Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Iraq snapshot

Wednesday, February 29, 2012. Chaos and violence continue, Iraq's slammed with more violence, continued attention to Parliament wanting to provide themselves armored vehicles, sequestering and other issues are touched on by Congress' Veterans Affairs Committee, Hillary Clinton apparently wants to take a torch to her poll numbers as she makes illogical and unbelievable statements about Camp Ashraf residents, and more.

Ranking Member Bob Filner: We got several hundred thousand claims for Agent Orange in our backlog. How long have they been fighting it? Thirty, forty years. People get sicker fighting the bureaucracy than they did with the Agent Orange. So you know what we ought to do -- aside from greatly expanding eligibility to boots on the ground, to the blue waters, to the blue skies and Thailand and Cambodia and Laos and Guam? We ought to honor those Agent Orange claims today. You know, let's give people the peace that they deserve. Let's give you finally some closure here. And, you know, they're telling us, "It costs too much." I don't know if it's a billion dollars or two billion dollars. I don't care what it is frankly. You don't think we owe it to you? We owe it to you.

US House Rep Bob Filner is the Ranking Member on the House Veterans Affairs Committee which held a hearing yesterday morning. "We're hear today to hear the DAV legislative priorities for the year, : US House Rep Jeff Miller declared at the start of the hearing. Miller is the Chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee which was holding a joint-hearing with the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee which Senator Patty Murray chairs. Appearing before the Committees were representatives with the Disabled American Veterans -- National Commander Donald Samuel, Garry Augustine (National Service Director), Joseph Violante (National Legislative Director), Barry Jesinoski (Executive Director, Washington Headquarters), Arthur Wilson (National Adjutant), Ron Minter (National Director of Voluntary Service) and Patrice Rapsiand (National Commander, Disabled American Veterans Auxillary). DAV, AMVETS, Paralyzed Veterans of America and Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States of America are the authors of the Independent Budget which contains various budget recommendations for VA and the programs that serve veterans. This Independent Budget -- focused on the needs of veterans -- is an independent guideline the Congress can use to contrast with what the White House is asking for to see if the needs of veterans -- outlined in the Independent Budget --- are being met by the administration's proposed budget.

We'll note the following exchange from yesterday's hearing covering a wide range of issues.

Chair Patty Murray: I did want to ask you about health care funding. The VA's budget proposal reflects a very real committment to provides veterans with the care they need VA's budget request for medical care is, however, lower than the amount recommenedd by the Independent Budget. Can you tell us what the DAV's most significant concern with the administration's request for health care is?

National Commander Donald Smith: I think I am going to refer that question to Mr. Violante.
Joseph Violante: Chairman Murray, thank you for that question. You've been a strong advocate for veterans. And our biggest concern is, number one we believe they're about 1.5 billion dollars below where they need to be. I know a GAO report came out yesterday. I have not had the opportunity to review it. However, I understand that once again, they've inidicated that the management efficiences that have been identified by VA over the last several years. They cannot truly say that VA has generated any savings from those. That's a concern. Last year, the Secretary carried over $1.1 billion yet we continue to hear from our members around the country and from VA employees that they were short of funds, that Veterans couldn't get the service that they were eligible for because of the shortfall. So we have concerns. We would certainly love Congress to get VA in here to question them, to find out, again, why they aren't hiring people they need for homeless? Why veterans aren't able to properly access the care and to get what they deserve?

Chair Patty Murray: Okay, I very much appreciate that. Let me ask you about another issue I brought up in my opening statement and that is construction funding. The Presiden't's request for major and minor construction is significantly less than the Independent Budget recommendation. I'm really disappointed in the size of the gap between what they say they need and what we need to bring our facilities up to date. And I wanted to ask you, Mr. Samuels, failing to close that gap, what does that mean for our veterans across the country?

Joseph Violante: Madame Chairman, I'll go ahead and answer that question also. You know, it reminds me a lot of what happened in '04 and '05. And you remember very well in '05 when you and Senator [Daniel] Akaka tried to have an amendment passed in the Senate to increase funding by $1.5 billion for VA and at that time we were hearing horror stories from around the country about maintenance problems, about Togus, Maine where bricks were falling off the building and they had to put scaffolding up to protect veterans as they entered, other faciliites, where the air conditioning went down and the surgical units had to be closed because there wasn't air conditioning and the ability to get that fixed, MRIs that couldn't be repaired. And all of these items as well as building necessary or enhanced leases to provide the services that are needed in certain areas. So as that gap continues to widen, I think we're going to see many more of those same problems where VA is not going to be able to ensure the safety of the men and women coming for services.

Chair Patty Murray: Okay and this is an area I'm going to continue to follow. I care deeply about this and I've seen exactly what you're talking about so this is one that I will follow up and push very hard. And finally, Commander, I wanted to ask you -- and I really want to thank the DAV for working closely with me on the Women's Veterans Bill and I look forward to working with you to continue to make sure that all the women coming into the VA system have the kind of quality care that they need after serving our country. But I want to [applause] as the last women standing up here, I will ask you, what more needs to be done to address the serious shortcomings that women are seeing as they come into our VA facilities?

Barry Jesinoski: Chairman Murray, I'll take that question. First of all, thank you for your extremely staunch advocacy in this area. DAV stands with you in your concern and care for our women veterans. And Secretary Shinseki has stated that women veterans are a priority for VA. And they're going down the right track, we believe, so we're looking for your strong oversight as they continue to train their personnel and to ensure that all the areas of care are open to our women veterans whether that be military sexual trauma, homelessness and post-deployment mental healt. But there is much to be done, for sure, and, quite frankly, we're not finished until or unless all of our women veterans can walk down the halls of our VA medical centers with the same ease and comfort and receive the same level of care and breadth of care as their male counterparts.

Chair Patty Murray: I appreciate that and I would add one more challenge to all of us and it's what I hear from women veterans all the time, it's that they don't indentify themselves as veterans, they don't write it on their resumes when they put it out there, their kids don't call and have their mom's call and have their moms come to school and tell their experiences as a veteran. They don't tell their neighbors. We need to give women the power to say, "I'm a veteran" and be proud of that. And I want to work with all of you to do that. One last question and I will turn it over to Senator [John] Boozman for his questions, last year, we both talked about -- Chairman Miller and I both talked about the Vow to Hire Heroes Act -- a very important first step in ensuring that we are employing our veterans nationwide. I did want to ask you what more can be done to help our service disabled veterans overcome some of their barriers to employment that I'm hearing about and I wondered if you could respond to that?

Joseph Violante: There's a lot more that needs to be done -- particularly for service disabled veterans. And, if I could, Madame Chairman, I'd like to get back to you in writing on that to elaborate as to all of the things that need to be looked at in that particular area.

Chair Patty Murray: Okay, very good. I look forward to your response on that.

Elsewhere in the hearing, the issue of sequestration was raised. It's expected to that the federal government's buget will result in sequestration -- that cuts to reach X amount were not made and as a result automatic cuts will be imposed on many departments (and programs) across the board. Is the VA exempt or not? That's been an issue that several members of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees have been trying to get answered (with no success). Chair Jeff Miller noted, "We believe that VA is exempt." He stated that it should be but if it is not, "we have to we'll make those statutory changes." Chair Patty Murray declared she was "confident" that sequestering would not effect VA but that she wants "clarity" on the matter. CORRECTION: Senator Murray questioned Eric Shinseki on Wednesday.

This is an issue that's bothering a number of veterans because where would the money come from if the VA faces automatic across the board cuts. I agree with Chair Jeff Miller's earlier statements prior to today's hearing, that the administration should have addressed this issue publicly some time ago so that it wasn't so up in the air and confusing and, yes, distressing to veterans and their families.

Chair Patty Murray noted during the hearing that she had heard from veterans in her home state of Washington at a town hall she held this month and they listed a number of issue -- including continued problems "with the dysfunction of the claims system," unemployment, and "unacceptable long wait lines for mental health care" which still doesn't result in "getting the type of mental health care they need." Ranking Member Bob Filner noted that the men and women of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are "becoming homeless faster than you who have come back from Vietnam" and that they were "committing suicide at a higher rate."

Now we're dropping back to the February 15th House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing for just a second.:

Homelessness was touched on by US House Reps Corrine Brown and Dr. Phil Roe. We're ignoring that for two reasons. 1) Roe brought up that once a case worker has X number of clients, the VA isn't issuing vouchers so even though there is space a veterans left sleeping on the street or somewhere else (he or she receives no voucher). Shinseki noted that homeless veterans were decreasing. Are they? Or is this program -- which tracks beds used in shelters -- not factoring in that veterans aren't receiving vouchers if their caseworker is maxed out? That's not addressed and until it is, I'm not interested in going into the figures.

I have an answer on that from a friend at VA and from a reporter who covers the story in Dr. Roe home state: If they're not using the beds, they're not being counted. So if vouchers exist but aren't being handed out -- for whatever reasons -- then those not in the shelter beds are not being tabulated in the VA count.

So we know the answer to that. And now we can pick up with Dr. Phil Roe who spoke briefly but did a really strong walk through on this voucher issue.

US House Rep Phil Roe: Homelessness. I know you're involved in that. And one of the things that's holding up -- and this is something that we've got to stick the VA with -- our case managers. We have 10,000 vouchers for our homeless veterans but they can't get those vouchers unless there's a case manager. And right now, in my own district, we've got vouchers we can't use because the VA, since November, hasn't hired a case manager to manage those. That's ridiculous when you're going through the winter, you've got a veteran sitting outside and the VA hasn't hired one person -- because one takes care of 25 veterans, they have to have one person. So if we're going to have 10,000 more vouchers at 70-something million dollars, it does the veteran no good who's outside unless the VA simultaneously trains and hires 400 case managers. They need to do that. So I guess a real quick question I have for you is what -- as a veterans service officer with obviously decades of experience -- what's the single biggest issue you're running across that we coluld help you with up here?

National Commander Donald Samuels: Well I would say, one, of course, is the backlog, the claims processing backlog. And of course the Secretary and our staff is working with the Secretary on trying to resolve that with a new IT programs coming in, pilot programs that the Secretary's going to introduce. But I would say that is one of the biggest problems that we hear from vetetan. Saying Why does it take two years to get a decision? Why does it take nine months to get a decision? I could ask my staff to respond more on that question but that is -- that is a big issue. If you're a service officer sitting in the bunker in a state, they constantly get calls where veterans are calling to check on the status of their claim because they have not gotten a decision on it.

Baghdad was slammed by a bombing. BBC News notes it was a car bombing and that the tolls are at least 3 dead and nine injured. Al Rafidayn reports that the police quickly closed the scene to traffic. W.G. Dunlop (AFP) reports a Tuk Khurmatu car bombing claimed the lives of 2 police officers, 1 Iraqi soldier and 1 Iraqi military officer while leaving two more soldiers, a police officer and a bystander injured and that Mosul saw a roadside bombing which claimed the life of 1 police officer and left three more injured while a car bombing left three civilians injured and "shepherd Abdel Karim Abdel Hamid" died from a landmine which injured two of his brothers in Kirkuk. In addition, Dunlop notes Sahwa was targeted last night with an attack on a Diyala Province checkpoint claiming the life of 1 Sahwa and leaving two more injured. Xinhua adds, "In Iraq's western province of Anbar, a roadside bomb struck a civilian car on a main road near the city of Hit, some 160 km west, killing a civilian and wounding three others aboard, a source from the provincial operations command told Xinhua on condition of anonymity."

On violence, Al Rafidayn notes that approximately 69,000 Iraqis have died from 2004 to last year as a result of violence. These numbers come from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of National Security. W.G. Dunlop (AFP) notes that these "numbers are significantly lower than previous figures that cover a shorter time span, including from Iraq's own human rights ministry. The human rights ministry said in an October 2009 report that 85,694 people were killed from 2004 to 2008." Dunlop also notes Iraq Body Count's number for 2003 through the end of 2011 (114,584).

Suadad al-Salhy (Reuters) observes that Adnan al-Assadi, the Deputy Interior Minister, states that "six prominent Sunni armed groups say they will fight on to drive the last Americans from Iraqi soil and topple 'the occupation government'." Pay attention to this from al-Salhy, "The groups include al-Qaeda's Iraq wing, the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, the Islamic Army, the Mujahedeen Army, the Rashideen Army and Ansar al-Sunnah, Asadi said." Did you catch that? No, not all physically fighting the occupation and/or Nouri's puppet government are "al Qaeda in Iraq."

Violence is among many topics that Dirk Adriaensens of the BRussels Tribunal Executive Committee explores in a new piece at Truthout that that suffers at the beginning. It has many important points to it but the beginning isn't just 'weak.'

Adriansens notes the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pilay's public dismay over the executions in Iraq. He then attempts to tie that into a US trial. That's nonsense and it's offensive. You don't have to like the verdict, you may feel that someone guilty went free but there's a world of difference between feeling someone 'beat the system' and executing people from forced confessions. I haven't commented on that case, I have no public opinion on that case. You can and you can feel the US Marine got a fair trial, got away with murder, or whatever. But don't compare a verdict you don't like that you think set someone guilty free with putting to death innocent people.

There are people around the world who have made it their life's work to overturn death penalties and they grasp the difference (some of whom will find the comparison being made offensive). You've taken disimilar objects and pretended you compared them when you did no such thing. I know the law and like some people (I would hope most people), I would prefer a guilty person walk to an innocent person being punished (and I oppose the death penalty). That is why the US has the legal system it does, because of that belief. A verdict you disagree with where someone walks on charges is not the same thing as someone wrongfully put to death.

This is not a quibble. This is a major point. As the piece progresses, it has many wonderful passages. One of the most interesting sections of the essay is this:

"The wave of attacks, carried out mainly by Sunni extremists from Al-Qaeda in Iraq against Shia communities, has alarmed many who fear the country could descend into chaos once more, with the government itself acknowledging it is not capable of ensuring security on its own."(82) This is the story that we constantly hear in the media, blaming the "Sunni" terrorist group al-Qaeda, which carries out attacks against the "Shiite" population. What is most saddening is that this particular sentence was written by IRIN, a news service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Why are the media so sure that it is "Sunni" al-Qaeda killing innocent Shiites?

Let me put the record straight: in recent weeks there have been several bomb attacks in Ramadi, Adamiya in Baghdad, Mosul, Haditha, Diyala, Tikrit, Fallujah etc., all Sunni areas. The wave of attacks is nationwide. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should check out the Iraqi press accounts of the previous weeks.

Then why do the Western media and IRIN focus on al-Qaeda and declare the Shiite population the main victims?

It is relevant to remind the public of the ruthless killings perpetrated by Shiites against Shiites. For example, on 27 February 2009, The New York Times reported that 28 members of a Shiite messianic cult responsible for brutal attacks on Shiite pilgrims in Iraq were sentenced to death in the federal court in Dhi Qar Province. The condemned were members of the Followers of the Mahdi, itself a part of the Soldiers of Heaven or Jund As-Samaa, a destructive cult that believes that sowing chaos will pave the way for the coming of the Mahdi, the 12th Imam, who disappeared in the ninth century and who - Shiites believe - will return as a savior of humanity. Nineteen other members of the group were sentenced to life imprisonment, and six were acquitted, said the court official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.(83)

And why is there no mention of the thousands of Sunnis who were recently arrested and detained by the government? Why don't the mainstream media write about the virulent sectarian politics of Maliki, who recently declared that his primary identity is "Shia"?

Why is there no mention of recent "suspicious incidents" that have been reported in the Iraqi press? For example:

On January 25, a senior source at the Iraqi Ministry of Transport confirmed to Al-Mada daily newspaper that the British security company assigned to security control at Bagdad airport caught a Czech security team from the Czech Embassy in Baghdad with a number of silencers and explosives in the beginning of January. The silencers had the smell of gunpowder according to the source whose name the newspaper refrained from mentioning. The security of Baghdad airport held the Czech security team for a number of hours; yet they were released following the intervention of the Czech Ambassador who had visited Iraqi Transport Minister Hady Al-Amery's office, according to the same source. The source told the newspaper that the security officers at Baghdad airport found it very strange such silencer guns were in the possession of foreign diplomats since these weapons are used by 'special elements' for specific acts, which are assassinations. Why were they released so quickly? Here's one clue: It is well known that Al-Amery is the head of the Badr Brigades, the armed wing of the Supreme Council of Iraqi Islamic Revolution. The Badr Brigades have changed their name into the Badr Organisation and joined the so-called "political process."

Gov. of Baghdad Said Salah Abdul-Razzaq said in an interview in Al sumaria News: "A unit of the security forces near my house ordered a grey BMW to stop. In the car were four Americans, two men and two women, in the possession of handguns with silencers and machine guns and they wore bullet proof vests." Salah Abdul-Razzaq said that the four Americans were driving near his house and urged the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs to take diplomatic action and ask the US to clarify the reason for this "violation," and warned of the possibility that his police forces would fire to kill in the event of repeated violations, regardless of the nationality of the offenders. They were released soon after the American Embassy intervened.

We conclude from all these events something that is being repeated over and over again by many Iraqi witnesses, namely that the recent strings of bomb attacks and assassinations are part of the counterinsurgency strategies of the US in conjunction with Maliki's government and probably Iran and other neighboring countries, false flag operations in order to create chaos and sectarian strife with the ultimate goal of discrediting national reconciliation efforts so that the country can be partitioned without too much popular protest and political opposition.

There is a continuous flow of disinformation and one must be willing to dig deeper into the secret, dark underworld of dirty war, media manipulation and corruption to learn the truth. The terrible humanitarian situation in Iraq is the ultimate responsibility of the Anglo-American forces that invaded, occupied and keep occupying Iraq, together with the US-installed Iraqi government. And they should be held accountable.

Those are some very important points and ones that I'm more than willing to consider. I like the BRussels Tribunal. But people who don't know it or may not like it only have to start with those opening paragraphs to have a reason to stop reading. 'Beating the system' is not the same as losing your life because you were tortured into giving a 'confession.' The two can't be equated.

Last Thursday, as bombs swept Iraq, the Iraqi Parliament voted on the 2012 budget and to spend at least $50 million on the purchase of 350 armored vehicles for themselves. It was controversial last Thursday and remains so. Sinan Salaheddin (AP) notes objections are coming "from government officials to revered clerics to newspaper editors." AFP reports the plan was for "one armored car per MP and an additional 25 vehicles to be dispersed at the discretion of parliament's speaker." Al Sabaah adds that Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi issued a memo noting that the vehicles would belong to the Parliament and not be the MPs personal cars to keep when the current legislature completes its session. As Sheikh (Dar Addustour) weighs in with a column on public opinion and appearance, how Iraqis are seeing that Parliament will take steps -- and spend money -- to protect themselves. Al Mada notes that supposedly the vehicles being purchased are basically good for two years and then require repurchasing and that the issue will be dealt with . . . after the Arab Summit.

Back to the US, briefly. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared before Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's House Committee on Foreign Affairs this afternoon. It was one of two appearances before Congress today to argue for State Dept funding for Fiscal Year 2013. I didn't catch her morning appearance (I was at the veterans hearing). Clinton told the Committee that the US effort was now civilian-led in Iraq. She stated that in 2011, the US government budgeted $48 billion for Iraq. What the State Dept needed, she explained, was "only one-tenth of" that number, that the State Dept was asking for "$40 billion less than" what the US government wanted "just two years ago." The Defense Dept had over 50,000 troops in Iraq and the administration keeps swearing that the Iraq War is over. If someone tells me the meal's over, I ask for the check and I pay it. If they come up to me with another check, swearing it's a civilian-led check, my point would be, "Is the meal over or not?" Billions are billions. The State Dept wants $8 billion. The State Dept that refused to properly explain their budget to the Special Inspector General for Reconstruction in Iraq. Even after he took the issue to Congress (repeatedly) in 2011.

Camp Ashraf. She was before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, so Camp Ashraf was going to come up. She spoke of the recent move of approximately 400 Iranian dissidents from Camp Ashraf. The dissidents were allowed in decades ago under Saddam Hussein; after the US invasion in 2003, the US government entered into talks and negotiations with them which resulted in their becoming "protected persons" under international law and the Geneva Conventions. Nouri al-Maliki is close to Iran and Iran doesn't want the residents in Iraq. Nouri and others have had to be restrained by the United Nations repeatedly on this issue. Hillary stated of the move this month of 400 Iranian dissidents from Camp Ashraf to the former US Camp Liberty, "There were complications but it was peaceful."
That's really not true. They suffered through an invasive search -- body search -- before they left Camp Ashraf. Despite that search, they were then forcibly searched before being allowed in Camp Liberty. What should have taken no more than three hours, took over ten. It was not peaceful for the residents. If "peaceful" means "no shots were fired," then it was "peaceful." If peaceful means what the rest of the world understands it as, no, it wasn't peaceful.

The US government (during Bill Clinton's presidency) put the residents on the terrorists watch list. Being on that list is a problem. Hillary denied that to be the case. She stated that it wasn't preventing anyone from taking the residents any -- any country. That's not true. She further rejected the assertion that being on the US terrorist list allowed Iraqis to treat the residents poorly and justify it. That's just an outright untruth. Either she's not following the region or she wasn't telling the truth. There is not a month that goes by when Nouri or one of his underlings doesn't tell Press TV or some other Iranian outlet that the US has the group on the terrorist list and so they're terrorist and Iraq cannot house terrorists (unless of course they have the title of Iraqi Prime Minister).

What she should have faced was an intense grilling as to why the State Dept hasn't moved on this issue as they were ordered by the US courts to review the status in 2010 (the court faulted the decision and felt it had deprived the group of due process)? She was Secretarty of State when the court ruled. She is still Secretary of State. She should have conducted the review long ago and an announcement about the status should have been made. It is depressing to see Hillary Clinton's behavior on this issue. Is the State Dept allowed to ignore the US courts? Is the State Dept now above the judicial branch? Is there no check on the State Dept?

Hillary told the Committee that the dissidents "successful and peaceful closure of Camp Ashraf" and relocation to Camp Liberty would be "a key factor" on the status.


That's not what the court instructed. Is the State Dept bound by the law or not?

I like Hillary but were I Hillary and had I Hillary's reputation, I wouldn't want to be doing this. If it's not clear, right now she's one of the most admired women in the country. If she keeps this up and there's a push back, we're back to the days when Bill was in his first term and Hillary wouldn't turn over healthcare information and some might even want to go to the Whitewater well again. It's not smart for her, it's not smart for the image of the department.
The move did not factor into the court's decision. What factored in was the refusal of the Clinton administration to guarantee due process when they pinned "terrorist" on the dissidents.

So legally, her reasoning is not sound. Now let's get to another issue quickly. Unarmed dissidents are being moved by Nouri's thugs who -- as Amnesty International and others have documented -- have twice produced multiple deaths in their attacks on the dissidents. To now say that how these dissidents behave as they're forcibly relocated will determine something is nonsense and blatantly offensive.

It's offensive to everyone aware of forcible rel-locations in history. Be it the Armenians, the Jewish people, you name it, those who are forced to relocate -- at gunpoint no less -- do not have the power and it is offensive to suggest that they do.

It is also highly illogical to claim that you will determine whether or not a group of people are terrorists and we're out of space.