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Daily Column
US Papers Sunday: Karbala Mourns
The Times Goes to Ramadi; Turnkey Projects Fail the Test
By GREG HOADLEY 04/29/2007 01:58 AM ET
The Sunday papers have several important Iraq-based stories this week, leading with a the massive car bombing in Karbala that left at least 58 Iraqis dead and nearly 170 wounded.

The Times sends in an important dispatch from Ramadi, profiling the US-tribal alliance in Anbar province, raising some important questions for the road ahead, and avoiding many of the ideological pitfalls that have characterized the discussion thus far.

In a new report the Pentagon's reconstuction watchdog checks the pulse on several US-built projects around the country, and finds the patient in a critical state.

The Washington Post features debate over Harry Reid's recent comments that the US has "lost" in Iraq, and over George Tenet's new tell-all, as well as an interesting Tom Ricks piece debating a comparison between the effects on US interests of the wars in Iraq and Vietnam.

At least 58 Iraqis were killed in a car bomb attack in Karbala, the second major bombing in the shrine city in two weeks. 169 were wounded. Damien Cave reports for the Times that the bomb exploded less than half a mile from the shrine of Imam Abbas, which was not damaged. After the attack, an angry mob formed around the home of the local governor, As Cave points out, attacks in Karbala may be an attempt by Sunni extremists to draw out Shi'a militias. Muqtada al-Sadr sent a statement addressed to President Bush, to be read at the Parliament, in which he lashed out at the president, saying he had undermined democracy in Iraq, and was not minding the will of the Iraqis, of the rest of the world, and of the Democrats. Nine US troops were announced killed, three soldiers and two Marines in Anbar Province on Friday, and three in two separate IED attacks in Baghdad on Saturday.

In Karbala, local officials said that they have asked for support from the Iraqi Interior Ministry for explosives detection equipment, but have not received an answer, Karin Brulliard and K.I. Ibrahim write for the Post. At least 33 other Iraqis were killed Saturday. A suicide truck bomb in Anbar’s Hit city killed 15. Across Iraq, 11 unidentified bodies were recovered, 9 in the capital. In raids overnight, 19 suspected al-Qa'ida members were detained, including two believed responsible for the bombing of the Sarafiya Bridge.

The Anbar Salvation Council has been like a Rorschach Inkblot Test for the Iraq war. Uncritical supporters of the US invasion tend to gleefully celebrate its unquestionable recent successes in retaking large parts of Anbar from the control of al-Qa'ida-linked groups, and generally ignore the question marks, contradictions, and warning signs that suggest that the alliance is by no means guaranteed to be stable in the long term, that al-Qa'ida-related groups are still active in Anbar, that armed resistance to the US occupation does not only come from al-Qa'ida-linked groups, and that if and when the question of al-Qa'ida is settled in Anbar, the relationship between the US, the Sunni resistance groups, and the Anbar Salvation Council will be a wide-open question. Looking at the same inkblot, critics of the US invasion, both in Iraq and in the US, tend to ignore the remarkable development altogether (Harith al-Dhari famously dismissed the tribal leaders as “highway bandits”), or emphasize the question marks, contradictions, and warning signs. News coverage of the Council and its activities has been relatively poor (add the difficulties of reporting from Anbar Province to the list of reasons), and most public discussion has been very ideologically driven and not especially enlightening.

In the Times, Kirk Semple submits a very important story from Ramadi, examining the “uneasy alliance” between US forces and the tribal-led coalition against al-Qa'ida in Iraq. Semple provides a much-needed look at the situation on the ground in the war-torn city, and, to his credit, is careful to present the “uneasy” side of the picture as much as the “alliance” side. Semple also provides an important snapshot of the situation in Ramadi at the moment, which he describes as “essentially a police state now, with some 6,000 American troops, 4,000 Iraqi soldiers and 4,500 Iraqi police officers, including an auxiliary police force of about 2,000, all local tribesmen, known as the Provincial Security Force.” Well worth a full read, but follow-up coverage will be crucial. Key questions remain whose answers cannot yet be predicted, as Semple acknowledges.

A new study released by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) casts doubt on the US-led reconstruction effort in Iraq, James Glanz reports for the NYT. Of eight US reconstruction projects studied, seven were found to suffer from abandonment or malfunctioning. All eight turnkey projects, distributed all around the country, had been handed over to Iraqis and branded successes, both by project leaders and by the US public relations effort. “Curiously, most of the problems seemed unrelated to sabotage stemming from Iraq’s parlous security situation, but instead were the product of poor initial construction, petty looting, a lack of any maintenance and simple neglect,” Glanz writes. “That kind of neglect is typical of rebuilding programs in developing countries when local nationals are not closely involved in planning efforts, said Rick Barton, co-director of the post-conflict reconstruction project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.” SIGIR points out that it cannot make a generalization about US reconstruction projects because the security situation prevented it from drawing a proper sample of projects.

Dana Hedgepeth writes up the SIGIR study for the Post, noting that “the findings range from unrepaired water leaks that damaged floors at the Camp Ur military base in Nasiriyah, generators that weren't working at Baghdad International Airport and expensive equipment going unused at a maternity and pediatric hospital in Irbil.” The projects were designed by the US but turned over to Iraqis to run. William Lynch, acting director of the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office in Baghdad submitted a written response to the inspector general's report, in which he said that "sustainment" issues were beyond his or the inspector general's authority or control.

As IraqSlogger readers knew four days ago, the Saudi king has snubbed Nuri al-Maliki who attempted to meet with the king earlier in the week. Robin Wright reports for the Post that “The official reason for the Saudi decision, Iraqi officials said, is that the king's schedule is full. But sources involved in the negotiations say the king is increasingly unhappy that Maliki is not doing more on reconciliation, despite pressure from the Arab world, the United States and other nations.”

In other coverage:


In the context of the debate over the Adhamiya wall, Tim Weiner submits a brief inquiry into the history and philosophy behind the use of walls and separation in counterinsurgency, repression, and occupation. The “the concrete caterpillar that grows 500 meters every night,” as Gen. Petraeus has described it, is part of a long tradition that stretches through Palestine, Vietnam, Berlin, Algeria, Malaya, and even China and Roman Britain.

Robert Worth reviews Georgina Howell’s new book about Getrude Bell, the pivotal British colonial official in Iraq in the 1920s.

In his column, Frank Rich manages to combine parting words to David Halberstam with a critique of the Pat Tillman affair, and a dig at the press corps, of whom, he says: “much of the press still takes it as a given that Iraq has a functioning government that might meet political benchmarks (oil law, de-Baathification reform, etc., etc.) that would facilitate an American withdrawal. In reality, the Maliki “government” can’t meet any benchmarks, even if they were enforced, because that government exists only as a fictional White House talking point.”

“Mr. Bush has hardly given up the habit of stonewalling Congress, or shown that he has learned the limits of his power,” Times editors write in a staff editorial. “The war in Iraq not only continues, but Mr. Bush is escalating it and repeating many of the same myths about Saddam Hussein,” they continue. The new George Tenet memoirs only show questions that still remain to be answered, about high-level Bush administration officials and the Niger forgeries, claims of links between Iraq and al-Qa'ida, aluminum tubes, and “talk of mushroom clouds,” the editors write. One might add that the Times has a few questions to answer of its own, such as why it reported these claims with such credulity.


“As fighting in Iraq enters its fifth year, an increasing number of experts in foreign policy and national strategy are arguing that the biggest difference may be that the Iraq war will inflict greater damage to U.S. interests than Vietnam did,” Thomas Ricks writes in the Post. Ricks includes opinions from retired military brass, academics, and current and former US policy officials, many of whom (but not all) say that the long-term implications of the US involvement in Iraq will be even more significant than those of Vietnam. Worth a full read.

Former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer contributes an op-ed criticizing George Tenet as the ex-CIA director releases his memoirs. Scheuer faults Tenet’s leadership at the CIA, and accuses him of bending in the political winds of the Clinton and Bush administrations. He runs down a list of issues in which he says he disagrees with Tenet. On the Iraq war, Scheuer writes, argues “the only real, knowable pre-war slam dunk was that Iraq was going to turn out to be a nightmare.” As for Tenet’s claims to have known this ahead of time, Scheuer writes: “Now he tells us,” adding, “Tenet's attempts to shift the blame won't wash,” he writes. “At day's end, his exercise in finger-pointing is designed to disguise the central, tragic fact of his book. Tenet in effect is saying that he knew all too well why the United States should not invade Iraq, that he told his political masters and that he was ignored. But above all, he's saying that he lacked the moral courage to resign and speak out publicly to try to stop our country from striding into what he knew would be an abyss.”

The Post has an interesting, if sound-bitey debate over the Harry Reid’s recent comments that the US has “lost” the Iraq war.

Tom Rick’s Inbox features an email from an officer in Iraq to his ROTC-mate as he prepared to deploy, containing detailed advice at this level of detail: “Think of as many contingencies as you can and be prepared to execute any of them at any given time. Example: conducting a hasty raid. To start with you have to get in, so you need shotguns. Have at least one on each patrol (I have one in each team). In addition, sometimes you run into steel doors and a picket pounder is more useful to batter it in. As for flash-bangs use them when the situation merits. Also understand that raiding tools are different in different environments. Outside the City of Samarra a shotgun is usually all that is needed because the houses are not usually walled and the doors are mostly wood.” The letter continues with advice about how to drive, how to collect locals' names, and how to use family landholding patterns to locate weapons caches, all with the caveat that "the situation here changes all the time."


No Sunday edition.


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