Friday, September 28, 2007

Perspective: On this day in Iraq -- September 28th edition

September 28, 2006: U.S. Army soldiers, assigned to 1st Battalion, 66th Armored Regiment, patrol a road at sunset during a cordon and search operation in Sheik Hamid.

September 28, 2002:

Religious Leaders' Voices Rise on Iraq

The invasion of Afghanistan was swift, directed at likely perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and bolstered by emotional support from most Americans.

U.S. religious leaders debated such issues as whether centuries-old "just war" principles applied to high-tech air assaults against military targets that might house noncombatants. But most agreed it was necessary to attack Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and the Taliban government harboring it.

No such consensus exists for the planned next stage of President Bush's war on terrorism -- a military assault to destroy Iraq's weaponmaking capabilities and remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. And there has been more time for reflective thinking reminiscent of the debates preceding the Persian Gulf War, said Brian Grieves, director of peace and justice ministries for the Episcopal Church.

Religious leaders are divided over whether an attack against Iraq would meet the conditions for a just war, including the assurance that nonviolent means have been exhausted, that military action will be strictly defensive and that few innocents will die as a result.

Thus far, the religious community has tended to be critical of Bush's war rhetoric.

Several major U.S. religious organizations have written letters to the White House opposing the president's call for a preemptive military strike against Iraq, citing insufficient evidence of Iraq's involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks, concerns about the impact of renewed war on the Iraqi people and the potential for further destabilization of the Middle East.

But the president also has received support from leaders of the fastest-growing segment of religion in the United States -- evangelical Christianity.

"In this instance, the president has articulated a faith much like our own," said Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals. That faith includes a stated belief in Jesus Christ and the existence of "evil" in the form of people like Hussein, Cizik said.

"This isn't preemption but another step in responding to the continuum of terrorism, of evildoers" in the world, said Cizik, whose association represents at least 10 million charismatics, Pentecostals and other evangelicals in 51 denominations.

Cizik stopped short of supporting unilateral action by the United States. Bush should continue a "good-faith effort" to obtain the support of Congress and the United Nations and "exhaust thoroughly" alternative means to military action, he said.

Richard Land, president and chief executive of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, offered no such qualifier.

"There's no doubt in my mind Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, is seeking more and, when he gets them, he will use them against our military forces, our embassies and against our allies," said Land, whose commission speaks for the denomination on public policy issues.

Land called religious leaders who oppose Bush's stance "well-intentioned and naive" and said he supports whatever military means are necessary -- unilateral or otherwise -- to overthrow the Iraqi regime.

Why invade now? "My educated surmisal is that the president and intelligence community believe Saddam is much closer than we know he is to getting these weapons," Land said. "Time is on Saddam's side, not ours. I'd rather be safe than sorry."

Opponents of an invasion have been more vocal. Opposition began in earnest last month, when the World Council of Churches' central committee, meeting in Geneva, called on the United States "to desist from any military threats against Iraq" and urged U.S. allies "to resist pressure to join in preemptive military strikes against a sovereign state under the pretext of the 'war on terrorism.' "

On Aug. 30, the public policy office of the 8.3 million-member United Methodist Church issued a statement opposing military action as "reckless" and saying that "United Methodists have a particular duty to speak out against an unprovoked attack [because] President Bush and Vice President Cheney are members of our denomination."

On Sept. 12, the day following the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the ecumenical Churches for Middle East Peace faxed a letter to Bush, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, national security adviser Condoleezaa Rice and other members of the White House staff.

Read the rest at the Washington Post

September 28, 2003:

In Iraq, private contractors lighten load on U.S. troops

A noisy column of green camouflage heralds the coming of the new Iraqi Army's first recruits. The would-be soldiers -- young and middle aged, Kurdish, Arab and Turkoman -- march in formation, launch ambushes, fire their weapons and take instruction on the ethics of being good soldiers.

The United States occupation authority, proudly displaying the battalion-size set of recruits for the international media earlier this month, hopes they will eventually grow into a pro-American military that will defend the country from foreign enemies and prevent domestic strife.

But to train them in these critical tasks, the United States isn't turning to its own armed forces but to a group of gray-suited specialists under contract from the Vinnell Corp., a subsidiary of American defense giant Northrop Grumman. Vinnell is one of more than a dozen private military companies, often called PMCs, hired by the Pentagon to augment U.S. forces in Iraq in ways that have occasionally raised the eyebrows of real soldiers and occupation officials.

"The Iraqi army is such an essential component for the future of Iraq in terms of avoiding civil war," said Rex Wempen, a Baghdad-based security consultant and former Special Forces operative. "It shows how embedded the PMCs are in the thinking of the Department of Defense that they would use them to train that army."

At a time when the overstretched U.S. military is struggling to convince other nations to send troops to help secure Iraq, the private military contractors can relieve some of the pressure on American forces.

"If you're going to keep the number of troops down, this is the way to do it," said Wempen. "The expense is the same or more. But politically it's much less expensive."

Staffed by ex-military personnel, the private firms are playing an increasingly visible role in Iraq.

Armed employees of Custer Battles, a Fairfax, Va., firm, guard Baghdad airport, manning the type of checkpoints often operated by American soldiers.

Erinys, a British company with offices in the Middle East and South Africa, guards the oil fields.

Global Risk, a British firm that offers "risk management," has the contract to provide armed protection for the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led occupation power.

DynCorp of Reston, Va., has been hired to help train Iraq's police.

Much of the work conducted by the contractors is secret. Western security officials in Iraq say the companies aren't yet going out on combat operations as they do in Colombia and other countries. Mostly they safeguard sites, but occasionally they are needed for a specific task -- say, quietly snatching a suspected loyalist to Saddam Hussein.

"The CIA has recruited ex-military people to do operations in Iraq," said an Iraq-based former U.S. military official who requested anonymity. "These people have security clearances."

Coalition and U.S. military officials say the contractors have the flexibility to do some things quickly that armed forces simply can't.

"They could be got here quickly," said British Brig. Jonathon Riley. "The U.S. or Britain didn't have to deploy another combat brigade to take this task."

Contractors also can cast a wider net in hiring, helping to internationalize the forces in Iraq even as U.S. attempts to attract more foreign troops stall.

"We're trying to get more international participation here and the contractors can hire internationally," said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Johnny Monds, one of the coalition soldiers in Kirkush.

Employees of Erniys make $88,000 a year, plus benefits -- triple what most soldiers make. A bodyguard from a company like Pilgrims or Securicor can cost as much as $500 a day.

Private contractors say their services nevertheless often save money. "The cost of a soldier or officer is very high in training, retirement, medical, education of dependents, etc.," said an official of a Washington, D.C.-area military contractor.

Though contractors don't have to deal with Army red tape, they have their own complications to unravel. Vinnell, for example, has subcontracted most of the Kirkush training to MPRI, an Alexandria, Va., firm that helped train the Croatian and Bosnian armies.

Vinnell's compound in Saudi Arabia, where it has worked for a long time, was bombed May 13 and nine of its employees were killed in a suspected al Qaida attack. "They had a very difficult time getting people to work here for them [after that]," said an MPRI employee in Iraq.

Problems at the Kirkush facility, a sprawling campus of brick buildings near the Iranian border, began as soon as trainers and recruits arrived in the summer. The food initially was so bad that many of the trainers threatened to quit, an official at Kirkush wrote in an e-mail correspondence. "One contractor was discovered to have been using an old kerosene tanker to transport water in, and about 50 people got sick," he wrote.

Many coalition soldiers on the ground are squeamish about the private contractors and say they weren't involved in the decision to contract out duties such as training soldiers. They hope the contractors are a temporary fix, and that eventually Iraqis themselves -- including former members of Saddam's Baath Party now barred from joining the military -- will take up the duty.

"This is a very touchy issue," said a high-level coalition military official who opposes expanded use of private soldiers in Iraq. "There's a lot of pressure to use these contractors. Some oppose it. Some support it."

Some soldiers said privately that the soldiers-for-hire walk around Iraq with their weapons in full view as if they belong to a coalition army. They worry that the private-sector soldiers might not be constricted by the same rules of engagement and that any rogues among them who kill or hurt Iraqis could bring reprisals on all foreign forces.

Under current rules of engagement, many U.S. soldiers in volatile regions can open fire on any civilian brandishing a weapon. A coalition military official in Baghdad asked, "What are the rules of engagement [for the private companies]? Are they civilians or are they military? I don't know who they are and I don't want to go anywhere near them.''

The Coalition Provisional Authority did not respond to several formal requests for information regarding private military activities in Iraq. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, responding to a question about them at a press conference several weeks ago, said he did not know of any plans to use contractors to perform security functions for the military.

On the ground, however, dozens of private soldiers -- many of them well-trained former U.S. or British Special Forces -- are operating in Iraq.

Richard Galustian of Pilgrims, a contractor that provides security for many Western media outlets, said PMCs must register with the Ministry of Interior as well as the coalition authority. He described one incident in which his firms' security officials opened fire on a group of suspected bandits along the road from Baghdad to the Jordanian border. "Certainly, at least one or two people were hit," he said.

According to one former Special Forces operative now in Baghdad, military contractors guarding ministries on behalf of the occupation authorities have killed Iraqis seen as trying to loot or attack the buildings.

"It's Iraq," he said. "You're accountable to nobody. But I guess ultimately you're accountable to the U.S. military for what happens."

At the Kirkush training facility, the contractors expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of helping, not killing, Iraqis. Almost all the staff there are former U.S. military with security clearances.

"All of us came here with feelings of altruism that go way beyond the pay," one of the trainers under the Vinnell contract said in an email. "We have here the best of the best when it comes to what we do. Many of us have been doing this secret stuff for years and know each other from other parts of the world."

One even complained that the coalition forces were trying to make it appear as if they and not the contractors were training the new Iraqi recruits. "[They] worked very hard to make it look like a coalition operation," said the official, an employee of one of the contractors working at Kirkush. "Well, it truly isn't. It's all civilians like me."

In Latin America, where the United States has been quietly waging a war against drug lords and anti-government guerrillas for years, the Pentagon has contracted many military duties to private armies for hire -- including combat operations. Many coalition officials hope limits are placed on the use of such contractors in Iraq.

"I believe there is much discussion about the use of contractors who are accountable in the right way for some specific functions to do with peacekeeping," said Riley, the British general. "But I think one has to be very careful about where and when contractors are applied. There are very specific circumstances in which they are useful."

Read the rest at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette

September 28, 2004:

General downplays Iraq violence

The head of U.S. Central Command has given an upbeat assessment of the situation in Iraq, despite the deaths of 250 Iraqis and 29 U.S. military personnel in the last week.

General John Abizaid said Tuesday that progress on the ground belies the negative images of the war effort. He also asserted the new Iraqi military structure can accommodate some people who served during the Saddam Hussein era.

Comparing the Afghan experience to Iraq, Abizaid said the people are eager for the upcoming transitional national assembly elections in January.

"I do think there is a general lack of understanding in the United States as to how it's going," said Abizaid, interviewed by Baghdad Bureau Chief Jane Arraf at the 1st Infantry Division's Camp Warhorse near Baquba.

That the images on the screen are almost always negative images as opposed to the significant and positive steps that are taken.

"For example, today we met with the governor of Diyala province here and we met with the police chief of the province. Violence is down. We're moving forward economically. People are very optimistic about being able to conduct elections ... they're optimistic about the future."

Read the rest at CNN

Pentagon may shorten tours of duty in Iraq

The US army is considering shortening tours of duty for its soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq as a way of persuading them to re-enlist, it was reported yesterday.
As the insurgency in Iraq intensifies, military authorities are finding it difficult to recruit troops or to persuade soldiers to extend their service.

The shortage is acute among military reserves and the National Guard, the so-called weekend warriors, who between them account for about half the US forces in Iraq. Some military officials say the Pentagon will be confronted with a recruitment crisis unless combat tours are shortened. But with US forces overstretched, it is unclear how that can be achieved.

"All the army leadership agrees that 12 months is too long," Lieutenant General Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told the New York Times. "We need to move to a shorter rotational base."

Read the rest at the Guardian

September 28, 2005:

The new pornography of war is the most horror-filled website I have ever seen; and if you are reading this at breakfast, or anywhere near a child, you should stop right now. It is a site for trophy pictures, originally a place where men could trade pornographic pictures of women they knew. But in wartime the definition of trophy changes, so when you look at the forum now you are likely to see something such as this:

A burnt and crumpled Arab face rests in a blue kitchen bowl. It doesn't look as if the back of the head is there, but it's impossible to be sure because everything behind the eyes is hidden in a pool of blood and everything below the jaw is missing. Underneath the picture are two discreet text ads for "Free amateur teen pictures" and "Mother and Daughter omfg! They are whores lol!"

There are several hundred such pictures on the site, all apparently submitted by American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The deal offered by the site's owner, Chris Wilson, is that serving soldiers get free access if they can prove they are abroad. He did this from a patriotic impulse: it was difficult for soldiers to make credit card payments from Afghanistan. So he decided to accept evidence of life abroad instead. This doesn't have to be a picture of a mutilated corpse, but those will do nicely. The site now has more than 160,000 members.

The scandal at Abu Ghraib showed that modern armies are full of people with digital cameras who will document everything they see, no matter how shaming it might be in the outside world. Some of these pictures are far worse than anything that came out of the prison but they show the same tangle of lust for flesh, power and killing.

There's some dispute about whether all of the pictures are real but it seems beyond doubt that most of the posters claiming to be soldiers actually are, not least because the American Army tries to stop its soldiers accessing the site and posting captions like this: "Iraqi driver tried to run a checkpoint ... this is an Iraqi driver and passenger that tried to run a checkpoint during the first part of OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom]. The bad thing about shooting them is that we have to clean it up. The car was shot at with 5.56mm and 7.62 mm rounds. The 7.62 did his head" - but the viewer must take on trust that the head existed.

The soldier, signing himself "vagetarian", who posted the picture comments: "These are things that we have to do. Some of us dont like it but it must be done to protect ourselfs and our way of life. These are here to show we dont take anything lightly."

News of the site has been circulating outside the army for about a month, since Helena Cobban, a Quaker blogger and journalist, found a reference to it in an Italian report. "It underlines the deeply exploitative nature of most pornography," she says.

Wilson, the owner of the site, is proud of displaying the photographs. He popped up himself in the discussions on Cobban's blog to say: "I think everyone should see them. This is a side of the war that is shown from the soldiers THEMSELVES. Where else can you go see that?"

He is proud of free expression as a mark of civilisation (though, for legal reasons, the site is hosted in the Netherlands, and not Florida where he lives). At the head of each column of pictures is an uplifting paragraph denouncing censorship, which starts: "America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship."

"It is", says Cobban, "like finding Mistah Kurtz, sitting in the middle of the black jungle, surrounded by heads on stakes"

Read the rest at the Guardian

September 28, 2006:

Land says Baptists still support Bush, Iraq war

The head of public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention says an overwhelming majority of Baptists still support President Bush and his handling of the Iraq war.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Richard Land said that exit polls showed about 84 percent of Southern Baptists voted for Bush in 2004. The Iraq war hasn't significantly eroded that support, he said, despite recent polls that show Republicans losing ground with moderate evangelicals.

“I'm not ready to throw in the towel on Iraq yet,” said Land, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's public policy arm.
“It would be foolish to say anybody's pleased,” Land said. “I don't think the president's pleased with the progress of the war. Clearly, he would have wished things would have gone better. So do I.”

But, Land added: “I still think Iraq is one of the more noble things we've done. We went there to try to restore freedom and to bring freedom to the Middle East.”

Read the rest at the San Diego Tribune