Thursday, February 21, 2013

Iraq snapshot

Thursday, February 21, 2013.  Chaos and violence continue, Nouri tries to bully protesters, KRG President Massoud Barzani makes friends in Russia, the US State Dept spent 80% of  its time last year focusing on four countries (none were Iraq), the US Ambassador to Bitchy (Frederick Barton) insults an artist that Barack was giving a medal just a little while ago, and more.

Despite getting billions to run the US 'mission' in Iraq, the State Dept  doesn't spend much time on Iraq.  In Fiscal Year 2012, Congress began giving the State Dept and USAID billions of dollars for Iraq.  The American taxpayer has a right to expect that with those billions comes some additional level of focus.  But that's not the case.

"Our focus in the past year, 80% of our interest has been in Syria, Kenya leading up to the elections, Burma and North Central America, particularly Honduras.  That doesn't mean that we've negleceted the rest of the world but that's where 80% of our effort is," declared the State Dept's Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations Frederick Barton declared yesterday.

So you take billions, you pump up the State Dept with billions of extra dollars, you tell the Congress -- the American people's representatives -- that you need this money for Iraq and with DoD stepping out of the leadership role, now the State Dept will lead on Iraq. 

And yet 80% of time by the State Dept was spent on Syria, Kenya, Burma and Honduras?  We are aware that violence has gone up, right?  We're aware that just as the bulk of US troops were leaving Iraq in December of 2011, Nouri began going after political rivals, sending the Iraqi military to circle their homes?  We're aware that there are no gains to speak of in Iraq?  And hopefully, the State Dept is also aware that since 2009, Iraq has had three US Ambassadors:  the awful Chris Hill, James Jeffrey who now works with the Kurds and the current US Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft?  In four years, three ambassadors. 

Maybe the State Dept should have been putting 40% of its focus on Iraq?

Remember that it was just last June when Walter Pincus (Washington Post) reported, "The State Department is planning to spend up to $115 million to upgrade the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad, already its biggest and most expensive in the world, according to pre-solicitation notices published this month." June 28th, the House Oversight and Government Reform's Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations held a hearing on Iraq and the Subcommittee's Chair pointed out a few more basics.

Chair Jason Chaffetz: The State Dept has greatly expanded its footprint in Iraq. 
 There are approximately 2,000 direct-hire personnel and 14,000 support contractors 
-- roughly a seven-to-one ratio.  This includes 7,000 private security contractors to 
guard our facilities and move personnel throughout Iraq.  Leading up to the withdrawal, 
the State Dept's mission seemed clear.  Ambassador Patrick Kennedy testified that the diplomatic mission was "designed to maximize influence in key locations."  And later 
said, "State will continue the police development programs moving beyond basic 
policing skills to provide police forces with the capabilities to uphold the rule of law.  
The Office of Security Cooperation will help close gaps in Iraq's security forces 
capabilities through security assistance and cooperation."  This is an unprecedented 
mission for the State Dept.

All that money and 80% of the State Dept's time and focus last year were spent elsewhere -- spent on four countries.  Are we to expect things to improve and for Iraq to actually get attention from the State Dept?  While it's true that there is a new Secretary of State, John Kerry, it's also true that Kerry spoke yesterday at the University of Virginia, outlining his vision of diplomacy and Iraq appeared no where in the speech.  Considering that Iraq is still the State Dept's biggest ticket item -- and considering what is taking place in Iraq currently -- that bothers me.  But what really troubles me is the remarks Barton made.  We already quoted him on where the focus was in 2012.  We were quoting from a talk he gave in DC yesterday morning.  I didn't attend it, I was told it would be disappointing.  I streamed it at C-SPAN today, after a friend at CNN asked me what I thought of the talk, and disappointing doesn't begin to describe it.

This is how the talk was billed, "Ambassador Frederick Barton, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations at the U.S. Department of State, discusses the future of the American civilian operations in Iraq and Afghanistan."  Afghanistan was mentioned briefly.  Iraq?  Unless Burma's in Iraq, no.  Unless Mozambique is a few miles north of Baghdad, no.  We heard about Tanzania and Kenya.  Now he can argue that he answered questions after 'setting' the topic.  His time setting the topic didn't include mentioning Iraq.  And the questions -- especially when it was 'we have time for one more' -- should have involved the moderator saying, "Does anyone have a question on Iraq?"  That was the scheduled topic.  He had plenty of time to discuss State Dept internal business and policies and training.  He even had time -- made time -- to trash the pianist Van Cliburn.  I have no idea why.  The man just learned he has advanced bone cancer, does he really need a State Dept official trashing the way he plays piano and saying they don't want to do the State Dept like Van Cliburn plays the piano?

Silly me, I thought diplomacy was the State Dept's mission and that tact was a part of diplomacy.  But then, silly me, I would think a talk billed as being about Iraq and Afghanistan would actually be about Iraq and Afghanistan.  I'm sorry I wasn't there now because I would have said something regarding Barton's insulting attack on Van Cliburn.  Maybe asked if Cliburn is so awful, why did US President Barack Obama present him with a National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts?  Here's what the NEA notes:

Van Cliburn has been hailed as one of the greatest pianists in the history of music as well as one of the most persuasive ambassadors of American culture. Cliburn entered the Juilliard School at age 17.  At age 20, he won the Leventritt Award and made his Carnegie Hall debut. In 1958, Cliburn’s victory at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War propelled him to international fame.
Cliburn has received Kennedy Center Honors and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He received the Order of Friendship from President Vladimir Putin in 2004, and in 2003 President George W. Bush bestowed upon him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

And at that page, you'll see Barack and the pianist in a photograph from the March 2, 2011 ceremony.  Yesterday, a different take was offered.

Assistant Secretary Frederick Barton:  It reminds me of a Van Cliburn concert.  The guy looks great.  He's got the tails.  He can play the whole keyboard.  But at the end, you haven't necessarily settled on what needed to be done the most.  And the US can't afford to be Van Cliburn in these cases.  We have to be much more focused, much more targeted.

Wow.  If Barton wants to be the Ambassador of Bitchy, have at it.  In fact, let me know because I could use a few days off and he could fill in for me here.  But if he's working for the State Dept, he needs to demonstrate a little more savvy when speaking publicly.

Iraqi Spring MC and The BRussells Tribunal offer a photo essay of last Friday's protests and note, "It continues to amaze us. Who is only informed by the mainstream media, has usually not heard, not seen or not read about the weekly Friday demonstrations in Iraq. There is however massively demonstrated: against the Mailiki-government, against the occupation and for a free and united Iraq. Find here some pictures of the demonstration in Iraq on Friday February 15."  Maybe Ambassador Bitchy has no idea and needs to check out the photo essay so that the next time he's scheduled a talk on Iraq, he can actually mention Iraq?

Alsumaria reports the spokesperson for the Hawija demonstrators has been arrested by Nouri al-Maliki's Tigris Operation Command forces.   The arrest happened as a Hawija raid took place carried out by the Tigris Operation Command in what sounds like one of the US raids in the early days of the war.  This is another attempt by Nouri to intimidate the protesters.  He wasn't counting on the attention -- or the push-back -- on this detention.  Alsumaria reports this evening that Mohammed al-Jubouri was released by the Tigris Operation Command.  If this was like Nouri's 2011 detention of protesters and if al-Jubouri had a cell phone on him, all the information in his contacts is now part of a data base.  The same is not doubt true of the 10 released from the raid -- 14 were detained, only ten have been arrested.

As Al Mada was reporting yesterday, Nouri's forces were following protesters in Diyala and Anbar, trailing them, attempting to intimidate them.  Monday is said to have been the 60th day in the ongoing protests.  20 activists in Baquba were arrested, Al Mada reported, for unknown reasons and this included Leith Kazim Mehdawi.

Iraqi Spring MC quotes Dr. Wissal al-Azzawi declaring that the Tigris command is extracting a form of payback, trying to scare the crowds and intimadate them but the protesters will not be silenced.  Nouri's Tigris Operation Command firing on peaceful demonstrators in Falluja January 25th resulting in 11 deaths did not silence them.  Nouri may think he's going to scare them -- or bully them --  into silence but that seems unlikely.  In addition, they're also noting that checkpoints are going up in some areas and people are being prevented from entering unless they have proof on them that they live in that area.

Activist Awad Abdan Tweets that the Tigris Operation Command bullying is taking place before the government's eyes and ears.

  1. جيش المختار يهدد اهل السنة في بغداد أمام مرأى ومسمع الحكومة #الربيع_العراقي
    Retweeted 96 times
    View photo

And we'll note another reaction.
  1. now .. what can we say after two months from our revolution? in short .. we are staying #iraqi_spring #الربيع_العراقي

The Tigris Command has been busy.  Dar Addustour reports (ignore date in article's timeline, it's incorrect) that the Tigris Operation Command forces attempted to grab Said Lafi (also spelled Saeed Lafi) yesterday after cornering him in a Ramadi mosque but he was able to escape.  His home was raided and there is an arrest warrant for him that was supposedly issued by Nouri al-Maliki himself.  (Nouri is the prime minister and chief thug of Iraq.)  Lafi is the spokesperson for the Anbar protests.  Kitabat notes that the forces surrounded the mosque and demanded that Lafi come out of the mosque  but activists helped Saeed escape the forces with the assistance of at least a dozen bodyguards of MP Ahmed al-Alwani.

On the state of Iraq, Al Mada's Adnan Hussein pens a column for The New Statesman entitled "A new kind of dictatorship:"

The loopholes in the constitution were described as a “minefield” by the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, just 15 months ago. The civil war of 2006-2008 was sparked by the explosion of some of these mines, and so were the current demonstrations in the western Sunni provinces. Yet al-Maliki took advantage of the loopholes, shortcomings and vague articles to enhance his personal, extra-constitutional power and to weaken the power of the parliament, the judiciary and independent or civil society bodies.
Ultimately, al-Maliki and his Dawa Party have managed to create a new kind of dictatorship. This is a curse not only to the Sunnis, or the Kurds, or the swaths of Shias, but to the country as a whole.
As an editor and columnist of al-Mada, a critical, oppositional newspaper in Iraq, I am given considerable editorial freedom, and there is certainly no shortage of subjects to cover. I am, however, concerned about the freedom of the press.

Meanwhile a new wrinkle for Hussein al-Shahristani (remember, he's the one who Nouri assigned to 'listen' to the protesters).  All Iraq News reports, "The Parliament Oil & Energy Committee decided to investigate the Deputy Premier for Energy Affairs, Hussein al-Shahristani over the high payments to the oil companies operating in Iraq."  In other oil news, UPI reports, "The brewing oil war between Iraq's central government and a defiant Kurdistan, and wider security concerns, are forcing Baghdad to downsize its ambitious plans to quadruple oil output by 2017 and challenge Saudi Arabia as the world's top producer."  And the differences over the oil are impacting the budget.  Denise Natali (Al-Monitor) reports on the continued delay of the national budget:

It follows a period of worsening relations between Baghdad and Erbil, as well as the KRG’s expanding financial obligations — including honoring international oil company (IOC) contracts without any viable, alternative revenue source in sight. Even if both sides reach another temporary side deal, the budget imbroglio reveals the KRG’s financial vulnerability in the Iraqi state, its inability to fully pay IOCs, and the ultimate need for a grand compromise between Baghdad, Ankara and Erbil over hydrocarbons exports. 
Given the KRG’s ongoing attempts to challenge Baghdad, the Iraqi central government is pushing back in the one area where it retains leverage over the KRG: the budget. With about 95 percent of KRG revenues derived from the central government, which have increased exponentially from about $2.5 billion to over $10 billion from 2005-2012, and with the KRG’s ever-expanding expenditures and social-welfare function, Erbil has become increasingly dependent on Baghdad. A significant cut in these revenues could instantly undermine the KRG’s economy and its investment future.
Part of this predicament is a consequence of the KRG’s achievements within an ambiguous legal and political environment. While Iraqi provincial administrations have failed to spend their full budgets — or to implement projects effectively — the KRG has done just the opposite. Only ten years after ex-President Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, the region has surpassed most other Iraqi provinces in development levels. The KRG now demands $4 billion in additional funds for its energy sector and IOCs payments alone. Baghdad has offered to pay only a fraction of that amount, about $625 million. It contends that the KRG has failed to meet its end the export bargain, having smuggled or bartered away its crude and failing to export an official 175,000 barrels per day as agreed. 

On the topic of the KRG and energy, Tuesday, All Iraq News reported KRG President Massoud Barzani was heading a delegation that's visiting Russia this week.  The KRG issued the following Tuesday:

Erbil, Kurdistan Region, Iraq - ( – President Masoud Barzani departed from Erbil International Airport today with a high-level delegation to make his first official visit to the Russian Federation.

During the visit, President Barzani is expected to meet senior Russian officials to discuss a number of important matters, including relations between the Kurdistan Region and the Russian Federation, political developments in Iraq, and the greater region in general.

The accompanying delegation includes Mr Masrour Barzani, Chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council; Dr Fuad Hussein, Chief of Staff to the President; Dr Ashti Hawrami, Minister of Natural Resources; Mr Kamaran Ahmed Abdullah, Minister of Housing and Reconstruction; Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir, Head of the Department of Foreign Relations, as well as other senior staff members.

All Iraq News notes that Barzani met today with Sergei Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister.  Alsumaria added that their energy discussion included the topic of Iraq's electricity.  All Iraq News also notes that he met with Gazprom's CEO and vice-chair Alexei Miller.  Gazprom is Russia's largest gas company.  The company notes:

Gazprom holds the world’s largest natural gas reserves. The Company’s share in the global and Russian gas reserves makes up 18 and 70 per cent respectively. Gazprom accounts for 15 and 78 per cent of the global and Russian gas output accordingly. At present, the Company actively implements large-scale projects aimed at exploiting gas resources of the Yamal Peninsula, Arctic Shelf, Eastern Siberia and the Far East, as well as hydrocarbons  exploration and production projects abroad.

Iraq has plenty of oil and gas.  Under Nouri, it also has plenty of violence.   Sameer N. Yacoub (AP) reports an attack on a Duluiayah military checkpoint which has left 4 Iraqi soldiers dead and four more injured.  Alsumaria notes a Baquba roadside bombing which left two people injured and 1 police officer was shot dead in BaghdadTrend News Agency reports the Baquba bombing claimed 1 life and left seven people injured.  And the death toll on the al-Duluiyah attack continues to increase.  Al Jazeera, the Christian Science Monitor and PRI's Jane Arraf Tweeted this morning:

  1. Gunmen attack #Iraqi army checkpoint in Salahadin province, north of Baghdad, killing 5, wounding 3. 1 of several attacks on security forces

And Wang Yuanyuan (Xinhua) reports the toll continued to rise, "In one attack, eight soldiers were killed and four wounded when insurgents carried out a coordinated attack by mortar rounds and assault rifles on an Iraqi army base in Albu-Sulaibi area near the town of Dhuluiyah, some 90 km north of Baghdad, a local police source told Xinhua on condition of anonymity.  Two civilians were also wounded when they were caught in the crossfire between the attackers and the soldiers, the source said."  In other violence, Reuters notes, "Three suicide bombers targeted checkpoints in Iraq's northern city of Mosul late on Thursday, killing three policemen, police sources said." 

In addition, AFP reports that last night "Turkey sent jets across its border with Iraq to strike separatists from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a local military source said Thursday."  Morning Star adds, "Eight F-16 fighter jets struck 12 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Mount Qandil near the Iraqi-Iranian border, in a raid that lasted around two hours."  The World Bulletin explains, "The PKK, which is fighting for autonomy in Turkey's mainly Kurdish Southeast, was founded on Marxist ideology. The conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives. The group is labeled a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States, which has supplied Predator drones to assist Turkey."    Aaron Hess (International Socialist Review) described the PKK in 2008, "The PKK emerged in 1984 as a major force in response to Turkey's oppression of its Kurdish population. Since the late 1970s, Turkey has waged a relentless war of attrition that has killed tens of thousands of Kurds and driven millions from their homes. The Kurds are the world's largest stateless population -- whose main population concentration straddles Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria -- and have been the victims of imperialist wars and manipulation since the colonial period. While Turkey has granted limited rights to the Kurds in recent years in order to accommodate the European Union, which it seeks to join, even these are now at risk." 

In the US, Senator Patty Murray was the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.  This year, she became the Chair of the Senate Budget Committee.  She continues to serve on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (where Senator Bernie Sanders is the new Chair) and she continues to address veterans issues.  Her office notes she held a veterans roundtable today:

Thursday, February 21st, 2013
CONTACT: Murray Press Office
(202) 224-2834

TODAY: Murray in Vancouver to Host Roundtable with Local Businesses on Hiring Veterans

Murray will hear from a panel of local veterans, business leaders, and VA officials on challenges facing veterans seeking employment
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, Thursday, February 21st, 2013, U.S. Senator Patty Murray will hold a roundtable discussion on the challenges of veterans’ employment and the benefits available to businesses who hire veterans. The roundtable will take place at the offices of Partners in Careers, an organization that works to provide resources, training, and job placement opportunities to veterans in the community. Senator Murray will discuss workforce training elements in her VOW to Hire Heroes Act, and will hear directly from local businesses who hire veterans, an Iraqi War veteran, and officials from the VA.

WHO: U.S. Senator Patty Murray
Gary Rose, Director, Vocational Rehabilitation Services, Portland VAMC
Jeff Graham, HR Manager at United Natural Foods, Board Chair of the Southwest Washington Workforce
Development Council
Mike Wilbur, Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs
Pam Brokaw, Executive Director, Partners in Careers
Jason LaCarney, Iraqi War Vet, currently attending Warner Pacific College and working with PIC’s Business Unit
WHAT: Senator Murray will host a roundtable discussion with local veterans and employers to discuss challenges of veterans’
employment and the benefits available to businesses to hire veterans
WHEN: TODAY: THURSDAY, February 21st, 2013
3:00 PM PT
WHERE: Partners in Careers
3210 NE 52nd Street
Vancouver, WA 98663
Kathryn Robertson
Deputy Press Secretary
Office of U.S. Senator Patty Murray
448 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington D.C. 20510