Iraq premier Nouri al-Maliki challenges restive provinces
By Dan Morse and Asaad Majeed, Published: December 24
BAGHDAD — Moving to consolidate his control over a country rocked by a political crisis and recent bombings, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed Saturday to block any efforts by the provinces to break away as independent states.
If the provinces tried to set up their own security policies or establish relations with other countries, Maliki said in a nationally televised speech from his headquarters, “What’s the reason for a having a ruler in Baghdad?”
The prime minister acknowledged that the Iraqi constitution allows provinces to establish a limited degree of autonomy, but he said that doesn’t mean he would allow the country to break into regions dominated by particular sects.
“The worst of this division is the smell of sectarian division,” Maliki said.
In recent weeks, officials in three Sunni-dominated provinces — Anbar, Diyala and Salahuddin — have indicated that they may pursue greater autonomy.
In Diyala, east of Baghdad, those signals prompted Shiite militiamen to surround the provincial council headquarters and set fires along main streets. As of Saturday, the protests had diminished, but 18 of the 29 Sunni members of Diyala’s provincial council were still taking refuge in the northern part of Diyala or in Kurdistan.
In Anbar, west of the capital, local leaders gave Maliki’s government until Wednesday to commit to improving services and stopping what they called random arrests. If the deadline is not met, they said, they will meet Thursday to discuss greater autonomy.
Even as he voiced concern over sectarian rifts, Maliki, a Shiite, criticized the performance of the power-sharing government established in Baghdad while U.S. troops were here. He said that the government — whose framework is designed to spread leadership posts among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds — isn’t getting anything done and that the constitution allows him to take more authority.
“Power-sharing cannot be the foundation of solving our problems,” he said.
The current political crisis erupted a week ago, when Maliki’s Shiite-controlled government announced an arrest warrant against the country’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, accusing him of enlisting his bodyguards to run a hit squad. Hashimi fled to the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan, prompting Maliki to demand that Kurdish officials return him.
Hashimi has since said that Maliki is impossible to work with, and fellow Sunni leader and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak recently labeled Maliki a “dictator.”
On Thursday, at least 17 bomb blasts ripped through Baghdad, killing 65 people. No group claimed responsibility.
“We have bad guys on both sides,” a veteran Iraqi official said Saturday, speaking on the condition of anonymity so he could talk candidly about the tense situation. “When one side feels threatened, they let these guys loose.”
Beyond that, he said, the political battles have grown so complicated that it is impossible to predict how things will play out. Other nations in the region are trying to exert influence, he said, and Iraq’s various Shiite groups are divided.
“Everyone should cool off, cool down. It’s not the time to go back” to the extreme sectarian violence of a few years ago, he said.
Although nothing like Thursday’s carnage, violence flared Saturday in several parts of the country. In Baghdad, gunmen killed two and injured three members of a family in the western neighborhood of Ghazaliyah; in Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad, a police officer was killed and his wife and daughter were injured when a bomb exploded under his car; and in the northern province of Kirkuk, two police officers were killed and several shops destroyed by two explosions.
Iraq agrees to U.N.-brokered deal on fate of Iranian exiles
By Joby Warrick, Monday, December 26, 9:32 AM
Iraq’s leaders agreed Sunday to a U.N.-brokered deal that could lead to the peaceful emigration of thousands of Iranian dissidents who have lived in the country under U.S. protection since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein eight years ago.
But the agreement, confirmed by Obama administration officials, has not yet been accepted by the Iranian exiles, who have repeatedly insisted on a U.S. troop presence to guard against possible attacks by Iraqis. Dozens of members of the dissident group, known as the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, have been killed by Iraqis since 2009 in assaults on the desert enclave where they have lived since being invited to Iraq by Hussein in 1986.
With the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq this month, American officials fear further bloodshed if the exiles — who are backed by numerous prominent political figures in the United States — refuse to accept the deal.
“There is mistrust, if not hatred, between the MEK and many Iraqis,” said a senior State Department official involved in negotiations over the group’s fate. “The question is, does the MEK take a deal that is less than perfect, or reject it and get nothing?”
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatically sensitive negotiations, said the accord would allow the Iranian exiles to move from their remote enclave, known as Camp Ashraf, to the grounds of Camp Liberty, the former U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport. They could then apply for emigration to other countries while under constant watch by unarmed U.N. observers. The official said the Obama administration would separately provide “robust” monitoring of the camp but would not deploy U.S. troops there, as the MEK has requested.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised the agreement, saying in a statement late Sunday that the United States “welcome[s] this important step toward a humane resolution to the ongoing situation at Ashraf. The UN effort has our full support.”
Shahin Ghobadi of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the MEK’s political wing, cautioned late Sunday that “we are . . . waiting to see the official document . . . [for] clarifications for the residents of Camp Ashraf. We hope that it would officially include the minimum assurances so that it would be acceptable to Ashraf residents.”
“Of course, in what has been published,” the MEK spokesman added, “the Secretary General’s Special Representative has underscored that in any event, this is a voluntary and not a forcible relocation. Ashraf residents had repeatedly emphasized that they would in no way accept forcible relocation.”
If accepted by the MEK, the deal could spell the end of a years-long standoff over the fate of the controversial group, which the State Department has officially listed as a terrorist group because of its alleged role in the slayings of six Americans in the 1970s. To many Iraqis, the MEK is a hated cult, forever tied to Hussein and his oppression. But many powerful politicians and security officials in Washington view the group’s members as freedom fighters who deserve continued U.S. protection.
U.S. and U.N. officials have been scrambling to resolve the fate of the estimated 3,400 residents of Camp Ashraf. But the officials say the MEK and its backers have complicated matters by insisting on U.S. protection. The possibility that American troops would be ordered back into Iraq to guard the dissidents is remote, at best, said a second senior State Department official involved in the talks.
“It’s not going to happen,” said the official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Lobbying campaign in U.S.
The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which has sought for years to disband the dissident group, decreed this year that the MEK must vacate the camp by Dec. 31.
But after two turbulent years in which dozens of Ashraf residents have been killed in clashes with Iraqi security forces, the MEK insists that it will leave only on its terms, with Iraqi police kept far away and U.S. troops present to provide security. To argue its case, the dissidents turned to their powerful allies in the United States — a who’s-who list of political and security figures that have served both Republican and Democratic administrations.
A lobbying campaign launched on the MEK’s behalf has included advertisements in newspapers and on the sides of Metro buses in Washington. On Oct. 16, an “open letter” to the Obama administration appeared in newspapers bearing the names of 14 politicians and security officials, including Republicans such as former homeland security secretary Tom Ridge and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, as well as former Democratic governors Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania and Howard Dean of Vermont.
“We call on you to provide U.S. troops to protect the [U.N.] monitors and the residents,” the letter stated.
Some of these officials have previously appeared on panels sponsored by MEK-affiliated organizations, often for speaking fees in the tens of thousands of dollars. At the events and in broadcast interviews, the MEK’s backers have urged U.S. support for Camp Ashraf’s residents as fierce opponents of the Islamic clerics who rule Iran. The MEK does not disclose its funding sources, but members say much of the money comes from Iranian nationals living in the West.
A checkered history
The MEK’s critics are equally forceful. The State Department’s decision to designate the group as terrorists stemmed from a string of attacks in the 1970s, when the MEK established itself as an Islamic-Marxist group that opposed the U.S.-backed rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. After the shah was overthrown, U.S. officials say, MEK leaders supported the taking of American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Later, the group split with Iran’s emerging Islamic rulers and went into exile. MEK spokesmen attribute the six American deaths to a splinter group.
The MEK was given sanctuary by Hussein and used Iraq as a platform for plotting attacks against the Iranian government. U.S. officials have asserted in documents that the opposition group — armed and equipped by Hussein — supported the Iraqi dictator in his repression of opponents, including the country’s Shiite and Kurdish populations.
After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the group gave up its weapons and received active American military protection until 2009.
Outside investigators have repeatedly accused the group of human rights abuses against its own members and recruits, including deceptive recruiting practices and repressive policies that in the past included mandatory divorce for married couples as well as beatings and torture.
“We cannot rule out the possibility that there may be some people still being held in the camp unwillingly,” said Bill Frelick, refugee program director for Human Rights Watch.
MEK officials have denied the abuse reports as a fiction perpetuated by enemies. A spokesman for the group said last week that it was the Iraqi government that has committed abuses, including a “harsh, all-around siege on Ashraf” imposed “on strict demands from the Iranian regime.”
Suicide bomber kills at least 5 in Baghdad
By Dan Morse, Monday, December 26, 6:18 PM
BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber blew up his car Monday outside the main gate of Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, which operates the country’s domestic security forces, killing at least five people and injuring at least 39, according to government officials.
One of those killed was a police officer and 14 of the injured were police officers.
The rush-hour attack follows a wave of bombings here on Thursday and an ongoing political crises.
Two police officers told the Associated Press that the attacker hit one of the many security barriers set up around the ministry building.
The AP, citing two doctors at a nearby hospital, reported that seven people, including five police officers, were killed in the attack.
DECEMBER 27, 2011.
Iraq Crisis Grows With New Threat
By SAM DAGHER
BAGHDAD—Iraq's political crisis entered its second week one step closer to the potential dissolution of the government, with a call for elections by a vital coalition partner and a suicide attack that extended the spate of violence that has followed the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—already battling to sustain his Shiite Muslim-dominated government in a standoff with Sunni coalition partners—faced a new threat on Monday as the party loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for the dissolution of Parliament and new polls.
At the center of the crisis are efforts by Sunni-dominated provinces to seek greater autonomy from the central government controlled by Mr. Maliki. Bahaa al-Aaraji, the head of the Sadrist movement's bloc in Parliament, said elections are needed because "present partners [in government] can't come up with solutions in addition to the threat of Iraq's partition."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki
But Mr. Aaraji said the proposal needed to be discussed further with the movement's Shiite partners, including Mr. Maliki, suggesting that his bloc might not push further.
Mr. Maliki has denounced the autonomy moves as attempts by his opponents to fatally weaken the central government. In recent days, he has sought to head off the Sunni efforts by trying to persuade members of Iraqiya, the Sunni bloc in his coalition, to break away from their bloc, according to representatives of both sides in the discussions. Mr. Maliki has offered several Iraqiya parliamentarians promises of ministerial posts and other inducements to split from the bloc, according to the representatives.
The stakes in the dispute were highlighted on Monday when a suicide car bombing near Interior Ministry headquarters killed five people and wounded at least 39, following a barrage of attacks across the capital on Thursday that killed 60 people and served as a reminder of Iraq's past sectarian warfare.
The political crisis came to a head last week when the government judiciary accused a Sunni Arab leader, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, of organizing assassination squads targeting Shiite figures. Mr. Hashemi, who denies the accusations, fled to the north of Iraq, where he is being protected by the leadership of the Kurds who control the area.
Mr. Hashemi had backed efforts by the leaderships of two provinces, Salahuddin and Diyala, to set up semiautonomous regions, a process authorized by Iraq's constitution and exemplified by the relative peace and prosperity of the Kurdish region. A third Sunni-dominated province, Anbar, has threatened to move toward semiautonomy next week.
In the past few days, Iraqi politicians have held a series of meetings in Baghdad and the Kurdistan region to try to prevent the unraveling of the political system.
One proposal discussed, according to politicians familiar with the talks, was to transfer control of the investigation of Mr. Hashemi to the Kurdish region, which has its own government, judiciary and armed forces. The Kurds, who are predominantly Sunni Muslims but ethnically distinct from the Sunni and Shiite Arabs to the south, have at times mediated between Sunni and Shiite Arab communities.
At the urging of U.S. officials, the two main Kurdish leaders, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, have spent the past several days trying to convene a meeting of feuding political factions.
Mr. Hashemi's Iraqiya faction—a pillar of the coalition government in Baghdad despite its disputes with Mr. Maliki—has continued a boycott of cabinet meetings and parliament sessions that began almost 10 days ago.
The boycott was called to protest what Iraqiya leaders decry as increasingly authoritarian moves by Mr. Maliki. They are particularly angry at his efforts to quash the recent push by Sunni provinces for more autonomy from Baghdad.
"Respect your partners or you will be swept away by the Arab Spring and become a thing of the past," said Finance Minister Rafie al-Issawi, one of the boycotting Iraqiya ministers, criticizing Mr. Maliki in a news conference on Sunday in Salahuddin, the first Sunni-dominated province to declare its bid for semiautonomy in October.
Yet several Iraqiya ministers have declined to join the boycott, while others haven't declared that their absence is in protest of the government.
Mr. Maliki, apparently attempting to drive a wedge between the harder- and softer-line ministers, has vowed to fire most of those who don't attend meetings in the coming days.
Mr. Maliki has also redoubled efforts to head off provincial semiautonomy plans. In some areas, he has worked closely with tribal figures opposed to the moves.
Mr. Maliki met with a delegation of the Jubour, one of the main tribes in Salahuddin, over the weekend. They promised to push against rival tribes spearheading autonomy if Mr. Maliki fulfills a list of demands, including more jobs for Sunnis in the security forces and an end to what they regard as the marginalization and indiscriminate arrest of people suspected of ties to Saddam Hussein's banned Baath Party, according to people familiar with the meeting.
—Ali A. Nabhan and Munaf Ammar contributed to this article.
Write to Sam Dagher at firstname.lastname@example.org
Al-Qaeda-allied group claims responsibility for Baghdad bombings
By Dan Morse, Tuesday, December 27, 7:00 PM
BAGHDAD — An al-Qaeda-affiliated group has claimed responsibility for a wave of bombings in Baghdad last week that killed at least 65, calling it the “Thursday Invasion” and saying it “knows where and when to strike.”
The group, the Islamic State of Iraq, issued a communiqué on jihadist forums Monday, providing details about one of the attacks, a suicide car bombing that targeted an anti-corruption agency headquarters, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, a jihadist monitoring service. The group did not mention the U.S. invasion, but instead said it was acting against what it called Iraq’s Shiite-controlled government.
“One of the heroes of the Sunnis was able to penetrate through the strong security barricades surrounding this headquarters in the al-Karrada neighborhood,” the communiqué said, calling the headquarters a “despicable den.”
Soon after the bombings, which also injured more than 200, terrorism analysts said they had the hallmark of al-Qaeda’s coordinated attacks. The analysts said al-Qaeda likely is trying to widen a divide between Sunnis and Shiites, particularly now that a bitter political feud has erupted between leaders of the two groups.
Several days before the bombings, Iraq’s Shiite-controlled government accused one of the country’s two vice presidents, a Sunni, of enlisting his body guards to run a hit squad. The vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, fled Baghdad to the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has demanded the Kurds hand him over.
Sadr followers call for new elections in Iraq
By Dan Morse, Published: December 26
BAGHDAD — A group of Iraqi lawmakers linked to anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called Monday for the dissolution of their country’s parliament and said elections should be held within six months.
The move signals a growing rift between Sadr and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — both leading Shiites — and underscores the political uncertainty that has swirled around Baghdad since the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq more than a week ago.
Just a day after the formal end of the nearly nine-year U.S. effort here, Maliki’s domestic security forces accused Tariq al-Hashimi, the country’s Sunni vice president, of running a hit squad, prompting him to flee the capital. The political crisis here had been playing out mostly along Shiite-Sunni lines, but Monday’s move by the Sadrists marks the first crack in Maliki’s Shiite coalition since the troop pullout.
The political maneuvering came as Baghdad was again rocked by violence. On Monday, a suicide bomber blew up his car outside the main gate of Iraq’s Interior Ministry — a compound that houses the domestic security forces — killing at least five people and injuring at least 39, according to government officials.
At least one of those killed and 14 of the injured were police officers. The attack followed a wave of bombings here Thursday.
Vali Nasr, a Tufts University professor, Iraq expert and author of “The Shia Revival,” said by
e-mail that the events are conspiring to form “a complicated mix of inter-Shia bickering and escalation of Shia-Sunni fighting.”
In calling for a new parliament, Baha al-Araji, head of the Sadrist Trend political bloc, said the government is not addressing basic needs in the country. But others here said the dissolution of parliament was a long shot and dismissed the Sadrists’ move as simplyan attempt to draw attention to themselves amid the political turmoil.
Omar al-Mashhadani, a political analyst in Baghdad who has worked for the Sunni-supported Iraqiya political bloc, said the Sadrists don’t really think they can dissolve the parliament — and they know it would take at least a year to pull off new elections. “It’s just lip service,” he said Monday.
The Sadrists are simply trying to distance themselves from Maliki and cast themselves as problem solvers, Mashhadani said. “They are trying to put the focus on themselves.”
Sadr remains a popular figure among Iraqi Shiites and for years championed the U.S. departure from Iraq. On Sunday, he listed 10 problems with the ongoing feud between the prime minister and Hashimi. Number six was that it could “lead to forgetting about the people and their suffering.”
Separately, in Najaf, a radical group long accused by the United States of attacking U.S. forces said it would join the political process — and possibly run candidates for parliament.
“The political process is a limp one, and it doesn’t give enough to the Iraqis,” said Qais al-Khazali, a leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
The United States has said the group received training, money and weapons from Iran. It became a top concern for U.S. officials in January 2007 after they accused it of killing five American soldiers based at a government building in the southern city of Karbala. The group used armor-piercing roadside bombs and powerful rockets to attack U.S. troops.
All the political maneuvering could help Maliki strengthen his hand, one analyst said. “I predict that Maliki might come out of this conflict more authoritarian than ever,” said Babak Rahimi, assistant professor of Iranian and Islamic studies at the University of California at San Diego. “Just like 2008, he will again focus on themes of law and security and try to crush or marginalize his rivals.”
Special correspondents Aziz Alwan and Asaad Majeed contributed to this report.
War Goes on as Contractors Stay Behind
December 27, 2011
Houston Chronicle|by Lindsay Wise
The final convoy of U.S. troops in Iraq drove over the border to Kuwait this month, whooping and cheering, as America declared an end to the war. Remaining behind, however, are thousands of civilian contractors, about half of them armed.
State Department officials have said they expect that 5,000 security contractors will be needed in Iraq in 2012 to protect U.S. diplomats. A "life support" team of an additional 4,500 contractors will cook, clean and provide transportation and other services.
Their continued presence in Iraq -- as well as in Afghanistan, where there is almost one contractor for every service member -- demonstrates how much the U.S. government has come to rely on private companies to provide "war services" abroad.
In Afghanistan, 105,000 U.S. troops are supported by about 101,000 civilian contractors.
Only 23,000 of those contractors are U.S. citizens. About 50,000 are Afghans and 27,900 come from other countries.
Waste and fraud
The reality is that the U.S. can no longer conduct large or sustained military operations or respond to major disasters without heavy support from contractors, according to a report released in August by the congressionally chartered Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The report revealed that at least $31 billion -- and possibly as much as $60 billion -- has been lost to contract waste and fraud. It concluded that the government was over-relying on contractors, and that major reforms were needed.
"The U.S. military can't move, fight or sustain itself without contractor support today," said Steven Schooner, a law professor at George Washington University who has studied contractor fatalities.
The dependence on contractors also means that the American public underestimates the human cost of war, Schooner said.
At least 2,871 contractors have been killed and more than 74,000 injured overseas since 2001, according to U.S. Labor Department data.
Pentagon reports show 6,318 troops died during the same time period.
Houston-based KBR, once the largest U.S. contractor in Iraq, declined to comment for this article and refused to disclose the number of KBR employees killed and injured in both wars.
Almost four years ago, KBR told the Houston Chronicle that 97 KBR workers had died in Iraq.
The Labor Department data shows no deaths for KBR, or for Halliburton, KBR's former parent company. But it does list 127 deaths and about 29,000 injuries of workers for Service Employees International Inc., a KBR subsidiary that's located in the Cayman Islands to avoid paying federal taxes.
The Labor Department's statistics are based on the number of insurance claims filed with the Labor Department's Division of Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation. Workers who do not seek compensation are not counted, so the data likely under-reports the number of civilian contractors killed and injured.
"Most people seem to agree that the numbers are significantly low," Schooner said. "Nobody knows how many deaths haven't been reported to the Labor Department."
Schooner questioned whether Americans would be as complacent about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan if contractor deaths were added to the official casualty figures. Doing so would bring the death toll closer to 10,000.
"Historically, the more we believe in what we're fighting for, the more willing we are to tolerate sacrifice. But what the data shows is that in the modern era after World War II, as troop fatalities rise, the public's willingness to continue fighting abroad drops," Schooner said.
More contractors than troops died in Iraq the last couple of years, yet their deaths went largely unnoticed, Schooner said.
"Congress and the president have basically refused on Veterans Day and Memorial Day to mention contractor deaths," he said. "I find that repugnant. If in a single generation we now know as a matter of fact that the United States government has outsourced much of the battlefield work -- and more importantly, the ultimate sacrifice -- to not acknowledge that to the public seems irresponsible."
The U.S. government became reliant on contractors after the Defense Department cut logistics and support units within the military in the 1990s.
Defense contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan now do work military personnel used to do. They dodge ambushes on bomb-riddled highways to deliver military supplies. They translate, launder uniforms, cook meals, fly aircraft, deliver mail, dispose of trash, provide security, and build U.S. bases from the ground up. As the Labor Department figures testify, it's a risky job.
KBR employee Carolyn Edwards, 38, of Montezuma, Ga., was working as a coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in 2007 when she was killed by shrapnel from a rocket strike. She left behind a teenage son, Darius.
"It's still a burden," said her aunt, Queen Minter. "It's still very painful, very painful to even talk about."
Minter said her niece never spoke much about the dangers she faced in Iraq.
"When we asked her questions about over there, she said she thought she was in a perfectly safe place and that nothing would happen like that, and lo and behold," Minter said.
KBR returned Edwards' body for burial in her native Georgia and presented her mother with a plaque at a ceremony in Houston, she said.
"It was for her braveness, you know, being over there," Minter said.
Minter wishes more Americans were aware of the grim toll on civilian contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. "They don't know," she said.
Truck drivers targeted
Contractor casualties are a hidden cost of war, said Gary Pitts, a Houston attorney who represents contractor employees working with troops.
Few Americans realize there is almost one contractor overseas for every deployed service member, Pitts said.
At times, the number of contractors actually has exceeded the number of troops in the war zone. Between September 2007 and June 2010, for example, contractors outnumbered troops in Afghanistan by as many as 41,000, based on quarterly "boots on the ground" census reports to Congress.
"What we have is a very long guerrilla war where the supply lines are a prime target. So we have the anomaly that a lot of the truck drivers, for example, have seen a lot more combat than soldiers that are assigned to the Green Zone," Pitts said.
"The most frequent client that I've had since the beginning of the war has been a truck driver hit by a roadside bomb, so they are soldiers in a sense," he said. "I mean, the enemy perceives them as soldiers and they've gone through basically everything that our soldiers have, except they don't have rank on their sleeves."
Every death is tragic, but no one should conflate the sacrifices of civilian contractors with those of military personnel, said Carson George, a Houston resident who was working for KBR in Iraq when he lost his Marine son, Phillip, in Afghanistan in 2005.
"I think they need to be recognized, but you would never want to confuse it, or try to put it on the same level as our soldiers," George said. "You simply can't do that and I don't think contractors would want that to happen. But to honor them and recognize what they gave to the war effort and to our soldiers, yeah, I think so."
(c)2011 the Houston Chronicle
© Copyright 2011 Houston Chronicle. All rights reserved
Hundreds of Iraqis Cheer Departure of US Forces
December 30, 2011
Associated Press|by Bushra Juhi
What a bunch of muppets! You got your arse handed to you, you have millions of Shiites eager to hand what's left of of your arse to you, yet its the "Occupiers" fault........
BAGHDAD - Hundreds of Sunni Muslims gathered in Baghdad Friday to celebrate the withdrawal of American forces, but in a sign of the sectarian divisions that re-emerged immediately after their departure, Shiite Muslims did not join the event.
The celebration took place near the Abu Hanifa mosque, the main house of worship in the primarily Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah in northern Baghdad. To secure the event, Iraqi troops blocked traffic on roads leading to the mosque and searched people approaching the area.
During the rally, men and children waved Iraqi flags and raised banners praising those who resisted the U.S. presence in Iraq.
"Baghdad is the castle of resistance," one banner read. "The deeds of the heroes are stronger than the weapons of the occupiers," read another banner. Women threw chocolates to the crowd as a sign of joy.
In his sermon, the mosque's preacher, Sheik Ahmed al-Taha, accused the Americans of stirring up sectarian tension among Iraqis.
"The occupiers created the sectarian conflict as an exit from the quagmire they found themselves in when they were facing 200 military operations against them every day. By dividing Iraqis, the Americans made Iraqis attack each other instead of attacking them," al-Taha told worshippers.
The preacher also called on the government to demand compensation from the Americans for the loss of lives and damage caused during the occupation.
The lingering sectarian divisions Iraq faces was clear during the prayer service and rally, which was almost entirely Sunni. Shiites had been invited to join the celebration but did not show up.
Shiites have even given the departure of the U.S. forces a different name than the Sunnis have. Sunnis generally call it the "evacuation day," whereas Shiites often refer to it as the "fulfillment day" as a way to show that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who leads a Shiite-dominated government, fulfilled his promise to get all the troops out of the country.
Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites have deepened since al-Maliki's government issued an arrest warrant for the country's top Sunni politician. The government is also trying to push out another member of his government, leaving many Sunnis to question whether they will ever have a place in the Iraqi power structure.
In spite of the problems, some Sunnis were optimistic.
Omar Abdul-Aziz, 28, said the sectarian conflicts Iraq experienced just a few years ago "won't be repeated because Iraqis now understand that sectarianism was planned by the occupiers."
© Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Will Obama Pay if Iraq Spirals?
December 30, 2011
Fears that Iraq will spiral into instability and slip under Iran's sway may foreshadow an election year row over President Barack Obama's core political achievement: ending the war.
Obama, currently on vacation in Hawaii, built his political career on early opposition to the 2003 US invasion, capturing a public mood which helped propel him to the White House five years later.
So when he brought the last US soldiers home this month, he touted a promise kept in extricating the United States from what critics see as a grand folly.
But long-time war supporters have questioned whether rising sectarianism and instability bubbling up after the US exit could undercut Obama's hopes to use the withdrawal as proof of sound national security judgment.
"The question of the moment is not: 'Who lost Iraq? but rather, Is Iraq definitely lost?" wrote Frederick and Kimberly Kagan in the Weekly Standard.
"It certainly seems so."
Frederick Kagan was an architect of the surge strategy enacted by president George W. Bush which, if it did not provide the United States "victory" in Iraq, allowed US troops to leave without the stigma of defeat.
Obama argued that American sacrifices forged an Iraq that was "sovereign, stable, and self-reliant."
But recent violent attacks, signs of revived sectarianism, a fragile governing coalition and fears of growing authoritarianism on the part of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have challenged that view.
In a New York Times op-ed Thursday, leading members of the Iraqiya bloc accused Maliki of hounding Sunni opponents.
"The prize, for which so many American soldiers believed they were fighting, was a functioning democratic and nonsectarian state," they wrote.
"But Iraq is now moving in the opposite direction -- toward a sectarian autocracy that carries with it the threat of devastating civil war."
So if Iraq tips into the mire, will Obama's eventual Republican opponent in next November's election have reason to bash his commander-in-chief spurs?
Or will Americans credit their president with getting American troops out of the deepening maelstrom and out of harm's way?
Republican hawks imply Obama has squandered the legacy of the nearly 4,500 US troops who fell in the Iraq war.
"All of the progress that both Iraqis and Americans have made, at such painful and substantial cost, has now been put at greater risk," Republican Senator John McCain said in December.
Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney attacked Obama in a recent interview with Fox News Sunday, saying that the withdrawal was "precipitous" and that up to 30,000 US troops should have been left behind.
Top Obama administration officials dismiss the idea that a residual US force would have increased US leverage in Iraqi politics.
And Marina Ottaway, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the view that troops equals influence was false.
"Even at the height of the surge, when we had more than 140,000 US troops in Iraq, the US was never able to force or convince the Iraqi politicians to do things that they didn't want to do," she said.
The Obama administration notes that it took months for Iraqi leaders to form a coalition after 2010 elections, so political dislocation is nothing new.
And they argue that attacks in Iraq -- like the blasts that killed more than 65 people last week -- were a common occurrence even when large numbers of US troops were there, so cannot be pinned on the US departure.
Even if Iraq does badly deteriorate, it is unclear whether Americans will blame for the legacy of a war that was so politically divisive.
And even hawks do not advocate sending US troops back into Iraq.
"The only real issue that people care about is the economy," said Ottaway.
"Americans have long since put the Iraq war behind them. Nobody wants to hear about it."
In a Zogby poll in September, 74 percent of Americans asked said the US withdrawal was a positive development, compared to 13 percent who disagreed, suggesting that for now at least, Obama is on solid political ground.
Duke University professor Peter Feaver, a veteran of the Clinton and George W. Bush National Security Councils, acknowledged there is no longer intense public debate on the Iraq war.
But he argued Obama could have exploited the low wattage of the issue to sell a continued US presence, had US lawyers thrashed out a deal to keep some forces in Iraq to promote stability and train local forces.
"He took the course that had the most political payoff for him ... but paradoxically, I would argue that it has the most risk," said Feaver.
He went on to warn that a swift Iraqi deterioration could haunt Obama in the election year or in any eventual second term.
© Copyright 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.
Texas Guardsmen Warn of Iranian Influence in Iraq
January 04, 2012
Military.com|by Michael Hoffman
Military analysts and Middle East experts have spent years warning about the growing influence of Iran in Iraq. A group of Texas National Guardsmen watched it firsthand.
As one of the last U.S. units to deploy to Iraq, the Texas Army Guardsmen told congressional lawmakers in late November the Iraqi army still struggles to disseminate intelligence and manage logistics, leaving their soldiers vulnerable to outside influence. Iraqi soldiers spend weeks by themselves, without supplies or relief, on posts dispersed across the Iran-Iraq border.
“The malign influence that exists there now will probably continue to be there after the U.S. military leaves,” said Army Maj. Gen. Eddy Spurglin, head of the 36th Infantry Division, who headed the Texas Guardsmen that returned this summer.
Spurgin and his soldiers didn’t witness the kinds of brash power plays that Iran’s military leadership has made in the past two weeks -- naval exercises near the Strait of Hormuz, and warning that a U.S. aircraft carrier must never return to the Persian Gulf.
Iran has threatened to close the Strait in the past, and Pentagon officials vowed again Tuesday that U.S. Navy warships will continue their deployments. But this year, for the first time since 2003, the U.S. no longer has soldiers on the ground in Iraq to stem Iran’s influence there.
With the Iranian-backed Shia Dawa party controlling much of Baghdad and southern Iraq, Spurgin’s unit of 700 Guardsmen witnessed the small pieces of economic and political influence affecting the Iraqi government and army.
For example, Army Brig. Gen. William Smith, 36th Infantry’s deputy commander, said he worried the Iraqi army’s shaky logistics system would open up doors for Iranian agents to gain favor inside army operations.
Iraq’s supply chain still works on a paper system that depends on approvals from officers as senior as generals for supplies as basic as tires. That’s in addition to the reality that Iraq has no system in place to deliver supplies to units in the field from the country’s only depots, located at Taji.
So if an Iraqi army unit needs tires for Humvees in Basrah, for example, that unit must travel all the way to Taji to pick them up. Of course, it’s rare for a unit commander to approve such a trip because it shows he’s failed as a leader if his unit needs new tires, Smith explained.
“It’s part of the military culture we’re trying to change over there,” he said.
If soldiers can’t depend on their army to supply them, they must look elsewhere. In many cases, they turn to supplies smuggled over the Iran border.
Those smuggling efforts included the ingredients to build improvised explosive devices. Iran’s special operations unit, known as the Quds Force, trained many of the Iraq militia members who execute the smuggling operations inside Iraq, Spurgin said.
The Texas soldiers didn’t focus solely on advanced military operations out of Iran. In a briefing to a Texas congressional delegation on Capitol Hill, the Guardsmen explained how something as simple as groceries allows Iran’s government to gain power in Iraq.
Iran is flooding Iraq’s markets with goods at much cheaper prices than other imports, leading other countries’ suppliers, in places such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, to not bother to sell in Iraq. Those supplies allow Iran to control southern Iraq’s markets and thus its stomachs.
“It really means more than you might think,” Smith told Republican Rep. Mike Conaway, a member of the Armed Services Committee. “It’s really going to be a big problem for them in the future.”
The Iraqi army also continues to struggle to set up its intelligence network, Spurgin said. The soldiers don’t have an effective, decentralized system to spread information securely and efficiently across the country.
When asked by Conaway if the Iraqis could protect their borders from an external threat such as Iran, he bluntly said no. Spurgin told the congressman the Iraqis could not defend against an invading force.
“Operationally, the Iraqi Army has the ability to provide internal security of their own country, but they’re not ready to defend their country from an external threat,” Spurgin said.
© Copyright 2012 Military.com. All rights reserved.