Thursday, March 26, 2009

Iraq snapshot

Thursday, March 26, 2009.  Chaos and violence continue, the US military announces another death, Gareth Porter explains what the draw down means, and more.
Since it was little covered and since what coverage there was missed or (Spency Akerman) distorted the exchange, let's start by dropping back to yesterday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the nomination of Chris Hill to be Ambassador to Iraq.   A key exchange was the following between Senator Jim Webb and Hill. 
Senator Jim Webb: That being said, I just burned two minutes backing you up here, Ambassador Hill, and I got something I want to get clarified and it's something that's been concerning me for well over a year and that is the nature of the Strategic Framework Agreement and the SOFA agreement in Iraq and what our obligation actually is. And have you read those two agreements?
Chris Hill: Yes I have.
Senator Jim Webb: I-I read them last fall when they were, I think, wrongly categorized as "restricted information" -- where you had to go to a room to read a couple of documents that were not even classified because the previous administration, in my view, was trying to keep this issue away from the public debate.  I re-read them again, about ten days ago, and I'm an old-legislative-council, words are very important to me.  You've been through this many times and I also notice in your  testimony and in the phraseology that's now being used we're talking -- you are talking, the administration is talking more about the drawing down of forces rather than the withdrawal of forces.  And I think -- I think that's a pretty important distinction when looking at the verbage in this agreement.  My concern is this: I was among a number of people -- the chairman [John Kerry], I know, also was, Vice President [Joe] Biden was one -- who was saying an agreement of such magnitude should have had the approval of the United States Congress.  Whether or not it was raised to the level of a treaty, it certainly should have had the approval of the United States Congress.  It required the approval of the Iraqi Parliament.  And yet because of all the machinations and the presidential campaign, the business of the Congress, this agreement was basically done through executive signatories.  It wasn't brought before the Congress at all.  Now if you go and read this agreement -- and this is, if you're not familiar enough in detail to give me an answer today, I really would like to hear what the administration thinks.  If you read this agreement in toto -- if you take Articles 2, 24, 27 and 30 and read them with the defintional phrases against each other, there really seems to be quite loose language when we're talking about a full withdrawal by the end of 2011. Just very briefly and I appreciate that the chairman will allow me a possibly couple of minutes over [overlapping, Commitee Chair John Kerry tells him to take the time he needs] but hopefully not.  In the "Defintion of Terms" a "member of the United States forces" means any member who is a member of the United States Army, Navy, Airforce, Marine Corps.  Any individual.  Now if you read that against Article 24, I'm not going to go into detail through all the phraseology, it says, "All United States forces shall withdraw from Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011."  I -- I am of the understanding, although I was not a participant, that that at one time said all United States forces "must withdraw" but now says "shall withdraw" -- "All United States forces shall withdraw no later than December 31, 2011."  If you then look at Article 27 there are two fairly lengthy paragraphs that I'm not going to quote in total but they basically talk about if there is any external or internal threat to Iraqi soverignty, political independence -- some very loose language -- that we will take appropriate measures. And it also says there will be close cooperation training, equipping, etc.  And finally, if you read all of that against Article 30, it says -- and this is important because of the way we came to this agreement -- it's important to me, anyway, as a legislature:  "This agreement shall be amended only with the official agreement of the parties in writing and in accordance with the Constitutional procedures in effect in both countries."  Well the argument can now be made that, since the Congress was not a part of the approval of the document, that an executive agreement, a signature in the same form as the way this agreement was signed, could basically say "Okay, we're not going to be out of there by December 2011. December 31, 2011"  And in listening to the discussions with respect to residual forces and this sort of thing, I -- I'm not really hearing clearly that it's the intention of the administration to have a complete withdrawal of all United States forces by December 31, 2011. Would you comment on that?
Chris Hill: First of all, with respect to commenting on the specifics of the -- of the  agreement, I would I would rather get back to you with a considered answer.  Words matter on this.  And this is the fundamental document that is the basis for our having forces in Iraq today so --
Senator Jim Webb: So the question really to come back to us on is: "Is it the position of the administration that we will withdraw all American military forces from Iraq by December 31, 2011? All?"

Chris Hill: That is -- that is our -- that is the position as I understand it.  Now I understand, too, that this will  this will be in continued consultations but my understanding is that, uh, it is the position that we will withraw all forces by December 31, 2011.
Senator Jim Webb: I very much appreciate that answer.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
This is what had little Spency juking in his shorts as he heavy-panted, "that's a flat declaration."  No, it's not and it actually goes to an issue Spency's mocked and made fun of.  The GOP's argument is that they are concerned by what was said by Hill in previous testimony and Senator Sam Brownback feels he was misled by Hill in Congressional testimony.  (See yesterday's snapshot.)   If the position of the adminstration is as Webb fears (and I believe it is based on comments from and arguments with friends serving in the administration) and Hill is held accountable for stating "That is -- that is our -- that is the position as I understand it.  Now I understand, too, that this will  this will be in continued consultations but my understanding is that, uh, it is the position that we will withraw all forces by December 31, 2011."; Hill will come back and say, "Well, I also said before that I didn't know and words matter."  Yes, Hill said that before.  That is correct.  And I don't believe Webb is confused on this issue.
But that goes to what has bothered Brownback.  You can comb through Hill's testimony, his remarks specifically to Brownback while Hill served in the previous adminsitration, and technically Hill has told the truth.  Technically.  But he has misrepresented -- intentionally or not -- because he gives a sloppy presentation.  Now we've remarkded yesterday on how sad/appalling it was that a nominee for an ambassadorship to another country showed up for a Senate hearing without combing his hair (prior to the hearing, at the start of the hearing or even during it -- anytime would have been helpful) and that goes to his sloppy presentation.  But does he intend to be so sloppy?  Does he just not think it matters for him to comb his hair (click here for an example of one huge twig sticking out in the back)?  Does he just not think it matters for him to speak clearly?
On the last question, if he does think it is important to speak clearly, his first reply should have stood.  Hill said, "First of all, with respect to commenting on the specifics of the -- of the  agreement, I would I would rather get back to you with a considered answer.  Words matter on this.  And this is the fundamental document that is the basis for our having forces in Iraq today so --" Hill doesn't know the answer.  That's clear from that statement.  But, as with Brownback, Hill couldn't stick with a solid reply.  Instead he offers comments that are speculation -- and the way he speaks, his speaking manner, during that section, it's clear he's speculating.  If push comes to shove, Hill will point to that first reply ("First of all . . .") and state that he wasn't sure and words matter. 
Throughout the hearing Hill contradicted himself non-stop.  Sometimes he was threatening Iran, sometimes he was talking about how important it was for Iran and Iraq to get along.  Hill is incredibly sloppy.  I have no idea if -- as was asked yesterday -- Condi Rice yelled at him for a North Korea related issue but he has a reputation of being very sloppy of ignoring the directives because he picks from them to choose what he thinks is important.  And what happens when his ranked importance wasn't ranked as highly by higher up in the State Dept?  He would state he'd misunderstood the directive.  [A new GAO report will address a few paragraphs down notes that "the Administration has emphasized the importance of a responsible drawdown of U.S. forces but has not yet defined this term."  Hill's testimony didn't either.] 
Not one, not twice.  This is a repeat pattern and why is the Congress not being told of that?  Hill's sloppy.  I had no opinion of his nomination (as Ava's noted, she and I lobbied friends in the adminstration on behalf of several women to be the US Ambassador to Iraq -- the women we lobbied for were all qualified and would have, by their gender alone, sent a message that needs to be sent when the US has already installed a group of sexist thugs to run Iraq).  I'd stated before that he was qualified though maybe not for Iraq.  Yesterday's hearing and comments that followed after from friends at the State Dept?  He's not qualified.  Do I think he'll be confirmed?  Probably.  But his work habits are as sloppy and as poor as his grooming.  And we'll go on the record right now, while everyone else is silent and wants to play like Hill's qualified, stating he is not qualified.  Congress doesn't need someone who will mislead them -- intentionally or not -- and the White House does not need someone who will take the directive and then determine what he wants to do.  Iraq doesn't need it.  The exchange with Webb underscored Brownback's objection for anyone paying attention.  
Back to Spency Ackerman the Democratic Cheerleader on the public dime.  I'm not really sure that "This Is the Hill Sam Brownback Wants to Die On" qualifies for reporting in commercial publishing. But it is not in keeping -- none of Spency's 'reporting' is -- with their 501 (c) (3) non-profit tax status.  When the day comes -- and it will, it may be ten years or more, but it will come -- that the Republicans have control of one or both houses, look for some of these 'non-profits' that self-describe as 'independent' and 'non-partisan' (and have to in order to be granted that tax status) to come under investigation.  As they should.  You don't cheat the tax payers by being wink-wink independent when actually being a party organ for a political party.  You're seeing the abuses that lead to outrage and lead the public to switch back and forth between the two parties over and over, installing one and then the other.  (A true independent media would have done the work required for a third party to emerge long ago but we don't have an independent media system in this country.)  It's an important point and as long as we're going on the record re: Chris Hill's qualification, let's go on the record re: the appalling clowning that passes for 'reporting.'  These are the nut-jobs who wanted to criticize the MSM.  And yet, as we're seeing, they are guilty of every conspiracy theory they floated against the MSM.  They have no ethics at all and they work in the beggar world of Panhandle Media because their character and ethics are so low that they can't work anywhere else.  Though this [MSM] reporter isn't trying to frighten, Laura Rozen (Foreign Policy) blogged last night:

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held Chris Hill's confirmation hearing to become US ambassador to Iraq this morning. Though chairman Sen. John Kerry, ranking Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), two former Bush-appointed ambassadors to Iraq John Negroponte and Ryan Crocker, and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad, as well as Generals David Petraeus, Ray Odierno and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have come out in favor of getting Hill into place in Baghdad quickly, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) took to the Senate floor this afternoon to vow to continue to oppose him.
And a real left with a real alternative media would be frightened and bothered that the likes of Bloody John Negroponte and Can I Get Another Buck Down My G-String Zalmay Khalilzad are endorsing Hill for Ambassador of Iraq.
Staying with the issue of the draw down (the White House wants it spelled "drawdown," since we've noted the draw down since January -- as opposed to withdrawal -- we'll continue to spell it the way outlets have in previous wars -- unlike PBS which takes spelling lessons from Barack), Gareth Porter (IPS via Information Clearing House) reports the following:
Despite President Barack Obama's statement at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina Feb. 27 that he had "chosen a timeline that will remove our combat brigades over the next 18 months," a number of Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), which have been the basic U.S. Army combat unit in Iraq for six years, will remain in Iraq after that date under a new non-combat label.

A spokesman for Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates, Lt. Col. Patrick S. Ryder, told IPS Tuesday that "several advisory and assistance brigades" would be part of a U.S. command in Iraq that will be "re-designated" as a "transition force headquarters" after August 2010.

But the "advisory and assistance brigades" to remain in Iraq after that date will in fact be the same as BCTs, except for the addition of a few dozen officers who would carry out the advice and assistance missions, according to military officials involved in the planning process.

Gates has hinted that the withdrawal of combat brigades will be accomplished through an administrative sleight of hand rather than by actually withdrawing all the combat brigade teams. Appearing on Meet the Press Mar. 1, Gates said the "transition force" would have "a very different kind of mission", and that the units remaining in Iraq "will be characterised differently".

"They will be called advisory and assistance brigades," said Gates. "They won't be called combat brigades."

Obama's decision to go along with the military proposal for a "transition force" of 35,000 to 50,000 troops thus represents a complete abandonment of his own original policy of combat troop withdrawal and an acceptance of what the military wanted all along - the continued presence of several combat brigades in Iraq well beyond mid-2010.

National Security Council officials declined to comment on the question of whether combat brigades were actually going to be left in Iraq beyond August 2010 under the policy announced by Obama Feb. 27.

Truths about the draw down will continue to emerge.  Good for Porter for getting the ball rolling.  Returning to the hearing, the peace movement should have been combing through Hill's statement.  It's really important, Hill would repeatedly state, that the US military "take with them a sense of pride in the mission accomplished" and also "we want them to leave behind . . . a sense of security in the country."   He would repeat similar remarks to Senator Russ Feingold (Feingold expressed concerns about the 35,000 to 50,000 troops remaining in Iraq after Barack's plan goes through): "They come back with not only a sense of a mission accomplished but a sense of a mission well done because our nation depends on this."  Our nation depends on lies, Chris Hill?  Kat noted Senator Robert Menendez at the hearing and she pointed out that his questioning was pracitacl and "that it's called 'oversight,' not 'aftersight'."  Menendez noted the three to five billion dollars that the Special Inspector General for Reconstruction in Iraq has found to have been wasted, the millions "stolen by Iraqi officials" and that the SIGR noted "that there is corruption across the board at Iraq's ministries."  Menendez was bothered by the waste, the theft and the lack of oversight.  he wanted to know "why do you think our efforts there in reconstruction got so badly off track and, if confirmed as an ambassador, what do you consider your responsiblities to be with overseeing continued reconstruction and mitigating waste?"
Hill started off strong noting, "When the American tax payers give you money for something, it is important that we make sure that it is carefully spent -- wisely spent." Hill then went prancing off to The Land of Platitudes.  (His point on this throughout the hearing was no more reconstruction will be paid for by US dollars -- oh really? -- and that US money will only now be used to 'firm up' the ministries, via training.  He stressed this especially in an exchange with Senator Robert Casey Jr. insisting that there would be no actual construction and that US assistance would be "more in terms of technical assistance" from this point forward.)  Other than talking about making sure seminars weren't booked if no Iraqis had interest in attending, he had nothing.  Menendez noted, "I don't get the sense that there won't continue to be needs for US assistance to Iraq."  He further pointed out that when money is mispent, badly spent or stolen, it makes it more difficult to get needed funds in the future for any project, anywhere.  As Kat points out, he was looking for proactive measures by Hill. Hill provided none.  Hill did state that really it was just a case of imposing some regulations.  The SIGR states their massive and widespread corruption in every ministery but Hill believes a few regulations will fix the problem?  If there's a job Hill might have been more poorly suited for than Ambassador to Iraq, it would apparently be fixing the economic crisis in the US so possibly we should all be thankful that he's only been nominated to be an ambassador?
The day Hill insisted that rebuilding efforts in Iraq would only now be technical assistance having to do with how to run ministeries, etc. and asserted that the US was out of the reconstruction of physical structures in Iraq, the US Government Accountability Office begged to differ.  They issued the report entitled [PDF format warning] "Iraq and Afghanistan: Security, Economic, and Governance Challenges to Rebuilding Efforts Should Be Addressed in U.S. Strategies." As the report documents, this "technical assistance" for the ministries became the goal in 2007 -- two years ago.  Further, the report indicates that indeed reconstruction will continue to be an issue for the US and this is probably most clear in the Figure 4 diagram.  From the report, we'll note this on the spending (remember, al-Maliki sits on billions while the Iraqi people suffer):
Despite its substantial budget surplus and international assistance, Iraq has not spent the resources it set aside for reconstruction efforts essential to its economic recovery.  As table 2 indicates, Iraq has spent about 12 percent, or $2 billion, of the $17.2 billion it allocated for reconstruction activities in the oil, electricity, and water sectors.  In contrast, U.S. agencies have spent almost 90 percent, or $9.5 billion, of the $10.9 billion Congress made available for investment activities in these sectors since fiscal year 2003.  Moreover, Iraqi ministries have consistently spent far higher percentages of their operational budgets, which include employee compensation, than they have of their investment budgets, which include infrastructure costs.
In yesterday's hearing, Senator Russ Feingold noted "recent press reports on the Kurdish region" and wondered how concerned we should be about this rising tension and what role the US should play in this situation?"  This is where the 'wise' Hill declares of the question mark dangling over oil-rich Kirkuk,  "they're disputes, they're flat out land disputes . . . just old fashioned land disputes."  And then adds, "My understanding is that there are no total deal breakers there."  Today Ned Parker (Los Angeles Times) reports that the US has had to move "a combat brigade" into the area and is being forced to mediate the conflict while Nouri al-Maliki has sent in Saddam Hussein's former strong-man Maj Gen Abdul Amir Zaidi to Kirkuk to "remove Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, from this bitterly disputed province, which is home to as much as 13% of Iraq's oil reserves and borders the semiautonomous Kurdistan region."
In Baghdad today, a bombing claims multiple lives. The Los Angeles Times reports it was a car bombing and at least 18 are dead with another forty wounded. Aseel Kami, Tim Cocks, Mohammed Abbas and Angus MacSwan (Reuters) explain it took place "in a crowded shopping district" and women and children were present and are among the injured. They also note this follows Wednesday's wave of Operation Happy talk from "U.S. and Iraqi security officials [who] lauded a sharp drop in violence in Iraq, which they said was lower than any time since mid-2003, but insurgents have shown themselves still capable of launching high-profile attacks." They said. They said based on their figures. Their non-public figures. Anthony Shadid (Washington Post) observes, "The bombing, the fourth major attack in Baghdad and its outskirts this month, came a day after the U.S. military said attacks in Iraq were at their lowest level since 2003. Although perhaps true, Monday's attack illustrated the resilient ability of insurgents to carry out devastating strikes in some of the country's most dangerous regions -- parts of Baghdad and its outskirts, Diyala province and the region around the city of Mosul."  Shadid notes the car was said to be a "yellow Renault" and he quotes Naama Sabr stating, "Everything seemed to fall down around our heads -- rubble, shrapnel, everything.  What was left?  The dead were dead, the wounded were wounded and the rest managed to live."  Campbell Robertson (New York Times) notes how theories are filling the vacuum created by no information which leads one woman to insist the bombing was the work of "sidewalk vendors who wanted the street closed again" and she, Thamar Mehdi Hassan, states, "The municipality of Baghdad is responsible for this violence.  If they open it they have to protect it."  BBC carries AFP's quote of Umm Hatam, "I tried to escape and the fire was everywhere.  I saw the dead bodies of women and children, and about 10 small buses were burnt." Here's a really scary thing everyone should absorb: The BBC is running with AFP.  BBC News, which is now responsible for ABC News out of Iraq (US' ABC, not Australia's) and it's dependent upon AFP to find a quote for a Baghdad bombing -- a Baghdad bombing.  CNN says the death toll is 22 and the number wounded is thirty-eight (and they note a Mosul roadside bombing by a primary school which killed four young girls).
The Los Angeles Times notes, "On Monday, a bomb in western Baghdad's Abu Ghraib district killed at least nine people, and another blast that day killed 18 people north of Baghdad in Diyala province." Al Jazeera reminds today's car bombing "came three days after a suicide attack against Kurdish mourners in central Iraq, which killed 27 people and wounded 50 others." 
Turning to other reported violence . . .
Sahar Issa and Hussein Kadhim (McClatchy Newspapers) report a Kirkuk roadside bombing which left three employees of the Electricity Department injured and a Mosul grenade attack which wounded a shop owner..
Sahar Issa and Hussein Kadhim (McClatchy Newspapers) report 1 store owner shot dead in Mosul and also in Mosul  Iraqi forces shot dead a driver at a checkpoint and 1 woman "who was passing by".
Sahar Issa and Hussein Kadhim (McClatchy Newspapers) report Kirkuk was the site of an attempted kidnapping of a bodyguard for the President of the Criminal Court and that the bodyguard was not kidnapped (the kidnappers ended up fleeing) but he was left wounded.
Today the US military announced: "A Multi-National Division-Baghdad Soldier died March 25 from non-combat related injuries.  The Soldier's name is being withheld pending notification of next of kin and release by the Department of Defense.  The incident is currently under investigation."  ICCC lists their count as 4261. That's the number of US service members killed in Iraq since the start of the illegal war. AP has a count of 4262 and noted this morning that the DoD count was higher by one (that was before today's announcement -- AP's raised their count to 4262 and presumably the DoD has raised their count by one as well).
Those wanting to catch on some of yesterday's key events can click here for a summary from the Dallas Morning News
Yesterday Karen DeYoung (Washington Post) reported on the Government Accountability Office's study entitled "Iraq: Key Issues for Congressional Oversight." DeYoung explained the study found the costs for the drawdown to be "expensive" and, referring to the SOFA, DeYoung observes, "The report notes that many implementing details of the December U.S.-Iraq agreement remain unspecified. After June, for example, all U.S. military operations must be conducted with Iraqi government approval, yet 'it is unclear whether U.S. forces will have a 'blanket' authorization to conduct certain types of operations, such as medical evaluations or routine joint patrols,' it said."  The GAO summary of the report notes:
Key issues that should be considered in further defining the new strategy and its supporting operational plans are as follows: (1) The security agreement establishes dates for repositioning U.S. forces in Iraq and removing them from the country--a significant change from the United States' prior, conditions-based strategy for Iraq. A responsible drawdown in Iraq will need to balance the timetable established in the security agreement, military doctrine that calls for the delineation of conditions that must exist before military operations can end, and the wishes of the Iraqi government. (2) If the United States adheres to the timetable contained in the security agreement, DOD will need to remove about 140,000 troops by the end of 2011. The redeployment of these forces and the removal of their equipment and material will be a massive and expensive effort. (3) The large U.S. military presence has provided vital support to civilian operations and has undertaken many traditionally civilian tasks. In moving forward, the United States will need to consider how to transition from a predominantly military presence to a civilian one as U.S. forces draw down. (4) As U.S reconstruction efforts end, Iraq will need to develop the capacity to spend its resources, particularly on investment that will further economic development and deliver essential services to its people. GAO estimates that the Iraqi government had a cumulative budget surplus of $47 billion at the end of 2008.
The report itself [PDF format warning, click here] is fairly straightforward and we may come back to it in a later snapshot to grab something unrelated to withdrawal. One reason for the delay and expense is closing US military bases which the GAO says there are 283 of (as November 2008) and that would normally require one to two months in order to shut down but that is a time frame for simple bases and something like Balad Air Force Base (their example) would require much longer with estimates of more "than 18 months".  The expense, this isn't the report, could be cut as could the time frame if the military were right now doing an inventory on equpiment and determing what was worth tranpsorting out and what could be left behind (which usually means torched by the US military) or passed over to the Iraqi government.
Credit where it's due dept, five individuals earned it.  First up, on Tuesday night's press conference, Steve Padilla (Los Angeles Times) manages to maintain a sense of persepctive:

President Obama has ended his second White House news conference, so let the second-guessing analysis begin. In all, he fielded questions from 13 reporters. It's worth noting some of the things that did not come up during the Q & A with the press.               
Iraq, for one. Never came up. Isn't there a war going on?
Michael D. Shear and Scott Wilson (Washington Post) also maintained a sense of perspective:

During the 55-minute news conference, Obama faced no questions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, or terrorism. Instead, the president focused consistently on his administration's efforts to boost the economy, presenting his first budget proposal as the critical and most far-reaching step in that process.

And possibly even more deserving of praise was the New York Times' live blogging, done in real time, with Helene Cooper and Jeff Zeleny catching it as it happened:

Helene Cooper | 9:01 p.m. I'm still slackjawed over the shocking lack of national security issues raised. This is a new world we're living in, after seven years of Al Qaeda, Iraq and Afghanistan. Hard to imagine a Bush press conference focusing so singularly on the economy, but then, these are clearly different times.

Jeff Zeleny | 9:00 p.m. The second prime-time press conference for Mr. Obama is in the books. Thirteen questions, but not one about Iraq or Afghanistan. That would have been impossible to imagine during his presidential campaign. So what's the headline? "Hang on Americans, We'll Get Through This."
All five earned credit and I intended to note them yesterday but that section was pulled due to not having enough space for everything.