Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Perspective: On This Day In Iraq -- August 15th edition

August 15, 2004: Marines of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit move in to clear a building during ongoing battles with the al-Sadr's Mahdi army in Najaf.

August 15, 2002:

Rice: Saddam is an 'evil man'

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice called Iraq's Saddam Hussein an "evil man" in a broadcast interview Thursday, saying he would wreak havoc on the world if the West does nothing to stop him.

In an apparent attempt to sway sagging British public support for any U.S. move to oust the Iraqi president, Rice told the British Broadcasting Corp. the U.S. believes it has a "moral case" for removing the Iraqi leader.

There is mounting speculation the United States soon will launch a military campaign to remove Saddam.

"This is an evil man who, left to his own devices, will wreak havoc again on his own population, his neighbors and, if he gets weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them, all of us. (It) is a very powerful moral case for regime change," she told BBC radio. "We certainly do not have the luxury of doing nothing"...

Rice said breaking down the al-Qaeda network was the priority after the Sept. 11 attacks "because we did not know how many more World Trade Centers were already planned and ready to go" but Saddam was now a focus.

"Clearly if Saddam Hussein is left in power doing the things that he is doing now this is a threat that will emerge, and emerge in a very big way," she said.

Read the rest at USA Today

August 15, 2003:

Troops in danger zones no longer face pay cut

The White House quickly backpedaled Thursday on Pentagon plans to cut the combat pay of the 157,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan after disclosure of the idea quickly became a political embarrassment.

The Pentagon's support for the idea of rolling back "imminent danger pay" by $75 a month and "family separation allowances" for the American forces by $150 a month collapsed after a story in The Chronicle Thursday generated intense criticism from military families, veterans groups and Democratic candidates seeking to unseat President Bush in 2004.

"We support extending the pay provisions," White House spokesman Jimmy Orr said late Thursday after a day in which Bush's political opponents bashed him for what they said was a callous attitude toward combat troops who are still suffering casualties.

"We intend to ensure they continue to receive this compensation at least at the current levels," the Defense Department said in a separate statement about members of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines.

Read the rest at the San Francisco Chronicle

August 15, 2004:

The ayatollah and the firebrand

Stretched prone in the Cromwell Hospital in west London, a frail septuagenarian recoiled in horror last week as television pictures showed shells smashing into the world's most stupendous graveyard, the Valley of Peace, in Najaf. As the pre-eminent Grand Ayatollah of the city's religious leadership, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is the custodian of that sacred site, yet he was 3,000 miles away as US marines wrested control of the vast plain, grave by grave.

A senior aide, dressed in a cream linen suit, ran back and forth answering some calls on his mobile, hitting the reject button for others. "The situation in Najaf is boiling," he said, punctuated by furious shallow breaths. "It is really serious - something must be done."

Hulking security guards occasionally emerged on a sundeck leading off the Cromwell's second floor, where Ayatollah Sistani was undergoing treatment for a blocked artery in his heart, into the muggy morning air. As rain threatened but did not break, the loudest hostile sound was the horn of a goods lorry.

In Najaf, however, the thunder and crack of shells and bullets were incessant. The leaders of Iraq had staked the authority of the new-born state on the outcome of a meticulous assault on the militant forces of a young cleric holed up in the city's holiest shrine. After forging down the cemetery, the final showdown appeared destined to take place within the Imam Ali shrine, regarded by Muslims as one of the most sacred sites in Islam. Across southern Iraq, towns such as Amara, Basra and Nasariyah were engulfed by battalions of armed Iraqis supporting the call for an uprising by the radical cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr but were, ultimately, still under the control of American and British troops.

US tanks and armour, led for the first time by Iraqi security forces, rolled into Najaf 10 days ago, hours after Ayatollah Sistani left the city. As the elderly cleric's convoy negotiated a less-used road to Baghdad on his first trip outside Najaf in nearly 50 years, Ayad Allawi, the Iraqi prime minister, was embarking on a high-risk assault on a militia that refused to recognise his authority. By the time Ayatollah Sistani had reached Heathrow, having changed planes in Beirut, a full-scale battle that raged for seven days and seven nights was unstoppably under way.

The army of the Mahdi has grown steadily in size and confidence since a similar stand-off in April. The thousands in its ranks have rudimentary military training and are spread across Iraq. From Baghdad to Basra, its fighters took control of whole districts. Hassan Sadiq, a 28-year-old Najaf cook, explained why his peers had joined the Mahdi army: "The coalition has killed many civilians and destroyed many homes. Moqtada is the only one who cares about us, especially Shia. The new government only cares about the Americans. Look at the people in the government, they all lived in Britain, the US and France. They have no idea about what's happening, about our lives"...

Away from the fury of battle, the Western powers were calmly assessing the likely outcome of a struggle for the soul of Iraq. A German diplomat probed his British counterpart on the significance of the absence of all four grand ayatollahs from Najaf at the same time. There was no senior religious figure in the city who could stop the conflict with a single call to negotiate. "It's entirely a coincidence," said one Western envoy. "Allawi is, however, determined to pursue a tough approach, to cut Moqtada down to size at a point when he still can establish his security credentials."

Behind the net curtains stretched across the Cromwell's green-tinted windows, Ayatollah Sistani held meetings with his London-based followers between sessions with doctors investigating the cause of his irregular heartbeat. His aides assured him that he could still assert his authority from afar. On Thursday afternoon, he wrested back the initiative.

As he has consistently done since the overthrow of Saddam, the 73-year-old struck a careful diplomatic line. He demanded that his people should not be trammelled by military might but he stopped short of supporting al-Sadr. Ayatollah Sistani is believed to fear that the firebrand cleric is a dictatorial extremist determined to impose Iranian-style theocracy on Iraq.

The statement called for an end to bloodshed and the violation of religious sanctuaries. Almost immediately signs emerged that negotiations to resolve the conflict had begun in earnest. Earlier in the week he had already dispatched the eminent nuclear scientist and London resident Hussein Shahristani, a future candidate for the Iraqi leadership, to negotiate with both sides. Officials from Baghdad were sent to the city and prime minister Allawi and his American commanders called a truce.

By Friday morning, al-Sadr, who had been lightly injured in overnight skirmishes, declared that he, too, would negotiate.
Later, when al-Sadr's aides issued a 10-point list of conditions for a ceasefire, the tone used was harsh but at least indicated that a compromise was possible. Most of the cleric's demands could not be met: one was the handover of Najaf to its religious leaders and the withdrawal of all Iraqi forces. At nightfall, came a sign, confirmed yesterday, that the discussions were not going well.

With a bandaged hand, al-Sadr, despite entering into peace talks, appeared in Najaf briefly late on Friday night to reiterate his willingness to fight to the death. In London at the same time, Ayatollah Sistani was recovering from angioplasty surgery. Two clerics, one young, one old. One a rabble-rouser, the other a subtle statesman. For very different reasons, the spectre of death hangs over both. This weekend, Iraq's future, its hopes for democracy and peace, is bound up in their fates.

Read the rest at the Telegraph

August 15, 2005:

Better body armor for GIs delayed again

For the second time since the Iraq war began, the Pentagon is struggling to replace body armor that is failing to protect U.S. troops from the most lethal attacks by insurgents.

The ceramic plates in vests worn by most personnel cannot withstand certain munitions the insurgents use.

But more than a year after military officials initiated an effort to replace the armor with thicker, more resistant plates, tens of thousands of soldiers are still without the stronger protection because of a string of delays in the Pentagon's procurement system.

The effort to replace the armor began in May 2004, just months after the Pentagon finished supplying troops with the original plates - a process also plagued by delays. Officials disclosed the new armor effort last week after questioning by The New York Times and acknowledged that it would take several more months or longer to complete.

Citing security concerns, the officials declined to say exactly how many more of the stronger plates were needed, or how much armor had already been shipped to Iraq.

Read the rest at the International Herald Tribune

August 15, 2006:

Limits of force: The Iraq Syndrome will haunt America

The world certainly seemed to be coming apart at the seams this summer. Israel invaded the Gaza Strip. War escalated in Lebanon. Iran defied international mediators and accelerated its nuclear program, prompting speculation about pre-emptive strikes by Israel or the United States. North Korea defied the international community to reprocess nuclear fuel and add to what is generally acknowledged to be an existing stockpile of atom bombs.

Sectarian violence kills hundreds of civilians a week in Iraq and threatens unconstrained civil war, while the Iraqi government and the U.S. command acknowledge that several Iraqi cities, including much of Baghdad, are now beyond the government's control.

Those who speculate that this is the beginning of World War III are exaggerating: Today's world lacks the chain-ganged alliance structure of 1914 or the great power aggression of 1939, and each of this summer's crises has powerful local roots that ties it to unrelated particulars of place or politics or ethnic demography.

Yet there is an important common thread in these nominally local crises all the same. That thread is the emerging effects of the Iraq Syndrome.

Americans have heard much about the Vietnam Syndrome, which is said to have been banished by the 1991 Gulf War: a weary, chastened America withdrawing from the world and lacking the self-confidence to use force even where the cause was justified. The trauma of Vietnam left the United States a hesitant and equivocal superpower, materially strong but politically weak and reluctant to defend its interests.

An important consequence of this was an increase in challenges to U.S. interests as rivals exploited the apparent power vacuum resulting from American retrenchment. For a decade after Vietnam, the Soviet Union responded with a major increase in adventurism in the developing world, expanding its influence from the horn of Africa to Central America.

Today, a similar dynamic is already under way. With the American public divided and increasingly war-weary, and the U.S. military tied down in Iraq, wearing out its equipment and testing its morale, a wide range of viruses that a healthy American foreign policy immune system normally suppresses are now gaining in virulence.

Before the Iraq Syndrome, American power exerted a major restraining influence on actors such as Hezbollah, Iran and Syria. Rather than encouraging Hezbollah adventurism, Iran restrained it; after 9/11, for example, it is widely believed that Iranian emissaries confronted Hezbollah, demanding, effectively "We hope that wasn't you."

Iran acquiesced in the American takedown of the Afghan regime on its eastern border. Syria cooperated with America's war on terrorism and seemed willing to arrive at an accommodation with Washington. Even major powers such as Russia were more compliant, as Moscow accepted American military bases in neighboring former Soviet countries.

In 2006, by contrast, Hezbollah adventurism now gets the go-ahead from Tehran. An Iranian nuclear program that had crept forward at a rate designed to keep it under Western radar screens and safe from American retaliation now accelerates with apparent unconcern for the prospect of U.S. opposition, while Iran's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, concludes his speeches with the cry, "America cannot do a damn thing."

At the same time, a North Korean nuclear program that accepted a modest buy-out in the 1990s now holds out for bigger payoffs while reprocessing nuclear fuel into bombs with impunity.

The Iraq Syndrome is likely to get worse before it gets better - and as it does, challenges such as Hezbollah, Iran and North Korea are likely to become more common. We are in for a season of trials that could create vexing challenges for U.S. foreign policy for a very long time to come.

Americans may yearn for a breathing space, but the Iraq Syndrome is more likely to yield a full-court press as maladies that could have been halted before Iraq now multiply instead.

The Vietnam Syndrome was ultimately overcome, and the Iraq Syndrome will be, too. But it has bequeathed America a burden that may take decades to overcome.

Read the rest at the International Herald Tribune