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Daily Column
US Papers Wed: US-Iran Chat Tense and Loud
Linking AQI to al Qaeda; Bush, Malaki share video link, but accomplish little
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 07/25/2007 01:56 AM ET
The relative dearth of Iraq news in the papers ended today with a set of stories mainly centering on yesterday's Iran-U.S. talks in Baghdad. President George W. Bush gave a speech tightly linking (again) Al Qaeda in Iraq to Al Qaeda of 9/11 and both the Washington Post and The New York Times have a couple of enterprise stories on contractors and the relationship between Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki, respectively.

War of Words
By all accounts, yesterday's talks between U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi didn't go so well.

Megan Greenwell of the Post reports that the Americans accused Iran of helping Shi'ite militias attack Iraqi and American troops, giving Crocker a lot of room to run with what the ambassador called "a difficult discussion." Supporting terror groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and holding Americans in Iran were further bones of contention. "I would not describe this as a shouting match throughout, but again we were real clear on where our problems with their behavior were," he said. Crocker suggested the talks would not move forward unless the Iranians stopped supporting militias and extremist groups. Oddly, no quotes or response from the Iranian side. What gives? Greenwell adds the day's roundup to the bottom, noting that a car bomb south of Baghdad killed at least 26 and injured more than 70; two Iraqi police officers were killed by gunmen and two civilians died when Katyusha rockets landed on their homes in Saydiya. Police also found 24 bodies around the city, bearing signs of torture. The Times' Stephen Farrell also leads his roundup with the Iran-U.S. talks, echoing the general bleak assessment. Focusing less on the fireworks revealed in Greenwell's story, Farrell gives the Iranians a chance to speak. They insist they are helping Iraq deal with its security problems and complained about the detention of Iranians by American forces. One small sign of progress: the two sides discussed the formation of a security subcommittee to talk about support for handling militias, al Qaeda and border security. Farrell also has the bomb in Hilla that killed at least 26, but adds news of residents protesting against the American cordon around Husseiniya.

Neil King Jr. of the Wall Street Journal says the U.S. warned the Iranians that any of their Al Quds force found in Iraq "are not going to be safe." Finding common ground on Iraq is being bedeviled by differences over many other issues: Iran's nuclear program, accusations of regime-change plans, support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

Thomas Frank and Barbara Slavin have the story for USA Today.

Sam Dagher for the Christian Science Monitor looks at the growing political and economic ties between Iraq and Iran, which are growing even in the face of American accusations of Iranian "meddling." Analysts say Iran can run the table. Significant sign of Iranian influence: Tehran gave Malaki his own Air Force 1, an Airbus 300 jetliner, to use for government business. Dagher's story is important because it lays out the context of the alienation between the U.S. military and diplomatic corps and the Iraqi government, which is increasingly turning to Iran as the U.S. looks for ways to extricate itself. The links, mainly among the Shi'ites of Iraq, including the government, are not only strengthened by the common religious bond but also, Dagher writes, by the American strategy of arming and supporting former Sunni fighters, who consider Shi'ites bitter foes. He touches on this at the end, but it's really the key point of the story and should have been expanded on.

You say Al Qaeda, I say Al Qaeda in Iraq...
President Bush went to Charleston Air Force Base yesterday in the first stop in his new marketing campaign to bolster support for the war in Iraq by ... wait for it ... trying to draw tight connections between Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization responsible for 9/11 and the Iraqi-dominated al Qaeda in Iraq, which arose after the U.S. invasion.

"The facts are that Al Qaeda terrorists killed Americans on 9/11, they're fighting us in Iraq and across the world and they are plotting to kill Americans here at home again," Bush told the troops at the base, according to Jim Rutenberg and Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times. "Those who justify withdrawing our troops from Iraq by denying the threat of Al Qaeda in Iraq and its ties to Osama bin Laden ignore the clear consequences of such a retreat." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., scoffed at Bush's claim and said he overstating those ties to perpetuate the American presence in Iraq. The Times provides a quick primer on Al Qaeda in Iraq, pointing out that it post-dates the American invasion and is a "homegrown" Sunni Arab network with a few foreign fighters and murky ties to Osama bin Laden's movement.

Michael A. Fletcher for the Post chimes in, reporting that Bush said "top lieutenants" of Osama bin Laden lead the Iraqi group, which is a new claim. Bush, somewhat bizarrely, said, "Some will tell you al Qaeda in Iraq isn't really al Qaeda -- and not really a threat to America. Well, that's like watching a man walk into a bank with a mask and a gun, and saying he's probably just there to cash a check. We are fighting bin Laden's al Qaeda in Iraq." The Post notes that U.S. intelligence officials say AQI is an "affiliate" of al Qaeda, but has not taken orders from bin Laden. Democrats have said the report shows that al Qaeda is not running the war, "but is instead benefiting from it." USA Today's David Jackson focuses on the president's sales job, noting this speech was part of that effort. As he writes: "White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush will talk 'a fair amount' about Iraq in the weeks ahead, 'because it's important the American people get a fuller and deeper appreciation of what's going on.' "

A1 Enterprise
Jim Rutenberg and Alissa J. Rubin of the Times report on Bush's personal relationship with Malaki, which, like many modern romances, is conducted mainly over video teleconferences. Every two weeks, the two leaders meet to chat about "leadership and democracy, troop deployments and their own domestic challenges." And they talk about God. It's a personal diplomacy that Bush really likes, but that can lead to trouble. The president seems to have misread Russian President Vladimir Putin because the guy carries a cross around his neck and the Times's duo says that may be the case with Malaki, too. "Mr. Maliki may agree with Mr. Bush on the steps that need to be taken in Iraq to achieve stability, such as bringing more ex-Baathists back into government. But if he is perceived as going too far in accommodating former Baathists loyal to Saddam Hussein, he could splinter his already divided Shiite base of support." And critics of Malaki say he's just telling Bush what he wants to hear.

The Post's Ann Scott Tyson finds a new angle in the media's new-found fascination with civilians in Iraq: Army civilians who live and work and fight alongside the military but, if they are injured, have no access to military hospitals and face stumbling bureaucracies "unprepared to help a government civilian wounded in combat." These government civilians -- about 7,500 have worked in Iraq and Afghanistan -- are employees of the Defense Department. Seven have died and 118 been injured in combat in the war zones.

IN OTHER COVERAGE

New York Times
Fort Lewis, Wash., is weighing how best to balance the honor due a soldier and the demands of several memorial services a month, outraging many area residents, reports William Yardley.

Washington Post
Amy Orndorff reports on the dreams of an Iraqi Assyrian Christian who became a Marine and U.S. a citizen.

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