Saturday, December 12, 2015

Iraq snapshot

Saturday, December 12, 2015.  Chaos and violence continue, the US government continues bombing Iraq, Turkish troops continue to occupy Mosul, Shi'ites protest the occupation, the House Veterans Affairs Committee pretends to give a damn about veterans and American tax payers, and much more.

We'll start with a Congressional exchange.  We've often noted Dr. Phil Roe, a member of the House of Representatives, who serves on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.  There are times when I disagree with him (he too often sees private enterprise as the solution to all problems and ills) but I don't know that I've ever found him truly disappointing.  Until this exchange with Deputy Secretary of the VA Sloan Gibson.

US House Rep Phil Roe:  [A]nd you are correct, I did take a little bit of offense to some of what you said.  

Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson: Yes, sir.

US House Rep Phil Roe: And I can assure you if some of these people had been working in your shop when you were in the private sector -- or my shop when I was in the private sector -- that they would have been fired.  And you can't have 320,000 employees and everybody is doing a great job.  It's just too big of an organization.  And I understand that and you understand that.

Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson: Yes, sir. 

US House Rep Phil Roe:  I think that you'll probably find that most of us physicians on the panel are more interested in the access and the quality of care that veterans are getting.  Let me just read you a text I got here nine minutes before this hearing started: "Phil, sorry to bother you but we're doing" -- this is a general surgeon in Johnson City, Tennessee -- "we're doing VA critically ill patients that spill over when they're full.  Unfortunately, we're having trouble getting paid. Is there anything your staff can do to help us?"  This goes on, I get one of these once a week.  And so everything is not good right now with the VA.  There are a lot of issues and problems.  And I think that's the problem.  And the other thing I think the VA could do tomorrow to help access and quality --  I spent four hours at the VA just two weeks ago before Thanksgiving, went down and walked through the electronic health record and looked at that and talked to one of my former -- one of my friends who is an orthopedic surgeon  formerly in private practice now at the VA.  I looked at how long it took him to see one patient, what he had to go through. So it's impossible to pick up with the current system you have, their productivity.  So as long as that system stays in place.  My friend cannot see any more patients, he just cannot do it. It took him 30 minutes to inject a rotary cuff.  It would have taken him 10 in his office but it took 30 [at the VA].  And with the electronic health record and all the documentation, all the stuff he had to do to put in the record, he just can't do it.  So you're going to have these waits and then, when you do that, we're going to be on you and then you're going to have people -- so that the data doesn't look bad -- manipulate those times.  That's exactly what has happened and that's why we're sitting here and having this conversation.  So one of the things I would recommend you do is take people like myself and make me a certified VA provider that sees patients on the outside and then pay them so I don't get these texts -- in a timely fashion like most -- like Medicare does.  They're very good at it.  They don't pay you very much but at least they get the money to you and you can count on that.  And I think when a physician -- and I happen to know this physician very well -- he operated on my wife, he's a very fine physician and the VA won't pay him.  So why would you expect him to continue to bail the VA out?  And you're just going to back downstream, do exactly what we're talking about, veterans can't get in.  So anyway, I've said enough about that.  You could certify me as a private practitioner, as a certified VA provider and then just pay us.  That's not a difficult thing to do.  That would help you long waits right now if you'd just let the private sector help you out.  You wouldn't have these hiring things.  And Ms. Brown is absolutely right: It takes forever and many of the good people get hired away by the time the VA's made a decision to actually have them work.  So the way you can fix that, you can -- if you can't fix the hiring process -- just take providers like myself, put a little thing at the bottom of my shingle that says "Dr Roe, Certified VA Provider," I'll see the patients, get the information right back over there in a timely fashion, take care of them, if the veteran wants to do that. And many veterans do, many veterans would like to have their care in the community.  Those are some suggestions I would make.  I don't think everything is -- is fine at Lake Wobegon, personally. 

Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson: It's not.

US House Rep Phil Roe:  You've got lots of problems and-and so to come up and accuse the Congress?  We didn't create the problems, we're trying to find out what they are and resolve the problems because it is effecting veterans.  I think that is our motivation.  So I'll finish with that.  If you have any comments, I'll be glad to hear them.

Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson:   Well as I  -- as I said, I think we're all after the same thing, better healthcare and better outcomes for veterans.  Uh, payment promptness has been a problem at VA for years.  We have made great strides over the last -- probably nine to twelve months.  But-but we still have a long way to go and many of the changes that we're making there is moving us towards much more that the private sector looks like.  I thought we talked about this three weeks ago at the last hearing as we were talking about payment process.  60% of our payments are still processed in paper.  We're encouraging out providers to do that [file claims] electronically so that we can accelerate that time line.

US House Rep Phil Roe:  What-what do I tell my friend after we've had this hearing today?  When's he going to get paid?

Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson: Please-please ask him -- if you will e-mail his information, I will -- I will see that we're working on it today.

US House Rep Phil Roe: Okay, I will do that.  Thank you, I yield back. 

It's not what you know, it's who you know.

You're a doctor providing care to veterans and not getting paid?

Better hope to hell you have a friend on a Congressional Veterans Affairs Committee -- House or Senate.

Is that the take away?

I was there, I get that Roe was disappointed and that his time was already over and he was just trying to wrap up.

But for the Deputy Secretary's 'answer' to be: Give me his e-mail and I'll make sure he's paid?

No, that's no answer at all.

It does nothing to help other doctors or to address the problem.

To even call it a "band aid" is to be overly generous.

I do understand the frustration.

But I also understand why veterans are growing ever more frustrated with an ineffective Congress.

Wednesday's hearing made that very clear.

For the record, I missed the first half of the hearing (I was at a Senate hearing and had to walk like crazy (a half mile in heels) to catch the hearing.  I do have the prepared remarks that they waste time on at the start of the hearing and Cedric attended the entire hearing and I have his notes on what happened before I arrived.  (Thank you Cedric.)

The House Veterans Affairs Committee has become a joke.  The Ranking Member is a joke.  Those in attendance roll their eyes as she mangles both the English language and basic logic throughout the hearing while sporting one ridiculous wig after another.

US House Rep Beto O'Rourke:  And I got to tell you I sympathize with the fact that you are managing an all funds, all accounts budget, uh, organization that controls $156 billion, that has one of the most sacred responsibilities that this country has to fulfill and you and Secretary McDonald -- and actually you before Secretary McDonald -- took this over at a time of unparalleled crisis.  So I'm trying to figure out what the balance is between the Committee and the VA and the administration.  I want to focus on the outcomes.  I want you to hit those things that are, I know, your commitments and your issues.  I don't want to get into personality issue and $156 billion organization.  And yet because of the trust that was broken with this Committee, with this country, with the veterans, the VSOs who represent them, I think it's very understandable that there's a heightened sensitivity on the part of the Committee when we see a Diana Rubens situation [. . .]


Benjamin Krause (DISABLED VETERANS) reported in October:

VA insiders report Philadelphia director Diana Rubens walked around the facility laughing at yesterday’s House Committee hearing about her pay fraud scheme, mockingly telling co-workers to “enjoy the show.”
“Phila VA co-worker [redacted] reports Director Diana Rubens walking around Phila VA @ 0820 this morning (WEDS 21 OCT) mocking today’s Congressional Hearings, laughing and telling VA employees, ‘Enjoy the show.’”

Yesterday, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs held a hearing focusing on the unlawful Permanent Change of Station (PCS) pay scheme of the current director of troubled Philadelphia Regional Office (RO). The hearing confirmed that under secretary Allison Hickey was involved. It also confirmed that the former Philadelphia RO director was forced out so that Rubens could take the position that she volunteered for prior to demanding moving incentive pay.

November 24th, Dianna Cahn (STARS AND STRIPES) reported:

The Department of Veterans Affairs will not try to recoup more than $400,000 from two senior VA executives who manipulated the hiring system to get their jobs of choice and received hundreds of thousands in extra money to relocate.
The agency has remained silent on questions about its decision to demote and transfer but not fire executives Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, and whether it would collect repayment of those relocation benefits. The original statement from the VA announcing the decision said the women had the right to appeal their reassignments.

But Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the VA’s top lawyer has determined that the agency does not have the legal authority to recoup the money, even after acknowledging that the women had abused their offices.

As a VSO rep (who is also a veteran) said to me as we walked out after the hearing concluded, "O'Rourke needs to shut up about what he did on some city council in Texas if he can't do the same when he's on the US Congress."

That was in reference to Beto O'Rourke's statements about how he would vote that they not just offer an easy pay off to bad employees to get rid of them but be the one voting -- usually the only one, he stated -- to spend money to ensure the problem was actually addressed.

So why not do that with Allison Hickey?

That piece of trash charmed the press from day one.

She showed up with her bleached out and tacky hair, tossing her (dry and spit end riddled) long hair throughout the hearing as though she were a show girl on a Vegas stage and that's really all it took for her to fool the press.  In DC, even an ugly blond woman is 'hot.'

She lied repeatedly in one hearing after another.

We called her out.

A few members of Congress called her out.

It was predicted that every one of her promises (lies) to Congress would turn out not be true -- predicted by then-US House Rep Bob Filner -- and that she would be long gone, having pocketed a tremendous amount of money while the VA problems would remain.

That's exactly what happened.

What should have followed was Congressional investigation.

Not a hearing here or there.

And certainly not Beto O'Rourke's ridiculous crap (which offended every veteran at the hearing that I spoke to) about just "going forward."

When you don't address the problem and you don't hold people accountable, nothing gets better.

Stop pretending it does.

Allison Hickey, Diana Rubens and others provided sub-standard care to veterans while using the United States taxpayers as their personal line of credit.  They should have been fired, not allowed to resign, they should have been forced to return the money and they should have been hauled before the Congress for serious Congressional oversight.

If you're not providing that, stop pretending that you care about veterans.

Clearly, you do not.

You also, and this matters as well, don't give a damn about American citizens -- veterans or not -- if you allow government employees to steal US tax payer monies.

That is exactly what Hickey and company did.

The American Legion issued the following statement:

American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett expressed frustration Wednesday after a congressional hearing that addressed accountability issues in the Department of Veterans Affairs in the aftermath of relocation compensation paid to executives implicated in a VA Inspector General’s report last month.
“Our veterans are looking for accountability at every echelon of the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Barnett said after today’s hearing. “American taxpayers want to give veterans the best health care possible for veterans. However, they expect VA to be fully accountable to provide that care without waste, fraud or abuse of government funds. It appears that VA has a long ways to go before achieving this mission.”

On Congressional hearings, Wednesday, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Secretary Ash Carter:  Turning to northern Iraq , Peshmerga units, with the help of U.S. air power and advisers, have retaken the town of Sinjar, cutting the main line of communication between Raqqa and Mosul, the two largest cities under ISIL’s control. To move people and supplies, ISIL now must rely on backroads, where we will locate and destroy them. Elsewhere in Iraq, we have about 3,500 troops at six locations in support of Iraqi Security Forces, or ISF. There, we've been providing increased lethal fire and augmenting the existing training, advising, and assisting program. And we’re prepared to do more as Iraq shows capability and motivation in the counter-ISIL fight and in resolving its political divisions. After a frustratingly long time, we are starting to see some movement in the operation to recapture Ramadi. Over the past several months, the coalition has provided specialized training and equipment -- including combat engineering techniques like in-stride breaching and bulldozing, and munitions like AT-4 shoulder-fired missiles to stop truck bombs -- to the Iraqi Army and counter- terrorism service units that are now beginning to enter Ramadi neighborhoods from multiple directions. In fact, in the last 24 hours, the ISF retook the Anbar Operations Center on the northern bank of the Euphrates River across from Ramadi's city center. This is an important step, but there is still tough fighting ahead. ISIL has counter- attacked several times , but thus far the ISF has shown resilience. The United States is prepared to assist the Iraqi Army with additional unique capabilities to help them finish the job, including attack helicopters and accompanying advisors, if requested by Prime Minister Abadi.

We covered the hearing in the Wednesday, December 9th "Iraq snapshot," "Turkey's invasion and occupation of Iraq continues..." and in the Thursday, December 10th "Iraq snapshot" while Mike covered it in "So now attack helicopters" and "What is the plan?," Betty in "Joe Manchin is a sad US Senator," Wally at Rebecca's site with "Who knew Ash Carter was a fan of The Killers?," Ava at Trina's site with "Those shameful senators," Ann with "That posturing and preening Senate Armed Services Committee," Ruth with "Senator Blumenthal misses the point," Kat with "Disgusting 'answer' to the refugee crisis" and Elaine with "Senator Claire McCaskill is a pig."

This followed a hearing from the week before where Ash Carter appeared before the House Armed Services Commitee. We covered last week's hearing in the Tuesday December 1sts snapshot  and the Wednesday, December 3rd snapshot and in "Ash Carter spun wildly to Congress," additional reporting: Cedric's "Hank Johnson's sexual obsession with Barack" and Wally's "THIS JUST IN! HANK HIS JOHNSON!" covered US House Rep Hank Johnson wasting everyone's time to profess his strangely sexual obsession with Barack and Carter and Gen Joe Dunford refusing to indulge Johnson,  At Rebecca's site, Wally reported on Ranking Member Adam Smith  in "Even House Democrats are criticizing Saint Barack.(Wally)," at Trina's site Ava reported on the obsession with oil that was at the heart of the hearing in "It's still about the oil," Mike reported on US House Rep Niki Tsongas offering some realities about the so-called coalition in "US Armed Services Committee hearing offers a little bit of reality," Ruth reported on US House Rep John Kline's questioning which established that there was no cap on the number of US troops that could be in Iraq "Iraq still matters,"  Kat took on the surreal aspect with "The US just declared war on everyone but Santa," Elaine covered one time anti-war US House Rep Jackie Speier making an idiot of herself in statements and dress with "The idiot Jackie Speier" and Dona moderated a roundtable at Third on the hearing with "Congress and Iraq."

The announcement of more US troops being sent to Iraq and that they would be publicly participating in combat did not go over well in Iraq.

However, the news of forthcoming US troops quickly took a back seat to the reality of Turkish troops in Mosul.

Sunday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi gave Turkey 48 hours to remove their troops from Mosul.  Tuesday saw Turkey's response: We'll stop sending troops into Iraq . . . but we're leaving those already in Mosul.  Thursday, REUTERS reported Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan declared, "Withdrawing our soldiers is out of the question for the moment."

And today?

RT reports, "Thousands of Iraqis across the country protested against the deployment of Turkey’s troops to a base near the northern city of Mosul, held by Islamic State militants. Protesters chanted anti-Turkish slogans and burned and trampled on Turkish flags."  Al Arabiya clarifies on the protesters, "Meanwhile, several thousand protesters, most of them members of Shiite paramilitary forces, gathered in central Baghdad on Saturday to demand the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Iraq."

: Turkish signs being burned in .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
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Ex VP Maliki turned up in anti protests in Baghdad but takes a backseat                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
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Susannah George and Qassim Abdul-Zahra (AP) report:

Militiamen in fatigues, and their supporters and onlookers gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, chanting, “No to occupation! No to Turkey!” Some young men burned Turkish flags. Former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is Abadi’s fiercest rival, walked through the square and was mobbed by supporters who took photos and videos with their phones.

The predominately Shi'ite protests follow the pronouncement this week by a Shi'ite cleric.  Ahmed Rasheed, Isabel Coles and Hugh Lawson (REUTERS) report that Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sisanti added his voice Friday to the calls for Turkish troops to leave Iraq via a statement made by spokesperson Sheikh Abdul Mehdi Karbala'i at today's weekly sermon in which the spokesperson declared, "The Iraqi government is responsible for protecting Iraq's sovereignty and must not tolerate and side [with] that [which] infringes upon it, whatever the justification and necessities."

Paul Davis (RUDAW) offers an analysis of the conflict which opens:

The Iraqi government has finally decided to become very agitated over something other than Kurdish oil being sold on the open market, Turkish troops in the north training Peshmerga. While content to have a reported 30,000 Iranian forces in Iraq alongside tens of thousands of Shia militia, whom the Iranians control, the Abadi government is hell bent on removing 150 Turkish trainers. While unable to remove ISIS from Iraq the Iraqi government has gone so far as to threaten to us force against Turkey.

What is the real reason Turkey has troops in Iraq and why is Baghdad so upset? In a word, Kurds. It is always Kurds for the Turks and will always be for Baghdad.

It is becoming abundantly clear that there will be a free and independent Kurdish state on the border with Turkey. It most likely will be, at least in part, the area now controlled by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, and it will come sooner rather than later. Depending on how events transpire it could include Rojava. The removal of ISIS from Mosul will be required and that is beyond the capabilities of Baghdad or, on its own, Erbil. Turkey has the capacity but will need a reason. It is likely that non-regional forces will be needed. Should Mosul be liberated by forces other than those under Baghdad’s control it will be lost to Iraq.   

At RT, Catherine Shakdam offers an analysis which includes:

Whether for a lack of political perspective or a misplaced sense of political grandeur, Erdogan’s Turkey is looking very much the imperial power - a stark break from its former commitment of non-interference.
And if Turkey owes its survival and one could argue return to power, to its prudent foreign policies - favoring cooperation and collaboration, over smug patronage, Erdogan’s recent posing against both Russia and Iran positioned Ankara as yet another foe to contend with.
In a matter of weeks Erdogan managed to shatter decades of careful regional political balancing, failing in one swift move the possibility of a grand alliance against terror -  but then again, it could well be that for all his claims and promises Erdogan wishes not to defeat ISIL, but endeavor to play the beast to feed his neo-Ottoman dreams. Turkey today is indulging radicals their thirst for conquest because it believes it can exploit radicals’ ambitions to serve its own agenda.
And though such allegations might have appeared far-fetched only a few months ago, recent developments opened up truths we cannot afford to deny. 

Lastly, today, the US Defense Dept announced:

Strikes in Iraq
Rocket artillery, bomber, fighter and remotely piloted aircraft conducted 12 strikes in Iraq, coordinated with and in support of Iraq’s government:
-- Near Al Baghdadi, one strike struck an ISIL tactical unit and wounded an ISIL fighter.
-- Near Makhmur, one strike struck an ISIL tactical unit and destroyed an ISIL fighting position.
-- Near Mosul, four strikes struck three separate ISIL tactical units and destroyed an ISIL light machine gun, three ISIL fighting positions, an ISIL heavy machine gun, an ISIL mortar tube, and suppressed an ISIL mortar position.
-- Near Ramadi, three strikes struck two separate ISIL tactical units and destroyed an ISIL anti-air artillery piece, an ISIL vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), an ISIL fighting position, an ISIL vehicle, an ISIL weapons cache, and two ISIL assembly areas.
-- Near Sinjar, three strikes struck two separate ISIL tactical units and destroyed an ISIL vehicle, an ISIL light machine gun, an ISIL fighting position, and an ISIL supply cache.

Task force officials define a strike as one or more kinetic events that occur in roughly the same geographic location to produce a single, sometimes cumulative, effect. Therefore, officials explained, a single aircraft delivering a single weapon against a lone ISIL vehicle is one strike, but so is multiple aircraft delivering dozens of weapons against buildings, vehicles and weapon systems in a compound, for example, having the cumulative effect of making those targets harder or impossible for ISIL to use. Accordingly, officials said, they do not report the number or type of aircraft employed in a strike, the number of munitions dropped in each strike, or the number of individual munition impact points against a target.