Friday, November 11, 2011

Iraq snapshot

Friday, November 11, 2011.  Chaos and violence continue, it's Veterans Day in the US, we examine a Senate hearing on whether or not the National Guard deserves a spot on the Joint-Chiefs, Exxon and the KRG get closer, Iraqiya switches its position on provinces becoming semi-autonomous, and more.
On this Veterans Day, the Pentagon finds itself in another scandal.  Last night, David Martin (CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley -- link has text and video) reported on the Air Force's landfill scandal. Here's a transcript of the first minute of the report.

Scott Pelley: Just when you thought the scandal over mishandled remains of fallen American troops at Dover Air Force Base couldn't get any worse. It did today. David Martin has been reporting on the investigation that led to a career ending letter of reprimand for the commander of the mortuary and tonight David is at the Pentagon with new developments.

David Martin: A landfill is no one's idea of a fitting resting place for a soldier fallen in battle.

Gari-Lynn Smith: No service member, no human being at all, should be placed into a landfill -- no matter if it's a finger nail, a foot or an entire body

David Martin: Yet that is what happened to Gari-Lynn Smith's husband, Sgt 1st Class Scott Smith, who was blown apart by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006. Without her knowing part of his body was incinerated and disposed of as medical waste in this Virginia landfill. She found out two years after his funeral.

Gari-Lynn Smith: I have honestly no idea what we buried of him because they forbid me to see him in the casket.
The issue was raised by Senators Kelly Ayotte and Claire McCaskill in yesterday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.  We noted the hearing in yesterday's snapshot in terms of Ayotte and McCaskill's remarks and questions on the disrespect shown to the remains of the fallen (Isaiah's The World Today Just Nuts "Portions" notes Ayotte's exchange). That was a needed topic and one more senators could have explored.  But the topic of the hearing was whether or not the Chief of the National Guard should be a Joint-Chief of Staff. 
Senator Lindsey Graham:  Now, Mr. Johnson, headlines are made at every hearing. Is the headline from this hearing "Obama Administration Opposes Putting the National Guard Bureau Chief on the Joint-Chiefs"?
Defense Dept General Counsel Jeh Johnson: Uhm, uh, Senator, you've, uh, heard the best military advice from --
Senator Lindsey Graham:  Well I'm going to tell you what Vice President [Joe] Biden said in 2008 when he spoke to the National Guard Conference in Baltimore, "It's time for change. Change begins with giving the Guard a seat at the table -- that table in the Pentagon where the Joint-Chiefs sit."  President [Barack] Obama's campaign document, Blueprint for Change, page 55, if you want to read it, I haven't read it, I'll be the first one to admit to it, but this part I do like. Obama will restore the readyness of the National Guard and Reserves. He will permit them adequate time to train and rest between deployments, provide the National Guard with equipment they need for foreign and domestic emergencies. He will also give the Guard a seat at the table by making the Chief of the National Guard a member of the Joint-Chiefs of Staff."  Has he changed his mind?
Defense Dept General Counsel Jeh Johnson: Uhm, the, uh, uh, not to my knowledge
Senator Lindsey Graham:  Don't you think when he said that, he thought long and hard about this and he came to conclude as a prospective commander-in-chief this would be a good idea?  And you're not here to tell us he's wrong, are you?
Defense Dept General Counsel Jeh Johnson: The president and the vice president are above my pay grade.
Appearing before the Committee was the Defense Dept's General Counsel Jeh Johnson --noted above -- as well as the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Martin Dempsey, Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm James Winnefeld Jr., the Army Chief of Staff Gen Ray Odierno, Chief of Naval Operations Adm Jonathan W. Greenert, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen Jame Amos, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen Norton Schwartz and the National Guard Bureau Chief Gen Craig McKinley.  Senator Carl Levin is the Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senator Scott Brown is also an attorney with the Judge Advocate General's Corps of the Massachusetts Army National Guard.
Senator Scott Brown: I'm looking at a letter from General Amos and Chief Greenert. In paragraph three of the letter says that "CNGB does not represent a branch of service nor is CNGB responsible for manning and training and equipping the National Guard to the extent of the service chiefs." And I've got to respectfully disagree. Pursuant to the DoD directive as to the responsibilities of what the Guard in fact does, they are responsible for entire cradle to grave planning program budgeting and execution of these budgets. Provides the President's budget for each of the APPN, which goes to Congress, validates those requirements, provides the annual financial reports to Congress. It's in fact the service chiefs that don't have any of that budget responsibility.  Is that -- Was there a mistatement in your letter there?
Gen James Amos: Well, senator, the point we were -- that I was making was making in the letter, we-we the service chiefs, testify to -- are held accountable to the Congress for the execution of those budgets as well. We have budget submitting offices -- pardon me -- in the Navy who do similarly that you just listed there.
Senator Scott Brown: But you said specifically, they have -- they have, they're not responsible at all.  And, in fact, that's not correct. That being said, I'd like to just shift gears a little bit.  Um, on -- Mr. Johnson, you indicated that you felt that maybe it would create confusion as to who represents the Army and Air Force and I've referenced letters -- General Odierno's "confusion and balance," obviously General Schwartz' confusing lines of authority and you, sir, Adm Greenert, complicated unity of command. I mean, it is really any question as to what the chain of command is with the Joint Chiefs? Obviously General McKinley would go through General Odierno and obviously General Schwartz to General Dempsy. There's no chain of command breach at all. I think it's very clear. And in addition to that, it would -- it would -- I don't think there's any question that the command authority, the Title X Command Authority wants to change. I don't believe the Guard or General McKinley in his capacity is seeking a seat wants to change that at all. He wants -- he wants -- and I believe, I don't -- I guess I'll just ask you, sir. You don't want to change the Title X Command Authority at all, do you?
Gen Craig McKinley: No, sir. As I said in my opening remarks, it's working well for us.
Senator Scott Brown: There's no confusions as to who you have to go through in the chain of command, is there?
Gen Craig McKinley:  I-I-I have no confusion.
Senator Scott Brown: And with regard to the total force integration, do you feel that that would be benefitted by you having a seat at the table?
Gen Craig McKinley:  It's improved greatly as the service chiefs have testified.  It can only get better.
Senator Scott Brown: And is there any question that you in your capacity of having a seat at the table would be the person that could best advise not only in any capacity through any of the service chiefs or the president or anybody on the domestic mission and what the non-federalized units would be able to do?  Espececially the homeland security issues that we're facing? Is there anyone else better quaified than you in your capacity to do that?
Gen Craig McKinley: Sir, I think it's my role and responsibility to be that person.
Senator Scott Brown: I would agree with you and just to follow up on what Senator Inhoff said, General Schwartz, on the fighter aircraft issue, is it a fair statement that due to the effort to save money with the Air Force, the Guard units are going to be eviscerated when it comes to aircraft.  And especially, I've heard and others have commented that the TAGS can't gain access to the plans as to what wings will be effected and how many of the aircraft are going to be lost and isn't that another reason to have somebody like General McKinley at the table that can advise those TAGS and others what the plan is for the aircraft --
General Schwartz: Senator Brown, that's not a role of the Joint Chiefs, but beyond that, the reality is that if the Air National Guard is going to be eviscerated so will the active duty and the reserve.  We are getting smaller together. That is what's underway here. And I would emphasize the point that -- that we are now the smallest Air Force that we've ever been and so -- And because of that, those reductions that occur because of diminishing resources -- which we all face -- will be shared by all the components.
Senator Scott Brown: Well you know that's interesting.  You know, that is another reason why we all need to get back to the table and get this select committee to work so sequestration doesn't come in and dramatically effect this more. 
Senator Kelly Ayotte noted that the record indicated that in 1978 the then Joint-Chiefs opposed the Commandant of the Marines becoming a member of the Joint-Chiefs of staff.  Gen Amos agreed that the change had not hurt the Joint-Chiefs but stated he was not aware of the positions in 1978. 
If there was a valid reason not to make the Chief of the National Guard, it wasn't expressed in the hearing by the witnesses.  What they offered repeatedly came off as, "If someone else is promoted to our level, our level becomes less special for us."  If all them together couldn't come up with one solid reason then either verbal skills are sorely lacking in military leadership or else there is no solid reason to deny it.
An important point: The Guard is not being used as it was in the last century.  Under Bush the Guard became another unit of the military to be deployed to war overseas.  If that's what the Guard now is, then, yes, they need to be represented in the Joint-Chiefs.  Their role has changed and they suffer a tremendous burden and carry more than their weight. That largely went unsaid except for Senator Daniel Akaka who noted it and how it calls for some adjusments such as elevating "the Chief of the National Guard bureau to the Joint-Chiefs of Staff is something that is overdue and will show our guardsmen and their families that they are a true partner. It will also let them know that their voices and views will be represented at the highest levels of government." 
Long before he became a senator, Lindsey Graham was serving in the Air Force and today he serves in the US Air Force Reserves and is a Senior Instructor at the Air Force JAG School.
Senator Lindsey Graham:  General Amos, pound for pound, do you agree the Marine Corps is the best fighting force in the world?
Gen Jame Amos:  Yes, sir. We celebrate that today on our birthday.
Senator Lindsey Graham:  Okay. Good. I agree with you. Do you agree with me that the only thing older than the Marine Corps when it comes to defending America is the citizen-soldier?
Gen Jame Amos: Sir, I believe that's true.
Senator Lindsey Graham:  Well okay. So I'm here to tell everybody I appreciate it but the citizen-soldiers' day has come. You're going to get a seat at the table, General McKinley, if I have anything to say about it.  We're long into this fight as a nation. The first shot was fired by a citizen-soldier, it is time for the citizen-soldier to be sitting at the table -- not for political reasons, but for substantive reasons.
The most vocal opponent was Senator Jim Webb who had no real reason to explain why he opposed it today or why, when he was 25-years-old, he wrote an article expressing the belief that the National Guard should have a seat on the Joint-Chiefs. 
In Iraq, things are heating up over an oil deal. Hassan Hafidh and James Herron (Wall St. Journal) report, "ExxonMobil Corp. could lose its current contract to develop the West Qurna oil field in Iraq if it proceeds with an agreement to explore for oil in the Kurdistan region of the country, an Iraqi official said. The spat highlights the political challenges for foreign companies operating in Iraq" as Nouri's Baghdad-based 'national' government attempts to rewrite the oil law over the objection of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Tom Bergin and Ahmed Rasheed (Reuters) offer, "Exxon declined to comment, and experts speculated the move could indicate Baghdad and the Kurdish leaders are nearing agreement on new rules for oil companies seeking to tap into Iraq's vast oil reserves." UPI declares, "The breakaway move into Kurdistan, the first by any of the oil majors operating in Iraq under 20-year production contract signed in 2009, could cost Exxon Mobil its stake in the giant West Qurna Phase One mega-oil field in southern Iraq." Salam Faraj (AFP) speaks with Abdelmahdi al-Amidi (in Iraq's Ministry of Oil) declares that the Exxon contract means that Exxon would lose a contract it had previously signed with Baghdad for the West Qurna-1 field.  Faraj sketches out the deal with the KRG beginning last month with Exxon being notified that they had "48 hours to make a decision on investing in an oil field in the region."  Exxon was interested but sought an okay from the Baghdad government only to be denied.
Nouri al-Maliki and the Kurdish politicians (with the exception of members of Goran) are in conflict and have been for some time now.  Over the weekend,  Al Mada noted that the country is in the midst of a political crisis with no end in sight. This is Political Stalemate II. Nouri's refusal to abide by the outcome of the election (Iraqiya, led by Ayad Allawi came in first; Nouri's State of Law slate came in second) and surrender the post of prime minister caused Political Stalemate I which only ended (November 2010) when the political blocs met up in Erbil and ironed out an agreement where everyone made concessions. This agreement is known as the Erbil Agreement. Upon all parties signing off, Parliament held their first real session in over eight months and Nouri was named prime minister-designate (Jalal Talabani would wait over a week to name him that 'officially' in order to give Nouri more time to put together a Cabinet.) Upon getting what he wanted, Nouri went on to trash the agreement. This is the start of Political Stalemate II which has continued since. The National Alliance, Iraqiya and the Kurdish politicians (except for Goran) have called for a return to the Erbil Agreement.
Among the things that Kurds want is to see the Constitution followed.  The 2005 Constitution outlined how disputed regions would be settled: A census and a referendum.  Nouri became prime minister in the spring of 2006.  The Constitution called for the census and referendum to be held by the end of 2007.  Nouri operated in violation of the Constitution and continues to do so.  In the US, such an action could lead to impeachment. Kirkuk is an oil-rich region that's in dispute with both Baghdad's central government and the KRG claiming it.  Another big concern for the Kurds was Nouri's recent effort to rewrite the oil law by proposing a new draft which would result in the KRG losing their claims on many oil fields.  The Exxon back and forth today is only the latest in a string of back-and-forth volleys between the KRG and Nouri.
In addition to those conflicts, the KRG is also seeing the mountains in the north bombed by the Turkish military with the Turkish government insisting that they're only targeting the PKK -- a group of rebel Kurdish fighters created in response to the severe and historical disenfranchisement of Kurds within Turkey.  Amar C. Bakshi (CNN -- link has text and video) interviews KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih:
Amar C. Bakshi: Let's switch gears to Turkey -- an important regional neighbor that over the past few months has intervened in northern Iraq to go after Kurdish nationalist forces who have used terror to kill Turkish soldiers, numerous civilians.  Now is the Kurdistan Regional Government cooperating with Turkey in its interventions into northern Iraq?
Prime Minister Barham Salih: These issues cannot be solved by military means, these issues cannot be solved by violence. There has to be a political track. This initiative that the Turkish government has started, the democratization process, needs to be enhanced, deepend, in order to ensure that this long-standing conflict is resolved in a differnt way.
Today, Aswat al-Iraq reports, Iraqiya's Azhar al-Sheikhli announced Iraqiya has changed their position on the province issue stating that they "are not against federalism, but there are many questions on their implementation process."  Does that mean Kirkuk?  It might.  But last week, Salahuddin Province set in motion, if the Constitution is followed (Article 119), the steps to become a semi-autonomous province like the three that make up the KRG.  On the issue of Salahuddin Province, Aswat al-Iraq reports that Nouri and Salahuddin Province Governor Ahmed Abdulla al-Jbouri and Nouri stressed that there are so many 'dangers' while al-Jbouri stated "the declaration of Salah al-Din as a region has become a public demand and cannot stop it."
Aswat al-Iraq reports 1 Sahwa was killed in an attack in Diyala Province while a second attack left two Sahwa injured. Sahwa are also known as "Awakenings" or "Sons Of Iraq." The US government paid them to stop attacking US military equipment and soldiers. The Iraqi government was supposed to pick up the payments and did so slowly. They were also supposed to incorporate the Sahwa into government jobs -- security and non-security jobs; however, that hasn't happened. Instead, Nouri's targeted them with arrests, often paid them late and never issued a statement decrying any of the attacks on Sahwa. In related news, Mustafa Habib (niqash) interviews Iraq's Minister of National Reconciliation Amir al-Khuzaei:

NIQASH: The process of reconciliation has been criticised – some say that it's avoided putting the blame on certain parties – such as insurgent groups who carry out armed attacks - even though they may have engaged in criminal behaviour.

Al-Khuzaei: In our efforts to reconcile, we want to open up channels of communication with the insurgents and to negotiate with them. The government will pardon those who put down their arms to join in the reconciliation process. But this doesn't mean that the rights of ordinary Iraqi citizens are compromised. Reconciliation may be able to make compromises in the public interest. But it cannot compromise on individual rights.

NIQASH: Can you tell us more about the kinds of dialogue that you have been having with armed factions?

Al-Khuzaei: We have been engaged in a positive dialogue with some of the factions for whom Harith al-Dhari [head of the conservative and mostly anti-US and anti-Iraqi-government Association of Muslim Scholars, a mainly Sunni Muslim group] is a spokesperson. We have also been fully engaged with the [Sunni Muslim] 1920 Revolution Brigade, the [Sunni Muslim] Mujahideen Army, the [Sunni Muslim] Islamic Jihad Brigades and the [Sunni Muslim] Ansar al-Sunnah group in Diyala. Also [the Sunni Muslim armed group] al-Naqshbandia, [the Sunni Muslim armed group] Hamas Iraq and the [Shiite Muslim] League of the Righteous. The dialogue and the agreements we have come to differ from group to group. Some of them were made on a collective level, others were on an individual level. In terms of the latter, we've had members of armed groups approach us and say that they wanted to quit their armed activities and return to their ordinary lives. We have no objection to this -- in fact, we welcome it.

Alsumaria TV reports that yesterday in Baghdad, a sticky bombing claimed the life of 1 Ministry of Health employee. In Baghdad today, Aswat al-Iraq reports, "Hundreds of Electoral Authority employees demonstrated today in Firdous Square, mid Baghdad, demanding to be appointed in their full capacity, while other NGOs talked for next Friday demonstration. Aswat al-Iraq correspondent said that the demonstrators came from different provinces to demand that the martyrs of the Authority should be given their lawful privileges."

Alsumaria TV quotes a political analyst on the US and Iraq who states, "U.S. leaked through some of the media they would go to the Security Council to consider The Iraqi government is a competent and this allows again to return to Iraq and I think this Klha means of pressure, because America did not like its the issue of withdrawal. According to observers, the U.S. troops stay in the Gulf comes the desire of them fear for their own interests or fear of potential Iranian expansion, as well as standing desire of the United States to stay close to Iran in anticipation of launching a military strike after sunburn Israel to do so."
Again, today is Veterans Day in the US.  Denise Goolsby (Desert Sun -- link has text and video) reports that 11 to 20% of veterans of the current Iraq and Afghanistan Wars "report suffering from" PTSD. One Iraq War veteran with PTSD is Justin Weathers. Matthew Renda (Union) reports:

Since his return stateside in 2004, Weathers often is unable to shake habits of vigilance he cultivated to stay alive while fighting in the town of Ramadi, often reported as the site of some of the Iraq war's most fierce fighting.
"If you stopped at a stoplight in Iraq, you were going to get shot at," said Weathers. "There was a lot of chaos; it was just … it was just hectic."
Weathers is currently in therapy in an attempt to manage the nightmarish memories and persistent symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that have continued since he first received his honorable discharge from the armed services.

There is also what military commanders have called the signature wound of the current wars, TBI -- Traumatic Brain Injury. Sgt Laura Todd is among the many with TBI. Colleen Flaherty (Killeen Daily Herald) reports:

"There was an explosion off the (base) and the concussion blast blew me off my feet," said Todd. She finished her deployment with the rest of 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment. "We just run on pure adrenaline." It was only upon returning home that Todd noticed something was wrong.
"I couldn't figure out which slot the fork went into in the drawer, or I couldn't (remember) how to tie my shoes, things like that," she said.

As with every war, there are also those who lost limbs, those who have had their hearing and/or vision harmed or lost, those who suffered burns and much more. On today's Fresh Air (NPR), Terry Gross spoke with journalist David Wood about some of the severely war wounded. Those who served in the war include the fallen and that's those killed while serving and those service members who took their own lives and veterans who took their own lives. Yesterday on The Diane Rehm's Show's first hour, Diane and her guests explored military suicides (link has audio and transcript).  We noted that in yesterday's snapshot; however, the link was not included.  My apologies.
Today's remembered also includes those who died of natural causes and those who died from wounds or exposures from the war zone which claimed their lives.  Those dying from toxins they were exposed to while serving may have been around or worked the Burn Pits. 
Iraq War veteran Leroy Torres and his wife Rose Torres work on the Burn Pit issue non-stop. Another person who does is Iraq War veteran and Afghanistan War veteran Daniel Meyer whose blog can be found here. This month the three of them and others have been working on lobbying for a Burn Pit Registry. Wednesday, Daniel Meyer reported:

Yes­ter­day, Novem­ber 8, 2011, BurnPits360 stormed capi­tol hill, kick­ing off a three day cam­paign. The sec­ond week in a row being in our nations capi­tol, this event dis­plays the ded­i­ca­tion and tenac­ity this great orga­ni­za­tion exudes in sup­port of vet­er­ans who have been neg­a­tively affected by toxic burn pits. It also comes just a few short days after the intro­duc­tion of the Open Air Burn Pits Reg­istry Act of 2011 by Con­gress­man Todd Akin -- R -- Missouri.

The burn pit issue is one that there should be strong support from Congress on. But there really hasn't been. When some -- then-US Senater Evan Bayh in 2009 and 2010, for example -- have attempted to lead on the issue by introducing a bill for an Iraq Burn Registry, others have refused to allow a bill out of committee. Milan Simoniah (Las Cruce) reports Iraq War veteran Master Sgt Jessey Baca is working on the issue:

Baca was the first veteran from New Mexico to publicly say burn pits were killing soldiers. He stood with the state's two U.S. senators last week after they introduced legislation to create a registry that would track veterans who were exposed to open burning and help them get medical treatment. America's military created the burn pits as a practical means to keep bases in Iraq and Afghanistan functional.
"They burn constantly to get rid of trash, metal, batteries, chemicals, human waste, plastics, paint. Contaminated jet fuel is used for the fire," Baca said one recent afternoon.

As awareness increases, we see efforts to minimize the realities of Burn Pits. Last week, the Institute of Medicine published a silly study researched by several people who depend upon government funding to finance their other studies. Even then, they couldn't come out and say there was no link between burn pits and serious damage to respiratory systems, forms of cancer, etc. The most they could offer was that further study was needed because they couldn't prove or disprove. J. Malcolm Garcia (The Investigative Fund) published a brilliant take-down of that 'study' today and he also noted:

Last year, long before the IOM report, the US government acknowledged the injurious effects of burn pits. According to a report released last year (PDF) by the United States Government Accountability Office, "burn pits help base commanders manage waste, but also produce smoke and harmful emissions that military and other health professionals believe may result in acute and chronic health effects to those exposed."

The VA states on its own webpage that chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metals, aluminum, unexploded ordnance, munitions, and petroleum products among other toxic waste are destroyed in burn pits. Possible side effects, the department notes, "may affect the skin, eyes, respiration, kidneys, liver, nervous system, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, peripheral nervous system, and gastrointestinal tract."

So while further study may elicit more information about the effects of breathing burn pit fumes as well as the dust in Afghanistan and Iraq, the verdict appears to be in, and that is that the government knows that just breathing the air poses severe consequences to its soldiers.

It took decades for the Congress to get behind an Agent Orange Registry for veterans exposed while serving in Vietnam and surrounding areas. In 2009, then-US Senator Evan Bayh attempted to get the ball rolling on Burn Pit Registry hoping it would take far less time than the struggle for an Agent Orange Registry. 
While veterans include more than just the veterans of today's current wars, our focus is Iraq and Luis Martinez and Amy Bingham (ABC News) provide some basic statistics on the veterans of today's Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.
Though returning to life outside of a war zone usually requires some readjustment, many service members and veterans are fortunate enough to return with no major physical, mental or emotional wounds. Many veterans are also furthering their education, some utilizing the Post-9/11 GI Bill.  Kevin Fagan (San Francisco Chronicle) reports on Iraq War veteran, Staff Sgt Josh Aguilar who will be attending San Francisco City College next semester and explains, "I learned in the military that when you want to get something done, it's best to have a plan. So I have one, and at the same time  I am open to everything." Iraq War veteran Chris Seaman is a college student and he shares his thoughts at the Drury Mirror:

There were crappy times when you realize how much you've got left over there, but overall it was good.
I learned the values of hard work, team work, and leadership.
One thing I'd like for people to know is that not all young enlisted servicemen are loud, MMA gear wearing douchebags, although most are.
We do not get wasted and have a grand ole time in Iraq and Afghanistan like some movies portray.
It really bothers me that a lot of people think we're just getting hammered and running around shooting camel spiders, of which I never saw a single one.

Community note: Wednesday night, Cedric and Wally did one of their usual funny joint-posts ("The Whiner In Chief" and "THIS JUST IN! BITCHY IS HOW HE ROLLS!") while others in the community posted on a theme of "The first time I felt like a grown up." The theme posts are Ann's "2 men, 2 women The first time I may have broken federal law," Betty's "The second time I got my period,Trina's "Parking," Rebecca's "that time i stole a watch from a teacher," Ruth's "My first cup of coffee in front of my parents," Kat's "My first time hosting the pot party," Marcia's "My first R-rated film," Stan's "My first big purchase," Elaine's "The first time I faced my issues" and Mike's "My first orgasm."