The Post and USAT ready for upcoming votes in the Senate, and the Journal examines the shrinking Iraq policy team in the executive branch.
US forces continued their manhunt for the missing soldiers in Mahmudiya, Damien Cave writes in the Times, noting that a local Iraqi tribal leader said that American forces had detained 50 so far in the search. An Iraqi security official cited 100 arrests. The Iraqi official also said that sporadic fighting had broken out during the searching operations, and that at least two gunmen were killed. Iraqi officials in the area said that one Humvee was hit with a bomb while a second was stormed by gunmen. US officials did not confirm that account. The US said for the first time that it believed al-Qa'ida had captured the soldiers.
Both Cave and Sudarsan Raghavan in the Postcover the statement apparently released by the “Islamic State of Iraq” organization calling the US search futile. Gen. William Caldwell, the top spokesperson for the US in Iraq said in a statement that five Humvees had been traveling together, but were separated during the operations, when a group of three Humvees heard an explosion at 4:44 am on Saturday. Radio contact failed and the group requested an aerial drone, which reported the two other Humvees burning at 4:59 am. Two units were dispatched, but their arrival was delayed by roadside bombs, and they did not arrive on the scene until 5:40 am. Residents of Mahmudiya chafed under the conditions of the manhunt, including house-to-house searches. "Life is almost stopped and the city has become an open field for the military forces," said one resident, who had not attended work for three days for fear of leaving his family alone in the house while US and Iraqi forces conducted intensive operations in the area, Raghavan reports.
“Of the Iraqi Army’s 10 divisions, eight are under Iraqi control. Only two, the Fifth Division in Diyala and the Seventh Division in western Iraq, are still under American control,” Alissa Rubin reports in the Times. Rubin visits the Iraqi Fifth Division in Diyala Province, noting that the division is now well equipped, but not all the division’s brigades are combat ready. The Fifth also faces serious logistical and staffing challenges: All salaries are paid in cash, delivered by truck from Baghdad. Fuel takes two weeks to arrive and must be requested in person in the capital. The Iraqi commander told the Times he hoped to command his divisions without US oversight by the end of the month, but only US commanders seemed to have a clear understanding of the handover timetable.
Joshua Partlow of the Post submits the most important read of the day, a look at Iraqi jails and detention facilities as the detained population swells under the security plan. Iraq’s Army, Interior Ministry, and Justice Ministry all run detention facilities, and only the Justice Ministry facilities appear to come close to international standards, Partlow writes. The UN says that approximately 20,000 people are held in Iraqi facilities, up by 3,500 people since the end of January, and US officials say they are holding 19,000, up 3,000 since the start of the security plan in mid-February. Abuse, torture, and overcrowding are widely reported in Iraqi facilities. Confessions extracted by torture are a serious concern. Iraqi authorities have begun mixing detainees who have not been tried with convicted criminals. Also of concern is the legal processing system, which observers say is hopelessly backlogged. “U.S. and Iraqi authorities are building two detention facilities in eastern Baghdad, one at an existing prison complex in Rusafa, capable of accommodating 5,250 people. At a camp in Baladiyat, to hold 850 prisoners, detainees will live in tents built for 30 people each, said Yei, the deputy justice minister. The new prison space is part of a massive project called the Rusafa Law and Order Complex, a fortified compound near the Interior Ministry building that, when finished, will include a courthouse and dormitories for lawyers and judges, within a guarded perimeter. The goal is to create a second Green Zone-style haven where authorities can push through the growing backlog of criminal cases,” Partlow writes.
USAT’s Rick Jervis reports on the activities of a US unit in Kirkuk, tasked with damage control in the northern city of Kirkuk. Tensions are such in the contested city that the unit commander says that “just one bomb with mass casualties might be enough to unleash a massive bloodletting,” Jervis writes. “Everybody's right on the envelope,” the officer says. The US mission in the city has morphed into a “peacekeeping role” that it never envisioned before the war, Jervis writes. While the struggle over the oil-rich city is dominated by Kurdish demands that it be annexed to Kurdistan, militant groups are also fomenting attacks in the area in an attempt to spark wider conflict that would bring down the Iraqi government, Jervis writes. Under the constitution, a vote on Kirkuk’s status is required this year, but the government has delayed setting a date. Worth a full read.
Administration officials seem to be “drifting away” from Iraq policy, Greg Jaffe and Yochi Dreazen write in the Journal. As some key Iraq-focused officials step down, others have turned their attention to other problems, while the legislative and military theaters “play out.” Some observers have complained that the Iraq (and Afghanistan) wars may be dangerously short on dedicated staff resources.
On the Hill
“In the Senate, consensus is building behind setting political and legislative benchmarks for the Iraqi government, with some sort of consequences, including possible troop withdrawals, if the terms are not met,” Shailagh Murray writes in the Post. While this package will be the centerpiece of the chamber’s Iraq legislation, language about cutting off funding and a troop withdrawal timetable will be tacked onto a water resources bill this week, in order to bring it to a vote without interfering with the progress of the other bill.
David Jackson catches the USAT up on the debate over “benchmarks” for the Iraqi government, describing upcoming Senate measures as “test votes.”
In other coverage:
NEW YORK TIMES
In the continuing hearings over the November 2005 Haditha slayings, a Marines officer testified that “Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, forcefully dismissed advice from staff officers to look into whether marines he supervised had killed the civilians in violation of the laws of war,” Paul von Zielbauer reports.
Alan Sipress and Sam Diaz report on the Pentagon’s controversial ban on social networking websites on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The rhetoric that Tony Blair invaded Iraq because he “felt it was right” is just spin, Anne Appelbaum argues in her column. He invaded Iraq because he thought it would be popular, she writes.
David Ignatius, in his column, writes that time is “running out” in Iraq.
WALL STREET JOURNAL
Max Boot, long a supporter of the Iraq invasion, writes in his op-ed, argues that the Iraq war is a make-or-break proposition for the US, closing, “It's still possible to stave off catastrophic defeat in Iraq. But the only way to do it is to give Gen. Petraeus and his troops more time -- at least another year -- to try to change the dynamics on the ground. The surge strategy may be a long shot but every alternative is even worse.”
Counter Max Boot, USAT editors argue that the progression of the “surge” carries with it “ominous trends,” including increased US casualties, political gridlock in the Baghdad government, and the relocation of militant activity to other areas of the country. “If the ominous trends continue, the already potent argument for a phased withdrawal will begin to look overwhelming,” they close.
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
No Iraq coverage today.