Security Crackdown, Copter Crash
The NYT’s Richard Oppel and James Glanz learn of two more recent helicopter crashes in Iraq, bringing the total to six in the last three weeks. Filing from Baghdad, they write that a double-rotor CH-46 Sea Knight transport went down yesterday near Karma, northwest of Baghdad, killing seven marines on board. Eyewitnesses said that the copter was shot down, while US military officials speculated about mechanical failure. In a previously unreported incident, a contractor helicopter went down on Jan. 31. The question is: Why have so many choppers been downed recently? An air force commander said that he had not seen new weapons used against helicopters recently. Glanz and Oppel report that the predominant theories are either a new strategy by armed groups in Iraq to attack copters with small arms fire, or a simply a bad month according to the “law of averages.” It was reported that the group Islamic State of Iraq took credit for downing the CH-46.
Oren Dorrell files on yesteray’s Marine helicopter crash for USAT. He also reports that four Iraqi military officers are said to be held in connection with the recent kidnapping of the Iranian diplomat Jalal Sharafi.
Ernesto Londoño and Joshua Partlow grab the Post’s front page with the headline, “Iraq Security Plan Underway.” They quote Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell in Iraq who says, "The plan is being fully implemented as we speak." Little more details are available at this point, and they note that the announcement “was something of a surprise, because officials had lately issued contradictory and vague messages about the scope and timing of the plan.” They also follow up on the story of the copter crashes, noting that the Pentagon is changing its flying procedures to counter the threat of ground fire. One marine was announced killed in Anbar.
House and Senate
From the Hill, Jeff Zeleny reports for the Times that House Democrats are laying preparations for the Iraq debate, with a factional split possibly emerging between those Democratic representatives supporting a nonbinding resolution and those ready to take more aggressive action. Seventy-one Democratic House members have signed a letter calling for a tougher antiwar stance, whereas the party leadership is pushing for a nonbinding bipartisan measure opposing the Bush Iraq plan. House Dems will meet in closed session today to hash out the bill that will be debated beginning Tuesday. In the Senate, seven Republicans (Warner, Hagel, Collins, Smith, Coleman, Voinovich, Snowe) sent a letter to their leadership calling for the resolution of the impasse, calling the current situation “unacceptable.” Zeleny reports that Warner suggested that he and the six other signers might “make procedural trouble” until the bipartisan anti-escalation measure has a hearing in the Senate.
Shailagh Murray of the Post also reports on the Senate letter, clarifying that it was sent to both Sens. McConnell and Reid, but that Reid had not seen the letter before Sen. Warner read it on the floor. She also reports that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, “There's no doubt in my mind that the dialogue here in Washington strengthens our democracy. Period," when questioned about the possible effects on troop morale of resolutions opposing the Bush administration’s Iraq plan.
Kathy Kiely files a shorter report on the Hill’s developments for USAT, writing any Democratic House resolution on Iraq is virtually assured to pass, and that the big question is how much Republican support it will attract.
State-Pentagon Personnel Controversy
Karen DeYoung of the Post advances the story of the Pentagon-State personnel controversy. In Hill testimony, Secretary Rice said that in December the military had reached an understanding with the State Department to allow the temporary use of military personnel to fill gaps in staffing in Iraq, especially in the revamped “provincial reconstruction teams” whose civilian operations form part of the Bush strategy for progress in Iraq. Secretary Rice said that more than 40 percent of 300 new State positions will have to be filled on a six-month basis by military personnel.
NYT's Helene Cooper files from Washington with a discussion of the State department’s difficulties in filling positions in Iraq, especially those at higher levels of skill. Younger State staff might accept an Iraq placement for adventure, danger pay, or career building, but more senior diplomats, especially those with families, have often declined to deploy to Iraq, or at least have agreed to work only in the “Green Zone.” Cooper writes that State’s difficulty in recruiting skilled civilians for Iraq duty adds some perspective on the dispute between the State and Defense departments over Iraq personnel, as reported by Thom Shanker and David Cloud yesterday. Pentagon officials allege that the civilian diplomatic corps does not pull its weight in the most dangerous regions, while State employees say that the current high demand for civilian expertise in Iraq stems from military failings at earlier stages of the Iraq invasion, when the State Department was “cut out of the postwar planning by a Pentagon bent on doing everything itself.”
In other coverage:
NEW YORK TIMES
Philip Shenon reports in the Times on yesterday’s House Government Oversight Committee hearings. In testimony, the Army stated that it will withhold $19.8 million from Halliburton after it had discovered that the contractor had hired Blackwater private security in Iraq, which the Army says is a breach of its contract. The Army maintains that Halliburton’s contract with the US government prohibited it from hiring private security. The Army found that a Halliburton subcontractor, ESS Support Services, had hired Blackwater security guards and had not itemized the expenses in its invoices. Halliburton denied that it was in breach of its contract. Shenon also reports that the committee heard family members of four Blackwater guards killed in Falluja in 2004, who accuse Blackwater of skimping on security equipment and arms. In testimony, Blackwater’s counsel denied such allegations.
William Yardley reports that the military judge in the court-martial of Lt. Ehren K. Watada has declared a mistrial, claiming that the pretrial deal that the officer struck with the prosecution “amounted to a confession by Lieutenant Watada to an offense to which he intended to plead not guilty.” The full implications of the mistrial are not known. Watada could be retried in March, or he may avoid prosecution altogether.
Lyndsey Layton and Jonathan Weisman profile the organization VoteVets.org, one of the most vocal veterans groups involved in the Iraq war debate, which has directed harsh criticism at President Bush and VP Cheney. The group has received a warm welcome from Democrats. The two Post reporters write, “in many ways, the former soldiers and Marines are expressing sentiments the lawmakers want broadcast, and they help inoculate Democrats against Republican claims that opposing the president's plan undermines the troops.” The nonpartisan group has made several trips to Capitol Hill and has been quite successful at fundraising, but insists on its political independence in opposing the Bush escalation plan for Iraq: "I don't think 20,000 more troops is Democratic, I don't think 20,000 troops is Republican. I think it's stupid," said the group’s outspoken co-founder, Iraq vet Jon Soltz.
Renae Merle reports that three Army reservists and two civilians were indicted in a 25-count Grand Jury probe of bribing and contract kickbacks in Iraq. The men are charged with schemes to funnel contracts to businessman Philip H. Bloom in return for bribes, and with funneling Iraqi reconstruction cash back to the US. Bloom confessed to conspiracy, bribery and money-laundering last year. The article provides a fascinating insight into some of the alleged abuses committed in the lax oversight environment of postwar reconstruction that is currently the subject of the House investigation.
WALL STREET JOURNAL
The WSJ picks up on a story that the others miss: Jess Bravin reports on US efforts to spare the life of Taha Yassin Ramadan, Saddam’s former vice president. The Bush administration has even hired legal experts to seek an appeal to overturn the conviction. US officials are apparently wary of repeating the bad publicity that followed the recent hangings of Saddam and two top Ba`thist officials. Bravin writes, “The Ramadan case places the Bush administration in a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, officials fear the bad publicity, claims of martyrdom and street violence a questionable execution could provoke. Yet they also want to avoid appearing to intervene in the Iraqi legal system, undercutting broader U.S. attempts to portray Iraq as a sovereign nation.”
Daniel Henniger, in his column, calls for the use of advanced biometric data collection equipment on the Iraqi populace, in order to identify individuals for security purposes. He sketches out the history of the “Snake Eater,” a hand-held fingerprinting device.
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
No Iraq reporting today.