Saturday, October 13, 2007

Perspective: On this day in Iraq -- October 13th edition

October 13, 2003: Escorted by Blackwater 'security guards', Paul Bremer -- head of the Coalition Provisional Authority -- walks down the steps of the Al Hamar hotel after a night-time meeting in Baghdad.

October 13, 2002:

Pentagon has plans to vaccinate soldiers against smallpox

In moves suggesting new Pentagon preparations for war against Iraq, key Army and Marine Corps battle staffs are being sent to Kuwait and officials said Saturday that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is likely to order extra germ warfare protection for hundreds of thousands of troops.
Although no final decision has been made, Rumsfeld is expected to give the go-ahead soon for smallpox inoculations, according to a senior defense official who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.

Rumsfeld's spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, said a vaccination program is under consideration, but she would not discuss details. If it goes ahead, Clarke said, it would reflect Rumsfeld's push to provide every available form of protection for troops who might be exposed to chemical or germ weapons — including those who might fight in Iraq.

"The threat to those in the military is very real," she said.

Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops have received vaccines to protect them against anthrax, and after a long pause in that inoculation program, the pace of vaccinations was accelerated last month, officials said.

The Pentagon has taken numerous steps in recent weeks to position U.S. forces so as to reduce the time required to launch an attack on Iraq, should President Bush decide that force is required to disarm Saddam Hussein.

In the latest such move, the Pentagon ordered the battle staffs of the Army's V Corps, with headquarters at Heidelberg, Germany, and the Marine Corps' 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., to go to Kuwait, according to two officials familiar with the planning. Several thousand U.S. ground forces already are in Kuwait, mostly at Camp Doha.

Those moves, first reported in Saturday's Washington Post, strongly suggest that Rumsfeld is putting in place the battle planners and command staffs that would be called on to spearhead a land assault on Iraq.

The V Corps is the Army's only corps headquarters based outside the United States, and its combat units — including the 1st Armored Division and the 1st Infantry Division — are specifically trained for fighting in Europe or the Middle East. The V Corps is commanded by Lt. Gen. William Wallace and has 41,000 troops.

V Corps recently redesigned its main command post, making it completely modular and more mobile.

The battle staff of U.S. Central Command, which would have overall responsibility for war in Iraq, is planning to move to an air base in Qatar next month from its headquarters in Tampa The move is billed as an exercise, but officials say the staff — including the commanding general, Gen. Tommy Franks — may remain in Qatar in anticipation of a presidential decision to go to war.

Franks already has his naval command staff in Bahrain and his air command staff in Saudi Arabia.

In an interview for Sunday editions of The New York Times, Rumsfeld said he had ordered new war plans that would allow the military to begin combat operations on shorter notice and with smaller numbers of troops.

"Looking at what was overwhelming force a decade or two decades ago, today you can have overwhelming force, conceivably, with lesser numbers because the lethality is equal to or greater than before," he said.

Precision weapons, better intelligence and quicker deployment would enable the military to deliver "fewer troops, but in a faster time that would allow you to have concentrated power," Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Times.

One of the key worries about building up forces in the vicinity of Iraq is the possibility that Saddam could launch a pre-emptive strike using biological or chemical weapons. Thus the Pentagon is considering additional protections, such as the vaccine for the virus that causes smallpox, as first reported in Saturday's New York Times.

U.S. officials suspect that Iraq has strains of the smallpox virus that could be used against U.S. troops, although the Iraqi government insists it destroyed all its biological weapons after the 1991 Gulf War.

The Health and Human Services Department recently informed the Pentagon that it would make about 1 million doses of the smallpox vaccine available for inoculating troops. The White House has not yet decided whether civilians will be offered the smallpox vaccine.

Vaccinations for troops could begin as early as November, officials said. First to receive it would be those whom the Pentagon calls "first responders," troops responsible for responding to domestic disasters such as a bioweapons attack. They include medical specialists. Next to get it probably would be troops in combat units designated to deploy first in a major military crisis abroad, such as the Army's airborne infantry.

As many as 500,000 troops might eventually be inoculated, according to another senior defense official. Of the 1.4 million men and women in the active-duty military, fewer than half have ever received the smallpox vaccine, the official said.

Read the rest at USA Today

October 13, 2003:

Iraqis' guerrilla tactics blur terms of battle

To shoot or not to shoot?

Suddenly, it was a life or death decision Private Christopher Hollis had to make. Someone had just fired at his 1st Infantry Division checkpoint under an overpass on Highway 10, and now, crouching behind a guardrail, Hollis was scanning some rickety roadside soda stands 200 yards away for the sniper through the scope of his M-16 rifle.

He could fire back at the dusty desert, risking the lives of the Iraqi children who had scattered from the kiosks as soon as they heard the shot. Or, he could not respond, risking his life and the lives of the dozen other U.S. soldiers at the checkpoint.

This is a call GIs in Iraq have to make every day. With Iraqi guerrillas mounting between 10 and 20 hit-and-run attacks on U.S. troops daily, U.S. soldiers admit that the pressure of constantly being a target has made them jumpy.

The only way to respond, they say, is by following new, merciless rules of engagement stated one night last week by Lt. Peter Katzfey in front of 299 Engineer Battalion soldiers preparing for a night patrol in Tikrit:

"Shoot to kill. No questions asked."

Major Robert Isabella, a public affairs officer of the Fourth Infantry Division based in Tikrit, elaborated. "This is war. Someone shoots from a window, we're gonna put 100 rounds in it. Somebody runs a checkpoint, we're gonna fire on that vehicle."

Since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to "major combat," 95 U.S. soldiers have died in hostile fire. Most of them were attacked in Baghdad, near Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, or here on Highway 10, about 30 miles west of the capital.

U.S. authorities insist they have little choice but to respond, in self- defense. But Iraqi critics and some Western human rights organizations say dozens of innocent bystanders are getting killed in cross fire or as a result of mistaken raids by overaggressive U.S. troops.

"As attacks against them continue, U.S. soldiers are sometimes resorting to deadly force in a reckless and indiscriminate way," Joe Stork, acting executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division, said in a statement last month.

In the past two months, civilian casualties have been mounting. On Sept. 17, U.S. troops killed a teenage boy in Fallujah, a hotbed of Iraqi resistance, having mistaken celebratory shots at a wedding for an attack against them. Nine Iraqi policemen and a Jordanian guard, who were chasing local bandits, died on Sept. 12 in Fallujah after an 82nd Airborne Division patrol fired on them, thinking they were rebel fighters. A Sept. 23 air strike on a farmhouse, which the military thought was a rebel hideout, killed three sleeping civilians. A Reuters television cameraman, Mazen Dana, 41, was killed Aug. 17 by tank fire, when U.S. troops thought the camera Dana was using outside an Iraqi prison was a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. In that incident, at least two other journalists were shot at.

Lt. Col. George Krivo, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, called the shooting of Dana regrettable, but said the soldiers acted within the rules of engagement.

No one knows how many Iraqi civilians have been accidentally killed or wounded by U.S. soldiers. Lt. Kate Noble, a spokeswoman for the U.S.-led coalition forces, said the troops do not keep a record of civilian casualties, and many Iraqis interviewed for this story said they did not know where to file complaints over alleged misconduct of U.S. soldiers.

Human Rights Watch has criticized the lack of transparency in relation to U. S. investigations of such incidents.

Shatha al Quraishi, a Baghdad lawyer, said she represents 158 Iraqis who have filed claims for financial compensation since May. She said most of her clients have been wounded or maimed or had their loved ones killed by U.S. troops. Some, she said, had their property destroyed in cross fire.

One of al Quraishi's clients, Anmar Dawood Salman, said a U.S. soldier killed his brother Fahad when Fahad's car backfired at a busy rotary in downtown Baghdad Sept. 27. Salman said the soldier, who was crossing the square on a humvee, had apparently mistaken the sound for a gunshot.

"He fired one bullet, and it went through the windshield and straight through his neck. He died on the spot," Anmar said, serving his guests the bitter black coffee Iraqi mourning traditions require. "Fahad was a civilian, a shopkeeper. He did not even have a weapon."

Although in his claim Anmar demands compensation for the killing of his older brother, he said it was not the money he wanted.

"I want Americans to realize how much harm they bring and to pay attention to people they kill," he said. "We hope that American commanders will pay attention and tell their troops not to act so hastily."

U.S. military officials say the troops are trained to minimize civilian casualties, and GIs on the ground angrily dispute assertions they are overreacting or firing indiscriminately.

"We do not fire on anybody unless we feel that our life is threatened," Joshua Matthews, an infantry soldier with the 101st Airborne Division in northern Iraq, wrote in an e-mail. "We don't just kill for the fun of it. Have you ever killed anybody? It sucks!

"But, we all plan to go home one day and I'll be damned if some ignorant, brainwashed Muslim extremist is going to get in my way of seeing my family again," Matthews wrote. "I have lost two very good friends of mine in an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] attack a few months ago. Having to help put them in body bags is an image I will never forget."

The frequent attacks, in which the rebels rely increasingly on remote- controlled roadside bombs, have made many soldiers suspicious of nearly every Iraqi they see.

As he rode through the garbage-strewn outskirts of Tikrit in the passenger seat of a humvee, Sgt. Derek White of the 299 Engineer Battalion held his M249 machine gun at the ready. A boy squatting by a roadside soda stand waved tentatively. Then, as the humvee sped by, the boy lifted his chin, squinted and spat in the direction of the passing vehicle.

"I don't need friends like this," White remarked. "They smile in your face during the daytime and they try to kill you at night."

The Iraqis "seem to have gotten pretty aggravated with us being around," said Private T.J. Knight, the driver of White's humvee. "I asked my interpreter if the Iraqi people are mad at us. He said that 90 percent of Iraqis hate us, and the other 10 percent have left Iraq."

In this jittery atmosphere of contempt and violence, force protection sometimes takes priority over the need to minimize civilian casualties.

"If you see someone and he looks like he's going to hurt American soldiers, it's shoot and kill," Knight said. "Hard decisions gotta be made in a few seconds."

"Of course, the margin for error is pretty wide," he conceded.

Under the overpass on Highway 10 in Fallujah, Private Hollis saw no signs of the sniper. He lowered his weapon.

"What I really don't like is when they just cap off a round like that," Hollis said, his face covered in dust. "When they're shooting at you, you shoot right back. But when they just shoot like that you don't know what to do. "

Read the rest at the San Francisco Chronicle

October 13, 2004:

Nuclear fiction, or why Bush says he invaded Iraq

When W. debated vice president Al Gore, it was the Insufficient versus the Insufferable.

When W. debated Senator John Kerry, it was the Obfuscating versus the Oscillating.

We face a choice now between a president who rolled us on Iraq and a senator who got rolled by the president on Iraq.

President George W. Bush is not giving an inch on Iraq. He's toughing out the cascade of confirmation and criticism from his own people about the hyperpower hyperbole that led to an unnecessary war and an unruly occupation. His advisers say it's better for the president to appear out of touch than apologetic. He'd rather seem delusional than deluded.

He can't admit what the Duelfer report says, that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was no threat to the US or any other country. The mushroom cloud was a Fig Newton of Vice President Dick Cheney's feverish imagina-tion. That would mean W. didn't fix his father's screw-up, but he screwed up his father's fix. A big Oedipal oops.

After Bush 41's Persian Gulf war, Saddam devolved into the Norma Desmond of vicious dictators, shrinking but pretending to still be big, writing romance novels, trying to order liposuction machines, teeth-whitening material and hair transplant equipment, soaking up American culture like his favorite song, Frank Sinatra's Strangers in the Night, and his favorite book, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.

The president may not have gotten his money's worth with the report of Charles Duelfer, the chief US weapons inspector. After all, in a vain retroactive attempt to justify his hokum about weapons of mass destruction (WMD), he had 1,200 people working for 15 months -- stretching our scarce supply of Arab linguists -- to produce 918 pages at a cost of about a billion dollars just to find out that Saddam would have liked to have had weapons if he could have, but he couldn't, so he didn't.

But at least for his billion, the president got some earnest Introduction to American Literature analysis of the Iraqi dictator and his taste for some Western culture, noting that Saddam felt a kinship with Hemingway's protagonist Santiago, the poor Cuban fisherman (even though the rich Saddam liked to grenade-fish -- toss a grenade in the water and then send in scuba divers to fetch the dead fish).

"Saddam's affinity for Hemingway's story is understandable, given the former president's background, rise to power, conception of himself and Hemingway's use of a rustic setting similar to Tikrit to express timeless themes," the report stated.

"In Hemingway's story, Santiago hooks a great marlin, which drags his boat out to sea. When the marlin finally dies, Santiago fights a losing battle to defend his prize from sharks, which reduce the great fish, by the time he returns to his village, to a skeleton. The story sheds light on Saddam's view of the world and his place in it .... to Saddam even a hollow victory was by his reckoning a real one," the report said.

Even though his own report stated that UN sanctions had worked to defang Saddam, Bush decided to stand firm on nonsense, insisting in the debate last Friday night that "sanctions were not working. The United Nations was not effective at removing Saddam Hussein."

When a questioner named Linda asked the president to give three bum decisions he had made in office, Bush took a pass. Lincoln could admit mistakes. Former president John Kennedy could admit mistakes. But W. thinks admitting mistakes is for powder puffs.

Of his decision to invade Iraq, he said: "Sometimes in this world you make unpopular decisions because you think they're right." Or you stick to them even after you know they're wrong.

The president's living in a dream world. He kept insisting that 75 percent of al-Qaeda has been "brought to justice," even though such a statistic is misleading, since counterterrorism experts say that the invasion of Iraq was a recruiting boon for Osama and that al-Qaeda has metastasized and spawned other terrorist groups.

Bush tried to pretend the devastating Duelfer report backed him up, noting after the report came out that Saddam "retained the knowledge, the materials, the means and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction and could have passed this knowledge to our terrorist enemies."

W. should have followed his father's policy on hypotheticals. As Poppy Bush would say, when someone asked him to be speculative: "If a frog had wings, it wouldn't bump its tail on the ground."

Read the rest at the Taipei Times

October 13, 2005:

Troops Put In a Good Word to Bush About Iraq

President Bush yesterday sought to rally U.S. troops behind his Iraq strategy -- and he and his aides left little to chance.

Before the president spoke via a video link, his event planners handpicked 10 soldiers from the Army's 42nd Infantry and one Iraqi soldier, told them what topics the president would ask about, and watched them briefly rehearse their presentations before going live.

The soldiers did not disappoint. Each one praised the president, the war and the progress in training Iraqi troops. Several spoke in a monotone voice, as if determined to remember and stay on script.

The Iraqi, Sgt. Maj. Akeel Shaker Nassir, who is in charge of the Iraqi army training facility in Tikrit, had only a few words for Bush, but they were gushing: "Thank very much for everything. I like you."

Nassir's comments came near the end of one of the stranger and most awkwardly staged publicity events of the Bush presidency. It started with Bush, in Washington standing at a lectern, talking to the soldiers via video on a large flat-screen. They sat shoulder to shoulder and stared dutifully at the camera.

The president's delivery was choppy, as he gazed frequently at his notes and seemed several times to be groping for the right words. Bush told the soldiers they are facing a "ruthless and coldblooded" enemy intent on "the killing of innocent people to get the American government to pull you out of there before the mission is accomplished."

Two days before Iraq votes on a new constitution that Bush considers essential to creating a democracy in the Middle East, he said the United States is making steady progress in defeating the insurgents and in training Iraqi troops to take over full control of the military operation.

"We got a strategy, and it's a clear strategy," Bush said. "On the one hand, we will hunt down these killers and terrorists and bring them to justice, and train the Iraqi forces to join us in that effort." The soldiers were in complete agreement.

The Defense Department yesterday provided Congress a markedly more sober assessment of the progress in Iraq. It touted advances in the development and involvement of Iraqi troops, but also noted a recent increase in the number of insurgent attacks and problems meeting targets for the production of electricity and oil. At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan said the troops at Bush's event were told "what to expect."

Before they spoke, Allison Barber, a mid-level Pentagon official, helped coach the troops on who would be asked what by Bush. Afterward, according to Reuters, she told reporters that "we knew that the president was going to ask about security, coalition and training" but not the specific questions.

This not a new technique for Bush; his White House has perfected the public relations strategy of holding scripted events featuring the president's supporters. During the first part of the year, Bush traveled the country to discuss his Social Security plan, while aides stacked the audience with Republicans and tutored participants in these town hall events on what to say.

Read the rest at the Washington Post

October 13, 2006:

Top Shiite cleric's influence seems to wane as Iraq bloodshed persists unabated

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani once wielded so much influence he seemed to single-handedly chart the post-Saddam Hussein political future in Iraq. Now, the country's top Shiite cleric appears powerless as Iraq edges toward civil war.

With dozens of Iraqis dying daily from Sunni-Shiite reprisal killings, the failures of al-Sistani's pleas for peace underline a major power shift in the Shiite establishment.

“Their political interests now outweigh religious interests,” said Mustapha al-Ani, a Dubai-based Iraqi analyst. “To some extent, the need for al-Sistani's endorsement is no longer a prerequisite to gain power. Those with street credibility and a militia now have the power.”
It's a major shift from the more than two years following Saddam's ouster, when Shiite leaders hung on al-Sistani's every word concerning politics. His opposition to U.S. plans for elections and a constitution forced the Americans to make dramatic changes. His calls for Shiites to avoid violence were largely adhered to.

But priorities for Shiite political parties have changed and their leaders no longer appear to feel the need to be seen to be closely associated with al-Sistani to gain legitimacy.

The swing has stripped the Shiite clergy, with the Iranian-born al-Sistani at its head, of much of its influence and given a lead role to followers of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who does not recognize al-Sistani's religious authority.

It is a power shift that does not bode well for Iraq's Shiite-dominated government or the U.S.-led military coalition as they try to contain the stubborn Sunni insurgency and the wave of sectarian killings that has swelled since last winter.

Al-Sadr's supporters are widely suspected in many of the attacks on Sunni Arabs. His militiamen, who staged two revolts against U.S. troops in 2004, also have clashed with U.S. and Iraqi soldiers in Baghdad and southern Iraq in recent weeks.

Al-Sistani has responded to the bloodshed with a mixture of resignation and a deep sense of disappointment, said an official who is in regular contact with al-Sistani in the southern holy city of Najaf.

“He keeps praying for peace,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “He feels the pain every day, but he has no magic wand. He tells visitors every day that what's happening does not please God or his prophet and has nothing to do with Islamic teachings.”

Al-Sistani's last public statement on the crisis in Iraq came more than three months ago, when after a meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, he publicly upbraided the leader for the government's failure to bring security.

Although al-Sistani has steadfastly refused to meet with U.S. officials, he counseled Shiites not to take up arms against the Americans. In 2004, he personally intervened to broker a truce that ended weeks of fighting between al-Sadr's militiamen and the U.S. military in Najaf.

In statements earlier this year, al-Sistani emotionally appealed for peace between the Shiite majority and the once-dominant Sunni minority.

The cleric, who is in his mid-70s and suffers from a heart condition, sets aside 90 minutes every day to receive visitors and well-wishers and without fail he urges them to work for an end to the bloodshed, said the official close to al-Sistani.

The visitors are mostly tribal chiefs or public figures but include less prominent Shiites. The flow of visitors shows that reverence for al-Sistani as a religious figure remains strong – but the continuing violence is a sign of his waning political leverage.

Iraq's main media give significantly less coverage to al-Sistani than they did a year ago. Portrait posters of al-Sadr in the streets of Baghdad as well as the mainly Shiite south now far outnumber those of al-Sistani.

Previously, Shiite politicians could hardly make a major decision without traveling to al-Sistani's office in Najaf to get his opinion or seek his endorsement.

When the United States tried to put off elections, al-Sistani's insistence on the vote – and mass protests he called for – forced a change of heart in Washington and elections were held in January and December 2005.

The January 2005 election produced a parliament that drafted a new constitution adopted in a referendum last October. A second election, for a full, four-year legislature, was held last December.

Al-Sistani was credited for the high Shiite turnout in all three votes. But the dismal performance of the two Shiite-led governments produced by last year's elections chipped away at his prestige since it was his support that brought them to power.

The governments' failures drove many Shiites away from moderates and into the camps of radicals like al-Sadr, whose militia – the Mahdi Army – controls Baghdad's teeming Shiite district of Sadr City and a string of Shiite towns across central and southern Iraq.

“After the elections and the referendum, people as well as the marjayiah (top Shiite clergy) expected life to be rosy, but all we got was trouble,” said the official in contact with al-Sistani.

Vali Nasr, who lectures on Islamic affairs at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., believes al-Sistani's involvement in politics hurt his standing.

“In some ways, his authority has gone down and he lost control of the political process,” Nasr said.

Read the rest at the San Diego Tribune