Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Perspective: On this day in Iraq -- September 19th edition

September 19, 2004: Heavy smoke billows from a burning Humvee at a bridge that leads to Baghdad's International Airport after a US convoy was hit by a roadside bomb.

September 19, 2002:

After 20 years of war Iraqi doctors await attack with mix of fatalism and dismay

The director of the Mansour hospital in Baghdad, Luay Qasha, is, like so many Iraqis after 20 years of war, a fatalist. He smokes heavily, loves high-cholesterol foods and is preparing his hospital for US attack.

Mr Qasha, a consultant and pathologist who trained at Whitechapel, in London, has a naturally cheerful disposition. An Anglophile, as are most of his generation of Iraqis, he is happiest talking about Manchester United, whom he watches on satellite television, British shops like Sainsbury's and, best of all, British food: fish and chips, bacon and eggs and steak and kidney pie.

He turned reluctantly to the US threat, his mood instantly sombre. "We are stockpiling medicines for war," he said. "It is sensible. We are keeping aside bandages, fluids, antibiotics. We are getting the operating wards ready. These are the most important things in time of war."

Mr Qasha, 48, is in charge of a 300-bed hospital. "If there is war, we will be here 24 hours every day. I will be, and the nurses: all the staff. We will have resting stations in the hospital where we can sleep. We have a generator in the basement."

Iraqis have a strong sense of pride and patriotism, whatever their personal feelings about their president, Saddam Hussein. Mr Qasha is no different: "We will cope. It is not the first attack by the States. We were attacked in '91, '96 and '98."

The general population has been getting ready too. "Everyone has extra food, water, oil, candles, bicycles. You should have these things because of the threat," he said.

The Iraqis cite as one of the reasons for their concern the sudden influx of journalists into Baghdad: 250, according to the ministry of information, with many more than that outside appealing for visas. "We are not stupid. We know why you have come," one resident said. "Journalists come when there is war."

But they also have other, more realistic, indications. They listen frequently to radio and television news updates, either from the local or international media, and know that the US is not satisfied with the offer to let the United Nations weapons inspectors return.

There was no sign yesterday that the Canal Hotel, the headquarters of the inspectors until they left in 1998 protesting that President Saddam was obstructing their work, was being readied for their arrival. The UN flag was flying over the heavily guarded compound but there appeared to be no one other than Iraqi sentries around...

The population of Baghdad is bracing itself for two wars: the US bombing, which is expected to be followed by invasion, and the civil war - or at the very least the bloodletting - that would follow President Saddam's downfall. The latter is the one that the people of Baghdad fear most. The Iraqis have a long list of grievances against their president and there are a lot of scores to be settled.

Those around President Saddam, especially in his Ba'ath party, know what to expect and will not give up power easily. They remember the slaughter of Ba'ath party members in the aftermath of the Gulf war in 1991 when the Shia Muslim population of southern Iraq rose up against Saddam...

People with little or no loyalty to Saddam will denounce in vitriolic terms the US. There is bafflement in a country, in which so many of the middle-classes, like Mr Qasha, were educated in Britain, that Tony Blair should be involved too. At times this bafflement turns to anger: assurances to British journalists that nothing is held against them personally is punctuated with increasing explosions of outrage at the British government.

Mr Qasha, who sees enough suffering daily in his hospital, is not prone to such outbursts. He retains an affection for England and Wales. His main concern, apart from the prospect of war, is his patients, especially those in the cancer wards.

It is almost obligatory for any visitor to Iraq, but especially journalists, to be shown round cancer wards by bored doctors. These doctors routinely denounce US imperialism and blame an increase in cancer cases on UN sanctions imposed after the Gulf war and the impact of depleted uranium shells from that war.

The hospital is of a good standard, less than 20 years old, and is well-staffed. The problem was, Mr Qasha said, that the staff, unable to travel, had not been able to keep up with medical developments and were using the methods of the 1970s. And because of sanctions, they were also using the equipment of the 1970s and, in the case of cancer treatment, they often did not even have that.

Sanctions have been lifted on most goods but vital medical supplies and equipment remain banned. The UN body that decides what items can and cannot go to Iraq vetoes radiotherapy equipment, and the drugs to carry out bone marrow transplants. Radiotherapy equipment is labelled "dual use": the UN, under pressure from the US, said it has potential military as well as medical applications and fears Iraq could use it to make a "dirty bomb", a crude nuclear device that can be carried in a suitcase.

Mr Qasha, without rancour, dismissed this as scientifically impossible. "Who has ever heard of a nuclear bomb being made with cobalt? They are made from plutonium or uranium," he said.

In one of the wards, Swama Yassin, four, from Sulaimaniya, in the Kurdish part of Iraq, dangled his legs over his bed. Mr Qasha said the child needed a bone marrow transplant and that was not possible in Iraq. What were his chances? "GOK," Mr Qasha said. "God only knows." He added: "With a transplant, he has a 70% chance of success. Without it, his chances are not very good."

And now there was the prospect of war; he considered that hardest of all to take. "Do you love war?" Mr Qasha said at the end of the ward tour. He was not really expecting an answer. "I do not love war," he said.

Read the rest at the Guardian

September 19, 2003:

US turns to tribal leaders to restore order

Sitting in a grove of palm trees sipping sweet tea, the two Jordanian men seemed less than grateful to be in the company of Aboud Khamis al Essawi, Sheikh of the Bu Essa tribe of western Iraq - and they had a good reason.

Earlier in the day, someone had stolen their car at gunpoint and robbed them, on a stretch of highway near Baghdad which passes through the Bu Essa tribe's dira (territory).

Everyone knows that if you lose your car in the Bu Essa dira, Sheikh 'Aboud is the man to see about getting it back. It is a bit impolite to point out why: only the Bu Essa are allowed to carjack on this stretch of road.

Sheikh 'Aboud is one of a number of local leaders across Iraq who have seen their power increase dramatically in the months of chaos that followed the removal of Saddam Hussein in April. Across Iraq, central authority in Iraq has fractured, and power has fallen into the hands of tribes, militia leaders, and clerics.

It is a phenomenon that is gaining momentum, as US troops fall under pressure to withdraw from urban areas and hand control to local security forces.

The city of Falluja, west of Baghdad, is a prime example. Since May it has been a hornet's nest of attacks against US troops, and in late July US commanders decided to pull units out of the city and leave security to local police and a militia known as the Falluja Protection Force (FPF). US forces still patrol in Falluja, but infrequently.

"This has been very effective," said Khalid Rashid, a captain in the FPF. "The people of Falluja have rejected the American presence, and so we maintain stability. The less visible the Americans are, the more peaceful a place this is."

Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez, chief of coalition troops in Iraq, said on Thursday the coalition would start identifying other towns and cities where the local authorities were capable of taking over security so that coalition forces could be withdrawn to the municipal outskirts.

Undoubtedly this new strategy will pay off in lives of coalition soldiers and short run stability. But some Iraqis fear the resurgence of tribally-based warlordism which was only stamped out with great effort in the decades since 1920.

Many make the analogy to Afghanistan, where an American-installed government continues to rule, but not far beyond the city limits of Kabul. The country is divided into fiefdoms dominated by local strongmen.

The surge in development of local power in Iraq contrasts with stumbling attempts to strengthen central authority in Baghdad. A 25-member governing council appointed by the coalition in July as an interim governing body faces scepticism because it is seen as dominated by Iraqi exiles friendly to the US.

"The governing council should be formed from people who suffered here, not from people who rode in on American tanks," said Hadi Aboud, a member of the city administrative council in Falluja. "We reject it because it does not represent Iraqis."

The governing council itself has few levers of control outside Baghdad, and handing over affairs to local security forces will probably erode this authority still further.

But coalition administrators are obviously tempted to rely on using local militias and tribes as a short term fix to bring stability to troubled regions of Iraq.

In the city of Amara, for example, British coalition administrators have been reluctant to disband a local militia known as the Fawj, which took over the city when they arrived in April.

US forces in the Shia city of Najaf have struck up an uneasy working relationship with the Badr Brigades, a Shia militia which took to the streets after the August 29 bombing that killed 83, including their spiritual leader, Mohammed Baqir al Hakim.

US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, said earlier this month the coalition had started paying Iraqi tribes to protect major infrastructure in their territory, from electric power lines to oil pipelines.

Sheikh 'Aboud, for his part, says in the absence of a government, it is only natural that tribes take over the running of much of the country. "We know everyone in our territory, if there is a stranger here, I know it instantly. And anyone who has a problem here knows who to come to, and that is me."

Read the rest at Financial Times

September 19, 2004:

Allawi's Premature Victory Lap

Americans who resist basing judgments about world events on partisan or personal preferences confront a dilemma in assessing the current course of the war in Iraq. And the coming week will only sharpen that dilemma.

For reasons of electoral self-interest, the Bush administration will portray Iraq as being carried by tides of progress inexorably toward shores of stability. The White House is calling in Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, to help in a public relations blitz at the United Nations and in Washington.

Allawi is sufficiently shrewd and sufficiently grateful to President Bush for liberating Iraq to play the role with ease. And only the most embittered Bush critic can wish Iraq not to make progress under Allawi -- or fail to recognize and honor the continuing sacrifices that American troops and Iraqi citizens make daily to promote tolerance and freedom in the Middle East.

But putting Allawi on a pedestal -- especially if it is to burnish a political campaign -- underlines the dangers of basing policy on image and a war strategy on any one individual. The administration rushes past the dubious history of U.S. involvement with Third World "strongmen" eager to praise benefactors and crush opponents. Graveyards in African or Asian jungles, as well as on the French Riviera, are filled with allies deemed indispensable by past U.S. presidents.

More significantly, the administration papers over widening inconsistencies in Allawi's approach to his country's main population groups and to the rule of law in Iraq. With U.S. acquiescence, he ignores the Transitional Administrative Law when that interim constitution is inconvenient for his purposes. His vaguely defined role in ordering U.S. troops into battle in the new "pol-mil" plan that is being pursued in Baghdad also causes confusion.

"Pol-mil" is shorthand for "political-military," the name of an influential bureau in the State Department and of a doctrine for using carefully calculated military force to produce favorable political change. "Winning hearts and minds" is a well-known feature of this counterinsurgency.

U.S. officials point to the sieges of Fallujah and Najaf as examples of Allawi's successful pursuit of a sophisticated pol-mil approach that has been developed in recent weeks under U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte. In reality, these flawed exercises in applying coercive power in variegated fashion may contribute over time to nation-splitting rather than to nation-building.

In Fallujah, Allawi periodically calls in airstrikes by U.S. warplanes to pound concentrations of "foreign jihadists," but he withholds force against the Baathist diehards who control much of that city and other municipalities in the Sunni heartland.

His "hearts and minds" approach toward Sunni Baathists stands in unexplained contrast to his determination to destroy at any cost the Shiite rebel forces of Moqtada Sadr in Najaf last month. Far from using force to help bring about the compromise arranged at the last moment by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Allawi actively intervened to try to prevent that outcome.

He asked U.S. authorities to discourage or even block Sistani from rushing back from a London sickbed to Najaf via Kuwait and Basra, according to a U.S. official involved in fielding Allawi's secret request. When his plea failed, Allawi dispatched two aides to try to talk Sistani out of returning to reclaim peacefully a holy shrine that Sadr had occupied. Sistani persisted, and both Sadr and the shrine survived.

Allawi's determination to risk making Sadr a martyr split his government and led his national security adviser, Mowaffak Rubaie, to quit and leave the country. The prime minister, who was groomed for his role by the CIA, is also encountering growing suspicion from Iraq's Kurdish minority, which sees its political rights and share in national revenue being progressively watered down.

An official rosy glow will surround Allawi on his rounds this week. But even the CIA does not see things that way -- privately. A national intelligence estimate disclosed by the New York Times the other day paints a gloomy picture of the separatist trends in Iraq. Could the agency be running a supply-side intelligence operation, in which covert operators bring their client to power to provide shambles for analysts to decry? Those in Congress studying intelligence reform may want to inquire.

Allawi's U.S. trip should not be treated as a victory lap. He needs to hear probing questions -- from both presidential candidates. And they need to hear a greater commitment to democracy and the rule of law than he has demonstrated thus far. Only that kind of trip can illuminate the path ahead in Iraq.

Read the rest at the Washington Post

Strains Felt By Guard Unit on Eve Of War Duty

The 635 soldiers of a battalion of the South Carolina National Guard scheduled to depart Sunday for a year or more in Iraq have spent their off-duty hours under a disciplinary lockdown in their barracks for the past two weeks.

The trouble began Labor Day weekend, when 13 members of the 1st Battalion of the 178th Field Artillery Regiment went AWOL, mainly to see their families again before shipping out. Then there was an ugly confrontation between members of the battalion's Alpha and Charlie batteries -- the term artillery units use instead of "companies" -- that threatened to turn into a brawl involving three dozen soldiers, and required the base police to intervene.

That prompted a barracks inspection that uncovered alcohol, resulting in the lockdown that kept soldiers in their rooms except for drills, barred even from stepping outside for a smoke, a restriction that continued with some exceptions until Sunday's scheduled deployment.

The battalion's rough-and-tumble experience at a base just off the New Jersey Turnpike reflects many of the biggest challenges, strains and stresses confronting the Guard and Reserve soldiers increasingly relied on to fight a war 7,000 miles away.

This Guard unit was put on an accelerated training schedule -- giving the soldiers about 36 hours of leave over the past two months -- because the Army needs to get fresh troops to Iraq, and there are not enough active-duty or "regular" troops to go around. Preparation has been especially intense because the Army is short-handed on military police units, so these artillerymen are being quickly re-trained to provide desperately needed security for convoys. And to fully man the unit, scores of soldiers were pulled in from different Guard outfits, some voluntarily, some on orders.

As members of the unit looked toward their tour, some said they were angry, or reluctant to go, or both. Many more are bone-tired. Overall, some of them fear, the unit lacks strong cohesion -- the glue that holds units together in combat.

"Our morale isn't high enough for us to be away for 18 months," said Pfc. Joshua Garman, 20, who, in civilian life, works in a National Guard recruiting office. "I think a lot of guys will break down in Iraq." Asked if he is happy that he volunteered for the deployment, Garman said, "Negative. No time off? I definitely would not have volunteered."

A series of high-level decisions at the Pentagon has come together to make life tough for soldiers and commanders in this battalion and others. The decisions include the Bush administration's reluctance to sharply increase the size of the U.S. Army. Instead, the Pentagon is relying on the National Guard and Reserves, which provide 40 percent of the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Also, the top brass has concluded that more military police are needed as security deteriorates and the violent insurgency flares in ways that were not predicted by Pentagon planners.

These soldiers will be based in northern Kuwait and will escort supply convoys into Iraq. That is some of the toughest duty on this mission, with every trip through the hot desert bringing the possibility of being hit by roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and sniper fire.

The drilling to prepare this artillery unit for that new role has been intense. Except for a brief spell during Labor Day weekend, soldiers have been confined to post and prevented from wearing civilian clothes when off duty. The lockdown was loosened to allow soldiers out of the barracks in off hours to go to the PX, the gym and a few other places, if they sign out and move in groups.

"There's a federal prison at Fort Dix, and a lot of us feel the people in there have more rights than we do," said Spec. Michael Chapman, 31, a construction worker from near Greenville, S.C.

Some complaints heard during interviews with the soldiers here last week centered on long hours and the disciplinary measures -- both of which the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Van McCarty, said were necessary to get the unit into shape before combat.

Sgt. Kelvin Richardson, 38, a machinist from Summerville, S.C., volunteered for this mission but says he now wishes he had not and has misgivings about the unit's readiness. Richardson is a veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which he served with the 1st Cavalry Division, an active-duty "regular" unit. This battalion "doesn't come close" to that division, he said. "Active-duty, they take care of the soldiers."

Pfc. Kevin Archbald, 20, a construction worker from Fort Mill, S.C., who was transferred from another South Carolina Guard unit, also worries about his cobbled-together outfit's cohesion. "My last unit, we had a lot of people who knew each other. We were pretty close." He said he does not feel that in the 178th. Here, he said, "I think there's just a lot of frustration."

The daily headlines of surging violence in Iraq -- where U.S. forces crossed the 1,000-killed threshold last month -- were also part of the stress heard in soldiers' comments.

"I think before we deploy we should be allowed to go home and see our families for five days, because some of us might not come back," said Spec. Wendell McLeod, 40, a steelworker from Cheraw, S.C. "Morale is pretty low. . . . It's leading to fights and stuff. That's really all I got to say."

McCarty, the commander, disagrees with those assessments. Overall, he said, the unit's morale is not poor. "The soldiers all have their issues to deal with, and some have dealt with it better than others," he said in an interview in his temporary office.

The problem, he said, is that he has to play the hand dealt him -- of assembling a new unit and getting it to work together while following a training schedule that has kept them going from dawn to long after dark, seven days a week, since mid-July.

"We are not here for annual training and then go home" -- that is, the typical schedule for National Guard units in the past -- said McCarty, assistant deputy director of law enforcement for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources in civilian life. "We are here to prepare to go into a combat zone."

Some military leaders like to say that the best quality of life is having one -- a view to which McCarty appears to subscribe. "It is not my objective to win a popularity contest with my soldiers," he said. "My objective is to take them out and back home safely to their families."

As for the barracks lockdown, he said, "I am not going to apologize. . . . I did what I felt was necessary."

In the past, McCarty noted, members of Guard units usually had years of service together. That has enabled Guard units to compensate somewhat, using unit cohesion -- that is, mutual understanding and trust -- to make up for having less training time together than do active-duty units. But that was not the case with this battalion. "We didn't have that degree of stabilization to start with," he said.

He also contends that his case is hardly unusual nowadays. "Other units have similar problems," he said. "Ours just make more headlines." The disciplinary measures were covered by some soldiers' hometown newspapers, perhaps because it is one of the largest mobilizations of the South Carolina Guard since Sept. 11, 2001.

Read the rest at the Washington Post

September 19, 2005:

Iraq finance ministry says $1 billion stolen from defense budget - report

$1 billion has been plundered from the coffers of Iraq's defence ministry, seriously affecting the government's ability to combat the insurgency, the Independent newspaper here reported, citing the Iraqi finance minister.

'It is possibly one of the largest thefts in history,' the centre-left paper quoted finance minister Ali Allawi as saying.

Most of the money was 'siphoned abroad in cash and has disappeared' to finance the purchase of arms in Poland and Pakistan, according to the report.

But rather than purchasing state-of-the-art weaponry Iraq had procured 'museum-piece weapons,' the Independent charged.

The paper listed a series of problems with the arms purchased including armoured cars which 'turned out to be so poorly made that even a bullet from an elderly AK-47 machine-gun could penetrate their armor.'

Other armored cars reportedly leaked so much oil that they had to be abandoned.

A shipment of the latest MP5 American machine-guns turned out to be Egyptian copies worth a fraction of the price, according to the report.

'Many Iraqi soldiers and police have died because they were not properly equipped,' the daily added.

The rip-offs were so huge, said the paper, that Baghdad officials estimate that the Iraqis involved 'were only front men and 'rogue elements' within the US military and intelligence services may have played a decisive role behind the scenes'.

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari has been informed of the problem 'but the extent of the losses has become apparent only gradually. The sum missing was first reported as $300 million and then $500 million, but in fact it is at least twice as large,' the paper said.

'It is nearly 100 pct of the ministry's procurement budget that has gone AWOL (absent without leave),' Allawi was quoted as saying.

Allawi says a further $500-600 million has allegedly disappeared from the electricity, transport, interior and other ministries.

Read the rest at Forbes

September 19, 2006:

Group Says Iraq Needs to Prove Itself

U.S. experts studying what to do next in Iraq said Tuesday that the next three months are critical and Baghdad's government must make more progress toward controlling the violence and rebuilding the nation.

"The Iraqi government must act,"said Lee H. Hamilton, co-chair of the independent, bipartisan Iraq Study Group."The government of Iraq needs to show its own citizens soon _ and the citizens of the United States _ that it is deserving of continued support."

Hamilton and his co-chair, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, said Baghdad's government needs to secure a capital reeling in sectarian violence, make progress on national reconciliation, and provide electricity, water, and other services that Iraqis need.

The 10-member panel is working at the request of Congress to advise lawmakers and the Bush administration on the way forward in the beleaguered Iraq campaign. The commission has been working quietly for six months, meeting with more than 100 U.S. and Iraqi military and civilian officials and others to assess progress in the war and make recommendations.

It expects to meet with representatives of Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia and soon move on from fact-finding to the task of devising recommendations.

Read the rest at Fox News

Gen. Says U.S. May Boost Forces in Iraq

The U.S. military is likely to maintain and may even increase its force of more than 140,000 troops in Iraq through next spring, the top American commander in the region said Tuesday in one of the gloomiest assessments yet of when troops may come home.

Gen. John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. Central Command, said military leaders would consider adding troops or extending the Iraq deployments of other units if needed. Until sectarian violence spiked early this year, Bush administration officials had voiced hopes that this election year would see significant U.S. troop reductions in what has become a widely unpopular war.

"If it's necessary to do that because the military situation on the ground requires that, we'll do it," Abizaid said of longer deployments. "If we have to call in more forces because it's our military judgment that we need more forces, we'll do it."

Abizaid said that right now the number of U.S. troops "are prudent force levels" that are achieving the needed military effect. Still, his blunt assessment was the first time officials confirmed that higher troops levels would continue into next year.

Abizaid, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace are expected to meet with members of Congress later this week.

President Bush, in New York for U.N. General Assembly meetings on Tuesday, told Iraqi President Jalal Talabani that the U.S. will keep soldiers in Iraq as long as necessary. "I've told the president of Iraq that America has given her word to help you and we will keep our word. The people of Iraq must know that," Bush said.

Late last year, military leaders had said they hoped to reduce troop levels to about 100,000 by the end of this year. But Abizaid said Tuesday that the rising sectarian violence and slow progress of the Iraqi government made that impossible.

"I think that this level probably will have to be sustained through the spring," he said. "I think that we'll do whatever we have to do to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan and use the military power of the U.S. to do that."

Read the rest at the Washington Post