Friday, February 17, 2012

Iraq snapshot

Friday, February 17, 2012.  Chaos and violence continue, hours are spent searching a few Camp Ashraf residents, State of Law takes to the airwaves to attack Tareq al-Hashemi and the country's Constitution, and more. 
If you're one of the many who've thought so much of the US coverage of Iraq in the last years has been sub-standard, you found out why today on The Diane Rehm Show.  Anthony Shadid has died.  He was an award winning writer for the Washington Post and then he (and his wife) moved over to the New York Times.  At the Post, there was an effort to impose some journalistic guidelines on the writing and he chafed at that.  The Times gave him free reign and that was not anything good.  I've noted my opinion of his feature writing passed off as hard news reporting. And he, many times, made his clear his opinion of my critique.  I had no plans to mention him or his writing today.  (He died in Syria from an asthma attack that people are assuming was brought on by exposure to animals -- horses -- on the part of the people smuggling him in and out of Syria.)
But there was Diane Rehm and her guests David Ignatius (Washington Post), Nancy A. Youssef (McClatchy Newspapers) and James Kitridge (National Journal) describing what made Shadid -- in their opinion -- a great reporter.  I'm sorry but that's not reporting.  It's travel writing.  It's feature writing.  It's not reporting.
David Ignatius: What I would say about Anthony -- and Nancy and James also knew him -- is that he really represented the thing that makes great journalism special.  Uh, he had a way of grasping not the facts but the essence of the story.
Yes, David's correct.  And Shadid would have made a great novelist.  But that's not what makes a great reporter.  A great reporter grasps the facts.
"It was magical story teling," said Nancy Youssef.  It was.  It was the novelization of the news which is to reporting what novelizations of films are to movies.  They're similar, they're just not the same.  "You know to me his-his articles were almost love letters about the people he was writing about," gushed Nancy.  Again, you're not describing a reporter.
And that goes to why the news is so awful today.  Whether it's Iraq or any other topic.  The industry doesn't even embrace reporting.  They want to be something else.  And in the process, they are dumbing down America.  This is Bob Somerby's criticism, the heart of his criticism.   He  momentarily caught up in the 'framing' 'issue -- an early '00 hula hoop -- briefly.  But it's the novelization of the news -- news for people who can't process news.  It goes beyond the crimes of narrative and hook.  It's why Gail Collins is a columnist.  They won't cover the facts, they won't stick to whether something's legal or not, they want to give you the 'essence.'  They want to give you subjective because it's so much easier to produce and so much quicker to produce. (Anthony Shadid, to be fair, had a real talent for novelization.  He truly would have made a great novelist.  And as feature writing, some of his 'hard news' reports are amazing examples of style and even insight.  But it's  not news and that's only more obvious when he moves to the New York Times.) And the proof of that is in the coverage of Shadid's death which is not news, which treats him as though he's Whitney Houston or some other celebrity and refuses to offer an honest appraisal of his strengths and weaknesses.  Why else cover a reporter?  And the fact that the news industry goes into hype mode ('greatest foreign correspondent of his generation') goes to the tawdry excess that has for too long passed as hard news.  What should have been a private moment is turned into a media event.
It's the novelization, not actual news, bad writing that seizes on a partial quote to 'illuminate' -- not a full quote because a full quote actually rejects what the writer is trying to novelize. The public -- as well as the news industry -- would be a lot better off if the press realized that you can't distill the essence and instead started covering that which is observable and verifiable in the physical world?
And for those who will whine this was so unfair, oh heavens, clutch the pearls.  I didn't set out to write about Shadid today.  I focused on other things.  But we didn't get Iraq on The Diane Rehm Show's international hour.  We did get testimonials to Shadid.  And those who aren't functioning adults and don't grasp that blind praise isn't how we evaluate should take comfort in the fact that I avoided writing at length about the obvious point: 'Shadid was a wonderful person.'  A great reporter? When Sy Hersh dies, people will point to stories he wrote, stories he broke.  The same with Carl Bernstein, the same with Robin Wright, Ned Parker, Sabrina Tavernise, Alexandra Zavis, Nancy A. Youssef and many others.  Whether it's The Diane Rehm Show, The Takeaway or the multitude of programs covering Shadid's death today, no one could point to any news. Because feature writing isn't news writing. If I wanted to be mean, I would've opened with that point and expanded on it for several paragraphs.
I listened to The Diane Rehm Show because, with David on as a guest, I thought (wrongly) we might actually hear something about Iraq.  You know their Vice President is in the news cycle. That's actual news. And it matters a great deal on the international scene.
It certainly matters to the Iranian government which is why the Iranian media has been all over the story.  There's the Press TV article declaring, "The Supreme Judicial Council said on Thursday al-Hashemi and his employees were behind years of deadly terror operations against security officials and civilians in Iraq."  And of course they rushed to put on MP Saad al-Mutallibi (link is text and video) from the rival State of Law political slate who declared:
Because this is the independent, one hundred percent independent justice system, speaking on its behalf, and representing itself and putting forward the accusations and the implication of Mr. Al Hashemi to 150 terrorist attacks against the nation of Iraq against individuals, against the police forces, against the army, against national institutions and of tremendous, as I said, consequences, with direct implication from Mr. al-Hashemi. This would put a tremendous pressure, I believe, on the Kurds to take the right decision and probably surrender him to Baghdad to face trial.  Unless of course he escapes the country as the other terrorists have done and spend the rest of his life in exile. There is no way that this matter could be resolved politically.

The Voice of Russia reports Tareq al-Hashemi declared he may leave the country.  And why not?
It's not just State of Law using the meida to convict him.  It's also the so-called independent  judiciary of Iraq.  Nine judges with the Iraqi Supreme Court issued a finding that Tareq al-Hashemi is guilty. There was no trial.
And yet the Supreme Court issued a finding.  It is the Supreme Court because they used the Supreme Court spokersperson (Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar) for their press conference and because, as the BBC notes, the nine-member review was "set up by the Supreme Judicial Council."

Tareq al-Hashemi is an Iraqi citizen and, as such, the Constitution (Article 19) guarantees he is innocent unless convicted in a court of law. There has been no trial. The judiciary has not just overstepped their bounds, they have also violated the Constitution.

Lower courts hearing the case in Iraq now will know the feeling of the Supreme Court (which can overrule them) and that could influence a verdict. So, no, he cannot receive a fair trial now.  Also at issue is Judge Saad al-Lami.  Al Mada notes he can't stop whining about alleged threats against him from Tareq al-Hashemi's supporters and how al-Hashemi publicly named him. And whine on. He did this at the press conference. Is he a judge or not? That's not the behavior of someone reserving judgment. That's the behavior of someone with a conflict of interest.  Along with being very anti-Sunni (Tareq al-Hashemi is a member of Iraqiya and he is also a Sunni), the judge also has problems with Iraqiya.  Just a little while ago,  AFP was reporting on that judge, how he was demanding that Iraqiya MP Haidar al-Mullah lose his immunity so he (the judge) could sue him:

Abdelsattar Birakdar, spokesman of the Higher Judicial Council, said Mullah was accused of having offended Judge Saad al-Lami in a late November interview.
Lami filed a complaint, after which a court "studied the case and then issued an arrest warrant against him and sent a request to parliament to lift his immunity in order to prosecute him," Birakdar said.
Mullah said Lami was "influenced by Maliki."

(If that link doesn't work, click here for the AFP article.)  That's one of the 9 'objective' members of the court who decided Tareq al-Hashemi's guilt -- despite 'forgetting' to provide him with a trial.
Turning to the issue of Camp Ashraf, Victoria Nuland, US State Dept spokesperson, issued the following statement yesterday:
The United States continues to pursue a peaceful, humane solution to the untenable situation at Camp Ashraf. The critical next step is the voluntary movement of the first group of 400 Ashraf residents to the new transit facility at Camp Hurriya (former Camp Liberty). The United States supports the UN's call for the Iraqi Government and the residents of Camp Ashraf to continue to cooperate and begin this movement peacefully and without delay. Once the first group arrives at Hurriya, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) can immediately begin verification and refugee status determinations, a necessary step for Hurriya residents to safely depart Iraq.
On January 31, following successful work by the Government of Iraq, the UNHCR and UN Human Rights Office in Baghdad determined that the infrastructure and facilities at Camp Hurriya are in accordance with international humanitarian standards for refugees, as required by the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by the United Nations and Government of Iraq last December 25. Secretary Clinton, joining European Union High Representative Ashton, has publicly supported this MOU, which fully respects the sovereignty of Iraq. The United States welcomes the Iraqi Government's continued cooperation with the UN; urges the Iraqi government to fulfill all its responsibilities, especially the elements of the MOU that provide for the safety and security of Ashraf's residents; and calls on the leaders at Camp Ashraf to cooperate with Iraqi authorities and the UN to make this and all further stages of the relocation successful.
The United States urges this voluntary movement to Hurriya to begin on schedule February 17. The U.S. will not walk away from the people at Camp Hurriya. We will visit Hurriya regularly and frequently, and continue to work with the UN to support their temporary relocation and subsequent peaceful and secure resettlement outside of Iraq, consistent with our respect for Iraq's sovereignty and in accord with Iraq's responsibilities for their humane treatment and security.
Camp Ashraf?  Camp Ashraf houses a group of Iranian dissidents (approximately 3,500 people). Iranian dissidents were welcomed to Iraq by Saddam Hussein in 1986 and he gave them Camp Ashraf and six other parcels that they could utilize. In 2003, the US invaded Iraq.The US government had the US military lead negotiations with the residents of Camp Ashraf. The US government wanted the residents to disarm and the US promised protections to the point that US actions turned the residents of Camp Ashraf into protected person under the Geneva Conventions. As 2008 drew to a close, the Bush administration was given assurances from the Iraqi government that they would protect the residents. Yet Nouri al-Maliki ordered the camp attacked twice. July 28, 2009 Nouri launched an attack (while then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was on the ground in Iraq). In a report released this summer entitled "Iraqi government must respect and protect rights of Camp Ashraf residents," Amnesty International described this assault, "Barely a month later, on 28-29 July 2009, Iraqi security forces stormed into the camp; at least nine residents were killed and many more were injured. Thirty-six residents who were detained were allegedly tortured and beaten. They were eventually released on 7 October 2009; by then they were in poor health after going on hunger strike." April 8, 2011, Nouri again ordered an assault on Camp Ashraf (then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was again on the ground in Iraq when the assault took place). Amnesty International described the assault this way, "Earlier this year, on 8 April, Iraqi troops took up positions within the camp using excessive, including lethal, force against residents who tried to resist them. Troops used live ammunition and by the end of the operation some 36 residents, including eight women, were dead and more than 300 others had been wounded. Following international and other protests, the Iraqi government announced that it had appointed a committee to investigate the attack and the killings; however, as on other occasions when the government has announced investigations into allegations of serious human rights violations by its forces, the authorities have yet to disclose the outcome, prompting questions whether any investigation was, in fact, carried out."  Mohammed Tawfeeq (CNN) observes that "since 2004, the United States has considered the residents of Camp Ashraf 'noncombatants' and 'protected persons' under the Geneva Conventions."
Howard Dean is the former Governor of Vermont and a peace candidate in the 2004 race for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.  More recently he was Chair of the Democratic National Committee (2005 - 2009).  Today Ellen Ratner interviewed him for Talk Radio News Service (link is audio -- and Ellen is the sister of Michael Ratner).  Excerpt.
Ellen Ratner:  I'm here with Governor Dean and, Governor Dean, you are really interested in the situation in Iraq.
Howard Dean: Right. As we have pulled out, there are 3400 unarmed Iranian dissidents who've been living in Iraq for about 25 years. And we promised to defend them when we disarmed them and then we left them high and dry.  And Prime Minister Maliki, at the bidding of the Iranian government. went in and killed 47 of them. Unarmed.  These are people who voluntarily disarmed and who the FBI has screened to make sure none of them are terrorists. And we need to get them out of there.  So what I'm involved with -- with a number of both Democratic and Republican  ex-officials -- is trying to get these people off the American terrorist list -- which they don't belong on and which they've been removed from other lists under threat of law and our courts have also told the State Dept they didn't belong on the terrrorist list -- so they can be moved to another country so they don't get killed basically. Shot. They're unarmed.  We promised to defend them.  We haven't done that.  We're trying to move them out so we can -- so we can save their lives
Ellen Ratner:  Well this is really interesting because of course America wants to keep it's promises. How did you personally get involved in this Governor Dean?
Howard Dean:  I got invited to go give a speech to this group and of course about a year ago I saw them on the terrorist list so I had a lot of qualms. Then I saw the other people who were speaking including people like Jim Jones who was a former security advisor to President Obama, Mike Mukasey a former federal judge who was the Attorney General under Bush,  Tom Ridge -- Honeland Security under Bush  who I served with as governor when he was governor of Pennsylvania, Patrick Kennedy, Bill Richardson -- former Ambassador to the UN. And I thought: If these people are all involved with this, this can't be crazy. So I went over there, I met them, I heard their stories.  And basically this is a group that was disarmed by the United States.  They were the guests of Saddam Hussein because they were against the mullahs in Iran. and during the Iraq-Iran war of course, Saddam Hussein wanted anybody who was against Iran.  But of course after Saddam was done in, they had no further role. They converted to a democratic opposition  and disarmed and we promised to protect them.  And I just think we ought to keep our promises any part in allowing genocide by an army that we trained and armed which is the army of Iraq.
Ellen Ratner: Well governor you and Governor and Secretary Tom Ridge are both involved in this. Have you been able to move this at all? Is our government responding?
Howard Dean: Well they are responding but it is very slow going.  There's lots of discussions, negotiations, and, of course, they responded late.  But today is the day that these first 400 of these folks are supposed to be moving to an interim camp. Now the problem with this interim camp is it's more like a prison than a camp.  But we are very hopeful that the State Dept -- which I think  is beginning to work hard on this problem -- we'll get these folks out of here and this will be a transient cetner which is what it's supposed to be.
Ellen Ratner: And two questions -- just foreign policy questions dealing this group.  How do they relate to the government of Iraq right now? And what is the government of Iran trying to do to them?
Howard Dean: The government of Iran is trying to kill them and unfortunately the government of Iraq essentially works for the government of Iran.  They've been in there twice  and killed 47 of them who were unarmed already. So the problem here is that we are not working with a friendly government.  Maliki is not our friend. He's a puppet of the Iranians.  And he's a big problem for us.  And, of course, all of which I predicted eight years ago when I was running for president, that this would be the end of the Iraq War, that we'd make Iran much stronger, which is exactly what we've done.
Ellen Ratner: You certainly did predict it, Governor.
Howard Dean: And it's a very difficult situation.  And, unfortunately, we delayed so we don't have as much leverage as we did when we had troops on the ground.
AFP adds, "The European Union called on Iraqi authorities yesterday to guarantee the security of an Iranian opposition group transferring to a new camp near Baghdad."  Ashish Kumar Sen (Washington Times) speaks to one of the 400 being moved, Bahzad Saffari, who states, "[The Iraqi authorities] are creating problems.  The process has been painfully slow.  We are expecting things to be much worse."  AFP adds, "Behzad Saffari, the legal adviser for residents of the camp, told AFP by telephone that the searches began around 2:00 pm (1100 GMT), and that more than 300 people had been searched as of 10:30 pm (1930 GMT). It was not clear when they would depart the camp."
Violence continued in Iraq.  Reuters notes a Hawija sticky bombing which injured on person, a Khalis attack which claimed the life of 1 police officer and, dropping back to Thursday night for the last two, 2 police officers were killed in a Baghdad attack and 1 police officer was killed and so was his driver.
Even with American troops reportedly no longer stationed in Iraq, the Pentagon has submitted a brand new budget request of $2.9 billion for post-operation "activities" in the war-torn nation.
After the U.S. troop drawdown in Iraq was completed in December, a new budget request by the Pentagon, called Post-Operation NEW DAWN (OND)/Iraq Activities (pdf), comes at a time when it has been reported there are no longer any U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. The new budget request likely includes a "black" budget for special operations forces still conducting business there.

The second report, in the Post, informs us that the U.S. is significantly ramping up the number of CIA personnel and covert Special Operations forces in order to make up for reducing the American military and diplomatic footprint. These added covert personnel will be distributed in safe houses in urban centers all across the country. This represents a new way to exert U.S. power, but it is betting on the Iraqis not noticing the increased covert personnel. Really? This is a bad decision as it contradicts the reasons for the decision to reduce embassy staff.
The Iraqis have suffered for nine years as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation. The economic, educational and political systems in Iraq have been destroyed. Sectarianism, contrary to the belief of many in the U.S., has become the order of the day since the invasion. A significant percentage of Iraqis do not like us and do not want us to stay in Iraq. No Iraqi politicians want to openly be identified as pro-American.
Animosity toward the U.S. is on the rise because of the heavy U.S. presence in Iraq. Our projects in Iraq function to serve our interests, such as building and training security forces to keep the Iraqis in check (building the infrastructure for the promotion of democracy has taken a back seat). We have made sure that Iraq, for the foreseeable future, will depend on us for security equipment and spare parts, heavy industrial machinery, and banking. We built Iraq's security forces but made sure it has no air force. And the half-hearted democracy we built is a shambles; graft and corruption are still rampant.
Maj Troy Gilbert died in combat in the Iraq War. A small amount of tissue was found in his plane after it crashed. His body was carried off by assailants who would use it a year later in a propaganda video. His family was informed that any search for him was off, that the small amount of tissue discovered in the plane meant that he wasn't classified as found.
His widow Ginger Gilbert Ravella told Brian New (KENS 5 -- link has text and video) earlier this month, "Someday my five kids are going to ask me, 'Did you do everything, did the government do everything to bring Daddy home?' I want to be able answer I did and they did absolutely everything." New notes, "During a 2006 mission near Baghdad, Maj.Gilbert was credited with saving twenty Americans under fire when he destroyed a gun truck from his F-16 jet. The Air Force pilot then turned around to attack another truck when the tail of his plane hit the ground."  Jim Douglas (WFAA -- link is text and video) spoke with the parents Ronnie and Kaye Gilbert who explained that they were scheduled to meet with the Defense Dept later this month where they will attempt to convince the military to change the qualification from "body accounted for."
The Gilbert family (his parents, his sister and his wife -- among others) had waited and been patient. Informed that there would be no search for their loved one, they did something very smart this month, they took the issue public, shocking the nation in the process, a nation that only the month before had heard US President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, pontificate about how the military leaves no comrade behind. The family went public ahead of their February 24th DoD meeting.

The Pentagon wants to defuse a public relations nightmare before that meeting takes place. Luis Martinez (ABC News) reports:

An Air Force official said Thursday that Air Force Secretary Michael Donley agreed with the family that the search for the rest of Gilbert's remains should resume.
According to the official, Donley sent a letter to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy requesting an "exception to policy" so that the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) could "assume a proactive pursuit of Major Gilbert's remains and to bring the fullest possible accounting of his remains."
Donley's request must still be approved by the Under Secretary.

And approving a request doesn't necessarily mean that serious efforts will be made as many families from previous wars can attest. The reality is the American government did nothing for years. [Major Gilbert died in 2006.] There's a strong chance that when the media runs with "DoD wants to help," DoD goes back to ignoring the issue.
Honoring our Nation's fallen overseas has been our purpose since the Commission's creation in 1923.  We perform this mission by commemorating service and sacrifice worldwide -- at sites entrusted to our care by the American people.  It is our responsibility to honor America's war dead and missing in action, where they have served overseas.
That's former US Senator Max Cleland, Vietnam veteran, speaking before Congress yesterday.  US House Rep Jon Runyan chaired the House Veterans Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs hearing Cleland was speaking before.
Chair Jon Runyan noted the National Cemetery Administration, specifically a problem at the Fot Sam Houston National Cemetery which had a row of head stones misaligned.  Runyan reviewed that the families of the fallen were informed and that an audit of the national cemeteries to find out if there were others with those problems and five were quickly found while the audit was still in its first phase.  Where were the mistakes coming from?
The work being done by outside contractors.  Runyan explained "The reason this is relevant to a budget hearing is because in most cases the contractors' work was approved and payment made without adequate oversight or review to ensure the quality and accuracy of the work done. Because of an omission of fiscal oversight the work has to be done right the second time and a nationwide audit at great expense conducted."
On the subject of oversight,  US forces still have one Missing in Action service member in Iraq.  Matthew M. Burke (Stars and Stripes) reports on the only person classified MIA from the current Iraq War, Staff Sgt Ahmed Altaie:

The Iraqi-born reservist from Michigan was abducted more than five years ago in Baghdad after breaking the rules and sneaking outside the wire to meet his Iraqi wife.
In the days after he went missing, 3,000 coalition soldiers conducted more than 50 raids to find their comrade. At least one soldier was killed; others were wounded.
As the trail turned cold, Altaie's family and friends grew frustrated by what they say is the U.S. government's lack of effort to find him.
"They won't talk about it," Altaie's ex-wife and self-described best friend, Linda Racey, said from Michigan recently. "They feel he's not worth looking for. They're not doing anything."

Senator  Patty Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and her office notes:

FOR PLANNING PURPOSES                           

Friday, February 17th, 2012


CONTACT: Murray Press Office

(202) 224-2834


MONDAY: Murray in Olympia to Hear frm Veterans


(Washington, D.C.) -- On Monday, February 20th, 2012, U.S. Senator Patty Murray, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, will hold a listening session to hear from area veterans on local challenges and to discuss her efforts to improve veterans care and benefits nationwide. This will be Senator Murray's first discussion with local Olympia veterans as Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee. Senator Murray will use the struggles, stories, and suggestions she hears on Monday to fight for local veterans in Washington, D.C.




WHO:          U.S. Senator Patty Murray

                     Local veterans


WHAT:        Veterans listening session with Senator Murray


WHEN:        Monday, February 20th, 2012

         2:30 PM PT


WHERE:    Harbor Wholesale Foods

                                3901 Hogum Bay Rd. NE

                                Lacey, WA 98516






Meghan Roh

Deputy Press Secretary

Office of U.S. Senator Patty Murray



Get Updates from Senator Murray