Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Perspective: On this day in Iraq -- September 4th edition

September 4, 2006: A young girl hands her father's shoes to an Iraqi army soldier as coalition forces raid a suspected insurgent home near Tafaria.

September 4, 2002:

Experts: Iraq has tons of chemical weapons

As some in the Bush administration press the case for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, weapons experts say there is mounting evidence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has amassed large stocks of chemical and biological weapons he is hiding from a possible U.S. military attack.

"Iraq continues to possess several tons of chemical weapons agents, enough to kill thousands and thousands of civilians or soldiers," said Jon Wolfsthal, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

U.N. weapons experts have said Iraq may have stockpiled more than 600 metric tons of chemical agents, including mustard gas, VX and sarin. Some 25,000 rockets and 15,000 artillery shells with chemical agents are also unaccounted for, the experts said.

The Iraqis also have biological weapons, according to U.S. officials. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said recently that Iraq has mobile biological weapons laboratories, which would be nearly impossible for U.S. forces to target.

"The concern is they either have on hand -- or could quickly re-create the capability to produce -- vast amounts of anthrax, tons of material, compared with the several grams of material that literally shut down the U.S. postal system last year," said Wolfsthal, the deputy director of Carnegie's Non-Proliferation Project, which does research and analysis on the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

"This is something that could kill thousands upon thousands of people, depending on the means of distribution."

Read the rest at CNN

September 4, 2003:

Top U.S. commander in Iraq says he needs more troops

The top U.S. commander in Iraq said Thursday he needs more international forces to deal with potential security threats — but he and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld both emphasized that they do not see a need for more U.S. troops.

Their comments came a day after Washington began pushing a new U.N. resolution aimed at persuading more nations to contribute troops. On Thursday, Russia gave its first signal that it could send peacekeepers to Iraq, and Britain said it was considering whether to increase its force levels.

The U.S. commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, said at a Baghdad news conference that "if a militia or an internal conflict of some nature were to erupt ... that would be a challenge out there that I do not have sufficient forces for."

Sanchez cited al-Qaeda terrorists, Iranian fighters and clashes between ethnic and religious militias as potential security threats. "There are security challenges that are looming in the future that will require additional forces, and those are issues that with the coalition, and with time, can be resolved," he said...

Sanchez said if a sudden conflict arose he would reassign forces to deal with it, but added the Army's existing missions could suffer as a result. However, he maintained that no more U.S. troops are needed.

"I have communicated very clearly to Central Command, who in turn communicates to Washington ... and to senior leadership that has come through here, that I do not need additional U.S. forces," Sanchez said. "Clearly, I have also stated that if coalition forces were to be offered, we would gladly accept them."

Read the rest at USA Today

Bush to Seek $60 Billion or More for Iraq

The White House has informed congressional leaders that it is preparing a new budget request for between $60 billion and $70 billion to help cover the mounting costs of the reconstruction and military occupation of Iraq, sources on Capitol Hill said last night.

The planned request -- which congressional budget analysts said will be nearly double what Congress expected -- reflects the deepening cost of the five-month-old U.S. occupation and serves as an acknowledgement by the administration that it vastly underestimated the price tag of restoring order in Iraq and rebuilding its infrastructure.

The estimate was disclosed on the same day the administration provided details of a draft U.N. resolution that it is preparing in an effort to win foreign pledges for more troops and money for Iraq. The U.S. draft would authorize a multinational peacekeeping force under U.S. military command and would invite the nascent Iraqi Governing Council to submit a plan and a timetable for writing a constitution, creating a government and holding elections.

Read the rest at the Washington Post

September 4, 2004:

For many fallen soldiers, day of terror was something else: A call to serve

The day the horror of terrorism struck home was supposed to be a celebration for Michael Williams: It was his 44th birthday.

His wife had the chicken wings and pizza and cake, and so they ate them that night of Sept. 11, 2001 — while on their big-screen television they saw planes crashing and towers tumbling and their fellow citizens tormented by grief.

From their little corner of Buffalo, they cried with a nation. "I can't believe this happened on my birthday," Williams would say.

And he couldn't believe it happened in his beloved country.

Weeks later, without even telling his wife, Williams re-enlisted in the Army National Guard. It was his duty, he explained to those who tried to change his mind, like his uncle, Larry McAlister, who worried there might be a war and warned: "You could lose your life."

"He just kind of smiled and didn't say too much then," McAlister remembers.

Williams did go to war. And he didn't come back.

He is one of dozens of soldiers who were inspired to join the military after the Sept. 11 attacks and later died in the deserts of Iraq.

Many, like Williams, didn't know any of the terrorists' victims. It didn't matter.

Some lived far from the devastation, in other states, on the opposite coast. They didn't stand in the rubble or breathe the lingering scent of death. That didn't matter, either.

Whether they were in high school or jobs far removed from the military, whether they were citizens or immigrants, married or single, had five children or none. It simply didn't matter.

All of America felt the pain of that day, but something else filled their souls: A need to act. A responsibility to serve.

"Mike joined because of a calling in him, and he didn't mind putting his life on the line for it," says Williams' cousin, James Robbins. "It was not the issue of money. It was not the issue of a subsidized income. He had nothing to gain. When the building came down, that destroyed him inside. To see the people jumping out the windows, he couldn't take it.

"I've grown to admire him even more in his death," he says. "I admire him for standing up."

An Associated Press review of U.S. casualties in Iraq found at least two dozen other soldiers bound by the same calling.

Men like James Harlan, a father of five with a fiancee and a job in the streets department in Owensboro, Ky. At 44, after two decades in the military and reserves, Harlan signed back up after Sept. 11. He was in his second tour in Iraq with the Army Reserve's 660th Transportation Company when a suicide bomber attacked his fuel convoy last May 14.

Thirty-year-old Bob Roberts was a plumber who fancied boating and fishing in Oregon's Yaquina Bay. But after the attacks, he told friends he'd found his calling and enlisted in the Marines. He was killed May 17 by hostile fire.

Colombian-born Diego Rincon wasn't even a U.S. citizen when anger over the assault on his adopted nation spurred him to join the Army. The 19-year-old from Conyers, Ga., died March 29, 2003, when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive at a roadblock.

Following Rincon's death, Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was the pilot on the hijacked plane that struck the Pentagon, wrote to his family to express her gratitude to "a brave heart, a dedicated soldier and a true American Patriot."

"I will think of him," she said, "whenever and wherever I see an American flag flying."

Cory Geurin was just starting his senior year in high school when, only a week after Sept. 11, he told his mother: "They're messin' with my generation, and I'm not gonna let it happen. I want to join the Marines."

Darlene Geurin had detected a change in her only son ever since the morning she roused him from bed to watch reports of the attacks. In the days that followed, her son and his friends would congregate at their house in Santee, Calif. — but instead of watching MTV, they turned on the news. A few weeks later, a recruiter was sitting in their living room.

"He grew up after 9/11. He went from a teenager who was worried about who his next date was and wrestling matches to somebody who wanted to do something about the way the world was," Darlene Geurin says. "And he did."

Because Cory was just 17, his parents had to grant permission for him to enlist. In November 2001, on a school day, he took the oath. A month after his high school graduation, on July 15, 2002, the surfer boy who was voted most valuable player of the wrestling team went off to boot camp.

He died exactly one year later, after falling 60 feet from the roof of an Iraqi palace he was guarding.

The knock. The chaplain at the door. The words: "I'm sorry to inform you ..." The images haunt Darlene Geurin now, along with the tragic day that started it all.

"Last Sept. 11 was two months after he died. I was at work that day, and the feelings I had ... I had to leave," she recalls. "It just brought it all back: This is why my son died.

"I always wonder, if it hadn't happened — if 9/11 hadn't happened — would he have gone to college? Would he still be alive? It's a very hard day for us."

What the Geurin family doesn't question is President Bush's rationale for going to war — rooted in part on assertions that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist group behind the attacks on New York and Washington. The commission that investigated the plot has since concluded there was no collaborative relationship between the former Iraqi dictator and al-Qaeda.

"People say, 'Do you have regrets that your son went?' No, because I know in my heart my son had no regrets," says Cory's father, Dennis Geurin. "We fight because of one reason: We believe we're doing the right thing at the time for our country. Cory signed up to defend this country. He didn't say, 'I'm only going to fight the war I believe in.'"

Some find the deaths harder to justify.

"My nephew lost his life for nothing," says Williams' uncle, Larry McAlister. "I'm patriotic, too, but it's got to be for the real deal. For him, it didn't matter. If it was connected to 9/11 in any way, form or fashion, it felt like you were doing the right thing."

In April 2003, Williams left for Iraq with the National Guard's 105th Military Police Company. He left behind his job as an investigator at the New York Department of Correctional Services Inspector General's Office. He left behind plans to buy land in North Carolina where he and his cousins' families would retire, to purchase a boat and attend a summer motorcycle rally.

He left behind his wife of eight years, his two daughters and two stepdaughters, and his three grandbabies.

When he returned home briefly that summer for his grandmother's funeral, a comrade was killed in action. Williams would later tell his buddies he felt guilty he hadn't been there. Once he was back in Iraq, he wrote a letter to his co-workers, thanking them for taking up the slack caused by his absence.

"He's the one standing at death's door, and he would write and worry about us and our families and things we were going through," says his boss and close friend, Barbara Leon. "That was Michael."

Williams was killed last Oct. 17, driving a Humvee back to camp after patrol duty south of Baghdad. He wasn't supposed to be in the vehicle that day; he had taken a friend's place. A roadside bomb exploded, and a piece of shrapnel sliced his aorta. Hundreds of Iraqis gathered around as Williams lay dead, his fellow soldier, Joe Wendel, recalls. They were cheering.

"They got the wrong guy," says Wendel. "He's my hero."

Leon has another word for her friend: A gift.

This Sept. 11, she plans to gather Williams' colleagues for a birthday lunch in his honor. "Michael deserves it," she says.

"That was a defining moment in our history, but most of us are not charged with doing something in our personal lives that will make it never happen again," says Leon. "Michael knew he was charged with that duty. He could not just sit there.

"The whole world should cry over losing people like Michael."

Read the rest at USA Today

September 4, 2005:

They fought for their country in Iraq. Now veterans are struggling to find a decent job in the United States.

A year ago, former Sgt. Jaquaie McAtee was in charge of the most sought-after service in Iraq.

McAtee, a mine expert, was responsible for locating and detonating the most effective weapon in the arsenal of the metastasizing insurgency -- improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

After three tours of duty, two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, McAtee returned from battle as one of the most competent men in his field, working against the roadside bombings that take so many soldiers' lives. He led 12-man teams into the fray of Fallujah at the height of the coalition's mission to rid the town of rebels, yet has come home to the stigma of being unable to hold a job as simple as herding crowds of raucous Steelers fans through the gates of Heinz Field.

"We left with nothing, and we came back to nothing," said McAtee, a 23-year-old veteran who lives in East Liberty. He has fought two wars in two countries and now struggles on the front lines of the job market, fighting unsuccessfully for work.

He's not alone. Soldiers in his age group have the highest unemployment rate in the country, which both surprises and frustrates him. "What else do I have to prove to my country? Do I have to get shot to get a job?"

One thousand active-duty, reserve and National Guard servicemen come home every day to the possibility of unemployment lines. Despite six or more federal vocational and hiring initiatives available to servicemen, many soldiers such as McAtee have scant knowledge about the $222.5 million worth of services designed to help them.

"It's unfortunate," said Charles Sheehan-Miles, executive director for Veterans for Common Sense, a Washington, D.C., organization working to provide public affairs scholarships for returning veterans. "Once upon a time, people believed they could get past the average blue-collar jobs by enlisting in the military and returning with what was considered an experience equivalent to a college degree. It's sad, but that's not the case anymore."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the national unemployment average hovers around 5 percent, McAtee and 20- to 24-year-old African-American veterans like him have the highest unemployment rate in the country -- 29 percent or more.

"Many of the first-term enlistees are entering the job market for the first time, maybe going to school or taking some well-deserved time off, and that isn't always reflected in the unemployment numbers," said John Muckelbauer, executive assistant of the Veterans' Employment and Training Services Office in the Department of Labor. "These veterans are making a new entrance into the job market. A more accurate comparison for many of the 20- to 24-year-old veterans would be 18- and 19-year-olds not enrolled in college."

Historically, veterans have better employment statistics than nonveterans. While the 2004 unemployment rate for the civilian population is 5 percent, it drops to 4.6 percent for veterans of all races.

But that's not much consolation for men like McAtee, who works odd part-time jobs to pay the bills -- for his Section 8 apartment, car, college.

He grew up watching people in the streets of Garfield hustle to make a dollar. Raised against the backdrop of street violence, McAtee envisioned an escape from the dismal conditions -- the Marine Corps.

His father and uncles were Marines. In high school, while friends dabbled in drugs and gangs, McAtee was playing sports. Whether it was basketball, baseball, volleyball or football season, McAtee participated. His mother figured that with school and organized sports little else could lead him astray.

McAtee's story runs parallel to that of Pvt. Lucas Cope. Cope and McAtee shared a neighborhood. They went to Peabody High School and played on the drum line. Cope joined the Marines after seeing McAtee return in his pristine dress blues.

Now Cope, who returned from Iraq after serving a seven-month tour driving trucks in highly vulnerable convoys, is struggling along with McAtee to find work that's fitting for a Marine with combat experience.

"Being a grunt you are trained to do one thing -- kill people," said Larry Tritle, a Vietnam veteran and professor of ancient history at Loyola/Marymount University in Los Angeles. "The skills you learn are simply not transferable into the overcrowded and competitive job market. Kids coming out of the military are not in a good situation. It all harks back to Vietnam, the things we are talking about-- it's deja vu."

Both McAtee and Cope are struggling in the pursuit of job opportunities that might pay even half of the $30,000-a-year salaries they earned in the military.

"I'm not looking for a handout," said Cope, who is working the night shift for a janitorial service earning $9.50 an hour. "But, I didn't think I'd be struggling like this. I never thought you could be [in Iraq] struggling to survive and then be back here struggling, too."

Muckelbauer says former servicemen as a whole fare better than the experiences of McAtee and Cope might suggest.

"When we do real apples-to-apples comparisons, we do seem to find that veterans across the board tend to do better than nonveterans," said Muckelbauer. "The data show that the skills they leave the military with are technical skills and lots of soft skills, like how to manage people and handle stress situations."

The Department of Labor, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs run a series of programs that try to help veterans find stability after the military. Soldiers in the world's most technologically advanced army go through $17 billion worth of training on the latest computer equipment. Translating those skills into the private sector is what these programs try to sell to potential employers.

Last year, President Bush formed the National Hire Veterans Committee, which launched the Hire Vets First initiative. That campaign, begun at a time when the country was seeing the effects of its first protracted war since Vietnam, was designed to address the needs of soldiers returning home after longer tours of duty.

Also of assistance is the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, which protects returning National Guardsmen or Reserves against employer discrimination in hiring and retention practices.

Pennsylvania has the third-highest rate of complaints filed under the legislation. During the past five years, National Guardsmen and Reserves returning to their jobs in Pennsylvania have filed more than 290 complaints against employers.

"Employers, in general, could not care less if you've served in the military," said Sgt. Mark Hatfield, recruiter for the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. Hatfield fought in both the invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War, yet spent the better part of three years unemployed after his tours of duty.

The best job Hatfield could land during that time was a $9-an-hour stint in the shipping and receiving department of a radiator company. "It's like that across the board. It's very sad, but that's the society we live in."

The Department of Defense recognized a need for serious workforce training programs in 1990. The Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines Corps began offering optional vocational training called Transition Assistance Programs, or TAPs. The program, usually administered to soldiers returning home after serving 180 days of duty, lasts about 2 1/2 days and covers job searches, employment assistance, resume writing, career counseling, networking, veterans' benefits eligibility information, resource libraries and federal employment information.

McAtee and Cope went through TAP job training, but without the ability to get their feet in the door, it's proved useless so far.

"You're coming home to a harsh reality," said Jason Brosk, a global war on terrorism outreach worker at the McKeesport Vet Center for the Department of Veterans Affairs. "I was 24 years old, in charge of 40 people and had three years of battlefield experience and pressure. I could probably do your job and seven others, but the responses I would get from employers was, 'It never panned out.' "

For now, McAtee is on the front lines of a nursing home near his East Liberty apartment, and Cope is emptying trash bins and mopping floors in office buildings. The neighborhood they once shared is theirs again, as are the experiences that drew them to the military and the challenges they face now.

"I'm a Marine and he's a Marine, and we're in this together," said McAtee. "We're bros."

Read the rest at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette

September 4, 2006:

The greatest failure of all in Iraq

Of all the promises that were made to the Iraqi people on the eve of the invasion three and a half years ago, the pledge of humanitarian support, aid and reconstruction was the one that struck an immediate and profound chord with everyone in the country.

Many other promises were made, of course, in order to make the case that the policy of regime change was not only desirable, but urgently needed. But these other arguments seemed far more hypothetical and distant. The pledge to provide the money and resources to improve basic services was always going to have a far greater and more immediate power in the minds of ordinary Iraqis than the rhetoric of a political vision that promised a new constitution, human rights, relations with neighbours, and so on. As important as these issues are, they just couldn't match the vision of better healthcare, electricity, the repair of sewage systems and all the other critical civilian infrastructure that would be shat tered by military conflict.

I still remember hearing the words of George W Bush, three hours after the invasion began. The first bombs had just begun to hit the western suburbs of the city, and at the same time President Bush's voice came over the radio. He said he wanted to speak to the Iraqi people, because he had a message for them. He promised them that as British and American soldiers dismantled the infrastructure of Saddam Hussein's rule, it would be replaced by aid and hum anitarian supplies. If ever there was a failed promise, it is this one; and in many ways it is the worst promise Britain and America could have reneged on: the one that really meant something tangible and real in the lives of ordinary Iraqis.

The extent to which the stated humanitarian objective of the Iraq war has failed to materialise is astounding, even to the greatest cynic. It is almost invisible. On the one hand, this is a measure of just how bad the security situation in the country has become. But it is also a measure of how much this conflict is no longer about humanitarian issues; the resources, people and political capital is now focused overwhelmingly on security and counter-terrorism.

The words that Bush spoke directly to the Iraqi people are now without any real basis. Even he has given up the pretence of pledging billions of dollars to largely theoretical reconstruction projects; and last year the administration made it clear that much of the money for any such projects would come out of Iraqi oil funds. Yet, so widespread is the level of corruption in Iraq, on the part of western officials as well as Iraqi, that one has to wonder what proportion of oil sales makes it into Iraqi state coffers, compared to the amounts diverted to private bank accounts.

The absence of humanitarian reconstruction and the level of corruption in Iraq has received so little coverage that it will be easy for us to say that "we never knew" when more information finally emerges. Let me, for the record, give a small number of illustrations.

The vast majority of senior UN meetings and consultations on Iraqi aid and humanitarian projects don't take place in Iraq: they meet in neighbouring Jordan. So even discussions about Iraq don't happen in the country.

Even as far back as 2004, the World Food Programme revealed the findings of a baseline survey which concluded that 6.5 million Iraqis, 25 per cent of the entire population, "remained highly dependent on food rations". The survey went on to say that "around 27 per cent of all children up to the age of five are chronically malnourished". This was based on data that Iraqi health workers were able to collect in 2003 when the security situation meant that aid workers could travel around and work. God only knows what the picture is like now.

The period of the formal US-led occupation was just as bad. It lasted for one year, until the handover of sovereignty in June 2004. In that time, the Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremer spent just under $20bn of Iraqi oil revenues on contracts the coalition awarded to western contractors. To this day, no one, including the General Accounting Office of the US Congress, the British parliament or the UN can accurately account for how that $20bn was dispersed. It goes on and on.

It is mystifying how something so fundamental to the US/UK presence in Iraq can be so under-reported. There are many exceptions: Patrick Cockburn of the Independent and several programmes on Channel 4 have highlighted the humanitarian failures of the Iraq conflict. But I suspect that the vast majority of British viewers and readers have heard little on this subject.

While many western contractors have done very well out of reconstruction projects, the tiny handful of NGOs run by westerners and Iraqis working in co-operation (who actually have a presence inside Iraqi communities, where the larger international relief organisations do not) are in some cases having their funding cut. In my next column, I will write about one such organisation, whose Iraqi doctors, teachers and engineers are now suddenly having to face a future without even the tiny amount of funding that the Department for International Development has provided them with for many years.

Read the rest at the New Statesman