Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Iraq snapshot

Tuesday, July 15, 2014.  Chaos and violence continue, Iraq gets a new Speaker of Parliament, Nouri pouts, when will the press seriously cover the VA scandals (no time soon), and much more.

The Iraqi Parliament met today and focused on their third attempt to meet and begin forming a government.

All Iraq News notes they met and began the process of electing a Speaker of Parliament.  NINA reports:

MP , Salim al-Jubori win candidate for Itihad al-Qowa al-Iraqiya headed by former Speaker Osama Nujaifi win the new post of Parliament the post of new Speaker after announcing the results of voting in the house of representatives after noon today.

APA adds, "Live television footage broadcast from inside the parliamentary chamber showed the 43-year-old being congratulated by other deputies."  The White House issued the following today:

Biden’s Call with Next Iraqi Council of Representatives Speaker

15 July 2014
Office of the Vice President
July 15, 2014

Readout of Vice President Biden's Call with Iraqi Council of Representatives Speaker Salim al-Jabouri
This afternoon, Vice President Biden called Salim al-Jabouri to congratulate him on his selection as the next Speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives. The Vice President and Speaker agreed on the importance of acting quickly, consistent with constitutional timelines, to form a new government capable of uniting Iraqi communities in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. They discussed the efforts required to address the legitimate grievances of all communities through the political process. They both reaffirmed the importance of the strategic relationship between the United States and Iraq. The Vice President made clear that the United States looks forward to working closely with Speaker al-Jabouri.


The US State Dept issued this statement from Secretary of State John Kerry:

We congratulate the Iraqi people on the election of a new parliamentary Speaker and two Deputy Speakers. The election of a Speaker is the first step in the critical process of forming a new government that can take into account the rights, aspirations, and legitimate concerns of all Iraq’s communities.
We urge Iraq’s leaders to follow this achievement with rapid formation of a new government pursuant to Iraq's constitutional timelines. We further urge the international community to support Iraq's democratic political process, which reflects the aspirations of the nearly 14 million Iraqis who voted for new representatives from all parts of the country. These representatives are now charged, through the Iraqi parliament, to form a new government with leaders who reflect a broad national consensus.
As I said in Baghdad, this is a moment when the stakes for Iraq’s future could not be clearer as much depends on the ability of Iraq’s leaders to come together and take a united stand against ISIL. Iraq faces an existential threat and Iraq’s leaders need to confront that threat with the urgency that it demands. As they do, the United States will remain a steadfast partner in support of their fight for the democratic process and against ISIL.

As Alsumaria notes, State of Law tried to upset the process yet again.  That is Nouri al-Maliki's coalition. He wants a third term as prime minister.  Isra' al-Rubei'i and Ahmed Rasheed (Reuters) attempt to figure out what the vote means -- specifically does it mean a third term for Nouri:

Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Maliki's predecessor and now head of his Shi'ite National Alliance, hinted that a wider deal had been reached, saying the Shi'ite alliance was voting for Jabouri and expected support from Sunni politicians in return.
"It is the nature of any deal that any commitment should be mutual. It doesn't make sense that we support them and they don't support us," Jaafari said. However, he did not specify whether the National Alliance would now nominate Maliki for prime minister or choose another candidate.

Anything could happen.

But Reuters establishes no reason for their pondering re: Nouri.  The vote today?

Isn't it what the Shi'ite groups -- including Ibrahim's National Alliance -- agreed to in a flurry of meetings on Friday and Saturday?  Yes, it is.  Only Nouri's State of Law refused to go along with it.

So why would the vote on the Speaker possibly mean that Nouri would get a third term?

He might get that.

But no public events -- covered in the report or ignored by it -- suggest anything to do with Nouri.

Since Nouri's bloc walked out, you could argue the events suggest the opposite.

And elected by 194 votes?  Did Nouri's bloc even support the candidate?

Others don't feel he deserves it, to put it mildly.  All Iraq News notes the Kurds noted their objection to a third term for Nouri again today.  Nouri and other members of State of Law walked out on the proceedings.

The Parliament has to pick three posts.  That's the first step in forming a government.

The three presidencies are Speaker of Parliament, the President and the Prime Minister-designate -- everyone's forgetting "designate" these days.  That's step one.  Picking a Speaker today doesn't finish step one.

Step two is after a prime minister-designate is named, that person then has 30 days to put together a full cabinet.  If the Constitution is followed this time, failure to put together a full cabinet in 30 days would mean a new person was named prime minister-designate and given the chance.  Success would mean the prime minister-designate moved from designate to prime minister.

Now we can talk the Constitution or we can just blow smoke out our ass.  Hello, AP, thanks for stinking up the room.

If you missed it, AP is like the drunk in the conversation insisting, "It's science!" -- when, in fact, there comments are not science.  And AP doesn't know the Constitution:  "According to the constitution, parliament now has 30 days to elect a president, who will then have 15 days to ask the leader of the largest bloc in the legislature to form a government. Then a prime minister will be picked."

First off, the "largest bloc in the legislature"?  That's not the Constitution, it's the 2010 court verdict Nouri sought ahead of the 2010 elections and then kept the verdict to himself in case he didn't need it.  The Constitution is the largest bloc from the elections -- not the post-election bloc forming.

Second, the prime minister is not then picked.

A prime minister-designate is named.  Per the Constitution, the designate has 30 days to form a Cabinet or see someone else nominated prime minister-designate.

The Voice of Russia notes that the new Speaker was named on a busy day for Iraq, "Earlier on Tuesday, security forces launched an attack on Tikrit, hometown of Saddam Hussein, aiming to revitalize a counter-offensive that began more than two weeks ago. They initially gained control of the southern part of the city, but later pulled back south of Tikrit after heavy fighting, officers and witnesses said. "Iraqi forces withdrew at the beginning of the night so that they would not be exposed to losses," but would return later, a senior army officer said. However, any gains made in the city are likely to be offset by militants moving back in."

Today, the US State Dept 'discovered' Iraq again in it's press briefing by spokesperson Jen Psaki.

QUESTION: What’s your reaction – the new parliament elected a new speaker today.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS. PSAKI: I’m getting an assist from Said here. The Secretary --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS. PSAKI: We put out a statement from the Secretary. It came out right before I came out here, so I’m not sure if you saw it.

QUESTION: I didn’t see it.

MS. PSAKI: Let me just reiterate some of the points that he made. We certainly, of course, congratulate the Iraqi people on the election of a new parliamentary speaker as well as two deputies. This election of a speaker is the first step in the critical process of forming a new government that can take into account the rights, aspirations, and legitimate concerns of all of Iraq’s communities. We urge the – Iraq’s leaders to follow this step today with rapid formation of a new government. That means, as you all know, selection of a president and a prime minister. We expect as they – as the meeting breaks, and maybe that’s already happened, we’ll know more soon about the next time they plan to meet. And obviously those are the next appropriate steps in the process.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Stay in Iraq?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Without getting into the classified information, a report that’s on Secretary Hagel’s desk – has Secretary Kerry, as a member of the National Security Council, expressed concern over U.S. personnel who are in Iraq and are working with different forces and officials?

MS. PSAKI: Are you speaking to military personnel, or which personnel are you referring to?

QUESTION: Any officials in Iraq. Is the United States or people in this building concerned about insider attacks for U.S. personnel working with their Iraqi counterparts?

MS. PSAKI: Well, there are a couple of different things I think you’re referring to here, so let me just break those apart, if that’s okay with you. I think the Pentagon confirmed yesterday that Secretary Hagel and Chairman Dempsey received the draft of the assessment from Central Command. Obviously, they’re the front individuals to review that draft and they also have oversight over military personnel who are on the ground in Iraq.
Broadly speaking, certainly as the State Department and the Secretary are always evaluating the safety and security of our personnel, the men and women serving in a variety of capacities in Iraq, and any other high-threat post around the world, and we take steps accordingly and as needed. And you’re familiar with the steps we recently took. I don’t have any of those to be – to predict at this point, but that certainly is something we evaluate broadly speaking on nearly a daily basis about places like Iraq.

QUESTION: And specific to Iraq, are you concerned about Shia forces aligned with Iran and about Sunni forces aligned with extremist elements? Are those specific --

MS. PSAKI: I’m just not going to speak to reports in a draft that obviously the proper officials have not yet reviewed.

QUESTION: I know that you want the choice of a prime minister to the Iraqi people.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: You’ve said – stated --

MS. PSAKI: You’re familiar with our point on that.


MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.

QUESTION: I’m fully familiar with it, but --


QUESTION: But as Maliki becomes more and more polarizing, a polarizing figure – and those were the words of someone like Barzani in Turkey, those are the words of even allies within the Shia coalition, even his own coalition – are you willing to support as an alternative someone that the Iranians might support, who is Ahmed Chalabi, someone who has been tarnished in the United States as someone who collaborated with the enemies of the United States?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re not going to pick or support candidates. Obviously, as you noted, but it’s worth me repeating from the U.S. Government, we – it’s up to the Iraqi people to determine their leadership. We’ve expressed concern in the past about the lack of inclusivity in Prime Minister Maliki’s leadership. That hasn’t changed. And obviously, we want to see a future government and future leaders who govern in a more inclusive manner. But that’s one of the next steps in the process, and we leave that to the Iraqis to determine.

QUESTION: Do you believe that Mr. Maliki, the message he gets from this podium and other podiums and so on, that the United States sticks to him no matter what?

MS. PSAKI: I can’t evaluate for you what I believe Prime Minister Maliki hears or listens to or reads, but --

QUESTION: If he gets that message, do you think that he’s getting the wrong message?

MS. PSAKI: I think our message has consistently been that it’s up to the Iraqis to determine their future leadership. So I think that would be what anybody would hear.

QUESTION: Well, if they haven’t elected him, then it means that they don’t want him. So I mean, they have chosen, don’t you think?

MS. PSAKI: We’ll let the process play itself out, Elise.

QUESTION: Yes, please.

MS. PSAKI: Go ahead. Iraq?

QUESTION: Yes, please. I mean, you mentioned that the Iraqis have to choose their prime minister and the president, assuming that they have this parliament now, proper parliament president.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Do you have in your mind a timeframe? Because a while ago – I mean, it’s like last week you were talking about Sunday or 10 days or something like this. Do you have a timeframe for this?

MS. PSAKI: Well, so they did meet on Sunday, and obviously, this – the selection of the speaker just happened today.


MS. PSAKI: So I think we’ll leave it to them to make any announcements about their next planned meeting where we – and expect and hope that they will move forward with the remaining steps in government formation.

QUESTION: And like few days ago, Prime Minister Maliki replaced the foreign minister or asked him to leave his job or replace him with another person. Do you have any concern and especially Zebari has had a good relation or at least long relation with Secretary Kerry and the State Department – is this representing any concern to you in your relations with – foreign relations with Iraq, or it doesn’t matter?

MS. PSAKI: In the selection of a new foreign minister?


MS. PSAKI: That’s, again, an Iraqi political decision. Obviously, you’re right that the Secretary has worked with the former foreign minister quite a bit in the past, but we’ll work with the leaders and the representatives who are selected by the government and the people of Iraq.

QUESTION: Was there any contact with the new foreign minister or not yet?

MS. PSAKI: Not at the Secretary’s level. I don’t have anything to read out from our team on the ground, though they remain engaged with a range of officials on the ground.

QUESTION: And who – still the same team on the ground doing contact with all this leadership?

MS. PSAKI: That’s right. Ambassador Beecroft, Deputy Assistant Secretary McGurk. They remain on the ground and closely engaged.

Should a prime minister be declared any time soon, what happens in terms of the military -- specifically the hundreds of US troops Barack has sent into Iraq in the last weeks?  Jill Reilly (Daily Mail) reminds, "The teams [of US military 'advisors'] will determine how the U.S. can best help the Iraqi forces, then the additional teams will deploy. They are expected to help the Iraqis improve their military systems and commands, but not embed with the fighting units or engage in direct combat."  Eric Schmitt and Michael R. Gordon (New York Times) report, "A classified military assessment of Iraq’s security forces concludes that many units are so deeply infiltrated by either Sunni extremist informants or Shiite personnel backed by Iran that any Americans assigned to advise Baghdad’s forces could face risks to their safety, according to United States officials."

Turning to violence, NINA reports a handcuffed, blindfolded and bullet riddled corpse was discovered dumped in the street in al-Obeidi and alleged IS leader Abu Osama al-Qahtani was killed in Baiji by security forces.  There's other violence but it won't dominate today's news cycle -- even the small section on Iraq.

In addition, BasNews reports Iraqi rebels have killed 24 Iranian soldiers on the ground in Iraq so far this month.

Vatican Radio reports some good news:

Two nuns and three orphans under their care have been released in Iraq by kidnappers linked to ISIS, the Al Qaeda-inspired Sunni militant group also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Speaking to AsiaNews, Chaldean Patriarch Mar Louis Raphael I Sako expressed relief that there was “finally good news” in the country where ISIS, under the banner of a new Islamic “caliphate,” has captured large swathes of territory from the Shia led government in Baghdad.
Sister Atur and Sister Miskinta and the three young people went missing 28 June. The two Chaldean nuns belonged to the Congregation of the Daughters of the Immaculate Mary. Together with their consoeurs, the sisters help run a family home for orphans and abandoned children in Mosul, near the Chaldean Archbishopric.
Patriarch Sako told AsiaNews that people in the city “contributed to their liberation.”

Turning to the topic of veterans . . .

US House Rep Mike Fitzpatrick: Ms. Ruell, you testified in your opening statement that you came to the VA around 2007 and within a short period of time in your tenure at VA, you began to notice things things were not working as they should, that claims were not being processed timely, claims were being lost.  Fellow employees were reporting that mail was being set aside and that in some cases mail was being shredded.  You know, that we have constituents, perhaps a widow of a WWII veteran who sits down and writes a traditional letter, hand writes a letter, puts a stamp on it, and sent it to the Philadelphia VA office believing that claim would be processed, that that simple request might be heard. That letter might have been shredded.  You went on to find and report to your managers that duplicate payments were being made and as a dedicated employee of the VA you tried to fix it.  You asked that those duplicate claims be recaptured, be brought back in, to be ignored. Around the same time, I was sent by the people of the Philadelphia region to come back to Congress to serve them.  And I had served a previous term back in the 109th Congress, 2005, 2006.  So I had the chance to go back and hire dedicated case workers, who served veterans, who worked with me in the past.  They are veterans themselves.  And within a short period of time, 2011, they were reporting to me that something was wrong at the Veterans Administration -- not as they remembered it.  Claims were being delayed, they couldn't get answers, they were sending letters, the letters were never received.  And we were hearing the same from our constituents.  I did not know you at the time, but you were saying the same thing to your leadership at the Philadelphia regional office.  For that, you were criticized, you were castigated, you were abused, you were disciplined.  I think you ought to be applauded for trying to change the system from within.  I think you're owed an apology from the Veterans Administration.  I think you're fellow comrades who are here with you today, work with you in other offices, they should be applauded.  There are thousands of dedicated Veterans Affairs employees who try to do the right thing from within. Our nation's veterans deserve an apology -- some of them pass away while waiting for their claims to be processed. Ms. Ruel, you provided information when the administration at the Philadelphia office was not listening to my office, flood data, duplicate payments, which we wrote to Gen Shinseki when you brought that information to us in September of 2012.  And a response was received in February of 2013 from the undersecretary essentially that if there are any problems, they're so minor that we don't need to change any systems in order to address them.  Knowing what you know, Ms. Ruell, how can the administration of the VA provide that kind of answer?

Kristen Ruell: I think it's the easiest answer to just ignore the problem.  From working with the OIG the last four weeks, they're baffled as to data mine the issue and find the problem.  But I don't think an answer of 'it's inconclusive' or 'we're not sure how to figure this problem out' is a fair answer to veterans who have been waiting for their benefits and they're sitting in a box because they have two claim numbers and we're not sure what we're going to do with that claim.

US House Rep Mike Fitzpatrick:  Ms. Ruell, just last week, the Philadelphia VA acknowledged an entitlement and benefit backlog of 49.6% of 42,141 veterans served by the Philadelphia office  waiting 125 days for an answer to their claims.  Based on your experience, is this an accurate number for the Philadelphia office?

Kristen Ruell:  No.  If we didn't have that memo, I think the number would be much higher. 

US House Rep Mike Fitzpatrick:  The Obama administration has promised to end the veterans backlog by 2015.  With 247,000 claims still stuck in the backlog, do you think this process is feasible?

Kristen Ruell:  Absolutely not. It breeds corruption in the regional offices and we might say that claim has been processed but it's probably not processed correctly. And we probably didn't help the veteran the way we were supposed to. 

US House Rep Mike Fitzpatrick:  Are veterans of our nation passing away while waiting for their claims to be processed?

Kristen Ruell: Many.

US House Rep Mike Fitzpatrick:  Can you estimate how many? 

Kristen Ruell:  No, but I know that that's the easiest kind of claim to do.  If a veteran passes away, you hit one button and you get the same amount of credit as if you worked the claim and granted the benefit.

Kristen Ruell is with the VA as is Ronald Robinson and as was Javier Soto -- the three witnesses on the first panel.

That's from last night's House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.  Yes, last night.  The Committee continues to hold hearings and, if it means a night hearing, they do that.  A veteran who's a friend and who I spoke to after last night's hearing asked that I point that out and that I point out the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee is doing nothing.

The VA is in crisis status right now.  And Senate Committee Chair Bernie Sanders chose to instead focus on acupuncture.  Then a hearing in mid-May where the Chair wanted to keep saying no one had proven any misdeeds by the VA.  This hearing was after Chris Cuomo pointed out -- on CNN while interviewing Bernie -- that Senator Sanders sounded like an apologist for the VA.

And that's Bernie Sanders started losing veterans.  When all of June went by, after the allegations had proven to be accurate, without a hearing, Sanders lost more veterans support.

This week, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee -- which has spent far too much of the month of May whining about 'poor' Eric Shinseki -- will meet again.  Many veterans are wondering why?

They're noticing that Socialist Bernie Sanders is more focused on scoring points for Democrats than he is on serving veterans.

We're not done with the hearing.  Tomorrow we'll note some points House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Jeff Miller made.  I was hoping we could have a news release on that but it's not to be.

Why did I want that?

The VA's done a shell game and that's now fact.

It's not me, a few years back saying, "This change is a mistake, this will be a shell game . . ."

No, everything I warned about came to be.

And I'm not happy about that.  I'm not happy that a number of Congressional members serving on the VA Committees in the House and Senate just knew that everything would be fine.

Just knew.

No, it wasn't.

And I'm tired of screaming.

We were right.  The 'fix' for the backlog?  It was a fix -- it was a scam.

Next year, the backlog will not be gone.

And maybe, along with some members of the Committees, some members of the press could admit that they were wrong?

Best moment of the hearing other than that?

I loved when Chair Jeff Miller quoted from former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' book Duty to slam Eric Shinseki.

(I noted this outside the snapshot last week but we are moving towards a smaller snapshot.  We did it Monday night, not so much here.)

As Javier Soto noted, "Provisional ratings rules simply hid wait times.  Once a claim is given a provisional rating, it's not counted toward the backlog. However, the claim has no final rating.  It's still unresolved."  And that's a surprise to many but we said this is exactly what would happen and we said it before the system started, we stated it the first time the VA informed Congress of this 'fix.'