Sunday, September 30, 2007

Perspective: On this day in Iraq -- September 30th edition

September 30, 2005: A soldier with the 1st Infantry Regiment provides rear security during a medical assistance mission near Rawah.

September 30, 2002:

Report: U.S. supplied the kinds of germs Iraq later used for biological weapons

Iraq's bioweapons program that President Bush wants to eradicate got its start with help from Uncle Sam two decades ago, according to government records getting new scrutiny in light of the discussion of war against Iraq.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent samples directly to several Iraqi sites that U.N. weapons inspectors determined were part of Saddam Hussein's biological weapons program, CDC and congressional records from the early 1990s show. Iraq had ordered the samples, claiming it needed them for legitimate medical research.

The CDC and a biological sample company, the American Type Culture Collection, sent strains of all the germs Iraq used to make weapons, including anthrax, the bacteria that make botulinum toxin and the germs that cause gas gangrene, the records show. Iraq also got samples of other deadly pathogens, including the West Nile virus.

The transfers came in the 1980s, when the United States supported Iraq in its war against Iran. They were detailed in a 1994 Senate Banking Committee report and a 1995 follow-up letter from the CDC to the Senate.

The exports were legal at the time and approved under a program administered by the Commerce Department.

"I don't think it would be accurate to say the United States government deliberately provided seed stocks to the Iraqis' biological weapons programs," said Jonathan Tucker, a former U.N. biological weapons inspector.

"But they did deliver samples that Iraq said had a legitimate public health purpose, which I think was naive to believe, even at the time."

The disclosures put the United States in the uncomfortable position of possibly having provided the key ingredients of the weapons America is considering waging war to destroy, said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. Byrd entered the documents into the Congressional Record this month.

Byrd asked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld about the germ transfers at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Byrd noted that Rumsfeld met Saddam in 1983, when Rumsfeld was President Reagan's Middle East envoy.

"Are we, in fact, now facing the possibility of reaping what we have sown?" Byrd asked Rumsfeld after reading parts of a Newsweek article on the transfers.

"I have never heard anything like what you've read, I have no knowledge of it whatsoever, and I doubt it," Rumsfeld said. He later said he would ask the Defense Department and other government agencies to search their records for evidence of the transfers.

Invoices included in the documents read like shopping lists for biological weapons programs. One 1986 shipment from the Virginia-based American Type Culture Collection included three strains of anthrax, six strains of the bacteria that make botulinum toxin and three strains of the bacteria that cause gas gangrene. Iraq later admitted to the United Nations that it had made weapons out of all three.

The company sent the bacteria to the University of Baghdad, which U.N. inspectors concluded had been used as a front to acquire samples for Iraq's biological weapons program.

The CDC, meanwhile, sent shipments of germs to the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission and other agencies involved in Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs. It sent samples in 1986 of botulinum toxin and botulinum toxiod — used to make vaccines against botulinum toxin — directly to the Iraqi chemical and biological weapons complex at al-Muthanna, the records show.

Botulinum toxin is the paralyzing poison that causes botulism. Having a vaccine to the toxin would be useful for anyone working with it, such as biological weapons researchers or soldiers who might be exposed to the deadly poison, Tucker said.

The CDC also sent samples of a strain of West Nile virus to an Iraqi microbiologist at a university in the southern city of Basra in 1985, the records show.

Read the rest at USA Today

September 30, 2003:

U.S.-British Differences Show Iraq Intelligence Gap

In the buildup to the Iraq war last fall, the intelligence agencies of Britain and the United States raised questions about each other's most dramatic claims concerning Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, according to newly released British documents and recent interviews with U.S. congressional and administration officials.

Documents published by British government investigators show that in September 2002, British intelligence played down as not conclusive evidence that Iraq's attempted purchases of specialized aluminum tubes signaled an intention to use them to produce nuclear weapons. In a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released the following month, the CIA strongly contended that the attempted purchases did reflect such an intent.

In turn, U.S. intelligence officials in September 2002 questioned the reliability of intelligence on Iraq's alleged effort to purchase uranium in Africa and Hussein's capability to deploy chemical weapons within 45 minutes. The British emphasized those two points in an intelligence dossier published Sept. 24, 2002, and President Bush repeated them as he made his case for attacking Iraq.

With U.S. and British forces having found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in the four months since major combat operations ended in Iraq, the disagreements between the allies' intelligence agencies highlight how little they actually knew about Hussein's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs before the war.

The new British information, arising from three government inquiries, also showed that there were two points on which the United States and the British agreed: that there was no evidence before the war that Hussein had given chemical or biological materials to terrorists, and that the Iraqi leader probably would take such a step only if his government was about to collapse under attack.

Senior U.S. and British policymakers cited the threat of Iraq's turning such weapons over to terrorists as a reason for attacking Baghdad.

The aluminum tubes figured prominently in the Bush administration's case for going to war. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell cited the tubes when he presented evidence against Iraq to the United Nations last February. In its October 2002 NIE, the CIA emphasized Iraq's attempts to purchase the tubes, specifically mentioning the effort as a "key judgment" in declaring that Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program.

However, from its early drafts, the British dossier was more subdued on the point, first including it only as Iraq's covert attempts to acquire "specialized aluminum which is subject to internal export controls because of its potential application to gas centrifuges used to enrich uranium."

Prime Minister Tony Blair's director of communications and strategy at the time, Alastair Campbell, played a coordinating role in production of the dossier and made suggestions to the intelligence officials as drafts were done. One newly released memo, dated Sept. 17, 2002, just before the final draft was finished, suggested that the number of aluminum tubes Iraq had sought, 60,000, be placed in the dossier's draft executive summary.

But intelligence experts at the British Foreign Office stepped in, according to a Sept. 19 memo from John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), the senior British intelligence panel that included leaders of intelligence agencies and representatives from the Defense Ministry and Foreign Office. As chairman, Scarlett had been given responsibility for drafting the dossier.

Scarlett wrote Campbell that he had removed the reference to aluminum tubes from the executive summary and "toned down the reference to aluminum tubes . . . [reflecting] some very recent exchanges on intelligence channels." There is no mention of what those exchanges were, but one addition to the final dossier's discussion of the 60,000 aluminum tubes was the phrase, ". . . there is no definitive intelligence that it is destined for a nuclear programme."

"That was a reflection of the state of the intelligence," Scarlett told a British investigative panel last Tuesday.

In the United States, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research had vigorously opposed the intelligence community's estimate that the tubes were for a nuclear centrifuge.

In their dossier, the British claimed that Hussein's "military planning allows for some of the WMD [weapons of mass destruction] to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them." Bush publicly repeated the claim the day the dossier was made public and again in his weekly radio address without checking with the CIA on its accuracy.

Sir Richard Billing Dearlove, the director of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), which is popularly known as MI6, told a British investigative panel earlier this month that information for the 45-minute claim came in August 2002 from "a senior Iraqi military officer who was certainly in a position to know this information."

A report released Sept. 11 by the British Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee disclosed that the information was the only piece of intelligence the British had with "definite times associated with the deployment or use" of such weapons. But the committee pointed out that SIS "did not know what munitions the Iraqi officer was referring to or their status." In addition, there was no knowledge "from where and to where the munitions might be moved" in that time frame, nor whether they existed.

Dearlove testified earlier this month that the intelligence referred to "battlefield weapons," which the published dossier did not make clear.

A senior Bush administration official familiar with the intelligence said that the CIA never included the 45-minute deployment in its intelligence assessments because it had "no separate reporting," although it found the statement "interesting and plausible." A senior congressional aide said Congress had been told that U.S. intelligence "had no confidence in the Iraqi officer" and that the information itself was "general."

The British government inquiries also disclosed new intelligence about Iraq's alleged attempts to purchase uranium in Africa, an important point for the Bush administration.

The president used the British dossier to support the 16-word statement in his 2003 State of the Union address that, "The British government has learned Saddam Hussein has recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Subsequently, the White House acknowledged that it was wrong to have included the line in the speech. The new British documents show the basis on which the Blair government made the assertion.

SIS had two independent sources for reporting the uranium purchase attempts, according to the Intelligence and Security Committee report: One source provided the information in June 2002 and the other just as the dossier was being finalized that September. One of the two was described as "documentary evidence."

In his Sept. 17 memo to Scarlett, Campbell asked, "Can we say he [Hussein] has secured uranium from Africa," underlining the word "secured." At a hearing last week, Campbell was asked why he sought that change and responded, "I had been present at discussions where I thought that was a definitive piece of information."

On Sept. 18, Scarlett wrote Campbell that the intelligence underlying the allegation was in the possession not of the British, but of some unnamed foreign service. He told Campbell, "The agreed interpretation of the intelligence, brokered with some difficulty with the originators and owners of the reporting, allows us only to say that he has 'sought' uranium from Africa."

At the same time, the CIA was arguing with other officials in London that U.S. intelligence on that subject was too weak and that the item should not be included in the British dossier. The previous February, the CIA had sent former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson to Niger, where the supposed offer to purchase was made, to check on the allegation, and he came back with denials from Niger officials.

In his testimony last week , Scarlett said the British at the last minute softened a statement that they had "compelling" intelligence on the alleged seeking of uranium. "We had received further intelligence . . . which indicated that it was being sought but no more; and anyway the word 'compelling' is not a word that we would normally use unless we had a very high [degree of confidence]."

SIS did not obtain the documentary evidence of the uranium allegation until March 2003, when the International Atomic Energy Agency declared that documents it had received from the United States related to Iraq's alleged uranium purchases in Niger had been forged. Since that time, SIS has been attempting to "check the authenticity" of its documents, the parliamentary committee said.

As for the information provided by the other British source, the committee said that after questioning the SIS "about the basis of its judgment," it had determined the dossier statement on Iraq seeking uranium in Africa was "reasonable."

Read the rest at the Washington Post

September 30, 2004:

U.S. Effort Aims to Improve Opinions About Iraq Conflict

The Bush administration, battling negative perceptions of the Iraq war, is sending Iraqi Americans to deliver what the Pentagon calls "good news" about Iraq to U.S. military bases, and has curtailed distribution of reports showing increasing violence in that country.

The unusual public-relations effort by the Pentagon and the U.S. Agency for International Development comes as details have emerged showing the U.S. government and a representative of President Bush's reelection campaign had been heavily involved in drafting the speech given to Congress last week by interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Combined, they indicate that the federal government is working assiduously to improve Americans' opinions about the Iraq conflict -- a key element of Bush's reelection message.

USAID said this week that it will restrict distribution of reports by contractor Kroll Security International showing that the number of daily attacks by insurgents in Iraq has increased. On Monday, a day after The Washington Post published a front-page story saying that "the Kroll reports suggest a broad and intensifying campaign of insurgent violence," a USAID official sent an e-mail to congressional aides stating: "This is the last Kroll report to come in. After the WPost story, they shut it down in order to regroup. I'll let you know when it restarts."

Asked about the Kroll reports yesterday, USAID spokesman Jeffrey Grieco said, "The agency has restricted its circulation to those contractors and grantees who continue to work in Iraq." He said that the reports were given to congressional officials who sought them, but that the information will now be "restricted to those who need it for security planning in Iraq." An agency official said the decision was unrelated to the Post story and was based on a fear that the reports "would fall into insurgents' hands."

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's office has sent commanders of U.S. military facilities a five-page memorandum titled "Guidance to Commanders." The Pentagon, the memo says, is sponsoring a group of Iraqi Americans and former officials from the Coalition Provisional Authority to speak at military bases throughout the United States starting Friday to provide "a first-hand account" of events in Iraq. The Iraqi Americans and the CPA officials worked on establishing the interim Iraqi government. The Iraqi Americans "feel strongly that the benefits of the coalition efforts have not been fully reported," the memo says.

The memo says the presentations are "designed to be uplifting accounts with good news messages." Rumsfeld's office, which will pay for the tour, recommends that the installations seek local news coverage, noting that "these events and presentations are positive public relations opportunities."

The memo anticipates controversy. "It is well understood that the efforts and sacrifices associated with Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom have resulted in a significant human toll," it says. "As such, emotions and apprehensions may run high in response to the conduct of these visits." The memo offered reassurance that those on the tour "are not political policy makers" and said commanders at each base "are in the best position on how to market this voluntary attendance program effectively."

Lt. Col. Joe Richard, a Pentagon spokesman, said most of the Iraqi Americans are teachers who will emphasize improvements made to the Iraqi education system. He said they want to "provide some perspective on the operation" in Iraq. "I wouldn't characterize it as unusual. There are provisions that allow for it."

At the White House, National Security Council spokesman Jim Wilkinson said the Iraqi Americans have "a legitimate perspective, and that perspective should be heard."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, asked Tuesday about similarities between Bush's statements about Iraq and Allawi's speech to Congress last week, said he did not know of any help U.S. officials gave with the speech. "None that I know of," he said, adding, "No one at the White House." He also said he did not know if the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad had seen the speech.

But administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the prime minister was coached and aided by the U.S. government, its allies and friends of the administration. Among them was Dan Senor, former spokesman for the CPA who has more recently represented the Bush campaign in media appearances. Senor, who has denied writing the speech, sent Allawi recommended phrases. He also helped Allawi rehearse in New York last week, officials said. Senor declined to comment.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and British Foreign Service officials also helped Allawi with the text and delivery of his remarks, said administration officials who were involved. The State Department and officials elsewhere in the government took the lead in booking Allawi's interviews. Administration officials said that the Iraqi Embassy in Washington consists of just a few officials and has only a dial-up Internet connection, so was incapable of preparing for the high-profile tour.

Read the rest at the Washington Post

US bases in Iraq: sticky politics, hard math

If a new Iraq government should agree to let American forces stay on, how many bases will the US request?

One, as the United States Army currently maintains in Honduras? Six, the number of installations it lists in the Netherlands. Or maybe 12?

The Pentagon isn't saying.

But a dozen is the number of so-called "enduring bases" located by John Pike, director of His military affairs website gives their names. They include, for example, Camp Victory at the Baghdad airfield and Camp Renegade in Kirkuk. The Chicago Tribune last March said US engineers are constructing 14 "enduring bases," but Mr. Pike hasn't located two of them.

Note the terminology "enduring" bases. That's Pentagon-speak for long-term encampments - not necessarily permanent, but not just a tent on a wood platform either. It all suggests a planned indefinite stay on Iraqi soil that will cost US taxpayers for years to come.

The actual amount depends on how many troops are stationed there for the long term. If the US decides to reduce its forces there from the 138,000 now to, say, 50,000, and station them in bases, the costs would run between $5 billion to $7 billion a year, estimates Gordon Adams, director of Security Policy Studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. That's two to three times as much as the annual American subsidy to Israel. Providing protection for Israel is one of several reasons some analysts cite for the US invasion of Iraq.

If more troops are based in Iraq for the long haul, the cost would be higher. US Army planners are preparing to maintain the current level of forces in Iraq at least through 2007, The New York Times reported this week. But no decision has been made at the political level.

So far, the Bush administration has not publicly indicated that it will seek permanent bases in Iraq to replace those recently given up in Saudi Arabia, a possibility mentioned by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz before US forces moved into Iraq. The US already has bases in Kuwait and Qatar.

At an April 2003 press conference, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said any suggestion that the US is planning a permanent military presence in Iraq is "inaccurate and unfortunate." With the presidential election weeks away, he is unlikely to alter that pronouncement on such a politically touchy matter. Such a move would almost certainly attract fire from Democratic candidate John Kerry.

Nonetheless, several military experts in Washington assume Iraq's new government will need the support of American troops - and thus "permanent" bases - for years, perhaps decades, to come.

The US already has 890 military installations in foreign countries, ranging from major Air Force bases to smaller installations, say a radar facility. Perhaps bases in Iraq would enable the Pentagon to close a few of those facilities. As part of a post-cold-war shift in its global posture, the Defense Department has been cutting the number of its installations in Germany, which total more than 100. Last week Mr. Rumsfeld testified about a global "rearrangement" of US forces to the Senate Armed Forces Committee.

"Who needs Germany when we have Iraq?" asks Mr. Pike of

Building bases in Iraq has risks. Two Americans beheaded last week were working as civil engineers constructing the Taji military base north of Baghdad, one of the bases Pike lists as "enduring."

The bigger risk: Polls find that at least 80 percent of Iraqis - whatever their views on the insurgency, democracy, the removal of Saddam Hussein, and other issues - want US armed forces to leave their nation. Making the bases permanent could stir up more opposition to the US occupation.

Another fear, however, is that without US bases, the various Iraqi factions - the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds - would fall into civil war. In turn, this conflict could drag in Iran, Syria, and Turkey, leading to a widespread conflict in the Middle East. Hope of establishing a democracy in an Arab nation would fade.

To avoid these risks, an Iraq government will accept a US military presence despite popular disapproval, Pike says. "An indefinite American presence in Iraq is the ultimate guarantor of some quasi-pluralistic government."

Also, withdrawal of US forces would be seen by Iraqi insurgents as a victory, prompting them to redouble their efforts to kill Americans, says Thomas Donnelly, a military expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

The US can afford maintaining bases in Iraq, he argues. US defense spending now amounts to a bit more than 4 percent of gross domestic product, the nation's output of goods and services. It might rise as a result of Iraq bases to 5 percent of GDP, still less than the 6.5 percent of GDP in the cold war or the 10 percent during the Vietnam War.

Not everyone agrees. Permanent bases in Iraq are a "disastrously bad idea," says Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. It reinforces Iraqi suspicions that the US launched the war to get a hand on Iraqi oil, control the region, and wants to maintain a puppet government in Baghdad.

The total cost of the Iraq war has reached $125 billion to $140 billion, estimates Mr. Adams. Reconstruction boosts the total to as high as $175 billion. Permanent bases would keep the tab running for years to come.

Read the rest at the Christian Science Monitor

September 30, 2005:

On lookout for insurgents, Marines yearn for home

As the crimson sun rolled behind the Taraq an-Naja Mountains, a group of U.S. Marines scraped their shovels across the infertile, rocky soil of western Iraq, trying to set their mortar launchers deeper into the dust.

In the Euphrates River valley before them twinkled the white and yellow lights of Sada and Karabila -- key Iraqi towns near the border with Syria controlled by fighters loyal to insurgency leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Marines from the 1st Mobile Assault Platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment camped out Thursday on a moonless night in the desiccated expanse overlooking the towns, setting up mortar firing positions and keeping an eye for any insurgent movement inside the settlements.

As they set up their mortars, the Marines discarded the metal bindings of 81mm ammo cases, leaving the long metal strips on the ground like some strange petrified seaweed mysteriously beached onto the Iraqi desert. On the bottom of a dry riverbed, salt reflected the receding light. A lightning flash, an early sign of fall, lit up the horizon over Sada, and a thunderclap followed.

Then darkness enveloped the encampment, and all became smells and sounds.

A Marine laughed in the distance. Another one, closer, lit a cigarette, which glowed orange in the dark. Dogs barked in Sada, and a donkey screamed. A humvee smelled of diesel fuel. A muezzin started a solemn call for the evening prayer. Somewhere, a car sped down a road. From time to time, helicopters roared overhead. Marines whispered loudly over the racket of rotors.

Cool wind carried noises across the shadowy desert, and Marines listened and sniffed in the darkness.

"Night is different," said Gunnery Sgt. Derrick Link, 32, as he listened to the static on the humvee radio, a lifeline for his platoon to battalion commanders. "You rely on different senses in the night. Your hearing instead of your sight. Everything sounds a lot closer than it is."

Night is also a time to contemplate and reminisce. The Marines talked about home.

Navy medic Michael Larson, 30, talked about 19th century Russian writers ("I love Gogol!") and food.

"I used to make focaccia bread, with olives and Parmesan cheese," he said. "I'd make pasta Alfredo. I love to cook. Make the whole course.

"When I go home, it will be, like, my girlfriend, food and my daughter, these three, nothing else."

Pfc. Dale Fellows, 19, talked about his girlfriend, too. She was a year ahead of him in high school in upstate New York, and now she goes to Northeastern University in Boston. She is an intern at the Boston Globe.

Link talked about his 9-year-old daughter, Samantha, who started cheerleading classes this year.

Stephen Thomson, 30, talked about his dream to go to medical school to become a radiologist.

"They work in teams, and they really know their anatomy, and I'm very interested in anatomy and physiology," he explained.

At 9 p.m., desert wind kicked up dust and carried it across the encampment. The temperature dropped from the daytime's 95 degrees to 62 in a matter of minutes. Marines materialized out of the opaque darkness, stopping by Link's truck to chat, rest and smoke. Some moved on, disappearing in the blowing sand; others stayed to seek the comfort of companionship.

"They rarely attack in the dark," Lance Cpl. Jared Treadway, 22, consoled himself, his shoulder-mounted launcher leaning against Link's humvee.

Link disagreed.

"Last time we stayed overnight, last week, the first night we got hit pretty bad," he said, standing near his humvee, which was parked facing the lights of Sada.

But this time the troops were luckier. An orange trace of a lone mortar round arched out of Sada at about 5:30 a.m., injuring no one.

"Maybe they are just waiting it out; maybe they're feeling there's a big fight coming, they just don't know when," Link said. "That's what I would have done."

At 1 a.m., the Marines start digging foxholes next to their humvees.

Earlier in the evening, when their convoy crept through the desert, the Marines had watched the tracks that crisscrossed the desert: humvee tire tracks; small tracks, from gerbils or mice; and larger ones, from foxes or stray dogs. The ones to watch out for were human tracks -- possible signs that someone had laid a roadside bomb in the fine, ankle-deep dust.

But where they finally made camp, the dirt was packed hard and strewn with small rocks, making the wasteland look like the surface of the moon.

Next to the passenger door of his humvee, Link drew a rectangular shape on the ground with the tip of his shovel, and forcefully stabbed the ground. The shovel went in less than one inch.

"F -- ing not good," he muttered. He took off his Kevlar helmet and his body armor. "This ground is hard as a f -- ing rock. There's no f -- ing way."

But he continued to dig, as did the troops around him. For several minutes, the air filled with the sound of metal scraping against rock.

At one point, Thomson stepped away from the 3-inch-deep hole he had managed to gouge in the ground, contemplating his work.

"It's like digging a grave," he says. "I'll lay in my little grave, I'll put my sleeping bag on top of me, and I'll be warm. I've found out that the deeper you dig, the warmer it gets."

"Last time we were out," he continued, "the first day, I dug like a champion. The second day, I didn't dig deep enough, and I was cold."

He paused, then smiled.

"I talk about digging as though I'd been digging graves all my life," he said, shaking his head.

Soon, everyone except for the Marines pulling guard duty was lying in the foxholes they had managed to dig. It became so quiet that the ticking of Link's wristwatch filled the air.

Then there were steps.

A Marine carrying a backpack walked past Link's humvee, looking lost.

"I'm just freaking -- oh yeah," he said, remembering something, and walked away.

Link stretched out in his foxhole and fell asleep. Two hours later, the muezzin's call for prayer once again filled the dark predawn air.

"Wake up, wake up, prayer is better than sleep," the muezzin called in melodious Arabic.

The Marines' night in the desert was over.

Read the rest at the San Francisco Chronicle

September 30, 2006:

Pull troops out of Iraq: British officers

Senior British military officers have been pressing the UK government to withdraw British troops from Iraq and concentrate on what they now regard as a more worthwhile and winnable battleground in Afghanistan.

They believe there is a limit to what British soldiers can achieve in southern Iraq and that it is time the Iraqis took responsibility for their own security, defense sources say. Pressure from military chiefs for an early and significant cut in the 7,500 British troops in Iraq is also motivated by extreme pressure being placed on soldiers and those responsible for training them.

"What is more important, Afghanistan or Iraq?" a senior defense source asked on Thursday.

"There is a group within the Ministry of Defense [MoD] pushing hard to get troops out of Iraq to get more into Afghanistan," the source said.

Military chiefs have been losing patience with the slow progress made in building a new Iraqi national army and security services. Significantly, they now say the level of violence in the country will not be a factor determining when British troops should leave.

The debate has been raging between groups in the MoD and has involved the chiefs of staff as well as the permanent joint headquarters, defense sources say. Army chiefs have expressed concern about polls showing the decreasing popularity of the war and the impact on morale and recruitment.

Political arguments, including strong US pressure against British troop withdrawals, have won, at least for the moment. US generals in Iraq privately made it clear they were deeply unhappy about British talk of troop reductions.

The fierce debate at the highest military and political levels in the MoD is reflected in a passage of a leaked memo written by a staff officer at the Defense Academy, which is a think tank for the MoD.

It reads: "British armed forces are effectively held hostage in Iraq -- following the failure of the deal being attempted by COS [chief of staff] to extricate UK armed forces from Iraq on the basis of doing Afghanistan -- and we are now fighting (and arguably losing or potentially losing) on two fronts."

Read the rest at the Taipei Times