Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Al Sadr's Group has Quit the Government (updated)

According to The Washington Post, a bloc of Iraqi MP's led by Muqtada al-Sadr has quit the government in protest to PM Maliki's meeting with President Bush in Jordan. Al Sadr had threatened as much last week though he later modified his statement to say that his party would "suspend" participation in the government. Not clear if the WaPo is accurate here.

update: AP is reporting that al Sadr's bloc has in fact only suspended participation in Maliki's government.
and again...: The WaPo has completely changed the article to reflect the postponement of the summit and now correctly mentions that Sadr's block has only suspended its participation.

Either way any dissent at this scale can only mean trouble for the stability of Maliki's government as it relies quite strongly on the support of al Sadr. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, al Sadr is becoming only more powerful due to his increasing popularity among Iraqis across the country. What's more, his military might has grown considerably, becoming more effective than the government's own forces. I am surprised this has not gained more attention in the media- I found this fact buried in a WaPo article about Kofi Annan- but apparently in the last year, al Sadr's army has grown eight-fold to about 50,000 men! The Iraq army currently stands at 134,000, however half are on stationary guard duty, and
according to Iraqi officials, of the half that conduct combat operations, only 10 battalions- about 9,500 men- are at all effective. The U.S. will have quite a tough time of dismantling Iraq's militias with military force alone, with or without the help of the Iraqi army.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Mahdi Army to the Rescue?

Apologies to all non-US readers for not mentioning that this blog would not be updated during the Thanksgiving holiday. And I hope those in the US and abroad who did celebrate Thanksgiving, had a good one. Welcome back. On to the entry...

The Washington Post is carrying a story on how in the aftermath of the Thursday bombings –the worst incident of violence since the invasion- it was the Mahdi Army (Muqtada Al Sadr’s militia) that came to the rescue.

"On Thursday afternoon, bombs in six parked cars began detonating at 15-minute intervals in three sections of Sadr City, including the crowded Jamila Market. Mahdi Army militiamen quickly spread out around the vast slum, residents said.

They helped the injured into cars and carted the dead to funeral homes, where the corpses would be cleansed according to Muslim rituals. Some donated blood and helped fire fighters douse flames. Other militiamen, some clutching AK-47 assault rifles or rocket-propelled grenades, searched for the perpetrators of the bombings. They found one more car, filled with explosives, and took the driver into custody.

At Khadisiya Hospital, militiamen assisted doctors and nurses, carrying patients into emergency rooms, Abid said. With hospital supplies thin, Sadr officials sent over syringes, medicines and other equipment donated by merchants. And with only four ambulances in circulation, most of the wounded were being brought in cars."

As many of the residents of Sadr City noted, that day the Mahdi Army was doing more for them than their government could possibly do. Of note: When PM Maliki came to survey the damage, his motorcade was greeted by a volley of stones and insults.

What the article fails to mention and, in fact implies otherwise, is that the Mahdi Army has been supporting the people of Sadr City for a long time now. I have heard various reports from Iraqis that Al Sadr and his men provide many services to the people of Sadr City including electricity, food, ice and security. What’s more, due to the near impossibility of finding work, the Mahdi Army is the only employment option for the youth of Iraq. (I recommend reading our interview with Cpt. Jon Powers for more on the plight of Iraq's youth)

The longer the government fails to provide basic services to its people the closer the Iraqi people will grow to the militias. In fact one resident of Sadr City explained that the events of Thursday prove that:

"there is no need to disarm the Mahdi Army. If they were not there yesterday, it would have been a disaster."

Assuming its not too late, the U.S. needs to address this issue immediately by funding local organizations which can in turn provide basic services and jobs to Iraqis. What’s more the U.S. needs to publicize the fact that it is behind the aid, otherwise Sadr or others will surely take credit for any of the assistance.

The U.S. and its allies have been trying to crush the Mahdi Army in the name of the Iraqi people, but what will happen when the Mahdi Army becomes the voice of the Iraqi people and has their full support? If this trend goes unchecked, the Mahdi Army could well develop into an organization as powerful as Hezbollah in Lebanon- which rose to power with a political and military wing and also provided social services for the country.

Though recent polls suggest that most Iraqis have faith in PM Maliki, it is not at all unbelievable to think that as long as the Mahdi Army acts as a surrogate government to the people of Iraq, Iraqis may just well vote them into government when the time comes. Just look at what happened with Hamas in Palestine.

Iraqi Artist to Hold Show in Texas

EPIC speaker Wafaa Bilal will be featured in the Pawn Gallery's (Dallas, Texas) inaugural show entitled "Interior Landscapes." The show will run from December 1 to the 31st. Go here for more samples of his amazing work.

A brief bio: Born in Najaf, Iraq, Wafaa Bilal is a Chicago-based visual artist with both skillful presentation and compelling story. He moved studied Geography at the University of Baghdad but left to avoid the draft in 1990. For forty-two days, Bilal and his family survived relentless bombing by coalition forces, eventually being caught up in the mass uprising that swept the country following Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. Under suspicion of being a dissident, Bilal was blacklisted and joined hundreds of thousands of others fleeing Iraq in 1991. His harrowing journey took him through Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and eventually the U.S. in 1992. Bilal holds a degree in fine art at the University of New Mexico and has created art in paint, photography and video on his story and the stories of many other Iraqis devastated by the policies of war and siege in their country.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

And back to the bad...

Regardless of whether you believe the number proposed by the recent Lancet Survey, the death- rate of civilian casualties is completely out of control. Yesterday, the United Nations reported that 3,709 Iraqi civilians were killed in October. As the AP notes, this is:
"...the highest monthly toll since the March 2003 U.S. invasion and another sign of the severity of Iraq's sectarian bloodbath."
Quick aside: When will the press begin referring to the conflict as the civil war it has become instead of using phrases such as "sectarian bloodbath"?

In other news, the possibility of negotiations with Syria were further reduced with the assasination of Pierre Gemayel, a Lebanese cabinet minister and strong opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon. Syria has of course denied any involvement in the assassination, but this will regardless complicate US efforts to engage Syria in a dialog over Iraq. You'll remember that the US originally withdrew its ambassador to Damasus in 2005 when Syria came under suspicion for the assassination of Rafik Hariri.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Iraq, Iran and Syria- oh my

Finally some relatively good news out of Iraq: it seems that Syria is willing to help stabilize Iraq. And what’s more, Iran has invited Syria and Iraq to a summit in order to discuss ways to curb violence in Iraq.

As many of you are aware the violence in Iraq has implications beyond the country's borders; A massive flow of refugees from Iraq would likely destabilize its neighbors, the divisions in Iraq are mirrored in its neighbors allowing for the possibility that these groups will react violently in solidarity with their Iraqi counterparts, and neighboring states may intervene militarily in the civil war turning the conflict into a regional one. I’m told Ken Pollack and Dan Byman are coming out with a longer treatment of the subject but in the meantime read this for more details on how an Iraq conflict could spill over into other countries in the region.

Any successful solution must involve neighboring countries, especially Iran and Syria; however, Syria especially, has been very reluctant to help Iraq and by many accounts has in fact been supporting insurgents in Iraq. A little aside: A couple of months ago I was at Brookings listening to the Deputy PM of Iraq Barham Salih speak when someone asked what Iraq’s relations with its neighbors were like. Dr. Salih was most diplomatic in his response, refusing to say a single negative word about Iraq’s neighbors, Iran included, yet he had this to say about Syria:

"We want to have good neighborly relations, but what their [Syria’s] practices are, are not at all consistent with what they claim to be a concern for Iraq. They are getting a lot of Iraqis killed, and that is not unacceptable..."

So it is quite a relief to hear the Syrian foreign minister promising to cooperate with Iraqi officials to help curb the violence in Iraq though I suppose at the end of the day it could be nothing more than posturing. Furthermore, today The Washington Post is reporting that Iraq will restore diplomatic ties with Syria after breaking them about twenty-five years ago.

Naturally any solution to the Iraq conflict will have to involve a country that has 140,000 of its troops in Iraq. Problem is that Bush has been reluctant to hold any high level meetings with Syria, let alone Iran.

Enter the infamous Iraq Study Group. James Baker, its co-chair, has long been an advocate of engaging “unfriendly” states in dialogue . So it no surprise that Baker et al have met several times with Syrian officials to determine how Syria might best cooperate with the United States when it comes to stabilizing Iraq. This seems to indicate that the ISG will recommend greater cooperation with Syria and Iran in its report to the President. Good, right?

Potentially. It seems that Bush has set up his own little Iraq study group. Critics argue that this offers the administration a way out of implementing any unfavorable recommendations that the Baker IWG may come up with such as say starting negotiations with Iran and Syria.


Just saw this story in the London-based daily Asharq al Awsat:

"Kurdish lawmaker Mahmood Othman has criticised politicians in parliament and government for courting intervention from neighbouring countries. He said some politicians urge countries in the region to interfere in Iraqi internal affairs while others ask them to provide assistance. Othman said this is unacceptable because it's not in the interests of all Iraqis."
So it appears that not all Iraqis favor assistance from the neighbors. Though its interesting to note that the criticism came from an MP whose region is relatively peaceful and stable at this time, to the point that it is actively pursuing foreign investment.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Anatomy of a Civil War

Nir Rosen has written an excellent piece for the Boston Review that details Iraq's post-invasion descent into civil war. What sets this specific commentary apart from that of so many others is that Rosen witnessed this story unfold firsthand. He traveled from neighborhood to neighborhood, mosque to mosque observing developments in the Sunnia/Shia relationship meeting figures such as Muqtada Al Sadr along the way. A very interesting read.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

It's existing; it's not living

Bilal Wahab, Iraqi Fulbright Scholar and EPIC spokesman was on NewsHour last night to discuss daily life in Iraq. Joined by Shahla Waliy, a Fulbright Scholar from Baghdad and Anthony Shadid, the Middle East correspondent for The Washington Post, Bilal described what it is like to live in an a country where the police are complicit in murders and kidnappings, and violence is constant.

"So when you have an issue, when there's a burglar at the door, when there's a terrorist to report, when there's a militiaman who is doing some crime or a gang at the door, who are you going to call? Are you going to call the police? How are you going to call the police? ...when your protector is your own aggressor, I think that will have a great impact on the people when there's no one to trust."

Iraqis rarely go to work or school these days out of fear for their lives, anyone who can afford to has left the country, and the hope offered by the removal of Saddam Hussein from power now seems untenable.

All in all, Bilal explains that"

"…life is unbearable. It's existing; it's not living."

read the transcript, download the audio or watch the streaming video of the broadcast

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

New Legislation to Save SIGIR

The New York Times is reporting that Congressional Democrats will introduce new legislation next week that will renew the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction’s (SIGIR) mandate to oversee reconstruction efforts in Iraq while greatly increasing its investigative reach. This is in response to a recent Republican-backed provision sneaked into a large military authorization bill that called for the closure of the SIGIR office in one year.

This is great news. It has become clear from the errors committed during this conflict by firms such as Halliburton and Parsons that oversight in Iraq is fundamental to our reconstruction efforts there. Besides the billions of taxpayer dollars being wasted, lackluster reconstruction efforts can endanger lives and will only prolong US involvement in Iraq.

Since its inception in 2004, SIGIR has saved US taxpayers approximately $405.1 million and its investigations have led to several convictions of American occupation officials on bribery charges. Its latest report, published in October, which I discussed extensively in an earlier blog posting, provided a detailed analysis of what progress has been made on the ground and where the most significant problems lie. SIGIR’s investigations of Halliburton alone uncovered tens of millions of dollars of wasted funds and found that the company has been exploiting a federal loophole to keep its activities in Iraq confidential.

One of the greatest problems in Iraq is a lack of oversight: Contractors and firms are not being held accountable for their actions. It should be inconceivable that the US do away with one of the only bodies that is successfully monitoring this phase in the Iraq conflict.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Where are they now? An Update on the Ground Truth Project

As the coordinator for EPIC's Ground Truth Project, I've had the opportunity to meet three extraordinary women who shared deep insight about their experiences inside Iraq. Over the past few months, EPIC has shared their perspectives through our Ground Truth Project interview series with the hope of inspiring meaningful policy change and citizen action in support of a better future for all Iraqis. Recently I had the chance to catch up with the Project's first three interviewees:

Update on Nadje Al-Ali: Nadje was recently featured on a U.S. speaking tour which included a press conference in New York City at the Women's Media Center. She also participated in a panel discussion at Emory University entitled, "The War in Iraq - and the Wider Conflict." Nadje plans to release her latest book, Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present, in 2007.

Update on Dr. Rashad Zaydan: In a recent email to EPIC, Rashad encouraged us to continue our work to amplify the needs of all Iraqis. She wrote:

Dear friends,

All Iraqi people -- widows, orphans, people with disabilities -- are looking to your efforts to bring peace, freedom and justice to our country. Try to concentrate all good efforts to end our years of suffering.

With all our prayer to your success,

Dr. Rashad

Update on Laura Poitras: Last week, Laura wrote to EPIC about a recent conversation with Dr. Riyadh, the main subject of her acclaimed documentary, My Country, My Country. Dr. Riyadh is very concerned over the security situation in Baghdad, and he fears for the future of his country. He told Laura, "Tell America that there is no safe place in Baghdad...We are losing our country." Laura promised to continue to update EPIC about Dr. Riyadh and his family.

For more on-the-ground perspectives from Iraq, visit the Ground Truth Project.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Economic Development is the Solution

Professor Eric Davis of Rutgers University was on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer recently to discuss how economic development could help curb the violence in Iraq. He explains that without improving the economy, there is little hope of reducing political violence and moving towards political stability. While Bush has stated on many occasions that the Iraqi economy is key to stability in Iraq, has done very little on the ground to develop the economy beyond what's needed for the most basic reconstruction.

Davis argues that while contracting jobs to Iraqis certainly helps in the long term, it does not produce sustainable results:
"It's not enough to go into a neighborhood and just pay somebody to do some work for a while and then withdraw. As a matter of fact, if you look at the interviews with Iraqis in the recent effort of American and Iraqi troops to suppress sectarian violence in Iraq, all the Iraqis would say, "Yes, we have peace now, but unless we're able to turn the economy around, once the American and Iraqi troops leave, the sectarian violence is going to return all over again." And, lo and behold, that's exactly what happened."
Widespread unemployment is primarily fueling the insurgency and crime syndicates. Lacking alternatives, many of Iraq's unemployed, the youth especially, are being recruited into these dangerous positions. As Davis notes most Iraqis do not consider militias or criminal syndicates sustainable occupations, and would readily trade their guns in for a hammer.

In an op-ed he recently penned, Davis suggests a two stage program to push forward economic development:
"Initially, the funds couldbe used to create WPA-type jobs reminiscent of the New Deal. Such jobs would replicate the Commanders' Emergency Response Program that the U.S. military has used so successfully to quellpolitical violence. CERP funds have created temporary jobs for men in areas characterized by high levelsof insurgent activity, leading to a sharp decline in violence, gratitude on the part of those lraqis put to work,and benefits to the local community, such as the removal of garbage and sewage, filling potholes andpaving roads, repairing schools and police stations, rebuilding sewer systems, drilling water wells, clearingirrigation canals and building clinics.

Once violence began to decline following the implementation of a WPA-type program of job creation, the economic reconstruction fund could organize a second phase in which small economic projects would be promoted to provide sustainable employment. Bakeries, schools, new markets, expansion of hospitals, and construction work represent the type of activity that could immediately put large numbers of lraqis in sustainable economic activity which could both pump money into the economy and add to Iraq's socia capital."
The US should not solely bear the costs of these programs. Our allies in the Middle East, particularly the oil-producing countries who are awash in oil revenues, need to help fund these programs. After all they stand to lose more than the US if Iraq becomes a failed state; they don't want an extension of Iranian influence in Iraq and they certainly don't want violence from Iraq to spill over the border into their countries.

Incidentally, EPIC will be publishing an interview next week with former Army captain and founder of War Kids Relief, Cpt. Jon Powers. In the interview Cpt. Powers discusses the problems facing Iraqi youth, unemployment chief among them, and explains how US NGO's can help give Iraqi youths a future.

Help Iraq Help Itself

Frederick D. Barton, a director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at CSIS, wrote an op-ed in the NYT yesterday that urges the United States not to punish PM Maliki for his recent defiance of the US. Barton claims that Maliki's independence may be our best chance for a sustainable Iraq and the only way the US can leave the country within a reasonable time-frame.
"As America moves away from its Iraq engagement, the United States government is in need of being saved from itself. The administration cannot find a way to leave because of its own early rhetoric and the advocacy of many Democrats for a timetable...The United States has suggested in the past that if the Iraqi government invited us to leave, we would oblige. We must prepare ourselves for this event. While being shown the door is never comfortable, the United States is ready to leave and the conditions are not likely to get better."
He concludes: "Mr. Maliki’s new independence is America’s best chance to salvage the muddle Iraq has become. Let’s not get in his way."

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Meanwhile in Iraq...

As Democrats celebrate their electoral gains, I think it's worth reminding them as well as Republicans that a widening civil war continues to rage in Iraq. With the campaigning over, its time for our elected officials to put aside their partisan differences and begin the work together to develop a more sensible policy on Iraq. Regardless of how enormous the challenges may be, they have a responsibility to our nation, our troops, the 28 million people of Iraq, and international security to find a new way forward in Iraq.

As a not-so-subtle reminder of the ongoing life-and-death situation in Iraq, here's what happened on Election Day according to Reuter's AlertNet.

BASRA - A British soldier on sentry duty at a base in central Basra was shot and killed on Monday, the British military said on Tuesday.

FALLUJA - A roadside bomb targeting a U.S. military patrol killed three civilians, including a student, and wounded eight others, including three students, in the city of Falluja, 50 km (35 miles) west of Baghdad, doctor Mohammed Abdul Kareem said. A police source said seven were killed and 10 wounded in the incident.

SAYAFIYA - Police arrested a local al-Qaeda leader called Ali Hamid al-Dulaimi in the town of Sayafiya, 75 km (40 miles) north of Kut, police said.

BAGHDAD - A U.S. soldier died on Monday night from wounds sustained in a roadside bomb attack on his vehicle in northwest Baghdad, the U.S. military said; Iraqi police and army arrested 13 people described as "terrorists" and 88 suspected insurgents during the last 24 hours in different parts of Iraq, the General Command of armed forces office said; A total of 10 bodies were found with gunshot wounds during the last 24 hours in different districts of Baghdad, an Interior Ministry source said. Some of the victims showed signs torture; Gunmen attacked a Civil Defence Centre and kidnapped four employees, two of whom were later released, in a southeastern suburb of Baghdad, an interior ministry source said.

MAHMUDIYA - Police found the bodies of two people and a decapitated head in the town of Mahmudiya, about 30 km (20 miles) south of Baghdad, police said.

KIRKUK - Gunmen killed a policeman in the northern oil city of Kirkuk, 250 km (155 miles) north of Baghdad, police said.

BAIJI - U.S. forces killed two suspected insurgents and detained two more in a raid the U.S. military said was linked to a suspected senior leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq near Baiji, 180 km (112 miles) north of Baghdad.

An early Veterans' Day gift: Bush announces Rumsfeld's Resignation

This morning the New York Times editorialized: "Whatever this election accomplished, it did nothing to end the rancor and distrust that define current American politics. Yet, as the campaign went on (and on) there was one issue on which people from both parties appeared to be finding common ground: Donald Rumsfeld has to go."

In a few minutes, President Bush will announce the resignation of U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Let's review his record:

(1) Establishing the Office of Special Plans (OSP) which cherry-picked, manipulated and possibly even manufactured intelligence to build a case for invading Iraq. Led by Douglas Feith, the OSP greatly exaggerated what little evidence there was of Iraqi weapons of mass-destruction (WMDs) and sought to discredit CIA reports on the absence of any evidence of a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Even the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (which expresses the coordinated judgments of the US Intelligence Community made up of 16 intelligence agencies) was forced to admit that its "judgments" of Iraqi-al-Qaeda ties and a WMD threat were based on "sources of varying reliability." For the intelligence community to include information based on questionable sources (such as Iraqi defectors who had been vetted-and-coached by the Iraq National Congress and a forged Nigerian document about a shipment of nuclear material to Iraq) in a National Intelligence Estimate shows how warped the process had become.

(2) Seizing Pentagon control of the post-invasion nation-building in Iraq, despite his and the President's own admission that the military doesn't do nation-building.

(3) Failing to heed the advice of countless experts (including uniformed officers and war colleges) about how to plan and prepare for the "day after" Saddam Hussein... like how the looting and chaos would prove to be far more destructive than the military invasion itself.

(4) Pressuring war-planners to cut the number of U.S. forces sent into Iraq . Rumsfeld repeatedly brushed aside calls for a larger occupation force for several reasons: (1) arrogance: Rumsfeld felt he truley understood modern warfare and that the military was stuck in the past in terms of strategy. Besides a strategy of minimal force had proved successful in Afghanistan, and so Rumself assumed same would be true for Iraq. (2) the war could have been postponed, perhaps indefinitely : a force of 300,000-500,000 troops would have taken significantly longer to deploy, Congress may have been loathe to allocate the additional funds necessary and with this delay there was a possibility that a diplomatic solution may have been realized. But Rumsfeld wanted his war, and he wanted it as soon as possible, so he disregarded the advice of Army generals and sent a much smaller force than was needed.

(5) Appointing men and women based on political loyalty to President Bush rather than relevant expertise on Iraq, Arabic, or post-conflict reconstruction.

For this look no further than Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran's brilliant book Imperial Life in the Emerald City:

"...applicants didn't need to be experts in the Middle East or in post-conflict reconstruction. What seemed most important was loyalty to the Bush administration... Many of those chosen by [Jim] O'Beirne's office [at Rumsfeld's Pentagon] to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran Iraq's government from April 2003 to June 2004, lacked vital skills and experience. A 24-year-old who had never worked in finance -- but had applied for a White House job -- was sent to reopen Baghdad's stock exchange. The daughter of a prominent neoconservative commentator and a recent graduate from an evangelical university for home-schooled children were tapped to manage Iraq's $13 billion budget, even though they didn't have a background in accounting. The decision to send the loyal and the willing instead of the best and the brightest is now regarded by many people involved in the 3 1/2 -year effort to stabilize and rebuild Iraq as one of the Bush administration's gravest errors."

(6) Appointing and presiding over L Paul Bremer's disastrous mismanagement of the Coalition Provision Authority (CPA) including:
(a) Disbanding the one institution the U.S. military needed as a partner more than any other in order to secure Iraq and restore public order: Iraq's National Army. The result, more than 300,000 men with guns thrown onto the streets of Iraq, making them more part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
(b) Ordering the de-Ba'athification of Iraqi institutions, despite the fact that many -- if not most -- Iraqi civil servants joined Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party out of fear for their families or to ensure career advancement.
(c) Exacerbating ethnic and sectarian conflict by appointing an Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) largely composed of ethnic and sectarian-based opposition parties
(d) Failing to account for billions of dollars of Iraqi revenue

(7) Appointing Lt. Gen. Sanchez to the head of the Multi-National Force in Iraq. Sanchez became infamous during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal as the senior commander in charge at the time. Abu Ghraib has often been portrayed as a lapse in judgment on the part of several rogue soldiers; however, the reality is that Sanchez actually signed off on these incidents of prisoner abuse. Beyond Abu Ghraib, Sanchez is can and should be held responsible fo rmuch of the violence and chaos that grip Iraq today. Sanchez came to Iraq with orders to quell an insurgency in its infancy and restore order to Iraq. He went about it in the worst way possible. Sanchez employed a doctrine of "search and destroy", using exaggerated firepower and dealing with Iraqis in the harshest way possible. These tactics completely alienated Iraqis, and encouraged them to hate America and its soldiers. What's more, the strategy was completely ineffective in terms of putting a stop to the violence. By the time he left a year later, Iraq was in complete turmoil, with insurgent attacks and crime

(8) Authorizing elections that further polarized and cemented divisions within Iraqi society along ethnic and sectarian lines.

(9) Torture at Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-run detention facilities Though commanders in the field ought to bare the brunt of this scandal, Rumsfeld was certainly complicit in the prisoner abuse that took place in Iraq. He approved of these interrogation tactics for use not only in Iraq but in Guantamo as well.

(10) Failing to hold himself or anyone accountable for gross misconduct and failures, and repeatedly ignoring Congressional requests for information

Sadly I could go on.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Army recruiting standards at a dangerous low

Emily documented the case of Steven Green, a former Army private who was sent to Iraq despite a history of drug and alcohol abuse, and criminal record and recently indicted on 17 counts of murder, sexual assault and obstruction. She mentioned that Green wasn’t the only one; that the Army had lowered its recruiting standards to allow thousands of people with criminal records to serve in Iraq.

Well it seems that the Army has since been digging even deeper for new recruits. Take for example, Spc. Anthony Vanderpool:
"The government's own military doctors knew that Spc. Anthony Vanderpool was mentally unbalanced. He had been admitted to the Bronx and Manhattan Veterans hospitals for major depressive disorder, dizziness, spells, auditory hallucinations and suicidal ideation, according to his V.A. records. And this was before he even went to Iraq." More
Vanderpool was in Iraq for ten months where he was depressed, paranoid, suicidal and on heavy medications. At one point he was treated by a psychiatrist in Iraq who recommended that Vanderpool’s weapon be confiscated as he was a threat to himself and others. This was not enough to send him back home, though eventually Vanderpool was honorably discharge after he “spun out of control."

Vanderpool’s story is not unique: The US has sent thousands of mentally unfit soldiers to Iraq since the war began. In May of this year the Hartford Courant reported on the Army’s practice of sending soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other combat-related illnesses back to battle. I suggest you read the entire report as it is very interesting, but it is the case of Sgt. Syverson that really got me.
"Eight months ago, Staff Sgt. Bryce Syverson was damaged goods, so unsteady that doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center wouldn't let him wear socks or a belt.

Syverson, 27, had landed in the psychiatric unit at Walter Reed after a breakdown that doctors traced to his 15-month tour in Iraq as a gunner on a Bradley tank. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and was put on a suicide watch and antidepressants, according to his family. Today, Syverson is back in the combat zone, part of a quick-reaction force in Kuwait that could be summoned to Iraq at any time.

He got his deployment orders after being told he wasn't fit for duty.

He got his gun back after being told he was too unstable to carry a weapon."
He got his gun back after being told he was too unstable to carry a weapon?! This is unbelievable. Are we really so desperate for new troops that we will send soldiers to Iraq that could potentially put the lives of their fellow soldiers and the Iraqi civilians they are supposed to protect at risk? Where is the oversight? Isn’t this where congress is supposed to step in?

Apparently in June, Sens. Boxer, Kennedy, Lieberman and Clinton sponsored an amendment to the last Defense Appropriations Bill that called for more thorough mental health screening and detailed guidelines on what precludes deployment to a combat zone. However, the final legislation dropped a provision that would have required screeners to take a mental health history. And so those who suffer from mental health issues continue to be deployed to Iraq.

I'm horrified to think what it will take for the Army to address this issue.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

'Power Shifts' in War-Ravaged Baghdad

On October 31, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. acquiesced to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s demand that the U.S. military lift its blockade of Baghdad’s Sadr City, home to more than 2.5 million Iraqis – mostly poor Shiite Muslims – and some of some of Baghdad’s most notorious death squads. One of the reasons for the U.S. military’s action was to hunt for a missing U.S. soldier who is believed to have been captured by Abu Deraa, the leader of one of Baghdad’s most notorious death squads.

On Wednesday, November 1, I appeared on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer alongside Robert Grenier (a veteran CIA officer who served nearly a year as the CIA's top counter-terrorism official) to discuss this unfolding story. On the show, I emphasized the urgent need to put a stop to Baghdad’s sectarian death squads while also strengthening Iraqi sovereignty:
“[W]hat I think the prime minister has done is demonstrate once again that he's not ‘America's man in Baghdad’ and that he can exercise Iraqi sovereignty… [It’s] important for him to do that because that helps [to increase his] authority [and] ability to get things done. The question is: Will he then use that to get things done, particularly in reining in the death squads?”
Here’s the full transcript or streaming video of the segment. The Houston Chronicle, Reuters, CNN and the International Herald Tribune (via the AP wire) were some of the other Western news organizations that covered the ramifications of Prime Minister Maliki’s increasingly assertive exercise of Iraqi sovereignty.

According to AP:
“the armed death squads in Sadr City could increase their attacks against Sunnis across the capital, in the worst-case scenario. At a minimum, the action could send the wrong message to Sunnis…that their rivals in the Shiite militia can act with impunity and with political cover…”
Indeed, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi (a leading Sunni Arab political leader and the highest elected official of the Iraqi Islamic Party) has already threatened to resign over Prime Minister Maliki’s failure to confront Shiite militias. He predicted that the lifting of the U.S. military’s blockade on Sadr City would end a lull in sectarian death squad activity.

Did the U.S. military’s October 25 raid into Sadr City and subsequent week-long blockade reduce Baghdad’s body count, particularly in the first few days when militias operating out of Sadr City would have been the most disrupted? As the numbers are tabulated, that remains to be seen.

Scott Peterson of The Christian Science Monitor provided an opinion piece on Maliki’s recent orders to U.S. troops. He writes:
“Shiite from the crowded Baghdad district of Sadr City are reveling in what they deem their ‘victory’ over American forces after Iraq PM Nuri al-Maliki…ordered the dismantling of U.S. and Iraqi checkpoints surrounding the area…” his was an opportunity for the Prime Minister to “further assert his independence…just days before U.S. midterm elections, in which the Iraq War has become a defining issue…”
According to Peterson, after a week of tensions between Washington and Baghdad, Maliki’s aides said they want to increase the unpopularity of Bush and the Iraq War ahead of U.S. elections “to expand Maliki’s authority…” However, Maliki owes his ascendance to Iraq's Premiership to Muqtada al-Sadr, who controls the largest voting bloc within the ruling Shia coalition. In fact, Muqtada may turn out to be the biggest winner of the past week, and that does not bode well for anyone in Baghdad.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Update on the Mahmoudiyah killings

Steven Green, the former Army private arrested in the March rape and slaying of a 14 year old Iraqi girl while he was on duty in Mahmoudiyah was indicted yesterday on 17 counts of murder, sexual assault and obstruction. Green was discharged from the Army in May, not because of these allegations, but because of a “personality disorder.”

I’m glad he is no longer representing the US in Iraq, but he should never have been there in the first place. To field recruits for this war the Army has lowered its standards to a dangerous level. Green, for example, was allowed to enlist despite his having a criminal record and a history of drug and alcohol abuse. The US military has granted thousands of exemptions to new recruits with issues that would normally disqualify them from military service. In the first four months of this year, these special recruits accounted for 15% of all new recruits. So while Green is no longer on the streets of Baghdad, there exists the possibility that others like him are.

EPIC addressed this and the lowering of basic training stndards in a press release it put out in June:
"Given the role the U.S. military is playing in Iraq today, EPIC believes that President Bush and U.S. commanders must maintain the highest of standards for those who wear the uniform, particularly in a war zone where innocent lives are at stake. EPIC is deeply concerned about the U.S. military practice of lowering standards to meet recruiting goals."

At a recent speech in Washington, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, said, "I continue to believe that some of these things that are alleged here are not representative of either the values or the nature of our force, or a result of failures to address these things." That is fine and well, but when you compromises your values to recruit new soldiers, you must to a certain degree accept responsibility for their actions.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

EPIC on NewsHour

Just a quick heads up: the director of the Education for Peace on Iraq Center, Erik Gustafson, will be a guest on tonight's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He will be discussing what options the US has in Iraq. He will be joined by Robert Grenier, former head of the CIA's counter-terrorism division. Check your local listings.

Here is the transcript
and the streaming video

The new SIGIR report: the bad, the bad and the good

I apologize in advance for the length of this entry. If it's any consolation the report itself was 537 pages. In a nutshell, the SIGIR report demonstrates just how essential proper oversight is to reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Anyway on to the blog:

On Tuesday, the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction (SIGIR) released its quarterly report. Some of its findings:

Iraqi government is still spending very little of its own money on reconstruction projects and not for want of funds: it had $6 BILLION budgeted to major rebuilding projects this year

Of 142 primary health clinics funded by the United States, just seven are operational.

Perhaps one of its more sensational findings is that overhead costs have consumed more than half the budget on many reconstruction projects in Iraq, which of course leaves substantially less money than expected to improve the lives of Iraqis. The largest culprit is KBR a subsidiary of Halliburton whose overhead at the oil-facilities it was contracted to run accounted for 55% of its budget (approx. $160 million). Why so much? Halliburton sure isn’t too worried about the safety of its workers so I doubt it can all be going towards security.

Well apparently the US ordered KBR to Iraq and let them sit there for months at a time doing absolutely nothing. John Mitchell, a spokesman for the inspector general’s office explains,
“The government blew the whistle for these guys to go to Iraq and the meter ran. The government was billed for sometimes nine months before work began.”
Furthermore, the New York Times reports that,
“The findings are similar to those of a growing list of inspections, audits and investigations that have concluded that the program to rebuild Iraq has often fallen short for the most mundane of reasons: poorly written contracts, ineffective or nonexistent oversight, needless project delays and egregiously poor construction practices.”
Not surprisingly SIGIR also found that KBR sought to limit SIGIR’s oversight this quarter by improperly using the proprietary information exception to the Federal Acquisition Regulation. You can read more about that whole scandal here.

Sadly examples of poor construction practices abound and are especially prevalent in contracts for which there was little if no oversight. The construction of the Baghdad Police College has become the prime example for the failures of US reconstruction efforts. The College, which cost $75 million to construct, will likely have to be torn down due to leaking effluent (a nice way of saying human waste) caused by faulty plumbing that has compromised the structural integrity of the building. The Army Corps of Engineers handed out the police college contract out to the California firm Parsons which in turn subcontracted it to an Iraqi company. Needless to say Parsons didn’t really follow-up much with the subcontractors.

When it came time to build the police headquarters in Mosul, the Army Corps of Engineers realized how silly it was to go through firms like Parsons and started handing out the contracts directly to Iraqi firms. Good idea, except you still need some sort of oversight. The Mosul police HQ would suffer from similar problems as the police college. As a bonus, the station was also rife with shoddy construction that exposed security forces to unnecessary risk. This has implications beyond leaky faucets and the like: The US has been trying desperately to train the Iraqi police by stationing US troops with them. However, as should be expected, the US will not send their troops to stay in buildings like the headquarters in Mosul where they are easy targets.

SIGIR also revealed that 4% of the weapons that the United States had provided to Iraqi security forces could not be accounted for. That is 14,030 weapons unaccounted for. These weapons include semiautomatic pistols, assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Nice.

So far SIGIR has done a commendable job in overseeing the reconstruction effort in Iraq. Due to its audits, SIGIR has saved US taxpayers approximately $405.1 million since its creation in 2004. It has proven itself to be a much-needed watchdog instrumental in spotting numerous cases of waste, fraud and abuse. With the possibility of transferring reconstruction efforts to the Iraqi government in the near future becoming ever more distant, SIGIR is needed more than ever. Tragically, Congress decided right before it recessed to terminate the office in exactly one year. It is not yet clear what will come in its place.

Before I forget there was some good news in the SIGIR report:
the average national electricity generation peak capacity finally surpassed prewar levels (only took us 2 ½ years)
Oil exports averaged 1.66 million BPD, slightly surpassing the Iraqi goal of 1.65 million BPD

U.S. projects have provided an estimated 4.6 million people with access to water—
more than half the anticipated end-state of 8.2 million people. Also, 5.1 million
people have access to sanitation services from U.S. projects; the end-state goal is
5.3 million people.
This is all great news and it appears that we can count on achieving relative success in several other sectors, but at issue is sustaining these US funded projects as programs shift to Iraqi control. The US has planned and allocated funds for this, but who knows how successful the transition will be. I am certain, however, that there would be a higher degree of success should SIGIR still be around at that point.
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