Sunday, June 24, 2007

Perspective: On This Day In Iraq -- June 24th edition

June 24, 2004: A soldier walks through an empty cell block at Abu Ghraib prison, two months following the '60 Minutes' report on abuses there. By September the facility would be turned over to the Iraqi government.

June 24, 2002:

Speak No Evil

Ariella Rosengard of the University of Pennsylvania didn't set out to scare anyone. She just wanted to investigate a little-understood part of the immune system by studying how viral proteins interact with it. At first, Rosengard worked with a common virus called vaccinia. But vaccinia rarely makes people sick, and she began to worry that it wouldn't tell her much about the human immune system. So she turned to a closely related, far more fearsome virus: smallpox.

Smallpox virus isn't easy to come by. Officially, it resides in only two places--secure labs in the United States and Russia--although some states like Iraq may have secret stores. But Rosengard didn't need the virus itself. Scientists have made its genetic code freely available on the Internet, giving her the data she needed to synthesize a key smallpox protein in the lab. Test-tube studies showed that it works far better than the corresponding vaccinia protein at blocking a key step in the human immune response. The discovery may help explain why smallpox kills, and it could lead to new treatments.

But when Rosengard published her report last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a slightly defensive commentary appeared with it. The article said it would be out of the question to use the work as a blueprint for making vaccinia more like smallpox. It acknowledged, however, that "the idea that bioterrorists might be tempted to attempt such an experiment has been suggested as a reason for considering it imprudent to publish observations of this nature."

The best defense. Rosengard, who does not even work with live viruses, rejects the idea that basic science like hers should be put under wraps. "Think how many brilliant minds would not be able to participate in finding a cure," she says. "My feeling is that you can't predict the mind of a madman. The best defense against any virus is understanding how it functions."

Most biologists would agree. But these days, they find themselves grappling with a dilemma, as their tradition of openness clashes with the fear that well-intentioned research could be misused to develop bioweapons. As much as scientists fear aiding their enemies, they get unnerved when government officials talk about restricting their freedom to publish. So researchers have started to take the initiative, with prestigious scientific societies debating ideas for self-regulation. The task won't be easy, and some critics question whether scientists really can police themselves. One thing's for sure--the problem won't just go away. If anything, it will get worse. The Bush administration has proposed a dramatic increase in funding for basic research on potential biowarfare agents. This means that many more scientists will study deadly germs, and they'll inevitably want to publish what they find.

Some researchers downplay fears that basic research on microbes could benefit weapons programs; nature, they say, has already provided plenty of perfect killers. To worry about, say, genetically altered smallpox is "to miss the point," says Andrew Ball, a molecular virologist at the University of Alabama. "The danger is out there, and it's the virus itself." But Ken Alibek, who helped run the former Soviet Union's huge biowarfare program, has called this point of view "naive." Weapons scientists would love to engineer bugs to spread more readily, to resist antibiotics and vaccines, and to exhibit new traits that might delay diagnosis, he says. Alibek has described how Soviet scientists transferred genes for nerve toxins into plague. In 1997, Russian scientists published an article showing how to engineer anthrax so that it could overcome a vaccine; the U.S. government reportedly wants to repeat this experiment. And Iraq is thought to have a genetic-engineering program, though its progress remains unknown.

Read at the rest at U.S. News and World Report

June 24, 2003:

Poll: Majority Backs Use of Force in Iran

Most Americans would support the United States taking military action to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons despite growing public concern about the mounting number of U.S. military casualties in the aftermath of the war with Iraq, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

President Bush last week said the rest of the world should join the United States in declaring that it "will not tolerate" nuclear weapons in Iran -- a vow that most Americans appear willing to back with force. By 56 percent to 38 percent, the public endorsed the use of the military to block Iran from developing nuclear arms.

Support for a military solution in Iran came despite rising concern about the growing number of casualties among U.S. military personnel in neighboring Iraq. About half said the current level of U.S. dead and wounded is "acceptable" -- down from two-thirds in early April.

The survey also found that support for the war with Iraq as well as for the way Bush is handling the situation in that country remains strong, but may be slowly ebbing.

Two in three -- 67 percent -- of those interviewed said they approve of the way Bush is dealing with Iraq. That's still a strong majority but down from 75 percent in late April, at the end of the conflict. Nearly as many -- 64 percent -- said the benefits of the war outweighed its cost, a drop from 70 percent in the late April survey.

Seven in 10 said they were concerned that the United States would become involved in a long and costly peacekeeping mission in Iraq, a figure unchanged in recent months.

The survey also suggests that the fog of war extended far beyond the Iraq battlefield. About one in four Americans incorrectly believes Iraq used chemical or biological weapons against U.S. forces during the conflict. Slightly more than six in 10 said Iraq had not, while the remainder weren't sure.

The national survey of 1,024 randomly selected adults conducted June 18-22 found that Bush's overall job approval rating remains strong. Nearly seven in 10 -- 68 percent -- approved of the job Bush was doing as president, down negligibly from April.

Read at the rest at the Washington Post

June 24, 2004:

Rarely used reservists may go to Iraq

A group of Army Reserve soldiers rarely tapped for duty could soon be heading to Iraq, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

The troops, part of the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), could be called to fill holes in units deploying to Iraq as part of the upcoming rotation of troops later this year.

As many as 6,500 IRR troops could be called and would be chosen because of critical skills needed in Iraq, such as Military Police, infantry or engineers, Pentagon officials said.

A decision by the Pentagon to call up these troops is expected within the next week, according to officials.

The Pentagon has a pool of about 118,000 Army IRR troops, consisting of people with past military service who have a remaining mandatory service obligation. The category is distinct from regular Reserve troops because they do not perform any military service during the year, yet are still eligible to be called to service.

About 2,000 IRR troops already serve at some capacity with Operation Iraqi Freedom, though many of them volunteered for service, according to Pentagon officials.

The last time a significant number of IRR troops were called to duty was for the Gulf War in 1991, according to Pentagon officials.

The move reflects the continued shortage of troops available to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to fight the ongoing war on terrorism as well as Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Lt. Gen. Frank Hagenbeck, the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel, said earlier this month of the Army's troop strength, "We are stretched but we have what we need."

Pentagon officials have echoed that statement explaining that while the military is reaching deep into its resources, war planners have long had contingency plans such as this for when troops are really needed.

Read at the rest at CNN

June 24, 2005:

Cheney: Iraq will be 'enormous success story'

Vice President Dick Cheney on Thursday defended his recent comment that the Iraqi insurgency was in its "last throes," insisting that progress being made in setting up a new Iraqi government and establishing democracy there will indeed end the violence -- eventually.

However, in an exclusive interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Cheney said he thinks there still will be "a lot of bloodshed" in the coming months, as the insurgents try to stop the move toward democracy in Iraq.

"If you look at what the dictionary says about throes, it can still be a violent period, the throes of a revolution," he said. "The point would be that the conflict will be intense, but it's intense because the terrorists understand that if we're successful at accomplishing our objective -- standing up a democracy in Iraq -- that that's a huge defeat for them.

"We will succeed in Iraq, just like we did in Afghanistan. We will stand up a new government under an Iraqi-drafted constitution. We will defeat that insurgency, and, in fact, it will be an enormous success story"...

Cheney compared the current situation in Iraq to the last months of World War II, when Germans launched a desperate offensive in the Battle of the Bulge and the Japanese offered stiff resistance on Okinawa.

He said the insurgents will "do everything they can to disrupt" the process of building an Iraqi government, "but I think we're strong enough to defeat them."

The vice president declined to put a timeline on when American forces might be able to leave Iraq.

Read at the rest at CNN

June 24, 2006:

Iraqi Muslims Put Faith in Praying Alone

In these new Friday mornings, Hussein Ali turns off the television. He asks his wife and five daughters to leave the room. He places a rug on the floor between two beds and a small refrigerator, faces southeast and, with deep regret, begins to pray in his bedroom.

Ali has left his mosque.

"God says, do not throw yourself into death," he said.

The attacks and suicide bombings that have ripped through hundreds of mosques and shrines across Iraq are affecting Muslims profoundly, causing some to abandon Friday group prayers in the mosques, one of the holiest Muslim rites. Prayer is one of Islam's five pillars, and the Koran encourages worshipers to pray in groups on Fridays.

Ali did not come lightly to his decision to stay home. For years, he said, he has had no more important appointment than Fridays at Baghdad's Baratha mosque, a revered Shiite shrine said to have been visited in the 7th century by Imam Ali, a cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad.

But after suicide bombers struck at Baratha in April, killing at least 70 people at Friday prayers, Ali's wife confronted him. "I told her I would go, but she said: 'Who will take care of us if you get blown up? You don't have a salary or a pension,' " recalled Ali, 46, who runs a small shop that sells cigarettes and candy out of his home in the al-Salaam neighborhood of northwest Baghdad.

Then authorities imposed midday Friday curfews in Baghdad, outlawing vehicle traffic. For a man with a heart condition, a one-mile walk to the mosque in 115 degree heat is no easy feat. And June 16, another bomber attacked Baratha, killing at least 11 worshipers.

"I hope God will understand that I am forced to do this," said Ali. "If I didn't have a family, I would have wished to be a martyr."

Baratha is now as much fortress as mosque. Concrete blast walls ring the compound, and machine gunners on turrets, metal detectors and a fleet of armed guards secure it. Jalaledin Saghir, the mosque's preacher and a member of Iraq's parliament, says that most of the thousands of weekly worshipers have refused to abandon their prayers, continuing to kneel side by side under the ceiling fans and chandeliers.

"We are in a battle against terrorism," he said. "The Shias proved after all of the attacks that they challenge terrorism, they don't surrender to fear."

The latest attacker at Baratha, who slipped in with C4 plastic explosive in his shoe and applied it to an explosive belt in the bathroom, made his way over the red prayer rugs to within about 10 yards of Saghir before blowing up, according to religious officials.

"I know that I am a target," Saghir said. "I am going to the mosque next Friday. And I believe there is going to be another explosion or a rocket attack, but I will not be scared."

Religious officials estimate Iraq has 4,700 Sunni mosques and more than 2,000 Shiite mosques, even though Shiites are the larger sect. The repression of Shiites under Saddam Hussein prevented their houses of worship from flourishing for many years, Shiite officials said.

Saleh al-Haideri, head of the Shiite Endowment, the government body that oversees Shiite mosques, said security in houses of worship deteriorated quickly not long after the U.S. invasion in 2003, when a respected ayatollah, Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim, was assassinated in a car bombing outside a Shiite shrine in Najaf.

"Then it went on in various forms," Haideri said, speaking in his living room in Baghdad. "Bombed cars, explosive belts, mortars, direct killing when people came out of mosques, continued threats not to enter houses of worship."

At a Shiite mosque in central Baghdad this week, Sheik Fadha Messam Salum al-Dafai said attendance has nevertheless remained steady.

"A person who comes to the mosque knows that he will be a martyr and be sent to God if he is killed while he is praying," he said, resting his folded hands on a cane while he sat in the mosque's courtyard. "The attacks have maybe increased the number of worshipers who come to mosques."

Other religious leaders, particularly Sunnis, report a striking downturn in attendance, especially since the destruction of the golden dome of a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February, which unleashed a torrent of sectarian bloodletting and reprisal attacks on mosques.

In the predominantly Shiite southern city of Basra, for example, nearly all of the Sunni mosques have closed to protest the killings of religious leaders, according to the Sunni Endowment. "The mosques were closed to save the lives of innocent people," said Khalid Hamdan, a member of the endowment. "The number of the attendants has not only decreased but almost vanished in Basra."

More than 100 Sunni mosques have shut down in Basra, said Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi, a spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, the largest organization representing Sunnis in Iraq. In Baghdad, Sunni authorities estimate that 45 have closed.

The attack on the Samarra shrine convinced Tariq Ismael, 62, that attending his al-Quds mosque in eastern Baghdad was no longer tenable. The retired government employee now prays in his living room under a picture of Mecca, his television tuned to a Friday prayer service.

"It is hard sometimes to concentrate, especially if we have guests at home or if my daughter brings over the grandchildren," he said.

Praying alone, he said, is a last resort, but a necessity in such violent times.

"Why would anyone attack a mosque? This is a house of God. Why don't they show respect for that?" he said. "I don't know whom to blame: Sunnis, Shiites, the government, the Americans, or is it just we Iraqis who have lost real faith?"

Read at the rest at the Washington Post