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It's a very heavy news day today, quite the slog, really, with Blackwater dominating the news cycle. There are at least three front page story on yesterday's testimony by Eric Prince, the company's reclusive -- yet politically connected -- founder and CEO. The Washington Post finishes up Rick Atkinson's eye-opening series on IEDs today, there's buzz of a further British pullout on the rise and the House of Representatives passed a bill tying war funding to a pullout plan. It's a busy day. Let's get started.
Atkinson wraps up his groundbreaking IED series in the Post by reporting the U.S. strategy today: "Put them back on the wire." This means using a huge spreadsheet and massive jammer deployment to disrupt the use of radio-controlled IEDs, which have wreaked havoc on U.S. forces. By knocking out the RC bombers, insurgents would be forced to use more rudimentary triggers using a command wire. These are simpler to detect and force the triggerman to be closer to the bomb, where U.S. forces can go after him. This has largely been a success: Since spring 2006, RC bombs have shrunk to 10 percent of all IEDs in Iraq, down from 70 percent in some areas of Iraq. Simple command wire bombs have increased to 40 percent of the total. And yet, the threat from IEDs hasn't diminished. In the first seven months of this year, there were 20,781 attacks -- one every 15 minutes. The homemade bombs have killed 440 U.S. troops this year. Atkinson's final piece documents the problems with so many jammers -- friendly radio traffic is also disrupted -- an unregulated electronic devices in Iraq such as the unregulated cell phones, walkie-talkies, satellite phones and long-distance cordless phones. "People have said it's the most challenging electromagnetic place in the world," a Navy captain said. But the insurgents are adapting. More "victim-operated" bombs are blowing up -- pressure plates and passive infrared sensors are the triggers. And larger bombs are being developed. Fertilizer-based bombs are being brewed in backyards in Iraq and deployed. On July 17, 1,500 pounds of the homemade explosive blew up in a culvert north of Baghdad, heaving a 26-ton armored vehicle 60 feet into the air and killing two Navy crewmen. Multiple suicide truck bombings, molded explosives and chlorine bombs are all variations on the death that comes from the bombs. Again, a must-read and an important piece of journalism.
The other big story of the day is, again, Blackwater. August Cole and Neil King Jr. of the Wall Street Journal pen a front-pager on the probe into Blackwater's performance on Sept. 16, which is in turn fueling a push to change the way security contractors do business in Iraq. Iraq is looking at stripping contractors of their legal immunity while the U.S. Congress is preparing legislation that soon could make all American battlefield contractors subject to U.S. criminal law. Contractors, naturally, cry foul, with Eric Prince, the company's CEO, telling the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform yesterday that Blackwater holds its people internally accountable by firing or fining them. "If there is any sort of discipline problem, whether it's bad attitude, a dirty weapon, riding someone's bike that's not his, we fire them," he said. (Riding someone else's bike?)
The Times' James Glanz and Alissa J. Rubin have a front-pager recreating the Sept. 16 attack that left 17 Iraqis dead and 24 wounded. The reporting pair interviewed 12 Iraqi witnesses, several Iraqi investigators and an American officials familiar with an American investigation to recreate the events in Nisour Square. And Glanz and Rubin say, diplomatically, that "they are difficult to square with the explanation offered initially by Blackwater officials that their guards were responding proportionately to an attack on the streets around the square." Three new details include that Blackwater shot first, killing a driver whose weight on the accelerator caused it to continue toward the Blackwater convoy in the square. That led to the guards opening fire in an intense barrage in several directions. Minutes later, a Blackwater convoy -- possibly the same one -- moved north and opened fire on another line of traffic, a previously unreported shooting. The detail is devastating and for anyone concerned about the events of that day, it's a must-read.
The New York Times's John M. Broder covers Prince's congressional testimony, as does Karen DeYoung of the Post and Jim Michaels of USA Today. By all accounts, Prince's testimony -- he said his employees "acted appropriately at all times" -- will change few minds among the Democrats that Blackwater and other security firms need more regulation.
Peter Grier covers the testimony for the Christian Science Monitor and goes over some of the more than 195 incidents involving Prince's company.
Dana Milbank, the Post's snark reporter, reports on the tone of the hearings, noting that Prince "doesn't seem to answer to anybody." He refused to disclose the company's profits because it's a private company, even though it's received $1 billion in federal contracts.
What about the 2004 crash of a Blackwater plane in Afghanistan, when federal investigators said the pilots acted unprofessionally? "Accidents happen," Prince explained.Milbank also manages to work in that GOP Congressman "proved content to shill for a major donor"; Prince's father is active in the religious-conservative movement and his sister is a major GOP fundraiser. Milbank does a nice job of reporting the glowing statements from Republicans followed by the amount they've received from the defense contracting industry. (He does the same with Democrats, too, but they've received a lot less.)
The lack of prosecution for a drunken Blackwater worker who shot and killed a security guard to an Iraqi vice president? "We can't flog him," Prince said.
The high wages for Blackwater security guards? "They're not showing up at the job naked," Prince reasoned.
The Times' Maureen Dowd opens her op-ed on yesterday's testimony by quoting Nietzsche, comparing Blackwater to the abyss gazing back at us. The company is a stain on America's image around the world, she writes.
A Times editorial calls for the jobs handled by Blackwater and other contractors to be brought back into government hands ASAP, while Blackwater and other contractors need to be placed under military law. It also lambastes Blackwater specifically and its ties to the White House and the Republican Party as unseemly, given its no-bid contracts.
Finally, Steve Fainaru of the Post writes a front-pager looking a security contractors in general, reporting that private guards -- all companies -- engage in more shootings than reported. Two former Blackwater employees told Fainaru that the company averaged "four or five" shootings a week, several times the 1.4 incidents a week reported by the company. This is routine in Iraq, the former guard said. "The thing is, even the good companies, how many bad incidents occurred where guys involved didn't say anything, because they didn't want to be questioned, or have any downtime today to have to go over what happened yesterday?" he said. "I'm sure there were some companies that just didn't report anything." Another must-read for today, full of details and even on-the-record quotes from former guards who say their companies shot up innocent Iraqis for no good reason.
Meanwhile, there's still a war on. The largest Shi'ite bloc in Iraq's parliament called on the end to the U.S. policy of recruiting Sunni tribesmen into the Iraqi police, reports Joshua Partlow of the Post, a direct rebuke to one of the signature successes of U.S. policy in Iraq. Also, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited Baghdad and announced that Britain would withdraw 1,000 troops -- nearly 20 percent of its remaining total -- by year's end. The remaining British troops would take on an "overwatch" role instead of a combat role.
Paul von Zielbauer leads the Times' roundup with the news of the British troop withdrawal. He adds that Iraqi health officials have started distributing chlorine pills to Baghdadis in an effort to stem the cholera outbreak that occurred in northern Iraq. Also, a car bomb detonated in the town of Khalis, killing six Iraqis, including two policemen, and wounding 10. One American soldier was killed and 10 wounded in combat in Baghdad on Sunday.
The Times' Thom Shanker reports that The No. 2 American commander in Iraq said Iraqi security forces would not be able to take control of Baghdad until the end of next year. Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said that Iraqi forces still could not provide their own logistics and lacked qualified commanders and that sectarianism is still present in the military's ranks. He hopes by the end of next year American forces can be in a "tactical overwatch" mode in the capital.
The Democrats were in disarray yesterday, reports David M. Herszenhorn for the Times, as the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee threatened to black President George W. Bush's $200 million war-funding request. He also said the government should levy a war tax. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, however, opposes the war tax and Senate Democrats continued to hammer out a funding bill.
The Journal's David Rogers reports on the House hijinks, noting that Rep. David Obey, D-Wisc., the Appropriations chairman, can stall the president's funding request if he doesn't report it out of committee. "I have absolutely no intention of reporting out...any such request that simply serves to continue the status quo," he said. At least moderates scored a win: "By 377-46, members approved requiring the Pentagon to report regularly to Congress on the status of planning for the redeployment of troops from Iraq." There's no requirement the plan actually be implemented, however.
Jonathan Weisman has the story for the Post, leading with the bill requiring a plan within two months for the redeployment out of Iraq. The Post characterizes this as the Democratic Party staring down its anti-war base.
Edward P. Joseph, a visiting scholar and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, pen an op-ed for USA Today making the case for a "soft partition" of Iraq, an idea that is highly unpopular among large swaths of the Iraqi population. They express support for Sen. Joe Biden's non-binding resolution calling for such a plan that passed in the Senate last week, 75-23.
But wait! Biden and Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, say it isn't a partition -- soft or otherwise -- the resolution is designed to encourage, but decentralized power-sharing. They write this in a Post op-ed. Instead, they refer to it as "federalism," and say the bill has been mischaracterized. (Sunnis Arabs have always feared this "federalism," as they see it as a way of dividing the country. In other words, the senator says "federalism," the Iraqis hear "partition.")
IN OTHER COVERAGE
Tom Vanden Brook takes a break from reporting on armored vehicles and reports instead on a surveillance technology caught in a military turf battle. At stake was a working tech called Angel Fire, used by the Marines and Air Force. It competed with an Army surveillance system called Constant Hawk that is more difficult to use, but covers a larger area. It's unclear why this story merits A1 play and almost 2,000 words because the events all take place about a year ago and the Joint IED Defeat Organization, the Pentagon's efforts to beat back IEDs, has agreed to fund both systems. By the end of the story, it's revealed that both systems are in use for two different missions. Everything's A-OK. Um, where's the news here?
Gregg Zoroya reports that a new order would require Marine commanders to intervene in cases where combat-hardened Marines with clean records get into trouble. The order, which has not been signed yet, would require screenings for traumatic brain injury in such cases. At least a third of the 1,019 Marines who have received less-than-honorable discharges showed evidence of mental health problems brought on by combat stress. Vets with less-than-honorable discharges are often ineligible for medical benefits from the Veterans Authority. Sounds like an order that's way overdue.
New York Times
Carl Hulse reports on the efforts of Congressional Democrats to condemn Rush Limbaugh for his "phony soldiers" remark. I guess both parties are competing over who can expend the most energy over pointless sideshows. MoveOn.org ads or Rush Limbaugh? Yawn.
Ann Scott Tyson reports that the Army met its goal of 80,000 recruits for fiscal 2007, but fell short of a larger internal goal to get several thousand more troops to expand the overall force. And next year will be tougher because the Army pushed more enlistees into its ranks more quickly than normal, leaving less than 7,000 in the pipeline for next year. Next year will be "a challenge," said Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, head of the Army's Accession Command.
Wall Street Journal
Claudia Rosett, a journalist in residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes for the Journal's op-ed page that it's a pity Texas oil-tycoon Oscar S. Wyatt Jr.'s trial ended so soon as it was providing a window into how the corruption in the oil for food program worked.
Bob Davis reports that Hunt Oil Co. CEO Ray Hunt denies that his connections to the Bush White House and the Republican Party helped him cut a deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Bartle Bull, the foreign editor of Prospect magazine, editor of Middle East Monitor and the holder of a great Dickensian name, seems to have suffered Stockholm Syndrome from his time spent with the Mahdi Army, painting them as allies of the U.S. in Iraq. The Shi'ites are winning the war in Iraq, he says, and this is a very good thing. Screw the Sunnis, he seems to be saying.