarma air strike left 2 people dead, 2 Shorja bombings set a building on fire leaving 1 person dead and nine more injured (an update notes sixteen were injured),  2 Abbarah bombings left 2 people dead and eight more injured,  and a Kirkuk roadside bombing left 1 Iraqi military officer dead and six more military personnel injured.  Reuters adds, "Twin bombs went off inside a building comprising perfume stores in Baghdad's largest shopping district of al-Shourja on Thursday, killing at least six civilians and wounding 16 others, police sources said."  Xinhua notes, "Furthermore, two people were wounded when a roadside bomb detonated in Doura district in southern Baghdad, the source added."

    And let's really emphasize this:

    A security source told the reporter of the National Iraqi News Agency / NINA / that"a number of artillery shells of army forces stationed outside the city fell on the building of Fallujah hospital, wounding / 9 / workers, including / 3 / Indian doctors and two nurses from Bangladesh as well as four Iraqi employees. "

    These are War Crimes.  You are not allowed to target hospitals.


    National Iraqi News Agency reports a Hawija home invasion left 1 soldier and 1 Sahwa dead and two more people injured, an armed confrontation in Riyadh left 1 Iraqi soldier dead and another injured, security forces shot dead 1 person in Qaim, an armed battle in Ramadi left 3 Iraqi soldiers dead and four more injured, 1 police officer was shot dead on Baghdad Street in Mosul, 1 civilian was shot dead outside his Mosul home,  and an armed confrontation in Mosul left 3 rebels dead,  Joint Operations Command shot dead 1 suspect in Mosul, 2 brothers were shot dead near their Aziziya home.


    National Iraqi News Agency reports  the corpse of a woman in her thirties (strangled, bruised from beatings) was discovered dumped "in Husseiniya area northeast of Baghdad."

    On the issue of violence, remember how on Monday you had an assassination attempt on the Speaker of Parliament and a bombing that, the Iraqi government insisted, was terrorists training other terrorists?  And remember how outlets like The NewsHour (PBS) rushed for the 'giggle' over the claims of the Iraqi government but ignored the attempt on Osama al-Nujaifi's life?  Well Press TV notes:

    Iran’s Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani has slammed the recent assassination attempt on his Iraqi counterpart Osama al-Nujaifi, saying combating terrorism requires regional cooperation.
    The condemnation of Monday’s terrorist move against al-Nujaifi and his brother came in a Wednesday message from Larijani, in which he also expressed relief that the terror act had failed.

    That's right.  Even the Speaker of Iran's legislative body showed more maturity than PBS and other news or 'news' outlets.

    Dropping back one more time to the US Congressional hearing on Iraq.

    US House Rep Doug Collins:  I want to turn back, it was asked a little bit earlier about the elections and really, from serving in Iraq back in '08 as my colleague has as well,  I understand the relationship between the Sunni and the Shia is something -- is, I think there's a huge mistrust, it goes back generations.  It's a multitude of issues there.  And it looks like the current government has done very little to really relate with that -- or work on that issue.  Experts in Iraq have talked about al Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State of Iraq, and increasingly building alliances with Sunni tribal leaders and suggest to this mess, in 2013, to try to win more Sunni support. How would that translate into the next round of Iraq elections?  Can we -- can we really see a move from Shia to Sunni?  And what does that mean for the region?  And answer that and then I want to talk about Iran's possible influence as well.  Just speak to the elections at this point.

    Brett McGurk:  Uh, thank you.  First, Congressman, thank you for your service.  And it's a very important question and an insightful question.  This election coming up is going to be pivotal and also extremely interesting.  The first national election, December 2005, there were really three main lists, people to vote for. There was a Shia bloc, a Sunni bloc and a Kurdish bloc.  Uhm, the 2010 elections, there was a little bit more choice: really two Shia blocs, the Sunni parties were under one main list also with some Shias -- a kind of  cross-sectarian list -- and then the Kurds.  This election, everything is really fractured so you have about four Shia lists, three Sunni lists and even the Kurds are running on four different lists.  So what's going to happen out of those results is going to be  a number of different permutations in terms of forming governments uh-uh coalitions.  So the hope is that this election will give rise to the possibility of more cross-sectarian, more issue-based politics emerging.  As difficult as that is going to be, if you look at the candidate lists and the coalitions, there is that possibility there.  But as I mentioned earlier, what al Qaeda does very effectively is targets the fault line which has existed for 1400 years -- targeting symbolic areas and trying to increase fear in particularly the Shia population which just rises the sectarian debate and discourse in the country. So on the positive side, you have an election that's shaping up with a number of different choices, a number of different lists which will allow for cross-sectarian coalitions.  On a negative side, you have extremists who are trying to incite and inflame the sectarian dimensions in the country.

    We'll pick up on that tomorrow.  We're going to squeeze in one last thing.  Yesterday, Senator Tom Udall's office issued the following:

    WASHINGTON - Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall spoke on the Senate floor about a bipartisan bill he introduced with Senator Dean Heller (R-Nev.) to address some of the biggest barriers to health care for veterans in rural communities. To illustrate the need for the bill, Udall told the stories of many rural New Mexico veterans who have struggled to access health care - traveling long distances and enduring high turnover among doctors and staff at rural VA clinics, among other problems - and discussed how his Rural Veterans Improvement Act would help improve care.

    While traveling throughout New Mexico, Udall has spoken with veterans about their frustrations with accessing care. In his speech, Udall told the story of one veteran who traveled over three hours each way, multiple times per week for two years, to receive essential mental health care that likely saved his life. He also discussed a veteran in Carlsbad who spends the entire day traveling to appointments in Albuquerque, and another in Chama who must travel 80 miles through the mountains to reach a clinic - a trip that can be impassable during the winter.

    In response to their frustrations and concerns, Udall took a four-pronged approach to improving rural veterans' health care. His bill would:
    -Expand mental health services by providing better access to treatment and including alternative therapies, as well as traditional Native American healing methods.
    -Expand transportation grants to include rural communities to help ensure rural veterans can get a ride to far-away doctors' appointments.
    -Help retain and recruit staff to work at rural clinics through increased financial incentives, medical training programs geared toward preparing doctors and nurses for work in rural communities, and streamlined hiring of military medical professionals into the VA system.
    - Create tools for the VA and Congress to more effectively prioritize expansions and improvements of VA clinics in rural and highly rural areas by requiring a comprehensive review of those clinics.

    "Rural veterans should not be left behind. They should get the care they need and deserve," Udall said in his speech. "Our bill is a step forward for the health and well-being of our veterans. This is about essential care, about access, and about honoring our commitment to the men and women who have sacrificed so much for our country."
    The following are Udall's remarks as prepared for delivery on the Senate floor. Click here for video and here for audio.

    Madam President, I rise today to talk about health care for rural veterans. This is a critical issue. Too many veterans are left behind. Too many are not getting the care they need.
    But first, Madam President, I want to say how important it is that we have reached an agreement to restore the cut to pensions for working-age military retirees. The cut in cost-of-living adjustments for this group of veterans never should have been made.
    The bipartisan budget agreement was critical for New Mexico and our nation, because it rolled back damaging sequestration cuts-cuts that hurt our military and military families. But working-age military retirees should not have to bear the burden. Many of these men and women have given decades of service to our nation. They were willing to give everything for us. They should get the benefits they earned.
    I have been working from the beginning to restore this cut to their COLA benefits. I'm very happy that we have a bipartisan agreement to move forward, and ensure we keep our promise to them.
    Now, Madam President, I have come to the floor today to talk about the Rural Veterans Improvement Act. I was proud to introduce this bill with Senator Heller earlier this week, because when it comes to veterans' health care, we know there are challenges. We know we can do better, and we know we have to.
    Over 6 million veterans live in rural areas, including about one third of those who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. Three million of those rural veterans receive care through the VA. Our veterans have fought half way around the world for our freedom. We should go the extra mile for them. Senator Heller and I both come from rural states. We know the difficulties veterans face when distances are too far, and choices are too few.
    Our bill will do four things: Improve access to mental health services, expand transportation grants, hire and retain more medical professionals in rural areas, and give Congress and the VA improved tools to improve the quality of rural facilities.
    First, mental health care is crucial. Veterans are struggling when the help they need is not available, or is very far away. One of my constituents lives in a rural area in northern New Mexico. He fought in Vietnam, and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress. He required therapy two full days a week for two years-vital care that probably saved his life. The VA was there for him, and he is grateful. But he had to drive to Albuquerque-over three hours away-to get that essential care.
    The veterans in my state are clear. They need better access to treatment and more mental health options. One size does not fit all. Conventional therapy does not work for everyone. Veterans groups like the Wounded Warrior Project have long supported alternative treatments and more holistic methods. Tribal governments are also working with the VA to use traditional Native American healing techniques, helping their veterans with PTSD or other diagnoses.
    These veterans are in pain. They are at increased risk of suicide. Help has to be there when they need it. Our bill will enable the VA to work with non-VA fee-for-service providers-for veterans with service-connected mental health issues when conventional treatment is not available, or where alternative treatment is not an option.
    Second, even the best health care is useless if you can't get to it. I have talked with many veterans in my state about this and it is a big problem across the state. Veterans in Carlsbad face a six hour drive to the VA Hospital in Albuquerque-300 miles one way. One such veteran fought bravely in World War II. He is in his 80s now. He has to get up at 5 a.m., make the trip to Albuquerque to see medical specialists. Sometimes he doesn't get home until midnight. Thanks to great volunteer drivers-at the Southeast New Mexico Veterans Transportation Network-he is able to get there, but it is an exhausting day.
    One of my constituents recently retired to Chama, a rural community in northern New Mexico. He and his wife built a home there, looking forward to retirement. The VA outreach clinic was nearby, but its contract was not renewed and it closed. His only option now is the VA clinic in Espanola-80 miles each way through the Southern Rockies. And when winter storms come-as they do in northern New Mexico-he may not be able to get there at all.
    The VA offers transportation grants to help, but only for veterans in highly rural areas with fewer than four people per square mile-not for those in rural areas. In small towns like Chama in New Mexico, and in Nevada, and so many other states, they need help too. The miles are just as long. The journey is just as hard. Our bill will help by expanding VA transportation grants to include rural communities. And it will not require matching funds for grants up to $100,000, making it easier for these communities to apply for assistance.
    Third, rural VA clinics, like their private counterparts, have trouble getting staff and keeping staff. This is not news to veterans who see constant turnover of doctors, nurses, and other health professionals. Or who have to travel long distances just to see anyone at all. Our bill will establish a VA training program, working with university medical centers to train health care professionals serving rural veterans at outpatient clinics. Those who complete the program-and a three-year assignment-will receive a hiring preference for jobs with the Veterans Health Administration.
    We also propose a pilot program for housing incentives for healthcare professionals to work in rural VA facilities. And we are proposing that the VA streamline the hiring of military medical professionals transitioning to the civilian world into the VA system. Rural VA health centers have a big job. They do their best. We have to do all we can to help them to get staff and to keep staff-with incentives, with training, with innovation. It isn't easy, but it is essential.
    Fourth, we call for a full review of VA community based outpatient clinics in rural and highly rural areas, so we can prioritize expansions and improvements, making sure dollars are well spent, and resources go as far as possible.
    We also call for a report to Congress on whether to add polytrauma centers in rural areas to help veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan recover from multiple major injuries like serious burns and traumatic brain injuries.
    Every day, America's service members wake up far from home. And every day, they stand the watch. They do the job they promised to do, and not only if it's easy, or only if it's convenient. We owe them the same promise. Rural veterans should not be left behind. They should get the care they need and deserve.
    I want to again thank Senator Heller for working with me on this bill. He understands the problem and he is committed to finding solutions. Our bill is a step forward for the health and well-being of our veterans. This is about essential care, about access, and about honoring our commitment to the men and women who have sacrificed so much for our country. I urge my colleagues to support this bill.