Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Wasted Billions/Equipping US Troops

The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) just released its quarterly report and truth be told I could probably just copy and paste my earlier blog entry on the last SIGIR report in this space. Little to no progress has been made in reviving crucial sectors of Iraq such as water and electricity, and reconstruction projects continue to suffer from poor construction practices and in a new twist, unwarranted extravagances. In one case, contractors building a camp for American trainers constructed an Olympic-size swimming pool that hadn't been ordered.

Once again at issue is a lack of effective oversight. The major contractors are passing on the contracts to Iraqi subcontractors without ever following up.

In its last report SIGIR revealed that 4% of the weapons that the United States had provided to Iraqi security forces could not be accounted for. This time around, SIGIR went a step further auditing the US' ability to equip the soldiers presently stationed in Iraq. SIGIR found that many soldiers have gone without guns, ammunition and other supplies necessary for the soldiers to complete missions. Soldiers have also been found lacking proper body armor, armored vehicles and communication devices. This Washington Post article has more details on the challenges the Pentagon is having equipping US troops.

So because of a lack of proper oversight, billions have been wasted on shoddy reconstruction projects essentially depriving US soldiers of the equipment they count on to survive in Iraq. And this is not even taking into account the 21,000 extra troops that will soon be arriving in Iraq. How will we properly equip them, if we can't even manage to satisfy the demands of the soldiers currently in Iraq? Add to this the fact that the Iraqi security forces these soldiers will be fighting alongside are similarly ill-equipped. Putting aside any notion you may have that we have already lost, this new strategy for Iraq has been cited by many as our last shot at achieving a preferred outcome in Iraq. So how is it that we can't dedicate all our efforts to increasing its probability for success? Let us just hope that those on the ground in Iraq and on the Hill in DC are readying a Plan B.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

IOM Report on Iraqi IDPs

I just got back from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) where I sat in on a presentation by the International Organization for Migration's Iraq Displacement Specialist, Dana Graber, on the IOM's just-released Iraq Displacement 2006 Year in Review. While I encourage all of you to read the report in full, here is a brief outline of what it includes.

The IOM has been working in Iraq since 2003, monitoring internally displaced persons (IDPs) and contributing to emergency aid programs like Mercy Hands, directed by Kaldhoon Ali, who was kind enough to sit down recently for an EPIC Ground Truth Project interview. As you know, the the level of sectarian violence in Iraq has grown rapidly since the February 2006 bombing of al-Askari shrine, and in turn, this rise in violence has caused a sharp spike in number of IDPs. While the Iraqis with greater wealth and resources manage to flee the country to safer places like Jordan or Syria, thereby achieving refugee status and protections under international law, IDPs lack the ability to do the same and consequently are much more vulnerable. Currently, there are 370,000 IDPs in Iraq. This number has been growing at an alarming rate, with a January average of 1,000 new IDPs every 24 hours.

According to Ms. Graber, the most violent areas, which are in the center of the country, are the source for over 70% of Iraq's total IDPs for 2006. They are abandoning their homes not just because of direct threats on their lives--which take the form of everything from texts messages on mobile phones to threatening graffiti--but also because of general crime and military operations. The report contains detailed data sets that deal with the most prominent IDP issues: resettlement intentions, shelter options, property issues, food and fuel availability, health care accessibility, and the impact of displacement on women and children.

Ms. Graber concluded her sobering presentation with some information about the future of IOM funding. IOM and other organizations simply lack the funding to cope with the increasing scale of this crisis, she said. Through its humanitarian programs, IOM has assisted 30,000 families in Iraq since 2003, with 22,000 of those families receiving assistance since the February 2006 bombing of al-Askari shrine. Yet in the fifth year of this war, donor fatigue has taken a toll on funding levels. In 2006, IOM only received 25% of their requested funding. Ms. Graber shared that two organizations that work closely with IOM in providing humanitarian assistance have decided to shut down their operations in Iraq because of a lack of funds and the increasingly precarious security situation.

The State Department's PRM and USAID-OFDA, which provided the funding for the IOM report (as did IOM member states the Netherlands and Australia) have been very interested in the report's findings. Ms. Graber says that this information will be used by these and other organizations to lobby for continued, and hopefully increased, funding from Congress.

Plan B- Containment

Bush's new strategy in Iraq, the centerpiece of which is a 20,000 odd surge in the number of troops in Iraq, may well be the US' last chance to "win" Iraq. I've already outlined my reservations regarding the plan so I won't repeat them here, but suffice it to say that without a winning economic strategy to complement any political and military strategies, the chance for success is considerably diminished. So what next? What is our plan B? It is not an option to simply ignore the problem, the stakes are too high; hundreds of thousands more Iraqis will die, millions more refugees will flood the region and the civil war itself could spill over Iraq's borders creating a regional conflict of unimaginable proportions.

Yesterday, Ken Pollack and Dan Byman of the Brookings Institution released a paper [pdf] examining one such plan B: containment. The authors argue that should Bush's new strategy fail, the US must do everything in its power to insulate Iraq's neighbors from the effects of an all-out civil war towards which Iraq has been slowly slipping for several years. The report is quite long and introduces a number of recommendations including financial assistance to Iraq's neighbors, stationing US troops at Iraq's borders, and engaging the neighbors-including Iran- in a diplomatic dialogue. But if this plan B is to suceed, the US and international community must commit to it completely. Pollack and Byman cite case studies in which the commitment was not entirely there, noting the disastrous results.

Another plan B that you may have heard is to partition Iraq and create a loose federation of three states defined by their sectarian identity; Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish. I won't dwell on this here as I plan on posting another entry that addresses this option featuring an excerpt from an interview I did with Rutgers professor Eric Davis, but let me just quickly say that this is a horrible idea that ignores, not reflects, the realities on the ground in Iraq.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Iran in Iraq

I've always believed that to mitigate the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, the US must engage its neighbors, especially Iran which has considerable influence over the predominantly Shia Iraq. The US excuse has been that Iran is unwilling to negotiate with the US, that the US has no "leverage" when it comes to Iran. And so we have been on the offensive: accusing the Iranian government of supplying weapons to the militias, seizing Iranian operatives within Iraq, authorizing our military to kill Iranian operatives inside Iraq and so on.

Meanwhile President Ahmadinejad has had this to say: " Trying to weaken the Iraqi government is tantamount to "treason for the Iraqi people and Islamic nation."

Whether he is being sincere or not is a up to debate. The point is that no matter what differences the US and Iran may have, both have an overwhelming desire to prevent Iraq from sliding into an all-out civil war. Today the New York Times reports that Iran is going to go ahead with its plans to help stabilize Iraq regardless of the US' warnings not to "meddle."
"The ambassador, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, said Iran was prepared to offer Iraq government forces training, equipment and advisers for what he called 'the security fight.' In the economic area, Mr. Qumi said, Iran was ready to assume major responsibility for Iraq reconstruction, an area of failure on the part of the United States since American-led forces overthrew Saddam Hussein nearly four years ago."
These projects will certainly strengthen Iran's influence in Iraq, and so it is in America's best interest that it works together with Iran to temper this influence as best it can. In a related story, it was reported today that Iran recently received a letter from US officials that sought to ease the tension between the two countries. Hopefully this letter signifies a realization on the part of the US that whether we like it or not, Iran is going to be a factor in Iraq.

Cutting Funds to the Militias and Insurgent Groups

Key to President Bush's new strategy for success in Iraq is the dismantling of militias and insurgent groups across the country. In today's Christian Science Monitor, Keith Crane, senior economist at RAND, discusses where these groups obtain their funding and suggests a "five-point plan" to starve them of these funds. He explains that, "if successful, this effort could give Iraq's government a fighting chance to curb the violence."

Militias and insurgent groups are funded by four primary sources: the smuggling and resale of gasoline and fuel, kidnapping and extortion, other countries, and Iraq government payrolls. Regarding the fourth source of funding:
"...anti-American Shiite cleric and Mahdi Army leader Moqtada al-Sadr controls the ministries of agriculture, health, and transportation. Mr. Sadr puts his militia members on the payrolls of these ministries in a broad range of jobs, including as members of the Facilities Protection Service (FPS)."
Given the fact that Maliki relies on the support of Moqtada al-Sadr to stay in power, it seems quite unlikely that he will cut funding to his militia. And yet lately Maliki has demonstrated that the Mahdi Army is not immune. Two weeks ago Iraqi security forces arrested 400 members of Al-Sadr's militia and detained a top aide to al-Sadr. Many have suggested that the 400 arrested were likely renegades not dear to al-Sadr and that the top aide was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time (he was not the main target of the raid), but either way it is a sign of progress.

Sunni insurgent group, on the other hand, receive much of their funding from reselling smuggled gasoline and diesel to several countries including Turkey and Jordan. The U.S. could really make a dent in this source of funding if it began pressuring the Turkish and Jordanian governments to secure their borders.

The question of funding coming in from other countries is one that also must be addressed. Some Shiite groups are receiving money from Iran, and there continue to be contributions made from Sunnis around the world and Baathist exiles to Sunni insurgent groups. An article today in The Australian discusses the economic pressure Saudi Arabia is putting on Iran, and the effects it will have on Iran's influence in funding Shiite militias. Along with UN sanctions on Iran and economic pressure being placed through the price of oil, the hope is that Tehran will no longer be able to fund Shiite militias in Iraq.

The current debate between Congress and the Bush Administration on the new strategic plan for Iraq should include dialog on steps the US can take to cut funding to militias. By doing this the US military, along with Iraqi military forces, will have a better chance in dismantling insurgent groups and preventing new ones from forming. If there is to be a sustainable peace in Iraq, the US should put pressure on the Iraqi government to take a stand against funding members of militias and having increased oversight over monies and what individuals or groups are benefiting from them. The steps that can be taken in reducing the influence of insurgent groups across Iraq, will also have the effect of creating greater accountability for the Iraqi government.

Friday, January 26, 2007


We will have two new writers contributing to this blog in the coming months: Shannon Anderson and Dominique Arvanitis. Both recently joined EPIC as interns and will begin posting regularly next week, though I see Shannon has already begun with a post on the Biden resolution.

Also, many of you have been sending comments on blog postings by e-mail. I certainly welcome the comments, but would ask if you might consider commenting directly on the relevant blog posting. This would surely help foster more discussion on the blog which can only have positive results.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Biden Resolution

Yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to send Senator Biden’s resolution opposing President Bush’s proposed troop increase in Iraq to the Senate floor for debate. This comes one day after the President’s State of the Union Address, in which he requested that Congress give the planned troop increases in Anbar and Baghdad “a chance to work,” as part of his new strategy in Iraq.

Yet is seems that the President’s proposed change in strategy is already having an effect on the ground in Iraq. According to an article in the New York Times, both political groups and militias in Sadr city are looking to negotiate with the U.S. because they are, “eager to head off a major American military offensive in the district, home to two million Shiites, as the Americans begin a sweeping new effort to retake the streets of Baghdad.”

While the article goes on to point out certain demands of the Sadr militias and political parties that the U.S. will most likely not accommodate—like the releasing of certain prisoners and the cessation of raids in Sadr City—there are other demands that seem more likely be put into action by the U.S. These include providing jobs for Sadr City residents, bringing in new construction projects, and tripling the number of police stations in area.

Perhaps such measures are what the General Petraeus had in mind when, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, he called the situation in Iraq “dire,” but still noted that the troop increase will potentially pave the way for several courses of action that could bring about a change for the better. gives a good summary of his testimony:
“It's not just that there will be additional troops in Baghdad, it's what they will do and how they will do it that is important,’ Petraeus said. ‘Some members of this committee have observed that there is no military solution to the problems in Iraq. They are correct.’ He said success would depend on Iraqi political and economic progress and the increased capacity of the Iraqi military.”

Interview with President of Iraqi NGO

Just a heads up, EPIC just published an interview with Khaldoon Ali, the president of Mercy Hands, an Iraqi NGO that works to assist the ever-increasing number of internally displaced people (IDP's) in Iraq. A good read. Beyond covering the IDP crisis and the works Mr. Ali's organization does to mitigate it, the interview also offers some insight into the challenges Iraqi NGO's themselves face- from lack of funding to meddling national ministries. I found particularly interesting the fact that Khaldoon Ali refuses to accept funding from the US.

Here is that part of the interview:
epic: Have you received funding directly from the United States?

Khaldoon: We haven’t. As a demonstration of our neutrality, we are not willing to accept funding from parties involved in the conflict. It is also a matter of principle. In my experience, the U.S. has not been completely honest about its spending in Iraq.

I will give you a personal example. Not long ago, I was approached by an acquaintance who works with the U.S. to appropriate funds to Iraqi NGOs, and he offered to give me money. He said that his job is to give money to Iraqi NGOs and report back to Washington that it was spent to support democracy in Iraq’s “hot areas,” like Baghdad and Anbar province. He asserted to me that some NGOs were taking millions of U.S. dollars and simply sending fake “progress” reports back to the U.S.! When he reported these incidents of fraud, his supervisor said that as long as the money was being spent, he didn’t care. I was outraged.

Rather than receive direct assistance from the U.S., Mercy Hands only takes funds from multilateral agencies, like the UN, and some international NGOs. Though funding is sometimes scarce and difficult to come by, it is a more honest means, and it is a way to ensure that my organization does not fall into a trap that could hurt us more than help us in the end.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sadr Interview

The Italian newspaper "La Repubblica" has an interview with none other than Muqtada al-Sadr. An excerpt:
Caprile: The fact remains that your people are about to be struck with an iron fist.

Al Sadr: “The operation has already started. Last night they already arrested over four hundred of my men. It is not us they want to destroy, but Islam - we are only an obstacle. For the time being, we shall not put up any resistance against them.”
The interview also touches on Sadr's relationship with Maliki, and the controversy surrounding Saddam's execution. Go here for the full interview translated into English.

Iran Supplying Weapons to Iraq?

Constant in President Bush's admonishments of Iran is the accusation that the country is supplying weapons to the the militias of Iraq. Earlier this year the Washington Post created quite a stir when they reported that several hundred British troops whose mission it is to intercept weapons coming into Iraq from Iran, had yet to find evidence of high-volume weapons supply operation.
"It's a question of intelligence versus evidence," Labouchere's commander, Brig. James Everard of Britain's 20th Armored Brigade, said last month at his base in the southern region's capital, Basra. "One hears word of mouth, but one has to see it with one's own eyes. These are serious consequences, aren't they?"
The British have intercepted a small amount of weapons being smuggled into Iraq by the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, but David Axe of World Politics Watch explains that this does not indicate that Iran is smuggling massive quantities of weapons into Iraq. I don't want to go into it here, but Axe makes a very convincing argument.

Yesterday, the LA Times revived this issue in a very interesting investigative report.
"During a recent sweep through a stronghold of Sunni insurgents here, a single Iranian machine gun turned up among dozens of arms caches U.S. troops uncovered. British officials have similarly accused Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs, but say they have not found Iranian-made weapons in areas they patrol."
As Peter Felstead, editor of Jane's Defense Weekly, explains a lot of rather sophisticated weapons have actually been smuggled in by Syria, not Iran.

The Bush administration is not alone in its accusations that Iran is sending weapons into Iraq. In the interest of balance, I would like to point out a report published by the Jamestown Foundation and written by Mounir Elkhamri, a Middle East Military Analyst for the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth. In this report, Elkhamri provides compelling evidence that Iran is actively contributing to the civil war by arming militias.

I would argue that perhaps both sides have merit; Iranian weapons and other materials are being smuggled into Iraq, but the weapons are not being supplied to the militias currently engaged in the civil war. This would be consistent with reports that Iranian efforts are directed towards building an infrastructure in Iraq that could be activated in the event of a US attack on Iran, and that these weapons and capabilities are not being used in the current conflict.

Is Oscar’s Mind on Iraq?

The 79th Annual Academy Award nominations were announced Tuesday morning. Among the ranks of the block buster smashes of “Babal” and “The Departed” were two special documentaries on Iraq. Both “Iraq in Fragments” and “My Country, My Country” were nominated for best documentary feature. I had the opportunity to talk to the director of “Iraq in Fragments”, James Longley, and interview the director of “My Country, My Country”, Laura Poitras, for EPIC’s the Ground Truth Project.

Both documentaries will have quite a bit of competition in their category. Other films nominated for best documentary feature include "Deliver Us from Evil," about the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church; Jesus Camp," about a summer camp for evangelical Christians, and "An Inconvenient Truth," about global warming. All I know is that on February 25, while watching the Academy Awards, my mind will be on Iraq and let’s hope Oscar’s is too. And the Oscar goes to……

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Iraq Calendar (1/23)

I just made my weekly update to the Iraq Calendar. The Calendar is a review of Washington, DC area events related to U.S. Iraq policy, a compilation of recent government and NGO reports and a source for transcripts, audio and video of past events. You can always find a link to the most up-to-date version of the calendar in the list of links in right sidebar of this blog.

Notable new upcoming events include:
01/26 USIP: “Iraq: Assessing Economic and Reconstruction Issues
01/30 Senate Judiciary Cmte. : "Exercising Congress’s Constitutional Power to End a War

Funding Directorates Instead

I apologize for the lack of posts yesterday. I spent the day in News Brunswick interviewing Professor Eric Davis for the EPIC Ground Truth Project. The published interview will focus primarily on the economic dimension of the conflict, examining how a bottom-up economic development strategy is essential for peace in Iraq. I also asked a few questions on Iraqi identity and democratization, the answers to which will be made available exclusively on this blog as soon as the tapes are transcribed. On to the post:
In the past I've discussed the problems plaguing efforts to train and equip Iraqi security forces; many lack resources to function on a basic level and misplaced loyalties abound. Each time corruption has played a central role. Recently, the London-based Arabic daily Azzaman published a story explaining that the Defense Ministry as a whole has become engulfed by corruption. A top official in the ministry is quoted as saying that Iraqi security forces are finding it impossible to get the weapons and vehicles needed. Nor can they get their wages. Thus corruption at the higher levels of the ministry is begetting further corruption at the lower levels, as Iraqi security forces pledge loyalty to militias or criminal syndicates which can provide for their families.

Unfortunately, corruption is not unique to the Defense Ministry. Most of the national ministries suffer from it, most notably the Ministry for Public Health which is controlled almost exclusively by Al Sadr's men. (You may remember the horror stories of Sunnis being killed by militiamen as they lay in their hospital beds.) And yet, despite their being notoriously corrupt, most foreign aid is channeled through these ministries where it stands little chance of being spent appropriately. What's the alternative? Well a better plan would be to send funds directly to Iraq's directorates which operate on a provincial level. These directorates are staffed mostly by small numbers of technocrats as opposed to the numerous bureaucrats of the national ministries and are less prone to corruption. These directorates would also be able to appropriate the funds in a way that would prioritize the specific needs of their province. It is certainly not going to solve all of Iraq's problems with corruption, but it is a step in the right direction. One that would take little effort on the part of the US and aid organizations. So why isn't anyone talking about this?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Equipping Iraqi Security Forces

President Bush's new strategy relies heavily on the ability of Iraqi security forces to work alongside US troops to weed out insurgents and secure Iraq's most volatile regions. I've already discussed some of the challenges the US faces in training these forces, namely a lack of Arabic-speaking U.S. troops and uncertainty over the loyalties of the security forces. Well today the Wall Street Journal has an article that discusses how well-equipped these forces are to conduct these operations. Short answer would be "not very."

Though the Iraqi and police were given vehicles ranging from Humvees to forklifts, they lack the resources to fix them should they suffer mechanical failure whether it be from normal use or an IED. So even as the number of trained Iraq forces grows, the number of vehicles they can use to secure Iraq has decreased.

However, the most crippling shortfall has to do with the supply of fuel. Currently, Iraqis rely entirely too much on US fuel supplies, so if for some reason US fuel is unable to reach an Iraqi base, that base will be crippled. Without gas for their vehicles, security forces simply cannot conduct the operations which the US will now be relying on more and more. The WSJ writes:
Concerned that an Iraqi military base had grown too dependent on U.S. supplies, American officials decided to test how it would cope if forced to rely on its own supply lines for fuel. The result: three days of intermittent blackouts.

U.S. troops finally rushed emergency fuel to turn the base's lights on and keep its vehicles moving. "The Iraqis were not stepping up," says Lt. Col. Kenneth Kirkpatrick, who supervises logistics at the Taji base on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital.
If the US does not begin addressing these issues immediately, it may find Iraqi security forces to be more of a burden than a benefit in its efforts to secure Iraq.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Iran's Diplomatic Overture

An interesting story on negotiations with Iraq has been making the rounds today and though the story itself first broke a while ago, I thought it would be good to review the story as quite few people (BBC news even!) missed it the first time round.

In the Spring of 2003, Iran sent the U.S. State Department a two-page fax outlining a proposal for a broad dialog between the two countries. The letter, a copy of which I've made available here, implied that everything was on the table, including full cooperation on nuclear programs, acceptance of Israel, termination of support to Palestinian militant groups and "coordination of Iranian influence for activity supporting political stabilization and the establishment of democratic institutions and a nonreligious government."

While State Department officials seriously considered the offer, ultimately the administration decided to reject it. The administration believed that the Iranian government weak and preferred a policy of regime change to diplomacy.

This was obviously quite the opportunity and such a promising overture from Iran is quite unlikely to be repeated today. The fax was sent after the capture of Baghdad when everything appeared to be going right in Iraq for the U.S. and Iran did not yet have a functioning nuclear program nor the level of oil revenues it enjoys today. As a member of the administration's "axis of evil," Iran was sincerely frightened by the prospect of facing a force that had in three weeks routed an army that Iran failed to defeat in 8 years.

Today, Iran has the upper-hand. As I mentioned in an earlier post: its influence in the region continues to grow, the majority population of Iraq (Shia) have a close connection with Iran giving it considerable power within Iraq, its nuclear enrichment program continues undeterred and its President is certain that the 12th Imam will soon return- "a certitude that leaves little room for compromise" as Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor explains.

Furthermore, as Trita Parsi, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explains, the incident "strengthened the hands of those in Iran who believe the only way to compel the United States to talk or deal with Iran is not by sending peace offers but by being a nuisance."

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"Iraq is now a democracy, there is no reason to flee"

Yesterday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the "Plight of Iraqi Refugees" was really quite unusual in that it actually had some teeth; the senators refused to sugar-coat anything, getting to the heart of the matter in each of their questions, and the witnesses responded in kind.

As might be expected the most fascinating testimonies came from two Iraqis who had worked with coalition forces in Iraq and have been granted asylum in the U.S. They each go into detail describing the threats they faced on a daily basis. Just one example from "John" whose identity was concealed for security purposes:
"I went to work delivering water to the Americans along with my son. At about 9 o'clock that mooring, we saw what appeared to be a road blockade ahead. Before we could realize what was happening, my son and I were dragged out of the cab of our truck. We were positioned face down on the side of the road by a group of terrorists."
I could not make out the identity of these men but they were heavily armed and were wearing green bandanas decorated with the three-stars from the Iraqi flag. They kept saying to me, "Don't work with the Americans," and one of them struck me in the face with the butt of his gun permanently damaging jaw. Another man twisted my son's arm so severely that he broke it. They knew my name and instructed me that this was a warning and that I would be killed if I continued assisting the Americans. After they made their threat they departed, leaving us bloodied on the side of the road. [full testimony]"
And the remarkable thing is, after the attack, John went on delivering water for the Americans. Thousands of Iraqis like John are risking their lives to help coalition forces and hundreds of thousands of others are threatened due to the conditions the U.S. has created in Iraq, so you would think that the least the U.S. can do is accept Iraq refugees. However, as Ellen Sauerbrey, the Assistant Secretary of State Population, Refugees and Migration, testified, only 466 Iraqis have been granted refuge in the U.S. Meanwhile Syria has an open border policy and has accepted hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, despite their being an enormous strain on its economy and with little assistance from the international community.

Why hasn't the U.S. accepted more refugees? After all, it can be argued that the U.S. is primarily responsible for the refugee crisis. Simply put, the U.S. administration has chosen to deny that there is such an ongoing crisis. This is what the U.S. government told Lisa Ramaci-Vincent when she tried to get an Iraq translator into America; "Iraq is now a democracy, there is no reason to flee." The administration believes, and perhaps rightly so, that acknowledging the refugee crisis would be tantamount to admitting failure in Iraq. Sean Garcia of Refugees International noted in his own conversations with State Dept. officials that:
many are reluctant to say, 'These are refugee flows, these are people fleeing the chaos.' Rather, they just acknowledge that people are leaving Iraq, but claim that they don’t know why.
Because Iraq is now a democracy, there is no reason to flee.

To read the testimonies of each witness including a very interesting statement on the international effort to address the crisis from Michel Gabaudan, Regional the Representative for the U.S. and Caribbean Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees go here.

All in all, I think Ken Bacon, the President of Refugees International sums it up pretty well: "While we don’t yet know how to stabilize Iraq, we do know how to protect and support refugees. We must start now."

Couple more links
* NPR has also recently began highlighting the refugee crisis with an interview with Sen. Kennedy, and a story on an Iraqi translator trying to leave the U.S.

* "As refugees flee Iraq, few gain sanctuary in U.S." in The International Herald Tribune

* "
Iraq's Hidden Refugee Crisis: An Interview with Sean Garcia" conducted by the Education for Peace in Iraq Center

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Webcast of Senate Hearing on Refugee Crisis

At 2pm Eastern time, the Senate Judiciary Committee will be webcasting their hearing on "The Plight of Iraqi Refugees." The panel was put together by Sen. Kennedy who should be commended for publicizing this oft-neglected issue. For background on the crisis, I suggest you read an interview with Advocate Sean Garcia of Refugees International.

Hopefully this hearing will get the administration to begin addressing the crisis; Bush fails to even acknowledge the crisis in his new Iraq plan nor does it appear in the weekly State Dept. reports on Iraq.

Witnesses are:
Ellen Sauerbrey, Assistant Secretary of State Population, Refugees and Migration;
Sami, Former Translator for the U.S. Military;
John, Former Truck Driver (subcontractor) for the U.S. Military;
Captain Zachary J. Iscol, Foreign Military Training Unit;
Lisa Ramaci-Vincent, Executive Director, Steven Vincent Foundation;
Ken Bacon, President, Refugees International;
Michel Gabaudan, Regional Representative for the U.S. and Caribbean, Office of the UNHCR.

Watch the webcast here:

Friday, January 12, 2007

Can Iraq Deliver? (funding)

To show that it is committed to delivering a better life, the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure projects that will create new jobs." - From President Bush's Jan. 10 address to the nation
How on earth can Bush pledge that the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion of its own money on anything? In 2006, the Iraqi government had a budget of $6 billion, but in the end was only able to spend 20% of that. In early December I referenced this article by the NYT which explained:
"The country is facing this national failure to spend even as American financial
support dwindles. Among reasons for the a strange new one: bureaucrats are so fearful and confused by anticorruption measures put in place by the American and Iraqi governments that they are afraid to sign off on contracts.

...the stringent measures they had favored to slow the rampant corruption may be
especially daunting for bureaucrats who have little experience with Western-style
regulations and oversight. Those officials say that Iraqis who have seen their
colleagues arrested and jailed in anticorruption sweeps are reluctant to put their own name on a contract."
Other factors include a high government turnover, security problems, actual corruption and a lack of Iraqis skilled at writing contracts and managing complex projects. I am sure that the Iraqi government is committed to delivering a better life for Iraqis, I'm just not sure that given the aforementioned issues, Bush can rely on these Iraqi billions.

Bush also declared:
"We endorse the Iraqi government's call to finalize an International Compact that will bring new economic assistance in exchange for greater economic reform."
But will the countries that make up this compact be willing to provide Iraq with significant funds without being sure if Iraq can even utilize them?

Beyond the Surge

Instead of focusing on Bush's plan to send 20,000 or so more troops to Iraq as pretty much everyone else seems to be doing, I'd like to discuss the economic and regional dimensions of his "new" strategy.

In his speech President Bush pledged to aid the Iraqi government in creating more jobs with longer term sustainable programs. In fact, the Pentagon has already begun making good on this pledge having refurbished tens of factories all over Iraq to ready them for operation at the hands of Iraqis. Unfortunately, Bush continues to stress the importance of Provincial Reconstruction Teams or PRTs which have been criticized by the U.S. government’s own agencies as being largely ineffective.

Instead of doubling the number of PRTs, as Bush intends to do, more funds and resources ought to be directed towards the Community Action Program (CAP). CAP works to develop Iraq’s economy from the bottom-up, by employing local Iraqis in community-based initiatives devised by the Iraqis themselves. CAP has operations all over Iraq, including in its more volatile regions and, according to the U.S. government’s own auditors, has a 98% success rate.

This is where the money needs to go, but sadly Bush seems content throwing money at the proven failures that have been the Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

Whether we like it or not, Iran and Syria are an inextricable part of the Iraqi conflict. Beyond the levels of influence they hold over the vast majority of Iraqis, the two countries, Syria and Iran have a real interest in ensuring that the Iraqi civil war does not escalate to the point of an all-out regional conflict. Both countries, Syria more so, have already began suffering from the conflict in their capacity as hosts to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees. Their economies are being hit hard by the sudden influx of Iraqis, and it is unclear whether they will continue to accept refugees. (For more on the refugee crisis, I suggest you read our interview with Refugees International advocate, Sean Garcia). The United States must at least talk to Iran and Syria in order to coordinate a strategy that will address the needs of these refugees. Of course the U.S. has yet to accept responsibility for the crisis, much less recognize it so...

Here is what Bush had to say about Iran and Syria:
"Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenges. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
The U.S. recently acted on this threat by storming an Iranian consular building in Iraq and detaining several employees. Fact of the matter is that regardless of whether the U.S. and Iran have a relationship at the state level, there are many low-level negotiations going between coalition forces and Iranians or at least those sympathetic to the Iranians. Acts such as this one will obviously jeopardize these much-needed negotiations.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Refugee Crisis and Iraq's Academics

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs just put out a brief report on the exodus of academics from Iraq.
"According to the Ministry of Higher Education, at least 280 academics have been killed since the US-led invasion in 2003 by insurgents and militias...The targeting of such academics is generating a mess in our country. The health and educational systems are depleted of good professionals. Nearly one third of those living in Iraq before 2003 have fled violence," said Dr. Mustafa Jaboury, a research investigator at the Ministry of Higher Education.

"Shi'ite militias and Sunni insurgents are killing intellectuals to ensure Iraq is poorly managed and poorly governed," Jaboury added...Experts have raised concerns saying that if professionals continue fleeing Iraq on a daily basis the country will be depleted of academics and the level of education in Iraq will drop drastically.

"By removing those groups [of people such as intellectuals], the insurgents are aiming to eliminate all support for a democratic society. And militias hope that by targeting academics Iraq will become theocratic like Iran," said Paul Colley, a London-based independent analyst.
For more on the refugee crisis, be sure to read EPIC's interview with Sean Garcia of Refugees International.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Iraq's Refugee Crisis

The Education for Peace in Iraq Center has just released an interview with Advocate Sean Garcia of Refugees International. EPIC talked with Mr. Garcia following his return from a month-long visit to Amman, Damascus and Beirut, where he witnessed the alarming challenges facing Iraqi refugees and their host nations with no relief in sight.

Despite the role that U.S. actions have played in creating the crisis, the Bush administration has failed to even acknowledge it as a serious humanitarian emergency. As recently as last week, the State Department’s weekly report on Iraq does not even include a line-item on emergency relief for displaced Iraqis.

Here is a brief excerpt. The complete interview can be found here.

"epic: How have Iraqi refugees been received by the governments and locals of neighboring countries?

Sean: It differs from country to country. In general, their reception by the locals in all three locations is still somewhat warm, but their welcome is quickly being worn out. For example we heard complaints from many Syrians about Iraqi refugees who are draining limited economic resources. They told us that they feel for Iraqi refugees and their difficult situation but they do not want any more to come. In Jordan, we found a similar level of sympathy, but they too complained about Iraqi refugees driving-up real estate prices and overwhelming the school systems. So the local populations are getting fed-up with the stresses that the refugees are putting on their economy.

At the government level we found varying responses. In Syria, Iraqi refugees are still welcome, but only for a limited time. The Syrian government lets people into the country but only grants three month visas. They are also scaling back the availability of free public services to Iraqi refugees. For example, in January 2005 the government said that it can no longer provide Iraqis with free healthcare, as it does for the entire Syrian population.

Jordan has gotten a lot more extreme. We have been hearing lately that the Jordanian government is increasingly closing its borders, and that men between the ages of 18-35 have been turned away due to terrorist concerns. Because the three hotel bombings in Amman in November 2005 were perpetrated by Iraqi citizens, Jordan has decided to eliminate worry by labeling Iraqi men between the ages of 18-35 as terrorists. This is a huge problem because we are finding that inside Iraq men between these ages are the greatest targets of violence..."

Monday, January 08, 2007

Making Private Contractors in Iraq Accountable

In the last few years many incidents involving criminally negligent private contractors have made headlines, yet in each instance the guilty parties are rarely, if ever, prosecuted or punished. In fact not one contractor in the entire military industry in Iraq has been charged with a crime in the past three and a half years. According to Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, as of a few weeks ago, this has all changed.

It seems that amidst all the add-ins and pork spending attached to the Pentagon's 2007 budget, a rather important, almost revolutionary clause was slipped in. Section 552 states that "Paragraph (10) of section 802(a) of title 10, United States Code (article 2(a) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice), is amended by striking ` and inserting `declared war or a contingency operation'.

Dr. Singer explains:
"The addition of five little words to a massive US legal code that fills entire shelves at law libraries wouldn't normally matter for much. But with this change, contractors' 'get out of jail free' card may have been torn to shreds. Previously, contractors would only fall under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, better known as the court martial system, if Congress declared war. This is something that has not happened in over 65 years and out of sorts with the most likely operations in the 21st century. The result is that whenever our military officers came across episodes of suspected contractor crimes in missions like Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, or Afghanistan, they had no tools to resolve them. As long as Congress had not formally declared war, civilians — even those working for the US armed forces, carrying out military missions in a conflict zone — fell outside their jurisdiction. The military's relationship with the contractor was, well, merely contractual...When such incidents happen, the officers [in charge] have had no recourse other than to file reports that are supposed to be sent on either to the local government or the US Department of Justice, neither of which had traditionally done much. The local government is often failed or too weak to act."
While this is certainly a good sign, it is still unclear as to how effective this new law will be. Will it apply to all ongoing contracts? Do "contractors" include civilians, such as journalists, who are embedded with troops but not contracted? Either way, just the fact that this clause is in the books is a considerable leap forward and should make some contractors think twice about their activities in Iraq.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Two Events in DC

FYI, for those of you in the D.C. area there are two very interesting events scheduled for this upcoming Monday (the 8th) :

USIP: Iraq: Assessing Military & Security Issues
Cliff May, MacArthur Research Professor, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College
Andrew Terrill, President, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies
Joseph P. Englehardt, Colonel, U.S. Army (retired)
Paul Hughes, Senior Iraq Program Officer, USIP.

CSIS: The Way Forward in Iraq
CSIS will bring together members of the prestigious House Armed Services Committee (HASC) to discuss their agenda for Iraq in the 110th Congress.
Participants are:
Representative Ike Skelton (D-MO), chair, HASC,
Representative Jim Marshall (D-GA), HASC,
Representative Jim Saxton (R-NJ), HASC
Representative "Mac" Thornberry (R-TX), HASC

follow the links for more info. Unfortunately both are scheduled for the same time. I'm still not sure which one I'm going to.

Soldier Stories (II)

The story of Alan King demonstrated the urgent need to train Iraqi police and soldiers, and this has in fact been listed as a top priority by both the Iraq Study Group and Vice President al-Hashimi, among others. But proponents of this recommendation generally only gloss over all the problems involved. The most obvious problem is that far too few U.S. soldiers speak Arabic. This communication barrier puts lives at risks. How can one rely on someone in a combat situation if the two are unable to communicate properly with one another? A shift away from combat operations to a more advisory role would require a three-fold increase in the number of Arabic-speaking U.S. soldiers- this alone could take years. And even if you manage to train and equip Iraqi soldiers there is still doubt as to whether these soldiers will be politically reliable.

Here is an excerpt from a story told by Joseph Hatcher of the 1st Infantry Division:
It's interesting when you work with the Iraqi army because they're sworn to defend Iraqis. They refuse to shoot at Iraqis or they've been seen shooting at Americans before. I don't feel comfortable around Iraqi soldiers. The inability to communicate makes me uncomfortable. We had a questionable incident involving some Iraqi Civil Defense Corps soldiers that were blown up by an AC-130 gunship. We had a raid go wrong and cars everywhere, drive-bys, just a complete fuckfest. Th egunship came in and lit up one of these cars, We pulled all the bodies out of the cars, and they were all fucking cops. We know for a fact they were shooting at us.
There are thousands of other U.S. soldiers with similar stories and the same misgivings about Iraqi armed forces. I believe that it is imperative that we retrain the Iraqi army and police as we were the ones that initially decimated them; I only worry how successful we will be under these conditions.

A few of you e-mailed asking about the book. You can find it on Amazon.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Soldier Stories (I)

I am mid-way through reading "What Was Asked of Us: An Oral History of the Iraq War by Those Who Fought It," and thought I would share a few stories that grabbed my attention. I'll break up these stories in several posts throughout the day.

It is certainly enlightening to hear some analyst make a pronouncement on our policy in Iraq, but the argument becomes more persuasive when put forth by someone who was there on the ground experiencing the ramifications of the policy firsthand.

Alan King was in the 422nd Civil Affairs Battalion responsible for the reconstruction of Iraq. As the U.S. had not devised any sort of post-conflict security or reconstruction plan, these Civil Affairs battalions were commanded to "come up with something [for Baghdad] in twenty-four hours." And they did.
"We needed people who could help run the government...We didn't know how to run the government, and we didn't have the troops on the ground to reestablish governmental functions and provide security too. Being a member of the ruling Baath Party is like being a member of any political party...We called Nazis back to work after World War II because they knew how to run the government. I told General Blount that first night, 'Sir, if we call them back to work, we'll at least know where the bad guys are.'...And for the first thirteen days our plan worked. We had ninety-seven hospitals that were up and operating; we had five thousand police officers back to work; we had fourteen hundred firemen back to work; the electricity had been turned back on.

...So people came back to work, and then ORHA showed up, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. One night I said, 'Look, here's what we've done in your section.' And the guy from ORHA said, 'We want you to stop. We want you to let everyone go.' I said, 'I don't understand. We're accomplishing things, and if you stop it, everything goes back to minus.' But they wanted to stop the ball we got rolling."
As King notes, the de-Baathification program was perhaps the greatest blow dealt to the reconstruction effort. Thousands of qualified Iraqis were forced from their jobs creating an enormous security vacuum and crippling the economy. The U.S. military would immediately feel the impact of disbanding the Iraqi army, as ex-soldiers became insurgents and militia men. As one shiekh commented during the battle of Falluja,
"You told five hundred thousand men who were trained to kill people and break things to become productive members in a society that had 70-plus percent unemployment, and I'd say they're being pretty productive right now."

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

An Iraqi's Take on the Execution

Riverbend has posted a new entry on her blog detailing her frustrations with the hanging of Saddam:
"It's outrageous- an execution during Eid. Muslims all over the world (with the exception of Iran) are outraged. Eid is a time of peace, of putting aside quarrels and anger- at least for the duration of Eid.

This does not bode well for the coming year. No one imagined the madmen would actually do it during a religious holiday. It is religiously unacceptable and before, it was constitutionally illegal. We thought we'd at least get a few days of peace and some time to enjoy the Eid holiday, which coincides with the New Year this year. We've spent the first two days of a holy holiday watching bits and pieces of a sordid lynching. America the savior.

After nearly four years and Bush's biggest achievement in Iraq has been a lynching. Bravo Americans.

2006 has definitely been representative of Maliki and his government- killings like never before and a lynching to end it properly. Death and destruction everywhere. I'm so tired of all of this…"
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