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Daily Column
US Papers Wed: Shi'ite Civil War in Karbala
WH to ask for $50B for Iraq; New visa troubles for refugees; Bush's happy talk
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 08/29/2007 01:56 AM ET
As September approaches, the amount of Iraq coverage is increasing, and both the Washington Post and The New York Times have big Iraq front-pagers today, but the Post scores the scoop with a story on a new funding request for the war. The Christian Science Monitor runs a feature on the training of Army and police officers in Iraq while the Times concentrates on the troubles of Iraqi refugees.

Further sensing the political winds at his back, Bush plans to ask Congress for $50 billion next month to continue funding the Iraq war, indicating he no longer greatly fears a Congressional mandate to rapidly drawdown the number of troops, reports Thomas E. Ricks for the Post. Kudos to the D.C. daily for this scoop, and the paper rightly leads with it. The $50 billion comes on top of the $460 billion in FY2008 for the defense budget and $147 billion in a pending supplemental bill to fund Iraq and Afghanistan. Ricks reports that it's expected to be announced after the September hearings featuring Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, with the idea that Congress is unlikely to turn it down after the two report that developments in Iraq are promising and more time is needed. With the new request, Iraq will be costing $3 billion a week and has a total cost of $330 billion. Democrats say they'll give any funding request extra scrutiny.

Sabrina Tavernise and David Rhode report for the Times that despite an increased commitment from the United States to take in more Iraqi refugees, few are signing up because they're not allowed to do so in Iraq. Instead, they have to travel to Jordan or Syria, where they may be turned away at the border because officials in those countries are already overwhelmed by refugees. The State Department said it might consider being flexible about processing refugees, but security considerations prevent them from doing so in Baghdad. Two million Iraqis are in Jordan and Syria, according to U.N. estimates. The U.S. has taken in 190 of them from October to July, but expects to take in 2,000 by the end of September. It's an improvement, but then, anything would be. Honestly, it seems like Washington is putting more creativity into making these poor people's miserable conditions worse than in winning the war. Things aren't helped that Syria hasn't granted U.S. officials visas to travel to Damascus so they can interview Iraqis. One standout -- and grim -- statistic: there is no count of Iraqis who have been killed while working with the Americans in some capacity, but Titan, which supplies many translators to the military, has had 280 Iraqi employees killed since 2003.

The Monitor's Gordon Lubold takes a stab at the lack of experienced officers in the Iraqi Army and national police force, but does a not-so-great job of it. Jumping back and forth between the Army and the police, neither service gets the attention it deserves in this story. Lubold mentions that many of the problems in the nascent security forces -- human rights abuses, corruption, disloyalty -- stem from not having enough experienced officers to lead the new troops. Some former Army officers are coming back, but the questions of how many, how wide the recruiting effort is, or how the new de-Ba'athification law announced Monday might affect it are given short shrift. (Lubold swipes at these questions at the end, but he doesn't really answer them.) The story then veers off toward the Baghdad Police Academy, where the emphasis is not on getting old officers, but training news ones in large enough numbers and high enough quality. A better story would have been to focus on the recruitment of the former Army officers in the context of the new De-Ba'athification deal.

The religious festival in Karbala turned deadly yesterday, as rival Shi'ite militias fought street battles among throngs of pilgrims, killing 50 and wounding 200, reports Stephen Farrell of the Times. The Mahdi Army and Iraqi Security forces, dominated by the Badr Organization's members, were the combatants. The violence was so bad that it spread to other cities were mosques and offices of both parties were attacked. Even Baghdad wasn't immune, with five people killed and 20 wounded in Sadr City. Americans weren't involved, but jets flew over Karbala as a "show of force," an action requested by the Iraqi government. It's unclear how things got so out of hand, but tensions started on Monday between Sadr supporters and Badr-dominated security forces. Sadrists said the police provoked them by beating pilgrims who chanted pro-Sadr slogans. Others claimed that Sadrists traveling with the pilgrims claiming to protect them were prevented from taking their weapons inside the shrines. These small clashes escalated and on Monday night, police attacked the al-Mukhayam mosque, a Mahdi Army stronghold in Karbala, and arrested about 20 supporters. The Jaish al-Mahdi retaliated Tuesday morning by attacking police positions. Farrell reports that gunmen also attacked mosques across the and offices of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council -- which has ties to Badr Organization -- in Sadr City, Shuala, Jadriya, Husseiniya, Khadimiya and Diwaniya. An Iraqi analyst said the fighting was an attempt by Moqtada al-Sadr's faction to remind its Shi'ite rivals that it still has power in Iraq, even if it has largely withdrawn from government.

Megan Greenwell has the story for the Post, but reports "only" 28 dead. A commander in the Mahdi Army said the violence started because some Shi'ites were allowed to bring weapons into the city, but the Sadrists were not. She reports on regional developments, too, noting the ominous warning from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that American power in Iraq is close to collapse and Iran is "ready to fill this void." He also threatened a potentially forceful response if the U.S. went through with its threat to list the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a "specially designated global terrorist" group. Coincidentally -- or was it? -- U.S. troops raided a Baghdad hotel and arrested six members of an Iranian trade delegation. Elsewhere, the U.S. military announced it had killed 33 Sunni insurgents who controlled the water supply in Khalis, about 50 miles north of Baghdad.

Speaking of Iranians, Stephen Farrell of the Times reports on the U.S. arrest of those six guys, giving them their own story. They were staying at the Sheraton Ishtar, where the night manager identified them as Jamal Bayati, Abathar Mirzani, Mohsen Ashouri, Saed Raai, Hassan Tharif and Bahmatullah Muradi, who was accompanied by his wife. The Iranians were taken while they were eating dinner in the ground-floor restaurant.

Bush's campaign
President George W. Bush also got into the act, complaining about Iranian involvement in Iraq in a speech to the American Legion yesterday, reports David Jackson for USA Today. "President Bush said Tuesday that he has authorized military commanders to confront Iranian forces supplying Iraqi militias with weapons used to attack U.S. troops." Yipes. That sounds dangerously close to a declaration of war. Bush was speaking just hours after Ahmadinejad's threat to fill the power vacuum left by a collapsing American presence, and the tough exchange of words will surely ratchet up the tension between Washington and Tehran.

Steven Lee Meyers has the full story for the Times, and reports that Bush further argued against withdrawal, saying to do so would "unsettle the entire Middle East, create a haven for Al Qaeda and embolden a belligerent Iran." (Based on Ahmadinejad's statement, the president may be right.) Islamic extremism as embodied by al Qaeda and revolutionary Shi'ism are competing for control of Iraq, he said, which makes it imperative for the U.S. to stay in Iraq. (So not only does he want the U.S. to insert itself into a civil war between Iraqis, he wants the U.S. to be in the middle of a civil war within Islam?) He also accused Iran of supplying not only the deadly EFPs, but also 240mm rockets, which can carry 110lb payloads. He said he has authorized the troops in Iraq to "confront Tehran's murderous activities." Note this speech: It could be as important as Vice President Dick Cheney's at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention back in 2002, in which he all but declared war on Iraq.

Michael Abramowitz of the Post chooses to go big and looks at Bush's numerous optimistic turning points in Iraq, one of which was at the very same American Legion convention a year ago. In that speech, he said early results of a plan to strengthen security in Baghdad were "encouraging" but that within a few months, it had collapsed and the White House admitted sectarian violence was "veering out of control." Abramowitz reports that yesterday Bush said: "Our new strategy is showing results in terms of security. Our forces are in the fight all over Iraq." But his incessant optimism has worried some of the attendees, who say his credibility is "way down" after past predictions proved wrong. The bottom line is that the Washington Post is reporting that members of Congress and everyday citizens basically no longer believe a word Bush says about Iraq. "Whatever he says is going to be met with a great deal of scrutiny and, in some quarters, cynicism," said former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), who co-chaired the Iraq Study Group. Abramowitz slyly notes that Bush is, again, trying to shift the terms of the debate by admitting almost no political progress but some military progress. Now, with an emphasis on Iran and its alleged expansionist aims, might there be yet another reason in a few months for keeping troops in Iraq?

Questioning the War
Brad Knickerbocker writes the Monitor's other front-page Iraq story, focusing on active-duty troops who have become critics of the war in Iraq. More and more active-duty troops are speaking up, Knickerbocker reports, reflecting a shift in military culture and changes in technology and society. According to the UMCJ, as long as they don't speak or write using "contemptuous words" about their chain of command, service members are free to say what they want (with OPSEC in mind, of course.) It's a growing phenomenon, aided by the Internet, digital cameras and multiple tours of duty that are wearing on troops. "I have to tell you as somebody who deals frequently with the military, there's been a lot of disagreement for a long time about this war," said military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Va. "It just tends to get expressed obliquely and in private." A May survey of soldiers in Iraq showed 45 percent with "low" morale, compared to 19 percent with "high" morale. More West Point grads than ever are quitting after serving their 5-year commitment. Interestingly, enlisted men have more freedom to speak. The "contemptuous words" clause in the UCMJ applies only to officers, writes active-duty Army Lt. Col. Bob Bateman in a blog at the online information-exchange and discussion site Small Wars Journal.

Sylvia Morena writes for the Post about Evan Knappenberger, an Iraq veteran who is protesting the stop-loss program by standing sentinel on the Mall in D.C. He became disillusioned with Iraq and started protesting after he was honorably discharged.

Abu Ghraib Acquittal
Paul von Zielbauer of the Times and Joshua White of the Post have the story of the acquittal of Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan, who was prosecuted for abuses in the Abu Ghraib scandal that he apparently had nothing to do with. This is a welcome development after three years of investigations, but it also means no higher-level officer will be prosecuted in the scandal. The only charge the military was able to make stick to Jordan was of willfully disobeying an order. He was ordered not to discuss the scandal but he contacted other soldiers about it. It had nothing to do with the abuse, however, and is the only criminal conviction secured against an officer in the ordeal. The harshest punishment will be for the lower-level soldiers shown in the photographs. But there has been no "real accountability," according to human rights groups. "Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First, said no criminal trial has delved into the chain of command or the development of harsh interrogation techniques, despite numerous military investigations," White writes. Jordan faces up to five years in prison and dismissal for failure to follow orders, and he says he's being made a scapegoat so the Pentagon can say it tried an officer.

Katie of Mesopotamia
Howard Kurtz of the Post and Bill Carter of the Times report that CBS News anchor Katie Couric will make her first trip to Iraq.


New York Times
Thomas L. Friedman writes from Iraq as an embedded reporter with Centcom commander Adm. William Fallon on the success suggested by the willingness of Sunni tribes to work with the U.S. He has the intellectual honesty to say that he can't say whether the surge is working -- "too early, too short a visit" -- and he admits that it's a tenuous alliance. "This important shift by the Sunni tribes could come unglued if the Shiite-led Iraqi government doesn't start providing government services -- water, fuel and electricity -- to the Sunni areas the tribes have retaken." It could also come apart because the Sunnis "still hate us." "They just hate Al Qaeda even more right now and they hate the Persians even more than them," he quotes one U.S. general as saying. "But they could turn their guns back on us anytime." It's a sensible column on the sense of possibility that is tantalizingly close, but with a real sense of the dangers ahead.

Too bad the same can't be said of the Times' other op-ed. Jack Miles, a senior fellow for religious affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy and a professor of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine, contributes a rather confused op-ed on the coming legality of the U.S. presence in Iraq. He posits that within a few months, the question of the U.S. presence must be addressed because the current U.N. mandate expires at the end of this year. But the Iraqi parliament has passed a law saying the mandate can't be renewed without its consent. He writes that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hasn't signed the bill and might veto it, and this is where he appears to completely undermine his case. Based on the reading of the Iraqi constitution, it's President Jalal Talabani, a staunch U.S. ally, who has power to veto laws, not the Prime Minister. (Article 70, clause C: the president of the Republic has the power "To ratify and issue the laws enacted by the Council of Representatives. Such laws are considered ratified after fifteen days from the date of receipt.") While it's unclear what happened to the law from June, it seems likely that Talabani would have vetoed such a law, considering his public declaration of support for the United States's presence in Iraq. As such, this op-ed is full of conditionals that likely won't happen. "If it voted in December not to seek a renewal of the mandate, the American troops deployed in Iraq would be there illegally." Well, probably not, since that idea is predicated on a bill that may never have been enacted. Also, his apocalyptic prediction that expiration of the mandate may be the signal "for a general uprising of Shiites against foreign forces," seems unlikely, too, given as there may be no legal trigger for it. If anyone can clarify this, please email us.

Washington Post
Harold Meyerson, op-ed columnist for the Post, says Maliki can hardly be blamed for sectarianism, which is endemic to Iraq. It's Bush who is the real sectarian, who, along with Karl Rover, decided that "what America needed was political polarization." Iraq would be riven by sectarian tensions regardless of who is prime minister, but "It's Bush, not Maliki, who has been a sectarian by choice."

Anne E. Kornblut and Michael D. Shear write for the Post on the new swing voter in New Hampshire: Military moms. These women may have supported the war initially, usually vote Republican and have a child or a husband serving in Iraq. But now, with the war dragging on, they're rethinking their political allegiance and considering either independent Republicans or a Democrat with extensive foreign policy chops, such as -- gasp! -- Hillary Clinton.

Wall Street Journal
No original Iraq coverage today.


Wounded Warrior Project