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Daily Column
US Papers Thursday: Shi'ite Divisions Flare
Baghdad Hard to Staff, while Diyalah Assault Continues
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 06/21/2007 01:50 AM ET
Shi'ite disarray and rivalries in Iraq lead the Big Two today, with the Washington Post focusing on political divisions in Baghdad, while The New York Times looks at the Shi'ite-on-Shi'ite violence that is tearing apart Diwaniya in southern Iraq.

At the same time, the Times again beats the Post in the coverage of Operation Arrowhead Ripper, with its embedded reporting from Baqoubah while the Post is left to file from Baghdad. The Post, however, cleans up in the Washington-based Iraq reporting with two op-eds, a look at Sen. Hillary Clinton's changing stance on the war, which is cheering some war opponents, and the latest developments on U.S. relations with Iran over Iraq.

The Post leads its Iraq coverage with the news that top Iraqi officials are growing frustrated with Nouri al-Maliki. Joshua Partlow and Robin Wright report that members of the al-Maliki government are growing so disillusioned with his lackluster performance that even Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi submitted his resignation. Abdul Mahdi, whose departure from the government was averted due to promises of action (presumably from PM Maliki), is a member of the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq neé SCIRI, and his attempted resignation reflects the serious splits arising among Iraq's governing Shi'ite coalition. Moqtada al-Sadr -- Malaki's main political backer outside of his own Dawa party -- has withdrawn his people (again) from Parliament following last week's repeat bombing of the Askariya mosque in Samarra, while the Fadhila Party withdrew its 15 members from the Shi'ite coalition earlier this year. With the health of SICI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim failing -- he has lung cancer -- "A highly complicated political landscape is about to get more complicated," said a U.S. official who tracks Shiite politics.

What Partlow and Wright only hint at, however, is that Abdul Mahdi also wants to be prime minister -- he was the Americans' favorite to succeed Ibrahim al-Jaafari -- and his not-so-determined attempt to "resign" allows him to put some daylight between himself and what he likely suspects is the soon-to-fail Maliki.

Alissa Rubin files a worrisome piece for the Times, datelined out of Diwaniya, describing the violence between rival Shi'ite factions in the once (mostly) peaceful south. "Shiites are killing and kidnapping other Shiites," she writes. "The police force is made up of competing militias and the inner city is a web of impoverished streets where idealized portraits of young men, killed in recent gun battles with Iraqi and American troops, hang from signposts above empty lots." She notes that Diwaniya has always been restive, being the first city to revolt against Saddam Hussein in the wake of the Gulf War in 1991. Today's splits however, break down along class lines, with the more educated, middle-class Shi'ites following al-Hakim's SICI, and the poorer, uneducated casting their lot with al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Fifty people were killed in March and "not a day goes by" without an attempt on a government official's life, she writes. It is only the presence of American and Iraqi forces -- who are taking casualties -- that seems to keep the city from erupting into all-out war.

On the battlefield, the Times' Michael Gordon and Rubin round up the day's kinetic operations with a to-the-point account of slow going in Baqoubah for U.S. troops. A slow start because of a sandstorm and roadside bombs have enforced a block-by-block pace. But there have been some surprises: a fully stocked medical lab for militants that included oxygen tanks, defibrillators, generators and surgical equipment; roadside bombs so powerful that they overturned a Bradley fighting vehicle and damaged a heavily armored Buffalo mine-clearing vehicle. So far, one soldier has been killed and 12 wounded, the U.S. military said, and 41 "al Qaeda" fighters had been killed.

John Ward Anderson of the Post files no first-hand account, however, but adds some context to his story. The U.S. military had been criticized in the past over previous offenses that allowed militants to escape. Anderson reports that "this time, military planners are trying to avoid that outcome by drawing a tight ring around Baqoubah that locks insurgents inside, where they can be captured or killed." One success, according to a military statement: six uninjured men were captured while trying to escape in an Iraqi ambulance. Anderson repeats the surprising news that elements of the Ba'athist nationalist insurgency, such as the Islamic Army and the 1920 Revolution Brigades, are working closely with U.S. and Iraqi forces to identify al Qaeda members. They've even been issued special insignias to distinguish them from al Qaeda members. It seems they do need steenkin' badges after all.

In an unfortunately buried piece on 9A, Jim Michaels reports from Muqdadiyah for USA Today on the scope of Operation Arrowhead Ripper. With so many U.S. and Iraqi forces brought to bear, the offensive is targeting multiple areas simultaneously, preventing militants to fleeing to other, nearby safe havens as they did in the past. Michaels reports the U.S. is attacking not only Baqoubah, but also Muqdadiyah in Diyalah province, areas south of Baghdad and supply lines west of Baghdad. "We want them to know we can hit these areas at the same time," said Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the MNC-I and the No. 2 U.S. military man in Iraq. "We think we surprised them with the amount of force we were able to generate." The weak point in the plan? Iraqi forces will have to hold the areas the Americans have secured for them, which has not gone so well in the past.

Both the Times and the Post note the bombing of three Sunni mosques south of Baghdad, while the Times expands on violence in and around Nasiriya between Mahdi Army fighters and local police. U.S. troops were involved and airstrikes had to be called in. The Post reports that eight Christians were abducted in Mosul on Wednesday.

Diplomatic Openings
Back in Baghdad, while the Iraqis are having trouble keeping people in government, the Americans are having trouble getting people to serve in Iraq in the first place. Glenn Kessler of the Post reports that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is responding to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker's plea for more staff at the Baghdad embassy by ordering that all diplomatic posts in Iraq and Afghanistan be filled first -- by order if necessary -- before any other posts at Foggy Bottom.

Kessler reports that at least 20 percent of the U.S. Foreign Service has already served in Iraq, and "directed assignments" are on the horizon. Additionally, the State Department is sweetening the pot by lifting the requirement that spouses and dependents of diplomats in Iraq, who can't take their families because of the danger, must return to the United States if a parent takes a one-year post in Baghdad from another overseas assignment.

It's a remarkable recognition of the difficulties in Iraq that the State Department is having trouble filling the posts, but it shouldn't be surprising. For years, the professionals at the Near East desk at State were denigrated by the Bush Administration. Now, they don't want to be left holding the bag on Iraq.

Robin Wright of the Post reports on the U.S.'s refusal to release five Iranians captured earlier this year despite pleas from Iraq's government because of bureaucratic foul-ups as well as a policy decisions. Part of the problem lies in the review rules for foreign fighters captured in Iraq, which is how the U.S. classifies the five Iranians. (The U.S. says they're associated with the Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard.) They were due to have a review in mid-July, the six-month review all detainees get, but it was instead done in April, meaning they can't get another hearing until October. The Iranians have threatened unspecified retaliation if their guys aren't released soon, and Iraq Foreign Minister Hoshi Zebari, who really, really wants to see the U.S. and Iran getting along in Iran, says their release would help U.S.-Iran talks. Zebari warned the continued detention of the Iranians might scuttle the second round.

Other coverage

Perry Bacon Jr. files a report on Sen. Hillary Clinton's evolving stance on the Iraq war and how it's playing with the Democrats' left-wing these days. In short, she's improving, as far as they're concerned, but she's got a way to go. Clinton, the most hawkish of the Democrats running for president, is a barometer for sentiment among the major candidates. All Democrats now support timetables and a way to end the war, indicating that a major shift in policy might finally arrive, should a Democrat win the White House in 2008.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a well-known Democratic hawk, penned an op-ed in today's Post that says the Democrats are trying really, really hard to wind down the war, but like Lincoln during the Mexican-American war of the 19th Century, he and his colleagues would continue to fund the troops in the field. The tone of the piece, however, seems less a chance to explain the issue, however, than it is a plea for the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party to get off his back.

David Ignatius, a regular Post columnist, pens an extraordinary op-ed that says, a) people in the Bush administration don't see it as a failure but instead see it as "muddling through" on Iraq and b) that bringing in Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense is important because "He has an unusual ability to see reality as it is -- what might work -- rather than let his hopes and aspirations take over." (emphasis added.) Is the ability to discern reality as it is now an "unusual" attribute for powerful cabinet secretaries?

Proving the adage that kids lead, USA Today's Andrea Stone reports on a summer camp for the children of wounded Iraqi veterans. No other paper covers the homefront like USA Today in finding those stories about troops' lives left behind when they go to war, and this one's no exception. Stone writes that nearly 19,000 children have had parents injured in the military since 9/11, with 2,200 children losing a parent. For the kids of the wounded, the summer camp in Cleveland National Forest in California, gives them a chance to talk about the effect the wounds have had on their families.

Jennifer Allman of Spring Valley, Calif., says she has seen that in her children since their father, Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Corby Allman, suffered back injuries, partial vision and hearing loss and PTSD after his convoy was hit by an "improvised explosive device," or IED, in Iraq in 2004.

Brandon Allman, 12, is "distant," his mother says. Jacquelyn, 10, is angry and blames herself for her father's disability. At 7, Cheyanne appears, at least for now, just happy to have her daddy home.

"It's hard because they don't understand why he gets upset really quick with them or why he can literally forget a whole conversation in two minutes," Jennifer Allman says. "I wanted them to come to camp to be with other military kids, to get counseling and to know that they are not alone."

Gordon Lubold, sadly, seems to buy U.S. military spin on a meeting of religious leaders in Iraq. Lubold repeats military claims that a meeting of 55 religious leaders from across Iraq's spiritual spectrum is "the largest number of religious leaders from the broadest geographic base in Iraq to meet in 37 years." Well, maybe, but there have been several such meetings in Iraq since the American invasion and they've all come to naught. Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institute notes this, injecting a bit of realism into the piece. Significantly, in true Iraqi fashion, most of the meeting was taken up with "deciding how the meeting would proceed and included only a little substantive discussion." Yup, sounds about right for these kind of things.

WALL STREET JOURNAL No original Iraq coverage today.


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