James Glanz reports in the Times that an Iranian diplomat has been kidnapped by men with official Iraqi identification in Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood. The diplomat’s convoy was stopped at a checkpoint, where he was abducted. A high-speed chase ensued, and several suspects bearing official Iraqi defense ministry identification were captured by Iraqi security forces, but the Iranian official’s whereabouts are not known. Iranian and US officials have not offered substantial comment on the matter, but a major diplomatic incident may unfold if the captors’ credentials turn out to be genuine. Glanz also reports that two American GIs and a British soldier were killed yesterday.
The NYT's Richard Oppel Jr. reports from Baghdad that Iraqi forces shot and killed a Sadrist official in Diyala Province yesterday. The motivation of the killing was subject to controversy. The US military announced the operation and declared that the official had been a leader of “rogue” activities by breakaway factions of the Mahdi Army. On the other hand, a Sadrist spokesman identified the man as Ali Khazim al-Hamdani and denied that there had been any distance between him and the movement, calling the killing a “provocation.”
As the start of major operations in Baghdad draws near, US forces continue to “walk a fine line” in the capital, Joshua Partlow writes from Baghdad on the Post’s front page. Having accompanied a US task force last week, he reports that soldiers expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the upcoming operations. Iraqi civilians remain distrustful of American forces and are unwilling to cooperate for fear of retaliation. Translators are hard to come by, making communication difficult. US military tactics do not always endear the soldiers to the locals. Partlow's piece is a very illuminating read that underscores the uncertainties hanging over the approaching security crackdown, giving the perspective of some of those whose boots will be on the ground.
Jim Michaels of USAT files from Mahmoudiya with another embedded story. Having accompanied a joint US-Iraqi force on missions, he submits a lengthy and detailed report, writing that Iraqi units are “sometimes reluctant to take the lead” in joint operations. Michaels raises the perennial question of just how ready and equipped Iraqi units will be in major fighting in Baghdad. He also notes that US military officials have been encouraged to read the works of TE Lawrence for guidance.
The GOP leadership has blocked debate on the bipartisan measure opposing the White House Iraq plan. Carl Hulse and Jeff Zeleny report in the Times that on the a procedural vote to push the bill, drafted by Sen. Warner, onto the floor, the Senate majority fell 11 votes short of the 60 needed. At issue was a GOP threat, reported yesterday, to block debate if the chamber does not consider two GOP-sponsored measures along with the bipartisan Warner measure. The vote fell along party lines; only two Republicans voted to advance debate, and even Sen. Warner cast a nay vote. The future of Iraq debate in the Senate is unclear, although Majority Leader Reid said on the floor “You can run but you can’t hide . . . . We are going to debate Iraq.” If the impasse is not cleared, the president’s budget proposal may become the next locus of Iraq debate.
Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray report in the Post on the Senate developments, noting that the two Republicans who voted with the majority were Sens. Coleman and Collins, both considered very vulnerable in 2008.
The White House has abruptly toned down its anti-Iran talk, Howard LaFranchi writes in the Monitor. After making explosive statements over the last few weeks, the Bush administration has delayed the release of promised evidence of Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs. LaFranchi cites three competing explanations for the apparent change. Either US officials are less confident in their anti-Iran case than before, or the administration is "still smarting over memories of the earlier botched campaign to justify taking on Saddam Hussein,” or a third possibility: Publicly revealing evidence of Iranian activity in Iraq would jeopardize an intelligence source. He also writes that a change of tone on Iran may suggest that the US is seeking diplomatic engagement with Iran in a ways it had not before. Yet LaFranchi is clear that the Iran file is not closed, even if the shrill rhetoric has been toned down. He quotes an analyst at the Middle East Institute, who says, “I suspect they want to push Iran back a little to give the troop surge a slightly better chance of success . . . . But I also think they are setting up a target to blame for if and when the surge fails. And then it is part of a steady vilifying of Iran, so that if they do go after them over their nuclear program, the US public is that much more prepared for it."
In other coverage:
NEW YORK TIMES
Nazila Fathi reports that the powerful Iraqi Shi`i cleric Abdel Aziz al-Hakim has called for direct US-Iran talks during a recent visit to Tehran. Al-Hakim said such negotiations would be “useful for the whole region.” Further details of al-Hakim’s discussion with Iranian clerics and officials were not released. Al-Hakim enjoys close ties to the Iranian regime. Readers familiar with al-Hakim will also recognize him as the leader of SCIRI, which had opposed the Ba`thist government and is now the largest member of the governing coalition in the Iraqi parliament.
William Yardley writes that court-martial proceedings for Lt. Ehren Watada of Honolulu began yesterday at Fort Lewis in Washington. Watada is the first officer to publicly refuse to serve in Iraq, and has spoken out against war, challenging it as illegal. He faces a possible dishonorable discharge and a sentence of up to four years if convicted. The military judge has ruled that Watada may not base his case on the claim that the Iraq war is illegal.
Edward Luttwak contributes an op-ed arguing that the United States should neither escalate nor withdraw but instead “disengage” in Iraq. He argues that the Maliki government is unable and possibly unwilling to perform the jobs with which it has been tasked by the Bush administration, and that Bush’s plan will only end in futility. He proposes that the US withdraw to isolated bases in Iraq and disembed its troops from Iraqi units, instead conducting training from remote bases and providing a kind of military cover to Iraq to dissuade foreign intervention. “It is time for the Iraqis to make their own history,” he writes.
Joshua Partlow prints a second article in the Post, reporting that 37 Iraqis were killed in bombing and mortar attacks in Baghdad yesterday. That figure includes 15 dead in a truck bombing in Bayya neighborhood and 13 killed in a car bombing near the city center. He also reports that the command structure has been established for the Iraqi component of the upcoming security crackdown in Baghdad. Lt. Gen. Abboud Gambar, a former officer in the Saddam-era army who was captured by US forces in the 1991 Gulf War, has been placed at the top of the Iraqi operations, reporting directly to PM Maliki. Partlow also has more on the killing of al-Hamdani, saying that the Sadrist official was shot near his home. He adds that Basra-based Sadrist leader Khalil al-Maliki was also killed yesterday, in a drive-by shooting.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes in the Post that Paul Bremer’s reception in testimony today on Capitol Hill will be “cooler” than in previous appearances. Chandrasekaran says, “Bremer has become something of a bipartisan-consensus candidate among those looking for officials to hold responsible for what has occurred in Iraq, eliciting that sort of opprobrium once reserved for Donald H. Rumsfeld, who as defense secretary was a chief architect of the war.” Bremer will appear today before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is investigating mismanagement and fraud in US spending on Iraq.
EJ Dionne writes in his opinion column that White House allies on Capitol Hill do the country no favors by attempting to force the debate over the nonbinding Warner resolution into a debate over cutting off funding. By changing the terms of the debate, they merely prolong the US engagement: “Supporters of Bush's war policy would love a vote on a full funding cutoff right now because they know that, at this moment, they could win it. They would love responsibility for the failures in Iraq to fall not on an administration that planned its policy so badly and carried it out so incompetently. Far better for them to heap blame on the war's opponents for 'losing faith'," he writes.
Post editors print a staff editorial expressing disapproval of the Senate debate over Iraq. Noting that “the loudest voices belonging to those senators planning or contemplating a run for president or facing reelection in 2008,” they argue: “Nothing that has been proposed would help in any material way in Iraq; nor is any resolution likely to demoralize the troops or encourage the enemy, as some opponents claim.” The editors write that the debate seems “detached” from the dire realities of Iraq, as evidenced in the recent National Intelligence Estimate.
WALL STREET JOURNAL
In his column, Brad Stephens profiles Mithal al-Alusi, the Iraqi legislator whose party represents one seat in the parliament. Stephens suggests that Alusi’s professed liberalism and his advocacy of US policies still make him hopeful for Iraq’s future. Stephens continues a well-established American tradition of backing Iraqis whose constituency in the West is larger than their support base in Iraq.
Matt Kelley also anticipates Bremer’s Hill appearance in USAT, expecting tough questions from the likes of Reps. Waxman and Murtha in the wake of the recently released Bowen report. Bowen, the inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, is also slated to testify.