Thursday, July 26, 2007

Perspective: On This Day In Iraq -- July 26th edition

July 26, 2004: Iraqi children play in a new park opened in the Al Sadiya neighborhood of Baghdad.

July 26, 2002:

Iraq seeks steel used to make nukes

Iraq's government is trying to buy special equipment used in producing fuel for nuclear weapons, The Washington Times has learned.

Procurement agents from Iraq's covert nuclear-arms program were detected as they tried to purchase stainless-steel tubing, uniquely used in gas centrifuges and a key component in making the material for nuclear bombs, from an unknown supplier, said administration officials familiar with intelligence reports.

U.S. intelligence agencies believe the tubing is an essential component of Iraq's plans to enrich radioactive uranium to the point where it could be used to fashion a nuclear bomb.

Efforts by Iraq to build nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and missiles are a key reason that the Bush administration has called for the overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The covert nuclear-acquisition effort was detected in mid-June, and reports about the activities were then circulated to senior Bush administration policy officials.

"This is only one sign that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear-weapons program," one official said. Officials say other evidence exists that Iraq is rebuilding its nuclear program, which was to have been dismantled under U.N. sanctions imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

Earlier this year, Turkish military intelligence informed the Pentagon that Iraq was believed to have at least one nuclear device. Officials said the report could not be confirmed.

A senior Bush administration official said intelligence reports of the efforts by Iraq to purchase stainless-steel tubing were a troubling sign. "We know they are trying to obtain this material but so far have not been successful," the official said.

A CIA spokesman declined to comment. Intelligence reports in recent months have stated that Iraq also is building up its chemical and biological weapons arsenal, the officials said. Iraq's missile program also is continuing within U.N. guidelines.

Read the rest from the Washington Times

July 26, 2003:

Cleric Steps Up Anti-Occupation Rhetoric

A militant Shiite Muslim cleric escalated his campaign against the U.S. occupation today, urging tens of thousands of followers to expel American soldiers from the holy city of Najaf and demanding the dissolution of Iraq's Governing Council, a U.S.-appointed panel whose creation left him without a say in the formulation of a new government.

The remarks by Moqtada Sadr, a 30-year-old activist who lacks the authority of senior clerics but commands a presence in the streets of Baghdad and other cities, marked the second time in eight days that he has delivered a challenge to U.S. authorities.

Sadr again stopped short of issuing a call to arms or urging holy war against U.S. troops, demands that would almost certainly incite violence. But he repeated his appeal to form an Islamic army to resist "submission, humiliation or occupation" and said thousands had already volunteered to become part of the force, whose mission would be to expel the Americans and defend Iraqi cities.

"To those who say we can't expel the occupation forces from Najaf, I say we can," he told followers at the sprawling, mud-walled Kufa Mosque in a sermon televised on Arab satellite networks. "We must end American hegemony over our sacred place."

So far, U.S. officials have chosen to largely ignore Sadr, dismissing his influence and expressing confidence that he speaks for only a disenchanted coterie among Iraq's Shiite majority. But his remarks, increasingly confrontational and delivered to crowds that number in the tens of thousands every Friday, present a potential dilemma for U.S. authorities. By ignoring him, they risk allowing his campaign to gather momentum; by acting against him, they augment his stature as a victim of U.S. repression.

Sadr's newly militant tone may signal an attempt to mine the vein of discontent over the slow pace of reconstruction and capitalize on prospective setbacks the Governing Council faces in bringing an Iraqi face to the occupation. Introduced July 13, the council has power to name officials and change some laws, but ultimate authority remains in the hands of the U.S. civilian administrator, L. Paul Bremer. Of its 25 members, 13 are Shiites, but only two are religious figures and most are former exiles.

The son of a prominent Iraqi ayatollah believed to have been assassinated by Saddam Hussein's government in 1999, Sadr and his mostly young, activist clerical followers mobilized quickly after U.S. forces overthrew Hussein on April 9, surprising many in Iraq. In the sprawling Baghdad slum renamed Sadr City after his father, Sadr's followers set up the kind of social-services network used to great effect by Islamic activists elsewhere. In the capital and southern Iraq, they appointed prayer leaders in mosques and recruited a following that stands as one of the few mass movements to have arisen since Hussein's fall.

But since then, Sadr has faced the ire of far more senior clerics over what they see as his attempt to usurp their leadership role, traditionally conferred by age and decades of religious scholarship. Other more political Shiite religious groups, such as the formerly exiled Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, led by Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim, view Sadr's popular following as a threat to their ability to speak on behalf of Iraq's Shiites, who make up at least 60 percent of the population.

In contrast to the Supreme Council's engagement with U.S. authorities -- Hakim's group is taking part in the U.S.-appointed Governing Council -- Sadr has tried to rely on street politics to bolster his presence in postwar Iraq, a tactic he employed again today.

"This mass gathering today proves that the biggest trend is support for the seminary, not support for the Iraqi Governing Council," said Sadr, who like his followers at the podium wore a white funeral shroud, the same attire adopted by his father before his death. "This Iraqi Governing Council was set up by the Americans, and it must be disbanded."

Since the war's end, Sadr has delivered the sermon most Fridays at the Kufa Mosque. His father, Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, began a tradition of delivering the weekly devotional there -- a staple of Sunni Muslim worship, but frowned upon by more traditional Shiite clerics. The mosque is just outside Najaf, which is 80 miles south of Baghdad.

A place of pilgrimage, Najaf is one of Iraq's two holiest Shiite cities and the burial place of Imam Ali, the venerated son-in-law and cousin of the prophet Muhammad and considered by Shiites to be his rightful heir.

Read the rest at the Washington Post

July 26, 2004:

U.S. "outposts" hold line in Ramadi

RAMADI, Iraq — Hunkered down in the turquoise-domed Islamic Law Center, a dozen Marines wait for the enemy to make its inevitable move. Insurgents equipped with Soviet-made sniper rifles keep the building in their cross-hairs. Assailants with AK-47s and grenade launchers regularly peer from nearby alleys and roofs. Attacks can come from anywhere.

The wait is unnerving, but it's better than being in the streets of this turbulent city. On Wednesday, a Marine convoy was attacked here with a roadside bomb and as many as 100 insurgents unleashed a barrage of small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades in rolling firefights that lasted for much of the day. Thirteen Marines and one soldier were injured, and the U.S. military reported killing 25 fighters.

"When you walk on the streets, they can hide in every nook and cranny and you can never find them until they start shooting," said Marine Cpl. Glenn Hamby, 26, who heads Squad 3 of G Company. "Here, they have to come right to us."

This is what the war has come down to in Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland, where providing tenuous security harkens back to America's 19th century Indian Wars, a time when the cavalry set up outposts and forts in decidedly hostile territory.

A half-dozen or so such Marine observation posts dot Ramadi's main drag, linking heavily fortified bases and helping to keep the inhospitable city from turning into a Fallujah-like sanctuary for insurgents.

U.S. troops have walked away from Fallujah, 30 miles to the east. But here in the capital of strategic Al Anbar province, the fight goes on day after day.

Although it has acquired great symbolic potency as a symbol of armed resistance, Fallujah is basically a backwater with no strategic significance. Ramadi, on the other hand, with 450,000 residents, is the economic and political hub along Highway 10 in the Sunni Muslim heartland.

It also is the gateway to Syria and Jordan, brimming with potential recruits for the jihad against "infidel" invaders. Marines in Ramadi simply did not have the luxury of walking away.

The aggressive patrols that marked the Marines' arrival this spring were met with frenzied and bloody insurgent attacks, leading to some of the heaviest U.S. losses of the Iraq war — 31 dead and more than 200 wounded. Since the patrols have given way to the more modulated "outposting" strategy, however, U.S. deaths have dropped dramatically.

The insurgents know exactly where the Marines are and regard the posts as prime targets. Four Marines were killed last month when their post was overrun in the early-morning darkness. Stunning images of the sniper team's dead and bloodied bodies sprawled on a rooftop were captured on videotape and broadcast worldwide.

Marine commanders decline to provide details on how the post could have been taken — apparently by surprise, with no time for backup to arrive.

The ferocity of the fighting in Ramadi and the tenacity of the insurgents have produced a very specific view of who the enemy is here: a mostly home-grown mix of anti-U.S. nationalists, loyalists of Saddam Hussein's former regime and a seemingly endless supply of part-time fighters — many former members of the Iraqi army — willing to pick up a rifle or grenade launcher to fire at U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies.

Most insurgents here, the Marines say, are natives of the Ramadi area, where the insular tribal culture and tradition of cross-border smuggling have long featured an undercurrent of violence and suspicion of outsiders. Even Saddam's regime had difficulty exerting full control.

Neither foreign fighters nor religious militants drive the insurgency here, commanders say, though both strains are present. "It's one big overlapping mishmash," said Maj. Michael Wylie, the battalion executive officer.

Marines speak of a classic urban-guerrilla force, a transient, elusive enemy that quickly melts into the population, spiriting away all evidence of its presence.

"It's like ghost fighters," Hamby said. "You can get into a firefight, and afterward when you go to the exact spot you were firing at, you won't find any shell cases, bodies, nothing. They grab everything and they're gone."

When it comes time for the Marines of Squad 3 to end their 12-hour shift at the Islamic Law Center, several Humvees block all traffic along Highway 10 and form a safety cordon with machines guns at the ready. Other Marines dismount and train their weapons on buildings, passers-by and vehicles.

Relieving troops sprint the final 10 meters or so to the metal front door, which is quickly opened and shut.

The four-story brick and concrete structure offers a strategic perch near downtown. Claymore mines are laid inside the walls of the now thoroughly trashed center, where junked computers still sit in a classroom and bookshelves brim with law books in Arabic, English and French.

Marines say their task here is mostly about waiting, watching for insurgents planting IEDs (improvised explosive devices) or laying ambushes, and then repelling the assault.

That morning, assailants with AK-47s were seen mingling among civilians at a taxi stand across the street to the north. A pickup truck disgorged more fighters from the east. At least three attackers were killed in the ensuing, adrenaline-charged 10-minute battle, the Marines say; no Marines were hurt.

"Personally, I see this as a stalemate: We could keep fighting in this same manner forever," said Lance Cpl. David Goward, 26. "They have no shortage of weapons. And neither do we. As long as Americans are here, they're going to keep on fighting."

Read the rest at the Seattle Times

July 26, 2005:

Former Bush aide turns critic as Iraq inspector

During a routine audit last summer of an American office in charge of doling out reconstruction funding in Hillah, Iraq, U.S. government investigators made a series of startling discoveries.

The office had paid a contractor twice for the same work. A U.S. official was allowed to handle millions of dollars in cash weeks after he was fired for incompetence. Of the $119.9 million allocated for regional projects, $89.4 million was disbursed without contracts or other documentation. An additional $7.2 million couldn't be found at all.

To many officials in both Baghdad and Washington, the only thing more surprising than the problems was the identity of the man who had uncovered them: Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.

Mr. Bowen is a Texas lawyer who parlayed a job on George W. Bush's first gubernatorial campaign into senior posts in Austin and Washington. He began the Iraq war lobbying for an American contractor seeking tens of millions of dollars in reconstruction work. Last October, California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman singled him out in a report on "The Politicization of Inspectors General" in the Bush administration. The report suggested that such auditors wouldn't be "independent and objective."

Instead, Mr. Bowen has become one of the most prominent and credible critics of how the administration has handled the occupation of Iraq. In a series of blistering public reports, he has detailed systemic management failings, lax or nonexistent oversight, and apparent fraud and embezzlement on the part of the U.S. officials charged with administering the rebuilding efforts.

White House officials declined to comment on Mr. Bowen. But he has drawn harsh criticism from other quarters.

Aides at both the State Department and the Defense Department have tried to curb the independence of his office. L. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority until June 2004, has criticized Mr. Bowen for "misconceptions and inaccuracies" and for expecting the occupation authority, amid postwar chaos, to follow accounting standards that "even peaceful Western nations would have trouble meeting." Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, has called Mr. Bowen's staff "dramatically out of touch with the practical realities of waging war and setting up a new government in a war-torn country."

Mr. Bowen acknowledged in one report that "the CPA operated in a dangerous working environment under difficult conditions." But the report said the U.S. still should have "established controls and provided oversight over" reconstruction funds "precisely because there was no functioning Iraqi government"...

The effort to rebuild Iraq quickly became the largest U.S. reconstruction effort since the end of World War II. The funds eventually included $18.4 billion in U.S. money and more than $22 billion in seized Iraqi assets turned over to the U.S. by the United Nations.

In the fall of 2003, Congress created a CPA inspector general to oversee how the money was spent -- a post that eventually morphed into the job of inspector general for all Iraq reconstruction. The official would answer to Mr. Bremer, who headed the occupation authority, and present reports to Congress at least once every three months. The office was given a budget of $75 million.

At the request of the Bush administration, the job was created with many strings attached. Unlike other federal inspectors general, the new official was to be appointed by the secretary of defense, not the president, and wouldn't be subject to Senate confirmation. The White House also won the right to block the inspector general from releasing a report on national-security grounds -- though none have been blocked so far. Administration officials and many Congressional Republicans argued that the situation in Iraq was too chaotic to require normal oversight. They also cited the danger that an unfettered release of information could help insurgents plan more effective attacks against U.S. forces there.

Critics were skeptical that, under those conditions, the inspector general could offer real oversight. The skeptics weren't encouraged when, in January 2004, the White House tapped Mr. Bowen, perceived as a loyal Bush ally, to fill that position...

Mr. Bowen's arrival in Iraq coincided with a significant ramp-up in the pace of the American rebuilding effort. The U.S. had initially planned to maintain full control of Iraq for several years. But with violence raging and influential Iraqis expressing impatience with the American timetable, the Bush administration announced plans to turn over power to an interim Iraqi government by June 30.

Hoping to give the incoming government a public-relations boost, Mr. Bremer ordered American rebuilding officials to use captured Iraqi money to fund as many small-scale rebuilding projects as could be completed by the handover date.

Mr. Bowen's audits later found evidence that the push led contracting officials to take shortcuts that made it difficult to determine where the money actually went. In Hillah, for instance, a contracting officer told Mr. Bowen's investigators that he had been given $6.75 million in cash on June 21 with the expectation that he would spend the entire amount before the handover, which ultimately took place two days earlier than planned on June 28.

He soon found other examples of apparently lax oversight. An employee of the CPA comptroller in Baghdad, for example, kept the key to a safe containing more than $140,000 in cash in an unattended backpack.

In one of his most attention-grabbing reports, issued on Jan. 30, 2005, Mr. Bowen concluded that the American occupation authority failed to keep track of nearly $9 billion that it transferred to Iraqi government ministries, which lacked financial controls and internal safeguards to prevent abuse. One Iraqi ministry cited in the audit inflated its payroll to receive extra funds, claiming to employ 8,206 guards when it actually employed barely 600.

The report sparked harsh responses from both Mr. Bremer, the former occupation chief, and the Pentagon. Mr. Bremer chided the auditor for expecting conventional levels of accountability, saying that "given the situation the CPA found in Iraq at liberation, this is an unrealistic standard." The Pentagon also questioned Mr. Bowen's conclusions. Spokesman Bryan Whitman noted that "the CPA was operating under extraordinary conditions, from its inception to mission completion."

Mr. Bowen says that many of the management problems identified in his reports stem from structural failings in the broader reconstruction venture. He argues that the rebuilding effort has been understaffed. In one report, he noted that the central U.S. contracting office was unable to fill nearly a third of its authorized slots. That meant contracting personnel worked "13 to 15 hours each day, six days a week, with a shortened shift of six to 11 hours on the seventh day."

"An inspector general shouldn't play 'gotcha,' " he says. "My job is to help promote success in Iraq by identifying inefficiencies and helping correct them. I want to be part of the solution."

In a November 2004 report, Mr. Bowen took on the big contractor Halliburton Co. in two separate reports. He urged the Army to withhold nearly $90 million in payments to Halliburton because the company couldn't justify what it had charged the government. The report added that "weakness in the cost-reporting process" was such a problem that his investigators couldn't do a standard audit of Halliburton's bills to the CPA. Halliburton spokeswoman Cathy Mann says the Houston-based oil-services and contracting company is working with the Army to resolve the matter and "we expect to work through any remaining issues in a cooperative manner."

Mr. Bowen's audits have also described what appears to be outright criminal behavior by several government officials. In one case, an Army soldier serving as the assistant to an American boxing coach admitted to gambling away half the $40,000 he was given to cover the expenses of an Iraqi athletic team during a trip to the Philippines; his case was referred to the military's justice system for a court-martial. Mr. Bowen also recently gave the Justice Department information on possibly criminal behavior on the part of U.S. contracting officers in Hillah, the first time government officials have been implicated in potential fraud in Iraq. The officers left the country with no record of how they had spent nearly $1.5 million that couldn't be found by investigators.

With his caseload increasing, Mr. Bowen is hiring new investigators and lawyers in both Virginia and Iraq. He has numerous audits under way, including one looking at the efficiency of a military program that has allowed commanders to disburse hundreds of millions of dollars in cash without going through normal contracting channels. His aides recently began sending engineering teams to U.S.-funded reconstruction projects across the country to assess the actual quality of the work.

The future of Mr. Bowen's job has been embroiled in politics.

Shortly before the June 2004 handover of political sovereignty in Iraq, the State Department proposed folding Mr. Bowen's office into its own inspector-general system. Under heavy fire from Democrats, the plan was dropped.

Another bureaucratic fight erupted in the fall of 2004 as lawmakers debated a bill sponsored by Sen. Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, that would convert Mr. Bowen into a standing special inspector general. The new job would probe the entire rebuilding effort while being only loosely overseen by the secretaries of defense and state. The Pentagon's inspector general warned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a memo that such a bill would effectively leave Mr. Bowen "accountable to no one" and said he would prepare a directive tying him to the Pentagon's inspectors.

Nonetheless, the bill was signed into law on Oct. 29, 2004, expanding Mr. Bowen's role. Mr. Bowen assumed his new post immediately and currently has a staff of 32 in Baghdad and 70 in Arlington, Va.

Now defenders of Mr. Bowen's office are trying to keep it from being shut down next year. The bill that created Mr. Bowen's position empowered him to probe the rebuilding effort until 10 months after 80 percent of the reconstruction funds were contracted out. That point is likely to be reached this month, which means that the office will close next summer -- well before the money will actually have been spent. Earlier this month, Sen. Feingold introduced a bill extending the life of Mr. Bowen's office, but the measure's prospects are uncertain.

Despite endorsements from initially skeptical Democrats, Mr. Bowen insists that his work shouldn't be seen through the prism of partisan politics. He says he rarely hears from anyone in the White House these days -- either professionally or socially. He says he remains an admirer of President Bush. The only picture in Mr. Bowen's suburban Virginia office other than a photograph of his children is a framed shot of the two men at a White House dinner.

Read the rest at the Post Gazette

July 26, 2006:

Middle East: Al Qaeda takes a back seat

With Israel at war with Hezbollah, where, you might wonder, is Al Qaeda? From all appearances on the Web sites frequented by its sympathizers, which I frequently monitor, Al Qaeda is sitting, unhappily and uneasily, on the sidelines, watching a movement antithetical to its philosophy steal its thunder.

That might sound like good news. But it is more likely an ominous sign.

Al Qaeda's Sunni ideology regards Shiites as heretics, and it profoundly distrusts Shiite groups like Hezbollah. It was Al Qaeda that is reported to have given Sunni extremists in Iraq the green light to attack Shiite civilians and holy sites. A Qaeda recruiter I met in Yemen described the Shiites as "dogs and a thorn in the throat of Islam from the beginning of time."

But now Hezbollah has taken the lead on the most incendiary issue for jihadis of all stripes: the fight against Israel.

Many Sunnis are therefore rallying to Hezbollah's side, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan. The Saudi cleric Salman al-Awda has defied his government's anti-Hezbollah position, writing on his Web site that "this is not the time to express our differences with the Shiites because we are all confronted by our greater enemy, the criminal Jews and Zionists."

For Al Qaeda, it is a time of panic. The group's Web sites are abuzz with messages and questions about how to respond to Hezbollah's success. One sympathizer asks whether, even knowing that the Shiites are traitors and the accomplices of the infidel Americans in Iraq, it is permissible to say a prayer for Hezbollah. He is told to curse Hezbollah along with Islam's other enemies.

Several of Al Qaeda's ideologues have issued official statements explaining Hezbollah's actions and telling followers how to respond to them. The gist of their argument is that the Shiites are conspiring to destroy Islam and to resuscitate Persian imperial rule over the Middle East and ultimately the world.

The ideologues label this effort the "Sassanian- Safavid conspiracy," in reference to the Sassanians, a pre-Islamic Iranian dynasty, and to the Safavids, a Shiite dynasty that ruled Iran and parts of Iraq from 1501 till 1736.

They go on to argue that thanks to the United States, Iraq has been handed over to the Shiites, who are now wantonly massacring the country's Sunnis. Syria is already led by a Shiite heretic, President Bashar al-Assad, whose policies harm the country's Sunni majority.

Hezbollah, according to these analyses, seeks to dupe ordinary Muslims into believing that the Shiites are defending Islam's holiest cause, Palestine, in order to cover for the wholesale Shiite alliance with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ultimately, this theory goes, the Shiites will fail in their efforts because the Israelis and Americans will destroy them once their role in the broader Zionist-Crusader conspiracy is accomplished. And then God will assure the success of the Sunni Muslims and the defeat of the Zionists and Crusaders.

In the meantime, no Muslim should be fooled by Hezbollah, whose members have never fought the infidel on any of the real battlefronts, like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya or Kashmir. The proper attitude for Muslims to adopt is to dissociate themselves completely from the Shiites.

This analysis - conspiratorial, bizarre and uncompelling, except to the most diehard radicals - signals an important defeat for Al Qaeda's public relations campaign. The truth is that Al Qaeda has met a formidable challenge in Hezbollah and its charismatic leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who has made canny choices that appeal to Al Qaeda's Sunni followers. Al Qaeda's improbable conspiracy theory does little to counter these advantages.

First, although Nasrallah wears the black turban and carries the title of "sayyid," both of which identify him as a Shiite descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, he preaches a nonsectarian ideology and does not highlight his group's Shiite identity. Hezbollah has even established an effective alliance with Hamas, a Sunni and Muslim Brotherhood organization.

Second, Hezbollah's statements focus on the politics of resistance to occupation and invoke shared Islamic principles about the right to self-defense. Nasrallah is extremely careful to hew closely to the dictates of Islamic law in his military attacks. These include such principles as advance notice, discrimination in selecting targets and proportionality.

Finally, only Hezbollah can claim to have defeated Israel (in Lebanon in 2000) and is now taking it on again, hitting Haifa and other places with large numbers of rockets - a feat that no Arab or Muslim power has accomplished since Israel's founding in 1948.

These are already serious selling points. And Hezbollah will score a major propaganda victory in the Muslim world if it simply remains standing in Lebanon after the present bout of warfare is over, and maintains the relationships it is forging with Hamas and other Sunni Islamist organizations.

What will such a victory mean?

Perhaps Hezbollah's ascendancy among Sunnis will make it possible for Shiites and Sunnis to stop the bloodletting in Iraq - and to focus instead on their "real" enemies, namely the United States and Israel. Rumblings against Israeli actions in Lebanon from both Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq already suggest such an outcome.

That may be good news for Iraqis, but it marks a dangerous turn for the West. And there are darker implications still. Al Qaeda, after all, is unlikely to take a loss of status lying down. Indeed, the rise of Hezbollah makes it all the more likely that Al Qaeda will soon seek to reassert itself through increased attacks on Shiites in Iraq and on Westerners all over the world - whatever it needs to do in order to regain the title of true defender of Islam.

Read the rest at the International Herald Tribune